How Immigrating From Iraq Affected My Family & My Education In The United States

by Sana Kareem
Sana Kareem

I was born in Baghdad, Iraq and spent the first six years of my life there. Despite the violence just outside my door, I lived in a safe bubble my parents built for my sisters and me. My parents were both doctors and came from educated families in their cities. They both valued education and emphasized its importance.

As educated individuals became the next target for violence, my father was soon the only remaining doctor in his hospital. He received threats of death and kidnapping in person and through the mail. Knowing that the violence would only get worse, my parents packed our belongings and moved us to Jordan.

For the next two years, we lived in a small village in Jordan called Jarash. Upon our arrival, my parents filled out an application to come to the United States as refugees. They took this step as a last resort in case our residency in Jordan were to be jeopardized; they hoped we would not have to move across the ocean, away from our family. Despite the hours we spent in lines at government agencies, my parents knew that the possibility of being selected was nearly impossible. Both of my parents worked as doctors in Jordan, however, they received lower salaries because they were foreign refugees in the country. As for myself, I worked hard to quickly master the new dialect and rise to the top of my class.

Our lives were simple and safe in Jordan, but we could not stay –– my parents' work visa was not renewed after two years. Just as we prepared to be deported to Iraq, we were selected to travel to the United States as refugees.

Although my parents struggled to leave their families behind, they knew that no matter how hard we work in Iraq, our success and job opportunities were limited. To give my sisters and I a fighting chance at a comfortable and safe life, my parents agreed to move to Colorado.

But immigrating to the United States was not the end of our struggles. My academic standing in Colorado dropped severely in third grade as I battled a new language barrier. By the time I translated a question in my head, my classmates moved on to the next section. I could not keep up, and I shut down. I was angry at my parents for the dramatic transition, and angry at myself for not being able to keep up.

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As for my parents, the degrees they spent years earning were no longer valid. In the U.S., they were forced to take on the first medicine-related jobs they could find, which were well below their doctoral status in Iraq. They also took on courses at a nearby university to begin the process of becoming doctors in the U.S.

Seeing my parents work full time while earning A’s in courses they attended in the evening, I followed their example, and the whole family went back to school. I started reading picture books at home and translating every line until the words became familiar. Within two years, I was fluent in English and on my way to enrolling in honor courses in middle school. I began to feel most like myself, not because I was once again a high achieving student, but because I worked hard to reach my goals as I did with mastering the Jordanian dialect.

In high school, I spent all four years in the top 10 percent of my class and became a leader in my school community. By working toward personal and academic goals, I did not only feel most like myself, but I was also assuring my parents and myself that I made the most of their sacrifice.

Meanwhile, I was co-president of the Muslim Student Alliance club in my high school and organized fundraisers for global humanitarian crisis. I also toured new immigrant students and did my best to make the new environment feel familiar. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to help students who came to the U.S. under similar circumstances as me.

While both my parents worked towards balancing their degrees, only one was able to be a full-time student while the other worked to support the family. My father spent the next eight years back in school to re-establish his degree. By the time he completed his residency, his age made it hard for him to find a job. He spent the past five years taking on jobs in different states and is currently looking for an opportunity to be close to home.

I relied on my culture and identity to stay alive within my family until I was able to establish my own values and goals in America. For families who are torn from each other in a foreign country, I can only imagine how lost they feel and how many obstacles they must face, in addition to, possibly, hate and a lack of hospitality from classmates and neighbors.

This fall, I will be starting school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I will study Architecture under Environmental Design. As an architect, I will design buildings and community centers that bring to life the various cultures in America. Diversity in communities is too often lost in the lack of cultural representation of buildings. I hope that creating a stronger presence of different faiths and backgrounds in a city raises the confidence of different groups as well as unites them.

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Although my family’s reasons for coming to the United States were for safety and educational opportunity, our intention in America will always be questioned as the country’s feelings towards immigrants sway. At the same time, I am thankful to have safety and freedom to work as hard as I want until I am satisfied with where I am in life. It has been 10 years since I arrived in Colorado and I have maintained a close connection to my journey here. Helping and learning from refugees and undocumented students has encouraged me to continue to work hard toward my goal of becoming an architect and giving back to my community.