By Deena Guzder
In early August, a 27-year-old Iraqi reporter sent his friend in New York City a text message that said his United States student visa application had been denied and that his dreams were now buried with the bones of the Iraqi dead.
The message came two weeks before Ayub Nuri was scheduled to start classes at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. “Studying in New York City was my dream,” said Nuri.
So began a saga that involved three Western journalists whose belief in the potential of their Iraqi colleague led them to lobby a high-powered senator, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning Harvard professor, and U.S. Embassy officials. Thanks to their unrelenting efforts, Nuri received his visa just days before classes began and is now completing his first semester at Columbia.
Born in Halabja in the North of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nuri says he learned English listening to BBC broadcasts that poured out of his father’s radio and using a dictionary to translate difficult words.
Today, Nuri speaks English as flawlessly as students in Britain’s finest preparatory schools.
Since the late 1990s, Nuri had worked as a translator in Kurdistan for various American and European media outlets and published articles in Kurdish newspapers. In February 2003, right before the U.S. invasion, a friend introduced Nuri to Elizabeth Rubin, who was working for the “New Republic” and the “New York Times Magazine.”
Nuri soon became friends with Rubin, who was happy to find a nonpartisan translator familiar with Iraqi politics and culture. “He was absolutely perfect,” said Rubin.
As they traveled across the country covering the war, the American journalist learned more about her young Iraqi fixer: his unsuccessful attempts to smuggle himself out of Iraq on a boat to Belgium so he could study abroad; his deep affection for animals, which gave him the nickname “cheetah”; and his stunning ability to learn new languages.
When Nuri was 4-years-old, his kneecap was blown off by shrapnel in the Iraq-Iran war.
“A lot of the work he does as a journalist is to pay for operations to walk normally,” said Rubin.
Despite his difficult past, Rubin says Nuri is quick to smile or crack a joke. “He has an incredible sense of the comedy in life and the absurdity of human behavior,” said Rubin.
But watching his country spiral into chaos deeply impacted Nuri, who had spent most of his life in Kurdistan and seen little of the rest of Iraq, let alone the world.
Nuri, a small man with a big smile who sometimes walks with the help of a cane, fills with emotion when asked about the war. “The situation in Iraq is worse than it was under Saddam Hussein or any other time in its history,” he says softly but firmly.
“I have seen so many bodies . . . fathers losing their children and young, beautiful women losing their husbands.”
Nuri initially supported the invasion but now says he is opposed to its continuation.
“The Americans have no interest in helping the Iraqi civilians. They only care about themselves.”
Rubin tells about watching people dig up Shi’i graves from a 1991 massacre.
“Men were digging out shrouds and we were walking from one pit to another . . . you could see that Ayub just wanted to crawl into one and cry.”
Rubin says Nuri was very quiet and emotionally overwhelmed yet remained professional and kept translating.
In 2005, Nuri began working at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting where he met one of Rubin’s friends, Jessie Graham, who works for the BBC. Graham was impressed by her new Iraqi friend and encouraged him to apply to her alma mater, Columbia University.
“I knew it would be an amazing opportunity for him to know American people and live in the U.S. for a while,” said Graham. “I think covering the war soured his impression of America and I hoped that attending Columbia would show him not only the bad but also the good, perhaps make him into a critical, thoughtful ambassador.”
Back in New York City, a friend of Rubin’s and Graham’s, Stacy Sullivan, was organizing a trip to the United States for three Iraqi talk radio journalists. The three-week trip in late 2005 was partly subsidized by the U.S. State Department.
Sullivan, a freelance reporter and associate professor at the journalism school, needed an Arabic translator. She sought the advice of Rubin, with whom she had worked while covering the Bosnia war in the early 1990s.
Nuri made a positive impression on Sullivan, who says the trip with the radio journalists would have been awful without his help.
“Ayub was just an absolute saint. He could sleep in a cardboard box and never complain. I never had to worry about him,” said Sullivan.
During the trip, Nuri’s father died from electrocution at the electric plant where he worked in Iraq. As Nuri mourned his loss, he began confiding more in Sullivan.
Nuri told her about witnessing his grandmother’s head being sliced open during the Iran-Iraq war, and his later spending time in an Iranian refugee camp.
“Ayub has been through so much yet he has this incredible peace of mind,” said Sullivan. She added that his Islamic faith gives him a sense of solace. “He believes that his father went to a better place and they will soon meet again.”
After his short stay in America, Nuri returned home. With the encouragement and help of Rubin, Graham and Sullivan, he decided to apply to Columbia University.
“Having worked primarily in broadcast, I never wrote for American papers although all my recent work is for Western media so I decided I wanted to get some experience in print,” said Nuri.
The bulky acceptance envelope from the Ivy League school arrived. But Nuri’s student visa was denied in Amman, Jordan.
“The State Department and the White House say they are dedicated to spreading democracy but they apparently forgot to send the memo to the consular division because those guys are terrified of granting visas to Iraqis,” said Josh Friedman, the director of International Programs at the journalism school.
“Here you have a bright, young man who could help create a free press in Iraq, which would be a step towards democracy, and he’s fallen into some sort of Homeland Security nether hole,” Friedman added.
To make matters worse, Columbia University said Nuri would have to arrive in time for the first day of classes or it would rescind its offer of admission.
Despite the formidable barriers, Rubin, Graham and Sullivan decided to fight on behalf of their Iraqi friend.
What ensued over the next two weeks was a whirlwind of phone calls, faxes and emails.
Sullivan and Rubin contacted Samantha Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard professor and mutual friend from their days covering the Bosnian War. Powers was working as a foreign policy advisor for U.S. Senator Barack Obama. She enlisted the help of the senator’s director of foreign policy, Mark Lippert.
Graham made phone calls to convince the deans of Columbia that the school should push the State Department to get Nuri’s visa approved. Rubin petitioned a human rights official at the U.S. Embassy in Jordan.
Friedman contacted Rena Bitter, also at the Embassy, and told her the school was offering Nuri a $40,000 scholarship.
“It would be a shame if this opportunity to educate an Iraqi in the high level of journalism taught at our school were missed because of a visa technicality,” Friedman wrote in an email to Bitter.
Nobody knows for certain what finally pushed Nuri’s papers in the right direction. But, with less than a week before classes, the State Department Iraq Desk officially informed the school that Nuri would be issued a student visa.
Elated by the unexpected turn in events, Nuri traveled to Amman, Jordan to pick up his visa and flew to New York the day before journalism school orientation.
“He arrived Wednesday night and I took him to class on Thursday,” said Sullivan, who shared her apartment with Nuri for a month as he looked for a sublet. “He had no place to live, no bank account, no cell phone and no sense of the subway system, but he still did great.”
Friedman says each year the school has a difficult time convincing the State Department to give visas to Iraqi students.
“Last year I had to go to the airport and get one of our students out of a secret holding cell where he was being interrogated.” He added, “They give us hell but it’s always worth it.”
Laura Tischler, a spokesperson at the Bureau of Consular Affairs for the U.S. Department of State, says that the visa process changed after 9/11 but just as many visas are being issued as before.
“We’ve made great strides in expediting our process,” said Tischler who declined to comment specifically on Nuri’s case.
Nuri’s classmates say they appreciate the school’s efforts.
“It’s really valuable to have Ayub in my class because he has very interesting stories to share about his part of the world,” said Caroline Winter, who is taking “Reporting and Writing” with Nuri this semester.
Nuri says he’s very happy for the opportunity to live in America and have a respite from the war. But he admits that American politics and cultural jargon often confuse him.
“The challenge for me is that I often have no idea what the professors and students are talking about because it is very local and you need background,” said Nuri.
Nuri says he often feels sad about the situation back home and sometimes wonders what he’s doing so far away from family and friends.
“I remember him expressing his guilt and worry about covering local issues in New York when hundreds are dying every week in Baghdad,” said Lionel Laurent, one of Nuri’s closest friends at the journalism school.
Nuri says he is very grateful to everyone who helped him. But he has no plans to remain in the country.
“After this year, I might stay in America for a few months to travel, to meet people and enjoy the atmosphere. After that, I will get a plane ticket and fly back to Iraq.”