“In Baghdad before the invasion,” Sara Saba’a remembers, “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, along with more than a million others. According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 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.
“Sometimes I got angry and confused, but you couldn’t just sit down and cry. The whole family tried to find ways to be stronger,” she says. Then in 2007, Saba’a found her future—a lifeline to a university education through the Iraqi Student Project (ISP).
Co-founded 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. Modeled after the Bosnian Student Project sponsored in the 1990s by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Jerrahi Order of America, the ISP convinces colleges and universities in the U.S. 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 educations.
Huck and Kubasak, who are married, select the students to ensure their success and then prepare them for life in the U.S. As Randa Mohammed, a student at Technical Career Institute in New York, says, “They’re like second family—we’re their children.” In Damascus, Kubasak convenes weekly writers workshops and literature circles, drawing on her former career as an English teacher in Chicago. In addition to writing in academic genres and learning how to explore and share their feelings, the students learn about the culture and customs of U.S. higher education. Other teachers—all volunteer—tutor students individually and help them prepare for the required TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, which indicates proficiency in English. Students come from a variety of religious traditions—Muslim, Christian, and Mandaean—and form close bonds as they prepare for their time in the U.S.
“Sometimes I worry,” Kubasak says sadly, “that Americans don’t know the beauty and richness of the Iraqi people and culture.”
“The beauty before the country was pounded by the war,” Huck interjects.
To address these misconceptions, the ISP published a booklet of student essays and poetry, The River, the Roof, and the Palm Tree, in which students celebrate their memories of life before the invasion and before fleeing to other lands. One student remembered the warmth and love of sleeping on the roof with his family, eating icy watermelon, and telling stories under the stars. Kubasak’s voice catches as she concludes, “A far cry from the crowded quarters in Damascus and the monthly box of staples—rice, sugar, oil—that refugee families receive from the UNHCR.”
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 U.S. Saba’a was accepted at Webster University in St. Louis. “I didn’t believe it was all going to come true until I actually got to St. Louis,” she says. “There were so many complications with all the forms that I thought something would happen and it would all fall through. But Gabe and Theresa helped us to go step by step, and it all worked.”
PART OF THE REASON it works is that each student is supported by a local volunteer group. 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, 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.
Some support groups begin within a religious or civic organization or from an already existing college support community. Some grow because people hear of the project and want to do something concrete to help rebuild Iraq. Several groups in Chicago have as their nucleus the contacts Huck and Kubasak made during their years working in education and publishing. St. Luke Parish and St. Giles Catholic Parish sponsor a student at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. Hala Nakhla, a student at Chicago’s DePaul University, is supported by an interfaith and peace group coalition with major contributions from members of the Des Plaines Islamic Community Center.
The ISP’s work in the U.S. is coordinated by executive director Jane Pitz, who works with present and future ISP colleges, and support-group coordinator Leslie Eid, who not only assists Pitz in mentoring the students but works closely with the support groups throughout the U.S. Fourteen students began their college careers in 2008 and another 20 arrived this fall.
Colleges all over the country have accepted ISP students, from Fairfield University in Connecticut to the University of Oregon in Eugene. Most are small institutions, and many are faith-based. Among the 18 new colleges for 2009 are Bard, Goucher, Berea, and three colleges in the Chicago area.
Iraq is a family-oriented culture and the students—all on student visas with a commitment to return to Iraq after graduation—won’t see their families for four years. Even with a loving support group and new college friends, it will be a long four years, so the students themselves have maintained a strong community, keeping in touch by e-mail and cell phone, just like their U.S. counterparts.
Living arrangements vary. Randa Mohammed lives with a host family, as does Omar Rasheed, who’s in his second year at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Indiana. “It works very well,” Rasheed says. “I have a key and my freedom to come and go. They trust me, and I trust them.”
Jaafar al-Rakabi, who has a full scholarship at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, lives in a townhouse on campus and, like most other ISP students, has made many friends. “I have this theory that politicians and governments are different from the people of our two countries,” he says. “I came to America because I want to know who Americans really are. And I want to show them who we are.” Many see this reciprocity as the primary blessing of the program.
Saba’a concludes, “Getting the scholarship will help me to help Iraq and someday our children will have a country again.”
The ISP is indeed helping to repair Iraq, one student at a time. And while their education is crucially important to their country and to them personally, their presence on our campuses is also transforming our lives. Getting to know young people from a country once deemed “the enemy” heals our hearts and works in deep and lasting ways to build peace in the world. We also are being repaired.
Rosalie G. Riegle, a former Catholic Worker and oral historian, traveled to Syria to meet with ISP students in 2007 and is coordinating support committees in Saginaw, Michigan, and Chicago. See www.iraqistudentproject.org  for more information.