Since 2003, Iraq has been at the forefront of much of the world’s violence and in July it was in the spotlight again. Over 300 civilians were killed by a bombing in Baghdad and among the dead, the young made up the vast majority – teenagers and students with dreams of a brighter future. ISIS has been spreading violence in the region since 2014, and for many locals the life they once knew has long disappeared. For the students at AUIS (American University of Iraq – Sulaymaniyah), however, war is no match for their aspirations.
AUIS is a private university in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan Region of Iraq – roughly 150 miles from Baghdad. The university follows an American-style education system that is open to students from various social backgrounds. It was created during the turmoil of war in 2007 and it is therefore fitting that it thrives while existing alongside another war in 2016.
Meet four AUIS students who, in the face of war, are doing incredible things to ensure a better future for their country.
Ayaz Shalal studies Business Administration as his major and Political Science and Journalism as his minors at AUIS. But focusing on your studies while your country is in the midst of a conflict can be challenging; the things that students like Ayaz worry about tend to be more than just overdue library books and missing deadlines.
He says “it has always been frustrating to spend time on homework and exams in a place where you might die at any minute and, even if you did not die, nothing is certain in this country. Usually, people study because they want to have a good future. But for me, I studied because I had hope that education could change the face of this country.”
Originally born in Syria, Ayaz describes himself as a world citizen and is driven by his love for humanity. “I feel I belong everywhere and have a duty to develop and work for all people around me” he says. And indeed, Ayaz has travelled much of the world. He is an alumnus of the Study of the U.S Institutes program (SUSI) and a fellow of Amends participator at both Koc University, Istanbul and Stanford University in the US.
While on his travels, Ayaz says, “[I have] had so many moments when I look at other international friends – who are students in the UK or US – thinking that I’m less valuable than them and, above all, they’re safe and almost sure about their future.” But despite seeing student life abroad, Ayaz was always determined to return home. He became a devoted human right’s advocate which turned out to be a full-time job.
“I CAN’T JUST RUN… I HAVE TO STAY AND MAKE AS MANY CHANGES AS I CAN.”
As well as being the current Deputy Director of Programs at Rasan Organisation – an NGO (non-governmental organisation) aiming to decrease violence against women – he is also a consultant for the Women Empowerment Project for Yazidi Females and a Laureate Global Fellow for similar refugee focused efforts.
Ayaz feels a sense of obligation and says he “can’t just run and leave everything behind even though I’m sure I’ll have many opportunities outside. I have to stay to make [as many] changes as I can.” It’s his selfless attitude that has resulted in him being a prominent feminist in his city – working for women’s rights, gender equality and LGBT rights. It is clear that he’s an individual who not only wants to make a change, but also to tackle seemingly unchangeable issues in his society – he’s even writing a book about homosexuality in Iraq.
Biza Barzo will soon graduate with a major in International Studies and a minor in Economics. Although raised in Sweden, she moved back to the Kurdistan Region years ago and the conflicts that have engulfed the region since have never deterred her goals.
Biza says she has always “felt a responsibility to the development of my country and other parts of the world”. She began working with several Swedish and international human rights NGOs at the young age of 16 and explains that it was ultimately her experience of living in the Middle East that fuelled her passion for humanitarian work.
Since ISIS invaded, 1.4 million refugees have fled to the Kurdistan Region and the government struggles to sufficiently accommodate their needs. Biza is one of the many young people who made it their priority to fill that gap by becoming an effective point of delivery for the worldwide donations that are made. She has overseen the distribution of thousands of tons of necessities to the camps, first aid and sleeping bags to the front line soldiers, as well as getting hundreds of thousands of dollars to the families of martyred Peshmerga.
Aside from humanitarian work, Biza has travelled the world representing her nation as a young Kurdish diplomat at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Jordan and One Young World summit in Dublin. However, Biza’s true passion lies in helping people and, in her own words, “representing those who are underrepresented.” When she became the Director of the Erbil WEF hub in 2015, she made establishing Erbil’s first cancer support centre a priority. In spite of the war, Biza credits AUIS with “encouraging me to continue to focus on the opportunities for positive change despite the ongoing conflicts around me.”
Banu Ali's student life at AUIS, where she studied IT, started out relatively stable. At the time, Banu was very excited about the new prospects that private universities provided and tells me “I could see hope and energy in students [at AUIS]”.
She travelled the world attending various conferences and summits: she was a delegate at the National Model United Nations conference in New York; a social entrepreneurial delegate at the AMENDS initiative and went on to study Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst after being chosen for the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program.
Now a graduate, Banu tells me about the moment ISIS invaded – she can remember it very well. “We were in the middle of [a time of] happiness and excitement, collecting money for cancer patients in Sulaymaniyah, but suddenly we heard that ISIS [had] reached the borders and the situation [was] not good.” Banu had hoped it was not as serious as the news reports were making out, but recalls that it got much worse. She tells me “a lot of people are still living here without hope, but the young generation can change the situation. If we all leave, we cannot improve.”
“KURDISTAN NEEDS US, NEEDS THE YOUNG GENERATION.”
Banu says she has never considered leaving and continues to follow her dreams. One of those dreams was meeting Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO, when she participated in the first Regional Circle Leaders Conference in San Francisco last summer. It may seem strange that someone who studies and works internationally has never wanted to leave the challenges of student life in Iraq, but for Banu “doing what I love somewhere else would never give the same excitement. Kurdistan needs us, needs the young generation.”
Snur Hoshmand Hamid is currently a senior IT student, but she was only 19 when she started working as an English language teacher in her community. When I ask her why, she tells me she is driven to “break the stereotype that students or girls shouldn’t work until they finish their studies.”
Snur wants to share her story to show the world that “besides all the ordeals we are going through, we still have talented and hardworking people trying to overcome these difficulties.” Snur has been doing just that while working as a certified Microsoft Sales Specialist at Avesta Group. She also contributes to the betterment of the situation in the region by volunteering for organisations that serve the most vulnerable in the region; she works as a translator for STEP, an organisation serving human and children’s rights.
“WE ARE MOSTLY LIVING IN WAR ZONES AND THAT IS ALL THE WORLD HEARS ABOUT US.”
These students lead inspirational lives – impressively building their work portfolio while also juggling revision, assignments, and the ongoing crisis of war. But what is at the root of this determination to be of service to society? For Snur, it springs from her wish for her country to “be a place where young people are engaged [with] the community and the world.” She is a high-achieving student and recently received the Marry E. Geyer Scholarship for AUIS Women in IT. Nevertheless, with the threat of ISIS ever present, I wonder if she ever wishes to have a more normal university experience – she replies, “the Peshmerga (the Kurdistan Regional Government’s army), have made such a peaceful environment for us all to live and study.”
Snur wants students around the world to know that “we are mostly living in war zones and that is all the world hears about us. Therefore, it’s important that the world sees the other side.” It is predominantly due to Peshmerga and the coalition armies that these students are able to be as active in society as they are. Despite all the difficulties, Snur says “the students, like the Peshmerga, never stopped [their studies] and that’s how we fight against war despite all the challenges.” Snur sees education as a means of fighting back; in 2015 she took part in a two-week summer program at Ranepa University, Moscow and has spent the last six weeks studying at Georgetown University, United States.
The ISIS invasion may have triggered the biggest refugee exodus in centuries, but seeing the determination of university students in the face of such adversity is a strong sign of hope.
Ayaz Shalal, Biza Barzo, Banu Ali, and Snur Hoshmand Hamid prove to us all that education – and life – can thrive in even the darkest of circumstances.