Local resident brings positive change abroad
Tamara Zúñiga-Brown has been a teacher, volunteer and advocate for more than 25 years, spreading awareness of income inequality among university instructors, supporting her international students and focusing on women’s rights. Today, she is teacher and assists Chaldean Archbishop Matti Warda in Erbil, Iraq, with establishing the English Language Preparatory Department at the Catholic University.
In Erbil, Brown teaches six English classes to internally displaced students at the Catholic University. The English Language Preparatory Department’s goal is to “rebuild Iraq’s fractured society and to help maintain the dwindling Christian minorities” in the country.
The dwindling population of Christians in Iraq is a major concern of Brown and the Archbishop. The number of Christians has been falling steadily since 1980, when Brown said there were around 5 million. Today Brown said there are around 250,000 to 300,000 Christians in Iraq, and called the decline a genocide. She said the decline is because of killings by the Islamic State and Christians fleeing the area.
She works for a nonprofit institution of higher education and research taught completely in English. Brown said the Archbishop recognizes English to be “a critical asset for social mobility and economic stability.” The university is open to students regardless of faith, culture or belief.
Before uprooting her life to move to Iraq, Brown received her masters of education in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from the University of Nevada, Reno.
Brown’s parents live in Gardnerville and her daughter is a Douglas High School and UNR graduate. There are other Gardnerville residents working in Iraq and “the city is well-represented,” she said.
Brown was teaching advanced American English and Culture to majority Muslim and Chinese students at universities in Southern California when a few of her students approached her one day to tell her the Archbishop Warda wanted to speak with her.
When Brown spoke to the Archbishop, he said he learned she worked well with Muslim students and thought she would be a good fit to run the English Language Preparatory in Erbil.
Brown took a year to make her decision, during which she and her daughter were together working six part-time jobs in order to maintain their residency in San Diego. Brown said she thought it was ridiculous that she could not afford to live in the city she taught.
While Brown was making her decision, her daughter received a full scholarship to attend the University of Southern Mississippi to get a master’s degree. Brown said after that she decided she was done working part-time jobs and they both decided to take the opportunities they were given.
“People would ask me if I was scared and I said no,” said Brown. “I am more scared of what people will do in my own country. I can’t afford to live here in my own country so let me go make a difference elsewhere if I can.”
Brown then got on a plane and flew to Erbil.
“During my first day in the classroom, my students said, ‘why did you come here? We are all trying to get out of here,’” Brown said. “I said, ‘because I believe in you.’”
Brown said she believed she was so comfortable teaching in Erbil because she had spent so many years teaching Muslims in Southern California. Brown said she also felt safe in Erbil where she is able to walk around freely and rarely feels threatened or scared.
Along with teaching six English classes, Brown is also responsible for coming up with curriculum and setting up the school, including putting emergency procedures in place.
“We are flying the plane while we are building it,” Brown said.
Brown teaches traditional academics in the university’s morning program which include listening, speaking, reading and writing English. The afternoon program gives Brown more freedom to do “project-based learning,” where she allows students to come up with activities that build an understanding of the language and culture.
In addition to her focus on education, Brown said she is interested in and plans to someday work on women’s issues in the region.
Brown is currently spending time in Gardnerville, where she gave a speech to the Rotary Club of Minden on Tuesday, on the positive change happening in Kurdistan. During her speech she mentioned the upcoming independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan that has been scheduled for Monday. The referendum calls for Kurdish independence from Baghdad. Brown said some individuals are opposed to the referendum due to the timing, but Kurdish people remain excited about it.
Brown plans to return to Erbil as soon as she can to continue her work on the university.