An internship in Iraq

The war in your mind

RUG student Kurdvin Rasool was able to do his dream internship in a warzone in Northern Iraq. His work earned him a nomination for a prestigious prize, but it also left him in a dark place emotionally. ‘This kind of work really affects you. It really gets a hold on you.’
By Thereza Langeler / Translation by Traci White / Photo by Reyer Boxem

RUG student Kurdvin Rasool did an internship in an unusual place: a refugee camp in Northern Iraq.

The Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF) has nominated him for the Kees Bleichrodt.

Their reasoning: ‘He has a big heart and is so dedicated to helping others.’

It may seem like a success story, but once he returned to the Netherlands, he found himself in an emotional black hole. It was then that it hit him what he had been through.

It took him almost a year to process everything he had seen and witnessed.

‘I will never forget. But what I saw has now become a part of my identity. And that’s good. It’s now part of who I am.’

Reading time: 5 minutes (1,017 words)

The UK spoke with Rasool about his internship in Iraq back in 2015, shortly after he returned to the Netherlands. In that interview, which you can read here, Rasool is an enthusiastic guy who goes on and on about his experiences and talks about how he cannot wait to go back to the warzone that he had just returned from.

Rasool is still a talker, but there are some things that have changed since then. When he speaks, his right hand picks nervously – almost compulsively – at the collar of his sweater. At times, he falls completely silent because it takes effort for him to find the words to describe the emotional black hole that he found himself in after his internship.

‘I don’t sugar coat things’, he warns.

Internship in a warzone

Kurdvin Rasool (39) came to the Netherlands in 1997 as a refugee, enrolled in the international humanitarian action master’s programme at the RUG and, of his own volition, did an internship from September 2014 through February 2015 at a refugee camp on the border of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. He went despite serious objections from the RUG, which was perhaps unsurprisingly not so eager to send a student into a warzone.

Rasool’s efforts did not go unnoticed. The Foundation for Refugee Students (Stichting voor Vluchteling-Studenten, UAF) nominated him for the Kees Bleichrodt award, a prize for a refugee student who has stood out during their studies. ‘What makes Kurdvin so special in our eyes is that he has a big heart and is so dedicated to helping others’, the UAF website writes.

‘Their parents – it may sound unfair, but many of them are simply lost.’

You would never hear Rasool talk about himself in such terms, though. When the conversation turns to the topic of awards and admiration, he shrugs and says, ‘I don’t think I’m all that special, really.’

But he is pleased to be nominated, because the months following his internship were rough. ‘It all hit me at once’, he says. ‘In Iraq, it was six months of working extremely hard seven days a week. You don’t permit yourself a moment’s rest. But that also means that you don’t have time to process everything that is happening to you.’


After returning to the Netherlands, it turned out that he was very sick: he had a tumour in his neck. Rasool, the go-getter, the hard worker, had to slow down. That was when everything he had been through hit him like a tonne of bricks. ‘This kind of work really affects you. It really grips you.’

The thing that really stuck with Rasool was the children in the camp. He has a soft spot for them: ‘They are the seeds of the future, and they can grow into big, strong tree’, he says with conviction. ‘Their parents – it may sound unfair, but many of them are simply lost. They have already been through too much. The children still have a chance.

The camp did not have the budget to buy any toys for the children, so Rasool collected money himself. ‘With the donations, I bought a bunch of balls and dolls, and I distributed them at all of the camps in the region. You can’t imagine the smiles on their faces.’ He grins from ear to ear at the recollection. ‘One father couldn’t stop thanking me, simply because I had given his son a ball that cost 30 cents.’


But Rasool could not save all the children by giving them a toy. ‘There was one little girl’, he begins, reluctantly. ‘She was around 12 years old and she never spoke. All she ever did was smile. Her father told me that they had fled IS, and how they had passed by a house with a gate, and how there were severed heads stuck on the gate. After seeing that, she stopped talking and only smiled.’

In another camp, he met a girl who remained quietly seated in the corner while the other children happily came over to receive their gifts. ‘She was a beautiful child. I wanted to make it clear to her that she was safe and that she could play as long as she liked.’ He stares off into the distance, his right hand rhythmically tugging at the collar of his sweater. ‘She was a Yazidi girl. She has been sold to IS fighters: sold, and raped.’

In the silence after uttering those words, a mixture of emotions wash over his face. He begins to say something, trails off, and tries to articulate something meaningful. ‘It was… yeah. Really tough. It was really fucking tough.’

‘Not forgotten’

Rasool has now managed to crawl out of the emotional black hole that he was in. His illness is also under control, and he has come to terms with what he witnessed. ‘But I haven’t forgotten’, he stresses. ‘I will never forget. But what I saw has now become a part of my identity. And that’s good. It’s now part of who I am.’

He compares it with a student room during exams, and immediately thereafter. ‘You know what I mean: there’s books and empty cans lying around everywhere, it’s just a mess. But you’re so busy studying that you don’t have time to clean up until you’re finished your exams. Then, you can take your time straightening up.’

And that is how Rasool straightened things out in his head. But he did not do it alone: his friends were there to support him, as was his faith in God. ‘I believe that God has placed me in a certain position. He also put me in that camp – not to bully me, but with a goal in mind, you know? It wasn’t for nothing.’

Now, Rasool is focusing on sharing his experiences and his knowledge through regular guest lectures at the international relations & organisations. He cannot say just yet whether he will ever return to Iraq or not. ‘Maybe. I’m keeping all the doors open.’ But would he have still gone in the first place had he known in advance everything that he would go through? Without a moment’s hesitation, he says: ‘Yes. Absolutely.’


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