Displaced young Iraqis whose education was halted by Islamic State’s violent seizure of territory are receiving a vital opportunity to catch up and train for professional life, thanks to the local Catholic archdiocese and charitable donations.
The Catholic University of Erbil (CUE) opened in October 2016 and has around 250 students, and unusually for the region, a majority of non-Muslims and of women.
Stephen Rasche, the university’s vice-chancellor, said the students were mainly Christians, but there were also Yazidis and Muslims.
He said their primary focus was on young people who have been displaced by the jihadist violence in northern Iraq, and whose education has suffered as a result.
A statement on the university’s website explains: “CUE seeks to prepare leaders who are ethically, conscientiously, and administratively prepared to serve society and the common interest … CUE actively teaches tolerance and acceptance of others. It welcomes students from all faiths, and the teaching and administrative staff come from various traditions and religious backgrounds.”
Speaking in London last week, Mr Rasche added that the university’s gender imbalance, which is about 60 per cent female and 40 per cent male, was “intentionally sought after, because it’s a critical thing, the education and treatment of women in the Middle East”.
Unlike most other Iraqi universities, tuition is carried out in English, and this first year is a remedial year for focus on language study.
Mr Rasche said their goal is to have around 500 students per year, “teaching as close to a Catholic liberal arts education as we can, within the context of a Muslim country that’s Islamic by law.”
Courses and books have to be approved by the Ministry of Higher Education, he said, and to be approved, university officials have to prove that courses are not on offer at another institution, and that there is a need for them. “It’s an uphill climb,” he said.
The university has so far been funded by charitable donations from various Christian organisations around the world, including the Italian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Iraqi Christians in Need, the US arm of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, and other NGOs.
Its founders, including the Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, will draw on the experience of the university in Baghdad that was founded by Jesuit priests, to see “what can be possible”, he said. That institution attracted students from many faith backgrounds before it was nationalised under the Baathists in the 1960s. A Jesuit priest will join the new university’s staff.
At the opening ceremony in December, Archbishop Warda said the university symbolised Iraqi Christians’ determination to remain in their home country despite recent years of violence.
“The university is a message to those who want us thrown out of the circle of history. It means we are staying because we are deeply rooted in this soil for thousands of years,” he said.