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Jan 30, 2009

Life as a refugee can mean putting dreams on hold. But on American campuses, a few young Iraqis are getting a second chance.

By Tara Kyle

From Damascus to the Dorm: Meet the class of 2012 enrolled in the Iraqi Student Project in FLYP’s short documentary video.

For Farah Ibrahim Mohsen, an exuberant 24-year-old Iraqi who once wanted to be a doctor, the war in her country has “changed everyone and everything.”
Because of the danger of traveling on Baghdad streets, her daily trips to high school were limited to one appearance a week. When her family fled to Damascus, Syria, her university-level coursework was derailed by psychological stress and an unfamiliar education system.
Mohsen is one of a countless number of the war’s invisible casualties. While fighting has left tens of thousands killed and decimated cities, the conflict has also uprooted lives in less direct ways.
For Mohsen and many other young refugees, their exile has forced them to defer their dreams of college and live separated from friends and family, often without work or a sense of direction.
“Basically, they were doing nothing,” says Jane Pitz, U.S. director for the Iraqi Student Project (ISP), a program that provides a small group of Iraqis with full tuition waivers to U.S. colleges.
“The system of education is so broken in Iraq, and the U.S. was a part of the reason for this upheaval…So we should do something about that,” Pitz explains.

Impressions of America: At their New Year’s reunion in South Bend, Ind., the Iraqi students reflect on a semester of ups and downs in FLYP’s short video piece.

Crossing the cultural divide: Read more about the highs and lows of their first semester.

Last fall, the program’s first group of 14 Iraqis arrived on U.S. campuses to pursue majors ranging from engineering and computer science to political science and biology. Each is from Baghdad, and all but one was living as a refugee in Damascus.
They also share the common desire to one day return home to their communities and country. For now, their visa status discourages them from leaving the U.S. to visit family and friends for the entire duration of their four-year programs. 
One semester in—after periods of both happiness and hardship—the students remain focused on studying hard, having fun and sharing their culture’s traditions and values with their American friends.
“It’s very important for me to see that the people of my country know the people of this country in a different point of view,” says Mohsen, who is now a political science major and dreams of writing a memoir. “Beyond politics, and beyond war.”

To protect their visa status, the ISP students are discouraged from leaving the U.S. for four years. Meet some of parents and children who are making the sacrifice of living separately in FLYP Media’s many individual short documentaries.

One of the biggest challenges for the ISP organizers is making sure that when homesickness or other problems strike, the Iraqi students have the support they need.
Making sure each student has this type of help for the full four years of their stay is a precondition of the ISP accepting a college’s tuition offer.
A local support group must be organized to raise money for any costs not covered by the school, including housing, health insurance, airfare, and visa and test fees.
They also provide nonfinancial support, like taking the students to dinner, chatting with them on the phone and letting them stay at their homes.
Leslie Eid, ISP office manager and a support group coordinator, invites the students into her home each Sunday for dinner. “I’m so happy they’re here,” she says. “I say to the three students who are here all the time, ‘how will I send you away?’ And yet I’m so conscious of their own families, ‘how have they sent you away?’”
Arab families operate differently than their American counterparts, as children often stay at home until they marry. There is also an absence of a notion of “personal space” that creates another set of cross-cultural challenges for volunteers.
“[In the U.S.], once you get to be college aged, you are sort of ushered out of the family and you are on your own,” says Hank Mascotte, a member of the support group in South Bend, Ind. “And what we are learning is, that’s not their tradition.”
“What we tend to think of privacy, they tend to see as isolation,” says Karen Button, support group coordinator for Farah Ibrahim Mohsen and another student living in San Rafael, Calif. “I’ll talk to them three or four times a week or see them frequently, and from their perspective, they’ll say, ‘oh I miss you, I haven’t seen you enough.”

Next year, ISP organizers hope to bring 30 students to schools in the U.S. But obstacles are considerable, especially in these tough economic times.
As of late January, Pitz had received commitments for tuition wavers from just 14 schools, each taking one student.
“Some schools, when I approach them, they get that without us offering education to these young men and women, college-aged Iraqis, there is no chance for them—that we’re going to lose this whole generation,” Pitz says.
Outside of the schools, help has come from some unexpected places. In California, author Isabel Allende pledged $20,000 over four years, and Representative Lynn Woolsey wrote letters of support for two students’ visa applications.
As ISP seeks to grow its network, one of their major selling points is what these students have to teach their classmates and other community members. Several students have already given or plan to give presentations at local high schools and rotary clubs. And many plan to get more involved with clubs and volunteer work.
“This is part of our message through the Iraqi Student Project,” says Taif Suhail Jany, 19, who is studying biology at Union College. “To help build bridges between these two communities. And I hope that we can do it. I’m sure that we can.”

Condition Critical: Read more about Iraq’s educational crisis.

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