Like many kids in Iraq, a country that has been at war for more than two years, Abdullah Riyadh, 9, says going to school is his only escape.
"At home, my mother keeps me in one room, like a prison, because she is scared of what could happen outside," said Abdullah, a smiley third-grader at Hamza Elementary School in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq.
One night, a year ago, Abdullah's father disappeared after work. No one has heard from him since, and his family does not know what happened. Since then, Abdullah's mother has allowed her son to leave the house only to go to school.
"I am much happier at school than at home," Abdullah said. "I can see friends and learn and play."
Many American kids complain about spending so much time in school. They would rather play sports outside, visit friends' houses, surf the Internet or do other things that seem more fun.
But in Iraq, where bombings, shootings and kidnappings seem to happen every day, parents often keep their children cooped up at home for protection.
At the Hamza school, which has about 385 students, ages 6 to 12, kids say it is the only safe place for them to go to have fun.
"We like playing outside, but if a car bomb explodes and we are in the street [around our homes], it would be dangerous," said Tamara Zaid, 10, a fourth-grader with glasses and pigtails. "Here, we have guards to protect us, and all of our friends are around."
"I wake up every morning excited because at least I can go to school," said Safaa Athir, an 11-year-old fifth-grader.
Some things about Iraqi schools might seem unusual to American kids. After they finish elementary school, students are divided into schools for boys and schools for girls. Schools do not have cafeterias, so students bring a sandwich or some cookies or crackers to eat during the day. All students wear uniforms, which are usually gray, white and dark blue. And the school day in Iraq is shorter than in U.S. schools, starting about 8 a.m. and ending about 12:30 p.m.
Nagham Najim, Hamza assistant principal, has an 11-year-old son who goes to another nearby school. She said she rarely lets him leave the house, "not even to a candy store or mosque. Only to school. . . . This is the country that we live in," she said. "There is no choice."
In Iraq, even schools are not always safe. In September, five teachers were killed at a school south of Baghdad. No students were hurt. Two weeks ago, a rocket crashed through the roof of a fifth-grade classroom at the Dijla primary school in Baghdad. One student died and 11 others were hurt. A week after the attack, the Dijla school was still closed. Many students, and even some teachers, had decided not to come back.
"I am not scared. I like it here," said Amir Ali, 8, a third-grader who stopped by Dijla to pick up books he left behind on the day of the attack. "My parents said we have to find a different school."
-- Jonathan Finer