From land mines in her homeland to the Midwest's fall landscapes, an Iraqi student makes Minnesota home.
As she flips through photos, Alaa Baqer's real-life smile mirrors the broad, deep smile captured in so many frames.
Until one -- a blurry shot of a pretty courtyard outside the University of Tikrit in Iraq.
Baqer's smile fades.
"I hate this place so much," she says quietly. "It was beautiful, but it was very, very dangerous. When I look at this, it brings back fear."
Baqer has escaped that fear. This fall, the 19-year-old began her studies at Augsburg College in Minneapolis -- far from the Iraqi university where land mines and mistrust clouded her older sister's education.
Baqer now has trouble containing that smile.
"I came to America," she said, "and it was amazing."
Despite her home country's collapsing higher education system, Baqer is one of just a few hundred Iraqis studying at United States colleges and universities. She is among a handful in Minnesota.
The Iraqi Student Project, based in Syria, helped her get here. The grass-roots group finds bright Iraqi students who want an education, U.S. colleges willing to waive their tuition, and families able to house them -- or help pay for food, books and, in Minnesota, boots.
Nancy Maly, a board member of the project, worked for decades with international students at Grinnell College in Iowa and believes in "the power of international education and what a difference it makes on a campus."
"These students are particularly deserving," said Maly, who now works with U.S. universities considering sponsoring the students. "They've been displaced from their country, many were threatened to leave, many don't have the opportunity to go back, many lost everything in the war.
"It is, in a sense, an opportunity for reparation."
Baqer left Iraq after graduating from high school, joining the 1.2 million Iraqis taking refuge in Syria. She lived there alone, against her father's wishes, and quickly realized why he had been concerned.
Her apartment flooded each time a train passed. As a young, single Iraqi, she was often harassed and ignored. She had come to Syria to study, but soon learned that the universities there were expensive and exclusive.
Then she found the Iraqi Student Project, and from that point the snapshots in her laptop photo album get happier.
Baqer and a few dozen students like her spent nine months writing essays, studying math and refining their English. "You have to be very committed to school and very serious," she said.
That training has already helped at Augsburg, where she's thrilled and challenged by her professors. She pulled out a dense essay, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," and laughed at how, when she asked her host father the meaning of pragmatism, it led to a conversation about postmodernism, a similarly challenging term.
"I told the professor, 'I'm so depressed; this article is torture,'" Baqer said, grinning.
Science has been much easier for her. She plans to major in biology and then attend medical school, a career path she dreamed of long ago. "Since I was young, I see people injured by war and violence," she said. "Health in Iraq is in very bad condition. All the good doctors left. I hope I can go back."
'Something very terrifying'
To educate the next generation of the country's leaders, then bring them back to rebuild their nation, is a goal of both the Iraqi Student Project and the Iraqi government. Baqer had never expected to leave in the first place.
But her city changed around her. Her Shiite family was suddenly in the minority. Militias were threatening their safety, and classmates were questioning her last name.
Her oldest sister earned an engineering degree in a university where "each day, something happens, the policemen come," Baqer said. Her sister had to put that out of her mind, because "when you think of it, it becomes something very terrifying," she said.
It's a relief to be far from that, now. Minneapolis is peaceful, clean and organized, Baqer said. In her Christian Vocation class, the professor seemed excited about the diversity of students' religions.
"Here, when I say I am Muslim, it's just a religion," she said. "No one says you are something bad or, what is your sect? Even if they ask, they are just curious."
Dreams of home
Baqer lives with a family in the Seward neighborhood, a quick walk from school. She went there between classes Tuesday, to drink tea and take a nap.
Her host mother leaves her notes on the kitchen counter ("I hope you are feeling better!"), and the gray-haired couple next door are kind ("Are you our new neighbor? How wonderful.") But she misses her family, the food and her blue bed.
In Syria, she wrote a poem about that bed, in the form of a letter. "My blue bed," it begins. "I'm sorry to leave you." Later, it reads:
Do you remember my pain and illness?
And how you took care of me?
Are my photos still near your wall?
Please take care of them,
And if they ever miss me
Or cry about me,
Wipe their tears away.
Tell them the promise I gave you:
I'm coming home someday.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168