A couple of years ago, University of Mosul student Nora Al Jadoue wanted to leave Iraq. At the same time, UNC sophomore Eden Yousif wasn’t sure she would ever get to see Iraq.

But thanks to an innovative virtual exchange program between the University of Mosul, UNC-Chapel Hill, and UNC-Greensboro, students are developing new understandings of Iraq and the United States. Despite being over 6,000 miles apart, students in Iraq and North Carolina have found they have much to share with one another and plenty to learn on their weekly Zoom calls.

“We just don’t hate anybody that we don’t know,” said Heba Ezzuldein, a University of Mosul student. “And I think this is really helping in developing a lot of things. Because I think it’s important to share with different people from different languages and different cultures.”

The Islamic State controlled Mosul from 2014 until 2017, during which thousands of civilians were killed, schools were closed, and ancient artifacts and historical sites were destroyed.

“Although Mosul has been at war a lot and has only just got liberated and is still healing, at the same time, if you actually get in touch with the young people here, you will see amazing talents and true accomplishments,” Al Jadoue said. “If you asked me two years ago, I would totally tell you that I want to leave Iraq and never go back and that I don’t have a future here.”

But her classes at the University of Mosul have inspired her to stay. She said her peers push her to be the best version of herself.

“Every week I get surprised more and more about the young generation’s ideas,” she said.

“Mosul is so alive”

Yousif grew up in Goldsboro, in an Iraqi family. She said it was hard to hear stereotypes about Iraq in her hometown.

“I just wanted people to know that there’s so much life there, and people are happy there, and it’s not it’s not some desolate country,” Yousif said.

Yousif has never been to Iraq but is now planning her first visit because of the exchange. For a long time, Yousif said her family assumed it wasn’t safe to go back to Iraq. But one of the Iraqi students helped her family realize that it was time to plan their first trip together.

“He said, ‘Mosul is so alive. There’s no reason you can’t come,’” Yousif said. “I immediately told my grandpa and I said, ‘We want to visit.’ And he said, ‘That’s great. I’ll go with you.’”

Students meet on Saturday mornings for the exchange, which is part of the University of Mosul’s peace-building initiative, one of the first academic peace studies programs in the Middle East. Hijran Al-Salihi, assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of Mosul, said the peace program prepares students to tackle the problems present in the city of Mosul and Iraq more broadly.

“Security can’t be established with weapons only,” Al-Salihi said.

Noor Ghazi, professor of the practice in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Peace, War, and Defense Department and a lecturer at UNC-Greensboro, Durham Technical Community College, and the University of Mosul, facilitates the exchange, which began in her class on modern conflicts in Iraqi history in spring 2021.

Yousif and UNC sophomore Jasper Schutt were in the class together and have been working on expanding the exchange ever since. Schutt said he believes American students have a responsibility to speak to people whose lives have been affected by the U.S. government.

U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 on the pretense of destroying Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and ending Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. There were no weapons of mass destruction. To date, over 180,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a direct result of the U.S. invasion.

“This is something that could be really transformative for a lot of American students,” Schutt said. “There’s a certain responsibility on the part of American students as well, because this is a region of the world—a country specifically—that people shouldn’t be allowed to just speak about in stereotypes.”

Ghazi said the exchange has been eye-opening for American students.

“I tell students, ‘Look at things from different perspectives. There’s always another side to the story,’” Ghazi said.

One Saturday morning, a UNC student asked the Iraqi students what brings them hope. Al Jadoue shared how excited she was about the reopening of the university’s Central Library. In 2015, ISIS fighters burned thousands of items from the library, which housed over a million books, maps, and manuscripts dating back centuries. The loss was immeasurable.

On February 19, after a reconstruction project facilitated by the United Nations Development Programme and the Iraqi government, the library reopened. A slogan, “The Word ‘Impossible’ Does Not Exist in Our Dictionary,” is written on the left wall of the library’s entrance. The university describes the library as a “symbol of triumph of humanitarianism, civilization and peace over terrorism.”

“One of the latest accomplishments that has been in the city was today—it was the opening of the Central Library. Our university is supposed to be one of the biggest libraries in the Middle East, and yeah, we’re actually proud of it,” Al Jadoue said.

Al-Salihi said students and professors worked to clear the rubble of the Central Library and save what was left of the books after ISIS was driven out of the city. Universities across Iraq and the world sent books and resources to Mosul.

“I hope we can invest in this great dream of ours, which was absent for so long by the smoke of wars and was wrapped at some times in the black flags of ISIS. The steps are slow, but this is how we grow a tree, with patience,” Al-Salihi said.

“All I thought about

was my education”

Ghazi grew up in Baghdad but was forced to flee Iraq for Syria in 2006 due to a civil war between Sunnis and Shias. Ghazi’s family—she has a Sunni father and a Shia mother—was in danger of being targeted by both groups. Sunnis and Shias have long clashed over their different visions for the future of Iraq, and the 2003 U.S. invasion of the country exacerbated the sectarian violence.

“Death in Baghdad was just a norm,” Ghazi said. “Every time my dad left the house, we said our last goodbyes because we just didn’t know.”

During difficult years in Syria, Ghazi struggled to understand her identity. Her family was uneasy when they were approved to move to the United States as refugees.

“This is the country that invaded Iraq—do we go there?” Ghazi said.

But the family had nowhere else to go.

They arrived in High Point in 2008, which brought on a whole new identity crisis for Ghazi. She eventually stopped covering her hair after Americans made vicious, racist comments.

“What is my identity? If people here think I’m a terrorist and people back there think I’m a traitor, who am I?” she said. “All I thought about was my education.”

Education was refuge for Ghazi. Little by little, her English improved. She went on to receive her master’s degree in peace and conflict studies from UNC-Greensboro. She married and had a daughter.

But she still dreamed of Iraq. In 2018, she visited Baghdad with her husband for the first time since leaving on her 16th birthday.

Upon her return to Iraq, Ghazi was shocked by what she saw.

“I did not feel home. It was not the same. My parents are not there. My siblings are not there. I’m not there—I’m not there as me when I left,” Ghazi said.

Ghazi visited Mosul shortly after the Islamic State was driven out of the city. Mosul is located on the banks of the Tigris River in a region often referred to as the cradle of civilization. Thousands of years ago, ancient Mesopotamians developed the first systems of writing, agriculture, and cities in the region. But ISIS had destroyed much of the area’s cultural heritage.

“I felt like an entire civilization was being just dissolved right before my eyes,” Ghazi said.

When she arrived back in Baghdad, she sat down with her husband.

“I looked at my husband and I said, ‘Let’s go home.’ And he said, ‘We are home.’ I said, ‘No. This is not home for me anymore,’” Ghazi said.

Ghazi’s experiences led her to begin working on a book and a documentary. The documentary, The Mother of Two Springs, is about life in Mosul under ISIS. She has worked closely with faculty members at the University of Mosul to produce the documentary and begin the implementation of a master’s program in peace studies at the school.

Ghazi always knew she wanted to help Iraqis after she finished her education. She realized the best way for her to help was to become an educator herself, since the education she received under Saddam Hussein’s regime was so restrictive. Teaching peace comes naturally to Ghazi.

“When I heard of the word ‘peace,’ I jumped in right away without even asking,” Ghazi said. “The more we can work with youth on education, the better outcome we can have in the future.”

From Mosul, Al-Salihi said he has a lot of hope for the city.

“There is hope since I enter my classroom and talk with freedom with my students around topics used to be considered taboo and impossible to talk about. Today there is a space for the youth to speak with freedom and rationality,” Al-Salihi said. “There is hope after we broke many of the religious, social, and political taboos in our societies which ruled our societies and framed our thoughts in the past.”

This story was originally published by UNC Media Hub.

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