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Faces of the UI: He can’t go home again

BY SHANE ERSLAND | FEBRUARY 20, 2009 7:34 AM

Talib Nawfel Talib is scared to death of going back home.

Talib, who has lived in the United States for four years, is from Baghdad. Since U.S. troops were deployed to his home country, members of two major Muslim religions — the Shiites and Sunnis — have been at war.

Talib’s father, who died of a heart attack in 2002, was a Sunni, and his mother is a Shiite. If Talib, 24, were to return to Iraq, he would be under constant threat from both sides.

“I would be privileged to stay here,” Talib said. “Going back is not an option.”

Talib — one of only four Iraqi students at the UI — is working on earning his master’s degree in public health and trying to get into dental school. Because he has only 12 credits left to complete for his public-health program, he hopes to be accepted by a dental school soon and not just for academic reasons.



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Because Talib is in the country on a student Visa, if he’s not enrolled in school, he’ll have to return to Iraq.

But getting into dental school has not been easy for Talib. Last year, he spent more than $8,000 on applications to roughly 50 schools, and didn’t even get an interview.

Talib’s friend Naif Sinada, who is also working on finishing his master’s in public health at the UI, was just accepted into dental school. He said he knows how difficult it is to get into the field.

“With dental school, it’s about having the perseverance to keep applying,” Sinada said.

The Shiite-Sunni conflict isn’t the only aspect of the war Talib is concerned about, should he have to go back to Iraq.

When Talib was living in Iraq, he and a friend were on their way to school when they had a minor accident and had to pull their car over. Five U.S. soldiers were trying to clear the area for a search. Talib, who was the only one in the area who could speak English, approached one of the soldiers, and they all turned their guns on him. While Talib tried to explain what he and his friend were doing there, one of the soldiers kept pushing him, keeping his gun pressed to Talib’s head.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, he’s going to put a bullet in my head,’ ” Talib said. “And for no reason.”
Though Talib was initially scared when he arrived in America, he said he has not been the victim of any discrimination at the UI. The only problem Talib has faced in the United States has been at airports. In each one he’s been in, he was searched.

“I am just aware of extra attention,” Talib said.

Talib hopes to increase his chances of making it into dental school this year by improving his résumé. He volunteers at the Patient Education Institute in Coralville, where he teaches a class that helps people watch for symptoms that cause various health problems. Talib is also the treasurer for the UI Arab Students Association.

Talib’s mother, Nisreen Alattar, has lived in Michigan for a year on a Visa. His brother, Al-Hakam, who lives in Jordan now, will be joining her in two weeks.

His aunt, Zahra Alattar, lives in Kalona, where she teaches elementary students Arabic. Zahra Alattar, who is a U.S. citizen and has lived here for 16 years, said she knows how important it is for Talib to continue his schooling.

“He is willing to go wherever he gets accepted,” Zahra Alattar said.

Talib said he is hoping to see more Iraqi students at the UI soon, due to the Iraqi Education Initiative that will begin this fall. Through the program, the Iraqi government will send 400 students to the United States, and between 30 and 40 of them could be enrolled at the UI. When the students arrive, Talib hopes to start an Iraqi student organization.

“This is a huge step for Iraqi students, and I am excited about meeting them,” Talib said.


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