Hiba Gharib said sometimes she felt like there had to be four of her at once.
When she first arrived in the United States in 2008 on a scholarship from her native government, the 35-year-old Kansas University student from Iraq had to juggle finding a school for her children, getting driver’s licenses, dealing with bureaucracies at home and at school, and figuring out just what these “credit cards” were.
When she’s done at KU, she’ll go back to help rebuild her country’s ravaged higher education system, bringing with her an American Ph.D. in linguistics.
KU will be seeing more students like her, too. A program sponsored by the Iraqi government aims to send 50,000 college students to the United States, some of whom will attend Kansas University.
KU will welcome five new Iraqi students in the fall, but that number will likely grow as the program expands, said Mark Algren, associate director of KU’s Applied English Center, who has been coordinating the students’ arrival.
Gharib is pleased to see the new arrivals; she is here on a similar program. It hasn’t always been easy, she said.
“We’d be very happy to help other people,” Gharib said. “It was very frustrating to come at the beginning.”
With an Iraqi master’s degree in hand, Gharib said her original acceptance letter from KU wasn’t clear about academic expectations. She had to work with KU and her government, which was paying her way, to reach an arrangement that was acceptable to both. She’ll finish an American master’s degree and doctorate in four years.
Gharib, who lives in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, said she spent more than $50,000 in moving her family to the United States. Her husband and two children, now 7 and 10, had to stay for weeks in Lebanon awaiting travel papers. When she arrived, things got a little overwhelming.
She and her family knew nothing about where to get food, clothes or pretty much anything until Gharib’s husband found a fellow Iraqi family living in Lawrence who attended their mosque.
Her husband, who manages a retail store in Iraq, didn’t speak English when he arrived and hasn’t been able to find a job. Her family is living off the scholarship from the Iraqi government, which pays for tuition, housing and other expenses.
KU and Iraqi officials have been working to make things as smooth as possible for the new students’ arrivals.
Algren traveled to Iraq to meet with government officials in January 2009, a meeting attended by officials from about 25 other American universities, including the University of Missouri, the University of Iowa and the University of Kentucky.
About 400 Iraqi students will attend those schools this year, and will be sponsored by their government. Algren said Iraq is trying to rebuild its education system after the reign of dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Their education system just tanked” under Hussein, Algren said, when regulations such as travel restrictions hampered growth and development. “They fell behind on research. They fell behind on methodology.”
Gharib said many of the professors were kidnapped, killed or fled the country.
Like Gharib, the students will be in the United States on a special visa that compels them to return to Iraq after they’ve finished their education.
The five new KU students — three master’s students, one doctoral student and one undergraduate — were chosen from among about a dozen that applied, Algren said.
“It’s understood that almost all, if not all, students coming on this program will need some (English) language study when they arrive,” Algren said.
Algren is serving as a liaison between the students and the many different offices at KU.
That’s a good thing, said Daphne Johnston, associate director of international admissions at KU, who said navigating an unfamiliar bureaucracy can get a little bit daunting at times for international students.
“It really is important for any kind of sponsored student organization to have a person who can coordinate things for them,” Johnston said.
Algren said it’s hard to say just how many additional Iraqi students will attend KU in the future. He said it will largely depend on the future success of the government program. Students there work with advisers to match them with the best possible programs at places where they are likely to be admitted given their academic backgrounds, he said.
Even with some of the logistical problems she encountered, Gharib said the experience has been a great one, and she’s glad she was able to participate in the program.
“My children learned perfect English,” she said. “I have a lot of American friends. I’ve invited them to visit my country and they promise they will come.”
She relays all kinds of information back home about America — usually dispelling myths gathered from watching American movies. No, people don’t eat every meal in restaurants. And, yes, there are some ugly people here.
“We don’t see any ugly ones in the movies,” she said.