Jim Owens has accepted a position with the American University of Iraq Sulaimani in Iraq's Kurdish region. Here, Owens holds a photo of himself in 1991 with Air Force comrades in a refugee camp along the Turkey-Iraq border.

U.S. soldiers leaving Iraq are re-united with families after long stints, most hoping never to return to that dangerous desert region.

But former U.S. Air Force member Jim Owens couldn't be more excited to return to Iraq, where he and his comrades provided relief for more than 180,000 Kurdish refugees.

He has no plans for fighting, but he is ready to help change the country for the better.


Owens, who lives in Peru, will be a full-time teacher at the American University of Iraq - Sulaimani, teaching mathematics and business classes.

"If you want to bring peace to a region, this is the way to do it," he said.

Owens was an adjunct teacher at Plattsburgh State and Clinton Community College and then became a full-time graduate student at Clarkson University.

He had completed his classes and was ready to begin teaching again.

When the opportunity to go back to Iraq presented itself, his mind was set, despite job interviews with schools here in the States.

"I'm going back because I can," he said.

The private nonprofit university where he will teach offers classes to all Iraqis, regardless of affiliation. The school conducts all classes in English and provides undergraduates with a liberal-arts program.


Owens first experienced this northern area of Iraq, commonly referred to as Kurdistan, during Operation Provide Comfort in 1981.

While fleeing the gassing campaigns in Northern Iraq in the weeks after the Gulf War ended, many Kurds headed for the border region in southern Turkey.

"The Turks have no love for Kurds," Owens explained, which goes back to the foundation of modern-day Turkey. The fear was that the Turks would kill off the Kurds, who had just fled violence in Iraq.

As a result, primarily American-led NATO forces attempted to relocate the hundreds of thousands of Kurds housed in four separate camps along the Iraq-Turkey border, eventually establishing a no-fly zone.

"It defused what could have been a very unpleasant situation," Owens said.


The no-fly zone helped the area flourish as an autonomous region, although during the 2003 invasion, the zone was no longer recognized.

Owens said the result of the continued prosperity of the region is evident in the formation of universities like the University of Iraq - Sulaimani, which formed in 2007.

That area of Iraq has also been quite stable and secure from most of the fighting, he said, lending itself to the creation of schools such as this.

"I think they're doing wonderful things there," Owens said. "I don't feel as if I'm going to be in any danger."


Historically, Iraqi students have specialized in specific fields. This university, however, offers a liberal-arts program that will allow young Iraqis to broaden their horizon and have a safe place to exchange differing points of view.

Iraq is, in essence, being given a fresh start, Owens said, and he wants to be there at the creation.

"It's not exactly settled what Iraq is going to look like."

By educating the future leaders in a safe environment, real and positive change can take place, he said.

"I feel in some ways I'm kind of trying to make up for the God-awful mess we made over there."


One of the problems in the weeks following the Gulf War, he said, was that the Kurds were encouraged to believe that if they stood up against Saddam Hussein, they would receive military support from the United States.

No such help arrived, leaving many Kurds to be systematically killed, Owens said.

Regardless of what happened in the past, there is still a responsibility to help, he said.

"The situation is what it is, regardless of what people feel."

Owens said he felt called to return to the region and thinks of it as an adventure.

Hoping to continue giving to a region he first helped during Operation Provide Comfort, he found the University of Iraq was the perfect opportunity when he decided to go back to teaching.

"It's almost like closing the circle."

Recommended for you