The American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniyah (AUIS) was located on a temporary campus in a fairly upscale neighborhood a few miles southeast of the city center. It was a mix of existing cement block and mortar buildings and (prefab) portable classroom ‘cabins’, all surrounded by high concrete blast walls. There were always heavily-armed Kurdish peshmerga guards stationed just outside the front gate which could only be used by faculty and administration. There was a second entrance at the opposite end of the campus where the students were thoroughly searched each morning before being allowed to enter the main campus.
A demanding schedule
My three months at the university was a constant blur of activity—as intensive for me as it was for each of my students. Days were spent teaching, advising students, writing exams, attending meetings while my evenings at the guesthouse were spent prepping for the demanding morning class schedule and marking the assignments I’d given to the students the day before. On average, I spent 2 hours marking and 2 hours planning each night plus all day on Saturday and half day on Sunday. I was teaching advanced academic reading skills to 30 students—divided between two classes—who would be taking the university’s official entrance exam at the end of the summer.
In addition to the hours of homework I was encouraged by the program director to assign each night, my students were also taking an advanced academic writing course which required them to spend additional hours outside class composing various types of essays. All this intensive study was intended to prepare them to pass the all-important entrance exam after which they could begin their major studies. Although I’m not a big fan of ‘teaching to an exam’, I was aware that in this instance it served a valid purpose.
As time went on and my students began to trust my motives for coming to Iraq (hint: it wasn’t money), they began to reveal some of the emotional and psychological scars of war they carried deep inside. Finding myself in such a situation, I firmly believed it was my mission as a teacher to counsel students in a way that would help remove obstacles that might interfere with their focus on studies, even though I knew this would be a difficult task.
My classes were roughly 30-40% Arab and 60-70% Kurd, although all the females were from the Kurdish region. The families of my Arab students had fled the Baghdad area to the relative security of Iraqi Kurdistan between 2005 and 2007 when the capital was being rocked by the worst of the war’s sectarian violence. These Arab refugees had all witnessed atrocities such as bodies being blown up on the street in front of them and reflected on these events during our classroom discussions and in their writing assignments. Likewise, my Kurdish students had their own dark stories to share. I’m not someone who cries easily, but I must admit I sobbed more than once while marking homework in the privacy of my accommodation.
“Because of their shared history of upheaval and intense struggle, I found my students to be innately in tune with the winds of political change that swirled around them…”
The one word that best described my students was ‘intense’. These young adults had personally witnessed far too many horrors, while also listening to similar stories of war, destruction, injury and death being passed down from their parents and grandparents. Such traumatic events have been a recurring nightmare for the Kurds for many generations. Because of their shared history of upheaval and intense struggle, I found my students to be innately in tune with the winds of political change that swirled around them, and they were never afraid to voice their opinions about such matters.
The most surprising quality I found among my students at AUIS was an abundance of hope. These students worked far more diligently than any I’d ever taught before—out of necessity. They possessed a hunger for knowledge that made teaching an incredibly rewarding endeavor. In a country torn apart by war and with a fractured economy that didn’t present an abundance of opportunities, I recognized that a university degree represented the only hope many students had of creating a better life in the future.
More lessons for the teacher
One day, three of my female students stayed after class and timidly approached my desk. After some prodding on my part, one of them spoke of her desperation to pass the upcoming university entrance exam. She confided that she had already attended the other two universities in Sulaimaniyah and been unsuccessful in her studies. If she failed to succeed at AUIS, her father had told her she would spend her life at home–cooking, cleaning and taking care of the family. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she told me how much she wanted to do something ‘special’ with her life and asked for guidance.
I’d been in similar situations many times with students in Oman who would plead for higher marks, the ‘help me teacher’ syndrome that my colleagues and I would joke about, but this cry for help was different, coming from a clearly motivated student who was willing to work hard to reach her goal. I did my best to reassure her.
Many of my students had been deeply scared by their experiences, and this was sometimes evident in their classroom performance. Don’t misunderstand; most of the Kurdish and Arab students I taught at AUIS were quite intelligent, but some exhibited behavior commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). Considering the emotional and economic hurdles many had to overcome, their achievements were a testament to their motivation, perseverance and diligent work ethic.
One of my brightest male students, who attended the same class as his older brother, developed a habit of falling asleep in class. When I had an after-class discussion with him, he told me he had been diagnosed with a ‘nervous disorder’ and was seeing one of the few psychiatrists in the region. I asked him about medications and he readily ticked off the names of several hard-core drugs he was taking daily. No wonder he was falling asleep in class! For the remainder of the term, I monitored him and my other special needs students closely, offering advice, extending deadlines and trying to accommodate them in any way that would improve their chances of academic success.
War often either brings people together or turns them into adversaries. According to my students, these societal conflicts sometimes even divided families, removing an individual’s last vestiges of stability. Having spent three years teaching in Oman, I was already familiar with the stability and comfort close family bonds provide in collectivistic cultures. My empathy for these students only increased as I wondered how many of them had experienced a breakdown in family structure brought on by the external political and economic chaos of the previous decade.
Despite being brought up in an environment of instability, my students worked remarkably well together in class, enthusiastically sharing information and appearing supportive of the efforts of others. There was only one incident when I had to intervene to settle an argument between an Arab and a Kurdish student, and that was likely my fault for not stopping the discussion at an earlier point.
However, there were times in the classroom when I felt as if I was under attack, especially during the after-exam review sessions when I sometimes had to resort to the same aggressively argumentative tone being used by a student in order to settle the discussion on the most appropriate answer to a given exam question. On those days, there was plenty of stress to go around for both teachers and students, but I saw this level of enthusiasm as a sign that the stakes were truly high for these students.
During our always stimulating—and sometimes heated—classroom discussions, my students revealed beliefs and shared stories that gave me plenty of food for thought. One of their surprising beliefs was that Turkey, their next-door neighbor, would surely be the world’s most powerful nation both economically and politically in the future.
Maybe I’ll be surprised in the future I admitted to them in class, but I would have guessed that role would be filled by either China or India, our planet’s two most populous nations. Upon considering this more, I realized it was a logical conclusion for them, especially since most of their food and other products were produced in Turkey. This notion helped me understand that war creates a very isolating environment for those whose lives it disrupts.
One of the most enlightening experiences I had was during a classroom discussion on the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad. My students shared stories of how the long-persecuted Kurds saw the fall of the Iraqi central government as an opportunity to be repaid for the generation of wrongs perpetrated on their people by Saddam Hussein’s government.
There were stories of how groups of Kurds had taken full advantage of the vacuum created when the central government fell and had helped themselves to whatever was left behind in the bank vaults and government buildings of the capital. One student even said that cars taken from the streets of Baghdad had been parked bumper to bumper in one of his uncle’s fields. I suppose this was a small slice of the retribution that generations of Kurds had longed for.
At the end of October 2010 when I was back in Oman, I beamed with joy upon receiving the news that all my students had passed the university entrance exam and were being given the chance to continue their studies at AUIS. My hope was that they would be able to find fulfilling, decent-paying jobs that would enable them to remain on their ancestral lands, instead of having to go abroad in search of economic opportunities. In the end, the efforts of gifted young adults such as these is the greatest and best hope for rebuilding the economy and mending the frayed social fabric of the region.