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Iraqi student’s presence helps dispel misconceptions

Media images of tanks and trucks stirring dust along desert highways, armed conflict among shelled out buildings and the aftermath of suicide car bombs form the ideas most Americans have about Iraq.

To broaden understanding, the Iraqi Student Project (ISP) brings university students to study in U.S. communities and campuses where they share about their families, communities and religion, and about their hopes to return and restore Iraq’s infrastructure.

Tom Webb and Mustafa Mahmood
Tom Webb and Mustafa Mahmood

Mustafa Mahmood has been studying at Gonzaga University since August, living near campus at the Ministry Institute.  He is studying civil engineering with the hope of using those skills to help rebuild Baghdad.

He is among 48 Iraqi students at Jesuit universities and other private and public universities across the United States. 

Many Iraqis came alone or with families to Damascus for safety, because Syria accepted more than a million Iraqi refugees in the five years after the 2003 invasion.

The war destroyed their hopes of a college education.  Iraqi colleges were destroyed and Syrian universities are too expensive.

Founded in 2007, the Iraqi Student Project follows a model the Fellowship of Reconciliation used after the Bosnian conflict for bringing Bosnian students to the United States.

Tom Webb, who is the Iraqi Student Project’s Spokane coordinator, said his friends Gabe Huck, former editor of Liturgy Training Resources, and his wife, Theresa Kubasak, an elementary school teacher, founded the project.  They were active in Voices in the Wilderness, a faith-based group that took groups to Iraq to challenge the U.S. sanctions.

Tom met them when he was involved in Voices in the Wilderness in Chicago, while studying for a master’s in pastoral studies at Catholic Theological Union.  Gabe and Theresa have since moved to Damascus.

Mustafa said that after the war started in 2003, his family left Iraq for Syria, where he attended high school.  Life was hard because his father, who had taught physics in Baghdad, couldn’t work because he wasn’t a resident.

“A friend told me about the program for students who knew enough English, so I studied English for a year and applied to U.S. universities.  I had to wait two years to be accepted,” he said.

After being accepted at Gonzaga, he had a long wait before he received his visa.  It came just two days before his flight.

When he arrived on Aug. 2, he stayed with ISP supporters in Seattle until classes started Aug. 26 at Gonzaga.

Tom, who has been working at L’Arche Spokane, just two blocks from the Ministry Institute, since April 2010, learned in the fall from Gabe and Theresa that there was an ISP student in Spokane.  He met Mustafa in November, and since then has been working to build a local support group.

He hopes that members of that group will identify speaking opportunities for Mustafa and help introduce him to different aspects of American life and issues.  They also hope to raise $15,000 a year for his housing, books and food.

Tom taught in Catholic high schools, was a nonprofit administrator and did justice and peace work in Northern California, Pittsburgh, Pa., and Chicago for 30 years.  He also studied theology at the University of San Francisco and studied at Duquesne University’s Institute of Formative Spirituality in the 1990s prior to his studies in Chicago.

Mustafa finds life in Spokane different from Damascus and Baghdad, cities of more than 6 million people, where many people are on the streets at night. The Gonzaga campus and Spokane’s streets are empty most nights. 

A short course he took on adapting to American culture helped, but did not prepare him for everything.  He lives with other international students and his studies take much of his time.

“The education system here is different from the Middle East,” Mustafa said.  “Here, students have to be independent learners.  There is more thinking involved, rather than memorizing information.”

Mustafa, who is Muslim, has gone to the Spokane Islamic Center for Friday prayers a few times.  On campus, he has met other Muslims—mostly from Saudi Arabia.

He is glad the Jesuit university offered him a scholarship based on his potential, even though he is not Catholic.

“Jesuits work in Syria with refugees and raise money for Iraqi refugees to study in Syrian institutions,” he said.  “Muslims would do the same for Christians.

He is also concerned about misconceptions of Islam as a violent religion.

“There are many similarities between Islam and Christianity.  For example, both religions prohibit killing and stealing,” he said.  “Christians and Muslims have co-existed in Iraq for centuries.”

“I consider myself religious, living my life by what my religion teaches.  My being here is a religious mission because Islam tells people to be educated and informed about the world and to help people,” Mustafa said.  “I’m educating myself not only to help rebuild my country but also to inform people here about my culture and religion.”

He spoke at a recent Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane conference, as well as in classroom discussions.

Because his family is now in danger with the uprising in Syria, they may move soon to northern Iraq, where it is safer.

“While there is now less violence in Iraq, the government is corrupt and limits freedom,” said Mustafa, who returned to Baghdad in April 2011 to visit relatives and friends before coming to Spokane.  “Now the neighborhoods are more sectarian.”

In his childhood in Iraq, he said he had a good life, despite limited access to electricity and water.  Now there is even less electricity and water.

Mustafa has had to respond to many misunderstandings of U.S. students.  Some wonder about what he wore at home, if he rode camels and what food he ate.

“People in the Middle East are more informed about life in the United States and Europe,” he said.  “I would have assumed that with tourism and the military, people here would know more.”

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