Far from home
Iraqi women start anew at WCC and help each other navigate a foreign landscape
Back at home in Iraq, Eman Shakir spent her days teaching high school students algebra, trigonometry and calculus equations. But when she moved to Ypsilanti two years ago with her husband, children and parents, she wasn’t sure if her bachelor’s degree would hold any weight in the United States.
With a language barrier and no mentor to show her the way, it took her six months to begin finding the answers to her questions.
“I needed somebody who could speak at least my language or the kind of clear English that I can communicate with and would be able to understand me so that they can understand what I’m looking for,” Shakir said. “Somehow I could not find that, and I started to find my answers step by step.”
Shakir found her way into Washtenaw Community College and began taking courses. She learned the ins and outs of registration and financial aid. From there, she began mentoring other Iraqi women.
“A lot of other friends who are Iraqis, they started to face the same problem, but I always had an answer for them and helped them a lot,” Shakir said.
Shakir continuously hears from other Iraqis looking for her help. She squeezes them into her busy days working in WCC’s computer labs, taking courses in nursing and taking care of her husband, children and parents. She tries to help her three teenagers with their math homework, but her methods of solving the equations don’t connect with those her children learn in class. She gets the same answer but her method is “the old way.”
“We cannot expect ourselves to be full of skills the same as an American person who took the same classes here. It’s totally different,” Shakir said. “The way we were taught is totally different from the way it is here.”
Everyday life is also an adjustment. Life in Iraq was dangerous. There was no law, no electricity and no water. People began robbing things, and gangs tried to kill people for money and then, afterwards, for revenge.
“We hardly stayed alive,” Shakir said. “. . . I don’t know how to explain it.
It’s almost like going back to the Middle Ages.”
And more Iraqis are coming to the Washtenaw County area, said Shakir. Eleanor Brundage was seeing Iraqi women at the Student Resource and Women’s Center, and she thought forming a group could help them network to find resources within the community. Encouraged by Brundage, Shakir formed the Iraqi Women’s Support Group at the beginning of the Fall 2009 semester.
“Eman is very articulate,” Brundage said. “And a lot of these women, some of them are single, some of them have cultural issues. They’re coming here to restart their lives. . . . We want to form a group where we can help with not only emotional support but also practical matters.”
Seven Iraqi women gathered for the first meeting of the support group, sipping on coffee and tea and telling stories in both English and Arabic of seeing the hydraulics on an AATA bus for the first time or of the large homes they shared in Iraq. Shakir’s mother, Layla Ayoub, whirled her hands in gestures as she joked in Arabic about her husband. The women laughed and nodded, expressing their mutual understanding.
“They’ve had a lot of high expectations, but it’s not like that,” Shakir said. “They really need to have patience and understand that this is different culture, and they have to start all over again from the beginning.”
Even learning to follow the rules is an adjustment, Shakir said, recalling the stolen traffic lights in Iraq that locals learned to live without. A few women at the meeting still have to get their driver’s license — another obstacle that keeps them from getting out of their houses and navigating their new hometowns.
“It’s not easy for a person who went through a lot of problems in Iraq, with the dangerous situation that they used to live in,” Shakir said.
“They used to speak a whole different language and a whole different culture in the way they’re dealing with everybody. And suddenly they’re here, and they have to deal with everything in a whole different way.”
But, for some of the women, opportunity is on the horizon. Ayoub is pursuing an education — a lifelong dream that wasn’t an option for her in Iraq.