Abbas, a 24 year-old graduate from the College of Science at Salahuddin University in Erbil, wants to find work in Kurdistan because his family, who moved there from Baghdad two years ago due to security fears, has no plans to return until it is much safer.
"To be honest, I don't want to work in shopping malls, because I am a university graduate. I want to work for an NGO or a company, but I have to speak Kurdish well to do that," he said in broken Kurdish.
Today, many Kurds in Kurdistan cannot speak Arabic, particularly the younger generation. Older people – having served in the Iraqi army and worked in other parts of Iraq – speak very good Arabic. Since the 1991 uprising, English has become more popular among Kurds than Arabic. It makes it difficult for Iraqi Kurds and Arabs to communicate with each other.
Three months ago, the Kurdistan Youth Empowerment Organization (KYEO), with the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), began a Kurdish language course for around 500 Iraqi Arab and Christian displaced persons living in Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
The schools are located in Ainkawa, the predominantly Christian district of Erbil city. The classes are split according to the students' ages. In one class the participants' ages are 50 and older.
Shad Muhammad, head of KYEO, said USAID has allocated US$500,000 for the project. "Each student gets $5 every day for transportation, and the teachers get monthly salaries."
According to Muhammad, around 2,000 peope have registered their names for Kurdish lessons, but he could only accept 500 due to the limits of the financial support."We want this course to be continued and to let everyone participate in the course, but we need support," he said.
Muhammad sees three possible ways to pay for the courses. USAID might offer more money. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Education could step-in, or the students could pay themselves for their studies.
"We talked with the Ministry of Education about funding and the atmosphere was positive," he said.
The students, who are allowed to speak only in Kurdish in class, spoke of their happiness with the course.
"In the downtown market, I communicate with shopkeepers in Kurdish and face no problems," said Dominique Safien, 17. His family left Kirkuk a year ago.
"Now, without difficulty, I communicate with my Kurdish friends at school,” he added.
As part of the course, every week, the students watch a Kurdish movie and then discuss it. Soon they will start visiting supermarkets and public places as groups, with the aim of communicating with local Kurdish people. Local traffic policemen have visited the classes to talk in Kurdish to the students about traffic laws in Erbil city.
For the older students, learning Kurdish is mainly a means to getting a job.
"I went to the Coca Cola manufacturing company in Erbil city to apply for a job,” said Basim Omer, a mechanical engineer. “The company's manager said he can't give me the job since he needs an engineer who can speak Kurdish language. The incident made me look for a way to learn Kurdish language."
The course has become well known among Arabs and displaced families living in Kurdistan Region.
Muhammad, head of KYEO, added that it is not just individuals looking for Kurdish language courses. He says he has been approached by a large number of Arab company directors and officials, working for the Kurdistan Region Government, as well as some Iraqi MPs, asking KYEO to open private courses for them to learn Kurdish.