DUHOK—Zahra Alqasim says she isn’t a morning person, so her 7 a.m. alarm rudely jolts her from a deep sleep, in a room she shares with her siblings. A minute or two later the shock of waking up has subsided and she begins getting ready for college, optimistic about the day ahead. The bus leaves the Domiz 1 refugee camp at 8 a.m. sharp and Zahra is not one to be late. Her priority is getting good grades, so she attends every lecture, even the early morning ones.
The 30-minute bus ride is a chance to gossip with friends on the daily commute from the camp to college. Domiz 1, in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, is the largest Syrian refugee camp in Iraq, which hosts over 1.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons. Zahra’s family left the northeastern corner of Syria, near the intersection of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, more than seven years ago. Like others who fled the conflict, the family has had to rebuild from scratch.
Zahra was due to start 10th grade when her family arrived in Iraq, but at the time schooling in the camp was only available for younger students. Then she got ill and missed another year, ending up in the same grade as her sister Amira, who is two years younger and less studious.
“She’s always busy with her phone, chatting with friends on WhatsApp and Instagram,” says Zahra, who rarely spends time on social media: “I find it useless.” Zahra’s health and other factors hurt her secondary-school grades, which limited her options when it came to university.
Zahra, now 23, eventually secured a scholarship to study English literature at the University of Duhok. “It wasn’t my first choice; I wanted to study a field like science to do something that helps people like me,” she said, referring to her illness. Only those with top grades gain places in science courses in Iraq, where over-subscribed education institutions have struggled to absorb Syrian students since the start of that country’s conflict in 2011
“I have a greater ambition. … I want to change my community and help the people around me.”-Zahra Alqasim
A Syrian refugee who studies at the University of Duhok
At college, Zahra’s friends are a mix of Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds, Muslims, Christians and Yazidis. “Syrian students seek each other out because we have the same culture,” she says over a cup of hot chocolate in the noisy college cafeteria. That was in the first year, but then things fell into place. “Everyone hangs out together now, regardless of culture or religion. … We don’t ask about it because we don’t care.”
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Her friend Lwana, who is 25 and also a student at the University of Duhok, isn’t so sure when it comes to attitudes toward Syrians in Iraq. “They see us as at a lower level, we feel it.” Zahra is too focused on her studies to dwell on differences. Her generation, she says, is done with all that.
In class, she records every lecture to listen back later and make notes. The last lecture before lunch is on Macbeth and the group picks through Act I Scene 2, identifying personification, hyperbole and irony in Shakespeare’s tragedy. There are around 35 students in the class, with slightly more women than men. Zahra circles significant words and annotates the passage in pencil, concentrating hard.
Professors tend to give out only one assignment a month, so if Zahra wants to go beyond the classroom lectures, she usually has to do additional study on her own. Some of the professors are good, others less so, but she doesn’t let that worry her. “If the teachers give us materials, we can go and search online and find out more information,” she says.
For Zahra, a university education is not just about passing exams: “I have a greater ambition. … I want to change my community and help the people around me.”
At lunch, she meets up with friends in one of the campus cafes. Usually they order sandwiches, which are the cheapest option, or she snacks during the day and has a proper meal at home. Zahra’s mother makes delicious dishes that remind her of life at home in Derik, Syria. One of her specialties is homemade kibbeh—minced beef with herbs and spices, deep-fried into crispy balls. Zahra likes the meat dishes best, as long as she doesn’t have to help prepare them. That job usually goes to Amira, who is less inclined to spend the evenings poring over books.
If Zahra does lend a hand in the kitchen she’ll make the salad, but usually she curls up on a floor cushion in the small sitting room, which doubles as a bedroom for the siblings at night, and studies from 6 to 10 p.m. At around 4 p.m. her father comes in from work to eat with the family, then goes back till midnight. He worked at an abattoir in Syria but now runs a small currency exchange business in the camp. The family is better off than some people in the camp, where some families can’t afford to buy bread.
Zahra also receives a stipend of around $300 a month from the UN Refugee agency’s DAFI scholarship, some of which she gives to her mother to support her younger siblings.
The family started out in a tent, and now there are eight family members living in a little four-room house—Zahra and her parents; her sister Amira, who’s 21; Khalil, 18; Yasmine, 16; Iman, 14, and Salah, 12. She has an elder sister in Syria and two more sisters and a brother living in Germany. She catches up with them from time to time on Skype or WhatsApp, but they are married with families of their own and their lives feel very far away.
Zahra has no thoughts of marriage for some time, though she and her friends do talk about relationships. Sometimes, they’ll have a sleepover in the college dorms and share secrets. For Zahra, a good friend is someone you can say anything too with complete trust. They also discuss plans for the future. Her friend Ghazala, 21, loves fashion, but says she won’t pursue it as a career. “In this society it’s too hard, our community would not allow it,” she says.
All of Zahra’s friends are anxious about their prospects after graduation. Job opportunities are scarce in Iraq, where high unemployment has been at the heart of large-scale protests in the capital and other cities across the south. (See a related article, “Inside Iraq’s Protests: Students Are Defiant in Their Demands.”)
Zahra has no idea what job she will do after graduating but hopes to win a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree abroad. She also wants to travel overseas to access better healthcare.
Zahra and two of her siblings suffer from a condition, thalassemia major, that requires fortnightly blood transfusions, which is one of the reasons she can’t go back to Syria, where that treatment is not available.
She prefers to be optimistic and focus on the future. She thinks mostly about her final exams in May and then the opportunities beyond. “I feel I have a nice future ahead of me because I’m working hard for it,” she says.