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Stolen Futures

When they started college four years ago, Iraq's freshmen had big ambitions. By graduation day, their dreams of a successful life—at least in Iraq—had been shattered.

By Damien Cave in Baghdad

They started college just before or after the American invasion in 2003 with dreams of new friends and parties, brilliant teachers, and advanced degrees that would lead to good careers, marriage, and children. Success seemed well within their grasp.

Four years later, Iraq's 2007 college graduates have ended their studies shattered and eager to leave the country. During interviews with more than 30 students from seven universities, all but four say they hope to flee now that they have received their degrees. Many say they do not expect Iraq to stabilize for at least a decade.

"I used to dream about getting a Ph.D., participating in international conferences, belonging to a team that discovered cures for diseases like AIDS, leaving my fingerprint on medicine," says Hasan Khaldoon, 24, a pharmacy student in Mosul, in the north. "Now, all these dreams have evaporated."

Karar Alaa, 25, a medical student at Babil University south of Baghdad, says, "Staying here is like committing suicide."

The class of 2007 came of age during a transformation that, according to students, has harvested tragedy from seeds of hope. They are the last remnants of an Iraqi middle class that has already fled by the tens of thousands. As such, they embody the country's progression from optimism to dashed expectations and growing animosity toward the American presence.

Since the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003, tension has increased between Iraq's two main Muslim sects: Sunnis (SOO-nees) and Shiites (SHEE-ites). Ever since the nation of Iraq was created by Great Britain in 1920, the government had been controlled by Sunnis, who make up just 20 percent of the population. During the 24-year rule of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, Shiites were brutally suppressed. Saddam killed as many as 100,000 when they rose up against him after the Persian Gulf war in 1991. Kurds, a mostly Muslim ethnic group in northern Iraq, also have a long history of being oppressed, and Saddam used chemical weapons to murder tens of thousands of Kurds in 1988. Such injustices caused tensions that were kept in check by the authoritarian government.

But since Saddam was removed from power four years ago, the lawless environment and growing insurgency have allowed these tensions to surface. Car bombings, kidnappings, gunfire, and general mayhem have become part of day-to-day life for most Iraqis. (Northern Iraq, with its predominantly Kurdish population, has enjoyed relative political stability and suffered limited violence, in part because it does not have the same sectarian conflicts as the rest of Iraq.)

'Division and Terrorism'

Iraq's recent graduates feel betrayed—by the debilitating violence that has killed scores of friends and professors, by the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism, and by the Americans, who they say cracked open their country without protecting universities and other moderate institutions that might have helped contain extremism.

"I want to tell them thanks for liberating us, but enough with the mistakes," says Abdul Alabidin, a Shiite studying law at Kirkuk University, in the north. The errors, he says, "led to division and terrorism." The roughly 56,000 members of Iraq's class of 2007 began their college careers under far different circumstances. With the United States expected to democratize and modernize their country, they say, they felt special, chosen, about to be famous on the world stage.

"I thought we would be like stars," says Ahmed Khader, 21, a biology student in the southern city of Basra. "I was thinking that Iraq would be like Las Vegas, especially Kirkuk, which has oil," Alabidin says. Instead, after an initial period of hope following Saddam's overthrow, the students say they watched in horror as Iraq's underlying sectarian and ethnic conflicts emerged.

At the country's 21 universities, the decline started soon after the U.S.-led invasion. Looters stole ancient artifacts and destroyed buildings at Basra University, for instance, only days after British troops reached the area in 2003. Violence followed. In June 2004, a geography professor at the University of Baghdad was killed after leaving the campus. He would not be the last.

"We've lost over 200 professors being killed," says Abed Thiab al-Ajili, Iraq's Minister of Higher Education. "A number of others have been kidnapped."

Scores more have fled, he says, leading him to spend much of his time trying to persuade those still in Iraq to stay. It is a particularly difficult task; in November, dozens of ministry employees were kidnapped in broad daylight by gunmen wearing police uniforms.

"I'm not going to say we are in a good position," Ajili says. "We are surviving. We are trying our best to have an educational system to be as good as we can."

Students say Iraq's university system had significantly declined, dragged down by chronically canceled lectures and decrepit equipment.

Alabidin says his class of law students in Kirkuk had shrunk to just 30 at graduation, from 85 in 2003, because of the bloodshed and fear. He acknowledges, however, that more Shiites were entering college than before Saddam's fall, when Shiites were widely discriminated against.

Alabidin is among the students who do not plan to leave, but he is frustrated with the country his class will inherit. He and his friends have constantly discussed "the ugliness of terrorism, the free-for-all of killing in Iraq, Americans' mistakes, the way they humiliate Iraqis, the shameful stance of neighboring countries, and the loss of the Iraqi identity to divisions by sect and ethnicity."

"I blame Saddam because he sold Iraq and was behind the coming of the occupiers," Alabidin says. "I blame the American administration for its mistakes in dealing with Iraqis."

The mood has been even darker at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. In January, two car bombs and a suicide bomber killed at least 70 people at the school. A month later, a woman blew herself up at the university entrance, killing 40 more.

Mass Grave

These attacks left charred metal, bloodied notebooks, glass, and fingers littering the ground. Students later buried this detritus in a courtyard. The memorial—a mound of dirt with banners containing the names of those who died—now acts as a constant reminder of the horrors this year's graduates have endured.

"We even have a mass grave now in the university,'' says Saif, a student who gives only his first name for fear of retribution. "Imagine flesh and body parts—we buried that here at Mustansiriya University. Imagine how bad our situation was.''

Several students say the attacks only hardened their resolve to complete their studies, and the class of 2007 has tried to make the best of a difficult situation.

At a graduation party at Baghdad's University of Technology, students sprayed silly string on each other near cardboard replicas of mortar tubes and rockets—macabre parodies of Iraq's violence.

At Baghdad University, graduates from the dentistry department recorded a song with verses that poked fun at each student for his or her quirks. Three of the song's subjects, Mudher Rafid, 22, Ahmed Bahir, 22, and Hasan Haitham, 22, say humor has helped them stay sane. Speaking English well and wearing T-shirts with brand names like Diesel and Ecko, they say they wish the world would remember that not all young Iraqis want to kill each other.

They acknowledge that some of their classmates support jihad against Americans as part of what they call "the resistance." But they say most Iraqi college students do not participate because they want the same things every student wants: a job, a family, a little fun, the opportunity to look cool.

Iraq, Rafid says, "is like any other country." Then he catches himself. "Well, the bombings aside," he says, "it's just like any other country."

Haitham enrolled at Mosul University but transferred to be closer to his family. In Mosul, he says, his car was shot full of holes on his way to and from class. Baghdad is not much better: On some days, his mother has seen bodies in the road seconds after dropping him off.

"I had a plan one day to have a wife and kids and my own dental clinic," he says. "They were good dreams. They're gone."

For most of the past four years, he says, his schedule has been limited to attending school and returning home. His dentistry class has shrunk to 200 students from 315. A Sony PlayStation soccer game has often been his only companion.

A Classmate's Death

For Haitham and his classmates, the decision to leave Iraq was confirmed by an attack on campus in April. Just before 8 a.m., with a lesson just beginning, a bomb exploded in a locker.

Haitham rushed to the scene and saw a student lying on the ground. When he put his hands under the victim's back to carry him to safety, he felt shrapnel and mangled flesh. The blast had torn through the student's body from behind.

"He couldn't breathe, but he was still alive," Haitham says. "We carried him to the doors of the college, where he died."

For Rafid, the decision to leave Iraq was wrenching but unavoidable. "This is my country," he says. "Of course I will feel sad to leave my family and my friends who cannot go with me somewhere else. But it's my security. It's my life. I think after what I saw, there is no more future here."