One Book at a Time

  • In 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attacked and took control of Mosul which led to the destruction of the Central Library.
  • In 2017, Sayf and his colleagues began the reconstruction and rebuilding of the Central Library.
  • The UNITAR entrepreneurship training programme helped him hone his communication and leadership skills.
Book restoration by Sayf Al Ashqar

July 2022, Hiroshima, Japan — In June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), also known as ISIS, attacked the town of Mosul in Iraq, destroying homes, displacing thousands, and claiming the city and everything in it for their own. The residents of Mosul, including Sayf, lost everything they and their families had built over decades.

Sayf Al Ashqar is Secretary General of the Libraries (Director of the Central Library) at the University of Mosul and has been in service to the university for 15 years. When ISIS invaded Mosul, Sayf had just completed his post-graduate studies in Malaysia and was excited to bring back his new skills and networks and put them to use for his university and city. But when ISIS entered Mosul, Sayf’s family knew his expatriate experience would put him at immediate risk. They fled the city.

Displacement and Devastation

Sayf, Secretary General of the Libraries (Director of the Central Library) at the University of Mosul

Sayf and his family settled in a city in Kurdistan for their safety. But Sayf’s father returned to the family home in Mosul to get some essentials and reclaim some of what the family had worked so hard to build. When he entered the house, he was killed by an ISIS bomb.

The death of Sayf’s father devastated the family. Yet, it strengthened Sayf’s determination to speak up against ISIS and war and to promote education in his country. His father, like Sayf, was an academic and had taught him to value knowledge above everything else.

I don’t learn how to use weapons to fight terrorism. But I have other skills, I have knowledge. And from the knowledge, I try to learn more and share it with my society.

ISIS maintained control of Mosul for three years, destroying everything, including people’s homes, schools, and libraries. The University of Mosul was also destroyed and many of its students were displaced. So that its students could continue their education, the university set up caravans to act as classrooms. Still, many had to make long journeys to learn, day after day.

Reconstruction: Rebuilding the Library

University of Mosul Central Library: before and after reconstruction

In 2017, three years after the ISIS invasion, the Iraqi army took back Mosul. Sayf, his family and the academic community could finally go back. But the library had been 95 per cent destroyed.

We lost 1 million sources. Everything’s gone. We had a very, very difficult time. But we needed to make a plan.

Starting in a new location, Sayf and his team made a strategic plan that focused on two things: collecting new sources and materials, and reconstruction.

The library’s reconstruction and material sourcing became a communal and national effort. Under Sayf’s leadership and with the support of the university president, the library was rebuilt with funding from the German government, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Sayf wanted to bring life back into the library and requested the most colourful furniture for the space.

When you enter our library or the website, you can see the colours. You can see something you cannot see in a normal government public library. But this is why we need it.

When it came to filling the library, the community joined in donating their old books. Sayf also received 100 books from the Japanese Embassy, whose ambassador he had met before. Those books about Japanese culture now sit in a corner of the library with other books about cultures. In the future, Sayf hopes to create an e-library system and digitize the available books.

Learning Practical Skills to Sustain the Library: UNITAR Training

Sayf at the Central Library

While looking for opportunities to help with rebuilding the library, Sayf saw on social media training programme that he felt would give him the necessary skills to sustain the library. That programme was UNITAR’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programme to mobilizing resilient entrepreneurs in Iraq.

The UNITAR programme is an online training that equips youth entrepreneurs in Iraq with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to turn ideas for a social or for-profit enterprise into a business model. The enterprises meet the urgent domestic needs stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and promote sustainable recovery.

Driven by his love for life-long learning, Sayf enrolled, hoping to gain skills to help him rebuild his library. Through the programme, Sayf honed his communication and leadership skills, which he hopes to pass on to the youth of Iraq. He also gained an entrepreneurial mindset. Sayf is ready to challenge the lack of funding by searching for opportunities through collaboration, proposal writing, and inviting donations from the community.

We don’t get any funding from the government. We try to make a proposal and to collaborate. It’s not easy to get these types of skills, but I learned them from the UNITAR programme.

Sayf’s entrepreneurial spirit and collaboration with the local community have turned the library into a communal space. People gather in the library to read, sit in silence, or discuss and debate topics of interest. Sayf, now a father of two girls, brings his own daughters there to learn, read English books and enjoy the space.

“Impossible Doesn’t Exist”

Sayf, Secretary General of the Libraries (Director of the Central Library) at the University of Mosul

Sayf values commitment — commitment to oneself, family, staff, society and humanity. The library is a living testament of his commitment to move forward and give back to his community.

Despite the continuing challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the struggling economy, the lack of funding, and the need for more skilled staff and training to sustain the library, Sayf has hope in the future.

The word impossible does not exist in our dictionary. Yes, life is not easy. But we have hope.

UNITAR brings to the collaboration our expertise in supporting social entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, South Sudan, and countries in the Sahel region, and will connect our network of alumni and learners with like-minded contributors from around the world.

We have a blueprint for the future we want: the vision captured in the Sustainable Development Goals. Social entrepreneurship embodies the imagination and creativity we need to achieve this vision. And we have no time to waste.

Nikhil Seth, Executive Director, UNITAR

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