The Iraqi Student Project

A study abroad program gives young refugees the tools to rebuild Iraq

One Student at a Time

image by Zina Saunders / www.zinasaunders.com

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“In Baghdad before the invasion,” Sara Saba’a recalls, “everything was quiet and normal. I went to a high school for bilingual students with high marks, and we could go out—go for midnight rides even—and everything was safe. After the invasion, we had to stop everything and always be [veiled]. We had to stay at home and there was only waiting, waiting, waiting.”

Finally, fearing for their lives, her family fled to Syria. According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 2 million Iraqis have left Iraq, mainly going to Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. These refugees have limited access to housing, food, education, work, and medical care.

Saba’a was able to finish high school in Damascus but couldn’t afford the high cost of university for non-Syrians. Then in 2007 she found her future—a lifeline to a university education through the Iraqi Student Project (ISP).

Cofounded by Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak, the ISP grew out of their desire to help rebuild the Iraq they had grown to love while working with the organization Voices in the Wilderness during Iraq’s period under U.N. sanctions. The ISP convinces colleges and universities in the United States to grant tuition waivers—and sometimes full scholarships—to Iraqi students. The intent is that the students will return to help Iraq once they complete their undergraduate education. In 2008, 14 students began their college careers overseas, and another 21 arrived last fall.

Huck and Kubasak, who are married, select the students and then prepare them for life in America. The students participate in weekly writing workshops and literature circles in Damascus, learn about the culture and customs of U.S. higher education, and study for the required TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, which indicates proficiency in English.

The couple guides the students as they complete college admission forms and visa applications, and when all documents are accepted, finds inexpensive flights to the United States. ISP students have landed at colleges all over the country, from Fairfield University in Connecticut to the University of Oregon in Eugene. Saba’a was accepted at Webster University in
St. Louis. “Getting the scholarship will help me to help Iraq,” she says, “and someday our children will have a country again.”

Once the students arrive, they are supported by local volunteer groups. These groups are responsible for all expenses not provided by the college, including fees for visas and other paperwork, room and board, textbooks, insurance, and travel. Most importantly, members of the support groups stand in for a loving and supportive family, orienting students to their new environments, inviting them to dinner, communicating with the college regularly, and providing a patient, listening ear.

“I have this theory that politicians and governments are different from the people of our two countries,” says Jaafar al-Rakabi, who has a full scholarship at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. “I came to America because I want to know who Americans really are. And I want to show them who we are.”

 

Excerpted from Sojourners (Sept.-Oct. 2009), a Christian magazine of faith, politics, culture, and social justice.  www.sojo.net