The Iraqi Student Project

A study abroad program gives young refugees the tools to rebuild Iraq
by Rosalie G. Riegle, from Sojourners
March-April 2010
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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  


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Post a comment below.

 

Rosalie Riegle_1
3/29/2010 4:45:10 PM
I was pleased to see the reprint of my article about the Iraqi Student Project. However, as I've said to the editors, I take offense at the misleading graphic. I saw with alarm the graphic by Zina Saunders that accompanies the UTNE excerpt of my article on the Iraqi Student Project which first appeared in Sojourners Magazine. Surely Ms. Saunders had not read the article. With it longated American flag down which college graduates march, the graphic gives readers an inaccurate supposition that somehow the U.S. government is responsible for the Iraqi Student Project. Not so! This project has been and will always be privately funded, with colleges and universities providing the tuition waivers and local volunteer groups raising the necessary support funds and mentoring the students. In fact most of the volunteers with the Iraqi Student Project, as well as the co-founders who live in Damascus, are extremely critical of the U.S. government whose disastrous wars and empire-building have so destabilized the Middle East. Another point: Missing from the truncated version which appeared in UTNE is one of the main points of the original article in Sojourners--that we in the U.S. are the real beneficiaries of the Iraqi Student Project because we learn the Iraqis are people, not enemies or stick figures, marching off the U.S. flag.

Rosalie Riegle_2
3/29/2010 4:44:46 PM
I was pleased to see the reprint of my article about the Iraqi Student Project. However, as I've said to the editors, I take offense at the misleading graphic. I saw with alarm the graphic by Zina Saunders that accompanies the UTNE excerpt of my article on the Iraqi Student Project which first appeared in Sojourners Magazine. Surely Ms. Saunders had not read the article. With it longated American flag down which college graduates march, the graphic gives readers an inaccurate supposition that somehow the U.S. government is responsible for the Iraqi Student Project. Not so! This project has been and will always be privately funded, with colleges and universities providing the tuition waivers and local volunteer groups raising the necessary support funds and mentoring the students. In fact most of the volunteers with the Iraqi Student Project, as well as the co-founders who live in Damascus, are extremely critical of the U.S. government whose disastrous wars and empire-building have so destabilized the Middle East. Another point: Missing from the truncated version which appeared in UTNE is one of the main points of the original article in Sojourners--that we in the U.S. are the real beneficiaries of the Iraqi Student Project because we learn the Iraqis are people, not enemies or stick figures, marching off the U.S. flag.

Annie Turner_3
2/25/2010 11:30:41 AM
It was so awesome to see the Iraqi Student Project in your magazine! I donate regularly to these hard working college students. Education is truly the key to peace, freedom, and a better life. You can even see these kids online at www.iraqistudentproject.org !








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