SULAIMANI, Iraq – I am a sucker for commencements, but this one filled me with many different emotions.
As Dina Dara took the stage – the student speaker and valedictorian of the 2014 graduating class of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, in Kurdistan – the sun was just setting, turning Azmar Mountain in the background into a reddish-brown curtain. The class was about 70 percent Kurds, with the rest coming from every corner, religion and tribe of Iraq. Parents bursting with pride, cellphone cameras in one hand and bouquets in the other, had driven up from Basra and Baghdad, dressed in their finest to see their kids get their American-style college degrees. Three Kurdish TV stations carried the ceremony live.
“It has been quite a journey,” Dara, who’s going on to graduate school at Tufts, told her classmates. (Since the university opened in 2007, all the valedictorians have been Iraqi women). “We went through a whole different experience living in the dorms. This evening … we are armed with two things: first, the highly valued American education that makes us as competent and qualified as the rest of the students in the world. And, second, the empowerment of a liberal arts education.” As we “exercise critical thinking techniques that have been the core of our education here, and as we try to move beyond the traditional conventions, beyond what others suggest, we may struggle. But isn’t this how nations are built?”
Sitting near Dara (I was the commencement speaker), I thought: This is how the Iraq story was supposed to end but hasn’t, not yet. Kurdistan remains the unsung success story of the Iraq War, one thing that U.S. veterans can take pride in having helped to create – first by protecting the Kurds from Saddam Hussein with a no-fly zone and second by toppling Saddam, who had tried to wipe out the Kurds with poison gas in 1988.
But it was the Kurds who used the window of freedom we opened for them to overcome internal divisions, start to reform their once Sopranos-like politics and create a vibrant economy that is now throwing up skyscrapers and colleges in major towns of Erbil and Sulaimani. Everywhere I’ve gone here, I’ve met “reverse immigrants,” Kurds who’ve come back to their homeland in northeastern Iraq because of all the opportunities.
Kurdistan represents everything that has not happened in Shiite-dominated Baghdad and the Sunni regions of Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has behaved like a visionless, pro-Shiite sectarian chief and violence remains rife. Maliki was “our guy.” So you could say that we left two big “gifts” behind in Iraq: an American-installed autocrat and an American university that is teaching the values of inclusiveness that Maliki doesn’t practice. In the long run, after Maliki is gone, we can still hope – as partially happened in Vietnam – that our values will triumph where our power failed. It’s still a long shot, but that’s clearly what the American University students are hoping.
Bery Hoshiar, 20, a female engineering student, told me: “People graduating here feel they can make a change. They come here as people bounded by social conventions, and they leave as individuals with values that they implement in their lives. We all believe that we can be future leaders. (Iraq) is not over. We are just getting started. We are building from scratch. It is going to take time.”
Karwan Gaznay, 24, a Kurd, told me he grew up on books about Saddam: “Now we have this American education. I did not know who Thomas Jefferson was. I did not know who James Madison was. So when the government is doing something wrong, now we can say: ‘This is wrong. I have been educated.’ … I ran for student president, and Arab guys voted for me. We are living as a family in the university. I am not pessimistic about Iraq. We can work together if we want to.”
As student president, Gaznay persuaded the Kurdish government to create a special ID card for Sunni and Shiite AUIS students to use to easily pass through checkpoints that protect this region from the rest of Iraq. Isa Mohamed, 22, a Shiite from Baghdad, told me this was why he supported Gaznay: “Any Arab (AUIS) student can now go through all the checkpoints and airports” in Kurdistan without difficulties.
Shayan Hamed, 23, said: “You hear democracy being used by your political leaders, but they are just defining it the way it suits them. But when you really learn what it is about in the real texts, then you realize that this is not the democracy in your country.” I thought Iraq was finished, I said to her. “Germany was not over after Hitler. Russia was not over after Stalin. So why should Iraq be over after Saddam?” she replied.
Mewan Nahro, 23, put it all in perspective: “My dad was in the mountains as a Pesh Merga (Kurdish guerrilla) fighter in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and now (our family) has gone from him in the mountains to me here at an American University and getting to say what I want.”
Yes, this is an elite school, and Kurdistan is an island of decency in a still-roiling sea. But the power of example is a funny thing. You never know how it can spread. More American universities, please – not just drones.