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

Kurdish Students Fear for Safety

Studying at Iraq’s universities no longer viewed as a good career move.
By Ayob Kareem

The deteriorating security situation in central and southern areas of Iraq has led to many Kurdish students transferring to universities inside Iraqi Kurdistan following a series of threats.

As a result of these worries, the Kurdistan higher education ministry recently issued a decree allowing students who had graduated from any of the region’s high schools to transfer back to local universities.

After the fall of the Baath regime in April 2003, the Kurdish and Iraqi higher education ministries had passed a bill assigning five per cent of places at central and southern universities to Kurdish students, with the same percentage set aside for Arab students who wished to study in Iraqi Kurdistan.

As a result, almost 4,000 Kurdish students applied for and were given places at Iraqi universities for the academic year 2003/2004.

However, the deteriorating security situation has resulted in just 186 applicants this year. And while some students did return south to continue their studies when classes restarted in October, a significant number chose to take a year out instead.

Goran Hama Qadir is a Kurdish law student studying at Tikrit University in the Salahadeen governorate north of Baghdad, an area known to be a stronghold of Saddam Hussein's relatives and supporters.

“Tikrit is a hot spot, but fortunately I haven’t been burned yet,” he said. “I’m always slightly afraid of the hatred the Arabs show towards the Kurds. They keep saying [we] had a share in Saddam’s downfall.”

Qadir has been back at Tikrit University for two months but now wants to postpone the rest of his studies this year, “Whenever I come back to Kurdistan at weekends, my family asks me to hold off for a year, until things settle down.”

Safar Sayid Ali was studying Arabic at Baghdad University, but decided to leave after a letter appeared on the college noticeboard describing Kurdish students as American and Israeli agents who should be beheaded.

“We weren’t safe anywhere,” he said. “The place we were living in was a target for the Americans while the Baathist groups were threatening us at school and in the streets.”

Tara Omer, director of the registrar’s office at Sulaimaniyah University, told IWPR, “We don’t have final figures of how many students are taking up this offer, because it’s an ongoing process. But so far around 300 students have transferred.”

Students who have transferred their courses said they were delighted with the decision. “I’ve finished with Baghdad,” said Rako Abdulqadir, who had been studying medicine there. “Our lives were in danger.”

However, not all ethnic Kurds are able to take advantage of the offer. Dyar Hasan, a medical student at Anbar University in the western Iraqi governorate of Al-Anbar, grew up in Khanaqeen district which now lies outside the Green Line and technically belongs to the eastern Iraqi governorate of Dyala.

He hasn’t been to classes since term began because of the security situation in the governorate. “If Sulaimaniyah University doesn’t accept me, I will postpone this year,” he told IWPR. “My father would rather I was at home doing nothing than putting myself in danger.”

Dyar has yet to hear if his application has been accepted, but says he doesn’t want to go back and study with the Arabs he grew up with. “I want to stay near my compatriot Kurds in my homeland,” he said.

Ayob Kareem is an IWPR trainee in Sulaimaniyah.