Five years after it emerged from the ISIS group's extremist rule, Iraq's once thriving cultural center of Mosul has regained a semblance of normalcy despite sluggish reconstruction efforts.
However, like in much of oil-rich but war-ravaged Iraq, ramshackle public services and deep economic difficulties continue to hamper people's daily lives, AFP said.
Ghazwan Turki is just one of Mosul's many residents who struggle to make ends meet in the former ISIS stronghold, where the extremists declared the establishment of a "caliphate" in 2014.
Mosul urgently needs "job opportunities for families that have no income, to improve their living conditions", Turki said.
The father of 12 and aged in his 40s, who lived for years in displacement camps, juggles shifts as a taxi driver and different odd jobs.
"We have to borrow money and get into debt to cover half of our family's needs," said Turki, who shares a single-storey house with his brother.
While acknowledging "progress" in rebuilding efforts, he described "overcrowded schools, where there are 60 or 70 students in a classroom".
Iraqi forces with the help of a US-led coalition wrested back Mosul in July 2017 after grueling street fighting, and Iraq claimed victory over ISIS on December 9 that year.
Signs of reconstruction dot the city of 1.5 million, with workers constructing a new bridge, and cafes and restaurants buzzing.
But many buildings and public hospitals are still in ruins, and in the Old City, some areas are still just piles of rubble.
- 'Lack of jobs' -
Mosul, Iraq's second city, has historically been among the Arab world's most culturally significant settlements -- a hub for trade and home to mosques, churches, shrines, tombs and libraries.
Today, in the wider Nineveh province, a third of people are estimated to be unemployed and 40 percent live in poverty, according to local authorities.
The Norwegian Refugee Council, which has provided aid to some 100,000 Mosul residents, has noted "rising unemployment, high dropout rates (at schools), and limited economic opportunities across the city".
NRC's communication coordinator Noor Taher said that although reconstruction continues, many people are particularly worried about "under-resourced schools, overstretched teachers and lack of jobs".
The International Rescue Committee says that "economic conditions in Mosul remain dire for many families".
An IRC survey of over 400 homes reported "an alarming spike" in child labor rates, with around 90 percent of families sending at least one minor to work and some three-quarters toiling in "informal and dangerous roles" such as construction, or litter and scrap metal collection.
Mayor Amin al-Memari said the city was working on several "strategic projects", but funding remained a key obstacle.
Despite the construction of about 350 schools in just two years, Mosul still needs 1,000 more to end the "chokehold" in education, Memari added.
There is also "a significant shortage in the health sector," he said, with more hospitals needed, including with oncology and cardiovascular surgery departments.
"Before, we had all of this in Mosul," Memari said.
- 'Spirit of Old Mosul' -
In Mosul's war-damaged Old City -- only steps from the iconic Al-Nuri mosque, where former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only confirmed public appearance -- Bytna ("Our Home") café is busy.
But when co-founder Bandar Ismail opened it in 2018, people were skeptical.
"We tried to revive the spirit of Old Mosul by opening this café, to attract residents and draw them back to this neighborhood," 26-year-old Ismail said.
"At first... people mocked us and said 'who will come here?' The whole area was destroyed, there must have been just two families here."
Today, customers sip coffee and smoke their hookahs in the café, which also hosts musical performances and art events.
Even French President Emmanuel Macron dropped by during a visit in 2021.
Nearby, bakeries and restaurants have reopened.
"There is more stability, more security," Ismail said.