What Difficulties Iraqi Kurds Face When They Arrive in Russia to Study?
An Iraqi Kurd has told the story of how he ended up studying at Saint-Petersburg Mining University. What is he doing to preserve his cultural identity on the way to fulfilling a lifetime dream - to become an oil & gas specialist?
National Kurdish melodies are no longer something unheard of in the halls of a student dorm where Hassan Rezhna Ismail lives. He decided to learn how to play the violin two years ago, outside schooling hours.
Hassan Rezhna Ismail, the Mining University's student, explains "My uncle gives me lessons – he is a professional musician who opened a school in Iraqi Kurdistan. When I was at home on holiday, he gifted me a musical instrument, explained some major points, and we agreed on online lessons. It is a great example of how much today's secular and developed Kurdish region differs from the rest of Iraq. Kurdistan is very liberal compared to the Middle East in general. For instance, there are no special regulations for foreigners, such as wearing mandatory hijab or clothes that cover the whole body. Neither are required to do so the local women. Shorts and skirts are allowed as well. If one would want to buy alcohol, they can do it either in bars or speciality stores. Most of the tourists visit us in March when we celebrate Nowruz, which marks the beginning of the new year under the Iranian solar calendar. This day is widely celebrated by various ethnicities but mostly by Iranian and Turkic peoples. Despite the many similarities, there are also numerous differences I noticed upon my arrival in Russia. As such, I would note hypermarkets. There one can wander for hours ending with a full shopping cart and finally paying by bank card without saying a single word to the cashier. Where I am from, we buy everything we need in small shops or at markets. More often people come to them to talk than to buy something. And though it does not seem to matter, it felt strange to me at first".
As Hassan says, cold weather and limited daylight hours during autumn-winter period felt rather unusual as well. He moved to St. Petersburg in October and at the beginning was always late for his studies since he had barely any sense of time. In the student's homeland, it never gets dark in the daytime while here the twilight may set in at 10 am or 5 pm.
Hassan was born in Sulaymaniyah, a city in the east of the Kurdistan Region, unofficially known as Iraqi Kurdistan. The broad autonomy is granted to the region by the constitution, a new version of which was established in 2005.
In Hassan's words, "The Middle East is a problematic region, but Iraqi Kurdistan is a more or less stable part of it. We have our internal parliament and our own army forces; we are represented in the central government in Baghdad. And police officers secure the borderline with the country's major part. As for the budget, our autonomous region signed an agreement on oil revenue-sharing in 2014. As it says, all of the extracted raw materials should be sent to Turkey where they are sold by SOMO, an Iraqi national company. According to the agreement, Iraq allocates 17 % of oil income to us. Relations between Kurds and Iraqis have been somewhat mixed. At times they were particularly tense - for example, during Saddam Hussein's regime - while now they are more balanced. We, Kurds, have no problems with talking to our fellow Iraqi students in the dorm or university's buildings. After all, we all come from the same country; we often get together and celebrate holidays".
Upon graduation from school, a young Kurdish boy was faced with a choice dilemma. Three options were available: study abroad in either Turkey or Russia or enrol in one of the local state-funded universities.
The last three years of school Hassan was studying in a Turkish school. The school was believed to be the city's most robust, and tuition was conducted in English only. At nearing the graduation date, the young man was suggested by school administration to go to Turkey and take his chances of entering a university there. There were, however, only liberal arts to choose from - history and legal studies. As the Kurdish lad himself confirms, he had never had any interest in human sciences. Moreover, in Kurdistan, medical and engineering students have the best career prospects of all. Thereby studying humanities was not even considered.
By the way, most Kurds do not leave the country after graduating. There is a choice of free public universities to apply for in each of the large cities. The language programmes are taught in is English. By contrast, school tuition is provided in Kurdish, which poses problems to undergraduate applicants in the future. The admission process is as of now fully remote - starting from filling the form on a website and ending with results announcement six months afterwards.
As per Hassan, "I wanted to become a mining engineer. Our country is rich in mineral resources. There are three state universities where mining specialists are trained, but the quality of education is quite poor. Therefore Iranian commodity-sector enterprises prefer hiring graduates of foreign universities. As a matter of fact, mining is an industry with a relatively low share of local workers, and foreign investors usually employ specialists they bring with them from abroad. And then there is one more option, of which I personally took advantage".
Based on data on proven oil reserves, Iraq is among the top-5 global leaders, with its recoverable reserves reaching 145 bln barrels. As of 2019, the country was either the world's fifth (per BP) or the fourth (OPEC). The difference is caused by the fact that BP puts Canada in third place, despite Canadian oil being bituminous sands. And the extraction and production methods may differ from traditional ones greatly.OPEC, in turn, ignores oil sands and does not include Canada in the list. Relative security and stability in the region have allowed Iraqi Kurdistan to sign investment contracts with oil companies from Norway, the US, Canada, and Russia. One of them is Gazprom Neft Middle East, which is a subsidiary of Russian Gazprom Neft. The company started operating within Kurdistan Region in 2012, and now it is engaged in two projects: Shakal and Garmian.
As the student recalls, "When I was about to graduate from school, the company was running a contest to pick out competitors for its scholarship programme. The programme's purpose is to help locals to grow into highly-qualified specialists in oil & gas exploration, extraction and processing. By agreement with our region, those graduates who had been selected had to relocate to Russia for studies. The oil producer pays their tuition fees, provides scholarship allowances, and enables alumni to start working at one of the company's project sites. Obviously, I found this opportunity to be worth my effort".
As was decided, selected high school graduates were sent to study to St. Petersburg Mining University.
The Kurdish student claims the language to have been the most challenging issue he had ever encountered in Russia. First-year international students have to attend pre-university courses so they can learn Russian, with Hassan not being the exception.
The undergrad notes, "I remember myself listening to the word 'Здравствуйте' (in Russian: 'Hello', more formal greeting) for three days in a row, yet unable to pronounce it. So I gave up and learnt a simpler word 'Привет' ('Hi', informal). Regardless of how easy it is for an individual to learn foreign languages, it is nearly impossible to master it in one year. And a year later, one needs to be able to study on par with native speakers. The good thing is that teachers are always there to help us and explain something we may not understand. In my second year, I could speak Russian to the extent I felt confident when speaking it. As a soon-to-be-graduate, I can confirm from my own experience that the Mining University is unique in terms of mining engineering education. We have labs with machines simulating oil extraction processes, as well as research facilities equipped with modern tools and installations. We are often visited by professors from abroad who come here to give workshops or participate in some international events held within the university. Each student here can learn as much they can take. There are no limits - the amount of knowledge offered is spectacular".
In his third year at university, Hassan, along with other Kurdish students, undertook an internship at the Sarqala oil field, located in the Garmian block within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This summer, he will be already working there in a full-time position.
Hassan says, "I always wanted to see for myself what it is like to live in another country, get acquainted with other people's traditions, their mentality. Russia has turned out to be a fascinating country in many aspects. I am even somewhat frustrated I will have to leave soon. I have been living in a comfortable dormitory, with its own fitness studio, canteen, ping-pong and billiard tables in the halls. I have perfect groupmates with whom I go to football matches or just walk around the city. I even got to like Russian cuisine, and now I can prepare Russian-style pancakes at home if I want to. I am hoping it is not the last goodbye yet. Under the contract, we are obliged to work at the company for three years. After that, we either stay or proceed to master-level studies. I would say the best way is to gain some experience first, get practical skills, and move on only if the first two steps are completed. If I were to choose, I would prefer to come back here, to the Mining University, again".
There are currently 25 Iraqi Kurds studying at the Mining University. 12 of them are scholarship holders who entered the university with the support of Gazprom Neft. The rest were accepted under the quota system arranged by Rossotrudnichestvo, the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation.