Iraqi university students living in Islamic-State controlled areas are finding themselves in an Arabic version of a Kafka tale, with a war-zone atmosphere and plot twists centered on checkpoints. But for the students, their arduous journeys to get their diplomas are all too real.
The students living in places such as Mosul want to complete their degrees and need to take Iraq government examinations to get them.
But arranging the alternative exams has been difficult, students said.
Some displaced students are refugees or living in other situations that make it difficult to focus on exams. Others have trouble leaving Anbar, Mosul and Tikrit to take their exams because Islamic State authorities require them to get written permission from religious courts to leave the group’s domain.
Even then, the Islamic State only allowed students to leave for 10 days in October and told them to return immediately upon receiving their degrees—a requirement they often can’t meet since Iraqi higher education officials don’t recognize it.
Before leaving the Islamic-State controlled areas, the students have to get written permission, which can be difficult to get. Male students often have more luck receiving permission, a policy designed to track their whereabouts and discourage them from joining the Iraqi army or the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that are fighting the Islamic State. The male students who leave know they need to return to avoid jeopardizing their families. The Islamic State is particularly eager to get medical students back, as it needs doctors.
Female students have a harder time getting permission because they are required to adopt the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam, including dressing traditionally and traveling with a male chaperone. That can be a difficult change for many women.
“My mom went to buy an Islamic headscarf and veil for me as I have no such clothes,” said S.M., an engineering student from Mosul University who recently took her exams at Baghdad University and asked to be identified only by her initials.
The journey beyond the Islamic State’s borders is fraught with danger. Students often need to take remote roads to avoid highways booby-trapped with explosives and skirmishes along the frontier between militants and government troops.
“We went by a car through unpaved mountainous routes full of holes,” said S.M “We were stopped at more than 15 checkpoints by Islamic State fighters asking us where are we going and where were we coming from. As I reached Kirkuk, I removed the veil. It was suffocating. Then we continued towards Baghdad.”
Students who opt to take the highway also run into dangerous border crossings. At Maktab Khalid, a Kurdish checkpoint, students faced soldiers suspicious of everyone leaving Islamic State-held areas.
“There was a long queue of more than 500 students from Mosul, Salah Ad din and Anbar,” said a Mosul University literature student who asked to remain unnamed, referring to Maktab Khalid. “We waited for more than six hours.”
The literature student related an episode that illustrated the tensions in the region: At a border checkpoint, a Peshmerga soldier asked an elderly man why he was leaving the Mosul area. The elderly man took out his passport and said he was traveling abroad. The soldier pointed his rifle at the elderly man and said he wasn’t allowed to travel. But students with identification cards and written permission were allowed to pass.
Students arriving in Iraqi government-controlled cities also face hurdles there.
In Kirkuk University, exam halls are crowded and exams are often cancelled on short notice as administrators juggle the needs of students from many universities. Some students either couldn’t bring their books or study materials with them or lost those items on the trip.
“My daughter’s friend had to take three exams to graduate from the computer faculty at Mosul,” said a Mosul University medical professor who asked to be anonymous out of fear of retribution. “She has taken two while the third exam was postponed indefinitely. She called us from Kirkuk crying. The situation is miserable.”
Kirkuk is also having trouble accommodating the influx of students. Students described landlords and hotels charging exorbitant rates amid the chaos. Many have opted to sleeping rough rather than pay higher-than-usual prices for a room.
“Students are sleeping in the corridors in the dormitories,” said Islam, a Mosul University student who did not want her last name used.
The Mosul University literature student and 19 other students slept on the hard floor of a hotel basement at a total cost of 200,000 Iraqi Dinars, or around $170, a night—a cost the student said was exorbitant. The hotel owner, furthermore, required them to pay for seven days in advance, for little more than a roof over their head. “Twenty blankets were laid on the ground,” he said.
Kurdish security forces have also been questioning students in an attempt to screen out suspected Islamic State sympathizers who are often arrested on campus and in the city. “We were surprised with new visitors, armed men in civil attire who said that they are from the intelligence service,” the literature student said. “After raiding our cellar, they asked about our situations.”
The literature student and his classmates went to the university to take their exams, but a demonstration was in progress and security guards began checking their student identification cards to see if they were among the agitators.
“We spent that day confused about what to do. How could we take an exam in this situation?” he said. “We hadn’t bathed or slept. We were afraid of being arrested.”
They decided to leave Kirkuk without taking their exams and return to Mosul.
“We gathered our luggage and went back home defeated and desperate,” said the literature student. “The journey took four hours but it felt like an eternity. We thought of our parents and how they suffered for our sake to obtain a university degree. Was it the end of our university studies? Is it fair to be humiliated in our homeland? We are its sons and future.”
Even if students managed to take their exams, it’s not clear if university administrators now working in Islamic State territory—often reluctantly under harsh conditions—will be able to accept the results of exams taken in Iraqi-government-administered institutions to grant them degrees.
“I am in Kirkuk now, the exams are completed, and we don’t know if they will be accredited by the Islamic State or not,” said Islam, a Mosul University engineering student who declined give her last name.
She noted that Islamic State militants often demonize students who leave the group’s sphere of influence as if they were also rejecting Islam itself. “They call us apostates,” she said, noting the Islamic State referred to Iraqi government soldiers with the same epithet.
Islam couldn’t take her exams or courses in Mosul even if she tried, however. The Islamic State has shuttered Mosul University and turned its gardens over to grazing cattle.