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Student Focus: Iraqi Refugee Aspires to Affect Change in the Middle East

Anmar Jerjees
Anmar Jerjees '18

Anmar Jerjees '18 didn't hear about Davidson from college counselors, relatives or friends, or read about the college in glossy brochures – Jerjees learned of Davidson after arriving in North Carolina as an Iraqi refugee and researching his new home state.

In 2003, Jerjees's life was upended by the U.S.-Iraq war. His family suffered through murders, kidnappings and eviction threats before immigrating to Syria in 2006.

"When we were in Iraq, we never knew if we would live to see the next day," he said. "The situation in Syria wasn't quite as bad, but we were still living on a day-to-day basis, and I never thought about the future or potentially attending college some day."

As Christian bystanders in a war between Sunni and Shia Muslims, Jerjees's family lived in perpetual fear. After moving to Syria, his father attempted to find refuge in Sweden but was captured and deported to Iraq. The oldest of three children, 11-year-old Jerjees worked to support the family while attending school.

In late 2008, the International Organization for Migration called Jerjees's mother and informed her that, because of their extraordinary circumstances, they were eligible to migrate to the United States.

"They decided that Charlotte would be a good place for our family," he said. "The transition was shocking. My expectations were based on American movies and TV shows, so I was surprised to find that wasn't the case."

To improve his English, Jerjees spent four hours in the public library each day after school studying his English-to-Arabic dictionary and reading books of increasing difficulty.

He also began volunteering with the Sisters of Charity; they nominated him for a full scholarship at Charlotte Catholic School, which he received. As a high school student, he volunteered 500 hours each summer. "I volunteer because I want to change some of the things I've seen in life," Jerjees said.

A Dream Realized

When it came time to consider college, Davidson was Jerjees's first choice. He submitted an early decision application to Davidson through the QuestBridge program, which connects exceptionally talented low-income high school students to the nation's best colleges and scholarship opportunities. 

"Now that I'm actually here I know I need to work really hard and be involved to make the difference I want to make," he said.

Since his arrival at Davidson, Jerjees has taken full advantage of all the campus has to offer. He is a Bonner Scholar and participates in organizations including the Black Student Coalition, Middle Eastern and North African Student Association, Campus Outreach, free word, STRIDE, Interfaith and Change magazine.

He said, "My ultimate goal is to create a world where no one has to endure the same circumstances that my family and I did."

At Davidson, Jerjees is working toward that goal not only through volunteer work, but also through the knowledge he gains from his studies. He is considering majors in political science and Arab studies so that he can someday make change in his region of birth.

A course on the politics of the Middle East has become a highlight of his first semester.

"To hear Professor Milligan explain the situation in Iraq in the same way that I feel about it is incredible, because no one really understands how it is over there," Jerjees explained. "You can't just watch the news, you need the historical context. Everything I knew up until now came from the Iraqi point of view, but in this class I'm getting a wider perspective by learning about the entire Middle East."

Jerjees plans to continue volunteering, participating in various student organizations, and gaining a new perspective on his past while at Davidson.

He said, "My story is who I am as a person. Anything that has happened to me has shaped the man I am today."