Over the past two decades, Iraq’s universities have deteriorated from a highly advanced system to one that is barely existent today. To fix this, a team of people from Damascus, Syria to Villanova, Pa. has come together to assist select college-age students in Iraq to pursue higher education in the United States. The plan is that the Iraqi students would then return home to help rebuild their country. The Iraqi Student Project began in the summer of 2007 and is still in the development stage.
With Iraq’s higher education system in ruins, the Iraqi Student Project seeks to make a small effort toward reconciliation and restitution.
Living in Syria since 2005, two Americans, Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak, see the effects of young Iraqis who experienced the violence in Baghdad. Young Iraqis have had to discontinue their education and flee their country as refugees to Syria. After seeing young people live without education everyday for two years, Huck and Kubasack were determined to “find some way, however small, to help some number of these students,” Huck said.
The Iraqi Student Project is inspired by the Bosnian Student Project, which was developed in 1993. During the war in Bosnia, the BSP brought over 150 Bosnian students to American colleges, where their tuition was waived. The BSP was extremely successful and was the influence that Huck and Kubasak needed to get their own project off the ground. Many of the Bosnian students who studied in America are at work in Bosnia today, which is the goal of the ISP.
Both Huck and Kubasak head the project and currently reside in Syria where they are making attempts to help rebuild the education system in hopes of putting Iraq back together.
“Iraq has thousands of years being a place where people love and respect education,” Huck said. “We grew up calling it the cradle of civilization.”
The Iraqi Student Project aims to give Iraqi students the opportunity to pursue their educations in the United States. After a thorough screening process, students who are eligible to study in the United States are those who will succeed upon their return to Iraq–those who have “strong English, are good students and are as emotionally healthy as possible after what they’ve been through,” Huck said. Students must go through extensive interviews along with several tests, background checks and government screenings.
Michele Pistone is a professor of law at Villanova University School of Law and a member of the board of directors for the project. Pistone learned about the project through a clinic about people fleeing persecution in their home countries.
“Iraq, historically, is a country that has put a lot into education,” Pistone said. “We’re talking about a country that wants to improve their education in hopes for people to go back and rebuild.”
Pistone explained the process of the project. An American college needs to first agree to accept Iraqi students on scholarship.
“People will come here and see opportunities and bring them back to Iraq,” Pistone said. “Once their country is stable, the opportunities will continue to grow.”
Students can get involved with this project by talking to their administration, creating support groups and clubs, talking to other students and looking beyond the perception that many Americans have of Iraqi citizens.
“Our perception of them is different,” Pistone said. “You would be surprised by how modern many of the Iraqi students really are.”
The ISP is hoping to bring 20 students to America in its first year. The hope is that the integration of Iraqi students into American society will change Americans’ perception of Iraqis, as well as Iraqis’ perception of Americans.
“Some [Iraqis] have a hard time believing they can expect anything good from America now,” Huck said. “But most recognize that the violence the US unleashed in Iraq wasn’t the will of most Americans.”
“We’re going to be changing them, but they are going to be changing us,” Pistone said.
Once the Iraqis are back, they will, ideally, help rebuild their country, take up new jobs and help their generation lead as much of a normal life as possible.
“The sad thing would be to lose this generation,” Pistone said.