Asraa Alfatlawi was 2 years old the last time she was in her native country. Although she can’t remember it, her parents were carrying her across the desert in a desperate trek to survive. Alfatlawi is from Iraq.
It was 1991 and Iraq had just been defeated in the first Persian Gulf War. Alfatlawi’s father, a veteran of Iraq’s devastating war with Iran in the 1980s, had taken part in an uprising against Saddam Hussein that was meant to overthrow the dictator. Iraq’s recent defeat had shaken Hussein’s grasp on power, but it proved unbroken and the uprising failed. Now Alfatlawi’s entire family was in grave danger from the dictator’s brutal reprisal and had no choice but to flee the country.
Alfatlawi’s parents were forced to walk much of the way with seven children to neighboring Saudi Arabia. When they arrived, they spent two years living in a refugee camp in the desert, where Alfatlawi’s brother was born. In 1993, the family was finally able to immigrate to the United States, living in New Mexico, Chicago and Maine before settling in Blackstone, Mass.
The Alfatlawis settled into American life, having another son, their ninth child. Asraa did well in high school but the prospect of going to college seemed as distant as her home country.
"It’s difficult if your parents haven’t gone to college," she said, "It’s a faraway dream, kind of."
Her older sister had attended the Community College of Rhode Island but didn’t finish. Alfatlawi decided to follow her.
The transition was difficult at first, Alfatlawi said, because no one had really prepared her about what to expect. She was shy and didn’t get involved in campus activities until she met Monica Lee, a counselor with the Access program, which serves those who meet low-income guidelines, are first-generation college students or who are disabled, at the CCRI Lincoln campus.
"It was a difficult first semester for me," Alfatlawi said. "But Monica was very helpful and college life started to get easier."
Alfatlawi began to fit in. She is fluent in Arabic and wears a hijab, a traditional Muslim head scarf. This made her stand out in her high school, where she was the only Muslim, but she said she enjoys CCRI’s more diverse environment.
"That’s why I like this school very much, because of the different ethnicities and cultures," she said.
Her interest in culture extends to her studies. She has applied for admission to Boston University, UMass and Northeastern and plans to study history and anthropology in pursuit of a Ph.D.
Her ultimate goal is to return to Iraq, one of the cradles of civilization, to research its ancient history.
"I haven’t had the pleasure of really knowing about my culture," she said. "I want to go back to my country and work in the national museum there."
Alfatlawi is graduating with a GPA of 3.8. At 20 years old, she is the first member of her family to graduate from college, which has inspired her older sister to return to school.
"I’m very happy with [CCRI]," she said. "It gave me a path to keep going on."