International spotlight: Iraqi student transitions to new home at UST

By Mara Kaufman

At sunset Tuesday, after 30 days of fasting, the religious observance of Ramadan ended and most Muslims went back to their normal schedules. But 18-year-old Shalaw Mohammed is perhaps not exactly in his routine yet; the St. Thomas freshman is still getting used to life at an American university.

Shalaw Mohammed

Adjustment hasn’t been too difficult for the first Iraqi student at St. Thomas, however.  Mohammed spent two years in Minnesota before starting at UST this fall. In 2005-06, Mohammed attended his junior year of high school at Nacel International School in St. Paul through an international exchange program.   The school (now renamed St. Paul Preparatory) was such a great experience for Mohammed that, after finishing his senior year in Iraq, he returned in fall 2007 to complete a second year at Nacel.

Although Mohammed was excited, he said he needed a little time to adjust and get through some minor homesickness.  

“The first time I got to the U.S., everything was different,” Mohammed said. “I was just in shock. The atmosphere was different, the culture was different.”  

Now, however, Mohammed said, “I feel really lucky that I ended up at Nacel and St. Thomas. I really like it here.”

Between his two stints at Nacel, Mohammed was able to stock up on time spent with his family and friends in his northeastern Iraq hometown, As Sulaymaniyah (which has various spellings but is nicknamed Sully by Mohammed and his peers). The city of about 800,000 people is located in an area also referred to as Kurdistan, where many citizens (including Mohammed) speak Kurdish rather than Arabic.  

Mohammed, proud of his family’s strong bonds, said most of his family members still call Sully home; just one sister out of his 10 siblings lives a considerable distance from home, in England. But his siblings are not necessarily typical of other Iraqis.

“It’s hard to live in Iraq, so most of the young people are moving to England,” Mohammed said.  

As for himself, Mohammed added, “The way Iraq is [now], I’m not very hopeful to go back, but if things were to change I would.”   Until then, Mohammed plans to complete a degree in electrical engineering at UST before hopefully finding an internship to gain work experience in the United States.

Though his preparations to get to St. Thomas were lengthy – obtaining a visa in Iraq is extremely difficult without government connections, so Mohammed had to travel to Syria, along the western border of Iraq, to obtain his – Mohammed is grateful to be at UST.  

The hardest part for Mohammed is staying in touch with family and friends. He does so primarily with online chatting and e-mail. Phone calls are rare because they are so expensive.

Still, like most of the more than 50 undergraduate international students seeking degrees at St. Thomas, Mohammed is making friends and adjusting with minimal bumps and bruises. He enjoys the company of his three roommates in Morrison and likes how activities just pop up on weekends. Mohammed also has been able to keep in touch with several friends from Nacel, three of whom attend St. Thomas as well.

Mohammed said much of the credit for his easy transition to life at St. Thomas is due to the wonderful staff and faculty members of St. Thomas. During Ramadan, in which followers fast from sunup to sundown in order to practice patience, sacrifice and humility, and to spend more thoughtful time in prayer, Mohammed said campus dining services allowed Muslim students to use their meal plans in alternative venues and at later hours than usual in order to accommodate the observance.

“I’m really grateful that staff and faculty here are respectful to my beliefs and religion,” Mohammed said. “I love it how open-minded people are generally in the U.S., and UST especially.”