Two years after the Iraqi city was liberated in the biggest urban battle since World War II, homes and schools lie in ruins. Reconstruction will be a costly and painstaking process. Above all, confronting and trying to mitigate the psychological toll the occupation has taken on children remains a big challenge.
Prior to The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) invasion in 2014, Mosul was one of the most pluralistic and tolerant cities in the Middle East. Its name means ‘crossroads’ and, as a place where ancient trade routes converged, it had been home for centuries to people from a diverse patchwork of ethnicities, religions and sects. In the aftermath of the occupation, Mosul is highly fertile ground for violent extremist recruitment; children and young people are the most at risk.
Training teachers to prevent violent extremism through education
UNESCO trains teachers to prevent violent extremism through education (PVE-E). Every violent extremist’s story is unique; to divert an individual on this path, it is crucial to understand their environment, as well as their individual psychology. There is no ‘one size fits all’ manual offering all the answers on this complex issue. That is why the UNESCO Iraq office recently conducted a scoping report, interviewing teachers, parents, civil society activists and academics who had remained in the city during the occupation, in order to form a nuanced picture how ISIL’s brief but brutal reign has impacted Mosul’s people. This was a thorough listening exercise canvassing the voices of a cross-section of the community.
The interviews conducted revealed the ways in which Mosul’s children have been brutalized by the violence they have witnessed. Schools are infected with bullying; play is often violent, including, in some circumstances, the killing of animals. The name of ISIL is invoked as an enemy or a protector in playground scuffles. These children are in urgent need of psycho-social support. As well as leading to depression, untreated trauma can make young people more vulnerable to violent extremist propaganda.
Children and young people fall into different categories of risk of radicalization leading to violence, depending on their experiences during the occupation. During the second year, many families kept children of primary age at home and protected them from ISIL’s indoctrination, which they had stepped up dramatically. But poorer families were forced to send their children to school, because ISIL began to levy a tax on non-attendance. Children who attended school were taught a new curriculum, aiming to ‘destroy the idea of social cohesion in the minds of the children’, according to one of the interviewees. Textbooks showed children holding weapons, and set maths problems on how many people a suicide bomb could kill. Teachers and parents said that by introducing violent themes into all school subjects, ISIL was trying to ‘make soldiers’ and ‘encourage children to want to kill’.
Crucial role of schools
The Iraqi government recognizes that Mosul’s schools must now play a critical role in preventing the spread of violent extremism, and has called on UNESCO and civil society groups for support. Earlier this year, UNESCO, with the support of the Netherlands, worked together on a project to train teachers in PVE-E in primary schools, drawing on the lessons from the scoping report. Initially, 26 Master Trainers, from the Ministry of Education, the Education Department of Nineweh, and local NGO partners were trained. It has now trained 662 teachers over an 8-day programme.
UNESCO recently mapped the soft skills, which can be built in the classroom to help prevent violent extremism (PVE) in a teacher’s guide. In Mosul, the training is based on this guide, focusing on human rights education and conflict-resolution to heal deep divisions within the community. Media and Information Literacy was another key component of the training; many young people in Mosul were radicalized online before the invasion of ISIL.
Mosul is a traditional and hierarchical society. Children and young people are taught to respect their elders, and know their place; ISIL was able to exploit this aspect of local culture, recruiting young people by offering them power over their elders. In recognition of this, UNESCO trained teachers to empower children, and to encourage them to articulate their views, while respecting those of others. The training also built in elements of psychosocial support in recognition of the need to address the children’s profound level of trauma.
These teachers will face barriers in applying their training. With five per cent of all schools destroyed, and many others damaged, class sizes have swollen to between 60 and 80 children. There is no space or time available for extra-curricular activities that ease trauma and instill values, like sport.
UNESCO has made a series of urgent recommendations to the government for improvements to school infrastructure, policy, school culture and psychosocial support. The cost of these improvements will be very difficult for local authorities to meet, and will require sustained financial commitments from the international community. Yet, UNESCO’s teacher training to prevent violent extremism is a timely and important initiative which must be prioritized. It may not succeed in preventing all Mosul’s children from choosing the path of violent extremism in later life, but it will offer many children good alternatives to this path.