IRAQI STUDENTS REUNITE IN BLUFFTON
Summer is the season for family reunions and, in early July, a close-knit group whose members didn’t know each other two years ago got together for one of their own.
Twelve Iraqi college students, now studying in the United States as part of the Iraqi Student Project (ISP), reunited for several days in Bluffton, Ohio. Housed in Bluffton University’s Neufeld Hall, they spent time with families of the support group for one of their own—Shahad Aldoori, an interior design student at Bluffton—and took a trip to Cedar Point, a Sandusky, Ohio, amusement park.
Also meeting with the students in Bluffton were Robert Rosser, support group coordinator for ISP, and Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak, who founded the organization to help displaced Iraqi students acquire the education they will need to participate in rebuilding their war-torn country. ISP’s seven-member board includes Doug Hostetter, director of the Mennonite Central Committee-United Nations Liaison office. The first group of 14 students came to the U.S. in 2008, followed by 21 more—including the 12 who attended the reunion—last fall.
Huck and Kubasak traveled from Damascus, Syria, where Aldoori’s group had come together as refugees in September 2008 for 10 months of English language study before entering American colleges and universities. "We became really close friends," said Aldoori, a Baghdad native who attended an initial reunion last winter in Wisconsin.
To prepare for the Bluffton get-together, she pursued fundraising efforts that covered the attendees’ expenses once they arrived. Those efforts included making presentations on being a refugee and on women and culture in Iraq, and cooking Iraqi food for a Bluffton craft festival and other occasions. Among her audiences were groups from First Mennonite Church in Bluffton and Grace Mennonite Church in nearby Pandora, both of which sponsor Aldoori along with the Broadmead Friends Meeting in Bluffton and individual supporters.
Kimberly Spallinger, a 1997 Bluffton graduate who chairs the support group for Aldoori, said her pre-reunion work "shows how much she really wanted it to happen." She also noted that the university allowed the visitors—who came from New England to California—to stay on campus for free during the event. "It was very generous of the university to give us space," said Spallinger, adding that most of the Iraqi students hadn’t seen Ohio before and seemed to like it.
That was definitely true for Cedar Point. "We want to go again," Aldoori said with a smile.
Some of her friends had difficulty adjusting to their American colleges, and she was admittedly "overwhelmed and lost" her first couple weeks at Bluffton, but that has changed, she said. "I’m getting used to it, and I like it," said the sophomore-to-be, who was looking for a small campus when she applied to ISP. Bluffton was also among only four of the 32 participating institutions that offers an interior design program.
Aldoori, who left Iraq with her mother and brother in January 2007, credits Spallinger and support group members Judy Kingsley, Carolyn Rich and Linda Suter for aiding her acclimation. And Spallinger, in turn, credits Aldoori for her initiative. "Shahad’s been very proactive in calling us if she needs something," said Spallinger, a former English instructor at Bluffton. "Not every college student wants four mothers."
"She’s become part of our family," she added, noting that Aldoori is teaching the Arabic language to her 2-year-old.
Aldoori wants to use her interior design skills in schools, hospitals, hotels and other rebuilt buildings when she returns to Iraq. But when that will be is anyone’s guess.
"I hope it will be tomorrow," she said. "I hope to go back to my country and live in my house and see my high school friends and my relatives. Every Iraqi hopes that." She paused, then continued. "We are patient."
Photo cutline: Shahad Aldoori (third from left, in purple) and other participants in the Iraqi Student Project sit down for a traditional Iraqi meal, including grilled lamb, during their July reunion in Bluffton, Ohio.
Photo courtesy of Kimberly Spallinger/Bluffton University
Scott Borgelt, public relations office, 7/30/10