Stuck in Syria, Iraqi students get a crack at college in the U.S.
A nonprofit group paves the way by negotiating tuition waivers.
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Laying the groundwork for the future is what international education advocates say is most valuable about such projects. "There's an awful lot of rebuilding to be done in [Iraq], and the higher education system there has just been decimated," says Victor Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators in Washington, D.C. "It's ... important to make sure we don't have a lost generation in Iraq." The benefits extend to the US as well, he says, because people "experience America firsthand as opposed to the stereotypes of America," and then return to the Middle East.Skip to next paragraph
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Part of the pitch to potential colleges was that the school would "bring diversity to the student body in a special way," Kubasak says, enabling young people to "talk about issues on a real person-to-person level."
Interacting with an Iraqi peer is a rarity on American campuses. Of the nearly 583,000 international students in the US for higher education in the 2006-07 school year, only 262 were Iraqis, according to an annual report by the nonprofit Institute of International Education in New York. The year before, there were less than 200.
Obtaining visas has been difficult for Middle Easterners, Mr. Johnson says. His organization has heard from frustrated Iraqi officials who say many visas have been denied to students for whom they've set up scholarships in the US. The US Embassy in Baghdad announced Aug. 12 that students can now apply for visas there, but previously they have had to travel outside the country since the closure of the embassy in 1991.
One precedent that Mr. Huck and Kubasak examined was the Bosnian Student Project, which brought about 160 people to the US during the conflict in the mid-1990s. It was run by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace organization, and the Jerrahi Order of America, a Sufi Muslim relief and service group, both based in New York State.
Both projects have built networks of volunteers in each student's US location. They pledge to cover living expenses and also offer practical and emotional support during the years the students are away from family. That means everything from taking weekend trips to historic sites to buying winter coats and international calling cards.
Webster University in St. Louis hosted a Bosnian student and soon will welcome Sara, an Iraqi who asked the Iraqi Student Project to keep her last name confidential. She'll be living next to campus with the Sisters of Loretto, an order of Roman Catholic nuns. Her parents are happy with the arrangement because they feel it's more secure than a dorm, says Deborah Dey, vice president for students and enrollment management. But the volunteer group also includes fellow Muslims who can take her to a nearby mosque or celebrate Ramadan with her if she'd like.
"One of our volunteers was able to find a picture of Baghdad in all of its glory, and we are going to have it framed in her little suite area so she has a little piece of home," says Karen Perniciaro, the co-coordinator of the volunteers.
• For more information see www.iraqistudentproject.org