English is a second language for SUNY Cortland junior and Baghdad native Wasan Bahr Al Uloom, one she honed on the battlefields of the Iraq war before she emigrated to the United States.
“Living your whole life in Iraq means living your whole life in war,” explained Bahr Al Uloom, a naturalized citizen and resident of Syracuse, N.Y., whose major is teaching English as a second language.
For two and a half years, she traveled with U.S. troops as an interpreter, facing explosions, sniper fire and threats of violent death threats by members of her own family who considered her a traitor. It’s an occupation that many native Iraqis didn’t survive.
But the risks weren’t as big as her goal: a better life in the United States.
Bahr Al Uloom, now 31, is still pursuing that dream, working to become a teacher who can help child immigrants from conflict-torn nations like Iraq and Syria learn English.
“I still struggle with English words that I don’t know how to pronounce or must pronounce slowly,” said Bahr Al Uloom. However, after a childhood of old British-style English language schooling and a decade of practice in upstate New York, she has an excellent command of her new language.
“Every summertime, or during school back in Iraq, my mom would always enforce English by bringing me novels to read,” she said.
While she was growing up in Baghdad, her college-educated mother would wake her up early and threaten to back up her command with the slap of her flip-flop.
“She said, ‘If they assign you one book in school, you have to read at least two books in English,’” Bahr Al Uloom said. “She would multiply the books. She kept me busy, all the way to high school.”
Bahr Al Uloom was born during the final years of Iraq’s devastating war with Iran and her formative years spanned two wars against the Iraqi government of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, as well as several civil conflicts. Her mother stressed to her that Iraq was not a safe place and that she needed to master an alternative language to give her other options.
A dozen years ago, after she had finished high school, the Iraq War and the country’s political instability dashed her dream of college at the once-fine University of Baghdad.
“We had some terrorists walk into the university and they were threatening the college girls to put a scarf on their hair and cover up,” Bahr Al Uloom said. “I refused to do that, so I dropped out.”
Bahr Al Uloom realized life in Iraq wasn’t going to be like it was before the war began. With the help of friends, she secretively slipped into Baghdad’s Green Zone to take a test and have an interview that landed her a job as a U.S. Army interpreter embedded with the troops.
“They had to have an interpreter no matter where they were going,” Bahr Al Uloom said. “Sometimes we went to really dangerous areas and it was really scary. We used to get hit with grenades or by a sniper. I got lucky because I survived. Some of my friends didn’t survive.”
She sometimes wonders if the stress and the constant explosions happening near her have affected her memory. Spending long hours accompanying U.S. soldiers was nerve-wracking. Not all of them trusted her. Meanwhile, two of her uncles publicly condemned Bahr Al Uloom for her work.
“They were going around telling people, ‘She’s a traitor, she should be killed.’ It was scary having my own family trying to kill me. That did not stop me.”
After two-and-a-half nail-biting years, in 2008 Bahr Al Uloom obtained a special visa through the U.S. Army to come to America, joining a U.S. sponsor in Minnesota before settling in Syracuse. She was 22 and came alone. The family members who had spoken against her, however, also posed a threat to her mother. She fled to Syria and eventually joined her daughter in Syracuse. Bahr Al Uloom’s brother remains in Iraq.
While obtaining her associate’s degree in electronic media communication from Onondaga Community College, she worked jobs as a medical interpreter, factory worker and retail sales associate. In four years, she had her degree.
“My goal was to become a journalist and talk about the problems in the world,” Bahr Al Uloom said. “But it didn’t happen.
“I got hired as a health home case manager after that and I gave myself a whole year’s break to focus on my job.”
Her mother gave her another push.
“I guess she saw something in me,” Bahr Al Uloom said. “She told me, ‘Just having your associate’s degree is not going to get you anything. Going to school and learning, for a woman it’s a powerful thing. You need to be educated and nourish your mind with knowledge.'”
She enrolled at SUNY Cortland in Fall 2017 and is working steadily toward her goal of teaching the children of recent immigrants from Iraq and Syria living in Syracuse or another large city.
Bahr Al Uloom drives to campus twice a week and works several part-time jobs. Her mother works as a math tutor, teaching assistant and interpreter and has designed her own tutorial website.
“My mom and I, we’re workaholics,” Bahr Al Uloom said.
She said she’s learned the most about her new field from Shena Salvato, a lecturer in the Modern Languages Department.
“She’s just an amazing human being,” Bahr Al Uloom said. “As a human being, we can detect who actually has a passion and who is just doing it for the job and getting paid. You can see she cares about her students and about their wellbeing. That’s what I love about her.”
The College defines its non-traditional undergraduate students as those who are at least 24 years old or have had an interruption or delay in their education since high school. They also might have dependent children, regardless of their ages.
The College celebrates them all Nov. 5 to 9 with Non-Traditional Students Week. In addition to an array of activities offered through Advisement and Transition, one inspiring non-traditional student will be introduced daily to the SUNY Cortland community.
Read their stories posted to the College’s news site during Non-Traditional Students Week.
For more information about Non-Traditional Students Week events or to recognize an outstanding non-traditional student, contact Non-Traditional Student Support Coordinator Cheryl Hines at 607-753-4726.