Iraqi students make transition to U.S. colleges

By Kasey Minnick
February 5, 2009

Megan Pellegrino

“My first response was tears,” Mike Griffin, a professor of Theology at Holy Cross College in South Bend, In., said when President Brother Richard Gilman agreed to take part in the Iraqi Student Project.

“I was so pleased. This is what our mission calls for us to do,” Griffin said.

Griffin teaches a Global Issues class, which two students from the project are enrolled in, one of them being Omar Rasheed, who entered the project after finishing high school in 2003 when the U.S. invaded his homeland.

Rasheed said, “I always dreamt to get an education in a vast country and I was searching for any opportunity to continue my education since I couldn’t get back to Baghdad. So I turned to the Iraqi Student Project that I found out about through my cousin.”

The Iraqi Student Project was created in 2007 due to the deterioration of Iraq’s educational systems and is a grass-roots effort to help young people who have studied in Iraq acquire the education they need to participate in rebuilding their country, according to the Iraqi Student Project’s Web site.

A team of individuals volunteered their time to travel to different parts of the world and realized what most Americans didn’t in the United States; the need for education was vital and it was vanishing to something that is barely existent today.

One of the travelers who is now the U.S. Executive Director of the Iraqi Student Project, Jane Pitz, explained the beginning process is coming back home.

“I was speaking with one of the founders of the program, Gabe Huck, and we both asked each other what does the U.S. do best? They have wonderful higher education systems. Why don’t we see if some schools can give tuition waivers?”

Pitz then called many people even though it was not an immediate yes, higher education employees were acknowledging that it was an important thing to consider.

The colleges and universities that did accept Iraqi students, now 13 in the United States, were very positive and simply found ways to offer the scholarships to the students, one of those colleges being Holy Cross College.

“If you look at mission statements of schools, there is something written in them that includes a global perspective and outlook and they commit through mission statements at schools to educate minds and hearts. If they commit themselves to educating a refugee from Iraq, they are, of course, including that in their statement. What better means to educate other students and faculty about who these people are,” Pitz said.

“It was an interesting challenge. South Bend is not a huge city, but many people came forward willing to help. As long as you are not in a remote, rural area, which Cabrini College is not, you will find many people willing.”

Griffin was nervous, though whether the people from the community would resent that Holy Cross College was bringing in an Iraqi or Muslim student. “I feared that people would be angry that we were giving scholarships and I did not encounter any of that including instances of prejudice.”

Huck and the other founder Theresa Kubasak then arrived at his home and interviewed him and found Omar eligible for the project. According to one of the mission statements on the Iraqi Student Project Web site, its staff, Board of Directors and with the help of many volunteers and donors, the project will work impartially to identify, screen and recommend students from Iraq for tuition waivers based on their academic records, English language ability, economic need and overall likelihood of success.

“Before I enrolled in this program, my life in Syria was empty; I had an empty life,” Rasheed said. “When I came over here, my life started to be busy with learning English and going to writing workshops along with classes at the college.”

Not only is Omar getting acquainted with the rigorous schedule of U.S. schooling, but he is also making an impact on the fellow students in his class.

Griffin said, “I was very excited to see how these students would enrich the other students of the class. I have seen students wanting to learn more from Omar.”

Griffin explains that Omar’s papers, projects and speeches on the Middle East, globalization and workers shed new light on what Americans didn’t know about what is taking place overseas.

Other than meeting people in the classroom, there is a support group in South Bend, where the students can enlighten the hosts, as well as opening themselves up to American culture.

Leslie Eid, the support group coordinator for the South Bend support group and office manager for the Iraqi Student Project, took in Omar for roughly three weeks, as well as two other students, before their host families were ready for the new transition. When Pitz contacted Eid and her husband Mansour in 2007 for their help with the project, they were since referred to “the people who open their house.”

“Omar has a unique personality with the ability to look at any experience that’s right in front of him and put that in the context of both his past and how he’s changed,” Eid said.

Eid spoke about the winter gathering that took place over the holidays at the Holy Cross Parish Center with 15 students in attendance.

Here, many cultural traditions were shared, such as Middle Eastern drum playing with dancing, Middle Eastern tea and the Yule log, which took place in two parts. Everyone placed a leaf or a twig into the log, which was placed into the fire, to symbolize the letting go of pasts from 2008, and in return lit “Candles of Hope” for 2009. Eid said, “This was a hope for peace and lighting up our world with our own hopes and wishes.”

Omar is very open to the future.

In four years he will get his certification and business administration degree. He wishes to go on to graduate school and will return home to either become a professor at a university or work in a company in their investment department.

Even though Omar is pursuing his dreams, not many refugees are that lucky.

“The educational system in Iraq is not totally gone, but decimated to the degree that many elementary and high school kids aren’t getting education,” Pitz said.

The problem arose when one or two working parents were threatened, had to flee and as refugees did not have the right to work. “Any savings have gone down to zip and that’s why, in fact, their children are in the project,” Pitz said.

Many colleges and universities may want to extend a hand to these young people, but there is an economic downturn that may stand in the way. Many schools in the U.S. are tuition-ran and indecisive to give a tuition waiver.

“Schools that are more dependent on tuition to run their schools are hesitant to give a free tuition waiver to one student. With those figures and a budget, the institution may need as many paying students as possible for the upcoming year. So, this year it is a little harder if schools don’t have at their disposal scholarships that need to be given away and particularly ones directed at international students,” Pitz said.

Whatever a college or university decides, they need to keep in mind one thing.

“I would think education is universal and our power to engage us in a broader world,” Eid said. “The lack of education and the lack of ability to pursue education would be a poverty of spirit. Education, for them, is providing the ability to move forward and up and out of that situation.”

“We can’t afford to NOT have them here,” Pitz said.

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Kasey Minnick

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