Baghdad, Iraq – In a climate that makes concentrating near impossible, and handbooks do not distract from the heat, dozens of Iraqi children are doing their absolute best to learn.
As they recite numbers written on a white board that is propped up by cinder blocks, students attending summer school at Baghdad’s Al-Takya Al-Kasnazaniya camp for the internally displaced say classes are far tougher than they should be – and for reasons that have nothing to do with the curriculum.
“We used to live in our own neighbourhoods and it was like heaven,” 12-year-old Murtada Taleb remembers. “We used to go to clean schools and these schools would have proper roofs.”
Now, he and his classmates study inside a tent. During this record heat wave in Iraq, power outages are frequent and air conditioning has become a luxury – and on the day Al Jazeera visited, overheated students often used their workbooks to fan themselves.
Taleb, who along with his family fled Anbar province once ISIL took it over in April, is just one of the approximately 850,000 internally displaced school-aged children in Iraq. According to UNICEF, 650,000 of those kids have missed at least a year’s worth of classes.
“If we were back home,” Taleb tells me, as he points disapprovingly to his worn T-shirt and slippers, “I would wear a proper uniform to school – I would not dress like this. And we would not be living now in tents.”
Teacher Jalal Badr Aziz says the situation is even worse here than it looks, that they do not have even the most basic requirements for the classrooms.
“We have 90 students in three different classes and only 30 textbooks were distributed,” he says exasperatedly. “How can you teach 90 students with 30 books?”
Badr Aziz explains that 20 teachers should be working here now, but says a lack of funding has meant only five make it in everyday.
His wife, Abeer Shaaban, who is leading an English class in the adjacent tent, is also a teacher here. During her lesson, she expresses even more concern for the welfare of her students.
“We feel that this is a crime against those poor children,” Shaaban tells Al Jazeera. “What did these children do to deserve such harsh conditions?
“They do feel a bit happier than before since at least they now have a makeshift school to go to, but these schools lack the basic requirement to teach them adequately.”
While the boys here worry the world has forsaken them, they are determined not to give up on their education.
Despite support from UNICEF and other aid groups, even a brief glance around quickly underscores just how dire the situation is and how few the resources are. Twelve-year-old Mohammed Aidan says much, much more is needed.
“It is very, very hot, the electricity comes and then it goes, and sometimes it just doesn’t come at all,” he says.
With more than three million people displaced in Iraq since the start of 2014, the UN is extremely concerned about the humanitarian crisis worsening in the country.
Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, told Al Jazeera that access to education for children, even amid the extreme conditions that exist in Iraq, is a priority for the organisation.
“When families, even if they are in the most impossible conditions, if they have their children in school, they have a sense of hope,” said Grande.
“They have a sense of dignity, they have a sense that their family, you know, still has a chance. When kids are out of school, they don’t have any of that.”
Aid workers insist that for children in Iraq, access to education is as important to access to medical care.
Complicating matters further now, though, is a major funding shortfall that has forced the UN to close 84 percent of its frontline health programmes. Grande calls the closures devastating and says it was a decision the UN did not want to make.
“You know when we had to close the 184 health activities and health clinics, what that meant is that a million people who would have received health services are not going to receive them,” she explains.
“It means that all the kids who were gonna be immunised aren’t gonna be immunised. It means all the pregnant women who needed help during birth, and before birth and after birth, they are not gonna receive that assistance.
“You know when you look at the conditions in Iraq, you realise how important it is that health facilities are open and that schools are open and that food is provided.”
For the hundreds of families at the camp, life is already too hard as it is. Concerned parents watch over children who are no longer carefree, and a community, stripped of almost everything, attempts to rebuild.
Outside, as the next class queues up and tattered workbooks wither in the sun, mothers bake bread for an encampment where there is far too much hunger, and the thirst for knowledge has not come close to being quenched.