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An Agent for Change: Iraqi Refugee Anmar Jerjees ’18 Wins Truman Scholarship

Anmar Jerjees '18
Anmar Jerjees '18

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, when Anmar Jerjees '18 was seven years old. That moment set in motion a chain of events that led the Iraqi refugee to become a U.S. citizen, a dedicated volunteer, an outspoken advocate for justice, and now, a Harry S. Truman Scholar.

Jerjees is among only 62 scholars chosen nationwide to receive the prestigious award.

As Christian Iraqis, a persecuted minority, Jerjees's family lived in perpetual fear. His aunt was shot and killed on her way to work, a terrorist group kidnapped his uncle and his grandparents received threats.

The family fled to Syria, and when his father attempted to find refuge in Sweden he was captured and deported to Iraq. The oldest of three children, 11-year-old Jerjees worked to support the family while attending school.

In late 2008, the International Organization for Migration informed Jerjees's mother that, because of their extraordinary circumstances, they were eligible to migrate to the United States.

"They decided that Charlotte would be a good place for our family," he said in a profile written in 2014. "The transition was shocking. My expectations were based on American movies and TV shows, so I was surprised at what I found when we arrived."

To improve his English, Jerjees spent four hours in the public library each day after school studying his English-to-Arabic dictionary and reading books of increasing difficulty. He also began volunteering with the Sisters of Charity; they nominated him for a full scholarship at Charlotte Catholic School, now his alma mater.

When it came time to consider college, Davidson was Jerjees's first choice. He submitted an early decision application to Davidson through the QuestBridge program, which connects exceptionally talented low-income high school students to the nation's best colleges and scholarship opportunities. He was accepted as a QuestBridge Scholar.

"Now that I'm actually here, I know I need to work really hard and be involved to make the difference I want to make," he said in 2014.

Being a "change agent for the future" is the top selection criterion for the Truman Foundation. Shaped by difficult lessons of the past and experiences in a new homeland, Jerjees has seized upon the opportunity to do just that on campus and off.

At Davidson, Jerjees has been a Bonner Scholar and a member of the Black Student Coalition, Middle Eastern and North African Student Association, Campus Outreach, free word, STRIDE, interfaith student groups and Change magazine. He was featured in February news coverage on Trump Administration policies, "Student Voices: Executive Order Sparks Concern, Questions."

Truman Scholars, the foundation said, "have the passion, intellect, and leadership potential that in time should enable them to improve the ways that public entities–be they government agencies, nonprofit organizations, public and private educational institutions, or advocacy organizations–serve the public good."

Jerjees's current hope is to use the Truman Scholarship funding–up to $30,000–to attend Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Here, Jerjees talks about his plans for the future and how his Davidson education has prepared him.

As of right now, what are your professional aspirations?
I know I am going to go into public policy, but public policy comes in so many different forms, whether it's bill writing, advocacy groups, super PACs or even journalism, to an extent. I want to work in journalism for a few years before I go into either analytic writing, data research or, ideally, policy development. All these relate to politics in some way, shape or form, which is fitting. I know I want to be involved in political change.

There tends to be a lot of negative press about the millennial generation and how they approach politics and activism. As a young recipient of an award that recognizes your potential as a national leader, what are your views on this?
I think the millennial generation doesn't get enough credit for the work it does. I think that more and more we are seeing that leadership models of the past no longer work, and young people are developing more of a non-hierarchical form of leadership based on collaboration and how we can all uplift one another, instead of "I'm going to be the boss and you're going to be the employee." I keep seeing that non-hierarchical approach here at Davidson as well and, despite its ups and downs, I think it says a lot about young people's potential to lead and make important changes in society.

How did you end up at Davidson?
I am from Iraq, but around 2008 my family wanted to go to Sweden. All of my father's family is in Sweden, they migrated there in 2002, and so we didn't want to go anywhere other than there because we had a connection. But the IOM–International Organization of Migration–took our case, and the United States accepted our asylum seeking application and decided to bring us to North Carolina. We didn't know where North Carolina was. ... When I came here, one of the volunteers with the organization who brought us to America worked under Dean [Ernest] Jeffries, and she took me to Davidson when I was in the eighth grade. As soon as I visited campus I just knew I wanted to be here: I loved it. So I went to high school, and my first two years I didn't have the grades necessary to get into this school. I was learning the language still. ... I was underprepared, and it took me until my junior year for my grades to start going up. I applied to Davidson through the Quest Bridge Scholarship program and the Common Application, and I was able to get in on a full scholarship through Quest Bridge.

There are a few reasons I came here. One is the Davidson Trust. Two, I'm from Charlotte, so I didn't want to be away from home. Three, I wanted a small school because I didn't really like the idea of a large school where no one really knows one another, classroom sizes are too big and you don't really get to know your professors. There are a lot of opportunities here at Davidson. Looking back at it three years afterward, I definitely think I made the right choice.

How do you think your international background has affected your current beliefs and politics?
This is an interesting question, because I actually think some of my worldviews and my political opinions aren't just shaped by my identity but are shaped by what I personally believe, which can surprise people. My experiences lead me to what I believe yes, but not at all times. There are things that I feel like I have decided on my own, separate from my background, whether it's through the classroom or through readings, or listening to podcasts and watching videos.

How has Davidson helped to shape your interests?
This summer, I will be spending time in Sweden, doing research on Syrian refugees, and then I'll be in Iraq doing a photography project. Abernethy and Kemp grants will fund my project in Sweden, and a SPIKE grant will support the photojournalism project–these are all related to my passions and interests. I could not have acted on my passions without Davidson's resources, so that's one part. The second part is that coming into Davidson, a lot of students are unsure about what they want to do, what they want to learn and what they want to study, and there are so many different options for first year students. I think that Davidson's interdisciplinary distribution requirements definitely helped me in making decisions about what I wanted to do and study. I also think that how supportive the administration, staff and faculty have been has clearly made a difference in what I want to do long-term. A lot of my professors are constantly encouraging me, not only to apply to things but also to write and submit to journals or other platforms. Without their constant care I would not be where I am today.

Is there a particularly interesting course you've taken or are taking at Davidson that stands out to you?
I'm currently in a sociology class titled "Refugees, Migrants, and the Stateless." It really stands out to me because of the way Professor Deckard conducts the classroom: most of our classes are discussion based. And we are discussing theory instead of discussing casualties. Instead of just saying, "This number of people died, so this is the moral thing to do," we are getting an academic view of the refugee crises, which is intriguing to me. I talk about these issues all the time, but it's always from a moral standpoint, so I love looking at it from a theoretical standpoint, and I know the theory will only help me in the future.

Bridget Lavender '18
brlavender@davidson.edu