From Kurdistan to Kaufman Mall: One Monarch's Lifelong Journey
More than 6,000 miles separate Bnar (pronounced B-nar) Abdul-Azim Mustafa from her home in Iraqi-Kurdistan. She was born and raised there, but has traveled over the Atlantic Ocean, landing in Norfolk to study at Old Dominion University. To her knowledge, she is currently the only female Kurdish student on campus.
To be fair, Bnar isn’t an official student yet, but that hasn’t stopped her from participating in the community. She’s a member of the Muslim Student Association, she recently competed in the Big Blue Healthy Kitchen Wars and audited two classes in humanities this semester. After a long and difficult process of enrolling in the master’s program, Bnar will finally become a Monarch next fall.
“I am very excited to start classes,” Bnar said, as a smile spread across her face. “I have talked to my professors and have the syllabus for the classes already.”
When Bnar was applying to the master’s of humanities program, she hit a roadblock. The university needed a copy of her diploma from her school in Kurdistan, the University of Sulaimani. Due to protests and the current political climate, the university was temporarily closed, and she was unable to obtain a copy. Bnar said Jennifer Fish, professor and chair of the women’s studies department, helped her navigate the application process.
“It was very hard, but Dr. Fish helped to get me admitted because of the situation in Kurdistan,” Bnar said. “Knowing Dr. Fish is the best thing for me.”
Before coming to the United States, Bnar had already experienced a world that most will never know. Growing up in Iraqi-Kurdistan, she was frequently faced with hardships.
At the age of six, Bnar’s family participated in a mass exodus from Iraq to Iran, when former President of Iraq Saddam Hussein threatened the safety of her city. Her family fled Iraqi-Kurdistan on foot, walking through mountains and rural areas for seven days before arriving in small Iranian villages.
“My family did not have a car, so we walked the whole way,” Bnar said. “I lost my shoes.”
Bnar’s demeanor quickly changed, and the smile she had been wearing turned to a worried expression. Another family traveling alongside Bnar’s was forced to leave their grandmother on the path when she became to weak to continue walking.
“That was so heartbreaking. I will never forget it,” Bnar said.
Bnar’s family stayed in the Iranian village for two months before they were transported by truck back to Sulaymaniyah. During that time, her home was looted by people that stayed behind. Months later, life had somewhat returned to normal, and Bnar went back to school. She graduated from high school with the highest grade point average in her class, and was admitted to the college of law at the University of Sulaimani.
“When I was a kid, I heard that women were sacrificed for the culture and religion, so I was thinking why should we obey this kind of disgusting stuff?” Bnar said, explaining why she chose to pursue a law degree.
Bnar said the discrimination women faced daily in Iraqi-Kurdistan motivated her to work toward change. Women face constant disrespect and are unable to defend themselves. Cultural practices like arranged marriages and minor marriage – when a young girl is married to a much older man – angered Bnar.
“As a lawyer, I have seen a lot of ladies age 17 or 16 married to a person that is 50,” Bnar said in a presentation in Dr. Fish’s refugee studies class. “How can they do this?”
Bnar’s father was a large part of her decision to pursue law. She said he was always taking women’s sides.
“He encouraged me to go into law and defense of women,” Bnar said.
Unfortunately, Bnar’s father passed away during her sophomore year at the university. Since women are not permitted to attend funerals, Bnar was not able to go to her father’s burial. After his death, she took on his responsibilities and cared for her mother and younger siblings. Because of cultural customs, Bnar’s mother was unable to work or complete simple tasks like shopping, so after school, Bnar spent her nights taking care of her family.
“I worked day and night,” Bnar said. “I would do my chores from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.”
Often, school friends would tell Bnar that they were proud of her ability to both take care of her family and do well at school. She said even her male friends would tell her that they wouldn’t be able to keep up with her workload.
After Bnar graduated, she found a job working in the city courthouse of Sulaymaniyah. Most of her work involved helping young women through challenging divorce processes and encouraging them to better their lives and defend themselves.
“I would try to encourage them individually,” she said. “If you want to change the society, you can not just try institutionally. You must start individually. We must not be silent.”
In 2010, Bnar married a friend, Herish Hussein, who she met while attending university. Herish was awarded a government scholarship to further his education in the United States. The couple moved to Hampton Roads in December 2011.
Shortly after their arrival here, ISIS started attacks in Iraqi-Kurdistan. Bnar’s family lives less than 100 miles away from ISIS-controlled areas.
“I worry very much for my family,” Bnar said.
When Bnar moved here, she did not speak any English. Determined to learn, she purchased numerous language books and studied course manuals for language proficiency tests. When she mastered the essentials, she started attending English classes in the evenings twice a week at Granby High School.
When the couple first moved here, they wanted to try and see everything in their new neighborhood. They visited chain stores like Walmart and Costco, and ate at Burger King. Bnar said she often experienced culture shock, but most were positive learning experiences. In her native culture, when someone compliments something you own, you typically offer that item to them as a gift. When a cashier at Walmart liked a headband Bnar was wearing, Bnar responded how she would have back home.
“So here, the cashier told me she liked my headband, so I took it off and offered it to her,” Bnar said, laughing. “She was so surprised, she asked to give me a hug!”
Her uncle, who received one master’s degree and a doctorate from ODU, later told her it was not customary to respond to a compliment in that manner in America. Bnar says she now just smiles and responds with a warm thank you to compliments now.
Though Bnar still has at least three years left before she graduates from the humanities department with her own master’s degree, she is excited to bring her knowledge back to Iraqi-Kurdistan to continue helping women better their roles in Kurdish society. She hopes to return to Kurdistan and teach at the University of Sulaimani.
“Studying and knowing different cultures, I know that women should be free,” Bnar said. “I am so excited to go back and to change the world over there.”
Bnar said a master’s degree from an American university is key to her success in facilitating programs and aid to Kurdish women in need.
“The degree is something different,” Bnar explains. “They know that you have an education.”
Considering the kind of work she hopes to do and the change she longs to bring for women in Iraqi-Kurdistan, ISIS remains a threat to Bnar’s success when she finally returns home.
“It’s a little scary,” she admits. “But, this is my goal. I will do it. I’m not afraid.”
After everything that Bnar has been through since her childhood, she remains positive and driven to obtain her dreams. She helps refugee families in the area get acclimated to their new neighborhoods and assists immigrant students in their pursuits to study at ODU. When Bnar is done retelling the story of her life, she provides insight to what keeps her motivated.
“I have a very strong connection with God,” she said. “Whatever I ask God for, he always helps me.”