/ 25 March 2009

Cool welcome for Iraq’s returning academics

Iraqi academics who fled abroad from violence and oppression are trickling back home in response to pleas from their government — but they are finding jobs few and the welcome far from warm.

Many waited years for Saddam Hussein to fall, and longer for sectarian violence, triggered by the 2003 United States-led invasion, to end.

With violence now falling dramatically, about 700 Iraqi academics — a fraction of the exodus — have made a tentative return, but they have found themselves tangled in red tape and facing erratic salary levels as Iraq slashes its education budget.

”I am enormously shocked. I had assumed things are better and I would find work easily in my own country,” said Taif Hassan, who has a PhD in computer science.

He had been working in Syria when Iraqi officials had encouraged him to return, only to find himself unemployed due to delays in allocating him a pay grade.

He was too embarrassed to tell friends in Syria he still didn’t have a job. ”How is it I can find a job in Syria but in my own country I can’t?” he asked.

Iraqi academics and professionals were targeted by insurgents in the years after the US invasion, prompting many to flee and leaving Iraqi universities and hospitals hopelessly understaffed. Some had left earlier to escape Saddam.

The price of oil, from which Iraq derives the bulk of its revenues, has tumbled about two-thirds from a peak of $147 a barrel last summer, crippling Iraqi spending plans and halving its 2009 education budget to $200-million compared to last year.

Orthodontist Khalil al-Jenabi said he left Iraq 39 years ago to escape the Baath party, later to be headed by Saddam, but on his return to Iraq discovered he is too old at 68 for a permanent teaching job. The retirement age in Iraq is 63.

In need of expertise, Iraqi institutions had employed older academics using short-term contracts, but funds have dried up.

”I’m disappointed because I want to serve Iraq,” he said.

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For decades Iraq boasted one of the best educated societies in the Middle East, and the oil-rich country spent vast sums on training its brightest, even sending them abroad to study at prestigious universities.

Iraqi Minister for Higher Education Abd Thiab al-Ajili said he sympathised with returning academics, but could do nothing.

”The financial crisis has affected the ministry’s financial situation, we feel our hands are tied … even the [short-term] contracts have been stopped,” he said.

For those with a job offer an arduous cycle of bureaucracy awaits. Foreign degrees must be reconciled with Iraqi standards, pay grades determined, and for those away from a Iraq for a long time, various citizenship papers need to be obtained.

Suffocating bureaucracy is not restricted to academia, and across Iraq the sight of people clutching sheaves of paper and standing in long queues at chaotic government offices is common.

Sadeq Qanber, a professor in environmental organic chemistry who returned to Iraq after 18 years in New Zealand, said he had almost had enough. He has a job offer, but is tired of waiting for Iraqi officials to formally accept his foreign PhD.

”I’m stuck in a cycle. My wife has even returned to New Zealand,” he said, adding that he wanted to warn Iraqis abroad.

”I’m actually thinking of going back to New Zealand too.” — Reuters