DUHOK—Growing up in Kurdistan, Zhiyan Abdul Rahman wanted to be an architect like her older brother. Then a new set of friends put her on a different path. “They were all people who are active in our area and talked about what we want for the future,” she said. “I always thought our community is never going to change … but they made me more open-minded.”
Instead of architecture, the 21-year-old enrolled at the department of peace and human rights studies at the University of Duhok, in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. As Rahman browsed through the program, the lectures in multiculturalism, conflict resolution and human rights sounded exciting.
“It’s a path to change our communities,” she said. “For now I can volunteer; then when I graduate, I can work with major organizations and make an impact.”
Rahman’s four-year undergraduate course in peace and conflict-resolution studies is the only degree program in Iraq that teaches students about the emerging theory and practice of peace-building. Established in 2016, the department is the first of its kind in the region, setting a precedent for studies in this subject at the undergraduate level. (See a related article, “Peace Engineering, a Budding New Discipline, May Spread to the Middle East.”)
Next year, the first cohort of graduates of the new program at Duhok will go out into society, providing insights into the impact of providing peace-studies education to university students in Kurdistan.
Already, other universities from across Iraq have expressed interest in launching peace studies programs, including the University of Mosul and the University of Baghdad.
“Iraq has had many problems, from its formation to the present day,” said Vaheel Jabbar, coordinator of the program at Duhok. “It’s important for people in our society to know how to deal with conflict.”
Heavy Demand for Peace Studies
The course has proved popular, attracting almost three times the anticipated number of students in the first year and increasing steadily since. At present, there are 242 students in the department, Jabbar said, but he hopes new spaces can be created to meet mounting demand.
The department is squeezed onto the first floor of the College of Humanities, and between lectures, the corridors throng with students.
Resources are more often channeled toward building and equipping laboratories in Iraqi universities, where students with the highest grades typically choose to study dentistry and medicine. These are the fields that are considered more likely to yield jobs, which is the first consideration for many students concerned about their future in a country where youth unemployment hovers around 33 percent.
Social sciences and humanities are considered less prestigious fields, but some students are drawn to peace and conflict-resolution studies by the possibilities it holds.
Many students in the course say they plan to teach in schools around Kurdistan, where peace studies and human rights are part of the curriculum. Qualified teachers are in short supply and the subject often ends up being taught by experts in other fields like history and economics, according to Jotyar Sedeeq, who set up the department at Duhok, in part to fill this gap. “The market needs these qualifications,” he said.
Other graduates will work for local and international nongovernmental organizations, or start their own initiatives to confront the challenges faced by Iraqi society.
“Iraq has had many problems, from its formation to the present day. It’s important for people in our society to know how to deal with conflict.”Vaheel Jabbar
coordinator of the program at Duhok
Eroding Religious and Ethnic Barriers
“I think there’s a certain number of students to whom this is appealing because they understand the history of their region as fraught with conflicts, and this is something they can do to distinguish themselves from previous generations,” said Thomas Hill, director of the Peace Research and Education Program at the New York University School of Professional Studies.
Today’s youth are finding ways to erode the religious and ethnic barriers that segregate Iraqi society, he continued. “Young people are going out and creating socially focused organizations, trying to help refugees and internally displaced Iraqis in their area and think about how to use social media and technology to reduce the space between them.
“This generation is full of capable young activists who are not bought and paid for by the political parties,” added Hill, who helped develop the concept and curriculum for the department at Duhok.
The protests that have gripped central and southern Iraq since October have seen Iraqis of all backgrounds—Sunni and Shia, rich and poor, men and women—come together on the streets to call for an end to corruption, for better public services and for steps to reduce high unemployment. Students in Baghdad and other cities have boycotted class for months, facing tear gas and live ammunition from security forces to join the demonstrations. (See a related article, “Iraqi Government Pressures Protesting Students to Return to the Classroom.”)
“There’s a huge unemployment problem throughout Iraq, and if they don’t build their own future no one is going to do it for them,” said Hill.
Students’ Hopes for the Future
For many undergraduates in the new program at Duhok, that means working side by side to create a more inclusive society.
Ahmed Mirkhan, 21, is in his fourth year of peace and conflict-resolution studies and believes the course has taught him how to help other communities more effectively. “We have so many religions in Iraq and we have to know how to deal with issues without hurting anyone, to respect what everyone believes and not cause offense.”
But the first step is to be peaceful within yourself, Mirkhan added, and accepting of other opinions.
For Ornina Henry, 21, it was the lack of acceptance she found growing up in Iraqi society that encouraged her to enroll in the course. “As a Christian I can never just be myself here because of the sectarianism in our society,” she said.
In the two years she has spent studying at the department, Henry has watched as classmates become more accommodating toward different opinions and beliefs. “I think this department will help … in the end many change their minds,” she said.