Iraqi scientists suffer both here and at home

June 1, 2007

Academics in Iraq face violence daily, but the international community offers little help, Melanie Newman reports

Karem al-Zubaidi does not want to claim benefits from Britain or to class himself as an asylum seeker. "I have been working for 22 years," says the clinical biochemistry professor. "I hate to sit here, doing nothing."

When he fled Iraq and his job at the University of Baghdad in October 2004, Professor al-Zubaidi was offered an honorary post at Bangor University.

He obtained a work permit under the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP), but this needed to be validated by leaving the UK and returning, having gained entry clearance.

However, the UK has declared the "S series" passports issued to the first wave of fleeing Iraqis invalid. As the professor holds an S series passport, he would be unable to return to the UK should he leave, so he cannot validate his HSMP permit.

"It seems I have no choice but to claim asylum," he says and, as asylum seekers are forbidden to work, he cannot take the job Bangor University is offering him.

The fiasco is the last in a series of blows to the professor. His troubles began with the invasion of Iraq by US and British troops more than four years ago. He recalls his return to work at the end of the war, in May 2003.

"The university had been looted. My office had been stripped of air conditioning, the desks had gone, the refrigerator had disappeared..."

Outside, a gang of Iraqis was attacking the registration officer. "They were beating him; he was covered in blood, he was dying in front of his students and colleagues. Somehow one of them managed to step in and save him. When I saw this incident I knew that life was going to be terrible."

The registration officer, like most of Iraq's minor officials and civil servants, was a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party before the war.

Professor al-Zubaidi was not a Baathist, but he was on the district council - and he is a Sunni Muslim.

"There was no electricity, and sewage was flooding the streets. I joined the neighbourhood council to try to sort these things out, but that involved co-operating with the coalition forces. The Sunnis saw me as a traitor and the Shias saw me as a Sunni."

He persisted with his classes, going into the university for an hour at a time. Other academics lectured from their homes. "The situation grew worse.

A couple of my academic colleagues and one on the council were assassinated. I was threatened by foreigners," he said.

Professor al-Zubaidi put up with the situation for a year, but in the end it was too much. "My family were terrified if someone knocked at the door,"

he recalled.

They left the country for Britain on multiple-visit visas. One of the professor's three daughters is a British citizen, as she was born when he and his wife were studying in the UK.

"At my interview with the Home Office they said my daughter should apply for asylum. I told them she had a British passport, but they have added her name to the form anyway," he said.

Another Iraqi academic in Britain, who asked not to be named, said he had claimed asylum after receiving advice from a lawyer that the process would take two to three months.

Ten months later, he is still waiting, unable to work, although there are workforce shortages in his medical specialty in Britain. "There should be some way of distinguishing between skilled and unskilled applicants," he said.

CARA, the UK-based Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, flew his family to safety in Cairo, but he cannot visit them because the Home Office is still holding his passport. "My wife is sick, and my son is also psychologically ill as a result of what he witnessed in Iraq," he said.

The professor does not see himself as one of the lucky ones, but he is faring better than his colleagues left behind in Iraq.

Last November, gunmen seized dozens of academics working at the Iraq Ministry of Higher Education's scientific research directorate. The mass kidnap signalled an escalation in violence towards higher education professionals and students. It was followed in January by a bomb attack outside the University of Baghdad.

The anti-war Brussels Tribunal Campaign holds a list of 311 academics murdered since the invasion. Among hundreds of Iraqis killed in April 2007 was Subhi Farhan al-Janabi, the secretary general of the Iraqi Society of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. The society's president, Makki Fayadh, said: "An armed gang was waiting for him outside his clinic. They gunned him down and left. Dr al-Janabi had stayed in Iraq to serve his patients, train our doctors and look after our society. He was a big-hearted man."

The roll-call of the dead includes many who accepted posts knowing they risked paying for their dedication with their lives. One such was Sami Sitrak, who agreed to act as dean of the College of Law despite the attempted murder of a previous dean and the assassination of three professors of law. He was killed on March 29.

Aside from the threat of violence, there are immense practical difficulties for those still struggling to teach. According to an Iraqi dentist, the Iraqi Dental College no longer has a dean, two thirds of the college staff have left, there is no proper curriculum, no material to work with and most of the time no electricity.

Saddam introduced the practice of withholding medical graduates'

certificates to ensure that they could not work abroad. The dentist said the current regime was now doing the same in an attempt to stop the exodus of health professionals.

"Most graduates have to bribe the administration to get their certificates," he said. "There is corruption at every level and complete mayhem at the Ministry of Health."

In addition, religious divisions are opening up in the academic community.

"Sunni students have been sent to Mosul in the north of Iraq while Shia students are going to Karbala, south of Baghdad," the dentist said.

A professor of literature revealed how religious factions have recruited spies from among the student body to report on academics who mention Western philosophies or literature during lectures. As a result, some academics have started to romanticise Saddam's regime.

"It was very oppressive, but we are starting to feel that we preferred it,"

one said. "At least we had some freedom; now we have none."

Many people believe that academics are being driven out because they are part of an educated elite who would otherwise steer the country away from religious fundamentalists and squabbling factions.

"If educated people started talking they would be followed by the semi-literate masses," one said. "Getting rid of academics and professionals, who are the pillars of civilised society, is a natural priority for the extremists and terrorists who want to control our country."

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

HIGHER EDUCATION IN IRAQ

* There are 20 universities and 47 technical institutes, alongside ten private colleges offering programmes in computer sciences, business administration, economics and management

* A Unesco survey in 2004 found a total student enrolment of 251,175, 42 per cent of whom were women and half of whom were enrolled at one of the five universities in Baghdad

* Of the 19,112 academic university teaching staff in 2004, 56 per cent were male and 44 per cent were female

* The average staff-to-student ratio was 1:13

* The minimum educational requirement for a teaching post in higher education is a masters degree. However, in 2004 one third of the teaching staff lacked this qualification.

Source: United Nations

SUPPORT AND FUNDS ARE SCARCE

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) is not currently receiving any funds to support higher education in Iraq, the director of the agency's higher education division said.

Georges Haddad told The Times Higher that after Qatar donated $15 million (£7.5 million) to boost the sector in 2003, Unesco hosted a round table with the aim of generating other funding.

South Korea donated $200,000, but no other cash was forthcoming, Professor Haddad said. The UK Department for International Development confirmed that it was not contributing to Iraqi higher education because basic infrastructure and school education were higher priorities.

Unesco spent most of the Qatar donation on computers and other equipment.

About $3 million was set aside to pay for 300 short-term fellowships in universities around the world to boost external links with Iraqi academics.

"We have placed 240 people so far all over Europe, in Canada, Japan and the US," Professor Haddad said. "However, some of them have been killed before they could leave, others did not return and others were killed after they returned."

He added that the British Council had insisted that British universities would not accept the academics for free. As a result, only a handful of fellowships were set up in the UK, following Unesco's negotiations with individual institutions.

"Most of the candidates wanted to go to the UK because of the quality of universities and the Anglophone culture," Professor Haddad said.

"But the UK universities wanted to impose 'bench fees' amounting to two thirds of the fellowship."

The Council for Assisting Refugee Academic (Cara) is running an emergency appeal for Iraqi academics. Executive secretary John Akker said Cara had written to Unesco more than two months ago but was yet to receive a reply.

He has also written to Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, asking her to pledge to higher education some of the extra £100 million allocated on May 3 for the rebuilding of Iraq.

Cara is also talking with the Department for Education and Skills to set up its own fellowship scheme for Iraqis, funded by the British Government.

"Many of the 33 universities in Cara's network would be delighted to assist Iraqi academics at the present time," he said.

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