“Where we stand determines what we see,” Noor Ghazi ’17, ’19 MA tells her students.
While some students at UNC Greensboro may never physically stand in the country of Iraq, a virtual exchange program advised by the lecturer of Arabic in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures lets them “see” through the eyes of those living there.
Students in her classes at UNCG, Chapel Hill, Duke University, and Durham Tech seized the opportunity to have regular conversations with students at Iraq’s University of Mosul. In particular, the discussions appealed to students who seek jobs in political and humanitarian fields.
Eden Yousif, a student at Chapel Hill, says more students can join this coming semester. She organizes the meetings with her friend Jasper Schutt and two students from Mosul. They typically meet on Zoom every two weeks – in the morning in North Carolina and evening in Iraq.
“I greatly appreciate the trust and congeniality they’ve shared with us,” she says. “I think that students on both sides, especially in North Carolina, have learned so much about the difference in culture and daily life. It’s exactly what I was hoping for when getting this started.”
Putting education in perspective
Yousif and Schutt began organizing the virtual exchange after they took Ghazi’s courses. They wanted to hear more from Iraqi students who had their education suppressed by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, during their three-year occupation of the city.
“Topics such as philosophy, arts, and music were banned from the University of Mosul,” says Ghazi. “We have talked to professors who taught philosophy and students who did not attend school for those years, how that was for them.”
Some of the stories are eye-opening. One Mosul student recounted going to an Internet cafe. A member of ISIS entered wearing a suicide vest.
“The man said, ‘I’m going to press a button and explode the entire place.’ Students at the University of Mosul were telling us those stories like it was nothing,” says Ghazi. “Those stories were of their daily life.”
Their stories make a powerful impression on her American students. “One student told me, ‘I used to think of education as a burden. I thought about the debt that I have to pay or the money I have to spend.’ After those international exchanges, that student said, ‘Now I know that the education that I am getting here is a privilege.'”
They also talk about art, food, archeology, and Iraqi culture that ISIS tried to suppress.
“One of the happiest moments I experienced was when we all started talking about food,” says Yousif. “I absentmindedly mentioned a dish that I grew up on at home – daube, which is basically an Iraqi pot roast. My friends Muhammed and Heba immediately reacted with excitement. I have never met other people who even knew of daube or pacha or the Turkish coffee that my grandpa makes. It’s easily one of my favorite memories since being in college.”
Finding someone to listen
Ghazi lost some of her loved ones to warfare in Iraq, one of whom left behind seven children. It left her frustrated that the impact of war in her home country was often reduced to “numbers” in U.S. news reports.
She went back to Iraq in 2018 to make a documentary about life under ISIS, titled “Mosul: The Mother of Two Springs.” UNCG premiered the film in April 2022. She met families whose homes had been reduced to rubble.
“The only thing they asked me to do was listen to their stories. They said, ‘Do you want to listen to us? This is what happened to us.’ It connected me to my childhood when I just wanted somebody to listen.”
The virtual exchange program, she says, “humanizes those numbers.”
Yousif has become friends with many of the participants. She is working with Schutt and Ghazi on how they can enhance the exchange ahead of the Fall 2022 semester.
“The people that I have encountered through this program are some of the nicest that I have ever met. I only wish to garner more attention towards our meetings and bring in more great people for even greater conversations.”
Students who want to participate can email Ghazi.
“It is tied to my own journey,” she says. “Because it is important to listen. For people on the other side of the world in Iraq, that’s all they want. They want somebody to sit down and listen.”
Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Noor Ghazi, Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
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