At a school in the Kurdish region of Iraq, Yazidi families displaced by violence gather to receive food in early August. ( Safin Hamed /Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

On a recent evening, 10 families from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul moved into their new home, a one-story building with tile floors and a sunny courtyard in a poor Shiite neighborhood of east Baghdad.

They hung laundry along the large windows and laid thin mattresses on the floors to sleep.

But their home was actually an empty school, and their settlement underscores a new complication in Iraq’s growing humanitarian crisis.

Less than a month before classes are to start, government and aid officials estimate that thousands of schools are occupied by families who have fled an onslaught of violence by al-Qaeda-inspired rebels in northern and western Iraq.

In many cases, local officials are being forced to choose whether to delay the school year or kick out the families.

Kawkab Ali, an Iraqi aid worker, talks to local volunteers at a Baghdad elementary school that is sheltering displaced families. (Abigail Hauslohner/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, in two of the most populous of Iraq’s provinces, Nineveh and Anbar, many schools won’t open, period, because they’re in the hands of the Islamic State extremist group.

“We’re looking at over half of the [provinces] having a significantly disrupted school year,” said Colin MacInnes, the deputy chief of UNICEF in Iraq.

The displacement of about 1.8 million people in the fighting could produce the worst disruption of Iraq’s education system in years. Up to a quarter-million of those forced from their homes are school-age children, MacInnes said.

On top of that, internal political conflicts have stalled the payment of salaries to teachers and other education officials, according to workers from nongovernmental aid groups. Those political differences led to the collapse of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bid for a third term last month.

Salama al-Hassan, an Education Ministry spokeswoman, said the government remains committed to the school year beginning Sept. 22. But another government official said that is already a three-week delay from the original start date.

A different kind of crisis

No one knows exactly how many schools now serve as temporary lodging for displaced people. The International Rescue Committee said Thursday that more than 650 schools in Dahuk, a Kurdish province bordering Nineveh, are occupied by 21,000 families.

In Baghdad, an estimated 60 percent of the schools are occupied, Hassan said.

At Hamed Aziz’s elementary school in south Baghdad, the displaced have been showing up day by day for the past month.

Aziz, the school’s principal, now hosts 190 families from Mosul in a building where the teachers’ lounge has been turned into a pantry for donations and the gym into a makeshift clinic.

No government authority has contacted him with a proposal to move the people out, he said.

“I will not let these families go until the government provides a place for them,” Aziz said, as former Mosul residents sat idly on the couches in his office.

Iraqi education officials say the crisis is unique because of the sheer number of families who have fled their homes in the three months since the Islamic State rushed in.

According to the aid agency Refugees International, an estimated 2.8 million Iraqis left their homes for other cities or neighborhoods inside the country during the eight-year U.S. occupation of Iraq — including the worst period of sectarian bloodletting, from 2006 to 2007.

But at that time, more shelter was available, Iraqis say, because of a pattern of displacement that saw Sunnis and Shiites flee neighborhoods on the basis of sectarian lines.

“Back then, there were multiple displacements — Sunnis leaving Shiite areas and Shiites leaving Sunni areas,” said Kawkab Ali, a volunteer who has been working with displaced families and war widows since the 1980s and now heads a charity called the Iraqi Women’s Foundation.

“It was sort of like people switching houses,” she added, using a euphemism for the pattern of flight in religiously mixed Baghdad, which saw Shiites taking over dwellings that Sunnis had fled, and vice versa.

Schools were able to absorb many of the new students, in some cases by breaking the school day into two or three shifts, aid workers said.

This time, the movement is far more lopsided, mostly involving Shiite Iraqis fleeing vast jihadist-held areas in Sunni-majority provinces. They are arriving in Shiite-majority provinces in the south and in the Kurdish territories in the north, where they add to the region’s already sprawling population of Syrian refugees.

“Previous experiences were like 1 percent of the numbers we’re seeing now,” said Hassan, admitting that the ministry has no accurate count of displaced children or affected schools.

Government officials say they are working to set up trailers and camps so displaced families can move out of school buildings. They are also seeking to set up tents to use as temporary classrooms near schools full of refugees.

But aid officials, school administrators and volunteers on the ground say the government is overwhelmed.

“The Ministry of Education originally said, ‘We don’t want any tents.’ They came back to us last week and requested over 5,000 tents” for temporary classrooms, MacInnes said.

“We had to let the Ministry of Education know that that’s a surface area the size of inner London,” he said.

A decline in literacy

Until the later years of Saddam Hussein’s rule and the war sparked by the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq had a relatively high literacy rate. Iraqis prided themselves on their attention to education. According to an old Middle Eastern saying, books were written in Cairo, published in Beirut and read in Baghdad.

But after years of war, according to the United Nations, illiteracy has grown somewhat.

International experts say children whose education is disrupted for a prolonged period risk becoming laborers or being recruited by militant groups. For adolescents, it can be exceedingly difficult to reintegrate into the school system once a conflict is over, MacInnes said.

The families now sheltering at the elementary school in east Baghdad said they had been on the road for more than two months, bolting for safety as marauding jihadist forces overran one town after another.

“We don’t know how long we’ll be here,” said Bashar Hamza, 32, of Mosul, who found shelter at the school with his wife and five young children. “I guess until we find another solution.”

After a long journey through Kurdish territory and then south along the Iranian border, the Hamza family had found temporary refuge in the central city of Najaf. But even at that distance from the conflict, accommodations were crowded, flea-infested and devoid of clean water. They set out for the capital after they heard that there was an empty school — one of a dwindling number.

“School was supposed to start on Sept. 1,” said Ali, the volunteer, who delivered a carload of donated clothes to the families at the elementary school one recent day. “How can it?”

Erin Cunningham in Dahuk and Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.