A Whole New World

October 9th, 2009

He is standing on the lawn in Woodburn Circle, staring at his feet. He cannot get over the green. He imagines his two young daughters running and rolling in it, soft blades tickling skin.

It is a dream, he says. It is paradise.

yassin16x9 He is so used to living in shades of brown: Cracked, tan earth. Scorched shrubs. Dust storms that paint the world gold. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, green only grew in patches, dreams only happened at night.

Yassin Ismaeel grew up in that Iraq, where educated men like him were denied visas and the ability to study abroad. He was too valuable, too likely to be lost to the world. But he let himself long for the West anyway, sending handwritten letters to American and British universities, begging for admission.

He imagined he would go on longing forever, always starving for more than his country would let him have, but then the Americans declared war and cracked Iraq open.

It was beautiful. It was horrible.

All rules toppled with the statues of Saddam. Possibilities mushroomed. Chaos and corruption and angry factions reigned. Bombs stole lives and limbs and identities. Japanese journalists introduced Yassin to a free press. The American State Department invited him to apply for scholarships that would take him abroad for the first time in his life.

yassin03 And he was ready to get out, to gather his wife, Saba, and their two daughters, to leave all that they had ever known for all that they had ever imagined. Then it happened. Yassin was offered a Fulbright Scholarship to study journalism at West Virginia University.

West Vir-GIN-i-a?

The place sounded so foreign, so far away. Just like everything Yassin had been waiting for.

“Things we cannot imagine”
On the first day of class, Yassin wears a navy blue suit and a striped tie. He doesn’t seem to notice that it’s the hottest part of the year or care that the other students on campus dress in shorts and T-shirts.

In class, he sometimes sprinkles – and sometimes drowns – the discussions with his cultural and theoretical point of view. He chats eagerly and politely with classmates who seem charmed by his enthusiasm and his tendency to over share.

“He loves this experience,” says his advisor Steve Urbanski, director of graduate studies at the journalism school. “He wants to be perfect.”

“I am not just a student,” Yassin explains. “I have to be more.” Because he represents the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, too. And he represents Iraq.

In many ways, he is just the right person to do it. He doesn’t have radical views or isolationist tendencies that too many people blindly associate with the Middle East. He is what Americans would call politically independent.

Because his family descended from a Sunni tribe but lived in a Shiite area, he identifies as both and as neither. Because his late father so valued education, Yassin and his 11 siblings are scholars, taught to question societal rules rather than thoughtlessly accept them. Because he never agreed with Saddam Hussein’s policy of isolationism, he revels in campus diversity.

“I’ve never met a more poised and prepared candidate for anything,” says Michael Wilhelm, the Office of International Students and Scholars director. “He’s so eager to make the most of this opportunity. He comes from a place that sounds like it’s very far away and scary, and we’re still at war. Just him being here gives us some idea that there’s hope. He’s gone through things we cannot imagine.”

Once, Yassin was a doctor, an orthopedist who worked for the National Iraqi Olympic Committee. But sports medicine was so new in Iraq, and his practice so limited, that caring for athletes, most of the time, simply meant translating for them.

Eventually, Yassin’s love of language superseded his love of medicine and he returned to earn degrees in linguistics and translation. Soon he was translating for Japanese newspaper reporters and teaching English at private schools in Baghdad.

That’s where he met Saba. She asked him to translate a letter she was writing to Oprah Winfrey, telling the American celebrity her story of being injured in a fire and hoping she would help.

After the fire, her skin tightened and tucked into an unrecognizable mask. Her first husband left her. Her dream of getting an American education and becoming a diplomat melted in the fire.

Yassin was awed by Saba’s will to push forward.

“I was attracted to her immediately,” Yassin says. “She was the perfect wife for me. She had such strength and personality.”

They married in 2007 and had a daughter, named Deema, shortly after.

They never heard from Oprah. “But Oprah gave her a very good thing,” Yassin says, laughing, “which is me.”

Saba nods. It is true, she says. If she hadn’t been burned, hadn’t needed to write a letter to Oprah, she would not have met this man who loved her despite her injuries, who married her despite his family’s doubts.

And brought her to Morgantown, where women stand on equal ground, and where she believes her own dreams for an education could finally come true.

Becoming American
They are getting comfortable now.

Yassin still wears his suit jacket to class, but he’s replaced his stiff, blue button-ups and ties with the free WVU T-shirts he received at orientation. He plays soccer on the weekends with other international students. Last week, he scored five goals. Saba is still slowly and shyly learning to speak English, but she eagerly talks to Yassin’s new classmates, using him as her translator. She’s buys flowers from Wal-Mart and gets invitations to dinner parties.

They live in one of the Medical Efficiency Apartments near the hospital. The kitchen is cramped and the living room is filled with books, but it will feel more like home when their girls arrive. Danya, Saba’s 8-year-old daughter from her first marriage, and Deema are in Syria with Saba’s parents and sister. On Oct. 4, they will travel to the U.S. Embassy and hope for permission to move to Morgantown.

Saba, who dresses like an American in dark, fitted denim, printed scarves and Jackie O sunglasses that hide her scarred skin, envisions her daughters plucking wildflowers from the ground and plodding on grass in bare feet. She believes that, one day, every member of her family will have a degree from an American university.

Yassin will be the first, learning how a free press counters government corruption – lessons he hopes take back to Iraq. She will be next, embarking on a career in medicine. She doesn’t know yet what her daughters will do, but the not knowing is OK.

It means her daughters are not trapped like she was. They will have choices. They can travel and study and live in other countries.

Or they can return to Iraq where, Yassin and Saba hope, the new government won’t repeat the mistakes of the last government.

Yassin looks over his shoulder before he speaks. All he sees behind him are students rushing to their next classes, but when he begins talking, it’s in a whisper.

“With Saddam there was no freedom,” he says.

Saba laughs. She may not understand what he is saying, but she hears how he is saying it. She cuts him off, speaking in a high, quick voice.

Yassin begins to laugh, too.

“She says, ‘You are in the United States now.’ You can say what you want.”

He pauses. He is 41 and he feels like his life is just beginning. He can’t find the words for everything that he’s feeling. He can’t describe the gift that WVU has given him.

“It is difficult for me to believe sometimes,” Yassin says. “I cannot believe I am in the United States. I feel like I am dreaming and one day I’ll wake up and find myself in my country.”