By Maulid Warfa and Hassnein Hadi
The inauguration of schools in Iraqi prisons means that a sentence to prison does not have to mean a sentence to end learning.
BASRA, Iraq, 5 November 2013 – Mohamed is the oldest of six children. In primary school, he was among the best students in his class.
When he was 12, Mohamed decided to support his family while continuing his education. “I liked my school very much, but I felt the responsibility to help my father and to provide some income,” he said.
Mohamed starts working
Mohamed found a job at a store in Basra, which paid about US$12 a day. “This helped my family a lot,” he says.
Soon, though, the demands of the job would force Mohamed to leave school.
“I was very comfortable and happy with my work, and I was well respected at home by my parents and my sisters,” he says.
One day changes everything
One morning, Mohamed found himself in contact with the law.
According to Mohamed, at 3 a.m., he heard the roar of motorbike engines and the sound of breaking glass. He saw several boys with motorbikes breaking into a mobile phone shop.
“I shouted at them, and they fled,” he says. “I then went to see what they were doing. I found the door open. I entered the shop, but within seconds, security guards came in and found me. They called the police.”
Mohamed was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.
In prison, life comes back
In November 2011, Mohamed was moved to Basra Central Prison, where he shared a cell with ten other boys.
In September 2012, Amal Primary School opened in the prison, the result of nearly a year of UNICEF negotiation with Basra authorities. Amal means ‘hope’, in Arabic.
The school has 45 students in three different levels. It also provides adult literacy classes for 100 male and 20 female inmates from Maqal Prison, which is not far from Basra Central Prison.
Amal school has changed Mohamed’s life.
“Before the school, I was depressed, sad and confused, but when the school started, I spent all my spare time studying, as I felt life coming back to me again,” he says.
Mohamed’s grades reflected his commitment. He was one of two students in the school to pass their stage three national Accelerated Learning Programme examinations with top ten scores.
“I never thought I was going to pass with such high marks – and it is a very beautiful feeling,” he says.
Support for Mohamed and others
UNICEF’s new Justice for Children Programme in Basra continues to support children like Mohamed, so that they can continue their education and find purpose in life, even when they’re in maximum security.
The programme is expanding – a new prison school was due to open in Nassriyah on Sunday 27 October, and another one in Ammara in early 2014.
For Mohamed, prison is now just a bad memory. The same day he got his test scores, he found out he was eligible for early release.
Today, he is reunited with his family and free to pursue his dreams.
“I want to become the best engineer in Iraq, and I know I can,” he says.