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A unique school brings children together in a divided nation

In a classroom, it has been found that Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen children are sitting beside each other. In the classrooms, Islamic and Christian education textbooks are stacked on the same tables. Mariamana School in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk is a rare show in the country, whose unique cultural, religious and ethnic mosaic is threatened by conflict and sectarianism.
Zakia Matty Dawood, the headmistress of school, said, "The main idea was a school that would be attended by different ethnic and religious groups... in order to rid society of that tension."
The school was initiated by Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako who was still Kirkuk archbishop when it opened its doors in 2012. Till now, number of students has been tripled to 150, including around 100 Muslims and 50 Christians aged six to 12.
A nine year old kid, Hamza said, "I like my school because I learn here, because I play with my friends."
The headmistress, a Dominican sister donning her black and white habit, said, "They go to school together, they become friends... Even their parents are coming together."
Many parents are keen to send their kids to this school, respecting multi-cultural history of Kirkuk.
For Sako, "this school was a tangible way of building long-term peace", said Faraj Benoit Camurat, chairman of "Fraternite en Irak", a French NGO that focuses on supporting minorities.
Camurat, whose group helped fund the project, said, "This school's success shows that many Kirkuk residents do not want their town to be divided along sectarian and ethnic lines."
Kirkuk is an oil-rich region that lies on territory contested by the federal authorities in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. It is also home to many of Iraq's feuding factions -- Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites -- and has therefore often been portrayed as a tinderbox that would sooner or later erupt into bloody conflict.
Mariamana was launched after 2011, a year that saw an increase in sectarian violence in Kirkuk, but the will to live together never completely collapsed in the city.
Saad Salloum, author of several books on Iraq's minorities and chairman of Masarat, has expressed his chocks over how little Iraqis know about each other's cultures.
He stated that it is always easy to kill someone whom you don’t know.
"There is a real need for oecumenical action... to save what can still be saved of Iraq's cultural diversity but also to help and support peace."
But the quality of the education is the foundation of Mariamana's success, said Dawood, squaring a pile of books whose titles include "Koranic Education", "Jesus Loves Us" and "English in Iraq". The school was voted best primary school of the Kirkuk governorate this year and notched up several other provincial and national honors.
For admission in Mariamana school, it would cost around $700. Thirty of the pupils were displaced by the Islamic State jihadist group's devastating offensive in the summer of 2014. Minorities were among the first victims of the jihadist assault.
Dunya Akram, the school's 25-year-old English teacher, said that they live together with students and teachers.
"We are a bit different as Christians and Muslims but here we all learn from each other," said the young Muslim woman, as the children run around the playground during recess.
An excavator is already at work to build an annex that will house a kindergarten as demand for Mariamana's educational model keeps growing. The current Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk, Yusef Thomas Mirkis, said Dominican sisters have a long tradition of providing educational and health services in Iraq. He said the Christian schools of Iraq were once a bridge between the West and the East but their impact faded after all schools were nationalized in the 1970s.
He stated that they have started little experiment in Kirkuk. Replicating Mariamana's model in other Iraqi cities could be a challenge, but the prelate sees the school's success as a reason to keep faith in the future. He finally added that Mariamana is a little oasis for the country.
Updated 12 Nov 2015 | Soruce: Yahoo News | By S.Seal
Child Aid International