SADR CITY, Iraq — Youssif Mukhtar wants to right the wrongs of the injustice he sees around him. But first he has to get through high school.
Like that of many Iraqis whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by the war, Youssif's education has been a patchwork of interruptions. At 20, he's in the 12th grade, traveling across town after school to a job as a temporary guard at the Electricity Ministry.
In 1995, Youssif's brother went missing. Though the family searched for him for a year, he was never found. In the chaos, Youssif says, they "forgot about me," failing to enroll him in first grade on time. He later failed another grade.
One of 12 children, Youssif is finishing the last year of high school with his 19-year-old sister, Miriam. Schools are so overcrowded that the family pays a private tutor to come to their home to make up for the lack of instruction. Through it all, Youssif's childhood goal of becoming a lawyer has remained intact.
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"I want to provide justice for the victims of injustice," Youssif says.
On one of the concrete walls of his family's concrete home is a framed photo of Youssif's elder sister Mayada and her graduating class. She finished law school three years ago but hasn't been able to find a job.
"It's because she doesn't have wasta," he says, using the word for connections. "We're not members of any party."
In the warmth of a kerosene heater on a mat on the floor, Youssif gives a passionate explanation of why he wants to become a lawyer.
"Everyone has to be allowed their rights," he says. "First I would get rid of the quota system" — the system by which control of ministries have been turned over to specific parties. Second, he says he and his friends would help people who didn't have the connections or the money for bribes needed to get even the simplest bureaucratic tasks done. "And, of course, I would never forget about the city," he says of the tangle of overcrowded houses and streets showing the legacy of decades of neglect.
Youssif and his family are religious followers of Muqtada al Sadr, the Shiite Muslim cleric who's long opposed the U.S. presence. A photo of the young Shiite leader hangs in the bare front room. The Sadrists, he says, have proved that they can provide services and control security.
"The most important thing for a candidate is that he should live among the people who elected him and not abandon us after he becomes well off," he says.
(Arraf reports for the Christian Science Monitor. The Monitor and McClatchy operate a joint bureau in Baghdad.)