'I Want to Make Things Better'

‘I Want to Make Things Better’

Forced from her home in Iraq, Nibras Khudaida continues to pursue educational dreams at Creighton

By Emily Rust

In an instant, Nibras Khudaida’s joy changed to fear. The rush of the last day of school, and earning the student of the year award, abruptly ended as she and her classmates in the small Iraq village of Sreshka looked ahead and saw a dreaded situation come to life. In the flat plains, a mob of people was coming closer to their village. Islamic State fighters were descending — much faster than anticipated.

“We thought there was no way. We have an army, we’d fight at least, have a warning to leave,” Khudaida says.

Quickly, Khudaida ran home, gathering together with her family, taking only her passport and the clothes on her back, to escape the Islamist militants. Twelve people piled into a small car to flee north with no idea of when, if ever, they would be able to return home.

At 16, Khudaida’s life changed forever, a journey that would lead to immigrating to Lincoln, Nebraska, and then joining Creighton University’s Class of 2022.

Now a freshman in the Heider College of Business, Khudaida is focused on education equality for Iraqis, a journey that led her to the United Nations’ Youth Assembly in February, where she served as a delegate for Iraq.

“I want to make things better for students back home,” Khudaida says. “I want everybody to have the opportunities that I have right now in the United States.”

Attending school as a woman in Iraq was especially challenging. “People didn’t believe that women should go to school,” Khudaida says. She remembers one teacher telling her she should “stay in the kitchen.”

People in her village constantly questioned her family for sending Khudaida to school, but her father, a strong advocate for education, insisted she go.

“He loved education,” Khudaida says. “He said, ‘If I’m going to send my son to school, why not send you to school?’”

Even after fleeing Islamic State fighters in Sreshka in 2014, Khudaida faced obstacles to her education in Erbil, where her family resettled temporarily. She enrolled in a nearby school, where the new principal asked for her transcript, which was back in Mosul under Islamic State control.

The Erbil principal insisted. So, she and her dad went back to the village to get her transcript signed from her Sreshka school principal, who was fighting with the Peshmerga — Kurdish military forces.

“He had a gun in his hand when he was signing my transcript,” Khudaida says.

With her studies toward a bachelor’s degree underway, some people back home are now praising her educational pursuits.

It’s been an incredible journey, considering that when she first came to the United States in 2015, she didn’t speak any English. English-language learners (ELL) classes at North Star High School were difficult for the first year.

“There’s a metaphor that my dad used to say to me all the time, ‘deaf in a party.’ The whole first year, I didn’t know the language. You go to a party, the music is playing, you don’t understand anything,” Khudaida says.

The first year was heartbreaking. She was still devastated from being driven from her home by Islamic State forces and felt a familiar feeling — she didn’t belong.

Khudaida practices the Yazidi faith. Yazidis are a religious minority in mostly Muslim Iraq and have been persecuted for centuries. In 2014, thousands died in Iraq after an Islamic State invasion of Sinjar, leading to U.S. intervention and airstrikes.

“It’s difficult to be treated for the way you were born,” Khudaida says, referring to her Yazidi faith. “That was the best part about America, nobody asked you about your religion. They cared about you as a person.”

Khudaida’s village of Sreshka was mostly Yazidi, but nearby Mosul, one of the larger cities in Iraq, was primarily Muslim. Her teachers were Muslim and spoke Arabic, a language she learned in school, while she spoke her native Kurdish at home.

Fortunately, Lincoln became a safe haven for Khudaida’s family and other Yazidis. Nebraska’s capital city is home to the largest population of Yazidis in the United States, about 3,000. The tight-knit ethnic community welcomes new incoming Yazidi immigrants the moment their flights land.

“Just imagine that: We came out of the airport, and we see a crowd of Yazidis with welcome signs,” Khudaida says. “They were speaking our language. It was the best feeling ever.”

Advancing in ELL classes and joining the speech and debate team at North Star gave Khudaida the confidence and ability to succeed in the U.S. and to attend Creighton.

“I knew about Creighton when I was back home (in Iraq),” Khudaida says. “I searched every single college in the U.S. I was so excited about all these opportunities. It was, for me, a dream.”

She hopes to make those opportunities available for others in Iraq, starting programs in refugee camps and advocating for education reform.

One day, she will return to her home in Sreshka to visit. Her father has been back but refuses to open the door to the house — he’s waiting to go with his family.

“We are all waiting to go back,” Khudaida says. “After we receive our U.S. citizenship, we’ll all go back together, for a week or two, just to open our home and see it.”