Rita and Maryam are enrolled in the Faculty of Architecture at the city’s university. Dread and fear accompanied their comeback, but after a certain time, things were back to normal. Years of Jihadi rule have changed people’s mindset and a certain careful attitude is perceptible. Relations with Muslim students have improved in some cases.
Karamles (AsiaNews) – Rita and Maryam are two Christian students who went back to study at Mosul University after it was devastated by the Islamic State group during the period it controlled the city.
For the two young women, going back saw initial dread and fear give way to joy at rediscovering the university’s classrooms after three years of darkness. They were thrilled by the thought of imagining their own future, full of hope for peace, coexistence and unity for the whole of Iraq.
For more than four years, Mosul, a large city in northern Iraq, was under the control of the Islamic State group. So was Mosul University. In addition to violence and terror, the Sunni Jihadi group blocked many courses and devastated the university’s renowned library.
Rita Saher Zora and Maryam Elias, both born in 1995, attend the university's Faculty of Architecture. Rita is originally from Mosul, but in 2010 her family moved to Karamles, for security reasons. Maryam was born in Karamles and still lives there after spending some time in Iraqi Kurdistan (like hundreds of thousands of other refugees, Christian and other), waiting for the liberation of the Plain of Nineveh.
The interview was done thanks to the assistance of Fr Paul Thabit Mekko, a Chaldean priest who heads the community in Karamles. Here's what they told AsiaNews:
How did you experience going back to university after the violence of the Islamic State group?
Rita: At first, I felt a sense of fear coming back to the university. However, after a while, things were back to normal. It felt natural. So much so that we can say that today the situation feels almost the same as before the arrival of Daesh.*
Maryam: At first, I had mixed feelings, dread and fear, because I was returning to a city I had abandoned three years ago. So many things have changed, even the mindset of Muslims has changed. I cannot deny that initially I had a certain anxiety. I wondered how this society would receive us, especially Muslim professors and students.
What are the differences with respect to the period that preceded the rise of the Jihadi movement?
Rita: Changes have occurred, many in fact, and not only from the point of view of the infrastructures. Many parts, classrooms, the library itself have been damaged or destroyed. The state of mind and the psyche of some of Mosul's residents have been affected. Residents are not the same as before, and many have not yet recovered.
Maryam: I felt a change in people's mindset, often in a positive way. Most seem willing to better accept others, even if they are not Muslim. This is a great thing after years under the rule of the Islamic State. It provides further evidence that not everyone is like them. On the contrary.
Mosul was the capital of the "Caliphate" for a long time. How much has changed and what is it like to be back in the city?
Rita: There are moments when I feel that the city of Mosul has not changed at all. That some of its residents continue to look at us as enemies and are hostile towards us. However, most are good and eager to establish (or re-establish) bonds. Generally speaking, we can move freely, go back and forth. There is a broad sense of security and comfort that will allow us to complete our studies.
Maryam: Of course, most of the members of the Caliphate have gone but I do not think that the mindset that was left behind the Islamic State has completely gone. When this happens, then and only then can we say we have put that time behind us. Only when our country has built its future on coexistence will we be able to say that the Islamic State is finally finished.
How is the atmosphere now in the university?
Rita: Today we don’t have that sense of fear anymore that enveloped Mosul and the Plain of Nineveh when the Islamic State ruled. Of course, the ambiance for studying is not yet 100 per cent safe and calm. We especially feel the lack of joy and carefree attitude that usually characterise all the universities of the world. We still need some more peace and quiet.
Maryam: All of us students were full of fear, Christians and others, because we had to study in burnt-out buildings, with destructions and damages. Despite this, students insisted on attending class all the same, going to the same facilities. We were quite happy to get a spot in the university, as if everything was back to the way it was before.
How are relations with Muslim students?
Rita: We try to have good relations, rebuild old ties and create new ones. We want to talk to them, to have relationships that are good not only at the university but also afterwards, in the future.
Maryam: We Christians have no problem with them; on the contrary, relations with young Muslims seem to be much improved. In a sense, it is better now at the university than before the Islamic State. I think they understand that they were wrong in the past and feel so.
What are your hopes for the future of Iraq?
Rita: My greatest desire and hope are for a future of peace and security, of the common good. I hope that the situation gets better and our effort in this direction Iraq continue, that our contribution as Christians and as citizens not be in vain. However, it is discouraging and depressing to look at certain situations and read certain news, even recent ones.
Maryam: I hope I can finish my studies in peace and security. As for my country, Iraq, I hope that the new generations can change reality and ensure unity and coexistence.
Has the Christian faith been a source of strength in all these difficult years?
Rita: I live my Christian faith every day, even in the university, and I try to carry the image of Christ in everything, even and especially in my relationship with others; first of all, by showing that we Christians do not hate anyone, that we are a bridge for dialogue and meeting. Of course, my faith helps me, especially in times of hardship and helps us better endure problems so that we can go on in everyday life, inside and outside the university.
Maryam: My Christian faith has been fundamental in helping me endure every situation and moment of hardship. It has also helped me accept everyone in spite of religious or ethnic differences. It helps me not feel problems, not be crushed by them, but to live and act according to a principle of humanity.
* Daesh is the Arabic acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, shortened to Islamic State.