Mofak Hasan: An Iraqi refugee totes his teaching across continents

Mofak Hasan values education above almost all else. He holds a piece of carved and polished wood adorned in Arabic script and an Iraqi flag, and fondly remembers the group of Iraqi students he taught more than twenty years ago who gave it to him so that he would not forget his home.

“I’ve got plenty of things, but these things, it is so important for me,” Hasan says in his living room on the west side of Chicago. “Not only to remember my country, but to remember my students that I taught.”

He recognizes, “I am an old man, I know, and they are young.  But there is a link between us.”The gift from students that Hasan has carried with him for 20 years.

The link has kept him vital as a university professor of mathematics and computer science as he and his family moved to Libya, Yemen, and Jordan after they fled Iraq in 1998.

Hasan never foresaw leaving Iraq; then again, he never anticipated being a professor either.

“I applied to be an officer in the military [after graduating high school in 1973] to be honest, because I was going to get a good salary, a new car, land,” he recalls. “These things are fantastic, so I said there is no need for me to complete my study, I will join.”

He laughs now at how unpredictable life can be.

“Unfortunately I failed the medical test.  My nose, it is still the difficulty with me,” Hasan says. “They said you have to go a do a surgical operation and go back [to enlist]. But I haven’t got plenty of time to return back, so I apply to the university.”

He didn’t take to it initially.

“First year, I was not a good student. Second year, I was not. But third and fourth year I started to study. I started challenging the others, so I got a very good grade.”

His studies halted when war broke out between Iraq and Iran in 1980. The military service he was denied after high school became mandatory. He served four years.

“It is not mathematics. It is not computer science. It is a matter of war, Hasan says. “I just get an order and fight.”

Again, military decisions pointed him in the direction of school.  During his service, he applied to university and enrolled as a soldier.  When he got out of the army, a scholarship was awaiting him to study for his PhD. in the United Kingdom.

“That was my destination,” Hasan recalls. “Not to finish only the war, not to finish the service, not to get married. To get a higher degree. And I got it.”


[Hassan recounts his story about fighting in Saddam Hussein’s army.]

By 1998, Hasan had a wife, six sons and a teaching career that defined him. Yet, there was war again. Relations with the U.S. had worsened. Desert Storm in which the U.S. executed a four-day bombing attack on Iraq in December was just around the corner. With forged passports, Hasan and his family left Iraq illegally and traveled to Turkey and Cyprus before settling in Libya, where Hasan worked as a professor.

Less than a year later, Hasan and his family were on the move again, this time to the south of Yemen, and four months later to Yemen’s capital city, Sanaa, where Hasan heard there were better university jobs.

“I got a salary,” Hasan recalls, “pushing my life as well as family life forward.”

Two years later, they moved to Jordan, this time with legal passports. Hasan found work at the University of Jordan in Amman, where he slowly moved up from being the manager of the computer center to the head of the IT department to the head of the computer science department.  By the time he left nine years later, the department had grown into an information technology college that housed three scientific departments.

“From 70 or 76 students up to 1,500 students with a lot of labs,” Hasan remarks. “I am glad to say that I, along with my colleagues, built up a university in the south of Jordan.”

Still Hasan and his family were not entirely comfortable in Jordan.

“Jordan was a country that didn’t like to give immigration,” he says. “This was a difficulty for us.”

The struggle to acquire Jordanian citizenship is one reason that Hasan applied to resettle as a refugee in the United States. When his application was eventually approved and the family prepared to leave Jordan for the U.S., his coworkers and students organized a party in his honor.

“They gave me a very nice film about my life,” Hasan remembers.  “It was not a small party, it was a very big party, and they showed that film. Believe me, I started crying when they showed it.”

[Hasan describes the experiences of Iraqi refugees in Jordan.]

When Hasan arrived in Chicago last spring, he started his teaching career from scratch. Finding a teaching job as a refugee with no experience in the United States, especially at a time when jobs are scarce, was not easy. Hasan applied for positions at universities first. When he received no response, he began to apply to high schools.  It wasn’t ideal, he says, but getting a job was the most important thing, and he felt he could work his way up over time, as he had before in the Middle East.

Hasan did not have to wait long. By the beginning of this school year, he had secured a position as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Mathematics at DePaul University.

His goal now is to find a permanent teaching job at a university in Chicago. He has begun research work.

The education of his children is a priority. He sees it as essential in their integration into American life.

“For the first day for them attending the school,” he says, “I told all members of my family, ‘now the life is starting because they joined the school.’”

[Hasan describes his difficulties in obtaining an American driver’s license and the lessons he has learned in the process.]

As Hasan sits comfortably in the living room of his Chicago apartment, he talks of the importance of education; in building friendships, in developing an understanding of other people, in making something of oneself.

He picks up the carved wood memento his Iraqi students gave him 20 years ago. He hopes to form as strong a bond with his students here too.

“You know, at the beginning, my feeling was difficulty to teach those students because someone is putting his leg on the chair, the other reading newspaper, and the other playing with their laptop, and the other got chewing gum,” he observes.

But Hasan has noticed a change.

“Believe me, if you visit within the last lectures, you will see they are very quiet. “

Hasan recalls earlier that day.  He’d given an exam, and it was the last class period before Thanksgiving break.

“Today also, most of my students, they came to me and they shake hand to me, and they say ‘thank you,’” he beams. “’We are glad to know you.’”

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