Huner Anwer grew up when he was five.
It was 1991. He was told he had to pack up.
In a frenzy, he and his family gathered crucial belongings for the 120-mile journey they would be making on foot, from Sulaimani, Iraq, to the Iranian border.
Saddam Hussein was in power. Anwer and his family would be traveling among four and a half million Kurdish people desperately fleeing to Iran and Turkey after the 1991 uprisings in Iraq.
Anwer and his family hiked, sometimes barefoot, in numbing temperatures through arduous mountain passes, enduring April’s sleet, snow and rain. Thousands of people who began the journey alongside Anwer did not ever finish. Many froze or starved along the way.
“When I walked that distance, this was the first moment I realized, even though I was a young age, I can’t be a kid,” Anwer said.
Now a graduate student studying civil engineering, Anwer, who grew up in Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, recalls harrowing memories of the Kurdish exodus. Anwer said he saw many parents leave young children behind in fear they would not make it anyway.
“You had to walk this road when it’s snowing, you have to decide how you’re going to get to [Iran] and how you’re going to survive,” Anwer said.
His younger sister was six months old.
“My little sister at the time was a heavy carry for my mother,” Anwer said. “Sometimes we weren’t even sure if she was dead or alive. We thought, ‘Are we going to decide to lose the mother and the baby, or just the baby, or just the mother?’ But we never did it. We decided we would carry her no matter what.”
Anwer said his sister is now married and recently had a child.
“When I think about that, I thank God all the time we didn’t do it,” he said. “We worked hard to carry her.”
Anwer was among millions hosted in refugee camps in Iran, where he said he specifically stayed in a small town named Bana. After two weeks, he and six other families were driven 12 hours back to Sulaimani in a massive hollowed-out barrel of a water tank truck, where he said it was extremely difficult to breathe.
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
When Anwer did return to Sulaimani, he finished primary school in a nearby village called Sitak, where he said he and his classmates had to provide their own wood for a furnace that would heat the classrooms. He said he grew up reading textbooks that praised Saddam Hussein and denied any existence of Kurdistan.
Eventually Anwer graduated from the University of Sulaimani in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Between 2006 and 2010, Anwer worked for Millennium Relief and Development Services, a non-profit organization that operates in Iraq funded by the U.S. State Department.
It was during this time that Anwer designed a project that would allow several professors from the U.S. to travel to Iraq and teach English to students at the University of Sulaimani.
Janine Leaman, who is currently a teacher in the Intensive English Language Program at Temple, participated in the project in 2009.
“It ended up being a really marvelous experience,” Leaman said. “We were there because of [Huner’s] vision of it. If we needed something done, he would do his absolute best to get it done.”
In 2010, through a State Department fellowship, Anwer traveled to America for the first time to study at Temple for five weeks as an exchange student. He was among students from Baghdad, Egypt and Lebanon, all of whom were taking courses on democracy and religious pluralism.
“For me, it’s a great experience to get to meet people from all over the world,” Anwer said. “It’s a great opportunity. It’s so good to be here, to learn and help other people learn.”
During this time, Anwer was enrolled in Study of the U.S. Institute for Student Leaders.
“There is an example of religious pluralism here,” Anwer said. “You have lots of people with different ethnic, religious or color backgrounds. There is a great example of coexistence.
“We were trying to understand how this has been accomplished in this country, and how we could help apply that in our country. Iraq is suffering from major religious differences right now,” Anwer said.
During his time at Temple in 2010, Anwer became involved in the Dialogue Institute, a nonprofit organization founded at Temple in 1978 that “works to transform the world into a global community by fostering interreligious and intercultural scholarship, understanding and cooperation,” according to its website.
Leonard Swidler, a professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple, founded the Dialogue Institute with his wife. Anwer calls Swidler his “mentor” and lives in his home when he is in America.
Last year, Anwer’s mother also stayed in Swidler’s home while she was receiving medical treatment in the city. Swidler has traveled to Iraq four times since he met Anwer. When Swidler visits Iraq, he stays with Anwer’s family.
“[Anwer] has amazing connections,” Swidler said. “The president of Iraq – the whole country – was someone he knew well enough to pick up the phone and talk to.”
Anwer met Qubad Talabani – the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani – in 2009, after Quabad Talabani heard of Anwer’s work through MRDS at the University of Sulamani. Because they maintained contact, Anwer eventually developed a relationship with his entire family.
Anwer was able to introduce Swidler to the first lady of Iraq and several other prominent political figures in Kurdistan.
“I got to meet people of political power not because I am of political influence, but because I am involved in religion, which, as you can imagine, has immediate political implications,” Swidler said.
“It is very difficult for us who live in America to realize that the rest of the world is so different, and that religion has this whole mess of political stuff in it,” Swidler said. “And there was a lot of antagonism, and there still is, in America, on a religious basis, but it’s nothing like the rest of the world, or it’s nothing like it was.”
Through the institute, Swidler is able to bring people from various countries to Temple for limited amounts of time, funded by the State Department, so that they can “build bridges of understanding and cooperation rather than accusations and attacks.”
“How do I get to know something more?” Swidler said. “How do I get to learn about a reality that I can’t see but they can see? We have to be in dialogue. That’s how we expand our knowledge. And it’s got to keep expanding. There are now seven billion of us, and we’re going to keep growing.”
LESSONS TAKEN HOME
When Anwer returned to Iraq in 2010, he began volunteering for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and founded and modeled a Dialogue Institute in Iraqi Kurdistan after the Dialogue Institute at Temple.
Through the Dialogue Institute of Iraq, Anwer has brought and accompanied several Iraqi judges, lawyers, students and businessmen to America.
“That’s what we have to invest our money in,” Anwer said. “I wouldn’t say [America] is a perfect country. But I’d say it’s the best example of religious freedom for countries who suffer because of their religious differences.”
Swidler said The Dialogue Institute hosted 20 female professors from Saudi Arabia in August.
“On the one hand, it’s very slow work, changing people’s understanding of themselves and the world,” Swidler said. “But the way you understand the world determines how you act in it.”
While Swidler believes it’s crucial for citizens to be aware of world events, he doesn’t think people – in America and the Middle East – are always properly informed by the media.
“You can’t blame the media,” Swidler said, “They’re reporting on what is happening in the world. You’re going to hear all about Muslim violence.
“But the fact that there might be a million Muslims who did positive, constructive things yesterday, well you don’t write about that. You write about the six of them that did destructive things. That’s the way the media is. If it bleeds, it leads.”
Anwer, who is Muslim, expresses fear at the thought of the extremist group ISIL, also known as ISIS.
“Some people call them ISIL. Some people call them ISIS. I call them jerks,” Anwer said. “Because I wouldn’t say I’ve never seen people like this. I have actually seen Saddam Hussein. But now, in the 21st century, you’re killing children, women and men? Innocent people because of their religious conviction? Can you believe that?”
Anwer has been traveling between Iraq and America since 2010. He arrived in America three months ago for his first year of graduate school at Temple. He expresses concern with flying back and forth between the countries amid turmoil in Iraq.
“The ISIS fighters have the possibility to bring down airplanes,” Anwer said. “There are still airlines operating, but with fear. Most have suspended their flights to Kurdistan. I know Iraqi students at Temple who have been stuck [in America] because there are no flights to Kurdistan.”
Anwer’s family currently lives just 100 miles southwest of Erbil, the site of recent U.S. airstrikes.
“I believe [the airstrikes] were a great thing,” Anwer said. “It would help prevent the [ISIS] fighters from getting to the city of Erbil. I don’t think there is any need for boots on the ground, but that doesn’t mean there’s no need for airstrikes.”
Anwer said he tries to stay in touch with his family every two hours to provide any comfort and security he can.
“They feel like they will have to run away again,” Anwer said. “When I call, they ask ‘Should we pack up?’” Anwer said. “We built a house four years ago. We spent so much money on it. We never know if we’ll own it in the future.”
Anwer said thoughts of the exodus stay lodged in the family’s memory. He recalls the rainy day in 1991 when his family had to cross the Choman River, a choppy waterway that splits Iraq from Iran, unnavigable by foot.
He said a small cable car, swarmed by a line of battered refugees, was the only way across. At one point, because the cable wasn’t strong enough, Anwer said he saw a family’s cart detach and become swallowed by the river.
Anwer said the cable was repaired by the time he and his family crossed, allowing them to step on the soil that he said felt like “heaven.”
When Anwer reads current news about ISIS’ violent persecution of the Yazidis, one of Iraq’s oldest minorities, he said he is deeply affected.
“I go to sleep, and I wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and say ‘Am I in a refugee camp?’” Anwer said. “I have dreams. Whenever an atrocity happens, like the one with the Yazidis, I have a lot of bad dreams. In my dreams I am walking to get to the Choman River.”
Anwer is currently documenting atrocities like the Kurdish Genocide and the persecution of the Yazidis as part of the Dialogue Institute of Iraq.
“When I listen to the survivors today, I feel their pain,” Anwer said. “I’ve been there. I have lot of dreams. I want to document their stories so that doesn’t happen again. Not just in Iraq, but in anywhere else in the world.”
Claire Sasko can be reached at email@example.com and on twitter @clairesasko