“The mission is to educate the future leaders and citizens of Iraq and the Middle East,” Christine explained. “Governance is based on debating and power sharing and negotiation…Here, they learn how to debate and learn and question.”
Where Christine van den Toorn ’97 teaches, education is a matter of national significance. She directs the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, which a Kurdish academic and political reformer founded after the US invasion. In 10 years, the school swelled to 1,600 students, who study a core curriculum and specialization of their choice.
A few years after graduating from college, Christine served in the Peace Corps in Morocco. That was in 2004, post-9/11, post-Iraq invasion.
Now in her eighth year at IRIS, Christine leads one of the only policy research centers headquartered in the Middle East. IRIS hosts fellows and conducts field work and research to inform good policy.
“There are so many people sitting in Washington, shaping our foreign policy,” she said. “We know what’s happening on the ground because of our students and the networks we’ve established.”
Christine faces challenges beyond the online disruption and rising tuition costs you hear about in the US. When oil prices collapsed in 2014, it tanked Kurdistan’s economy and much of the school’s funding. Then there’s the Islamic State.
“ISIS was at one point an hour and a half away, but I still drove to work every day,” Christine said. “The Kurds have kept this place safe.”
Such developments lent urgency to the study of public institutions that Christine began at Maret. She credits the intensive legal studies of Lynn Levinson’s Civil Liberties class with adding substance to her interest in public service.
Shelley Brodie’s class on the Holocaust and genocide helped inspire Christine’s move to humanitarian work with the Peace Corps. English teachers Vance Gage and Pucky Thomas trained her in the rigorous textual analysis she now passes on to her students.
Christine returned home for her 20th Maret Reunion, and spoke at a Maret assembly with graduates from Sulaimani.
“I want to be in DC. more, but whenever I’m in DC. I always want to come back and see what’s going on in Iraq,” she said.