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Villanova University Rescues Iraqi Chaldean Family with Education Opportunity
By CE&CC :: Wednesday, September 3, 2008 :: 87551 Views :: Article Rating :: Career & Education, Chaldean Education & Career Center

Maryland, USA  - Habib Habib.  Sounds like a musical, but the story of the Neumann College freshman with the duplicative name reads more like a documentary.

Habib came to the United States in 2005 as part of a youth exchange and scholarship program, living in San Diego with his aunt while attending school.  Typically, students return home after one academic year, but in Habib's case, home meant Iraq, where his Catholic family had been living in fear of extremists since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

That fear intensified when word began to spread in Baghdad that Habib was not, as his family claimed, studying in neighboring Jordan but rather in the U.S.  "When word got out, I was forced to stay in the U.S.," said Habib, who was granted asylum in 2006. "It was too dangerous to go home. I would be dead."

The quality of life for Habib's family had been in decline since the beginning of he war, for as much as they despised Saddam Hussein, their lives were not threatened until his ouster.

"The Christian neighborhoods were always the safest," said Habib's father, Thamer. "Nobody stealing, nobody attacking each other. It was very quiet and safe."

At the same time, Thamer added, Christians had no opportunities in public service under Saddam and he had been passed over for promotions at work simply because of his faith.

On the first night of the war, while sitting with relatives at his in-laws house, Thamer believed a well-planned regime could lead to a better Iraq, but he also predicted difficult times ahead.

"There will be days when you will regret Saddam is out of his position," he told his family.
As the war dragged on, their Christian neighborhood turned Muslim and simple tasks like shopping for produce or attending mass at their Chaldean Catholic church became life-threatening endeavors.

"Women's bags were searched and men were checked for suicide bombs," Thamer said. "There were men outside with machine guns (for protection) and five minutes after Mass, the priest would say, 'Please don't stay in the church.'"

When the Iraqi government collapsed, Thamer promptly lost his job and went to work for private construction company. That ended when his boss, a Sunni who decided to become politically active and showed a willingness to sit down with the Americans, was assassinated.

As Baghdad became more unstable, threats against Thamer and his wife, Manahel, steadily increased.

Clearly, it was time to go.

"We left one complete house, fully furnished, air-conditioned, 280 square meters," Thamer said as if reading from a real estate brochure. "It had two gardens, one out front and one on the side. It was our dream to build a small house for Habib so he could live with us after he got married."

Thamer was delighted when Villanova University agreed to accept his daughter, Dina, in 2006. Dani, his youngest son, made it to the U.S. a few months later.

Manahel found her exit in 2007 through the Scholar Rescue Fund, a nonprofit that helps locate and subsidize temporary academic positions for scholars whose lives and work are being threatened in their home country. With the help of a priest, she received a one-year contract to teach in the college of engineering.

"Villanova saved our family," said Thamer, who was the last to arrive in the U.S. after spending months in Amman, Jordan waiting for a visa. "Without the university, we would still be refugees."

Thamer arrived in the states with $100 in his pocket. He and his wife were only able to grab some photos, clothes and few personal possessions before locking up their house and fleeing to Jordan.

"They had to leave everything - their family, friends, a good source of income and their culture," said Habib, who will be studying biology and already has an eye on medical school. "They came to the U.S. like blind people."

Dennis Murphy, vice president of enrollment management at Neumann, learned of Habib through Martin LoMonaco, a deacon at the family's church and an associate professor of communication and media arts at Neumann.

"We arranged a meeting and it was a perfect match between the student, the family and the school," Murphy said. "Habib is a very strong student and I think his classmates will learn a lot when they hear his story and the obstacles he has overcome."

In their meeting, Murphy said he was equally impressed with father and son.

"This is a man who tried to find every loophole and opportunity to get each member of his family out of harm's way," said Murphy, whose nephew flew the first Apache helicopter into Baghdad at the start of the war. "He literally sacrificed himself like the captain of a ship."

The family settled in Glenmoore, Chester County. Dina Habib will study biology at Villanova and Dani, a senior at Owen J. Roberts High School, may very well follow his brother to Neumann.

"I cannot express the proper words for how grateful we are to Neumann and Mr. Dennis Murphy," said Thamer. "It was a miracle for us."

Murphy said Habib appears ready to dive into his studies.

"I saw him ... with a big smile on his face carrying his books," he said. "There is no doubt that this is a young man who is going to make a difference in the world."

Thamer believes he has plenty to contribute, as well, but after an exhausting, 10-month search, he's found there is not much of a market for engineers with 31 years experience in Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Minerals.

After failing to find work in his specialty, quality control, he applied to be a translator and then Arabic teacher. After a series of rejections, Thamer adjusted his expectations and tried to land a job as a bank teller and, later, as front desk clerk at a hotel.

"I tried everywhere, believe me, everywhere," he said, adding that his wife has also been looking for work since her contract at Villanova expired.

Thamer said his struggles have been offset by the support his family has received from their new friends in America.

"As an Iraqi, I thought Habib would be in danger here. To the contrary, everybody was nice to him when they found out he was from Iraq," Thamer said. "I think this has been a great failure of the media, not showing the real face of Americans to the Iraqis through the hearts of the people here."

Habib has found life in the U.S. a little harder than he imagined. "I thought it would be easy here; a piece of cake," he said. "But people suffer here, too, and they work very hard."

He loves "the natural beauty of the U.S., and the cheesesteaks and hoagies of course," but admits feeling "out of place sometimes."

While his thoughts are never far from Baghdad and the family and friends he left there, for now, his thoughts are squarely on his studies and taking advantage of the opportunities his parents and new college have provided.

"I feel a great responsibility to make them happy and proud," he said.