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Tuesday, 13 December 2011 11:06

Education enables reconciliation and hope

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Background

Dominican Sister, Dr Patricia Madigan op, Director of the Centre for Interfaith Ministry, Education and Research and American colleague, Sister Martha Ann Kirk, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of the Incarnate Word, have recently researched the impact of the Fezalar schools in Iraq.

Eight schools and one university have been established by Turkish Muslims since the 1988 massacres in northern Iraq to provide a setting in which students of sharply different backgrounds can learn together. The teachers have been inspired by Fethullah Gϋlen, a Turkish Islamic scholar, who encourages education which builds reconciliation, respect for diversity, justice and peace.

In the study titled “Three Generations of Women in Iraq”, the voices of women, which have often been marginalised, are placed at the centre of the research. With no incidents of violence in the autonomous region of northern Iraq since 2006, after decades of conflict and civil war, daughters, their mothers and grandmothers, were asked about the difference the new educational opportunities were making in their lives.

The December 2011 edition of Aurora, the publication of the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese invited Patricia to share some of the stories that have emerged from this project.   

Pawan, Jahdiye and Mamiz

Pawan and JahdiyeGrandmother Mamiz Hassan belonged to a family of landowners that had thousands and thousands of sheep.  Pawan, her granddaughter, remembered how, “From the time I opened my eyes, there has been fighting. Mothers have been crying for their husbands and for their children.”

Pawan told the story of her fifth grade maths teacher who had come from Turkey. “He had left medical school to be a teacher. While he was studying medicine, his father was in a car accident in Mosul. He was not dead, but the mafia came and took parts of his body. I said to our teacher, ‘How could you come to teach and help us? You could have taken revenge on us.’ This was about twenty years after his father’s death, but the teacher started to cry and said, ‘I love you.’ We all started to cry. I said, ‘You have taught us to return love and not revenge.’”

Pawan’s family wanted to send her abroad to medical school, but she kept insisting on teacher education in Iraq, with lower pay. She said, “When the end of the month comes, and I have little, I know I am doing this for God. I don’t have time to think about my salary; I’m thinking about my students.”

Hero and Shno

Hero, who attended a Turkish school in Sulaimaniya, said, “I was two months old at the time of the chemical bombing of Halabja.”

This massacre of the Kurdish people took place on 16 March 1988 and remains very strong in people’s memories.  Near the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the central Iraqi government believed that the Kurds of Halabja were assisting Iran, which is on the other side of the mountains, only half an hour away.

Hero’s aunt Shno said, “About 183,000 people lived in Halabja. We have the names of 5,000 who disappeared, but there were probably more because sometimes whole families were killed, so no one was left to indicate that others had died.”

Shno said, “We went to our neighbours because they had an underground shelter. We stayed there for three days. We got water and a cloth to put over our mouths and noses. It was strange; there was no sound of a bomb because it was just the chemicals dropping. Then there was a strange smell. We left the city quickly with no clothes or anything. Hero was two months old.”

Hero, whose life began amidst such challenges, was encouraged at the Turkish school in Sulaimaniya.  Now she is happy teaching fifth grade maths at Nulifer, the Turkish school in Erbil. As she was given hope, she wants to share hope. She is grateful that a Turkish school is now starting in Halabja.
 
Nergis and her mother

NergisNergis’ mother said, “I had three sisters and one brother who died. We did not have medical help in the village. We worked in the fields.  Then we came to the city. I was always so tired.  My husband was away being a soldier.”

Then daughter Nergis started to talk about her life.  “We are eight sisters and five brothers. We have all studied. Mother thinks it is important for both boys and girls to study. Mother supported us by making bread and ice cream.  My brothers would go out with carts and sell what she had made.”

Nergis said, “Like all the people here, we ran away to Iran. I was three when we escaped in 1991. To lighten the burden my oldest brother wanted to throw us into the river. My father responded, 'Why are we fleeing to save our lives if you just want to throw them away?'
After a while a family took us in and helped us. Our father was gone so much because Saddam forced people to be soldiers. You might be killed if you refused. Our father had already done his time of military service, but they came back wanting more service. We made a false wall in the house for him to hide, not to be taken. Then after that war was over, the Kurdish civil war started between tribes that wanted power.”

Nergis is now an Abla (Big Sister) looking after 24 girls in the Nulifer school dormitory.  She said, “In these schools they have taught me to help others. Helping others and trusting God has helped me. Like a miracle, I was the top student in the first year at the university.”

While people of families of different ethnic groups, including Kurdish, Turkmen and Arab, had often been separated from each other, within the Turkish schools they are becoming friends, learning to respect each other’s cultures and religions, and working together for peace. Stories of Iraqi women’s resilience, courage and compassion brim with wisdom and engender much hope for the future, for the women themselves and for the ongoing development of the region of northern Iraq.

To learn more about Interfaith Ministry Education and Research visit www.cimer.org.au