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Texas Soldiers Help Open Doors to Education for Iraqi Children

By Master Sgt. Lek Mateo, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 12, 2005 – Soldiers of the Texas National Guard are involved with a building project here that they hope will open doors to opportunity and prosperity for the Iraqi people.

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Children from the village of Zebin in southern Iraq walk through the doors of the newly built Al Mushaael Primary School for the first time. The school was built by the Iraqi Ministry of Education with assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region, Southern District, and soldiers of the Texas Army National Guard's 56th Brigade Combat Team, 36th Infantry Division. Photo by Master Sgt. Lek Mateo, USA
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The Iraqi Ministry of Education has partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Iraqi army and soldiers of the Texas Army National Guard's 56th Brigade Combat Team, 36th Infantry Division, to help lay the foundation for the future of the Iraqi children by constructing seven new schools in southern Iraq.

Richard W. Riley, of Plymouth, N.H., a project engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region Southern District, explained that the new schools were built to replace existing school houses in several rural villages in the area that were in very dilapidated conditions.

Riley added that before the projects broke ground, most of the children had to go to overcrowded schoolhouses that were made of mud and straw. He explained that during the rainy season the uneven dirt floor would turn into mud and cake onto the children's bare feet even as they tried to learn their lessons.

Although the corps is involved with several major public-works projects in Iraq, Riley said that helping to build schools is one of the most fulfilling things that he has ever been involved with. "We're trying to make the lives of the Iraqi people a little better, ... especially for the children," Riley said.

Army Maj. Brian Stevens, of Cedar Park, Texas, a civil affairs officer of the 56th Brigade Combat Team, knew he had a daunting challenge ahead of him when he took over construction projects that were in various stages from his counterpart with the New Hampshire National Guard's 197th Field Artillery Brigade. He said that despite the trials of having to overcome language and cultural barriers, the partnership between the USACE and the Iraqi Ministry of Education is a positive thing, and the projects he is seeing to completion will have a lasting impact.

"Any time you open up a school, you are putting the needs of the children up front, because it is about them and giving them a great place and a great opportunity to learn and grow and do great things for their country," Stevens said.

Muhammed Baji, a retired Iraqi educator, has taught many lessons in life to his young pupils during his 35 years of teaching. But the one lesson that he has always tried to emphasize to the children that he meets today is that, without a proper education, a person cannot grow and prosper.

"The future is for our children and not for us," Baji said. "We want to see them on the right path of life with education."

Adil Abdurrida, who is also a former English teacher, was overcome with emotion seeing a new schoolhouse open its doors for the first time in the village where he grew up. "I was very happy for our children because I know now that their future will be alright," Abdurrida said.

A father of three, Abdurrida related that Iraqi parents know that education is "so important in their child's life and want their children to have the opportunity to learn the basic skills of reading and writing and arithmetic."

He added that education is needed to help improve Iraqi society and make it stronger, and that will allow their children to be exposed to the world and make Iraq more open.

"Iraq needs doctors, scientists and engineers to help the people of Iraq," Abdurrida said. "So we look to our children because they are the future."

(Army Master Sgt. Lek Mateo is assigned to the 56th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office, Texas Army National Guard.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageIraqi school children stand outside their mud and straw schoolhouse in the village of Sulayhat that will be replaced by the newly constructed Al Kenanah Intermediate School. The school was built by the Iraqi Ministry of Education with assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region, Southern District and soldiers of the Texas Army National Guard's 56th Brigade Combat Team, 36th Infantry Division. Photo by Master Sgt. Lek Mateo, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe newly built Al Kenanah Intermediate School, which will serve about 150 children from first through sixth grade, waits for children to fill its classrooms. The school was built in the village of Sulayhat in southern Iraq by the Iraqi Ministry of Education with assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region, Southern District, and soldiers of the Texas Army National Guard's 56th Brigade Combat Team, 36th Infantry Division. Photo by Master Sgt. Lek Mateo, USA  
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