In Damascus (2007-2012)

The civil strife in Syria forced ISP out of Damascus in July 2012. The following story describes the program which prepared the 62 students ISP has brought to the US since 2008. There are currently 45 ISP students at 35 colleges and universities across the USA.

We are often asked, "What goes on at ISP Damascus each year?" So let us try to give you a picture of our work here.  Each spring and summer we hear from young Iraqis who have somehow discovered ISP. Maybe a friend told them. If they are refugees in Damascus, they might have heard about ISP at one of the centers where English is taught. Students in Baghdad or elsewhere in Iraq might find ISP while searching the web. On the website the student can find a list of necessary qualifications (has finished high school, good grades, willing to spend a year with us in Damascus) and an application form. 

So let’s say we get an application from a young woman whose name is Huda. We learn from her application what her life has been like, perhaps before and after her family fled Iraq. We ask how she did in high school and what her life has been like since high school. Most applications do come from Damascus and a promising application leads to an interview. We call Huda, visit with her on the phone, and then invite her to come to Beit ISP (ISP House), which is actually our apartment in central Damascus). So Huda comes for an interview. The interview is not simply about how good her English is. We’re much more concerned about her emotional resilience, her seriousness about a challenging course of studies in the US, and her desire to return to Iraq when her studies are finished. If the interview goes well, we arrange for a placement test for English language skills, and we visit Huda's family in their home. It’s very important for us to develop a close relationship with our students’ families. You can imagine the mix of emotions they have at the thought of their daughter going overseas to the US for four years of college. 

The ultimate goal and hope is to invite Huda to join the other candidates for ISP in a year-long program of preparation. It’s quite challenging: about twenty hours of class with our volunteer teachers each week—and lots of homework!

Our volunteer teachers are usually young people from English-speaking countries who are in Damascus to study Arabic or to teach English. The classes they conduct once or twice each week with ISP candidates are two-hour sessions. They use materials from Oxford University Press that focus on particular language skills and levels: listening to lectures, critical reading,  academic writing skills. 

In addition, Huda and her fellow ISP student have Writers' Workshop every week (taught by Theresa) and, after a few months, Literature Circles twice a week. They will also have math classes geared to each student’s level. In the fall, Huda prepares for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) which colleges and universities require for all international students. She may also have to take the SAT Reasoning exam, especially to measure her strength in math. To keep her English skills growing, Huda will also engage frequently with a conversation partner—not necessarily a teacher, but a volunteer who is willing to spend an hour or two each week just conversing with her in English. 

In December we will work with Huda on the Common Application, especially on the required essays. Applications are submitted by a deadline set by each college or university. Some applications go to need-blind colleges, some to colleges that have indicated an interest in accepting an student ISP (and have agreed to waive tuition). Then, like all students applying to college, Huda will wait until April for an answer.  All the classes continue at Beit ISP into the summer. When Huda is accepted by a college or university, she then goes through the process of applying for a student (non-immigrant) visa to the US.

Each year these young Iraqis like Huda create a new life for themselves in the community they form. For most, it is a very welcome change from the isolation they have felt as refugees in Syria. Their ISP life here inevitably includes meeting various travelers from the US or UK or Australia. So it’s not all grim labor! Huda and her classmates take field trips within Syria, introduce their families to one another, and even manage to find playing fields for soccer or basketball. 

By late spring, Huda and her ISP friends are in email contact with their colleges and universities—and with one or more of the people who will be part of their support groups in the US. It’s not easy for Huda to wait until August for the long trip to the US, but the smiling and cheering group that await her arrival will melt away her concerns about being accepted in a far-off land.