Experiencing Kurdistan as a Dutch student

This year I had the pleasure to be one of the students from the Dutch delegation visiting Iraqi Kurdistan. In this paper I would like to explain the program that made this visit possible, what our aim was in Sulaimani and Hawler, what we did, and clarify why academic exchanges are important.
Zeytun Academic Exchange is an exchange program of the University of Amsterdam (UOA). It is an initiative for durable academic exchange between the Netherlands and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The program is meant for students of political science, international relations and diplomacy. Zeytun promotes academic mobility and cooperation between the Netherlands and the MENA region and wants to strengthen inter-regional relations by bringing students together to exchange knowledge, ideas, experiences, and culture.
Zeytun promotes their exchange programs in different ways, but since I’m not a political science or international studies major I was not familiar wit
h the program. I saw their post on the Middle Eastern Studies Facebook page by coincidence. To my surprise the exchange program participated with AUIS and I immediately got excited, because I, myself, am from Iraq with Kurdish roots. I was already familiar with AUIS and Sulaimani, because I have family and friends studying and living there. I was previously planning to do an internship abroad, preferably in Iraq or another country in the Middle East, but because of the current situation in the region I was not sure of the possibilities. This is why this exchange program between the UOA and AUIS was a chance sent from above. I applied by writing a motivation letter and luckily got accepted with nine other students.
 Zeytun has been visiting Iraqi Kurdistan since 2008 with the aim of exploring the political, social and academic landscape as well as the possibilities for an exchange program with partners in this region. In the years 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 an exchange program was realized between the University of Amsterdam and the University of Kurdistan-Hawler. This year, 2013, contacts were established with the American University of Iraq Sulaimani (AUIS). In the year 2013-2014 the first exchange program between the AUIS and UOA will be realized. The UOA students just came back from Iraqi Kurdistan, which I was one of, and the AUIS students will be arriving in Holland on the 13th of January for a ten-day program.
ZeytunExchanceProgramIt was very interesting to observe and experience Sulaimani and Hawler from an academic point of view for the first time. Usually when I’m visiting I visit family, go the bazar and malls, and go picnicking, like everyone else who visits from abroad. Even though this is always very entertaining, it is not always as exciting or informative. Also, one does not get to know or experience the actual reality of the country, because who wants to deal with “serious” stuff when they are on holiday. Even if you want to, you will not have all the possibilities or time to do so. This time, during my visit with the UOA, almost all, usually closed, doors opened for us. We visited political parties, media outlets, NGO’s, and museums. We talked to businessmen and women, parliament members, government officials, journalists, and civil society actors. We also attended some interesting lectures at AUIS and visited Kawergosk Refugee Camp — an unforgettable experience.
The theme of our exchange program this year is politics and economy and Iraqi Kurdistan is definitely an interesting region to research from this angle, due to its political system — and lately, unrest – and booming economy. We were treated with great hospitality, as the Kurds are known for, and we felt welcomed at all our visits. We as students have learned a lot about these subjects and Kurdistan in general. The AUIS teachers and students were also very welcoming and showed us a wonderful time. We always enjoyed our delicious dinners, especially the one in Dabashan and a wonderful homemade dinner at a student’s house. These were the moments we got to interact with each other the most, share thoughts, ideas, stories, and experiences.
Our most favorite places in Sulaimani and Hawler — the two days we stayed there — were definitely the bazar and the old and traditional parts of town. We missed the cultural experience a little bit in our program, because we had a tight schedule and not much time. That is also why our trip to Halabja will be very memorable for all of us. We got to see the beautiful Kurdish landscapes, talk to the locals and see the more traditional way of life in Kurdistan. In the Red Prison Museum and Halabja the students experienced the Kurdish suffering and got a more accurate image of what the Kurds have been through.
I think it is very important that such chances are possible, to experience a part of history, culture, and the situation of a country or region that is unfamiliar to others. In my case, it was not unfamiliar but I still learned and experienced many new things. These exchange programs are not only historically important, but also significant for the future. Exchanges not only make prejudices and stereotypes diminish, but, more importantly, lead participants to common values. I think it is important for the universities in the Kurdish region to engage in exchange programs like this, because they will open up to the international community and their students will benefit from the academic knowledge and experience that exchange programs like Zeytun encourage. Furthermore, the Kurdish region has an important and interesting history, a very rich culture, shifting political activity, and it certainly is a promising region in the Middle East. So it is as important for the international community to learn about this region. The best way to learn from each other is to interact with each other.

By: Aya Hashim