With the fate of his home country a frustrating and sometimes frightening question, Zaid Alajeeli just keeps smiling.
In the past year-and-a-half, he’s found in Columbia a new language, new friends that have become family and a new home away from his Iraqi home.
The 29-year-old moved from his hometown an hour outside of Baghdad, Iraq, to Columbia in January 2013. It took a year of intensive English language study before he could begin to pursue his doctoral degree in chemistry at the University of South Carolina on a scholarship from the Iraqi government.
He shed a lot of tears his first year here, Alajeeli said, as he struggled to grasp the language and missed his family. But when he wiped them away, he saw a place and people he loved.
“I have, like, 100 friends here because I like to smile a lot. I found something during my experience: that a smile is the greatest thing to get friends. Just a smile,” he said. “The best thing about Columbia, now, is it’s started to feel like home. I traveled a lot here in the U.S. ... but when I see the sign that says ‘Welcome to South Carolina,’ ... oh, my gosh, I’m going home.”
But he is troubled: Just six months into his five-year chemistry study, Alajeeli does not know whether he’ll be able to complete his degree because of the uncertain fate of the government that is supporting his education. If the government were to fall, his scholarship could possibly disappear, along with his reason for being in the U.S.
“I think in a few years we will not have a country,” he said, “because of the selfishness of those people who rule Iraq now.”
Iraq’s humanitarian and political situations are more critical than Alajeeli has ever seen, and whether he can or will return to his country is a question he does not know how to answer.
“We have a kind of proverb or saying in our culture,” he said. “If someone lost money, he can find it again. If someone lost family, he may find it again. But if you lose your country, you won’t find it again.”
Here, Alajeeli pauses.
“Sometimes I think ... I don’t care that much about Iraq. But when I remember I have people, I have friends, I have memories over there, places I like to go, I feel like I should still support that country.
“If everything just settled down and (the people could) take everything easy, I can go back,” he said. “But if we don’t have a country, how could I?”