Anfal to Zanko, the Uprising and Universities

November 11, 2021

Few days in your life will compete with this day and profoundly shape your life. That also means that few graduation speeches like mine are remembered in the swirl of achievement and anticipation. 

You have worked incredibly hard during your time at UKH and achieved real success often against the odds. And you have done so, navigating and enduring the Covid pandemic, the biggest crisis to face the world in generations. Your achievement and what you learnt from this is, therefore, even greater. 

Your teachers and support staff have done much to help you secure your certificate. Your parents and family have encouraged you and stood by you. But you should also give yourself a huge pat on the back. You have done incredibly well. Your certificate is your passport for a new journey in life.

Prime Minister. Your support for this University and education in general is an immense comfort. May I also directly thank you for your work in upholding security here. I often tell my friends in the U.K. how much safer I am here than in London. May I also salute you and your government’s commitment to religious pluralism and tolerance as well as reform to maximise the talents of all Kurdistanis. I can tell you as a former Foreign Office minister that the people and government of the U.K. are privileged to count Kurdistan as an ally and friend. 
Like many people of my age, I was the first in my family to go to university. I was brought up in a public housing estate in north London and then in Harlow.

My degree started took me to becoming the Member of Parliament for Harlow. That enabled me to become a UK minister for the Middle East, including Kurdistan and Iraq, higher education, the armed forces and then leadership in two British universities before coming here.

I had no idea when I attended my graduation in Cardiff that I would be President here. Or that a Kurdish fellow student, one Barham Salih would become President of Iraq. I certainly never imagined I would be working near the prison that was once a British railway station which Agatha Christie used in the 1920s.

Kurds were then forced to join Iraq and decades of discrimination and then genocide followed.

The modern Kurdistan Region is only 30 years old, not much older than you. I am very proud that two British Prime Ministers helped Kurds build a strong region in Iraq.

The first was Sir John Major. The British public was horrified at the scenes of misery and death in the freezing mountains in 1991. Young Kurds here and in the diaspora in Britain successfully lobbied for urgent international help. Sir John Major bravely defied the usual rules and pioneered the no fly zone and safe haven.

The Kurdistan Region was born and later consolidated by another British Prime Minister, Tony Blair – my former boss – in the 2003 liberation of Iraq.

The 1991 uprising evicted Saddam Hussein and the new elected government embraced two major priorities, democratisation and education. And the establishment of this University to educate the future leaders of Kurdistan was the vision of our founder. And you are the product of that vision.

And democratisation and education are always linked. Free critical thinking at quality education institutions supports democracy through informing and nurturing a civil society that imagines alternatives.

Cultural and economic change can be accelerated by vibrant universities. We are striving to be one. We are also reaching out to the wider world so Kurdistan is never isolated and disconnected again.

There was just one university in the beginning. Many more were to come. Quantity is becoming quality and part of my mission is to further transform education and respect those who fought for the modern Kurdistan Region.

The epitaph for the martyrs of February 2004 at Sami Abdul Rahman Park rightly says freedom is not free. That struggle was long and the uprising began the journey from A to Z – Anfal to Zanko.

The next 30 years are in your hands. Progress has enabled you to study your subjects and now to also be a subject of this country’s future history.

The days of learning by rote and saying what you think the teacher expects rather than what you think have gone. You have acquired a body of knowledge but, much more importantly, a greater ability to think for yourself and to solve problems none of us has even thought of. And some of which, like climate change, are pressing. You are now this country’s most important natural resource. 

Some of you may have the same vocation for the rest of your lives. Some will take up jobs that haven’t yet been invented, such is the bewildering pace of social and economic change. But your education and firming here will equip you to cope.
You are the promise of a better future for your country. You are also lifelong ambassadors for the UKH. But your degree is just the start of your journey. You now must with that qualification and your university experience seize new opportunities and imagine your more successful future-for you, your families and for Kurdistan. You are the future of Kurdistan and your success here at UKH demonstrates it will be a bright one. Ba Broin. Go for it. Have a great day, and an even better future.

Bill Rammell was Labour MP for Harlow from 1997 to 2010. He was also a senior UK minister in three roles: Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East, Minister for the Armed Forces, (including Kurdistan and Iraq), and Higher Education. He then spent a decade in higher education as Vice President at Plymouth University and then President of the University of Bedfordshire. He started as President of the University of Kurdistan Hewler (UKH) in August 2021.

The above is an edited version of a graduation speech to students, given by Bill Rammell, UKH President at UKH Graduation Ceremony on November 3, 2021 in Erbil. It first appeared on Rudaw website.