The increasing number of students from autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq coming to study in Pune has opened up a window to their culture and way of life for their Indian counterparts in the city.
As of now,there are more than 200 students from Kurdistan studying in the city.
Coming from a war-ravaged country,when they tell their classmates that Kurdish people abhor war and are peace-loving,it comes as a surprise to students in Pune. The increased interaction is helping students here to learn more about their political and social life in post-Saddam Iraq.
Pune is one of the favourite destinations of Kurdish students opting for post graduation studies in India.
Kurdistan is part of Iraq that borders with Turkey and Iran but the contiguous Kurdish areas in these two countries are not autonomous as in Iraq.
Kurdistan in Iraq has a separate parliament,governing body,flag,language,origin and culture. However,it is not a separate nation and is part of Iraq,says a Kurdish student.
Kurdistan is part of Iraq but our culture is very different. We are a very open and peaceful society. We dont even speak Arabic as the rest of the middle eastern countries do; we speak Kurdish, said Nasr Ali Nheli,an MSc microbiology student who is also the leader of the Kurdish Students Party in India.
Although there is no official data to confirm it,Kurdish students had come to India in 1984,before the Saddam era reached its peak.
Five Kurdish students came to complete their Masters in 1984 and returned. After that there was a gap of 24 years before the next set of Kurdish students arrived. And these were the worst years for Kurdish people, said Nasr,who works as the Director of Education at the Ministry of Arts and Culture,Kurdistan.
These students say Kurdish people were settled in Iraq,Iran and Turkey. But when borders were drawn Kurdistan got divided with each country getting a part.
Struggle for a different country started since then in Iraqs share of Kurdistan. A series of battles between Saddam-controlled Iraq and the Kurdish people ensued for a separate country which also resulted in the 1988 massacre at Halabja were more than 10,000 people were killed by Saddams army,the students recalled.
The genocide was horrible. Entire villages were wiped out. It was just like what we heard about Hiroshima bombing, recalls Nasr.
In 1991,Kurdistan obtained autonomy from Iraq. But development in Kurdistan was limited. Although some Turkish and Iranian companies tried setting up factories there,Kurdistan still loomed under the shadow of Saddam.
But the tide changed in Kurdistans favour after Saddams fall. That day was celebrated across Kurdistan like a festival. Everybody was hugging each other and celebrating. Saddam killed our brothers just on his whim. And then he was killed by America, said Nasr in heavily accented English struggling to get words that match his elation.
Giving further information,they said after Saddam,Kurdistan started getting more international attention. Soon,western countries found Kurdistan sitting on huge reserves of oil. This started a spurt of development activities and now more than 4,000 companies from all over the world operate from Kurdistan.
Why Destination India?
With development came the need to have more local workforce. Although a number of colleges cropped up,not many offered specialized courses. This resulted in students looking for options in other parts of the world to complete their Masters.
India was one of the best options. Although there are many colleges in Arab countries,medium of teaching is Arabic which we do not understand. But all the multinational companies want English speaking people. Hence we started looking at Europe,US and Asia. But Europe and US are costly. Secondly these countries need us to clear TOEFL,clearing which is tough, said Wrya Mohammed,a student of MSc microbiology in Pune. India was the best option. It is nearer home,is peaceful and the medium of teaching in almost all universities is English, added Wrya.
Pune the first choice
In 2008,three Kurdish students came to India after a gap of 24 years and enrolled in a Masters programme in Pune. The first reason for choosing Pune,according to Wrya,is the climate. The city always has a pleasant climate. It is neither very hot,nor very cold; People in Kurdistan like this climate, said Wrya. But climate is not the only reason Kurdish students choose Pune. Education in Pune is neither very hard nor very easy. It is easy for us to pick up. Plus the city is cheaper to live in compared to Mumbai or Delhi, said Wrya.
Accommodation too is not a problem for Kurdish students,said Nasr. We had seniors staying in Pune. So we know where all we can get easy accommodation. As they helped us get accommodation when we came to Pune,we will help our juniors get accommodation when they turn up next academic year, said Nasr. Food is sometimes a problem as Indian food is very spicy. But we make our own food. Plus there are various Iranian food joints in the city which serve our kind of food. But I do like some Indian chicken kebabs, adds Nasr.
Indian presence in Kurdistan is not limited to education. Ask any Kurdish student who their favourite actor is they say either Shahrukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan. They are popular in Kurdistan.
I love Shahrukh Khan. And I also love Aishwarya Rai. She is very beautiful, said Zhala Mohammed doing her MA in English in Pune.
Along with development in Kurdistan after 2003 also came a huge influx of Bollywood movies. Hollywood movies are not accepted in our culture. But Bollywood movies are just fine for our culture. We like the drama and song-dance sequences. Veer Zara was one of the biggest hits and an absolute favourite among Kurdish youngsters, said Zhala. Every youngster wants to be like one or the other Bollywood actor. Of late,everyone is smitten by Anushka Sharma. Girls imitate her hairstyle, said Zhala.
According to Nasr,there are more than 200 Kurdish students in Pune. A rough estimate of Kurdish students in other cities include one each in Mumbai and Delhi,10 in Allahabad,over 15 in Aurangabad and Hyderabad each and around 10 in Bangalore. Students to Pune had been increasing since 2008. In 2009 there were 20,in 2010 there were around a 100 and in 2011 there were around 150, said Nasr.
Dr Nadhim S Abdulaziz,Cultural Counselor,Embassy of Iraq,talking to Express on phone said,There are over 4,000 Iraqi students in India. But there is no exact data of how many of them is Kurdish. We also cannot give individual University data. There are students in Pune,Bangalore,Allahabad etc. Kurdish students will have data of how many of them are studying in India.
The number of students is only slated to increase in the coming years,said Nasr. Its a word-of-mouth publicity for Pune in Kurdistan. Plus another important factor is that India has excellent medical facilities,which are cheaper too compared to other countries. One of my relatives had come here for treatment because I know the area and it is easier for them to navigate Pune with me being here. So medically also Pune is a great option, said Nasr.
But Nasrs only complaint is that the moment they say they are from Iraq,everybody looks at them differently. People do not understand that Kurdish people are peace loving. We are now focused on development. We are not terrorists but were victims of terrorism. Hence we hate terrorism. I know the perception is hard to change but I believe that with more and more students coming to Pune,this perception,too,will change, said Nasr.