Anmar Jerjees is a Phi Beta Kappa member graduating this year from Davidson College. He migrated as refugee from Iraq, and was determined to overcome challenges and cultural misconceptions on the path to becoming a top student at Davidson, a Harry S. Truman Scholar, and a Gaither Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was a child, I remember wanting to be a taxi driver and then wanting to be a doctor. Back in Iraq, being a taxi driver was a popular venture; it provided the drivers with the ability to communicate with a lot of the Iraqi people. My desire to be a doctor was mostly influenced by my parents. In my teenage years, I wanted to become a missionary aid worker. Once I got to college, I discovered my passion for crafting and creating public policy, and at that point, international relations and development became my area of focus.
Has your journey as a refugee had an impact on your relationship with education?
I think being a refugee at times means not knowing what will happen next. Being a refugee inherently means your life is on pause or suspended for the time being. Although my education was never disrupted, I changed schools 9 times from the first grade all the way up to high schools, averaging a school per year.
When we arrived in the United States in 2009, it was an opportunity for a new life for my family as a whole. My mother instilled in us the importance of education as a means of upward social mobility. While at Davidson, my refugee identity continued to shape my interests, both academic and extracurricular, as I explored narratives of migration from multiple perspectives and regions.
What was the biggest culture shock that you experienced when you moved to the U.S.?
The biggest culture shock was how unwelcoming the U.S. felt when I first arrived. At the height of the Great Recession with much of the scapegoating going towards immigrants, my family and I faced tremendous discrimination and bigotry, with many students from my middle school even asking me if I had any terrorist affiliations.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
During my junior year, I took a sociology course titled "Refugees, Migrants, and the Stateless." Taught by Professor Deckard, one of Davidson’s many renowned sociology professors, most of the class was discussion based, and I was intrigued by the academic view of refugee crises. Although I talk about refugee issues all the time, it's always from a moral standpoint. Looking at these questions from a theoretical standpoint offered perspectives that I know will help me in the future.
You were recently awarded a prestigious Gaither Fellowship. What do you hope to learn through this opportunity, and how does this relate to your professional goals?
My family left Mosul, Iraq because our lives were put in jeopardy by terrorist cells. Twelve years later, I have the opportunity to use my own research and writing to combat terrorist factions and groups.
I hope to become a better researcher, writer and scholar as a result of the Gaither Fellowship. One of my long-term goals is to become a resident scholar at a think tank doing work related to the Middle East. And being a junior fellow at a prestigious think tank such as the Carnegie Endowment provides me with an opening into that world.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
“Don’t sacrifice the long term for the short term.” Recently, with graduation constantly on my mind, I have been contemplating the next few years and the ways I can use the skills gained at Davidson. A friend of mine told me to stay my course and focus on long-term goals.
Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and an arts & sciences education are important in today’s society?
I think both Phi Beta Kappa and an education in the arts and sciences are more important today than ever. With “fake news” and fabricated stories running rampant, the analytical skills gained from an arts and sciences education are key to discerning the difference between fake and real.
What books are you reading right now? Anything you'd recommend?
I’m currently reading A Country Called Amreeka, which is about the experiences of Arab Americans as they first migrate to the United States. I recently finished Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I’d highly recommend the book.
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