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A little closer to God

It is Baghdad on a winter morning chilled by yet another power cut and parents are dropping off their children for school. A vast generator rumbles so loudly in the street that it shakes the pink swings and blue roundabouts in the small grass playground outside.

As the children walk through the reception room, they nod their greetings as they pass Sahira Abdul-Latif Mansour, the school director.

Sitting behind a large desk lined with papers and an ageing wooden-handled school bell, Mansour, dressed modestly and wearing a headscarf, is on the telephone. A mother is calling: she’s just heard about the latest suicide car bomb that struck an hour ago and she wants to check that her child has arrived safely. The bomb shook the city, killed 13 Iraqis and wounded a dozen more, but the children arrived untouched and life goes on.

Mansour runs a pioneering private school in Iraq that is the only institution in the country to cater specifically for children with Down’s syndrome. It opened under the former regime in 1993 with four students. That was the beginning of what she calls her journey. Now she has more than 130 children and 31 teachers.

Twice her family have had to build extensions on to their house to accommodate the school’s rapid expansion. Now the garden has been almost entirely built over, and only the swimming pool has been left, sandwiched between corridors and classrooms.

In 1983, Mansour was a young mother of three, the principal of a secondary school for girls and married to Hashim, a senior army officer. She became pregnant again and, before their daughter was born, the couple chose the name Hiba for her, which means gift in Arabic.

Shortly after she was born, Hiba was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. ”It was a very great shock to me and nobody gave me help or said she would be okay and that life would be normal,” says Mansour. But she was really a gift from God. Then, as now, Iraqi society was conservative and children with disabilities struggled for acceptance.

”Now when I see someone looking at Hiba in the street I turn and shout at them: ‘Why are you looking at her? Do you feel different from her?”

The following year her husband was posted to London and the family moved with him and stayed for the next five years. Mansour joined the Down’s Syndrome Association, read all she could about the problem and returned to Iraq much more confident about her daughter’s future. The couple planned to return to London. But the regime refused.

Suspicion had already been cast over her husband after three of his cousins were executed for links to a much-persecuted Shia opposition party, the Dawa – now one of the leading political parties in post-war Iraq. Mansour put her daughter in a standard school, but pulled her out within a week. She then put her in an institute for children with mental-health problems, but she struggled to fit in.

Mansour gave up work, began to educate Hiba at home and eventually, more by accident than design, started the school. She named it the Hibato-Allah Centre – the gift of God. They campaigned hard for recognition and funding from the state, but with no success. In one rash moment, her husband gave a television interview emotionally pleading for help.

”I said it was the responsibility of the government and all the officials, from the smallest to the biggest, to help us,” he says. Shortly afterwards, men from one of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence agencies paid him a visit. Reference to the biggest official in a dictatorial regime was distinctly unwelcome.

”I am an emotional person and when someone puts me in a corner I can say things that are very dangerous. But I said it and survived. No money came.”

Since then, despite the fall of the regime and the American occupation, the family has received little financial support, except some gifts and a much-needed $4 000 (about R246 000) grant from a Japanese foundation last year, which was spent on furniture, air conditioners and the generator for the school.

The richer parents make small monthly donations, which offset the school’s running costs, though the woeful electricity shortages (they usually receive just two hours of electricity a day) mean they must spend 15 (about R121) every couple of days on diesel just to run the generator.

In the basement of the school is a sports room, where a handful of children are playing football or riding on exercise bicycles. Upstairs is a series of classrooms, usually with two teachers to every group of about 10 children. The pupils, boys and girls together, are aged between three and 27, but are grouped together by ability, not age, and they study Arabic, maths, English, science and religion, as well as vocational training that includes cooking, washing, sewing and ironing.

Hiba is now 21 and, like all the older children, still attends the school, concentrating more on the vocational training, and has taken up basketball and taekwondo. ”I enjoy everything about the school,” she says.

Downstairs, Hamssa Hashim Mansour, Hiba’s elder sister and a qualified dentist, treats the children’s teeth for free in a specially designed clinic. Since the enamel on the children’s teeth is softer than normal, and because it is harder to encourage them to brush daily, they frequently have serious dental problems as well as the usual fear of the dentist’s chair.

”After the first three years I had to re-do all the fillings I’d done before,” says Hamssa. But now they forget about the pain and they’re all desperate to come to the dentist.

Her husband, Ahmed Toma, is a doctor who treats the children’s other ailments, also for nothing. All of the teachers, except the sports master, are women, and several have relatives at the school. Aliya (23), a recent college graduate, teaches and for eight years her sister, Isra, has been studying at the school.

”When I came here I loved only my sister, but once I started to work with them, I came to love them all,” she says. ”At the beginning I was afraid of the older Down’s children, but that changed once I started to mix with them and work with them.”

She has seen marked changes in her sister over the years: better Arabic, better reading and writing, and overall comprehension. Mansour recruits teachers not on teaching experience, but on their attitude to the students.

”You can’t have just anyone. They have to be patient and love children,” she says. As the teachers walk from the reception to the classrooms, they pass a whiteboard hanging from the wall. On the board, Mansour has written a message in large Arabic letters: With every year that passes, you will be closer to God.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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Rory Mccarthy
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