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Threatened teachers fleeing the country

[Iraq] Teacher Samira Kubaissy has been threatened three times since the beginning of the year. [Date picture taken: 08/22/2006] Afif Sarhan/IRIN
Teacher Samira Kubaissy has been threatened three times in 2006 from her students.
“When I was a child, I dreamt of being a professor so that I could give knowledge to thousands of people in my country,” said Hala Jumeiri, an engineering professor at Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad. “I fulfilled my dream - but today I’m fleeing Iraq for my own safety because violence has reached the classroom.”

Jumeiri and her family are packing their bags and will leave the country in the next few days after she received threats and two of her colleagues were killed for doing their jobs.

“Gangs want to destroy the scientific minds of Iraq and with the current lack of security, even giving a low mark to a student in an exam can be reason enough to be threatened or killed,” Jumeiri said.

Being a teacher in Iraq today has become as dangerous as being a soldier in action, teachers say, and it’s a risk many are not willing to take.

Ever since a Shi’ite shrine was attacked last February in Samarra, 125km north of Baghdad, sectarian violence has raged throughout the country, creating a climate of lawlessness that criminal gangs are exploiting. Teachers are one segment of Iraqi society that is suffering the consequences.

According to the Iraqi Health Ministry, 3,438 Iraqis were killed in July – 1,855 because of sectarian or political violence, and another 1,583 from bombings and shootings. This is the highest number of violent deaths in any month since the United States-led occupation of Iraq began in April 2003.

Since February, nearly 180 professors have been killed and at least 3,250 have fled Iraq to neighbouring countries, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.

“The number of teachers leaving the country this year is huge and almost double those who left in 2005,” said Professor Salah Aliwi, director general of studies planning in the Ministry of Higher Education. “Every day, we are losing more experienced people, which is causing a serious problem in the education system.”

Students targeting teachers

Such is the prevalence of violence in Iraq, that students have started killing professors.

“My husband was a professor at Baghdad University. One of his students was not doing well and he had to fail him for this year,” said Salua Muhammad, 51. “He was killed on 26 July. His colleagues said the reason was that he failed a student who got upset and shot him at the door of the college.”

The victim, Dr Barak Farouk, 58, is one of dozens of other professors who have been killed in similar circumstances, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.

Ali al-Kafif, 53, was another professor at Baghdad University who was murdered ostensibly for not passing students.

“He received threats in the form of letters saying that if he didn’t pass all the students in his class, he was going to die - and it became reality. He was killed on 5 August after three students were failed,” said Fua’ad Yehia, 49, a colleague of al-Kalif.

“He was considered a good professor and a friend by students and his death was really a surprise to us,” Yehia added. “They left a note near his body saying: ‘Death for those who are responsible for oppression in the classrooms’.”

Dr Essam al-Rawi, president of the University Professors Union of Iraq (UPUI), said that such targeting by students is driving teachers out of the country. This, he said, has created a big hole in the education system.

“We cannot approve [or pass] someone who is not up to it,” al-Rawi said. “But today we are in a situation where sectarian violence is forcing us to do it and whoever does not accept this has fled Iraq for their won safety.”

Some teachers have been targeted because they were former members of the dissolved Ba’ath Party or because they belong to certain sects in the country, al-Rawi added.

Shortage of teachers

There are no reliable statistics on how many professors have left Iraq since the US-led coalition forces began occupying Iraq three years ago, but UPUI statistics show that more than 10,000 professionals in general, including doctors, have already gone.

“Universities are worried about the number of professionals left because for sure when the new term starts there will be a lack of professors to teach students. The better ones had already left in the early years of the [US] invasion,” Aliwi said.

The Ministry of Higher Education is trying to lure professionals back to Iraq by offering higher wages, but continuing instability is putting people off from returning.

“I will not return to Iraq until I see that it has become a secure country,” said Dr Amin Youssef, a professor of medicine who is now based in Amman, the Jordanian capital. “The ministry offered me an excellent salary, but I have a family to look after and no amount of money can protect us from violence.”

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