After a war that has shattered their country, a unique project is enabling young Iraqis to resume their studies at American universities. Stephen Starr reports on how culture shock, overcoming prejudice and homesickness will not deter them from their goals. "An American education is priceless, and I'm looking forward to going back," says Ziad, an aspiring engineering student. He is intently reading financial aid forms for university with his mother, at the home of Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak, the American founders of the Iraqi Student Project, in Damascus.
Ziad's mother is understandably torn: "There is no future for him here. He has to go, and it will be good for him." The Iraqi Student Project (ISP) prepares students without any prospect of completing their studies in their home country for an American education. Now in its third year, the grassroots group helps Iraqi students finish their education while exposing Americans back home to people who have been affected by an American-led war.
"As everyone knows, Iraq has been destroyed, and as Americans who know and knew the country, we felt responsible," explains Kubasak, who worked as an English teacher in the United States for 30 years. "We then moved to Damascus and saw for ourselves the number of Iraqi refugees here. "Many kids can't afford an education in Jordan or Syria, so we thought education was something we could help with because it's what we have in the United States and what we can offer to students."
Having previously lived in Los Angeles in the 1990s, Ziad's family decided to move back to Iraq to be with their extended family, but after the war in 2003, life became impossible and his family was split up. "My father left for Jordan from Baghdad three years ago and I, my mother and brother planned to follow him once he got set up. At the Iraqi-Jordanian border I was allowed through, but my mother and brother were not. They went back to Baghdad and a week later my mother was injured in a car bomb explosion. She didn't walk for eight months."
Ziad, now 18, was later reunited with his mother and brother in Hama, Syria, before moving to Damascus to pursue his goal of returning to the US. Today, his father is back in Baghdad, taking care of the family's property and waiting for the security situation to improve. (Ziad did not wish to use his last name because he still has family in Iraq and does not want to risk any unwanted attention.) The ISP invites applications from students with a good command of English whether in Iraq, Syria or Jordan. However, its main operation is in Damascus, and many students have travelled to the Syrian capital to take part. Once the applications have been approved and interviews carried out successfully, the students must provide official documentation to say they have completed high school in Iraq - a requirement set by the colleges and universities that partner with the ISP.
The group lobbies the colleges and universities to waive fees for the students, and so far it has succeeded in placing 33 Iraqi students in 30 universities and colleges across the US. From its base in Damascus, the group's organisers prepare potential students for TOEFL and SAT exams, and if they are successful, they also help them put forward applications to the Department of Homeland Security for student visa permits. From the US, the ISP simultaneously co-ordinates the next steps through its voluntary groups, which ensure the students have the support they need, including rides to campus, help with coursework and pocket money. Some students obtain accommodation in university halls of residence, while others are living with host families.
In return, the students are required to return to Iraq following their four-year undergraduate programmes. They also must agree to stay for the entire four years of their study programme, with no repatriation allowed. Tamara al Sammarrie, a 21-year-old Iraqi woman, hopes to study at an American university next September. Through ISP, she has been preparing herself for more than a year by working on her English, reading academic books and participating in weekly writing workshops in Damascus.
Now she is applying to several colleges in the US, where she wants to enrol on an education course to become a teacher. Having fled Iraq with her family in 2004, she is both excited and jittery by the prospect of studying in the States. "I'm nervous about how people will react, or how they will treat me as an Iraqi person over there," she says. "I think I'm lucky, however, that my family are totally supportive of me, once they got used to the idea."
Huck and Kubasak have been in and out of the Middle East since 1999. Formerly involved with Voices in the Wilderness, a group that organised tours of Iraq, the two have been attached to the country for more than a decade. However, this ended in 2003. From the Syrian capital, today home to the largest urban refugee population on the planet, they were stirred into action by a feeling of responsibility, and in the summer of 2007 established ISP. Huck and Kubasak put personal funds into the scheme, which later grew with the help of a number of American religious orders.
The organisation is unique in that it relies entirely on international donations, assisted by a board of directors and a full-time operator working in South Bend, Illinois. Preparations in Damascus begin in October of each year, when applications are assessed. Potential students then meet Huck and Kubasak, and those fitting the criteria begin English-language lessons. Visa applications and financial assistance documents are made ready by early spring.
In the project's inaugural year, 12 students were accepted, with 21 following in 2009. The universities vary from privately run institutions to state schools. Before leaving for the US, students undergo orientation preparation. "In the final month we focus on cultural and academic readiness," says Huck, a former book publisher. "We had American students come and give presentations about this here in Damascus or that aspect of everyday life in America, so they're really ready to deal with the experience."
The project sets high standards. "If you have received a college degree, you won't qualify and the same goes if you haven't a high school qualification," Huck says. "For potential students, they must be prepared to come and live in Damascus. Also, we have to try and judge that the students we select are genuine in their commitment to return to Iraq once they finish their studies," Huck says. "To be really ready to hit the ground running in terms of reading and writing, their level has to go way up. For the most part, students in Damascus have a lot of free time and so can study and have that time to prepare."
Difficulties of varying degrees have been common, if not unexpected. "We had one [student], a complete failure last year, who is still in school but he really didn't do a first year of college, and we had another who developed a flourishing social life and his studies fell down," Huck says. "But they went to school all summer and are back on target." The voluntary groups have encountered some hostility. "Some people in America had false stereotypes of Iraq and of our students and got upset when these kids came to the States with cameras or maybe even a laptop," Huck says. "They don't picture the situation of where they came from. It's not because they're the poorest people in the world, it's because their country has been destroyed."
However, the project has so far met little resistance from immigration authorities. "Our experience is that if we strive to observe all the rules for the visa application, to prepare the students very well for their interviews, to document everything and to gradually build the sense that ISP is trustworthy, the people at the consulate (and presumably at the Department of Homeland Security who do the security checks on each student) are fair," Huck says. "Thirty-seven ISP students have applied for visas. Most of them here, but three in Amman and four in Baghdad. All but one (in Amman) received their F-1 visa. This is a fairly amazing success rate."
Despite this, funding remains the project's greatest challenge. Tuition waivers are secured by the ISP and can reach up to $120,000 (Dh441,000) per student over four years. This does not include room and board, and the rest of the student's costs are covered by donations. Mobile phone costs average $40 a month, while other costs such as health insurance ($750) and an annual Homeland Security charge ($200) all add up. "We are growing, but that leads to other issues for us to think of, mainly financing," Kubasak says.
Perhaps the single most pivotal mechanism of the ISP's structure is the voluntary support groups that help students absorb some of the culture shock of moving from the Middle East to the US. The Milwaukee ISP chapter was started in August 2008 by a group that included Pat Kennelly, who now oversees 15 regular volunteers supporting two freshmen at Alverno College and Mount Mary College. Outraged by what he calls the "actions of the United States in attacking Iraq", Kennelly says the project "offers a form of restitution" and, for Americans themselves, is helping them to shatter stereotypes.
Awab al Rawe, a first-year student, lives with a husband-and-wife host family in Eugene, Oregon. Hoping to major in either international studies or political science at the University of Oregon, he has experienced a positive side to life in America so far. "I haven't faced any kind of difficulties yet, and I have many people around here that can help me with any problem. The ISP also gave us a good image of what to expect in the States."
Al Rawe's parents are both half-Kurdish. and he speaks to his family almost every day. "My support group is made up of mostly local people and is very important in helping me with school expenses. In addition, they regularly invite me for meals." In return, he gives presentations to the local community and schools through a programme called the International Cultural Service Programme. "I think that this experience will give me a great chance to help Iraq," he says.
Humam al Mukhtar and his family fled Baghdad to Jordan in 2006, before moving to Damascus later the same year. There, he worked as a translator while studying for his ISP trip to the US. He is now studying computer science at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, which agreed to waive the $19,500 (Dh72,000) cost of his tuition. Mike O'Hare, one of the leading co-ordinators of ISP Kansas, has been impressed by al Mukhtar's hunger for life. "He seems fascinated by many aspects of American life and balanced in his critique of them, while gathering a surprisingly sensitive overview of American culture. His facility with English amazes us, and his incorporation of American idiom and college student slang has occasionally, and I think good-naturedly, raised some eyebrows among his Iraqi peers; he is not apologetic about this, but seems to see it as part of his American experience."
Shahad, who did not want to reveal her last name, is a freshman studying interior design at a US university. She maintains that her biggest challenge remains understanding academic English. Arriving in the US last August, she has had her ups and downs. "I miss my family and Iraqi food." she says. "The first term was difficult for me, living in dorms, but I think I've turned a corner now, which I couldn't have done without my support group. They've been amazing."
Shahad is already looking to the future and her career. "I want to design the infrastructure that has been damaged; the hospitals, schools, hotels and stores. I hope to give life again to these places," she says. Despite their optimism, Shahad and future ISP students will face enormous challenges upon returning home, trials facing an entire generation of Iraqis. Rebuilding universities and schools ranks far behind organising a functioning body politic and ensuring basic security. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Damascus says only 237 families have taken up the repatriation programme since its introduction in October 2008, allying fears by refugees that, still, the country remains too dangerous.
But back in Damascus, the positivity that emerges from the young Iraqi students regarding their unknown futures is remarkable. Tamara al Samarrie is reading The Freedom Agenda, a book about why the US should spread democracy. Looking up from her book, she has a proud smile on her face. "Returning to Iraq would be the most perfect thing ever. I left when I was 16 and I couldn't do anything to help my country. Hopefully in five years I can go back to my country and say: 'I am here for you now.'"
Information on the Iraqi Student Project is available at: www.iraqistudentproject.org
Zaid Ahmed escaped from Baghdad to Damascus with his family in February 2007 following death threats made against his father:
"For almost three years I've had very little to do. My field is computer communications, and I'm already working on developing a global network where all data can be stored and where everyone can be reached. I've applied to five colleges in California, Rhode Island and elsewhere. I've scored 673 from 677 in my TOEFL exam, so I'm quite happy about that although I have SAT tests soon and they are very difficult - it's the maths that I have difficulty with.
Though many of my online friends are American, I'm a little nervous - it's a different culture. The fact that I'm Arab, Muslim and Iraqi is something I've been thinking about. Some people are not open-minded and think all Iraqis are terrorists.
When I return to Iraq, insh'Allah, after studying in America, I hope to rebuild the communications structure and then you know, I want to reach the post of prime minister - the guys there now are doing nothing. All they want to do is line their pockets before their time runs out. For me, I would be back in Iraq today if I could, I miss it so much."
Humam al Mukhtar is a freshman majoring in computer science at Benedictine University in Atchison, Kansas: "Missing my family was one of the hardest things. Also, being the only Arabic Muslim in a Catholic school is kind of difficult. Difficulties that I found in the first month of being in Kansas were adopting to the culture. It was absolutely hard sitting with 10 people and with all of them talking about the same thing and I was the only one who has no idea what's going on - not about language or understanding it, but it was about things inside US culture that I had no idea about. My support group is a very important element of my life at the moment, with whom I could ask for help and advice, and to basically just talk to. I regularly keep in contact with all of my ISP friends. I take great advantage of my weekend unlimited free minutes to call all of them. We talk to each other every weekend, more or less, about school and life. I spent my Christmas break with my brother [who is studying in New York also through ISP] in Florida; however, I'm not sure when is the next time I'm going to see them, depending on my school and classes. I'm certainly looking forward to go back to the Middle East as soon as I finish college. I do believe that me being here in the US, and with the ISP, will help me build a better system and better technology back home."