‘I want to do something meaningful for people. Because I still can'

The life of Dalal is dominated by what is happening in Iraq. Photo: Simona Evstatieva

It’s tempting to think Dalal isn’t living in war anymore now that she’s living in the Netherlands. But when you talk to the pharmacy student, you discover her life is dominated by what’s happening in Iraq. You can take a woman out of the war, but you can’t take the war out of the women – that saying’s never felt so relevant before. The situation in her home country makes for days when she’s in bed, feeling completely devastated, but also for days when it motivates her not to give up. In a way, she finds the power to stay upright in the pain and the sadness.

‘In one day, I lost everything’
Dalal’s story starts in a village near Sinjar, in the north-west of Iraq, close to the border with Syria. Life there is primitive. There’s not always electricity, no internet, no one with any medical knowledge, and no baker. The residents are mostly Yazidis, a religious minority that’s been prosecuted for centuries. Still, life for Dilal, daughter of a primary school dean, was good until late 2012. That’s when the Syrian civil war came closer and closer, and Dalal’s father fled to the Netherlands. For the purpose of family reunion, the then 17-year-old Dalal was allowed to come to the Netherlands as well, along with her mother, two sisters and two brothers. Another sister and her family stayed behind.

“It was really difficult to leave everything behind. I felt like in a single day, I lost everything I’d had.” Still, Dalal’s world didn’t crumble until six months after she’d arrived in the Netherlands: August 3, 2014. “That was the day I wanted to die. I was woken up by the sounds of shouting and crying. The first thing I heard my mother say was: ‘run away and make sure you’ve got something in your hands that you can use to commit suicide.’ I instantly realised she was talking on the phone to my sister who was still in Iraq.” Her sister called to tell her family IS had invaded their home village. “On that one day, thousands of people were murdered. For ten days, we didn’t know who was alive and who was dead. We weren’t able to contact anyone. For days, I hoped it had all been a nightmare.”

‘Every time, I consider giving up’
Five years later, there are still friends and cousins whose fates are unknown to her. She knows they were captured by IS, but not what happened afterwards. And when news does come, it’s bad news more often than good. “Three months ago, a friend of mine was murdered by IS. The war is still ongoing. For the past five years, I’ve lived in fear of phone calls bringing me bad news. Every time I receive these kinds of messages, I consider giving up. I’ve also tried to kill myself one time. But I realise I have to keep going – so I can do something meaningful for the people there. Because I still can.”

She does this by, among other things, talking to politicians about the situation the Yazidis are in, and as unofficial spokesperson for the religious minority in various Dutch media. In the past year, she was interviewed by pretty much all national media about the possible return of Dutch IS-women. It’s a discussion she follows incredulously, because the IS women were also involved in the abuse of the Yazidis. She knows the stories from friends who’d managed to escape IS. She thinks it’s insane that IS victims might run into their executors on the street. “My parents have taught me to speak up against injustice, so that’s what I’m doing.”

‘People couldn’t look past my broken Dutch’
Still, in her eyes, it’s not until she finishes her education that Dalal can truly mean something for the world. “When you’ve graduated from a study programme, that’s when people will really listen to you. That’s when you can speak up for contrary opinions to people who can ensure something will really change.” Aside from that, she hopes that with a degree, she’ll be able to work in research, and then develop medication for rare diseases. Or else, she might go to developing countries to use her knowledge for good there.

Since arriving in the Netherlands in 2013, Dalal’s life is all about studying and – as she calls it – ‘getting ahead’. This comes with numerous challenges. Dalal knows what’s she’s capable of (her average grade on her exams in Iraq was a 9.3), but still has to convince the Dutch of this truth. “When I was in language school and told people I wanted to go to university, teachers would at me strangely. They couldn’t look past my broken Dutch. So they advised me to start at the mbo, then do my Propaedeutic year at hbo, and then work up to university. That day, I cried when I went home. I didn’t want to wait that long to be able to do what I wanted to do. So I started looking for ways it could be done faster. I got my vwo diploma by obtaining separate certificates.” For her vwo, Dalal did three years in one.

‘I want to make other people’s lives easier’
Her certificates weren’t sufficient to get into Utrecht University – but the University of Groningen did accept her. So, for a full year, she travelled back and forth from Almere. After finishing her Propaedeutic year, she was finally accepted to Utrecht University after all. It still bothers her that she’s had to take such a detour. “Why did the University of Groningen accept my certificates, and the UU did not?” No matter how frustrating the road to university was for her – to many other refugees, Dalal is a success story. Every day, she’s approached on social media by people who want to know how she’s made this happen. She sees it as her duty to respond to all those messages. “I want to make other people’s lives easier, so they can make their own dreams come true. I would feel so guilty if I didn’t do that and just say ‘someone else will answer those questions’. Because if we’d all lived so selfishly, the world won’t get any better.”

The dream to help others was something Dalal had always had. But as a teenager in Iraq, it’s not something she actively worked on. “I was a regular teenager with the dreams of a 16-year-old. I wanted to go to college, help my parents, build a better future. But I didn’t have any real responsibilities. My dream to really mean something to others wasn’t concrete.” Fleeing to the Netherlands brought her countless opportunities to make that dream a reality.

Dalal is so motivated to make the world a better place, that sometimes she seems to forget herself. Even when she’s among friends, her mind is partially on what she can do. “My head is full with a thousand things that still have to happen. Sometimes I think: I need to take more time for myself, but I can’t do it. I don’t know how long I’ve got to live, and I have so much I still want to accomplish. I know I can’t change the past anymore, but I can change the future.”

Who are the Promising Fifteen of 2019?

Mid-December, DUB will present the third edition of the ‘Promising Fifteen’. Which fifteen UU students were remarkable in 2019 because of their athletic achievements, studies, volunteer work or other reasons? Until that time, we’ll give a sneak peek every week by publishing an extensive interview with one of the students we chose. This article about Dalal Ghanim is the first of those. Read the interviews or check out the fifteen students who were promising in 2017 (in Dutch, ed.) and 2018.