Iraqi Students Work to Survive Class and Conflict It's that time of year when students across the world are ending another academic term. In Iraq, university students are trying to survive both their final exams and the violence that swirls around them.

Iraqi Students Work to Survive Class and Conflict

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Iraq's government imposed an overnight curfew in Baghdad. The movement of people and vehicles will be banned tonight. No reason was given for this curfew, though the government is in the midst of a security crackdown.

WERTHEIMER: The announcement comes at the same time of year that thousands of college students are finishing their final exams in Iraq. For many of those students, the hardest test was simply surviving the school year.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this report from Baghdad.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Ammar Saadoun is sitting in the cafeteria at Baghdad's Technical College, cramming a hamburger into his mouth. He was up all night cramming for his exam, sitting on the roof, trying to stay cool in Baghdad's heat, and trying to stay focused with the threat of danger always close.

Mr. AMMAR SAADOUN (Iraqi College Student): (Through translator) Yesterday I was on the roof from 8:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. I was studying by the light of a lantern. Next to me was my gun.

TARABAY: The exam was for his engineering degree. He says the questions were easy, which was lucky for him since he couldn't study too long because of the constant cuts in electricity.

Mr. SAADOUN: (Through translator) The national power comes ever three days, for three days. During the three days it comes, we get an hour of power every four hours. It's a nice timetable.

TARABAY: Timetables have become a thing of the past for most of Baghdad's college students. Saadoun had trouble even getting to class from his neighborhood, the troubled district of Dora. It's a place that's become so dangerous the university school bus driver refuses to make the rounds there anymore.

Mr. SAADOUN: (Through translator) He told me that when I enter your neighborhood and gunmen see girls on the bus, they will kill me. He also told me they threatened him because he has girls on the bus who don't cover their hair. Even if the girls start wearing veils, they have threatened to kill him if they see boys and girls on the same bus.

TARABAY: Students and their professors have repeatedly been the targets of harassment and violence by Islamic fundamentalists who oppose men and women mixing together. In March last year, Shiite militiamen attacked university students picnicking in the southern province of Basra. They beat the men and the women, who moments earlier had been singing and dancing in a city park.

Saadoun said he's even stopped wearing the school uniform of gray trousers and white shirt, because he thinks students are being targeted by fundamentalists. And he conceals his books in a plastic bag when he's not on campus. He's applied to stay in a dorm for the next term, since the commute from his home is so dangerous.

(Soundbite of women talking and laughing)

TARABAY: Sitting with friends and trying to laugh at their jokes is Mariam Ahmed(ph), a 20-year-old engineering student. She's in mourning, dressed entirely in black. Two of her brothers were killed two months ago.

Ms. MARIAM AHMED (Iraqi College Student): (Through translator) Initially I thought of postponing the year, because my two brothers were killed. It is not easy. But later my friends helped me come back to class. I can barely sit for the exam, barely come to the university and then go back home. This situation is really very hard.

TARABAY: Her brothers were pulled off a main road as they walked to the spare parts company where they worked. They were missing for days. Eventually, their bodies turned up at the morgue.

Ms. AHMED: (Through translator) I don't know if I'll be able to finish college. It depends on the situation. It gets worse day after day. Nothing is getting better. I don't know what will happen next year, because I myself don't know if I'm going to live through tomorrow or not. I have no idea.

(Soundbite of women laughing)

TARABAY: Her friends try to tease her out of her mood, joking that they will all fail their exams. They complain about having to study by candlelight, and the stifling heat makes it even harder to concentrate. Mariam finally lets out a giggle.

Ms. AHMED: (Through translator) I fan myself while I'm studying and the candles blow out. And then I light it again, and then I fan myself, and it goes out again. I can hardly understand what I'm reading because the candle keeps blowing out.

TARABAY: Standing in a classroom watching the students through a window is Nagam Youssef. She teaches draftsmanship and architectural engineering. She shows off some of her students' drawings, and is proud that they've managed to work in spite of the instability. Still, some have stopped coming to class because of it.

Ms. NAGAM YOUSSEF (Iraqi College Teacher): (Through translator) A student cannot concentrate on his studies. He's not thinking about his studies. He's thinking of his parents, the situation, the constant violence, the threat of kidnapping, the lack of electricity.

TARABAY: Teachers are also in the line of fire. More than a hundred professors, lecturers, doctors and college deans have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion. Nagam Youssef knows she's a target.

Ms. YOUSSEF: (Through translator) I am afraid. I'm terrified. But we say, this is our fate and life must go on, because if we don't come to the university, then how will we live? Sitting at home and keeping the door closed will save us from death, but what about our jobs, our children and their education?

TARABAY: A Christian, Nachim Youssef says she's now considering buying a headscarf to wear on her way to college to escape harassment.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

WERTHEIMER: NPR reporter Farah al-Qasab also contributed to this report

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