Far from home: Iraqi scholar plans future in homeland

For a brief moment last week, Abdu Ahmad felt like he was being followed.

Walking home last Tuesday from the Shawmut T stop, he turned around to see two men who looked about his age - twenty-six - behind him, and behind them a third one sat on a bicycle. One was dressed all in blue - blue jacket and blue shorts, while another was dressed in black.

Ahmad turned off his MP3 player to hear what they were asking: Where was he from?

He doesn't remember much of what happened next. Their faces were a blur. They were quickly upon him, hitting him in his mouth and nose. He fell backwards as they tried to go for his wallet and backpack.

"Why are you doing this?" he recalls saying. "I'm your neighbor. Why are you doing this?"

He reached into his pocket for his cell phone to call the police, but they grabbed it from him. He let them take it. "They didn't run away," he says. "They just normally left."

When he got home, he called 9-1-1, and five minutes later, the police arrived. He was so shaken by the incident he felt he couldn't call his wife, Randa, back home in Iraq's Kurdistan region. The next day was the second anniversary of their marriage.

Ahmad, a graduate student at UMass-Boston, is studying English literature as part of the Fulbright scholarship. After the recent Iraq-U.S. war, the Fulbright program reopened in Kurdistan and Iraq. Ahmad, who applied online for the scholarship in 2004, is part of the second group from Iraq.

He arrived in the U.S. last May, and spent three months in State University of New York-Buffalo, studying English and familiarizing himself with university life, including a class on how to write academic papers and how to live and buy items, before heading to Boston in August.

Born in Baghdad in 1980, Ahmad and his family fled to Iran when he was seven, a few months before Saddam Hussein unleashed a chemical attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja during the Iran-Iraq War. "We ran from Baghdad to Kurdistan, North Iraq, and then from there we crossed the border to sneak into to Iran," Ahmad says.

They stayed in Iran for four years, returning to Kurdistan in 1991. "At that time, Kurdistan was free, because it was after the Kuwait war," he says. "It was a good time for us to come back."

They lived in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, and Ahmad enrolled in Salahaddin University, studying English for four years. Afterwards, he worked for two years as a translator for several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) - including the Mines Advisory Group, a British mining NGO. After the last Iraq-U.S. war, Ahmad went to work for the Joint Humanitarian Information Center (JHIC), a United Nations agency, as a language assistant for a year and a half before coming to the United States.

Classes here are unlike the ones he took at Salahaddin University, he says: There's more diversity and a different type of teacher-student relationship. "There, it's like a lecture," he says. "The professor speaks and you don't speak at all. If you don't speak, it's a good sign." At the SUNY-Buffalo orientation, Ahmad says he had been told to speak up in American classes, because "professors expect you to participate."

He hopes to bring that style and similar coursework back with him to Kurdistan when he returns in early 2007. "A lot of people don't know American literature," he says. "They basically study British literature."

He also plans to teach writing and reading short stories. "We don't have English 101, or Kurdish 101," he says. "A lot of people don't know how to write. They think writing is for writers and that's it, and you're born a writer."

A writer himself, Ahmad has gotten involved with UMass-Boston's literary magazine, The Watermark, which will publish several of his poems and a short story in its May edition. And every Friday, Ahmad joins a writers' group, which meets at the circle of couches outside the magazine's Campus Center office to critique each other's works.

As an international student, Ahmad says he draws inspiration from his feelings of loneliness and alienation. (He talks with his wife Randa, 24, a geography student at Salahaddin, on the phone a couple of times a week and through Yahoo! Messenger.)

"I try to present something new," he says. "I don't want to talk about an American character. I want to talk about a Kurdish character, and how a Kurdish character sees the world."

"I write about what I know. What I know is my inspiration," he says.

"His own writing is quite imaginative," says John Fulton, who wrote the novel "More Than Enough" and teaches fiction writing at UMass-Boston. "You can tell he's a very skilled learner of English as a second language," through the use of uncommon words and a wide vocabulary.

The Watermark and writers' circle have inspired Ahmad to plan his own writer's circle, and a student literary magazine for young people for when he returns. "I want to concentrate on young writers and new experiments," Ahmad says. "I feel that the short story in Kurdistan has been neglected."

Ahmad also plans to come back for a PhD in English, after teaching for some time in Kurdistan, "because I'm not satisfied with a master's."

Home is more peaceful than it used to be, and more peaceful than Iraq. "But that doesn't mean that it doesn't have problems," he says. The region still suffers from a lack of infrastructure: There is little electricity, poor roads, and a lot of corruption and political oppression. His father, a cleric, was fired three times - once by Saddam's Ba'ath regime, and two times by the Kurdish party. He's currently pursuing a master's degree.

But you can go shopping downtown, Ahmad says. "You're not afraid to get killed or get kidnapped," he says. "Not as much as the rest of Iraq."

In the meantime, Ahmad is looking for a new place to live. "Anywhere - not Dorchester," he says, still visibly shaken by the assault. He can't picture the faces of his attackers, who he believes live in the neighborhood.

"It's like a ghost," he says. "They can see me, I can't see them."