Protests, pandemic rob Iraqi students of graduation dreams

In this photo taken on Oct. 28, 2019, Iraqi students gather during a protest in support of Iraq’s anti-government demonstrations in the southern city of Basra. (AFP)
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Updated 25 May 2020

Protests, pandemic rob Iraqi students of graduation dreams

  • Between 200 and 250 students who were meant to study in the US this year will not be able to travel, due to coronavirus movement restrictions

BAGHDAD: It was supposed to be Basma’s big year: A degree, language certification and maybe a master’s abroad. But local protests and a global pandemic threw the Iraqi student’s plans off-course.

“I’ve been dreaming of graduation since my first day at university. I even bought a coral pink graduation dress — and I never wear dresses,” said Basma, who studies at Baghdad’s Mustansariyah University.

“Now I don’t know when I can wear it.”

Nearly 150,000 Iraqis may not graduate as planned this spring, according to the Higher Education Ministry’s spokesman Haider Al-Abboudi, as their universities were shut down first by mass anti-government protests, then the spreading coronavirus.

That will delay their hunt for jobs in a country where youth unemployment is already a staggering 36 percent and is likely to spike much higher as the country faces a financial crisis.

Basma Haitham, 23, had meticulously planned her studies so she could secure a rare private sector job in Iraq.

Once armed with a degree in English literature, she hoped to take two language certifications then pursue a master’s in either business administration or interpretation. But then the protests erupted.

The rallies demanding the overhaul of a political class seen as corrupt, inept and beholden to neighboring Iran broke out in Baghdad and the country’s Shiite-majority south on Oct. 1 — the first week of class.

Leaving their classrooms behind, students took a leading role by organizing strikes, erecting protest tents named after their academic departments and staging marches to buoy the movement when it dwindled.

“Sometimes I’d go without my parents knowing,” Basma said.

With so few students attending class, most universities rescheduled first semester exams for late February or March and implemented online learning modules.

But something else had been bubbling: The coronavirus.

Just as students prepared to take the rescheduled exams, the government shut down all major gathering places — including universities — to forestall the spread of the virus.

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Some classes have continued online, but with no exams or final projects, long-awaited graduation ceremonies have been put off, as have international scholarships.

According to the US Embassy in Baghdad, between 200 and 250 students who were meant to study in the US this year will not be able to travel, due to coronavirus movement restrictions.

“The whole atmosphere of graduation, of farewell — we won’t live any of it,” said Raneen Al-Khalili, 25, who studies telecommunication engineering at Al-Mamoun University College in Baghdad.

The Higher Education Ministry will announce a schedule for final exams “soon,” including logistical guidelines to keep students healthy, its spokesman Abboudi said.

But for Mayyada Mohammad, 23, it is already too late.

To graduate, the Baghdad University fine arts student must complete a final sculpting project in the university studio, closed for more than two months now.

“The latest thing we heard was that we’d start projects next year, so we’d graduate a year late. But some of us can’t afford that. We need to start working,” she said.

She joined the anti-government protests last year but admitted the weak turnout lately had discouraged her from returning to the streets.

“This whole year slipped through our fingers. It’s like it never happened,” she told AFP from her home in Baghdad.

“Now it’s all Netflix, all the time.”

More than 60 percent of Iraq’s population of 40 million is under 25 and it is estimated there will be another 10 million by 2030.

Most senior students rely on the government’s socialist-era program of mass hiring, where recent graduates are allocated jobs in the country’s bloated public sector.

But the government has struggled to absorb the new waves of graduates in recent years, which has worried 22-year-old medical student Sajad Matar.

“I was supposed to graduate this year but my heart is telling me it’s not going to happen,” he lamented.

The class of 2019 from the private university he attends had yet to be appointed to government jobs, making it unlikely he would get selected before the end of 2021.

That means he will stay at home with his parents in Nasiriyah, another protest hotspot, without the 700,000 Iraqi dinars (about $600) monthly salary he had expected.

“On top of that, the university still wants us to pay the 1,750,000 Iraqi dinars ($1,500) of tuition for the spring semester,” Matar added bitterly.

“But there’s no work in Nasiriyah for me. Of course I’m afraid for my future — I’ve lost all hope.”


Ex-Nissan boss Ghosn ‘helping everyone who stood by him’

Updated 28 min 12 sec ago

Ex-Nissan boss Ghosn ‘helping everyone who stood by him’

  • Ghosn made a dramatic escape from house arrest in Japan, where he was awaiting trial, and fled to Beirut, his childhood home
  • Ghosn has refused to discuss details of his escape from Japan, saying it would put in danger those who helped him

BEIRUT: Former Nissan Motor chairman Carlos Ghosn is helping everyone who stood by him, he said in an interview broadcast on Saturday, though he declined to comment on cases of people accused of helping him flee to Lebanon from Japan.
Ghosn, the ex-chairman of an automaking alliance of Renault SA, Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. was arrested in Japan in late 2018 on charges of underreporting his salary and using company funds for personal purpose — charges he denies.
In late December, he made a dramatic escape from house arrest in Japan, where he was awaiting trial, and fled to Beirut, his childhood home.
Japan has asked the United States to extradite US Army Special Forces veteran Michael Taylor and his son Peter Taylor, who are accused of helping Ghosn flee and were arrested in May.
Asked in an interview with Al Arabiya TV if he was trying to help the Taylors and others involved in his escape, Ghosn said: “You are talking about specific people, and I will not comment on those people who you are singling out.
“What I’m saying is that I am helping everyone who helped me; I’m helping them with my means, with my thinking, and in any way I can,” he said. “I am not talking about those people you mentioned specifically,” he said, adding that he was talking about people who helped him “in general.”
Ghosn has refused to discuss details of his escape from Japan, saying it would put in danger those who helped him.
A US judge said on Friday that Michael and Peter Taylor posed too great of a flight risk to be released on bail given the “spectacular” allegations against them.
Ghosn told Al Arabiya he made “the entire plan” for his escape but he had needed information and assistance from people whom he was not ready to endanger by talking about the matter.
Earlier this month, an executive from a Turkish private jet operator, four pilots and two flight attendants appeared in court on charges of helping to smuggle Ghosn via Istanbul.
Ghosn also said Japan had yet to send his case file to Lebanon as requested by the Lebanese government. “It has been six months and they haven’t sent the file. Why haven’t they sent the file?“