July 18, 2022 | Expert Voices

The importance of accessing education: former refugee, current President of the 3rd largest public University in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The testimonial of Prof. Dawood Atrushi


I went to Norway in 1987. And I came back in 2004 to Kurdistan to stay for a couple of years just to help as a volunteer. And then I have been here since then. I was planning to go back because I was working in Norway in a company. But the University’s President asked me to stay and help him in the administration. So, after 17 years of staying in Norway I was back in Kurdistan.

Professor Dawood Sulaiman Atrushi, current President of the University of Duhok, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, has shared with us an important testimonial about his experience as a former refugee in Norway, leaving Kurdistan when he was a University student.

“I was a refugee in Iran two times, because of the war against Kurds. My second time was in 1985. I was a university student at the College of Engineering in Mosul, in 1985. And because of the political problems with the government, I had to leave Kurdistan and leave my study. I went to Iran in 1985. And then after a couple of years there, where I tried to enroll at the University to continue my studies, they did not allow me to study. So in 1987, I went to Norway. And for me, it was a huge change, I became a refugee in Norway. Certainly, it was much better to be a refugee in Norway than Iran. But for me, everything was new, the culture was new, the language was new, society was new. And it was very difficult in the beginning: I was thinking to go back to Iran. But I went in Norway with the main aim to study there. Iran had a lot of refugees at that time and had a war against Iraq. So they were certainly not very happy to receive refugees in Iran. And I did not get a chance to study there. So I went to Norway. In 1988, right after one year, I got admission to university. It was difficult, and it was also easy. It was difficult, because everything was new for me even how to deal with your friends, how to deal with the professors, their culture was quite different than most of the University where I studied a couple of years. But at the same time, it was easy, because the system was democratic, and there was transparency. They were helpful. Everything was on the place: the support you get, you could get a loan from the government to live with. The university gave me a chance and made me as I am today: I am the product of that education and of what Norway provided me with of help and assistance. I had never seen Iraqi passport. My first passport was Norwegian. So you can imagine: your country prevent you to get your passport but you go, you become a refugee in a country like Norway, and they give you all what the human being needs for life. So, that is certainly affected me and affected my life a lot.”

Once back in Kurdistan, Prof. Atrushi finally stayed in his home Country to help in building a University system more modern and with more attention to the internationalisation. During the years that saw him as Vice President for the internationalisation and also thanks to a visionary President, the University of Duhok was the first University in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and in Iraq as well, to bring Erasmus Mundus to Kurdistan and Iraq. It was the year 2007. In 2006 the European Commission launched, in fact, a new “Erasmus Mundus External Co-operation Window” which included Iraq too.

It was also thanks to his experience and study abroad, that Professor Asmat M. Khalid, University of Duhok’s President from 1992 to 2011, asked him to help in the administration of the University of Duhok.

Today, the University of Duhok is the 3rd largest public University in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It is among the partners of the Project APPRAIS and Prof. Atrushi strongly supports the work this project is conducting involving 8 Universities of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (KRG).

“I visited our APPRAIS partner University, the University of Oslo (UiO) lately. I am certainly very interested in establishing collaboration with UiO and other Norwegian HEIs, and with my Norwegian background, I hope innerly I can succeed in that.”

The project APPRAIS – governAnce, quality, accountability: a Piloting Reform PRocess in kurdistAn regionof Iraq – co-funded by the European Commission, in the framework of the Erasmus+ CBHE programme and coordinated by UNIMED, addresses governance, strategic planning and management of higher education institutions, with a particular focus on enhancing the capacities of human resources and proposing a reform for the local Higher Education system through the implementation of Bologna process.

Besides the current work of the University of Duhok and the work of the project APPRAIS, the story and the experience that Prof. Atrushi has shared with UNIMED highlight the meaning of what UNIMED and many Universities and partners are doing in terms of providing strategies for a better inclusion of refugees and migrants in the University system and in the hosting societies.

“I think, these people – added prof. Atrushi –  if they get an opportunity, they can do a lot for the hosting countries. And I think they should also get support and get encouraged, in Europe, to go back and to help, wherever they come from, from Somalia, from Libya, from Kurdistan, from Iraq, from Syria: these people can give a lot.

When I came back in 2004, the situation in Kurdistan was very bad. But I was very happy to help. The living condition here was very, very bad. I had three kids, they were small and were not going to school, so we can live with it. But, you can imagine, from the paradise in Norway we came to a situation where we did not have electricity, and only once per week water supply. The transportation was not that good. The working environment, the working place was so bad, but I was so happy. I had something to give. I came back to stay for a couple of years, and then I was supposed to go back and work at my company. But then they asked me to stay. So I stayed. And I have been here now for 18 years.”

Prof. Atrushi also informed us that thanks to the Kurdistan Regional Government policy, many Kurds, with almost the same refugee story as his, are back in Kurdistan playing a significant role in helping and leading institutions in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. “We need to encourage more Kurdish diaspora and professionals to contribute in rebuilding the Kurdistan region” he says.

The University of Duhok, in collaboration with the World Kurdish Congress (WKC), is planning a huge conference for Kurdish diaspora to be held at the University of Duhok in November 2022, where people from inside and outside Kurdistan can meet. Participation of foreigners and politicians is also foreseen.

Prof. Dawood Sulaiman Atrushi, PhD in Civil Engineering and Master Degree in Civil Engineering and in Higher Education, is President of the University of Duhok since August 2021. He has been Director General for Engineering and Projects at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Affairs and Head and Member of several Ministerial Committees from April 2017 and up to July 2021.

Visit the website of the University of Duhok

The attention devoted to the priority of the inclusion of refugees and migrants in the University system in European or in Middle Eastern Countries is a topic addressed in other projects and initiatives UNIMED is carrying on or in which is partnering.

To know more about the topic of the refugees and migrants integration in the Higher Education System and in societies, have a look at the projects here below.

UNI(di)VERSITY – Socially responsible university for inclusive societies in the era of migration
The UNI(di)VERSITY project aims to support European HEIs to uphold their role towards building inclusive societies in the era of migration, with a view to promoting the social inclusion of migrants and refugees.
Ci-RES – Création de Capacités institutionnelles d’Intégration des Réfugiés dans l’Enseignement Supérieur
The Ci-RES project aims at creating institutional capacities for the integration of refugees in Algerian higher education.
MIGRANTS – Master Degree in Migration Studies: Governance, Policies and Cultures
The MIGRANTS project intends to reinforce the institution capacity of Tunisia Higher Education System. Given its geo-political situation, Tunisia can play, in the specific context of Migrations, an important role for itself and for the surrounding countries, including, of course, the EU member states.
SAFE – foSter cooperAtion For improving access to protEction
The SAFE project aims to foster the collaboration between stakeholders at a transnational level in order to develop and improve access to protection through private sponsorship schemes and complementary pathways for beneficiaries of international protection.
NEXUS, PromotiNg thE neXus of migrants throUgh active citizenShip
The objective of NEXUS project is to empower students (with a special emphasis on migrant students) to enjoy their rights, uphold human rights values, and contribute positively to their society and the global community.
RAISD – Reshaping Attention and Inclusion Strategies for Distinctively vulnerable people among the forcibly displaced
The RAISD project, just concluded, aimed at identifying highly Vulnerable Groups (VG) among forcibly displaced people, analysing their specific needs, and finding suitable practices to address them.
RESCUE – Refugees Education Support in MENA Countries
The RESCUE project, concluded in 2019, had as main specific objective to help the Partner Country Universities (Leabanon, Jordan and Iraq) in structuring an effective response to the problem of high number of Refugees in the country, by creating ad hoc units (the Refugee Student Operational Support Unit – R-SOS), whose mission was to structure specific services supporting the refugee students in resuming their academic training path.
inHERE – Higher Education supporting Refugees in Europe
The inHERE project ended in 2018, targeted EU Higher Education staff and faculty members to empower them to be able to take an active stand towards the integration of refugees at institutional and local level, based on international peer-support.