October 27, 2020
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Midwest Meets Middle East

In the wake of a collapsed higher education system, ambitious young Iraqis find opportunity in Evansville
Iraqi students Veyan Agha and Areefan Ahmed join local volunteer Bill Hemminger to prepare a meal at Patchwork Central.

After a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, dramatic images filled American television screens: explosions over the Baghdad skyline, the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein, and looting of museums and government buildings. Less publicized was the post-invasion collapse of Iraq’s higher education system, once hailed as one of the most modern in the Middle East. Since the war’s outbreak, hundreds of academics have been killed, and students have shied away from campuses in fear of violence.

The United Nations’ refugee agency estimates that more than 4.7 million Iraqis have fled their homes in recent years; among them were Zaid Abdulmajeed and his family, who left their home in Baghdad to seek refuge in neighboring Syria. While the Mediterranean country may have been safer, Abdulmajeed — a high-school student when the war began — had little opportunity to advance his education. That changed when he heard about the Iraqi Student Project, a program that connected Iraqi refugees with American colleges and universities. He applied and was accepted.

Abdulmajeed now is a junior at the University of Evansville studying civil engineering, and the Iraqi Student Project, which brought him to the United States, is one of several education initiatives with local connections. Both UE and the University of Southern Indiana are working to provide opportunities for young Iraqis — and an important cultural exchange for Tri-State residents.

Heidi Gregori-Gahan, director of international programs and services at USI, witnessed that connection firsthand in the summer of 2010, when 23 Iraqi students arrived at USI for a six-week stay in campus apartments. The students were part of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, a competitive program for undergraduates geared toward shaping the next generation of Iraqi leaders. After an orientation in Washington, D.C., half of the group flew to Colorado, and the other half came to Evansville.

“I have to be honest,” says Gregori-Gahan, “we were a little concerned about how the community would react to this program. But we had such an amazing response. Everybody wanted to be part of this.”

The program’s theme was community health and social services, so the group — which included Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, and Kurds from northern Iraq — visited Patchwork Central, toured local healthcare facilities, and participated in a Habitat for Humanity build. Along with USI staff and student mentors, they also traveled to Chicago; St. Louis; Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari in nearby Santa Claus, Ind.; and Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home in Spencer County, Ind. The activities were well-received, but “at the end of the day,” Gregori-Gahan says, “they really enjoyed being together and hanging out with the mentors — having a normal college student experience.”

Gregori-Gahan, who has spent 30 years working in international education, calls the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program the “single most amazing” program of her career: “It had such an impact,” she says, “and touched people well beyond the walls of our office.” After the students said their tearful goodbyes in August, USI allocated scholarships to bring back two of the Iraqi participants to finish their degrees at USI. They’ll return to campus this August.

Across town, UE currently is participating in three initiatives relating to Iraq: the aforementioned Iraqi Student Project, a study-abroad agreement with the American University of Iraq (which will send one Iraqi student for a semester at UE), and the Iraq Education Initiative. The latter program, administered by the Iraqi government, provides scholarships with the stipulation that students must return to work in their home country after completing a degree in the U.S.

UE is one of 22 American colleges and universities in the pilot phase, and in 2009, vice president for enrollment services Tom Bear traveled to Iraq to represent UE at a college fair. This May, four Iraqi students, all engineering majors, will arrive on the East Side campus. Bev Fowler, director of international admission and recruitment, anticipates a warm welcome from UE’s international students, who hail from 46 countries — and especially from Abdulmajeed, the first Iraqi Purple Ace. As a resident assistant in his campus dorm, an international orientation leader, and a participant in spring break service trips through UE’s religious life program, “everyone around campus knows him,” Fowler says. “He has a very easygoing, outgoing personality.”

The initiatives focused specifically on Iraq are “an opportunity to promote mutual understanding,” Fowler says. “We know the Iraqis have been through really tough times, and the young people have suffered because their education has been interrupted. (Bringing them here) hopefully will lead to a more peaceful understanding and cooperation.”

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