The Resilient Students at an Iraqi School for the Deaf

At Baghdad's school for deaf children, the challenges go far beyond the physical and mental obstacles common in schools around the world. Students are forced to deal with violence, power outages, and the fear that plagues much of the country.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We're going to go to Iraq now and visit a school for the deaf. Like everyone else in the country, the children who attend classes there have to cope with the violence that is part of daily life.

But as NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports, they also have to learn to live with their disabilities.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

At Al-Amel Institute for the Deaf in Baghdad's Karata(ph) district, children of all ages scamper along the hallway on the way to class. Girls in long, navy blue tunics sign to each other and wave hello to everyone else. One wipes mock sweat from her brow and flicks the imaginary drops to the floor to emphasize how hot she is. The power's out again and there's no available generator to run the air conditioning.

Six-year-old Mariam Cogin(ph) drags her bent left leg as she pushes open the door to her classroom. She's not the only one here with multiple disabilities. First grade at the Al-Amel Institute is a small class. 13 children aged between six and eight sit at little wooden desks in a semi-circle facing the blackboard. Most of the children have dusty, worn school bags beside their little wooden chairs.

(Soundbite of classroom noise)

TARABAY: As teacher Asma Saide(ph) asks them about the days of the week, the children practically jump out of their chairs, their voices coming as close to sounding out words as they can. They tap the right side of their heads and raise their right hands to signal Mrs. Asma that they know the answer.

(Soundbite of children)

TARABAY: Then she raises flashcards of animals and asks what sounds the animals make. Mrs. Asma claps in approval as one after another, they run to the front and scribble the word in Arabic on the board.

A group of teenage girls climbs the stairs to their computer class. There are ten PCs in the darkened room, but only three can run on the generator. The girls also learn design, typing, drawing, but mostly secretarial skills, which teacher, Assar Hamid(ph) hopes can be put to use in the future.

(Arabic spoken)

Ms. ASSAR HAMID (Al-Amel Institute for the Deaf and Mute): (Through Translator) So they can benefit when they graduate, they can work in offices.

TARABAY: Whatever their handicaps, the students here are all the same. The understand each other. School is a place they can come to and forget their disabilities. But they're still afraid of the outside world.

Ms. HAMID: (Through Translator) Today there was an explosion very close to one of our buses. We could have lost them. We were 300 meters away. When the students got here, they were all horrified.

TARABAY: Assar Hamid says they're aware of the violence and the changing situation. They used to learn about Saddam Hussein, but no more.

Ms. HAMID: (Through Translator) They know that Saddam's gone. They watch his trial and they come the next day and tell us what is going on. They know everything. Many of our students have lost their mothers or fathers and we also lost many of our students.

TARABAY: Now they talk about the new government, the violence, and they talk about the U.S. troops. The hand sign for American is quick draw, pointing their thumb and index fingers like pistols. They're used to seeing Americans with guns in their hands and while they may not be able to hear the frequent blasts in Baghdad, they know enough to make them afraid as Ms. Hamid says and signs the Arabic word for explosion.

TARABAY: They shake their hands at their sides. It's the sign for fear.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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