How a blind Iraqi refugee overcame huge hurdles to graduate from UT
“Four days,” Qusay Hussein tells me, echoing an experience many people in Austin and across the state had in mid-February when an overloaded power grid broke in the middle of a winter storm. . Four days without electricity, waiting for the world to come to life with the flick of a switch.
Between Sunday and Thursday, Hussein, a senior who graduated this spring with a double major in psychology and social work, walked around his off-campus apartment in the dark, preparing food and watching over his friends.
In some ways, Hussein is a typical undergraduate student in Texas. He is eloquent and intellectually curious, an international student who quickly adapted to a new culture. He is an ambitious person and learner, with the intention of soaking up all he can until he gets his doctorate in psychology. But most of the graduates who are expected to practically cross the stage in May are under 32. Most are not refugees fleeing war-torn Iraq. And certainly none sailed to graduate after spending three years in a Doctors Without Borders hospital with their face reconstructed.
I ask him if his friends came to help him during the storm. It must have been particularly painful to go through this crisis blindly.
“Not until Wednesday,” he said. Not that they didn’t offer it. “I was worried about them because the roads were very slippery. I was afraid they would have an accident.
In a town without a snow plow, Hussein thought of the safety of others before his own. This is what happens when your closest friend in the world is torn from you while your own life is on the line.
Hussein once lived in Hatra, an ancient city once known for its elegance and resilience.
In the years 116 and 198, the city in northern Iraq which was the capital of the first Arab kingdom resisted brutal attacks from the Romans, surviving thanks to its thick and imposing walls. At some point in the third century however – historians place it around AD 241 – the Sassanids conquered the city, which remained abandoned until its rediscovery in the 19th century.
Hussein’s family moved there from a farm to a small village called Abunja when he was 15. The city was bustling, and Hussein went to school in the afternoons, spending many nights meeting with friends at a stadium to play volleyball.
One day in August 2006, Hussein remembers playing volleyball surrounded by a large crowd of spectators watching him play with the other children. Hussein was there with his childhood pal Ibrahim when a truck entered the stadium. As soon as the driver honked, the truck exploded in a flash that knocked Hussein to the ground. Those who were not among the 56 injured in the suicide bombing quickly piled the bodies into cars and trucks and rushed to the local clinic.
When Hussein’s father arrived at the clinic, he was told that his son was on the verge of death and later recovered his body. When he returned that night, he heard his son call out to him, his face almost completely destroyed by the explosion.
“We don’t know why,” Hussein told me during our first speech in 2019. “We weren’t bothering anyone. I don’t see the point … we were a group of children.
In all, 16 people were killed, including Ibrahim. Hussein spent 12 days in a coma, saved only by a chance encounter at a US checkpoint on the way to a Mosul hospital, which led to his airlift to an army base. Hussein almost died there, and his family, who had heard nothing and fearing they were dead, organized a funeral
Upon his release, Hussein spent three years confined to his home in excruciating pain, his vision gone, unable to breathe through his nose. He took all of his meals with a syringe. Another fortuitous moment – hearing an advertisement for Doctors Without Borders – saved his life. With his father, he traveled to Amman, Jordan, after being approved for treatment, where he spent three years undergoing surgeries and treatments to repair his face. Wanting to continue his education, he entered a refugee program and settled in Texas with the help of the Refugee Services of Texas.
“Immigration, they choose your fate. We don’t know until the day they tell you what condition you are in, ”Hussein said. “Two days before they said ‘you’re going to Austin, Texas.’ I think I am lucky. I love Austin. I like the weather, it’s like Iraqi weather, it’s hot.
A social worker advised him to learn English and get his GED, which he did, and in 2016 he finished ACC with honors. In 2018, he enrolled at UT Austin to study psychology.
“I love the campus, I love the people,” says Hussein. “Counseling psychologists, I love them all. So favorable. Mr. Jay Brown was very important.
Brown, the Department of Psychology’s college counseling coordinator, recalls meeting Hussein during orientation this fall. All he knew was that a visually impaired student would be present. As he accompanied Hussein to Jester, he was shocked at the maturity of the new student.
“I was blown away by the way he was able to move and collect all kinds of points and things. He just beamed with positivity, ”says Brown. “He’s the most adaptable person; he is the most culturally literate human I have ever met.
Brown enrolled Hussein in classes every semester, which he doesn’t normally do for students, but made an exception in this case and made sure that Hussein only took classes that would work with his disability. Normally, Hussein made his way around campus relatively easily, learning to navigate rideshare apps to help along the way (although the start of the scooter age was a major difficulty, with vehicles strewn about on campus sidewalks).
COVID-19 has been a mixed bag for the senior graduate. Hussein is a very social person and takes advantage of the facetime with the teachers as he often has extra questions. Now it’s just Facetime and Zoom. And while navigating the campus hasn’t been necessary for a while, which makes life easier in some ways, he admits he’s had a bit of a hard time learning new tech.
His family – whom he has not seen in years – are safe in Iraq, and none have been directly affected by the virus. And although the city he loved remains in ruins, Hussein has been rebuilt and transformed from someone who once felt hopeless to a man who is a beacon of hope to many.
Every email Hussein sends has a simple message in his signature: “Don’t let your disability keep you from doing what you want to accomplish.” Never say “I can’t”, say “I will try” instead. “
As far as Hussein is concerned, he has not forgotten Hatra. When I ask him if he still thinks of that day, of his childhood friend and neighbor Ibrahim, he responds quickly: “Always,” Hussein says. “He will not be forgotten by me.”
Likewise, Hussein completed his undergraduate studies at UT with an internship at RST, the same organization that brought him from Jordan to the U.S. He transfers all the knowledge he acquired during the course. the last eight years to people like him, people who come to Texas and get mired in culture shock the moment they get off the plane. He says he had so many questions when he arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in 2012, most of them cultural, and he wants to help new refugees acclimatize to America. He highlights the stress of simply moving from one house to another to illustrate his point. Now imagine being forced to leave your homeland for a new country?
“I came to the United States, no family, no parents, I don’t speak their language. It was tough, ”says Hussein. “I want to give all I can – the details I didn’t get when I got here, like how things work, how to get resources.”
After graduating he wants to continue his graduate studies and eventually get his doctorate at UT, where – who knows? – he could become a teacher one day. Brown only sees the luminosity in his future.
“If I had ever had children, I would have liked to have had someone with a mind like this,” he says. “I can see him doing great things in the future for everyone he meets. I can see him becoming a very great leader within the community he finally settled into. And, I… I’m so proud that I got to meet him.
Hussein remembers a particularly moving moment at the start of the pandemic, when he contacted a professor. Due to his disability, Hussein must make sure before each semester that he has everything in place: readings, textbooks, etc. Hussein asked about the textbooks, and the teacher told him he would not be using any this semester because of the pandemic; he thought the students could use a little more money then.
“It hit me hard,” says Hussein, “how the professor thinks a quick little thing could help. This one’s like… it’s amazing. If I become an instructor, I will do my best to help my students. “
Illustration by Tim Bower; photo by Matthew Mahon