In South Carolina, building a new generation of Iraqi faculty

An archaeologist of Iraq's marshes fosters academic ties between southern Iraq and the US South

USC's Jenny Pournelle discusses the impact of climate change on the marshes with (l. to r.) Zaid Alattabi, Amjed Alabresm and Dawod Almayahi.
Stacy L. Pearsall for Al Jazeera America

GEORGETOWN, S.C. — Weaving through the marshes between the Waccamaw River and the Atlantic Ocean on a Boston whaler fishing boat, three scientists from the southern Iraqi city of Basra are suddenly homesick.  

To the American woman who brought them here, physicist Zaid Alattabi says wistfully, “Dr. Jenny, you make us remember our country.”

Amjed Alabresm and Dawod Almayahi, a microbiologist and physicist, respectively, nod in agreement. They will not see their home again for another five years. Their country has sent them and hundreds of other Iraqi graduate students to the United States with a mission to quickly learn English and earn Ph.D.s so they can return to teach at Iraq’s universities. Once the academic jewel of the Arab world, Iraq’s institutions of higher learning have been decimated by years of war and sanctions.

With water spritzing their faces as the boat comes to a pause, the men are also remembering an Iraqi landscape lost since their childhoods, the lush Mesopotamian marshes that were an integral part of the topography of southern Iraq. An important resource for civilizations and home to the Marsh Arabs for millennia, the wetlands were replaced by barren wasteland nearly overnight when Saddam Hussein drained them in 1991 in an act of vengeance against those southern Iraqis who rose up against him at the behest of the United States.

“Dr. Jenny” is Jenny Pournelle, an Army intelligence officer turned ancient-Iraq archaeologist who has become a key facilitator for Iraqi government-funded programs that have sent thousands of doctoral students on full scholarships to the United States. Of the approximately 1,300 students currently studying at U.S. universities through the programs, the largest share — roughly 10 percent — have enrolled at the University of South Carolina (USC), where Pournelle is a research fellow in the environment and sustainability program. She has organized this trip to the marshes to introduce these doctoral students, whose areas of study relate to wetlands and water, to the research facilities and opportunities available to them. Scientists from the university’s Baruch Institute of Marine and Coastal Science accompany them.

Because of the relationships Pournelle developed over the years through her own archaeological research along southern Iraq’s marshes, she has become the link between the region and U.S. universities, helping to win admission for Iraqi students despite the many hurdles that made even applying a long shot. Her own institution, USC, has become a hub for Iraq’s faculty-in-training in the United States, benefiting not only from the scholarship money and skills the Iraqis bring to campus, but also an infusion of global cosmopolitanism.

Now, as fighters from the Islamic State draw closer to Baghdad, throwing the country’s future in doubt, Pournelle remains hopeful that USC can help rebuild a new generation of Iraqi faculty, and that from the exchange between Iraqi and American scholars, a possible solution might emerge to bring back Iraq’s lost marshes.

Professors from USC's Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Science take Iraqi doctoral students on a tour or South Carolina's marshes.
Stacy L. Pearsall for Al Jazeera America

Even as Pournelle tried to get out of the Middle East business, all roads kept taking her back to Iraq. In the 1970s and early 1980s, she worked as an Army intelligence officer, based in the United States and Europe. She spent thousands of hours poring over aerial and satellite photos of the Middle East and, specifically, southern Iraq, studying the terrain and developing contingency plans in case of regional unrest. By the late 1980s, she had become an arms-control negotiator. But with the Cold War winding down, she believed those in the weapons business would soon be looking for new conflicts to service. She decided to resign.

“A lot of people were concerned about losing their jobs, and the U.S. Air Force and Navy, private military contractors and others did not want to mothball their projects," she says. "I had no interest in participating in a trumped-up war.”

But, she says, the Army refused to accept her resignation; instead, with a pit in her stomach, she watched the aerial bombardments of Iraq during the first Gulf War from a NATO joint-command operation center, the location of which she cannot disclose.

Only after the invasion, she says, did the Army let her go. With an interest in continuing her studies in anthropology, which she’d pursued as an undergraduate and master’s student, she enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of California, San Diego. She intended to focus on the Caucasus and the Republic of Georgia.

But when the anthropology department learned of Pournelle’s expertise in reading satellite and aerial imagery, her plans were changed for her. A professor, Robert McCormick Adams Jr., the former director of the Smithsonian Institution and an archaeologist renowned for his work on Mesopotamia, needed help with newly declassified photos from a CIA project code-named Corona — the same satellite photography Pournelle had trained on in the Army.

“I love Georgia — the food, wine, climate. And they like women,” she says, laughing. “Instead I was dragged back into world of the Tigris and Euphrates delta.” 

Jenny Pournelle is known to many Iraqi students as "Dr. Jenny."
Stacy L. Pearsall for Al Jazeera America

Pournelle received her Ph.D. in 2003, the same year the U.S. invaded Iraq. Her dissertation focused on the role of wetlands in sustaining civilization in southern Iraq. That summer, she took a position with a short-term, U.S.-government-funded program to rebuild the archaeology departments and retrain faculty and graduate students at universities in Iraq. It was her first time in the country she had spent years looking at from above.

When she arrived at the University of Basra, just months before the start of the academic year, she found the university had been “looted to the plaster.” It had also been shelled in the war with Iran (1980 to 1988) and again during the first Gulf War (1990 and 1991). Professors hadn’t been paid for 20 years, she said, yet the faculty had managed to somehow keep the university’s doors open. Classes restarted, on schedule, that fall.

“If that isn’t resilience,” she says, “I don’t know what is.”

After that project, back in the United States, Pournelle was eager to find a way to return to Iraq. In 2009, after she had become a research fellow at USC, she stumbled upon a website started by a geology professor at the University of Basra. While the website was designed to tempt expatriate academics to return, Pournelle answered.

Those initial emails led to a National Science Foundation grant and a trip to Basra. Because of Pournelle’s focus on the marshes, the University of Basra faculty introduced her to their own university’s marine science center, and she began thinking beyond her personal research to the sorts of collaborations that might be possible between the two centers. By October 2010, a memo of understanding was in place between USC and the University of Basra, with a focus on marine sciences and wetlands. Pournelle had become the liaison between the two faculties.  

Plant life thrives on the marshes in Georgetown, South Carolina.
Stacy L. Pearsall for Al Jazeera America

Then, in 2012, while attending a conference in Washington, D.C., she received a desperate text message from Ali Attar, a University of Texas alumnus who had returned to his native Iraq after the 2003 invasion and was now on staff at the University of Basra. The oil-rich Iraqi government was about to spend millions of dollars to send university lecturers, many of whom were teaching without a Ph.D., abroad to earn their degrees.

The program was part of a larger effort, begun a few years before, to replenish Iraq’s faculty, not only to compensate for the effect of wars and sanctions but as older scholars trained during the country’s better years began to age and retire. Through that effort, Iraq has deployed its own army of students to foreign shores — most to the United Kingdom, some 7,000 total since 2009 with hopes of a surge that will eventually add up to the tens of thousands. But there were many barriers to enrolling in U.S. universities, including the inability of some qualified candidates to fill out online applications.

Attar was keen to now see lecturers from Iraq’s southern universities benefit from the new scholarship program, and he felt Pournelle was the key. Attar wanted to know, could Dr. Jenny get USC to accept 483 students if they qualified? And could she do it in the next two hours, please?

After that initial flurry of text messages, Pournelle flew to Basra on her own dime. University administrators were waiting for her with more than 200 applications from students at universities across southern Iraq. She reviewed the applications and personally met with many of the applicants. For qualified students, she began negotiating with faculty at USC to convince them to take these students. When USC didn’t offer the discipline a student hoped to pursue, she contacted other American universities across the south, to get their buy-in as well.

That fall, the first of the Iraqi doctoral students packed their bags for the United States. The vast majority arrived at South Carolina.

“The highest number is at USC because of a hero named Jenny Pournelle,” says Ammar Al-Sahrawi, deputy cultural attaché with the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C. “An Iraqi hero.”

Remembering the marshes in Iraq.
Stacy L. Pearsall for Al Jazeera America

For the Iraqi students, enrollment in the program carries risks. Few speak English well enough to complete advanced studies. USC accepted them to its graduate programs on the condition that, after their first year, they pass a test of English fluency and score high enough on Graduate Record Exams.

Should they fail, they will have to pay back all the money to the Iraqi government — tuition, airfare and their living stipend. Many of the Iraqis put up their houses as collateral.

But USC wants them to succeed. Budgets at the university are tight, and the Iraqis are fully funded by their government. Their presence, professors say, is also helping USC.

“We recognize that the future for our American students is in internationalizing the curriculum; we want to prepare them to be global citizens,” says Allen Miller, vice provost and director of international programs. “Many of our South Carolinian students have not been out of the state.”

USC is also assisting the Iraqis to find housing, schooling for their children and child care and to meet other needs as they arise.  

Showing Iraqi scientists South Carolina history.
Stacy L. Pearsall for Al Jazeera America

While it took some work to persuade department leaders to accept the students, even on a conditional basis, many professors who now have Iraqis in their classes and labs say they are pleased, often citing the students’ quantitative skills, work ethic and eagerness, if not desperation, to succeed.

For Jason Bakos, a professor in engineering and a reservist who was deployed to Iraq right after his college graduation in 2003, the program is an opportunity to challenge stereotypes beyond the campus as well. “If I tell people in the South who I have in my lab, it raises red flags, but I can then explain how great these people are,” he says.

As for the Iraqis, many say they already recognized that a people are different from the government, but they nonetheless have had some stereotypes of their own dispelled.

“I was afraid because I wear hijab,” says Zinah Al-Ghezi, a doctoral student in molecular biology and genetics from Nasiriya, a city in southern Iraq, who arrived in May 2013. “But they know about our traditions here, and I put my baby in day care at a church.”

Mohammed Altofan, a doctoral student in environmental health engineering, says, “We thought we would find everyone here has a gun.”

While they long for home, the Iraqi students know they need to adjust quickly. But they are also thinking beyond academics.

“It’s not just about education. It’s also about culture, about how [things] work here — we love the system her. It’s very organized,” says Yasir Alhamadani, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering. “I think what the government is doing now is the first step to rebuild Iraq, sending us abroad, and this will definitely take care of a lot of things.”

He adds, “Come look at Iraq after 10 years.”

Amjed Alabresm demonstrates that native Americans' ancient saltwater marsh homes weren't so different from similar settlements in Basra, Iraq.
Stacy L. Pearsall for Al Jazeera America

Before pushing off into water on the April day when Pournelle and the Iraqis visited South Carolina’s marshes, Dennis Allen, the director of the marine field lab at USC’s Baruch Institute, and Matthew Kimball, assistant director and research assistant professor, gave the Iraqi scientists a tour of their learning center and research facility. The Iraqis pointed in excited recognition at the exhibits showcasing tools used to cultivate rice on nearby plantations and illustrations of the houses and boats used to navigate the marshes in times past.

“Just like Iraq!” says Alattabi, the physicist.

On land, their enthusiasm turns at moments to shame as they eye the resources available to casual visitors as well as scholars at Baruch and are reminded again of how different the Americans’ lives are from their own back home.

“I want to see such a center for study and knowledge in Iraq,” says Alabresm. “We’ll do the same at the University of Basra when we return,” he adds, smiling.

Out on the water, as the American scientists from Baruch listen, the Iraqis explain in their newly acquired English about Iraqi marshes’ vegetation, river meandering and slope gradation. Even though the freshwater marshes in southern Iraq dwarf these saltwater ones — the largest in the United States — and even though southern Iraq and South Carolina have had remarkably different destinies, on the boat, looking east toward the Atlantic, Basra, which sits at nearly the same latitude as South Carolina, doesn’t seem so far away.

As the team approaches land, everyone is silent in those last moments on the water. But the reverie is broken by the call to prayer. Although there are no minarets on the horizon, even Almayahi, whose iPhone prayer app summons the faithful, seems for a second to have forgotten he’s not in Iraq before fishing through his pockets to silence it.

“That is the first time that’s been heard out here,” says North Carolina native Matthew Kimball, assistant director of the Baruch Institute.

Discussing whether oysters can be cultivated in Iraq's marshes.
Stacy L. Pearsall for Al Jazeera America

Weeks after the trip, Islamic State fighters begin to take over cities in Iraq’s north on a steady march toward Baghdad. USC officials are coming up with contingency plans in case the violence has repercussions at home. They worry the Iraqi government, wracked by instability, will end its funding for the Iraqi students. Administrators worry, too, about the violence students might face upon their return to Iraq should they be forced to leave. Iraqi students who were to enroll this month were told not to come.

According to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, there have been no changes in the scholars programs, though a university recruitment fair organized by the Iraq Embassy and scheduled for late June has been canceled.

"These were places we are dreaming of having our students," says Al-Sahrawi, the deputy cultural attaché.

This latest chapter for Iraq feels very present for the Iraqi students in South Carolina. On a recent June day, several of the students held a rally and spoke to local press about the situation back home. Alattabi is relieved his family is in southern Iraq, which is safer than other parts of the country. But, he says, “My country is being destroyed by [the Islamic State].”

Pournelle, who is 59, says of the current crisis: “This is the generation that can fix or change this; if this generation is pulled out of their studies, the country will never recover. They [Iraq] need[s] this generation; if this generation can’t return home, there will be no educated generation left in Iraq. My colleagues are my age and older — another 10 years and literally there won’t be a next generation.”

Facing east to Basra in southern Iraq, which sits at the same latitude as South Carolina.
Stacy L. Pearsall for Al Jazeera America

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