Ahmed's hands trembled as he stepped to the microphone. Despite the horror and tumult that had visited his home city of Baghdad, he had never been the sort of boy to confront politicians.
But before him stood one of the chief advisers to the U.S. president who had abruptly halted the calm routines of Ahmed's youth with bombs and tanks. Ahmed could not live with himself if he remained silent.
If Saddam Hussein paid for vicious crimes with his life, Ahmed asked Karl Rove, what should the punishment be for the invaders who cost millions of Iraqis their lives, their homes, their health and their security?
With that bold question to a controversial guest speaker, Ahmed became a campus celebrity at Goucher College, crystallized his reasons for studying in the United States and, most importantly for him, stayed true to the home country he loves so deeply.
"It was," he says of the September exchange, "one of the greatest moments in my life."
"It certainly was a very poignant and a very sharp moment for the campus," says Goucher President Sanford J. Ungar, who moderated the Rove discussion.
Ahmed, 18, who asked The Baltimore Sun to withhold his last name because of concern for his family's safety, arrived in Towson six months ago with the rest of Goucher's freshman class. He is one of 33 students placed at American colleges by the nonprofit Iraqi Student Project.
He brought with him many of the same doubts as other students about fitting in and handling the work. But he had also traveled much farther than most, literally and emotionally.
Ahmed was 13 when American soldiers streamed into his city. Though the two years immediately after were full of hope, a darker reality set in when Sunni and Shiite gangs began warring over his once-peaceful neighborhood. One day in 2006, Ahmed says, his family received a letter telling them to flee or die. Wrapped inside was a bullet. Others who ignored such threats had been killed, so Ahmed's family fled to Syria, a land of stability but little opportunity for Iraqi refugees.
Ahmed, an excellent student with passions for English and biology, began to lose optimism about his future. But last year, he applied online to the Iraqi Student Project, which promised to take refugees and place them in American colleges. Within a few days, he was face to face in Syria with the program's American co-founders, who seemed nothing like the visions he had concocted based on observing U.S. soldiers and politicians. They accepted Ahmed and, in Goucher, found a college willing to offer a spot and waive his tuition.
His Baltimore sponsor, 2004 Goucher graduate Alessandra Manfre, says the charity needs to raise about $6,000 every six months to help cover Ahmed's living expenses. They've held a kayak race and a candle sale to pay his first-year bills, and he works at the Goucher library to earn supplemental income.
Ahmed arrived in late August, ready to confront the uncertainties of American higher education. He knew he would have to tell his story over and over, knew it so certainly that he insisted his roommate hear the whole thing the first night they lived together.
He speaks of his experiences evenly and with little hesitation.
"I think what struck me as he was telling his story is that I'm one of the luckiest people in the world," Manfre says. "I've never had to deal with that kind of pain and ambiguity. What was I doing when I was 18? I never had to deal with wondering if I'd make it back from school. In some respects, even though he's a teenager, he's more mature than I am now."
A sudden invasion, a slow unravelingAhmed's tale began in a section of Baghdad where Sunnis, Shiites and Christians lived harmoniously, their long, deep ties as neighbors overshadowing religious differences.
The adults around Ahmed knew better than to say anything against Hussein or the ruling party. His father, a contractor, had been unable to attend Baghdad College High School because of old disputes between the family and party leaders. So life was not truly free, but neither was it frightening to a child. Ahmed performed well in school and maintained many close friendships in the neighborhood. He had begun preparing for the nationwide exam that would determine his future academic placement when rumors of the American invasion intensified.
Nobody believed foreign troops would reach Baghdad, Ahmed remembers. So it came as a terrible shock when bombs from U.S. airplanes began shaking the city after five or six days.
The electricity went out. Smoke from oil fires blotted out the sun. News passed only from one neighbor's lips to another's. Ahmed huddled under a table in his grandfather's house with his brother and his cousins.
"Boom, bomb, boom, bomb. That's all we heard," he says. "We just wished it would end, whether we were losing or winning. Please God, stop it. We couldn't take it anymore."
He remembers seeing Iraqi soldiers asleep under an ammunition truck outside his grandfather's house. Why weren't they fighting the Americans? his family wondered. Orders to cease fire had already come down, the soldiers answered.
"That was it," Ahmed says.
After two weeks, the sun reappeared. A little after that, the electricity came back, at least for a few hours a day.
Many Baghdad residents had desperately hoped for Hussein's ouster, so they greeted the Americans with hope. Ahmed remembers the first year after the war as "kind of happy."
"People were just waiting for something to happen, waiting for this change," he says.
He studied hard for his placement exam, blocking out the frightening world as best he could. He says he scored better than 99 percent and earned entry to the prestigious high school that had once rejected his father. Eight months after the war, he began school, an experience he describes as "the happiest of my life."
But as sectarian violence began to rend the city, his commute grew more perilous. One day, a rocket meant for a nearby police station landed on the school grounds. Another time, a roadside bomb exploded about 100 meters behind the taxi carrying Ahmed to school. "You can't hear anything for one minute," he says of the experience. "The glass from the car windows has exploded. Your ears are bleeding and you're thinking, 'Am I alive?' "
Any sense of certainty vanished from his daily routine. Another bomb leveled the family car and sent his father hurtling through the window of a shop, where he landed, mercifully, on a couch.
"It was like this for everybody," Ahmed says. "You're not sure you're getting to the house when you get back. But you can't stay inside. You have a life."
So they carried on until the letter wrapped around a bullet arrived three years ago. In a week, they departed the neighborhood where the family had lived for decades, off to Syria.
A kinder face of AmericaAhmed did not abhor living in Damascus. With 1 million Iraqi refugees in the city, familiar faces abounded. The family received sufficient food and financial support. The Syrians were hospitable. But without the prospect of college or a work visa, the future seemed a dead end.
"I didn't have any hope at that time," Ahmed says. "Education is really the only hope for Iraqis. Our houses are destroyed. Our family and friends are gone. And the colleges in Syria aren't open to refugees. So all you can do is look for some opportunity somewhere else."
He did not want to study in the U.S. at first. "The only thing I knew was that this country had invaded my country and since they came, we had been living in hell," he says. "I knew Americans as soldiers with guns searching our house. We only knew this one side."
But Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak, the Americans who interviewed Ahmed for the scholarship, kissed him on the cheeks and showed empathy for his refugee experience. "Are these seriously Americans?" he remembers thinking.
He felt reluctant to leave his parents and two siblings, with whom he had shared almost every day of his life. If he committed to the Iraqi Student Project, he would probably not see them again for four years (assuming they remained safe). But his parents saw no dilemma.
"Really, this is your one chance," he remembers his mother telling him. "You've got to go."
An eye-opening road tripAfter months of lessons on language and culture, Ahmed boarded an airplane in Jordan and stepped off 12 hours later in New York. He shakes his head and smiles when asked his first impressions of the new land.
From the stature of the Empire State Building to the revealing clothes on women to the panoply of cultures, the city offered many shocks to a teenager who had never left the Middle East.
"It was one of the places that I had always wanted to see," he says. "But life seemed so complicated."
Asked if he liked it, however, he grinned and nodded. After a few overstimulated days, Ahmed and another Iraqi teenager from the program set out with one of their tutors to tour the country in a Subaru. They drove upstate to Niagara Falls, then west to Chicago, then back through St. Louis, Indianapolis and on to Washington. In each town they visited, Ahmed and his friend interviewed Americans on camera regarding Iraq and the war.
The most interesting parts, he says, came when the Americans asked him questions. They wanted to know about day-to-day life in Iraq.
Ahmed interviewed veterans of the war. "They were trying to believe that what they did didn't go for nothing," he says. "They went there to save people, but people are still getting killed. And they didn't want to believe that. They lost friends and body parts and they wished so badly that it happened for a reason."
The talks left him forlorn.
"They were hurting as much as we were," he says. "I wanted to see something good out of this war, and there wasn't. We came to believe that there can be nothing good about war. Both sides were hurt. Nobody won."
Ahmed and his partner are editing the road-trip footage into a documentary.
They shared lighter times as well, camping in the unfamiliar forest and learning the pleasures of grilled S'mores (the memory of which produces just as big a grin as New York).
Ahmed maintained a vegetarian diet until a Muslim cleric in Washington told him to go ahead and eat meat. He's still not sure about American food, though pizza was a pleasant revelation and he can stomach hamburgers.
He couldn't wait to see Goucher at the end of his trip.
Getting to know GoucherAhmed liked the intimacy of Goucher's campus, the way people just came up to him and fired questions. Ungar met him shortly before classes began.
"I was taken with him immediately," the Goucher president says. "He has such an engaging manner about him. You worry if a person in his situation will make a relatively easy adjustment, but as soon as I met Ahmed, I knew I didn't have to worry about anything like that with him."
Ahmed gave him a book of poems written by Iraqi refugees in Syria.
"He carries himself in a particularly gracious manner," Ungar says. "He often puts his hand over his heart when he speaks. He has almost old-fashioned manners that make him very endearing."
Ahmed discovered that if he took his hookah pipe out to the lawn and plopped down, he'd quickly have a circle of new friends around him.
"I realized that I don't know much about Americans, and they don't know much about me," he says. "There has to be some kind of bridge. They need a real person instead of what they see in media."
He had never met a Jewish person but soon found himself hanging at the Hillel campus center for Jewish students, eating ice cream and discussing Israel. He organized an Arabian Night for the campus, complete with Middle Eastern music, food and belly dancers.
"He seems to know exactly who he is, and that's important," says Jay Gilman, a Goucher senior who has become friendly with Ahmed. "He's well-known on campus, even to people who may not know where he came from. He's just a charismatic person."
Academics have been more of a strain, with Ahmed's imperfect command of English hampering him in subjects such as chemistry and biology, which he aced back home.
Speaking truth to powerIf Ahmed's social star was on the rise anyway, it exploded after Rove's speech.
He listened to the political tactician's message of how things had changed for the better in Iraq. And he thought of those terrifying moments under his grandfather's table, of the home and security he lost and might never regain. He grew angry.
"When I compare my life the last seven years to my life before 2003, it's like heaven and hell," he says. "But here's this guy telling me how great everything is in my country."
He had come to the U.S. in part to tell the truth about his experiences as an Iraqi displaced by the war. He would have no better chance.
Rove questioned Ahmed's statistics and said that terrorists, not American troops, were to blame for the continuing violence. His voice rose and he moved to the edge of his chair, Manfre remembers. A student yelled that Rove was "out of line" when he questioned Ahmed's experiences. The exchange reached no satisfying conclusion, but fellow students stood and applauded at the end.
"I think Rove was very much caught off guard, that he did not expect to be confronted with skeptical views from an Iraqi," Ungar says. "He grew somewhat gruff and dismissive, and I think it was natural for our students to feel a great deal of solidarity with Ahmed."
Despite the warm reception at such moments, Ahmed misses home. He trades frequent e-mails and calls with his parents and siblings, and sometimes, he sits quietly and gazes at their photos, which he carries in his pocket. He has no doubt where he's headed after graduation.
"The reason I'm here is to get a degree and get back to Iraq," he says. "Iraq has nobody, no one to help rebuild the country. This is the cradle of civilization. It's not just some small country back in the Middle East. It's a huge thing to us, and we have to help it. This, studying in the U.S., is our golden chance."