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A Journey From Iraq's Green Zone to Commencement In Louisville

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In 2004, Lamia Shnawa started working for the U.S. Department of Defense in her hometown of Baghdad, Iraq, serving as an administrative assistant and an interpreter.

Last week, she graduated from the University of Louisville with a master's degree in teaching.

Her journey from Baghdad to Louisville was made possible by a special visa program for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, although she was almost derailed by the recession of 2008.

In Iraq, Shnawa worked in the Green Zone, a protected area controlled by the U.S. military, and she took different routes to work every day so that she wouldn't be followed. At that time, Shnawa said, life in Baghdad was inherently dangerous, but it was especially perilous for anyone working with Americans.

"The only reason I went through all what I went through was because I liked the job. Every day, my life was in danger. I would go to work and I would not expect myself to come back safe, or even in one piece," Shnawa said.

On a day when she was late to work, a bomb exploded at one of the Green Zone gates, at the exact time when she would normally be arriving.

"Being late totally saved my life," said Shnawa.

After that incident, and another bombing at a nearby hotel where she was working for CBS News, she decided that she wanted to leave Iraq. Her visa application was processed within a couple of months and she landed alone in Louisville, greeted at the airport by a friend of a friend, part of Louisville's Iraqi community.


Shnawa lived with the friend and her family for the better part of a year, but because of the recession, she was unable to find a job and decided to return to Iraq for another nine-month contract with the Department of Defense.

This new job was safer, Shnawa said, because she would be able to live and work inside the Green Zone, rather than passing through the gates each day.

"It paid a lot of money, so I knew that if I finished a year with them, I'd be OK for at least two years even if I didn't find a job," Shnawa said.

At the end of that contract, she decided to come back to Louisville and was able to apply for family reunification, which allowed her family — her mother, two sisters, and three brothers — to join her in Louisville.

Shnawa said she always wanted to study abroad, preferably in an English-speaking country, because "the English language is my passion." She knew she wanted to go back to school but saw the required GRE exam as a huge obstacle. She studied for six months and was delighted to be accepted. Two years later, she's just finished her master's program, with a focus in teaching English as a second language. She's currently looking for a teaching job.

Several of Shnawa's siblings have also sought degrees in Louisville. Two of her brothers will be graduating from U of L's Speed School of Engineering next semester. Another brother, who was a dentist in Iraq, has completed a special two-year program at U of L's School of Dentistry and is awaiting his license so he can begin practicing.

As for her mother's feelings about life in Louisville, Shnawa said, "She hates it! She wants to go back home because she feels very homesick. She's an old woman, she's 65, and we're always away, we're always working. She sees us maybe two or three hours a day, and she feels like we are busy with our lives but she has nothing to do. But she's happy that we're safe."

Shnawa said she has almost always found Louisville to be a welcoming place, although "I would have a mean look every now and then because I'm wearing a scarf, being Muslim, but it's nothing compared to the good people here."

She cited an example: when she accidentally rear-ended another car in traffic and was surprised at the other person's reaction.

"It was not really a big deal, but it terrified me because I've never had an accident," Shnawa said. "She was a nurse, I believe, a very sweet lady. I was so terrified, she saw it in my eyes and she said, 'It's okay,' and she hugged me. And when she hugged me, I was like, oh my gosh, she just did that? That is how welcoming and sweet people in Louisville are."

Shnawa said she understands the fear that some have about Muslim refugees, but she disagrees with generalizations.

"They need to know what refugees are, they need to know who refugees are. When they come here, they really participate and help this country. Most Americans were either refugees or immigrants. And painting everybody with the same brush, that is not fair," Shnawa said.

The recent public conversations about Muslim refugees lead some of her friends to text her and ask if she feels like she's in danger, she said.

"And I was like, no! Not at all. People are very nice and there are more good people in this country than bad people."