March 18, 2012
In Beleaguered Syria, an American Offers 'Reparations for the Iraqi Educational System'
By Ian Wilhelm
For many Americans, the nascent civil war in Syria is a distant tragedy. For Gabe Huck and his wife, Theresa Kubasak, it is a real threat to their effort to help refugees from Iraq get a college education.
Since 2007, the Iraqi Student Project, a nonprofit agency founded by the couple, has brought 47 student refugees in Syria, many of whom fled sectarian violence and other strife, to 35 colleges in the United States. Eight students are preparing to make the trip next, depending on whether they are accepted. (So far one has been granted admission, while the rest are waiting to hear.)
Operating out of their apartment, in downtown Damascus, Mr. Huck, a former publisher, and Ms. Kubasak, a former public-school teacher, offer yearlong training for students in English as a second language and other skills, and help them apply to colleges that have agreed to waive tuition and student fees. Last year the program's first student earned his degree, from Canisius College. Seven more are expected to graduate this year.
But the turmoil in Syria may shut down the pipeline. While Damascus hasn't seen the level of violence that other cities have, many of the Western embassies and cultural centers there, which the Iraqi students rely on for libraries and computers, have closed. And the volunteers the organization needs to help teach English, who are often from the United States and Europe, have dwindled in number as foreigners have fled the country.
The couple, who support themselves on Mr. Huck's Social Security checks and raise donations for their project's shoestring budget, are determined to continue but uncertain what the future holds. Here is The Chronicle's edited conversation with Mr. Huck.
Q. What made you want to help Iraqis?
A. The word that best characterizes what we're about—and it might offend some people to say it this way—is reparations for the Iraqi educational system, which was destroyed first by the sanctions, and then by the invasion and the violence that followed, and continues today.
Q. What are daily conditions like in Damascus?*
A. The effects of the troubles in Damascus are felt more and more. There's a general grief about the fact that Syrians are killing each other and that the economy is getting worse. *See today’s update from The New York Times here.
Q. For Iraqi families in Damascus, is it a feeling of out of the frying pan, into the fire?
A. We've heard that from the parents. They ask, Are we again in a place that is going to fall apart? It makes them tend to support the regime.
Q. Has the uncertain economy in the United States affected the financial assistance colleges are willing to offer?
A. Two years ago was the worst for tuition waivers, with several people saying, "Not this year. We can't do it." Last year was better, and this year, it's still too early to say.
Q. What do you tell admissions officers who may be skeptical about how well Iraqi students can do in an American college?
A. I say, Hey, we've got students at Dartmouth, we've got students at Wellesley, we've got students at the University of Oregon. We mean what we're talking about.
Q. How does it make you feel to see some of your students about to graduate?
A. It's good, but the hope was that Iraq would be a place they could return to and use the education they're getting. It has not become that.
Q. What does the future hold for your work?
A. The Iraqi Student Project is committed to seeing through every student who enters. How long can we bring in new people? We're thinking about that a lot because of the situation here.