In Baghdad, mending fences by restoring a school
BAGHDAD, Iraq — The roof was patched and new windows installed at the kindergarten and primary school in Baghdad’s French Quarter section.
But something far more significant may have been created while a school that had been looted and bombed was repaired under the auspices of the 308th Civil Affairs Brigade, an Army Reserve unit from Chicago.
Perhaps some long-term impressions were formed in the minds of the children who Sunday cheered and applauded U.S. troops at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the freshly painted and restored school.
“No matter what happens in the future,” said Lt. Col. Jim Berenz, the brigade operations officer, “they will always remember when the Americans were here. The impact is more than immediate. It is everlasting.”
Berenz seemed genuinely moved when a bouquet of flowers was placed in his arms as he entered the school to chants from children dressed especially nice for the special occasion.
“Welcome, welcome to our friends. Welcome to a new Iraq,” they sang again and again in their language while many waved homemade Iraqi flags.
In April, this school near the Baghdad International Airport was a mess.
The roof was filled with holes. Looters had torn windows from the walls and pulled down ceiling fans. The air conditioners were gone. Unexploded ordnance was strewn about.
“It was not beautiful at all,” is how Ranin Mohammed, 10, described the school where she is a fifth-grader. “Now, they have made a beautiful school. I’m very happy about it.”
To pay for the project, the brigade dipped into a fund set aside by the Department of Defense for humanitarian efforts.
The idea is to show evidence of progress on the ground while the larger picture takes shape.
The brigade asked for estimates from local contractors and soon applied to the DOD fund for $72,000, a tiny fraction of what will eventually be spent in Iraq.
But for the teachers and students, the school looks like a few million dinars.
Hanaa al Siqab, an English teacher for five years at the school, said, “I really love this school. When it was damaged, I was very sad. Today, I am very happy.”
As Berenz toured the school, where a large buffet lunch was served, he was frequently stopped to accept congratulations and thanks from teachers and parents. Students, too, stepped forward to thank him or to hand him a card, tangible evidence of their gratitude.
“I feel proud. I feel happy,” Berenz said.
He added it was important that an Iraqi contractor was used and able to finish the job in barely three months, in time for the new school year now starting. It pumped money into the economy and gave people some needed work.
But, again, the effort here may outlast the school building. The true impact of this celebration of friendship may not be fully realized until the children or grandchildren of these students are attending this school.
Col. Butch Barnes, the 308th’s commander, said, “The relationship we have with this country is going to based on what they remember we did for them.”