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After Baghdad's violence, young Iraqi tackles new test: freshman year

She lived through the worst of Baghdad's wartime violence. But leaving her family for freshman year at the American University in Iraq has tested Amal Selman in unexpected ways.

By Staff writer / July 19, 2011

Amal Selman works with fellow student Shimaa Emad Hussein during class at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, in the Kurdish regional city of Sulaymaniyah, northern Iraq.

Photos by Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Growing up poor in war-ravaged Baghdad made Amal an expert at overcoming adversity. But during her first year at college – far from home in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq and overwhelmed by loneliness and academic rigors – Amal thought she had met her match.

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It was hard to part from the joyful laughter and close bonds of her seven siblings and widowed matriarch Karima Selman Methboub. Together, this impoverished family had witnessed car bombs, felt the fear of kidnapping, faced the imprisonment and torture of an innocent son, and withstood US occupation and a vicious insurgency.

And yet last autumn, as Amal began her first year at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, it was a brutal English grammar class, not to mention initially standoffish classmates and solo cooking every day, that pushed her to tears over the prospect of failure. Amal also carried the burden of big expectations as a student with an unlikely background on a full five-year scholarship to AUIS.

"My first semester was terrible.... I almost wanted to go home to Baghdad," recalls the 21-year-old. "All the problems were connected. If I feel lonely, I can't study. I was on the phone [with my family] every night, but it's not enough," says Amal. "We are close; we laugh and cry. Like faithful couples, [we are] with each other in sadness and health."

A family's high hopes

Hopes could not have been higher for Amal as the flag-bearer for a family desperate to change their fortunes.

When the Monitor first met this family nearly nine years ago, during the rule of Saddam Hussein, they had just sold a piece of furniture to pay school fees for Amal. During the 2003 US invasion, at the request of the Monitor, Amal kept a diary that was later published in the newspaper – and prompted peace activists in South Korea to take the teenager on a visit to East Asia.

Amal assumed that she would go to university in Baghdad, where she wanted to study law. But her ambition and grades caught the eye of educators at AUIS. Amal passed the 3-1/2-hour exam, then withstood security checks and a four-hour wait for her interview at the US embassy.

Days later the phone rang, with news that she had been accepted on a full scholarship. But Amal was torn between staying with her family, or going to a distant city she did not know.

“I was in shock. My basic dreams were in Baghdad, close to my family and home,” says Amal. “They know I love English. They would be very happy with a scholarship at an American university – it was a dream. This was the moment of truth.

“I thought about it: With all this sadness in my family, they needed some good news to make them happy,” says Amal, her eyes tearing up at the memory. “I said ‘yes,’ for them. My mother became very happy – she was the one who accepted it, not me!”

One week later, she was on the road north. By the end of her first year, she had prevailed over every obstacle, providing a story of rare inspiration in a nation still broken by conflict.

A tough start

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