It was around noon when my flight arrived at College Station TX – my home for the next two years as a graduate student at Texas A&M University. After a long flight from Baghdad, I was exhausted and looking forward to a delicious meal and a comfortable bed. I took my luggage and headed to the arrivals hall, looking for a sign with my name on it as I thought someone from the university might be there to pick me up. I watched other passengers being warmly received by their families and friends. To be expected, right? But to me it was then it hit me that I was alone. No friends or family to speak of and no-one to take care of me (something I was used to in my country). I continued watching people leave one by one. I was still there, waiting alone. Desperate and tired, I called the international student office. The lady there told me that no one was sent to pick me up! I realized that I would have to take a cab and get to the apartment complex myself. This might seem perfectly normal to most, but it certainly wasn’t to me – a young woman from the Middle East, who was used to her family doing everything for her.
So there you have it – my first culture shock. I realised from there on in that I would have to depend on myself. Everyone expected me to be self-reliant. That is how society functions in the US and that was the first thing I needed to teach myself in order to survive. At the beginning I hated being independent. It was too much work, especially with the amount of studying I was required to do. It was not easy, but now, on the contrary, I love it.
The next challenge was to fit into an American classroom. What made this challenge even more complicated is the fact that I was studying topics related to politics and American foreign policy in the Middle East. I was the only Arab student in my school and I started my degree in January 2011, a critical time, as of course this was when the Arab Spring erupted across the Middle East. At the beginning, I felt under pressure and did not know how to be objective about a number of sensitive topics like war. Then I realised though, that I was the only person there who had actually experienced war. So, at the end of the day I was able to contribute first-hand knowledge. In our assigned readings, other students read policies and laws. I, on the other hand, discovered how my life had been shaped by leaders and policy makers. As a student, I was supposed to be neutral, but in the face of my life experiences this was something I just couldn’t be. I had been there when that war was launched. I had lived through the misery of the economic sanctions, been subject to sectarian discrimination – and worst of all I had lost my father in this brutal civil war.
My very first class was about the 1991 Gulf War. I remember the professor went around the room asking my classmates where they were when the war started. Their answers were to be expected: they were either playing or at kindergarten. When I was asked, feeling deep pain and sadness, I replied: I was in my Mom’s lap, scared and waiting for the first rocket to hit our city. But in that class I realized that I was actually given a great opportunity to present my side of the story to my classmates and professors. I went on to introduce them to the Iraqi culture and traditions and to how the people of that part of the world think (Ed: of course this is Nina Magazine’s aim also!). I soon came to realize that by helping my friends and classmates learn about my people and culture, I actually was exploring my own identity and so came to see myself in a new light.
My almost three years in the United States were life-changing. Living in a western country, I was faced with two options: I either isolate myself, refusing to integrate into society, or adapt and socialize. Adapting and socializing of course meant learning from others, but also sharing my culture. After a wonderful stay in Texas, I came back to my country with more knowledge and a more tolerant view around topics I had grown up considering as ‘red lines’ (i.e. things that couldn’t be discussed). I am a very different person today – better I think.
I believe that living up to the challenges of fulfilling tasks I had never done before, has led to a big change in me; and I continue to grow. I have discovered new skills and qualities I had no idea that I possessed. Now, every time I am faced with an obstacle, I know I am a able to figure out a way to do what is needed – this is because I am strong and independent. Sometimes I feel I can do anything! On top of all that, I have made wonderful friends from every state in the U.S. and from all over the world.
I am now living in Iraq, and working for a large organization. These experiences have proved to be formative in creating this wonderful new chapter in my life.
Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan continue to actively promote and support young Iraqis studying abroad. To find out more visit: