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Iraq's students say, 'Welcome back, professor'

By Christina AsquithCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 2003


After a decade of sanctions had left his physics lab a crumbling shell, Raad Mohammed decided it was time to go. In 1999, following a route trodden by thousands of the best and brightest of Iraq's academics, Dr. Mohammed escaped to Jordan without a goodbye to his lifelong colleagues. He was accompanied only by his wife, their suitcases, and handfuls of cash to bribe Mukhabarat agents at the border.

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He was not alone. An estimated 2,000 professors fled Iraq's 20 major universities between 1995 and 2000, according to news reports at the time. Professors say a thousand or more had left before them - usually the most qualified.

But now, with Saddam Hussein's ouster, Mohammed is back. He has returned to his homeland out of loyalty to his country, pride, and a deep desire to restore his university system to the halcyon days of the 1960s and '70s, when it was the intellectual Mecca of the Middle East.

"We are free," says Mohammed, sitting in the Department of Science at Baghdad University, where he is an assistant physics professor. "I am a son of this university. I aspire to see its excellent future and to build the sciences back to the level from which I graduated."

In a surprising turn of events for Iraq's beleaguered universities, professors are seeing signs that the "brain drain" of the 1980s and 1990s is slowly being reversed.

In recent months, university presidents report that dozens of professors have returned from exile and are looking to get their jobs back. At the US-led Ministry of Higher Education, staffed by expatriate professors, hundreds more have e-mailed from England, the US, and the Netherlands to inquire about returning. They also want to offer donations and scholarships, and to start partnerships.

Just as lost professors were symptomatic of universities' slump under Saddam Hussein, their reemergence offers a thread of promise for the future, particularly to colleagues struggling to piece back campuses suffering from academic repression, sanctions, looting, and now terrorism.

"When [Mohammed] left, he left a wide gap behind him," says physics professor Hussein Ahasal, who stayed behind. "I missed him very much when he left because he was not only a colleague, but also a very close friend."

Iraqi chemistry professor Ghazi Derwish was living well in London; semiretired and working as a visiting professor at the University of Surrey. He'd fled Baath Party persecution 11 years earlier, and held little hope of ever returning.

The war changed all that. He was already arranging flight back when he was tracked down by the American senior adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Higher Education, who was in great need of educated, English-speaking Iraqis with no ties to the former regime.

Mr. Derwish now makes up the largest handful of expatriate professors: He's working for the US civilian government Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), tasked with, among many other things, undoing years of Baath Party policy.

While many former Iraqi professors have returned from Yemen, Jordan, and Libya to their former teaching posts, others are reaching out from abroad. Several Iraqi professors in London are organizing donations and conferences.

In the US, an Iraqi professor, Dr. Abdul Jabbar al-Wahedi, created a website,, to link Iraqi scientists abroad with Iraqi universities, foundations, and ministries. So far, he's had responses from more than 120 Iraqis in 32 different countries.

One Iraqi expat professor brought 100 computers to Iraq universities over the summer; dozens of others are arranging to come to Iraq as visiting lecturers. Through e-mail, expat professors are consulting Iraqi professors on everything from reviewing graduate student theses to research evaluation. A website discussion has also started to encourage the Iraqi government to bring expats back.