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.”


US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

Updated 21 min 26 sec ago

US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

  • Concerns about the ammonium nitrate were known within the Lebanese government before the deadly blast
  • The thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the warehouse for more than six years

WASHINGTON: About four years before the Beirut port explosion that killed dozens of people and injured thousands, a US government contractor expressed concern to a Lebanese port official about unsafe storage there of the volatile chemicals that fueled last week’s devastating blast, American officials said Tuesday.
There is no indication the contractor communicated his concerns to anyone in the US government.
His assessment was noted briefly in a four-page State Department cable first reported by The New York Times.
The cable, labeled sensitive but unclassified, dealt largely with the Lebanese responses to the blast and the origins and disposition of the ammonium nitrate, which ignited to create an enormous explosion. But it also noted that after the Aug. 4 explosion, a person who had advised the Lebanese navy under a US Army contract from 2013 to 2016 told the State Department that he had “conducted a port facility inspection on security measures during which he reported to port officials on the unsafe storage of ammonium nitrate.”
Concerns about the ammonium nitrate were known within the Lebanese government before the deadly blast, officials said.
The contractor, who was not identified by name and is now a State Department employee based in Ukraine, was in Lebanon to provide instruction to members of the Lebanese navy. While there, he made a brief, impromptu inspection of physical security at the facility in 2015 or 2016 at the request of a port official, US officials said. The contractor was not identified.
The contractor, who has a background in port and maritime security, noted weaknesses in security camera coverage and other aspects of port management but was not assessing safety issues, according to the US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of a planned public statement.
While inside the warehouse where ammonium nitrate was stored, the contractor saw problems such as poor ventilation and inadequate physical security, which he noted to the port official accompanying him, the officials said. It is unclear whether the port official reported this concern to his superiors.
The thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the warehouse for more than six years, apparently with the knowledge of top political and security officials. The catastrophic explosion one week ago Tuesday killed at least 171 peoples and plunged Lebanon into a deeper political crisis.
The contractor was working for the US Army’s Security Assistance Training Management Organization, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He provided instruction to members of the Lebanese armed forces in naval vessel traffic systems and small boat operations. His class was visiting the Beirut port as part of that instruction program when the port official asked him for the inspection, which US officials said lasted about 45 minutes.
The United States has a close security relationship with Lebanon. According to the State Department, the US government has provided Lebanon with more than $1.7 billion in security assistance since 2006. The assistance is designed to support the Lebanese armed forces’ ability to secure the country’s borders, counter internal threats, and defend national territory.
Last September a US Navy ship, the guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage, visited Beirut. It was the first time in 36 years an American warship had made a port visit there, according to the US military at the time.