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

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.

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.

"[Expats] call and say, 'We want to help in the rebuilding,' " says Dr. Joseph Ghougassian, deputy adviser to the US-led Ministry of Higher Education. "They feel an emotional pull. They really want to come back and bring their own skills and American way of thinking."

Waves of departure

Iraq's brain drain coincided with the rise of the Baath Party, with the first wave leaving immediately after the 1963 Baath Party coup d'état. Another wave left in the early 1970s as Hussein brutally muscled his way into power.

It was the Iran-Iraq War, however, that opened the floodgates. As the Baath Party recruitment began in earnest, the universities' goals shifted from centers of research and edification to promotion of Baath Party interest and Hussein's personal preferences.

Like most professors, Derwish never dreamed of leaving Iraq.

Derwish received his PhD in England in the 1960s, like many others among Iraq's burgeoning intellectual elite. He was so eager to return to Iraq that he went ahead of his wife and children, who were still tying up travel plans.

Trouble started for Derwish in the early 1980s. He was one of the 50 top professors forced to transfer out of the university by "presidential order" to a government ministry position as an adviser on the Iran-Iraq War.

"I resented greatly the way we were transferred," says Derwish. "I'm an independent-minded person who's worked hard to cultivate my faculties, and I was not prepared to be submissive to anyone's orders."

The academic environment deteriorated. Even as existing universities wilted, Hussein continued to build new ones. As one part of an education policy that befuddled many, Hussein ordered the construction of seven universities starting in 1988, including Kirkuk University, which he opened in January 2003 - three months before the war. As more buildings went up, less money went into them.

As a result of the war and UN sanctions, lab supplies dwindled, broken equipment could not be replaced, and printing presses ceased operation. Entire classrooms of science students would gather around one piece of equipment.

As salaries decreased throughout the 1990s, corruption entered university life. Professors blackmailed students, who in turn bribed professors.

For select professors and administrators who supported the Baath Party, salaries rose. But the majority of professors had to take second jobs as tutors or start small businesses.

Baghdad University design professor Al Atif Suhairy said his monthly salary fell from $2,000 in the 1980s to $50 in the 1990s. Mr. Suhairy, who has four children, eventually left to be a professor in Yemen.

"We received the same salary as the merchant on the street who sells melons," says Suhairy, who is now back in his teaching post at Baghdad University. "I had no money even for the wedding of my son, who was a doctor. This was the case for us all."

Like many, Derwish refused to join the Baath Party, and suffered for it.

In the mid-1980s, Derwish's daughter lost her scholarship because she wouldn't join the Baath Party. Mukhabarat agents and Baath Party officers began visiting Derwish at his home at night, just to "check up on him." Once they asked him for passport photos - he didn't know why.

In the early 1990s, professors were still allowed to take their summers abroad. Derwish went off to Jordan. He did not return.

Here today, gone the next

For those left behind, academic life became unbearable.

Throughout the 1990s, as more professors fled, Hussein cracked down. He prohibited foreign travel and refused to issue certificates of graduation, documents needed to apply for jobs abroad. Still, many professors escaped by bribing people in the passport office.

Their disappearance always rattled the departments.

Dr. Abdul Mahdi Talib Rahmatallah, dean of the College of Science at Baghdad University, remembers well the feeling of losing his colleagues. A student would report yet another ghost lab - students sitting at desks with no professor. Weeks might pass, until someone drove to the professor's home and discovered it empty. Rumors would start to spread about whether those missing had been detained by the Baath Party, or had escaped.

Eventually, a letter with no return address would arrive, typically with news that the professor was teaching in Jordan or England. They would sometimes offer to send computers, journals, and even money. Word spread quickly. "We would all want to know: What new way did they invent to escape?" recalls Dr. Talib Rahmatallah.

The departures were a permanent loss for the universities. New professors graduating in the 1980s and 1990s were often unqualified. They were dubbed "homemade PhDs," meaning they had no international experience and had been trained in the bereft conditions of Iraqi universities. Many PhD candidates were Hussein's relatives from the villages of Tikrit and Baath Party loyalists. They rarely showed up except on exam day. They damaged the culture of education that Iraq had been so proud of, and terrorized professors.

"Some students would put guns on their desk to take the test," says Dr. Hafudh Alwan, assistant dean of the political science department at Baghdad University.

"Once, one was cheating and when I told him to stop, he said, 'Leave me alone or I will take this pen and draw on your face.' " He paused, overcome by emotion at the memory.

"It made us so upset, we would cry. We are PhD professors, and our students humiliate us. We could do nothing," says Dr. Alwan.

Dr. Kasim Mohammed, assistant dean of higher education and scientific affairs at Baghdad University, was one of those who stayed behind and concedes he felt both sympathy and bitterness when a colleague left. He has mixed emotions regarding their return.

"If they left because they were oppressed, we welcome them back again. But those who left for more money left us adrift in the middle of a sea," says Dr. Mohammed. "It is difficult to welcome them back."

Just visiting or staying for good?

Derwish, who has been back in Iraq for two months, is approaching another major decision: Is this a visit, or a permanent return? This question forces him to struggle between safety and patriotism, his new life abroad and the home he left behind.

"Should I stay or should I go?" he asks himself as he gets up to leave Baghdad University's department of science. "I haven't decided yet."

Returning has not been as easy as some had expected. The thrill of living in Iraq free of Hussein has been countered by the looting, lapses in security, and a rise in terrorism.

Professors who left because of inferior lab equipment and outdated journals now find themselves struggling to teach in classrooms that, because of the looting, are without light fixtures, desks, or doors.

Salaries have not risen, and in most cases are much less than a professor could earn abroad. Security also weighs heavily on professors' minds. Many say they have received threatening letters, and the president of Basra University walks on campus with an armed guard. Whether the return continues depends a great deal on how successful US efforts overall are in Iraq.

"I say to them, 'Please come back, but I warn you that your salary will be very low and you'll have to live exactly as we live, without mobiles or push-button facilities like they have in Europe,' " says Dr. Musa Jawad Aziz Al Musawy, president of Baghdad University.

"I have to give them the reality. In the end, they will come back because this is their country."

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