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How to rebuild a broken country

When Saman Abdullah first arrived in the United States, he couldn’t complete a sentence in English. Three years later, he has a master’s degree in civil engineering from Cal State Fullerton and is entering UCLA’s doctoral program. But most importantly, what he learns in America will help rebuild his home country of Iraq.

Few students had as harrowing a journey to Fullerton as Abdullah. Though he is from the relatively peaceful Iraqi Kurdistan, he had to travel to Baghdad six times to secure his scholarship. For these trips, Abdullah took shuttles from his hometown of Sulaimani to the nation’s capital, 200 miles away. During the rides, drivers would point out places along the route where bombs had gone off and executions had taken place.

Though this violence is now largely absent from the Kurdistan Region, the area’s infrastructure has largely failed to modernize due to decades of conflict. The Iraq-Iran War ran from 1980–1988, and was followed by the Gulf War in 1991. Also in 1991, Kurdish uprisings against Saddam Hussein’s government led to both violent reprisals and years of economic blockades.

“After those wars and conflicts, our country’s infrastructure was a mess. A total mess,” said Abdullah, who wanted to be a civil engineer since he was a child, when he would create buildings and bridges with his toys.

The importance of modernizing the region’s infrastructure is self-evident—especially since tourism is a driver of the local economy. His region has also recently experienced several minor earthquakes, and officials warn major ones may follow. Therefore, engineers who have the knowledge and expertise to build earthquake-resistant structures are necessary to complete that modernization.

“Right now, government officials won’t let any buildings be designed and constructed that aren’t earthquake resistant,” Abdullah noted. “And I have never seen anyone who has majored in earthquake engineering in Iraq. So that is why I am here. There is no place better to study that than in California.”

Though he earned a full scholarship from the Iraqi government in 2010, and received conditional acceptance from Cal State Fullerton, there was a problem: Abdullah couldn’t speak English.

“It was bad. It was terrible,” is how he describes his English skills upon arriving in the United States. “I did take English in primary school, but my teachers would give the lessons in Kurdish. I don’t think I had even talked to a native speaker before coming to America.”

In fall 2010, Abdullah enrolled in Cal State Fullerton’s American Language Program (ALP), which prepares international students for study in the United States. In ALP, he received comprehensive instruction in English and introduction to his new home; that included conversations with language partners, essays for composition classes, and field trips throughout Southern California.

“When I first got here it would take me 10 minutes to just ask a question. But the ALP staff were so helpful and patient. And always available during office hours for additional assistance,” Abdullah said.

He also benefitted from ALP’s Cultural Homestay, which allows students the option to live with an American family. Abdullah was skeptical at first, but he decided that if he didn’t get along with his host family he could always move out after a few months. Instead, he has been staying with them for three years and now considers them a second family.

“I wanted to learn the culture, not just the language,” Abdullah said. “We have family dinners every Thursday. I celebrate holidays with them, which are all new to me. Christmas is not a big deal in Iraq. We celebrate New Year’s, but not like you do here. Of course, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Halloween—everything is new.”

With interaction in the classroom and at home, Abdullah passed his TOEFL language test after two semesters in ALP. He entered CSUF’s Civil and Environmental Engineering master’s program in fall 2011 and began studying with the same intensity that led him to become proficient in English in less than a year.

“It’s important to learn from the professor and teach yourself. Lectures are not enough. That’s why I ended up doing a lot of reading. For every assigned reading, I would try to do two on my own. If one textbook was assigned, I would get three,” he said.

The payoff for his studies is clear: there is a faculty appointment waiting for him at the University of Sulaimani, his alma mater, where he will teach the next generation of civil engineers and assist in construction projects that largely follow American code. But that doesn’t mean his future colleagues are waiting for his return to find out what he has learned.

“One of my former professors has already been in contact with me, asking me for help in how to design buildings that can withstand earthquakes,” Abdullah said.

His hard work hasn’t just been recognized by former teachers. After graduating from Cal State Fullerton in spring 2013, Abdullah entered UCLA’s Civil and Environmental Engineering PhD program that fall.

“ALP was the first step towards my goals. I learned English. I met wonderful people. I got a great degree,” he said. “Now I am working towards getting my PhD, which is the ultimate goal of my time here. I love Kurdistan and will be happy to go back and be a servant for the people of my country.”