Iraqi students bid farewell as Columbia College-MU exchange program ends

Friday, September 27, 2013 | 10:29 p.m. CDT; updated 8:30 p.m. CST, Monday, November 25, 2013
Columbia College hosts a farewell party Friday for eight Iraqi foreign students, marking the end of their six-week visit to Columbia.

COLUMBIA — Ramy Elias and Nick Fosse*, both 19, seem like typical roommates.

They watch the Food Network, and after watching delicious cuisine be prepared, they jump into Fosse's car to drive to McDonald's for late-night meals. One week, they went almost every night.

On the way, they often play Justin Timberlake's "Mirrors." They know every word.

Elias and Fosse, who are from opposite sides of the world and didn't know each other six weeks ago, are best friends.

Elias is one of eight Iraqi engineering students who have lived in Columbia since mid-August.

Columbia College celebrated the students' last day at a farewell reception on Friday. The cultural exchange program they were part of was overseen by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit International Research & Exchanges Board and was facilitated by MU in connection with the University of Technology in Baghdad, said Britta Wright, director of international student services at Columbia College.

MU scheduling issues prevented the school from hosting the Iraqi engineering students, and Columbia College didn't have an engineering program, so the schools decided to collaborate.

Columbia College applied to the International Research & Exchanges Board in 2012 and was accepted as a host site in March 2013. The school received a State Department grant that paid for all of the Iraqi students' expenses, including travel, health insurance, and room and board, Wright said.

The students lived in Columbia College residence halls, where they had English-speaking roommates. They strengthened their English skills at Columbia College and observed work done at MU's College of Engineering, Wright said. They toured MU engineering labs and audited classes.

Elias was able to watch cars being made, which he said he couldn't do in Iraq.

All the students had a passable knowledge of English but used in-class and outside interactions to gain confidence in their understanding of the language, Wright said.

Nadeen Aljanabi, one of the Iraqi students, said she thought her English — especially her comprehension skills — improved significantly after she participated in the program. She had never been to America.

She said she enjoyed the sense of security she felt when she stepped outside. She once heard a bomb explode while she was sitting inside her house in Iraq. When she went outside, she said, she saw people running and a man dead in front of her. Because of the danger, Aljanabi had to be home by 7 every night. 

That is not the case in America.

"If you want to hang out at 3 a.m., you can," she said.

There was one thing she didn't like, though: the dogs. 

"Iraqis don't have pets because they think it's dirty," Aljanabi said. "Muslims don't raise animals in the house."

Aljanabi and Elias said they want to come back to the U.S. after they graduate.

Wright said the future of the program would depend on continually being approved for the grant by International Research & Exchanges Board.

Aljanabi and Elias are sad to go, and Fosse is sad to see them leave.

Fosse and Elias had a tough time the week before Elias left. They increasingly talked about Elias' returning to the United States.

Elias said the best thing about Fosse is that he makes him laugh.

Fosse appreciates Elias' kindness and opening his eyes to Iraqi culture.

"I can definitely say that he can be my brother," Fosse said.

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