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Iraqi Student Project brings refugee to study at Fontbonne

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 23, 2012 - When he was almost 10 years old, Ahmed Al-Dulaimi fled Baghdad with his family — everyone was terrified of what American bombs and American technology would do to them and their city. They left in 2003, as the United States invaded Iraq.

Now a 19-year-old freshman at Fontbonne University, Al-Dulaimi recounted his experiences to a crowd of about 40 students and professors last week. He's attending Fontbonne tuition-free thanks to the Iraqi Student Project, a nonprofit that provides Iraqis the opportunity for an undergraduate education in the hope that they can return to Iraq to assist in its rebuilding.

Al-Dulaimi retreated to his hometown village for two months, shielded from the main thrust of the American offensive. Afraid of looting, his family returned to Baghdad, but by that time the Americans still hadn't found the weapons of mass destruction they said they were looking for. What was left of Al-Dulaimi's city was little more than a shell.

"We went back to Baghdad and we found everything destroyed. All the infrastructure was gone. No electricity. No clean water was coming through the faucet," he recalled.

According to Iraqi Student Project executive director Robert Rosser, 84 percent of Iraqi schools and universities were targeted and destroyed during the invasion, prompting the idea for the nonprofit.

Al-Dulaimi grew up with American military throughout his city — in his house even, every month, rummaging around for weapons. He said what happened is contrary to the idea that many Americans have, that the United States came as liberators with promising of freeing Iraq. He characterized it as an invasion — an excuse for oil. It was hard for him to discover all that at such a young age, Al-Dulaimi said during the talk. He pointed out that the U.S. sanctions resulting from the Gulf war were intended to weaken Iraqi government, but instead it was mostly the people who suffered.

In response to a question about whether it was strange now to be in the country that was responsible for the annihilation of his home and for sanctions limiting food staples like milk and eggs, he said:

"It is strange, but we all know it's not the country, it's not the people who invaded my country. It's not you who invaded my country. It’s the policy. It’s the government. It's these bad guys, the people who have the power. So it's strange, but I'm not mad or anything. I just want people to know what happened to me."

That perspective impressed Joe Mannion, an adjunct instructor at Fontbonne University, who has interviewed dozens of Iraqis for a book about the mistreatment of athletes under Saddam Hussein. "I heard so many Americans talk about the Iraqis as a collective thing. That there was no distinction between the government and the people."

Al-Dulaimi said his family couldn't just sit at home and not go to work; they had to go out and continue their lives. However, by 2006 sectarianism was creating lethal schisms within the country. One day he woke up to news that his best friend had been shot and killed, solely because of his religious background.

Al-Dulaimi's family feared the same thing could happen to him or his brothers, so they escaped to Syria, which Al-Dulaimi noted is about the distance between St. Louis and Detroit. He was part of a much larger exodus: In Rosser's words,, it would be like if you took all of St. Louis County's million people, doubled it, and moved them all to Syria and Jordan.

They arrived in Syria as refugees, with nothing, he said. His father looked for a new job and he tried to adjust to a new school, but he still couldn't believe he'd left his country — that there was no going back. 

Over the next few years Al-Dulaimi finished high school, heard about the Iraqi Student Project from a friend, applied on the day of the deadline and got in. He couldn't get a visa though with Syria in the midst of a civil war. This summer he returned to Iraq after six years of not having seen it.

It wasn't the Baghdad he knew before.

"It's different now; you can't trust anybody. All the neighbors are different. Everything is complicated — checkpoints are everywhere."

After months of waiting, his visa arrived exactly three days before Fontbonne's orientation. He left the next morning. 

The program that made his arrival possible was started in 2007 by Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak, who thought what was happening in Iraq was unjust. They asked themselves what they could do about it and the Iraqi Student Project was born. The program now enrolls 62 Iraqi students at 48 American universities, of which Fontbonne is one. In addition to selecting students and finding scholarships, the Iraqi Student Project works to ease participants into their new situation with support groups.

Rosser said that this past year the Iraqi Student Project graduated its first 10 students, but because of safety reasons, none was able to go back. He expected Iraq to be in better shape by now. For Iraq to move toward recovery, Rosser said, it needs true and free elections and less interference by people interested in its resources.

For Al-Dulaimi's part, he's majoring in biology not only because he likes it, but also because he knows Iraq will need those kinds of jobs. Growing up, his impression of America was derived from movies and music: a place of ease, parties, and fun, all the time. Now that he's here though, it's harder than that, he said, laughing at his discovery—it's fun, but you have to work, too. Al-Dulaimi is eager to experience a new culture, but he's still determined to go back in four years and help his country with everything he can.

During his talk Al-Dulaimi recounted a story of being very hungry when he was  a little boy, asking his mom for one kind of food, and then another, none of which she had. But despite that, and other hardships, he was still a kid, and he has no shortage of good memories, like playing soccer in the street with his friends and assembling a tray of flowers, candles, and candy with his mom for his birthday.

Jason Schwartzman is a Beacon intern.

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