I got the idea late last year when a young Canadian woman challenged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to let her spend a day in his office as part of a popular movement to include women in politics, business and other fields.
Trudeau accepted the challenge. So, I and other young Iraqis wondered if our leaders would do the same.
Shockingly, after we laid down our gauntlets via posts on Facebook, the Iraqi minister of education, Mohammed Iqbal al-Saidali, accepted my request to spend a week in his ministry.
“We will be waiting for you after the second-term final exams,” he wrote to my personal account on the social network.
The Iraqi Ministry of Education is the largest government agency in the country. It has 700,000 employees and oversees nine million students. But I felt I was qualified to observe it.
I studied electrical engineering at the University of Mosul and am now teaching in Turkey while studying business at Altınbaş University there. I’ve taught Iraqi, Jordanian and Sudanese curricula in Arabic-language private schools in Turkey. I’ve also taught physics and mathematics at the Cambridge schools in Turkey.
When I began my weeklong visit in late November, I wanted to accomplish two goals. I wanted to discuss the situation of students in Iraqi regions liberated recently from the Islamic State, the delayed compensation of teachers who weren’t paid when they worked under the militants, and other issues.
I also wanted to gain some insights into how the ministry’s administration functioned so I could share my knowledge with other Iraqis, who often have very little inside knowledge about their government.
The first day began by a meeting with the minister. I introduced myself and put my two-page summary of my plan in his hands. “I want to invest every minute here well,” I told him. “I will try to completely convey everything to the public and the media afterward.”
The minister praised my enthusiasm, declared that he would cooperate and ordered ministry officials to grant me access to every office, drawer and closet.
The next few days were exhausting, an experience that was a combination of observation, cohabitating and participating in decision-making. I was constantly watching, thinking and challenging myself and others to contribute constructive criticism.
I met with officials throughout the ministry with few problems, due to the minister’s having ordered people to be open to my questions. I bumped into a member of parliament and encountered a delegation of Yazidis, a religious minority, who wanted schools in their community to be repaired so they could return home now that the Islamic State had fallen.
Still, the days were long and sometimes tiring, especially when there were field visits to the ministry’s directorates in different parts of Baghdad.
I learned about many training projects, like one that achieved remarkable improvements in English among Iraqi students due to a Lebanese program for thousands of English teachers. Other projects included training for teachers on topics like providing psychological support for students, teaching methodologies and computers in the classroom.
Later, I discussed with the minister some of the problems that people had asked me to bring up with him.
I told him that new teachers in Nineveh needed admission to teaching schools because they had not been able to attend those schools while the Islamic State controlled Mosul and other cities in the province. He agreed and, to my delight, it appears as if Iraqi teaching schools are accepting more Nineveh education students.
I also told him he needed to stop teachers from leaving the west side of Mosul for the east side. The west side of the city is still in ruins, bombed out during the fight against the Islamic State, while the east side was liberated earlier and people are resuming normal lives there. The teachers have been ordered to remain in their west-side schools.
I also talked about the need for more cooperation between the ministries of education, transportation and finance to facilitate students’ commutes. The minister said it was a good idea, but would take time.
He, in turn, told me about upcoming proposals, like an important law that Iraqi leaders are now considering to protect teachers from assaults in schools.
I also learned that some of my suggestions would go nowhere. I asked the minister if he could give students in Mosul extra chances to take exams, given that many had missed exams or performed poorly on them after the jihadists overran their city. But the exam schedules are fixed and couldn’t be changed, he said.
He also said that, contrary to my hopes, the ministry could not easily recognize Iraqi schools in Turkey. Their curricula are often simply not in sync with Iraq’s public schools, he said. Many are not even officially registered in Turkey.
The experience was fantastic.
Running the Iraqi Ministry of Education is clearly a gargantuan task. It appeared to me that al-Saidali was doing his best. Obviously, he couldn’t fix every problem.
I ended my week wanting to deliver this message to Iraqi youth: Go into politics, try to reach a high position and work tirelessly to achieve change.
Muthana Al-Saleh, 28, teaches mathematics at the Kazanım International School in Istanbul. He left Mosul, his hometown, after the Islamic State overran the city in 2014. He is also studying for a master’s degree in business at Altınbaş University in Istanbul.