From Iraq to Sheffield: Engineering a bright future

AMRC Training Centre lecturer Noor Al-Mulaly overcame the horrors of war and a rising tide of oppression against women in Iraq to achieve her dream of working in engineering, as Katia Harston found out.

Noor Al-Mulaly moved to the UK five years ago having grown up in Iraq. She had long dreamed of being an engineer, keen to follow in the footsteps of her older brother. But her journey was not to be an easy one.

She worked hard to achieve the grades required to study engineering at university in Baghdad but her time to shine came at the very moment the country was on the brink of collapse into civil war as fighting between rival militias increased following the US-led invasion in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein.

Despite the odds being stacked against Noor, she didn’t give up, eventually finishing her education in Babylon and Malaysia before starting on a journey that would bring her to the University of Sheffield AMRC Training Centre in Catcliffe, where she is instrumental in teaching the fundamental maths skills required by apprentices wanting to become the innovators of tomorrow.

“I was very fortunate to have an educated family,” says Noor, who lived with her family in Babil for most of her life, where she completed her A-Levels before being accepted to the University of Baghdad.

“My dad did a PhD at Glasgow University, he is retired now, but he was an English linguistics lecturer and travelled around the world for work. My three brothers are all educated – the older one is a civil engineer, the youngest is like my dad, a lecturer, and the middle one is an economist. They all finished their PhDs in Malaysia and are now senior lecturers at different universities.

“My inspiration to work in engineering came from my brother, the eldest one. I always looked up to him and wanted to be a civil engineer like him, with his yellow helmet. This was my goal at that moment – to be an engineer just like him.

“So I worked hard on my A-Levels to get the grades that would give me the opportunity to do engineering at university.”

She studied Arabic language, English language, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics and Islamic studies, achieving the results she needed to secure a place at university.

“Now, A-Levels back home are different to here in the UK. With A-Levels in Iraq you have to do seven subjects in one year. I still remember it now, I must have only slept three hours a day just to keep up with all the subjects I had to do,” says Noor.

 “The overall grade you get at the end of the year determines what you go on to study at university, so 95 per cent or above you do medical, between 90 and 95 per cent you do engineering and so on. My overall mark was 91.4 per cent. I studied really hard but I was lucky to get the right grade that meant I could do engineering.”

What makes her achievement even more remarkable is that she had been studying during tumultuous unrest in Iraq – the year after the invasion of 2003.

“It was hard at times because we only had electricity for six hours a day so I was usually studying by candlelight most of the time at nights. So it was really hard on me.

“But you have to remember I grew up with conflict. I was born in 1986 which is when there was fighting between Iran and Iraq and then in 1990 it was the first Iraq war. So war was everywhere as a child. It was just the way we lived.

“But engineering was my dream.  I finished my A-Levels and I thought ‘that’s it, I have it - the engineering pathway at Baghdad University’. I have got it. But the reality was very different.

“The problem with the 2003 invasion, and afterwards, is that there was nowhere safe like there was before.”

As the bombs dropped on Baghdad, the streets Noor had walked down every day as a student were now reduced to unrecognisable rubble and the noose of oppression was being tightened around the necks of civilians by militants as the country experienced high levels of sectarian violence.

“At that time, there were these army groups starting to appear who were following educated people around and wanting to kill them. The problem was not only the bombing but another revolution that had appeared,” she says.

“These groups started to say that women couldn’t go outside and must stay at home. It was on the news that some women had been grabbed from the streets, beaten and had their hair cut for not wearing a head scarf. The situation was awful.

“It was really horrible during these years. For families sometimes, if the father was going to work and he said goodbye to them, it was always like it was the last time he was saying goodbye. It was that horrible.”

Noor’s dream of studying engineering at the University of Baghdad had crumbled like the once prosperous city around her. She had to leave the city as the violence among rival groups escalated.

It would have been easy for her to give up on her university education. But she didn’t. Instead she fled Baghdad and went to study in Babylon, taking a lower level pathway in computer science in order to be accepted.

“I started to look for a job but because of the situation we were having in Iraq I was afraid of gossips and violence because I was a woman and it really killed the ambition inside of me. It was really hard to look for a job at that time but I was lucky in that my dad was working in the Gulf and he supported me financially so I was able to finish my Masters degree in computer science in Malaysia.

‘’After then, I got married in Oman and I re-joined my husband who had finished his PhD here and started his career in the UK.”

Before she began teaching at the AMRC Training Centre, Noor had already lived in Sheffield for six months before going to work at Barnsley College as a graduate teacher. It is there she met Jon Barker, quality manager at the AMRC Training Centre, and Nikki Jones, director of the centre.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“To be working here at the AMRC Training Centre is my dream come true now because I really love my job helping to teach the engineers of the future.

“The journey I took to get here is amazing and has made me a strong person. It has opened my mind - I was always very dependent on other people and shy but now I’m very different. I’m much more confident about myself.”

All Noor would like now is to inspire young women who may be thinking about, or already on the path to becoming an engineer.

“If I can inspire just one young woman by sharing my story then it has all been worthwhile,” said Noor, who gave a talk to young female apprentices at the training centre about her journey.

Her message to them was this: “You need to believe in yourself and think there are girls in other countries that wish to be in your place here and you are an inspiring them.”

From Iraq to Sheffield: Engineering a bright future

Noor Al-Mulaly at the AMRC Training Centre

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