A project whose origins date to the dream of seven college students in 2007 came full circle on June 14, 2013, when Andrew Birwari graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. Andrew was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, and at age twenty moved to Syria for refuge. His family was later approved for resettlement to the U.S. and arrived in Chicago in 2008.
In 2007, Evergreen students in SESAME (Students Educating Students About the Middle East) became concerned about the countless Iraqi young people displaced in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Evergreen students sought to extend academic opportunities as a form of reparations to Iraqi undergraduates whose educations were disrupted by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Theirs was the first such student-initiated effort for Iraqi students at any state college in the U.S.
The Rachel Corrie Foundation supported the grassroots efforts of students who developed the ISSC project, contributed to the required living expense fund, and eventually became the community home for the project. RCF has continued to provide logistical support and financial management for the grant program and engages closely with project organizers to ensure that the needs of the recipient and requirements of the program are met.
Andrew wrote that coming to the U.S., “I still wanted to go to college, but was unsure of the future.” Only a month after settling in Chicago, he learned that ISSC and the Olympia community would support his undergraduate education.
At the Rachel Corrie Foundation, we are proud of our role as a hosting community organization for ISSC and are gratified and moved to see this collaborative community effort and Andrew reach this milestone. Congratulations, Andrew, and congratulations ISSC!
Andrew’s Story of Olympia
Andrew Birwari, originally of Baghdad, Iraq, graduated from The Evergreen State College in June 2013, having studied physics, mathematics, and languages. He is currently living in Chicago, Illinois, and pursuing work in the field of engineering. Here is Andrew’s account of his time studying at Evergreen and living in Olympia:
My story at Evergreen begins in 2009 when I first embarked on my educational journey. I arrived sincere and open to learn at a new college and ready to experience a country and way of life different from my own. I started a regular life away from home. I missed everything. This fact didn’t mean I was unhappy but that I was aware of being on my own. Missing my family and the attention they all paid to me was a very usual thing to do. However, the most important thing that I came to realize from living away from home was the independent behavior that grew inside of me.
I lived in Olympia, Washington, for four years, during which time I attended The Evergreen State College. I had already become fluent in English and had become accustomed to the new culture in which I was living – a culture which I believed to be rich in tolerance and acceptance. Coming to Evergreen was a challenging move in the beginning, for I was in a new town, a new school, and I didn’t know anyone. I soon was stepping into friendships, academic challenges and campus life. The school’s interdisciplinary approach of teaching has made me learn a lot about issues through multiple perspectives.
Without question, my four years at Evergreen changed my life in countless ways. From the minute I stepped on campus, the vastly different sights along with the greenness all over the place, and my feelings of excitement about my new surroundings told me that I would definitely have a unique time at Evergreen. My class experiences helped greatly in modifying my attitudes, as for the first time I was with peers from different states which I had only read about. As time progressed, I wondered how I ever could survive the boredom of attending a homogeneous institution as I was always the only international student in my classes. It was sometimes difficult trying to find links between myself and the students, but I soon came to enjoy my new environment, especially with all the great friendships I made and being involved in college activities and work.
My understanding of my new environment was aided tremendously by the people I knew, mainly my host family who I lived with for four years and shared so many things with. They were not only like my parents but also like my teachers. Also my ability to speak English and think critically were subsequently the best gifts I gained from my four year stay in Olympia. An entire year of school lessons could not have taught me as much of the language as I learned from speaking with my American friends, shopping in the local stores, or playing soccer with my friends during only the first few months.
As for the city of Olympia, I have never been to a city like it anywhere else. It is a very unique place and to have lived four years of my life there after being born and raised in a country that is entirely different was a welcome change. It is a place where people are among the friendliest I have ever met, very community oriented, love to help everybody, and have more volunteers in every area than I have ever seen. The other great thing that I loved about Olympia is its setting, with views of the Olympic Mountains and Mt. Rainier standing as nice backgrounds to the glimmering waters of Puget Sound. Really heaven on earth.
Now looking back through all the memories throughout the last four years, I couldn’t be more fulfilled, as I think I did my best in the process of learning and dealing with school work and social life. I believe from the time I first came into Evergreen, the overall experience in this institution has satisfied my desire about learning and growing. Evergreen has a distinctive kind of education that has shaped the way in which I think about critical issues. When asked about Evergreen, I reply that we have a spirit truly unlike any other. I’m a better thinker and problem solver than I was four years ago. I loved Evergreen.
Note from Ashley Harrison of the Iraqi Student Solidarity Committee:
Andrew Birwari attended The Evergreen State College though the school’s Displaced Student Tuition Waiver Program and with the help of funds raised by students and community members to support his living and non-tuition expenses. TESC partnered with the student group to establish the tuition waiver program in 2008 and it remains in use by qualifying students.
The Rachel Corrie Foundation supported Andrew and the ISSC from 2008 onward. RCF staff and board members helped with initial research and planning; petitioned the school to work with us to create the tuition waiver; and hosted and administered the living expenses fund. RCF also introduced Andrew to many people in the Olympia community. None of this would have been possible without the generosity of Andrew’s host family, Anne and Dennis Mills, to whom we are all deeply grateful! Special thanks go also to Cindy and Craig Corrie for seeing us through from start to finish and beyond.
Andrew worked hard, experienced many aspects of the Pacific Northwest, made many friends, and had an enormous impact during his time here. Congratulations, Andrew, on your degree and your successful four years of growth and learning. We all wish you the best that life has to offer and can’t wait to see what’s next for you!