UMass hosts Iraqi students over summer

By Jaclyn Bryson

Some of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program. (Photo Courtesy of Terry Karuoya)
Some of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program. (Photo Courtesy of Terry Karuoya)

To many students, the University of Massachusetts campus may be thought of as a quiet, relaxed space during the summer, lacking the normal hustle and bustle of everyday life during the semester.

However, 147 foreign students and visitors with the UMass Civic Initiative called the University their home throughout the course of the summer, taking part in programs such as the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program and the Pakistani Young Leaders Program.

According to Michael Hannahan, UMass Civic Initiative director, the University hosted students from across the globe, including 25 students from Pakistan, 25 from Iraq and 18 professors from various international countries.

“They are just like you,” Hannahan said. “Why would you want to go to another country? All the answers going through your head are the same ones that go through theirs: It can be fun. It could be interesting to see a new place. This could help my career, be a good resume builder.”

These international programs, which varied between four and six weeks, focused mainly on public policy. Students from Iraq, according to the Civic Initiative website, studied public leadership and how to get things done in their community ­– a lesson, the students said, is priceless.

“The study of public policy is very interesting,” said Hanin Mohammed, 21, of Baghdad, Iraq. “This program is a once in a lifetime chance for me.”

Amer Manssor, 22, of Babylon, Iraq‏, added, “I want to gain all the knowledge that America can give me. Iraqi colleges are not that excited about teaching.”

The program also required students to get involved in a community service project. The Pakistani students, according to Hannahan, collected food and funds to donate to the Amherst Survival Center, and the Iraqi students delivered Meals on Wheels to the elderly and held a fundraiser for the Amherst Senior Center, helping them find a place in the local community.

“It’s one thing to talk about what the impact of all this is on them, but they kind of have a big impact on us, too,” Hannahan said.

Along with their studies, these international students were also given the chance to experience the American culture many of them said they had only seen fabricated in movies and television. The students took trips to see Harvard University, experience Six Flags, hike the local Sugarloaf Mountain and visit New York City for the first time.

“It’s amazing really, like heaven,” Muthana Alrfsh, 23, of Al-Muthana City, Iraq‏, said of the Big Apple.

However, despite the educational and cultural opportunities that awaited these students, many admitted they were afraid of how other would react.

“I expected a little racism, but this was not true,” said Soran Ismael, 20, of Erbil, Kurdistan region of Iraq‏. “There is war between Iraq and the U.S., a lot of terrorism problems, so I was expecting it to be like this, but it wasn’t true.”

And what many students said attributed to this welcoming atmosphere was the American students who worked with them throughout the program.

“It’s my first time being alone, traveling outside of Iraq on my own, without my family,” Mohammed said. “But now I’m comfortable with it, I found a new family here.”

“I have read many American novels and I have watched many movies so it was like I had experienced (America) before,” added Shkar Nazdar, 23, of Halabja, Iraq. “But interacting with the people was something different.”

And while they were only on campus for six weeks, many students were confident that this experience, both inside and outside of the classroom, would give them the tools necessary to make changes in their home country.

“We have a lack of this environment and health care in Iraq. Public Policy is the solution,” Manssor said.

“We live in a country which is the top country for corruption,” Nazdar added. “We will try to implement what we have learned and try to develop our community through what we have learned here and try to be the future leaders of Iraq.”

Jaclyn Bryson can be reached at [email protected]