Going back to create a future
When Ali Hadawi returned to his Iraqi homeland after 20 years in exile in Britain, the journey was emotional for more reasons than one.
Not only would he be seeing the family he left behind aged just 18, he was also to be an ambassador for a UK project to help rebuild the education system in his home country.
Hadawi, now 39, is vice principal of Greenwich Community College in south-east London, one of a group of UK FE colleges which are beginning a unique collaboration with similar vocational education institutions in Iraq.
Next month five colleges will host representatives from five "twinned" colleges in Iraq. At least two other UK colleges will help provide support and advice to the visitors.
The vocational partnerships programme, organised by the Association of Colleges and the British Council, is to help with the regeneration of FE and training in Iraq, following the downfall of the former dictator Saddam Hussein.
The British Council has initially committed pound;50,000 to cover the costs of travel and accommodation and the colleges are contributing time and expertise.
The task will be immense, given the devastated infrastructure and continuing violence, combined with a 20-year history of decline and neglect.
During the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and two subsequent Gulf wars the formerly prosperous and educationally- advanced country has become backward.
As the political and physical reconstruction of Iraq begins, education is a priority. Schools and universities are being rebuilt and the Association of Colleges wants to ensure the FE and the vocational sector is not left behind.
"The reconstruction of Iraq will require people with the right sort of skills," said Rafik Sfar-Gandoura, international director at Derby College, one of the five UK host colleges. "The FE and vocational sector is essential to the skilling and re-skilling of a generation of Iraqis, to enable them to rebuild their country."
Hadawi agrees. He believes that by recruiting many thousands of Iraqis as students to acquire new skills, the new and rebuilt colleges could also help revitalise local economies and tackle the continuing problem of violence and insurrection by disaffected young Iraqis.
"One million soldiers have been released from the Iraqi or Saddam's army," he said. "They released a million young men into the market-place with no skills and no jobs. I expect that is part of the current security situation.
"Now there's a new Iraq and there's no war. So people will need to find jobs. If you don't have the right skills you can't find the right job.
Someone needs to step in and help those people reskill. This will help the local economy, help re-build the infrastructure and help the security and political situation as well."
Next month, the Iraqi visitors will spend three weeks learning about the latest teaching and managerial methods and technological developments in FE and training in Britain. They will be based at five of the colleges chosen to act as host, announced by the AoC - Greenwich Community College, Derby College, City College in Brighton and Hove, Halton College and Huddersfield technical college. Colleagues at Preston and Warwickshire will also provide input by acting as mentors and advisers.
The project's mission statement, drawn up following a meeting at Greenwich community college in February, is "to advise on and support the strategic development of the vocational and educational system in Iraq in order that it can deliver an appropriately trained workforce with skills for the 21st century."
Greenwich became involved because of its culturally diverse student population - 86 languages are spoken as the mother tongue within the college. And 100 of the 170 overseas students - out of 12,000 full and part timers - are from Iraq.
Geoff Pine, the principal, said: "There's an emotional commitment to assist a country which has clearly undergone a temporary blip in its development.
It's about doing these small things that as an organisation you might be able to make things better."
Foreign Office advice is not to travel to Iraq but the AoC hopes traffic between the two countries will eventually be two-way. In the meantime, more Iraqi colleges will be twinned with UK partners and longer-term developments will be planned at an international symposium on FE in Iraq in December, possibly in Jordan.
When his colleagues and compatriots arrive in Britain next month it will be just six months since Hadawi returned to his home town of Babylon last December. He left in 1984 to study electronics and computer engineering at Birmingham university, and felt he could not return as he feared he would either be drafted into the Iraqi army or treated as a spy during the Iran-Iraq war. "The reunion with my family was a very emotional experience," said Hadawi, who is now married with two children.
"My family were overjoyed, full of love and affection, and I was overwhelmed." On his trip, Hadawi travelled around Iraq meeting colleagues in education, politicians and ordinary people and despite the escalating violence he remains optimistic.
"Most Iraqis you talk to, from whichever part of the political spectrum, do think things are better," he said. "Everyone sees the future as bright. I'm hopeful we could make an impact and make things work for Iraqis this time.
"I feel very empowered that I am able to make a contribution; very excited that I'm able to contribute a little bit to the big picture with this project to regenerate education in Iraq. Most people want to be part of this new beginning."