Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kurdish Students Face Discrimination

Many claim mounting ill treatment at the hands of their fellow students, teachers, and local residents.

Kurdish student Karwan Muhammed was heading to his rented flat in the Sunni Arab town of Baquba, 90 kilometres north of Baghdad, after a tiresome day of classes when he noticed a large gathering in a nearby tea room.

As he moved toward the shop, Muhammed saw a familiar face on the television screen: the ageing, bearded face of Saddam Hussein – in the custody of the Americans.

But instead of celebrating the moment like his fellow Kurds back home on the streets of northern Iraq, Muhammed rushed back to his apartment and locked the door.

An Arab student, who’d been watching the broadcast, later pounded on the door and yelled. "We will kill you, if Jalal Talabani expresses his congratulations [for the capture of Saddam]," the Arab said, referring to the head of the one of the two main Kurdish parties.

Muhammed did not sleep that night as other students and even the owner of the flat gathered outside his door and threatened to kill him.

He is one of the several hundred Kurdish students who began studying in the universities of Arab majority cities in Iraq this past academic year.

Many claim mounting ill treatment at the hands of their fellow students, teachers, and local residents.

Several students even have refused to return next year, opting instead to continue studies in Kurdish universities.

This past academic year, Iraqi universities reserved 5 per cent of enrolment for "non-local" students.

That allowed for Kurdish students to study in Baghdad and other Iraqi institutions outside the Kurdish area.

But Kurdish students say they are increasingly discriminated against by Arab university administrators and teachers, and harassed by fellow students.

Although all students were accepted to the universities through a central processing system, the dean of the college denied them access to specific departments.

Instead, the Kurds were placed in less prestigious faculties.

Sabah Hassan had the grades needed to enrol in the computer science department, the highest ranked in the college of science. But instead he was placed in the lowest ranked one, mathematics.

Hassan claims that Baathist deans and teachers blocked his higher placement and that of other Kurds. "I was accepted in a low-ranking department because I was a Kurd," he said.

Such treatment escalated following rumours printed in the Arab media and spread on the street, claiming that Kurdish peshmerga fighters participated in the April attacks against the Sunni and Shia insurgents in Fallujah and Najaf respectively.

Karzan Hameed, 23, a first-year student in the college of medicine at the University of Kufa, could not return to his university campus for 45 days during the height of the fighting in April and May because roads were blocked and unsafe.

When he finally went back to school, he says he was too afraid to admit he was a Kurd to his Arab colleagues. They claimed that all the snipers who targeted the insurgents were Kurds.

Hameed also believes that he and two of his colleagues were purposely failed in a computer exam because they were Kurds.

"The Arab students say dirty words to us every day, while the teachers ask why we [Kurds] demand federalism," Hameed said.

The spring violence appears to have been the starting point for wholesale intimidation of Kurdish students.

"After the Fallujah fighting, some of the Arab students considered us American agents and taunted us," said Dler Habeeb, a graduate student in the Arabic department of the University of Baghdad at the time the regime fell.

Nabard Ghafoor, a student in the computer department of the college of education at the university, rented a single room for himself because he no longer felt comfortable sharing a room with Arab students.

Muhammed, Ghafoor and Hameed said they will return to the safety of northern Iraq to complete their university training if they can be placed in equivalent departments in Kurdish colleges.

Muhammed Issa, 22, from Kalar, a town on the border with the Arab area of Iraq, visited Baghdad for the first time after the fall of the former regime when he was accepted at Baghdad university.

He speaks fluent Arabic but says it was of little help. "The Arabs hate us," he said, because the Kurds have demanded a federal structure in Iraq.

Wrya Hama Tahir is an editor with the youth-oriented Liberal Education newspaper in Sulaimaniyah.

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