Monday, January 19, 2004

Catherine Chan-Halbrendt, left, Ali Fares, Brian Turano, Ekhlass Jarjees, Samir El-Swaify and Sahar Zaghloul have received a grant to rehabilitate the University of Mosul.

Trip to university
in Iraq leaves UH
chairman aghast

A library with sparsely filled shelves. Students crammed in small, ill-equipped classrooms. Laboratories with none of the technology required to conduct serious scientific study.

What Hawaii researcher Simar El-Swaify saw last month when he toured the University of Mosul -- once one of the Middle East's most prestigious institutions -- made him weep.

"When you look at these labs, when you look at these classrooms, you wonder whether you're looking at an elementary school," said El-Swaify, project director for a federal grant worth up to $11.1 million and intended to help rebuild one of Iraq's largest universities.

"It makes you cry. I had no knowledge that it could make me cry."

During El-Swaify's eight-day Iraq trip aimed primarily at assessing the conditions at Mosul, the chairman of the University of Hawaii's Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Management found an institution ravaged by two gulf wars and in severe need of space, resources and technology.

He knew before he and fellow grant recipient, UH entomologist Ekhlass Jarjees, left for the country that the situation at the university would be bad.

But what they found was much worse.

The library, he said, looked like "an abandoned storeroom." Computers at the university were obsolete. Lab equipment was practically antique, and professors were screaming to have contact with cutting-edge developments in their fields.

"It was a very distinguished institution at one point in time," El-Swaify said. "It's going to take a little perseverance ... but things will happen" and improve.

The University of Mosul library has very few new books and no organization. A team of UH researchers is hoping to supplement the library with volumes of electronic texts.

In October, El-Swaify and a team of five of his colleagues were awarded a $3.7 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The grant is renewable, depending upon the team's progress, for two years.

The Iraq visit moved El-Swaify to rethink the team's priorities for the grant.

Professors at the University of Mosul, many of whom have not been outside Iraq in years, convinced him that they needed opportunities to study abroad with the best in their field.

El-Swaify and his colleagues have doubled to 12 the number of positions the grant will fund for scholars who wish to visit UH-Manoa for a semester.

He and his team have also created a graduate fellowship program for University of Mosul students who have finished their studies but have nowhere in Iraq to conduct experiments with the proper equipment.

Also, rather than shipping books to Iraq for the Mosul university's library, which presents a logistical problem because very few companies are willing to guarantee passage to the country, the team will purchase a huge electronic text library and the computers to accommodate such a program.

UH-Manoa was the only single institution to receive the federal agency grant earmarked to aid colleges in Iraq.

The State University of New York at Stony Brook will lead a consortium of colleges, including Columbia and Oxford universities, to help Baghdad University, Al Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, Basrah University and Mosul University with a $4.1 million grant.

DePaul University College and the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences in Siracusa, Italy, which received a $3.8 million grant, will partner to work with the University of Baghdad.

The UH researchers have pledged to focus about two-thirds of their grant money for the University of Mosul's agricultural studies program. The remainder will go toward the University of Dohuk, a smaller nearby Iraqi college.

Both colleges have been nearly crippled by the unrest that has wracked their country over the past decade, but the University of Mosul has been hardest hit, El-Swaify said. Most recently in May, widespread looting stripped 13 of Mosul University's buildings of much-needed books, lab kits and computer equipment.

"You can imagine how cramped all these students (are), what kind of labs they had to work out of," El-Swaify said.

He said the grant will not solve all of the problems, but it will put the two schools on better footing and start them toward recovery.

"We have limitations in our funding and what we can do," he said. "You establish a pilot program for academic learning, and you can go very far. If we can do a good job on focusing on these two institutions, it's going to spread."

El-Swaify said there are also plans to move the Mosul university's agricultural college to an abandoned palace built by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"The place has great potential," El-Swaify said with a laugh.

But it has also been looted and is in need of renovation.


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