Iraqi scholars seek asylum

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Times Staff Writer

Ali Fadhil and his Iraqi medical school classmate promised two years ago to return home when their Fulbright scholarships in the United States ended.

That was before sectarian violence worsened last year. And it was before attention turned to Iraqi medical students in the wake of foiled attacks in Britain allegedly by a group of Muslim medical professionals, including an Iraqi doctor.

Fadhil is back in Baghdad, but his classmate has joined a growing number of Iraqi students applying for asylum in the United States. Many of them fear their chances have worsened since the thwarted attacks in June in London and Glasgow, Scotland.


The classmate, who asked that his name not be used because he might be forced to leave the country, just completed a master’s degree in epidemiology at a university in New York.

As violence in Iraq escalated this year, the student’s family fled to Syria and Jordan. His father told him to apply for asylum. The student asked Fulbright administrators what to do.

They told him he had to return to Iraq, he said.

“They say this is a contract; you signed the contract and you have to be consistent with your objectives -- irrespective of all the changes that have happened in these two years,” he said.

It’s unclear how many Fulbright scholars have returned to Iraq, since the Institute of International Education, which manages the program for the U.S. State Department, does not track such data. The Iraqi Embassy in Washington doesn’t track the scholars either, an official said.

“The expectation is that Fulbrighters will return home to share their experiences with their fellow citizens and to apply their newly gained expertise and skills,” said Sharon Witherell, a spokeswoman for the institute. She said institute staff members do not give advice about asylum applications.

“We are contracted by the Department of State to run the Fulbright program, and there are terms for the program, so that’s all the advice we can give the students. If there are other avenues like asylum, then they have to seek them elsewhere,” she said.


Several Fulbright scholars said they had applied for asylum or were considering it. Their plight highlights contradictions within a U.S. foreign policy that invests in Iraqi professionals yet cannot protect them.

At least one Iraqi Fulbright student was granted asylum this spring -- another of Fadhil’s classmates, from Baghdad, who just earned a master’s degree in information sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.

Few accepted

In the last fiscal year, which ended in June, the United States admitted 133 Iraqi refugees. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. has accepted 833 Iraqi refugees, according to the International Rescue Committee.

The State Department has promised to admit 3,000 Iraqi refugees by September, but many refugee advocates say the department’s lengthy processing time will allow them to admit only 1,500.

Fadhil, who is finishing a master’s degree in journalism at New York University this fall, said he understood his friend’s dilemma. Fadhil’s father is a Sunni Muslim, his mother, a Shiite. His family still lives in Baghdad, and Fadhil, a married father of two, felt compelled to return to Iraq.

This summer, Fadhil is filming an HBO documentary about Baghdad’s Yarmouk Hospital and another for ESPN about corruption in government-sponsored sports. His wife and children have been granted asylum in the United States, but Fadhil plans to return to Baghdad this winter.


“Iraqi Fulbrights should be allowed to stay in the U.S. if they want to, but the goal should be to serve their country,” he said.

The Fulbright program was created in 1946 by Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright as a way to increase understanding between the United States and other countries.

Fulbright scholarships cover tuition, cost of living and travel expenses for up to two years of study by foreign students at a U.S. college or university. Separate grants allow U.S. students to study abroad.

Before foreign Fulbright scholars arrive in the U.S. they sign a contract promising to return to their homes for at least two years before pursuing permanent U.S. jobs or residency.

That contract was not changed after the Iraqi Fulbright program was revived in 2004 with a group of about two dozen students. More than 80 more have followed them.

Meanwhile, the same institute that runs the program continues to resettle senior Iraqi academics and their families with money from the federal government, the Ford Foundation, Wall Street and financier George Soros.


The program, called the Scholar Rescue Fund, has helped resettle 100 academics since 2002, and members of Congress want to set aside millions in Iraq war funding to aid more.

Fulbright scholars are ineligible for the program, which is designed for established academics, a program spokesman said.

‘Help better Iraq’

The Iraqi Minister of Higher Education in 2006 urged U.S. officials to block Fulbright scholars from extending their U.S. student visas.

“We discourage them to stay in the U.S.” because Fulbright scholars are supposed to “help better Iraq in the future” by returning, said Dr. Hadi al Khalili, cultural attache at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington.

Khalili, a former Baghdad surgeon who fled Iraq after he survived a kidnapping in April 2004, said he recognizes the danger students face when they return, but that was no excuse to stay in the United States.

“We have many people who come here for treatments or scholarships and they go back,” Khalili said.


Most Fulbright scholars who have returned to Iraq are from the less violent Kurdish north; even they say Iraqi scholars should be allowed to stay in the United States.

Bilal Wahab, 27, returned to the northern city of Irbil in January, after studying transnational crime and corruption at American University in Washington. He now trains local government employees.

But Wahab, a Sunni Kurd, said he would not have returned if he lived farther south, where students are targeted by militias.

“There’s no point in sending back a young man or woman the country has spent a quarter of a million dollars on, sending them to their deaths,” he said.

Several Iraqi Fulbright scholars who are considering applying for asylum argue that they should be allowed to stay because they will be targeted at home because of their time in America.


Noor Raheel, 27, said her father, a contractor who works with Americans in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, has received repeated death threats. He told Raheel not to return to Iraq this month after she completes her master’s degree in epidemiology at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.


Many of Raheel’s former co-workers at Yarmouk Hospital have left the country. Her fiance is in the United Arab Emirates.

“I always ask my family, where are you going to go? They don’t know,” she said. “That’s an issue for us Fulbrights here. We all discuss that: What are you going to do after?”

It’s become a more pressing question since the attempted bombings in London and Glasgow, she said, as public opinion sours on Iraqi refugees and countries tighten visa restrictions.

Applying for asylum could permanently separate Raheel from her family. But she said she’s increasingly sure of one thing: “I must not go back to Iraq. I don’t think conditions will get better. I want to go somewhere I can be like any other person, welcomed.”

In New York, Fadhil’s classmate is awaiting the outcome of his asylum case. If he’s allowed to stay in the U.S., he will wait for Iraq’s security to improve, he said, then return to share what he’s learned.

“It’s a debt on our necks, an ethical debt to help rebuild,” he said.