“Investment in knowledge yields the best returns” – the well-known words to this effect by Benjamin Franklin hold good for every age and in every place. Including in Iraq. And here the returns take the form of finding work, hope for the future, promoting reconciliation and above all safeguarding the Christian presence in the country. These are just some of the returns yielded by the project for the Catholic University of Erbil. Today there are over 100,000 Christians living in the archdiocese of Erbil in northern Iraq, many of whom fled here in 2014 as refugees from the terror of the Islamic State. For many Christians, this part of Iraqi Kurdistan has now become their home including the close on 200 students at the Catholic University.
“Our goal for the academic year 2022-2023 is for 825 students –615 Iraqi Christians, 125 Muslims and 85 Yazidis”, says Archbishop Bashar Warda, who explained the project to Pope Francis during the papal visit in March. The University is based in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of Erbil, in an area that offers a sense of shelter and security. All lectures are in English. The students study for academic degrees in such topics as financial administration, information technology, engineering and architecture. And naturally, Catholic social teaching is also included. Soon medicine and pedagogical studies will be added to the syllabus. There are links with universities in Italy, the UK, Australia and the United States. “The objective is to give our young people educational and professional opportunities” Archbishop Warda explains, “to train people from the Christian minority for leadership roles, and through theUniversity to establish a lasting home for the Christian community in Iraq.
The University will offer the Christian community an important sense of self-worth and belonging.” Of course, the archdiocese alone cannot possibly fund the investment in such a project. The average cost of the courses is €2,400 per student per year. Since the government in Baghdad only invests in state universities and not in private ones, and additionally offers study grants to its students, there is great temptation for poorer Christian families to send their children to these institutions. But here they are subjected to social pressure by the Islamists, to discrimination and isolation. How different is the atmosphere in Erbil! Over half the students are young women, there is no discrimination, and the quality of the teaching given is also excellent (just five years after its foundation, Erbil is in 41st place out of the 250 universities in Iraq). In order to enable the University to grow, ACN is funding 150 four-year scholarships for Christian students – for a total of €1.5 million. By then the University is hoping to be able to stand on its own feet. “Education is what is left when the last dollar is gone.” These ironic words of Mark Twain in fact contain a good deal of truth. Once the last dollar has been invested by ACN, there will undoubtedly be much useful education in the heads, and still more hope in the hearts, of those we have helped. Both these things will help to safeguard the Christian presence in Iraq