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FROM READERS: The path of a scholar brings color to Columbia

Wednesday, June 6, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Dr. Kiffaya Al-Saffar, shown teaching in one of her classes in the engineering building at MU.

Amir Yehia, originally from Iraq, is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism master's program. He worked as a correspondent for a channel in Iraq after the 2003 war. He met with Dr. Al-Saffar when she first came to Columbia as a visiting professor from Iraq.

After taking a sip of Iraqi tea, Dr. Kiffaya Al-Saffar’s eyes glistened as she said, “Knowledge has no borders.” As a scholar, the 62-year-old woman holds and possesses decades of teaching experience just within the classroom she teaches in. Though the United States has served as her home for the past eleven months, Al-Saffar’s spirit lays within Iraq.

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Dr. Al-Saffar grew up having a motivation for seeking knowledge. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, her father spoke many languages including Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and English. She comes from a middle-class family of five sisters and one brother. Al-Saffar was the youngest among her siblings.

Since she was a young child, Al-Saffar was very hard working. After she graduated from high school in 1967, she attended the University of Baghdad’s College of Engineering. Knowingly, this school was founded in the 1920s. “There were very few females in Iraq pursuing a degree in this major,” Al-Saffar said. Engineering management goes far beyond the classroom; she loves teaching at the university because she is “always around the youth,” she said.

It was in England where Al-Saffar was inspired by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology to pursue her master’s degree in engineering. There, she learned many things from very professional professors. “Originally I wanted to take my talents back to Iraq and apply the European engineering management skills I learned. Unfortunately, there was little opportunity for those kinds of skills in Iraq at the time,” said Al-Saffar.

The 1980s and on offered Al-Saffar many challenges — the lack of resources, new books and references, laboratories and the lack of contact with the outside world due to the sanctions which were imposed on Iraq in 1991 and continued till the 2003 war. The obstacles after 2003 continued except with the great lack of security.

There were limits on what types of engineering skills she could showcase in Iraq and what she could teach. At first, she worked as an instructor in Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. Later on, Al-Saffar earned her Ph.D. and gradually she became the head of the engineering department in 2006. Al-Saffar’s experiences with her Iraqi students in Baghdad show that regardless of the extreme difficult situation, the students are very bright and hard working. “Not surprisingly, Iraq is labeled as the ‘Cradle of Civilization,'” elaborated Al-Saffar.

She married Muayad Sabri and they are blessed with three boys and two adorable grandchildren, 8 and 7 years old. Her eldest son has a Ph.D. from pharmacy school. The youngest son has a degree in engineering. “I am very happy with how supportive my husband is toward my finishing of my career and education,” Al-Saffar said.

Al-Saffar always had her mind set toward America. She started corresponding with several universities looking for a visiting professor’s position. She ended up accepting the offer at the MU College of Engineering's Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering because it was the most promising. In January of 2012, Al-Saffar started teaching two courses that were not offered previously, entitled “Project Management” and “Maintenance Management.” “Project Management” focused on providing a wide range of professional responsibilities. “Maintenance Management” focused on its role in industrial plants, hospitals and buildings with the aim of reducing the costs of safety and the well-being of the working force.

The majority of her students were graduate students and some were undergraduates. “I loved my students, and the diversity of the class and also the encouragement and support from the department chair and other faculty members. In addition to that, the welcoming atmosphere, the facilities, and the management system were amazing,” Al-Saffar explained. “People here are looking for how well one performs on the job rather than who you are and where you come from. Even with my scarf or Hijab, and my non-native English accent, I did not face any discrimination or prejudice. Everyone was very welcoming wherever I go.”

When asked about her accomplishments at MU, Al-Saffar bragged about her linkage program she established with the Kurdistan Ministry of Higher Education, Al-Mustansiriya University’s College of Engineering and the Iraqi University. “So far, I corresponded with over 50 students from Iraq to earn a master’s degree or a Ph.D. from America. I will continue my contacts to bring more students from Iraq,” said Al-Saffar.

She also supported and promoted students seeking advice and in pursuit of higher studies from America. She encouraged students to make the best of their stay in America in hopes to rebuild their country when they go back home. 

Al-Saffar is currently undergoing a research study with two of her students and hopes to publish it in the near future. With a long love affair with education, and a unique travel record, Al-Saffar looks back on her life and offers a vivid comparison of cultures.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.


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