In an attempt to promote higher education and boost human resource development in the Kurdistan Region, the Human Capacity and Development Program was established in 2010. It offers qualifying academic students the opportunity to study abroad on a fully funded scholarship. The program allocates about 100 million dollars for each phase of the scholarship, which normally totals five years, to almost one thousand scholarship students per year (KRG.ORG).
From the beginning, the program offered equal opportunity for men and women to apply. The competition was intense among a large number of students, and it was a huge step toward equality when many women were awarded the scholarships.
Umnia was a full-time undergraduate student in Baghdad. She was extremely happy with life and was just a few months from graduation. War forced her to relocate to the North, where different rules were imposed, making her reset a full year with over 18 credits in one term!
She remained hopeful, determined, and consistent. She worked day and night to prove she could do it, and she did. She graduated with a first class honor degree. While working two jobs and raising a child, Umnia did the best she could to win a fully funded scholarship from the KRG. Umnia had a passion to become a leading professor at her university. A few years after her graduation, she became eligible for a scholarship fund. It was a dream come true!
Under the scholarship rules, she was eligible to have her spouse and child accompany her. As a student, she got her visa with her child’s name on it, but not her husband’s. She took the risk to travel by herself with a child, hoping that her husband could accompany her.
She arrived in the United States with a three-year-old child. She was travelling for the first time EVER! Even though she spoke little English, she managed to rent a place to live and learned how to use the bus. Week after week, her husband’s visa was not yet approved! She delayed her classes to look after her child. The culture shock and isolation made it a depressing time of her life.
Four months later, her husband got his visa stamped and finally was able to join her. She thought it would be the end of her struggle, and she would be able to focus on her study.
Today, there are hundreds of Iraqi and Kurdish women pursuing a degree in United States universities. Looking at the bright side, it is a huge step for women toward equality in education, yet there are more struggles than we can imagine.
These women scholars are not getting their funds at the right time to be able to focus on their course requirements. The scholarship funds are being delayed constantly. Recently the funding was completely stopped until later notice!
It is unfortunate that the scholarship fund strategy is not very clear. Looking at the Kurdistan Regional Government web site announcement about the scholarship, it clearly states that the funds will be allocated by the government. However, meetings with a few women scholars in the U.S. disclosed the fact that the funds are being delayed due to the dependency on the central government of Iraq in Baghdad.
Umnia, who is a student at the University of Marywood in northeast Pennsylvania, stated that it has been over 8 months since she last received her funds from the government. She had to borrow money from family and use her own savings to fund her scholarship and feed her children! Umnia was not alone in the struggle, as there are 13 other students in her university,= who were promised to be fully supported by funds to pursue their degrees. Now they are unable to pay their tuition fees or even pay for their accommodations.
The fact that the scholarship funds are delayed for those women is highly related to the stress between the central government and the regional government of Kurdistan, which is not something women should pay the price for. Yet I would turn my head the other way and say it is not something we can change now. What we can change is what those women can do in the United States to live a better a life while going after their dreams.
During my interview with Umnia, I asked her if she or husband could work to make a living to cover some of the expenses. She stated that, as a student, she is not allowed to work outside campus, and she is only allowed to work for few hours (part-time employment).
She also stated that it is so difficult with two children now, to work, study, and meet her family’s needs. I wondered why her husband can’t work instead.
According to the United States Embassy web site, under visa section, F2 visa holder (the spouse visa), is not allowed to work at all! (usembassy.gov)
So, a woman scholar cannot work because she needs to work on her classes and look after her children. Her husband cannot work because of his visa type. Her government does not send her money because of a political conflict she was not responsible for. What can we do? Starve them? Let them be homeless? Or perhaps get them low-income financial assistance and food stamps? Is this how the United States wants people to live?
Umnia and her family now have been in the U.S. for almost four years, and the funding issue has been going on for as long as three years now! According to the U.S. Embassy web site, there has been an increase of 45.6% in the number of Kurdistan Region students studying in the United States between the years 2010 and 2011. A total of 458 students were enrolled in U.S. Universities (usembassy.gov).
Unfortunately, I was not able to access the total number of Iraqi women and families in the U.S. today. Yet I can see the drastic effect on society of supporting families who consume without producing anything!
The fact that they are international students does not mean that they do not participate in the growth of the communities they currently live in. They have spent or are going to spend years in the U.S. with their families occupying houses, consuming food, water, and energy. Yet because they do not work, we can infer that there will be an economic imbalance in the long run.
I call on all policy and decision makers to take the issue of international women in the United States under serious consideration. These women need income. If they are not able to work, let their spouse work instead to secure a living for them and be productive in the community. A lot of them have skills and knowledge to add to this country. It is not just a degree we want them to pursue. We want them to use their cultural exchange to help this world take a little step toward peace and understanding!
Securing income is the first step in building a strong community. This cannot be done by giving people food stamps or monthly cash. It can only be done by allowing people to become productive.