Â When Olivia Birwari ’12 first arrived to campus, she immediately noticed that Grinnell was a “very clean place, with many trees and green grass.” Most students take these features of a rural college campus for granted, but not Birwari, who has spent the last 20 years of her life living in Baghdad, Iraq.
Although she was born and raised in Baghdad, Birwari is not actually Arab. She is a member of an Assyrian minority that is Christian, a group that by many estimates makes up only three to five percent of the Iraqi population. Not only was Birwari’s family of an ethnic and religious minority, but her parents also worked jobs that made them targets: her father worked for the International Red Cross while her mother was employed by an American construction company.
When the Iraq War started in 2003, so many Assyrians were harassed and threatened that nearly all of them fled. As a result, Birwari estimates that her former Assyrian neighborhood “has been completely replaced by Sunnis.” The Birwari family eventually faced a similar fate. After receiving an anonymous, threatening letter, the family fled to Damascus as refugees in July 2007. In Damascus, Birwari met with the Iraq Student Project, a group whose goal is to link refugees from Syria and Jordan to colleges in the U.S. Through this group, Birwari learned of Grinnell College, although she admits that she “didn’t know Grinnell even existed.”
While Birwari applied to colleges in the U.S., her family, also refugees, decided to attempt an emigration to the U.S. The family contacted the United Nations High Council for Refugees, and eventually received permission for the whole family to come to the U.S. as refugees. Birwari and her family arrived in Chicago, the first U.S. city that any of them had ever seen. Due to the long, tedious process required to gain access to the U.S., Birwari arrived late to school. As a result, she was able to spend less than 24 hours in Chicago with her family before she came to Grinnell on Aug. 27.
Since arriving on campus, Birwari has been impressed by the diversity of the student body. She notes that it seems like the “whole world is gathered in Grinnell.” Birwari, however, also admits that the transition has been difficult. Since Birwari was forced to come to Grinnell as quickly as possible, she left her family, including her twin brother and younger twin siblings behind in Chicago. Birwari had no idea how the family would support themselves, an uncertainty that has lingered as her parents are currently searching for jobs.
Academically, too, she has experienced unease. In Iraq, Birwari asserts that students do not “choose classes,” because they enter school knowing what their major will be. Thus, the process of crafting of a personal schedule has been a completely alien experience for her. Birwari differs from other first-years in still other ways. In 2006, Birwari spent one year studying at the University of Duhok in northern Iraq. She is now 21 years old, but is still considered a first-year student in spite of her academic background. This difference in age and experience has left Birwari feeling more “like a mother” to her classmates at times.
Despite the magnitude of uncertainty that Birwari has to contend with on a daily basis, she still manages to keep a positive and candid outlook. When asked if anything else at Grinnell was of concern for her, she responded, “the winters.” Given what Birwari has endured to reach Grinnell, the winters stand no chance of defeating this woman.