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Education is Her Passion: Daughter of Iraqi Refugees Helps Incarcerated Students Chart Reentry Paths

August 18, 2021

By Rachel Friederich

Communications Office

Woman sitting in an office chair in front of a white board

Director of Education of Clark College at Larch Corrections Center Hanan Al-Zubaidy sits inside a classroom at Larch Corrections Center. (Rachel Friederich, Communications Office)

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YACOLT – Hanan Al-Zubaidy (pronounced HAH-non Al-SOO- Bay- Dee) never met her maternal grandfather, but says his actions influenced her to make education a central part of her career.

Al-Zubaidy’s grandfather, Kadhom, ran a shoe shop in Samawah Iraq, about 168 miles south of Baghdad. His shop doubled as an underground library. Kadhom supplied citizens with books Saddam Hussein’s regime had banned. He taught people to read and write. It ultimately led to his arrest and execution.

Al-Zubaidy, who is now the Clark College director of education at Larch Corrections Center (LCC) doesn’t view her grandfather’s story as one of tragedy, but one of courage and compassion. She says his story reminds her that education has the power to transform lives and foster a healthy democracy.

“I always wondered what it is about education and learning, that would cause someone in a role of power, like Saddam Hussein or any sort of dictator, to specifically target it?” Al-Zubaidy, 28, said. “I started to realize that’s where the power lies. So many people have lost their lives fighting for education, so it became such a central point in my life. I wanted to know what makes education so powerful some people will go to great lengths to prevent it.”

From a refugee camp to America

After her grandfather’s death, Al-Zubaidy’s family went into exhile. Her parents met while living at a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. Al-Zubaidy was born at the refugee camp soon after.

Like many Iraqis that had been displaced by years of warfare spurred under Hussein’s regime, the Al-Zubaidys applied to the United Nations for resettlement. Al-Zubaidy, her parents and younger brother resettled in Portland, Oregon when she was 3. Many members of her extended family, whom the government also blacklisted, resettled in places around the world, including Australia, Denmark, Canada, Holland and other parts of the U.S. Al-Zubaidy says she and her parents had different experiences adjusting to life in America. Al-Zubaidy says young children of refugees and immigrants often become links to help their parents adapt to the culture and customs of a new country.

“You have to grow up a lot faster than peers who aren’t of a similar background,” Al-Zubaidy said. “Not only are you coming of age and going to school and learning English, you start to become your parents’ translators and you start working with your parents to understand things that might not come as easily to them because they’ve grown up in completely different system and completely different world.”

‘I felt like I had to defend my religion’

As she grew up, Al-Zubaidy had to deal with ignorance and racism. She said many people in the area she grew up with were unfamiliar with people from the Middle East. When she was a kid, she remembers kids asking her why she and her mother wore a headscarf (hijab) and why her name ‘sounded funny.’

When she was 9 years old, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq occurred. The FBI’s Unform Crime Reporting Program, which tracks hate crime statistics said in 2001, Anti-Islamic Religion incidents became the second-highest reported among anti-religious bias incidents, growing more than 1,600% over the previous year.

Al-Zubaidy said it was one of the more difficult times for her family.

“At 9 years old, I was constantly having to defend not just myself, but my mom and my relatives,” Al-Zubaidy said. “I felt like I had to defend my entire religion constantly.”

Besides witnessing an increase in animosity towards Muslim people in the United States, the Al-Zubaidys worried about extended family in Iraq.

Al-Zubaidy remembers her parents watching news coverage of the War on Iraq from Middle Eastern cable stations and seeing gunfire, bombings and injured civilians on TV.

According to The UN Refugee Agency, more than 3.3 million Iraqis have been displaced due to ongoing warfare since 2014, and more than 6.5 million were in need humanitarian assistance and protection.

“It was really scary, especially for my parents, to be sitting here in sort of a safety net and knowing their families were at risk,” Al-Zubaidy said. “We were seeing things that not a lot of people see and it sort of forced us (she and her younger brother) to grow up and accept that this was the reality of the world that we were living in.”

Instead of feeling hurt or angry, the events stemming from 9/11 motivated Al-Zubaidy to be the change she wanted to see in the world.

“It forced us to think, ‘How are we going to change that? How can we serve others? How can we give back to the world in a more positive way so that we’re not recreating this cycle of violence everywhere?’”

Giving Back to Community

The answer ties back to religion. One of the most important values in Islam is service to others. By the time Al-Zubaidy began attending Portland State University, she spent a lot of her spare time volunteering with more than half a dozen community organizations whose missions centered around humanitarianism.

Al-Zubaidy and her family regularly organized food and winter glove drives and assembled care packages for homeless populations through a project the Madhi Center, their local mosque. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, her mosque collaborated with local churches to host an annual “Ramadan Tent Project.” During the month of Ramadan, Muslim people fast from sunup to sundown and break fast with an evening meal called iftar. The Ramadan Tent project welcome community members of all religions and backgrounds to come together for the meal to celebrate diversity and better understand one another.

Over the years Al-Zubaidy has volunteered at a childcare center for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) caring for children while their immigrant and refugee parents attended English as a Second Language classes.

For a time, she also volunteered as a blood drive ambassador for the American Red Cross because she felt the need to encourage people to donate blood because of a lifetime of constantly being aware of families like hers in the Middle East becoming casualties of warfare.

She’s also volunteered with the Arab American Cultural Center of Oregon to put on cultural events that included dances, traditional meals and celebrations of different countries of the Middle East.

“I wanted to show that there is diversity within the Middle East and highlight the beauty of our culture, which often gets overlooked,” Al-Zubaidy said. “We are all in a community together. We don’t have to be in the same neighborhood, but there is such a ripple effect to be able to touch the lives of others and assist people.”

Helping Incarcerated Individuals

Al- Zubaidy’s current job revolves around making a difference in incarcerated people’s lives. She began working with incarcerated individuals at LCC as an intern in 2018, helping students prepare for GED exams. She interned there for nearly a year before she was hired as the facility’s education reentry navigators. Reentry navigators help people who are releasing from prison find resources in their communities to help them avoid recidivism.

Al-Zubaidy helped incarcerated students complete college applications and apply for financial aid. When the pandemic hit last year, Clark College, like most schools, put the majority of coursework, registration, and other administrative functions online. Students attending Clark College campus could get their work through the college’s student intranet. Since incarcerated students can’t use a public internet source, Al-Zubaidy spent countless hours collecting and organizing school materials that students could access on pre-loaded files on laptops that were not connected to an internet source so they could continue classes remotely.

In September of 2020, Al- Zubaidy became the education director, a job which requires evaluating programs, overseeing budgets, and collaborating with community partners to improve the quality of educational offerings at LCC. Al-Zubaidy says the most rewarding part of her job is helping students see their potential.

“There’s a misconception that people don’t change, that those incarcerated chose this life and there’s no going back,” Al-Zubaidy said. “Without the proper resources, they will come back. It’s my job to show them there’s an alternate way, there’s resources, especially through education to change your life.”

Lauren Zavrel, an instructor at LCC has known Al-Zubaidy since she began volunteering as an intern. Zavrel says Al-Zubaidy’s lived experience as a person of color makes her relatable to students, many of whom also have racial and ethnic backgrounds of groups who have been historically marginalized.

“She, better than anyone else among Larch education staff, understands the experiences that our students of color also experience within the criminal justice system,” Zavrel said. “She says students of color express gratitude for her presence, that ‘she gets them’ and can help them in ways a white counterpart just may not understand.”

Student Tory Fletcher can attest. Fletcher is part of the 18.2% of the incarcerated Black population in Washington state prisons (pdf). Blacks make up the highest percentage of non-white incarcerated individuals in DOC confinement, while only comprising 4.4% of residents of Washington, according to the latest US Census Bureau and DOC data.

Fletcher wants to set a good example for his four children. He released from LCC in July and has plans to attend Clark College and get a business degree. He wants to start a non-profit peer sponsor organization in which formerly incarcerated people mentor and guide people newly released from prison as they return to their communities. He hopes by getting an education, it will show his children there are paths in life that don’t involve winding up in prison or jail.

On his last night at LCC, he met with Al-Zubaidy to make sure his recommendation letters and transcripts were forwarded to Clark College.

“It’s crucial to have support,” Fletcher said. “Miss H (Al-Zubaidy) makes it OK to listen and want to learn and actually be held accountable for what it means to be successful.”

Al-Zubaidy is excited about the new education programs at Larch. Over the past three years, Larch has added High School Plus, HS+, a high school credit recovery program where students can earn diplomas using credits earned in high school and combining experience in DOC work programs. In 2019, Larch launched an individual peer tutoring program. Incarcerated students can receive a certification from the College Reading & Language (CRLA). CRLA is the international standard for peer tutor program certification in higher education. The curriculum teaches incarcerated individuals how to be tutors to their peers within a in a prison setting. LCC is the only prison in the nation have this program.

Al-Zubaidy is also excited about the birth of her first child, a son, due in late August 2021. She wants to use her career and volunteer experiences to instill the value of service to others in him.

“I want to make sure the world is progressing to be a better place for him and his future children to live in,” Al-Zubaidy said. “You want to leave a world behind that is better than the one you stepped into.”