Refugee’s journey from war-torn Iraq leads to earning college degrees and better life of helping others and promoting peace

We often hear news about Muslims who have ties to terrorism and the debate regarding U.S. immigration policies. However, we don’t hear many stories about the majority of Muslims who are peaceful, productive members of society and who come to the U.S. searching for a better life. We have an outstanding example in the College of Business!

Shahad Aldoori is a May 2016 BGSU graduate with a Master’s Degree in College Student Personnel. As a Sunni Muslim from Iraq, she and her family experienced persecution and continuous violence while living in Baghdad. In 2003, Aldoori was 15 years old and still remembers the horrible moments her family endured when the war in Iraq broke out. “Bombing was everywhere,” states Aldoori. “I remember peeking through the window at night, when the bombing usually started, and I just see fire and smoke everywhere. Then, in the morning when I would go out to the street, I would see the destroyed buildings from the night before. Since then, the violence in Iraq has not come to an end.”

Being a Sunni also made her family a target of persecution in the neighborhood which was primarily Shia. Sunni and Shia are the two major religious denominations of Islam.

“After the war, things got worse,” explains Aldoori. “Problems started to rise between Sunni and Shia because many militia started to grow and people from different sects started to kill each other. Shia militia started to target my family.” Since her family was concerned for their safety, Aldoori, who had just finished high school, fled with her mother and brother, to Damascus, Syria, in 2007, while her father moved his work to Northern Iraq where the majority of Muslims were Sunni. According to Aldoori, he needed to stay employed in Iraq to provide living expenses for his family because refugees are not allowed to have jobs in Syria.

“Living in Syria was challenging,” states Aldoori. “It was hard for us to adjust to a new lifestyle such as living in a new country and home with limited access to resources.” Her brother attended high school, but she was not able to go to college because schools were expensive and she was not allowed to work since she was a refugee.

Her family registered with one of the United Nations refugee assistance organizations where they received beneficial assistance with medical discounts and food. The U.N. organization also provides young adults opportunities to register in vocational and language classes. Aldoori took advantage of this by taking the maximum of two English courses.

In 2008, Aldoori heard about the Iraqi Student Project (ISP), which is a non-profit organization that assisted Iraqi young adult refugees living in Syria to continue their education in the United States by asking colleges and universities to provide tuition. ISP also found support groups to sponsor students and raise funds for room and board expenses. It also located host families for each student to provide emotional support.

Since Aldoori was adamant about getting a college education, she joined ISP.  “The Iraqi Student Project was my only option to continue my education in the United States, but my parents were against the idea of me coming to the United States. They did not feel comfortable sending me alone to a country that is totally different from my country. However, because I insisted to come here and there were not any opportunities at that time for me to continue my education, they agreed to send me.”

Her mother, Ohood Al-Manaseer, explains the reason for the change in their decision.  “Because Shahad was good at school and ambitious and we also knew how hard it was for her not to continue her education, her father and I decided that letting Shahad finish her studies in the United States was a better option for her even though having her living far away would be hard for us.  We thought her education was more important.”

With her parents’ approval, Aldoori came to the U.S. in 2008 with dreams of getting a college education and a better life. The Spallinger family, from Bluffton, Ohio, agreed to serve as her host family which includes mother, Kimberly, and father, Randy, with their sons, Minh, Jude, and Eliot. The Spallinger family became Aldoori’s support system and they opened their home to her for a place to live, especially during summers and school breaks.  Kimberly is director of BGSU’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Program and a former faculty member at Bluffton University who taught linguistics courses to international students.

Spallinger explains why her family became a host family.  “In my job, I spend the majority of my time with students from all over the world. I know how rewarding an experience it is to learn from my students, and I wanted to share this opportunity with my children.” She adds, “My husband and I found it to be a good opportunity for our children to have an international student live with us, and we feel so fortunate that Shahad has really become a part of our family.”

The host mother admits, at first, it was an adjustment when Shahad moved in. Not only was Bluffton a small-town environment compared to Baghdad, but there were language, cultural, educational, and religious differences.  “It was a lot [for Shahad] to take in all at once,” states Spallinger. “Additionally, Shahad is extremely close with her family, so being away from them was very hard. Although we were close during her first year, it wasn’t until she lived with us full-time that first summer that it all clicked. Now, my boys see her as their big sister, and when she comes home, it’s immediately like she never left.”

The feeling is mutual for Shahad as well.  “My host family is not just a ‘host family,’ but they are really my family. They have done so much for me to the point that they always made me feel I am part of the family. They include me in vacations and holidays and they even celebrate my Muslim holidays with me. I am honored to be part of their family and get to know such a great family like them.”

While Aldoori was completing an undergraduate degree in interior design with a minor in business at Bluffton University, she interned at the International Student Services Office at Ohio Northern University (ONU), planning collaborative international events between ONU and Bluffton. Through this experience, she realized she had a passion for working with college students and that career services is what she really wanted to do - help others launch their careers. So Aldoori applied to BGSU’s College Student Personnel program because of its reputation for quality and BGSU’s proximity to her host family’s home and was accepted into this highly-selective program.

While taking BGSU classes, Aldoori served as a graduate assistant (GA) for nearly two years in the College of Business’s Career Accelerator Office, helping both American and international students find internships and full-time positions.  Tom Siebenaler is the associate director of the Business Career Accelerator and interviewed Aldoori for the GA position. “She was very kind and had a patient demeanor,” states Siebenaler. “I could tell she would connect with students immediately.  She was very driven and motivated to help students first and that student success was her priority above all else.”

As her supervisor, Siebenaler praises Aldoori’s abilities.  “She provided confidence where none had previously existed and helped students understand the options available to them in life and their career. She was effective and full of purpose, and by far it was always her kindness, happiness, willingness to listen, and personalized feedback to the students that were her best assets.”

Minru Zhao is a Chinese student and senior enrolled in the College of Business, studying finance, and she can attest to the outstanding qualities Aldoori demonstrated by helping her get an internship. "Shahad Aldoori is one of the greatest persons I have ever met during my time at BGSU,” exclaims Zhao. “She was so patient and detail-oriented with strong communication skills when assisting me on my resume and job searches through the Business Career Accelerator. Especially, I truly appreciate her understanding of me as an international student who needed more assistance in language. I couldn’t have gotten my interview with Walt Disney Company and, eventually, my current professional internship without her help."

Destini Riddick, who graduated in May with a finance specialization, is another student Aldoori helped with job searches, resume and cover letter writing, and mock interviews.  “Shahad's abilities are amazing,” states Riddick.  “The advice that she gave me is something that I will be able to use throughout my professional career.” 

Besides successfully helping students at the Business Career Accelerator, Aldoori shared her culture with Americans and fellow international students through an internship.  She was co-coordinator for BGSU’s Cross Cultural Communication Connection (CCCC) which pairs international and domestic students. Aldoori was responsible in placing participants in small groups and planning social events throughout the semester.

The CCCC Program, which is supervised by Kimberly Spallinger, was created to develop cultural understanding in today's global community by connecting people from different cultures through conversation.

In addition, Shahad gave presentations to churches, college classes, and local community groups about her experiences during the war and as a refugee living in Damascus.  According to Spallinger, “Shahad volunteered several times to speak at the local elementary school. In these short cultural presentations, she would introduce students to topics such as food, religion, games, and holidays. The children were able to see Iraq differently than how it is typically portrayed in the media.”

She adds, “She has taught so many people so much by being willing to openly share her life experiences and culture. I have been so impressed by her poise and commitment to promoting peace and cross-cultural understanding.”

Aldoori assisted the College of Business with the international festival celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, marking the beginning of spring. She helped the coordinators connect with Persian students to assist with presenting the event.

Aldoori hoped her family in Iraq would be allowed to come to the U.S. to watch her graduate from BGSU, however her mother was the only member able to secure a short-term visa.

Since graduating, Aldoori is currently interviewing for a position either in career services or international student services. “My career goal is still working in a university,” states the BGSU graduate. “I am really passionate about working with international students, so I am hoping to end up in that direction.”

She continues, “When I meet with students to help them launch their careers, I do not just want them to find a job that will bring them money, but I always want them to find the job that they will be excited about every day when they go to work. Therefore, I always try to assist them with understanding the variety of career options that are available in their fields, and how to connect their values, experiences, and interests to their career goals and passions.” Aldoori says it is rewarding to have students come back to her with the good news of finding their desired internship or job and thank her for helping them.

For Aldoori’s future, she knows there is no chance of returning to her native country to pursue a career, so she has filed for asylum in the U.S.  “Currently because of ISIS, women in Northern Iraq are not even allowed to go outside, so they are not practicing their careers anymore. Women in Baghdad are afraid if ISIS controls Baghdad, then women will suffer from many things such as not being able to go to work or go to school.” Aldoori says she continues to fear for her Iraqi family every day because her native country is still unstable with bombings and kidnappings.

Aldoori’s mother is very proud of what her daughter has accomplished in her educational endeavors as well as promoting peace and sharing her Muslim culture with others. “She is very strong and independent. I am happy for her because she would not have had this opportunity if she was still living in Iraq because of the dangerous situation. I always want her to succeed in her life and see her as a successful student affairs professional and continuing to serve her local and global communities.”