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Young Iraqis expand skills, knowledge through UMass studies

  • Hassan Al-Dukh Khans, Rozhan Mahmood, and Shahad Ahmed Hadi deliver food to Elsie Fetterman in Amherst. They, along with about 20 other Iraqi University of Massachusetts Amherst students, volunteer with the "Meals on Wheels" program.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Hassan Al-Dukh Khans, Rozhan Mahmood, and Shahad Ahmed Hadi deliver food to Elsie Fetterman in Amherst. They, along with about 20 other Iraqi University of Massachusetts Amherst students, volunteer with the "Meals on Wheels" program.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Havind and Peter Fenton load up meals into insulated boxes. Fenton is the team leader and mentor to a group of about 20 Iraqi students on University of Massachusetts Amherst's campus who volunteer with "Meals on Wheels" in the Amherst area.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Havind and Peter Fenton load up meals into insulated boxes. Fenton is the team leader and mentor to a group of about 20 Iraqi students on University of Massachusetts Amherst's campus who volunteer with "Meals on Wheels" in the Amherst area.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • From left, Hassan Al-Dukh Khans, Rozhan Mahmood, Chelsie Field, Shahad Ahmed Hadi, and Peter Fenton, all University of Massachusetts Amherst students, volunteer with "Meals on Wheels" in the Amherst area. Fenton and Field are two of the mentors overseeing the Iraqi students while they volunteer.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    From left, Hassan Al-Dukh Khans, Rozhan Mahmood, Chelsie Field, Shahad Ahmed Hadi, and Peter Fenton, all University of Massachusetts Amherst students, volunteer with "Meals on Wheels" in the Amherst area. Fenton and Field are two of the mentors overseeing the Iraqi students while they volunteer.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hassan Al-Dukh Khans, Rozhan Mahmood, and Shahad Ahmed Hadi deliver food to Elsie Fetterman in Amherst. They, along with about 20 other Iraqi University of Massachusetts Amherst students, volunteer with the "Meals on Wheels" program.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Havind and Peter Fenton load up meals into insulated boxes. Fenton is the team leader and mentor to a group of about 20 Iraqi students on University of Massachusetts Amherst's campus who volunteer with "Meals on Wheels" in the Amherst area.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • From left, Hassan Al-Dukh Khans, Rozhan Mahmood, Chelsie Field, Shahad Ahmed Hadi, and Peter Fenton, all University of Massachusetts Amherst students, volunteer with "Meals on Wheels" in the Amherst area. Fenton and Field are two of the mentors overseeing the Iraqi students while they volunteer.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

From Kurdistan, Fatah, who is majoring in politics and international relations, said she will take back ideas to pass on to non-governmental organizations and other entities operating in her country. “I will be trying to work on areas that need to be improved,” Fatah said.

Havind Bayar, a political science major from the same region of Iraq, said he appreciates that the exchange program is giving him a firsthand view of American life.

“It’s most important to me, as a political science (major), to see a developed country that has a successful experience,” Bayar said. “I like (to) see how people talk and how people live and how people deal with foreign students.”

Fatah and Bayar are some of the 25 students taking part in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program at the University of Massachusetts. The program, funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, is in its fifth year of bringing some of the best and brightest students from throughout the Middle Eastern country to the United States. Just 100 of the nearly 3,000 students who applied for the program were selected, with the other 75 students going off to the University of Texas, Virginia Tech and Ball State for their studies.

Mohammed Elghoul is a graduate student at the UMass Donahue Institute who serves as academic director for the program. Elghoul said he tries to bring in various lecturers and guests to talk about subjects focused on various public policy issues, some focused on health matters and others on political elections. The Iraqi students one day heard from a campaign strategist and learned how they might run a presidential campaign.

“There is a mixture of American politics, public policy in general and public health,” Elghoul said.

Most of the 25 students are in the medical field, with 14 studying to be doctors.

In the afternoons, after lunch, typically there are activities, like a trip to Six Flags New England, service projects or field trips related to their studies, such as a tour of Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.

The students live in a campus dormitory and have four UMass students serving as mentors.

Studying medicine, Nawras Ruhaima is focusing his studies on both health care systems and environmental development. From Baghdad, Ruhaima said he would like to find ways to connect the two and improve both the environment and health system in Iraq.

Hassan Al-Dokh Khaini is studying soil sciences and agriculture and says he will benefit from coming to a campus where there is an emphasis on farming.

“The education level here is very high,” Al-Dokh Khaini said.

While much of the focus since the students arrived in Amherst has been on public policy and public health, the program also has a community service component that began with a recent visit to the Amherst Senior Center and is continuing with twice weekly assistance in delivering Meals on Wheels to homebound seniors.

Michael Hannahan, administrative director for the UMass Donahue Institute, said many of the students are in dental and medical school, which allows them to become more proficient in the English language.

“This is a good way to have them understand the culture of public health,” Hannahan said. “It’s also a good thing to raise money for the Senior Center.”

Ruhaima said part of enhancing leadership skills is to do whatever possible to help other people.

Senior Center Director Nancy Pagano met with the students and talked about issues of aging, senior center history and offerings, and population trends.

Fatah said the services provided are different from anything she has seen in Iraq. While her home country has homes for the aging population, there is no similar community center where people can come together to socialize and play games and get medical treatment before returning home.

“We don’t have a thing like that in our country,” Fatah said.

“The senior center here is different. It’s not a place where they live,” Ruhaima said.

The students will all participate in a final presentation at The Pub restaurant July 23 in which proceeds will benefit the Amherst Senior Center. Last year a similar event raised close to $1,000. The students will talk about their own studies and reflect on the weeks spent in Amherst athat evening.

Hannahan said this is a really life-changing experience for many of the students, giving them an opportunity to visit the United States, but also for to meet other Iraqis from parts of the country they would be unlikely to visit.

“For me, it’s G-R-E-A-T,” Ruhaima said, spelling the word out. “Studying for a month, studying in one of the best universities in the world and living in a great town.”

“Everything here is just amazing,” Fatah said.

After this month, the students head to Boston for a visit with an organization that raises money for mental health, and then to New York City for four days sightseeing, as well as a presentation to the other 75 students.

“We will be visiting the city that never sleeps,” Al-Dokh Khaini said.

Each will continue studies upon return to Iraq.

Fatah, who has three years remaining in her college career, said she is writing a diary and making comparisons between Iraq and the United States that will serve as the basis for future plans.

“After this, I want it to be usable for me. I want to make use of what I have learned here,” she said.

Bayar expects to spend a year in Poland, one of his final two years as an undergraduate, while Al-Dokh Khaini has just one year remaining in his studies.

Ruhaima has four years left because of his focus on medicine. His goal, he said, is this: “to make my future, my country’s future, better.”

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