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Iraqi profs come to learn in Canada

University of Alberta part of UNESCO program to train teachers

By CAITLIN CRAWSHAW | DEC 03 2007

Twenty-five years of political crises have leached the resources out of Iraq’s education system, but the United Nations and five partner universities, including the University of Alberta, hope to help rebuild.

“After the last decade’s embargos and wars, Iraq’s education system has suffered a great deal, losing most of its educational infrastructure after bombings, devastations and looting,” said Semia Ben Ali Saadaoui, a program specialist in teacher education with the Iraq office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

UNESCO’s Teacher Training Network for Iraq aims to put greater resources into the hands of teachers. It connects professors from 12 Iraqi postsecondary institutions with counterparts from six universities around the world.

In November, 14 Iraqi professors spent 23 days at the Edmonton campus. Besides taking part in a networking opportunity, professors updated their subject knowledge (academic journals are often hard to come by), learned new teaching and assessment techniques, and learned ways to pass this knowledge on to their colleagues.

The focus of this program was to teach the professors to train other trainers, said George Richardson, associate dean, international initiatives, in the U of A faculty of education. “This is the initial group and when they go back to Iraq, in their different colleges of education or science, they will be training a larger group. And that group will be training a larger group.”

U of A is the only North American university in the UNESCO program. Its education faculty has helped other countries, including Bosnia and post-Soviet Russia, begin to rebuild their education systems. With the help of web tools, the faculty will continue to share its expertise with the Iraqis after they return home.

Chemistry professor Niran Al-Salihi said that her students at the University of Basrah, in tumultuous southern Iraq, remained focused on learning. “The students are very good, they want to be educated, they want to learn – they want everything. But the situation is very difficult,” said Dr. Al-Salihi. Her university faces frequent closures, and also a dearth of resources.

Things are calmer in the Iraqi Kurdistan region where ecologist Mustafa Al-Attar teaches, but the lack of resources is just as severe. “We [have been] suffering from depletion of scientific resources for 25 years. All of the budget goes to war,” said the professor from Salahaddin University.

They both said universities need journals, chemicals and lab equipment, making it hard for postgraduates to complete their research projects and impossible for seasoned academics to keep up their own work. “It’s not just the students – the teachers in universities cannot stop doing research. They have to go on. That’s what makes a university,” said Dr. Al-Salihi.

Iraq’s education system has lost intellectuals due to kidnappings and migration. But professors like Drs. Al-Salihi and Al-Attar share an unwavering commitment, recoiling at the thought of ever leaving their homeland. “We like Iraq, we love to be staying in Iraq, but it’s very hard life in Iraq … It’s not easy. But we are really trying to make things okay,” said Dr. Al-Salihi.

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