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Jul 16, 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


For Farah Mohsen, an exuberant 24-year-old Iraqi who once wanted to be a doctor, the years of war in her country “changed everyone and everything.”

Because of the danger of traveling the 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 Syrian education system.

Farah is one of a countless number of the war’s invisible casualties. While fighting left thousands killed and decimated cities, the conflict also continues to uproot lives in less direct ways.

For Farah and many other young refugees, exile forced them to defer their dreams of college and live separated from friends and family, often without work or direction. Even now, in Syria and Jordan, most teenage Iraqis stay home from high school, because of financial pressures, psychological trauma, or anxieties that their families’ could be deported.

“Basically, they were doing nothing,” says Jane Pitz, U.S. director for the Iraqi Student Project, which 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.

The program’s first group of 14 Iraqis, which arrived on U.S. campuses last fall, just finished their first academic year,  pursuing majors ranging from engineering to political science.

Each is from Baghdad, though all but one was a refugee living in Damascus before they came to the States. All of them want to go home someday to rebuild their country, but their visa status, which does not permit home visits, requires them to spend summers too in the States until graduation.   

A year in, after periods of both happiness and hardship, the students remain focused on studying hard, making friends, and sharing their culture’s traditions and values.

“It’s very important for me to see the people of my country know the people of this country in a different point of view,” said Mohsen, a political science major who dreams of writing a book of memoirs. “Beyond politics, and beyond war.”

Next month, as the veterans gear up for their sophomore years, ISP organizers will bring 21 new freshmen to schools in the U.S. The process of lining up a second slate of colleges has not been easy.

“Some schools, when I approach them, they get…that without us offering education to these young men and women, college-aged Iraqis, that there is no chance for them, that we’re going to lose this whole generation,” Pitz said.

While tuition is now in place for each of the incoming students, some of the support groups are still struggling for money. Obstacles are considerable, especially in these tough economic times.

Outside of the schools, help has come from some unexpected quarters. In California, author Isabel Allende pledged $20,000, and Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey wrote a letter of support for two students’ visa applications.

As ISP seeks to grow its network of support, one of their major selling points is what these students can teach their classmates and other community members. In their first year, several students gave presentations at local high schools and clubs. And many plan to get more involved with volunteer work.

“This is part of our message through the Iraqi Student Project,” said Taif Suhail Jany, 19, a biology student 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.”

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