Stuck in Syria, Iraqi students get a crack at college in the U.S.

A nonprofit group paves the way by negotiating tuition waivers.

Courtesy of The Iraqi Student Project
New chance: These Iraqi students in exile in Syria are headed to the US this fall.
courtesy of the Iraqi Student Project
Coming to America: In Bosra, Syria, five of the 15 students sponsored by the Iraqi Student Project share a light moment. This fall, they'll start college classes in the US.

They've been threatened for not wearing a veil or simply for having the wrong name in a country torn by sectarian strife. They've had friends killed and fathers kidnapped. They've fled their homes and put their dreams on hold.

But now 15 Iraqi students have resurrected their ambitions. They are on their way to the United States to join the class of 2012 at colleges and universities that have waived tuition to help them become Iraq's future architects, teachers, psychologists.

The Iraqi Student Project was born of two American peace activists' desire to give something back to Iraqis in the wake of violence triggered by the US invasion in 2003. Retirees Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak moved to Damascus, Syria, in 2005 to learn Arabic and stay close to the issues and culture they had come to love during trips to Iraq before the war.

Syria is now home to an estimated 1 million or more Iraqi refugees. "By spring [of 2007], we had met so many young people who were robbed of the opportunity to finish their education," Ms. Kubasak says. "The students are really smart; they have great promise." But their families don't have the money to pay for university in Syria, and it is hard to find work, so they were bored, bordering on hopeless, she adds.

The couple rallied friends to ask US college administrators to consider a tuition waiver for an Iraqi. Some were skeptical at first, wondering how the field would be winnowed down to those who had enough English and academic skills to merit a place. But convinced by the on-the-ground screening and support the couple was doing in Damascus, 14 schools got on board in cities ranging from Buffalo, N.Y., to Olympia, Wash.

Ali Abdul Majeed had been living in Syria for a year when he heard about the Iraqi Student Project through a cousin's English teacher. "They prepared us from zero to the stage that we are at now," he says in a phone interview from Damascus. In workshops over the past year, about two dozen students practiced English and did writing workshops with Kubasak, a former teacher. "Writing things, and pour[ing] out our feelings in words, and sharing our thoughts was so amazing for us," he says.

While still polishing their language skills, the 15 scored high enough on a standard English test to be matched with colleges. They then received guidance as they applied for visas. Some of the others are being resettled permanently with their families or will apply to schools for next year, when organizers hope to offer 30 tuition waivers.

Mr. Majeed couldn't finish dental college in Iraq "because the situation was so risky," he says, but now he's packing up for Fairfield University in Connecticut. He hopes to eventually return to Iraq to treat children. "Orthodontists have the ability to make people have beautiful smiles," he says.

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.

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.

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