By Weam Namou
Born in Basra, Professor Yasmeen Hanoosh left Iraq in 1995, at the age of 17 to come to the United States. Despite knowing very little English, she was able to attain, within 13 years, a Ph.D. in Arab Studies from the University of Michigan and she is currently an associate professor of Arabic language and literature at Portland State University.
When she first moved to America, Hanoosh lived in the City of Southfield and went to Southfield Lathrup High School where she set herself up for her first great challenge.
“I went to the library and looked at the books and I just wanted to read all of them,” she said. “But they were in English, and I could barely read English.”
She picked up one book and said to herself that if she could read it from cover to cover, then she has accomplished a great thing in life. It took her an hour to read each page because she had to look up so many unfamiliar words in the dictionary.
“It was a gradual and painful process that took months to get through, but I went through it, and I basically taught myself English,” she said.
Aside from having to learn English, Hanoosh encountered other difficulties in her new home.
“Those were very interesting times,” she said. “One usually expects the culture shock to be with the American culture. My bigger shock was the Chaldean community in America. It was neither the Hollywood community that I saw on television, nor the Chaldeans I knew in Iraq.”
Hanoosh had come from a war zone. At the end of the Iraq-Iran war, her family’s home was bombed. They later endured the Gulf War and the sanctions.
“There, people were concerned with life or death,” she said. “Here, they were more concerned with the symbolic meaning of Chaldeans.”
For her, these issues, although valid, seemed irrelevant. It took her decades to understand their relevancy in the West.
“There was a lot of indirect pressure to identify as non-Arab and that became the focus, using big crosses to indicate we’re not Arab, we’re Chaldeans, and this became the discourse of victimology. It’s a defensive kind of identity. The Christians in Iraq didn’t have the luxury to think about these things because they had to figure out how to survive while bombs were going overhead. ”
At Southfield Lathrup, Hanoosh had to cope with issues she didn’t have to deal with in Iraq, such as self-esteem and a sense of belonging. She was literally a world away from Basra, where she was confident with herself.
“Chaldeans felt they were not white, or black, or any other group, so they had all sorts of concerns about their conduct,” she said. “In Iraq, what women and men had to do or not do was a given.”
She feels incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon people who supported her in her pursuits and fostered it by sending her in the right directions. Meanwhile, she also had to contend with her family who didn’t understand why she had chosen the path she chose and were suspicious whether it had any rewards.
“In our community, the pressure to conform is very strong and there’s little appreciation or understanding of other pursuits of the mind,” she said. “The easier solution would have been to give up.”
But that was not in Hanoosh’s nature. Her ambitiousness led her to set incredibly difficult tasks for herself. She accomplished them by working hard and not socializing. She achieved great status with her degrees, several publications and a number of honors, grants and fellowships, including the International Studies and Foreign Language grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Florence-Gould Foundation Award, and the National Endowment for the Arts Translation Award. With all this success, she finally became “legitimate.”
“My family didn’t support me to pursue that path until they saw the results,” she said. “Then they appreciated the hard work.”
Today, Professor Hanoosh directs the Arab program at Portland State University (PSU), which teaches the Arabic language and Middle Eastern culture.
“In my own research, I work on the more marginal themes within these subjects and I pursue projects to help the refugees,” she said.
One of her efforts is the Arab refugee assistance program, an exchange program that helps Iraqi refugees acclimate to Oregon with help from PSU students. It also helps expose students of Arabic at PSU to the real culture that they’re trying to study.
“There isn’t an established Chaldean and Arabic community to help them here,” she said. “I look at Michigan as an example of how we can help them integrate. There’s nothing like that here.”
This year, Hanoosh is also leading a community conversation throughout Oregon through the Institute for the Humanities’ Conversation Project. The topic is “Arab Refugees in our Midst: Terrorism, Bigotry and Freedom.”
Given the adversity she went through, Professor Hanoosh advices the young women in the community not to get discouraged from following their path.
“Don’t let the larger mainstream expectations direct your life,” she said. “There’s a lot of diversity within our community. There are Chaldeans all over this country, all over this world, pursuing their heart’s desire and that’s oaky. When we don’t pursue knowledge, we don’t find about this diversity. When you pursue your own desires, you will stumble upon these people.”