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Iraqi Student Inspired to Pen Poetry

Gonzaga student Mustafa Mahmood prepares to read the poem he wrote about returning home to Iraq after being a refugee for seven years. Photo by Tara Schmidt.

By Tara Schmidt
Class of 2012

SPOKANE, Wash. – Gonzaga student Mustafa Mahmood was not safe living in Baghdad in 2004. His family made a decision that would change his life – and outlook – forever.

The family fled to neighboring Syria, where his father, a physics teacher, eked out a living selling clothes wholesale. In addition to the dangers of war, “my whole family was threatened by militia because they do not belong to the majority sect,” Mahmood said.

His family remained refugees for seven years. It was in Damascus (Syria) that Mahmood – a firm believer in destiny – learned of the Iraqi Student Project. The initiative, which began as a way to shelter people whose lives were destroyed by the Iraq War, has grown to help refugees receive a U.S. education.

Mahmood and his family were among 2.2 million Iraqis who fled to Syria or Jordan by summer 2007. After discovering the ISP, Mahmood immediately bought an Oxford Arabic-English Dictionary. At first, he labored to learn at least one new word a day. Once enrolled in the program, he studied English more formally. In late 2010, he received a letter from Gonzaga that he had been accepted as an undergraduate.

“I told my mother, I had to go back to Iraq to say goodbye. To both the country and my family there,” he said. After a 7-year hiatus, Mahmood and his family returned to their native nation. That highly emotional moment inspired him to write the poem featured below.

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Mahmood studied spoken English, advanced literature and poetry in ISP. While he had written verse in Arabic, the program allowed him to build his English repertoire. His poems were published in “The River, the Roof, the Palm Tree,” a collection of creative works penned by ISP students.

“ISP is a very special community,” says Mahmood. “When you first join, you only want to get accepted at a university. You all have the same goal. You’re studying the same things, and have the same destiny. It’s like a family.”

Mahmood studies civil engineering at Gonzaga and hopes eventually to return to Baghdad. He would like to help restore historic sites ravaged by war.

Mahmood also believes that through programs like the Iraqi Student Project, Iraq and the United States can help reconcile differences through understanding and education.

For Mahmood, the usual transition from high school to college, dependent to independent, is also a move from “a culture with specific traits” to “a culture of many traits,” and Mahmood says it’s made him more open-minded.

“When I was first looking at Gonzaga’s website, the thing that stuck out to me was ‘Be inspired,’ and it’s everywhere I look here, and I am inspired.” He says he loves the engineering program at GU. When asked about his religion classes, Mahmood says he finds more similarities than differences between Christianity and Islam.

“We must focus on what we have in common if we want to bring peace,” he says.

  1. Sarah AK Ahmed
    Posted February 22, 2012 at 1:52 am

    Thank you very much Mustafa for saying what we all feel. I am sure your family is proud of you, your Iraq is proud of you, and I am, your friend is proud of you. Your poem is great and we all anticipate more from you in the future. I can see from now your future that in all ways is connected to Iraq future, you will build Iraq and get it back to it’s feet and erase all the years of destruction and devastation. That’s what Iraq needs, young people like you who has the determination and what it takes. God bless you and wish you all the best. You made my day…