In Western Iraq, a University Barely Hangs On
Fighting in western Iraq has left students at the University of Anbar in western Iraq uncertain if they will finish the academic year.
Fighting has disrupted studies at other universities throughout Iraq. But the fighting in Al Anbar—a majority Sunni province—stems from an especially bloody and long-running conflict between the Shiite-led Iraqi army and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an Al Qaeda-linked group. As the army has stepped up its campaign against the terrorists, the two sides have turned Ramadi, the province’s capital, and Fallujah, another major city, into battlefields. The fighting has displaced 300,000 in the region, the United Nations has said.
While the university is technically open, students and faculty commonly brave bombs and bullets to discover that courses have been cancelled. Fighting has also displaced thousands of other students, professors and other staff in Ramadi, the governorate’s capital, and the nearby city of Fallujah. Many of the displaced never show up at all. There’s also always the chance that fighters might launch mortars at the campus without warning.
“Students are eager to finish this academic year, but they are afraid,” said Waleed Munir Daylan, a laboratory manager at Anbar University. “If the dormitory was bombarded, that would be a catastrophe.”
Aysar Abdulkarim Salih, a third-year physical education student, said the university closes temporarily and then, shortly after, announces a reopening date that’s often postponed due to fighting. “We try to attend classes despite the deteriorating situation, but whenever the date is determined, the university is bombarded.”
Recently classrooms at Anbar opened, as scheduled, on May 4 after being closed in late April for Iraq’s first parliamentary elections since the exit of American troops from the country. Many students still stayed home. Although the university announced on its official website it would be open on that day, it was semi-empty, said Salih.
University administrators have given students the option to attend courses or not, depending on how safe they feel journeying to the university, which is about seven kilometers from the center of Ramadi.
“Some professors will spend the night at the college so as to teach the students,” said Salah Al-Ani, dean of the university’s medical college. “For the students who want to stay at home, I can say you are free to do that, but I don’t encourage it—it’s too harmful to the students.”
Dedicated teachers are few and far between, said a computer science student who declined to give his name.
“I went once, but there were no professors,” he said. “When talking to professors, they say the numbers of students are small. But that’s a pretext not to give lectures. I can assure you that if professors come, students will attend their lectures.”
Some students are, of course, fearful about going to class.
“The distance from my home to the university is one kilometer, but my family refused to allow me to go,” said an education student who declined to give her name. “I cannot risk my life.”
Still, for some students who have been living amid war since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the fighting is no reason to stop studying.
“I see our attendance as a must and a duty,” said a University of Anbar mechanical engineering student, Ibrahim Al-Rawi. “Lectures can’t be held without students. Each student has his or her own circumstances, but there is a solution for each problem.”
Students at the University of Anbar’s medical school have lobbied particularly hard to keep their studies going. The medical college is in a different part of the city than the main campus and is safer, said Salih.
“I’ve sent a message to the university chancellor asking him—in the name of my colleagues and myself—not to postpone this year,” he said, adding that medical students should be learning how to treat victims of violence.
For others, however, the uncertainty is beginning to wear on them
“I am eager to go back to the university,” said Mustafa Al-Obaedy, a geography student at Anbar. “My friends from different cities frequently ask me whether the university is open or not. I can give them no answer. Whenever I do go, I find it closed. I am so pessimistic now.”