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.

Photos by Scott Peterson/Getty Images
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
Amal Selman uses her mobile phone at a coffee shop between classes at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, in the Kurdish regional city of Sulaymaniyah, northern Iraq.
Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Iraqi student Amal Selman takes an ice cream during a visit to a fun park with fellow students after classes at the American University of Iraq. She is one of 13 students on a five-year full US Embassy scholarship.

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.

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

But initially, everything at AUIS was difficult. Kurdish, not Amal's native Arabic, is the language on the streets here. Fellow students seemed cliquey and had far more money – and their own computers. And while Amal always had good grades in English, the school teaches exclusively in English, a "neutral" language for Iraq's ethnic Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen students.

Short of money and lost in her new surroundings, Amal ate just a sandwich a day for the first week, and lost more than 20 pounds the first part of the term, shocking her family with health worries.

"We were like strangers, but we lived together," says Amal of her dorm life. "It was like we were playing hide-and-seek.... Everyone was in their own world. At first we wanted to know: Are you a good person or a bad person?"

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the family saga continued to unfold without her, adding to Amal’s homesickness. She heard the latest of her older brother Ali – incarcerated for 2 ½ years, and finally released without charge in December. And of the failed marriage of older sister Fatima, now finally divorced. Sister Zainab gave birth to a new baby girl.

Yet speaking on the phone, Amal found herself hiding from her family the “crazy time” of her own unhappiness. “I couldn’t say, ‘I’m tired, I’m sad, I want to go home,’” she remembers. “It was, ‘I’m fine, I’m good, I’m happy – I just miss you guys.’”

Freshman growing pains

Such growing pains are familiar to freshmen worldwide. But in Iraq they are complicated by mutual suspicions that can prevail between Arabs and Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.

"Diversity was the original aim, to create a university for all of Iraq," says Elia Boggia, the director of communications at AUIS. The key is "taking advantage of English as a neutral language. You can play on sports teams, and do Shakespeare together. It's a powerful tool for students to engage."

From the start, a driving force behind AUIS has been Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Supported by Kurdish and Iraqi money – and fees of $10,000 per year – AUIS seeks to provide an American-style education in a region where "liberal arts" are largely unknown.

Four-fifths of the students here are Kurdish, the rest primarily Arab. Amal won one of the 13 full scholarships given this year by the US Embassy in Baghdad.

"For some [Arab students] it was very hard to adapt to practically another country," says Mr. Boggia. "Morale and grades are always much better the second semester."

Time was the healer, says Amal, along with support from several teachers and roommates. A laptop computer donated by a Monitor reader helped make Amal more independent.

"It took time, [but] I found good friends who helped me through the situation," she says.

These days, Amal is at ease in the classroom, and while she is among a minority of female students who wear a head scarf, she has clearly won respect. Amal is determined to be a lawyer – inspired to do what she can to right the wrongs she witnessed of her brother Ali's abuse in prison.

"It was the first time we saw evil," says Amal. "In every [legal] case [I would take], I would see my brother Ali, and what he faced, and how the lawyers just cared about the money. It's a person's life, and they think only about money."

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