x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

After fleeing two wars, Iraqi refugee gets chance to study in peace

Iraqi woman is among the last to benefit from the Damascus-based Iraqi Student Project, which was shut down by civil war. Taimur Khan reports

Taleen Dilanyan on the campus Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Gretchen Ertl for The National
Taleen Dilanyan on the campus Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Gretchen Ertl for The National

After experiencing the terrors of two wars, Taleen Dilanyan considers her current life as a student in America nothing short of a miracle.

The 19-year-old recalled one night in Damascus last summer when she and two flatmates, also Iraqi, sat listening to mortars smash into the city's suburbs. Suddenly, there was an explosion much closer than the others, and the young women held each other close.

"One of the girls said: 'My God, is this happening again? Not Syria, not the place where I got to be free in,'" said Ms Dilanyan, 19.

"Syria was my asylum, the place I felt safe in, where I could walk in the street with no one bothering me, not being scared that I would be kidnapped or blown to pieces," she said. "To see everything that happened to Iraq happen again in my second home was devastating."

Ms Dilanyan had left her family in Aleppo to join the Iraqi Student Project (ISP) in Damascus, a non-profit programme that helped promising Iraqi students obtain full scholarships from partner universities in the United States.

The project, though small, offered a glimmer of hope to young Iraqis whose country's higher education system had been decimated by years of war and who could not afford to study elsewhere.

But the programme, which had defied one war, was to become the casualty of another. Ms Dilanyan's class was the last that ISP would send to the US: its American founders finally left Damascus last November, 20 months after the civil war began.

The Iraqi Students Project was started by Gabe and Theresa Kubasak, a retired American couple from Chicago who first travelled to Iraq in the late 1990s as activists opposing the crippling sanctions and then again in late 2002 just before the US invasion.

Disturbed by the horrors that their government helped unleash in Iraq, the couple decided to move to Damascus in 2005 to study Arabic and see if there was anything they could do to help.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees were settling in Syria each month in 2007 when Mr Kubasak, who worked in publishing, and his wife had the idea of working with US universities to provide an education to Iraqis who would then return to their country to contribute to its rebuilding.

The energetic pair were able to solicit enough donations to hire a director in the US to raise funds and find universities to partner with and also buy test preparation and other teaching materials. The couple lived on Mr Kubasak's pension and found young westerners in Damascus who volunteered to teach the ISP students English and prepare them for tests.

They put the word out through teachers at United Nations-funded refugee centres and posters. Soon, more students than they could take were contacting them and they began the interview process.

"We chose those who wanted to come back to Iraq, who were yearning to get their degree, who had high dedication and promise as a student and also emotional resiliency," said Mr Kubasak, sitting with his wife in the majlis-style living room of their apartment in Manhattan, where they moved after leaving Damascus.

The students they selected studied with them and the volunteer teachers for a year in Damascus, learning about western academic culture, liberal arts subjects and also preparing for their entrance exams. In 2008, 10 of their students were admitted to colleges across the US.

But by 2010 it had become increasingly difficult to place the students as the economic recession made universities less likely to offer scholarships, though they still sent about a dozen students each year. Overall, about 75 students have come to the US through ISP, with the first class graduating last year.

Now almost at the end of her first year at Smith College, outside of Boston, Ms Dilanyan says she has thrived at the prestigious institution, studying chemistry and making friends among both American and foreign students. She has even landed a summer job as a lab assistant for one of her professors.

The ISP put together informal support groups in each town where its students attend college, to help with adjusting to life in the US and also with housing and money. Ms Dilanyan says she was lucky enough to get a loving support group but that some of her ISP friends have not been so lucky.

"Some of my friends weren't very warmly welcomed. Some students at their schools have this idea that Iraqi equals terrorist," she said. "It depends on the state and the area."

For her, the most difficult part of life here is being far from her family, who are still in Aleppo, and trying to maintain her academic focus while the deaths and destruction in Syria mount by the day.

When her parents have internet and electricity, she talks to them on Skype, but much of the time they don't. "The hardest part of being here is just hearing the news and worrying that something would happen," she said. "I try my best not to follow the news, to stay as far away as I can."

The distance and uncertainty is made more painful by the fact that Ms Dilanyan never said goodbye to her family. The last time she saw them was at her sister's wedding in July, which was also her last time in Aleppo, a city that had been changed beyond recognition by the war.

She planned to return before leaving for America, but by then the war had made travel between Damascus and Aleppo too dangerous. She could not even get through to her parents on the phone. As Damascus became more violent, she decided to join thousands of other Iraqis on evacuation flights provided by the Iraqi government, and then leave for the US from Baghdad.

In a taxi to the Damascus airport, as she watched the empty, anxious streets roll by, she said she thought it "the most painful irony that all the people who came here for a chance at a better life actually prefer to go back to Iraq".

About 70,000 Iraqis have fled Syria since last summer, according to UN figures.

While her family is never far from her mind at Smith, Ms Dilanyan's experiences have also made it easier to focus on the future. "I let go of my home, and then my second home, my friends, my family," she said. "Everything else seems trivial, and I set my priorities."

Even though ISP's goal was for its students to return to Iraq to rebuild the country, none of the graduates have gone back and most have no plans to. Ms Dilanyan said she plans to attend graduate school in the US and then move back to the Middle East, perhaps Dubai.

Her life has thus far been shaped by the cruel fate of two wars, but now for the first time, "I have power over my own decisions", Ms Dilanyan said. "I can't ever say that me coming here is anything less than a miracle."

 

tkhan@thenational.ae