Afternoons in southern Iraq are hot. Working in his university’s research gardens, Safaa Alshuwaili was sweating when he noticed an interesting ant and followed it back to its hive. That ant belonged to the first of five ant species he found, classified, and named while studying there. In 2010, Safaa graduated with his master’s degree in environmental science.
He took a position at another university, where he taught insect taxonomy and classification for seven years. Then he received a scholarship to continue his studies in the United States. Safaa left his parents and five siblings in Iraq, landing in Cincinnati, Ohio, at Christmas time in 2013. He spoke almost no English.
For a year, Safaa studied English and looked for someone to supervise his PhD work. Finally, a professor at the University of Tennessee agreed to supervise him, and Safaa moved to Knoxville. He spent another year studying English here. Then the government of Iraq withdrew his scholarship. Safaa became depressed. Before long, he was hospitalized for a pulmonary embolism.
His supervising professor had an administrative specialist named Vedra. She took care of Safaa while he was in the hospital and recovering afterward. They fell in love, and on September 1, 2015, they married.
Six months later, Safaa’s student visa expired, and even though he was married to an American, he had to return to Iraq. He resumed teaching at a university there while Vedra worked for his return to the US. Finally, in July 2017, the US Embassy called him for an interview to confirm the legitimacy of his marriage and test his English skills.
After eighteen months back in Iraq, Safaa went to his interview at the US Embassy. On Vedra’s birthday, his visa was approved!
Now back in the US, with a green card but no prospects for continuing his education, Safaa needed a job to support his family. He worked for Sears, then at Weigel’s. Less than a year ago, he found work at a manufacturing plant in Clinton where he wires and tests headlights for cars. He learned how to fix his machine there and often stays late to repair it before the next shift.
Despite all his struggles, Safaa is quick with a smile and full of gratitude. While working in the deli at Weigel’s, Vedra learned about KIN. They pointed him to ESL and culture classes. Now in our INVEST program, he says, “It’s not like they just teach people and go away. No. They encourage you and correct you. It’s not just teaching. We have activities outside that help us build our network and give us new information about the culture.”
While he’s grateful for his manufacturing job, Safaa hasn’t given up on his goals. He still wants to complete his PhD at UT. In the meantime, he’s ready to dive back into lab research and/or teaching.
Read the stories of Knoxville's local internationals and the volunteers who have impacted their lives. Get a first-hand view of what it's like to move here and/or to serve those who've moved here from other countries. Discover how KIN has impacted life and culture in metro Knoxville.