She Dreams of a Rebuilt Iraqi Homeland
By Laszlo K. Domjan
Expect to find Sara Sabaa a few years from now helping to restore public works in her native Iraq. But not yet. For now she’s a whirlwind of activity on Webster’s home campus, rushing to classes, handling volunteer chores, working a reception desk.
Sabaa grew up among well-educated people in Baghdad. Uncles and other relatives included doctors, school administrators and teachers. Her father was an accountant. In the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the educated classes became special targets of violence. Sabaa’s family felt vulnerable and fled to Syria in 2006.
“The war only lasted one month,” Sabaa said. “But it’s been chaos since. It’s still not inviting and not safe for refugees to return there. You don’t know who’s your enemy. You could be kidnapped for money. You could be kidnapped for political reasons. You could be kidnapped for who knows what.”
Sabaa, 20, finished high school in Damascus, Syria. Like other Iraqi refugees, Sabaa’s family feels safe under UN protection but her father has had trouble finding work in Syria. Back in Iraq her parents encouraged their children to learn English at an early age. Sara Sabaa spoke English fluently by age 9.
In exile, her parents lacked the money to send their daughter to study at an American university. Fortunately, Webster was among the first schools to take part in the Iraqi Student Project. The program aims to provide education for young Iraqis who otherwise could not afford college and who plan to return to Iraq to help rebuild their country.
Sabaa arrived at Webster in the fall of 2008, one of 14 students placed at schools across the country in the project’s first year. She is a sophomore majoring in mathematics with a goal of becoming a civil engineer.
Sabaa says it’s too early to know whether she’ll be involved with building or rebuilding roads, bridges, tunnels or other public works.
“Everything looks good to me,” she said. “It all interests me.”
Before the war, she said, “I remember the country was very beautiful. It was nice and safe. I want a career that helps to rebuild Iraq to what I remember from being in middle school. It’s definitely a dream of mine.”
Sabaa expects to earn an engineering degree in three more years. She’s putting off considering when it might be safe for her to go back to Iraq. In effect while she’s in school she’s prevented from return visits even to her family in Syria because she is in the U.S. on a single-entry visa. She has no guarantee that she would be allowed back to this country if she ever left.
To ease her separation from her family, Sabaa stays in touch through a laptop computer with a Webcam. She sees and talks with family members in Syria for hours at a time on some days.
Her skill at English and the electronic age that spreads American culture globally had prepared her fairly well for life in the United States. “I’ve had few surprises,” she said. “This is my third country. We moved around so much in Syria, I don’t recall having problems adjusting to a new place in the U.S.”
In addition to her heavy load of studies, Sabaa works at the information desk at Webster’s University Center as a building manager. Among her volunteer duties is helping the Red Cross with events and fundraising. She relishes her active life.
“I’ve come across so many nice people at Webster,” she said. “I really love being part of the Webster family. Wherever I am, Webster will always have a special place in my heart.”