God had unexpected plans for Iraqi refugee,
turned Christian, MBU doctoral student
ST. LOUIS – Some people light up a room when they walk into it.
Dr. Mwafaq Haji doesn’t even need to be in the room; a phone call, an email, or a video conference shows his warm personality and genuine kindness. With such an attitude, one would never guess the ups and downs Haji has gone through in life.
Haji’s journey starts in Iraq. He completed the necessary training to become a veterinarian, but Haji found himself more interested in lab work. This prompted Haji to pursue a master’s degree in medical clinical biochemistry from the University of Duhok in Kurdistan, the same university where he had earned his doctorate in veterinary medicine. Haji once again would transition into a new career as a medical laboratory instructor at Akre Technology University in Kurdistan. With the hope to continue growing in his profession, Haji sought the opportunity to study abroad and continue his education. Haji chose the U.S. as his destination because of the high-quality education provided by many universities, as well as this being a “bucket list” item in Haji’s life. Thanks to a grant from the Iraqi government, Haji came to the U.S. in 2013 to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas. Haji was living the life he dreamed of having until ISIS took control of his hometown in Kurdistan and began terrorizing the everyday life of the Kurdish people. The elevated tensions and violence in his home country disrupted more than his education; it changed his whole life.
“My plan, my life, my story and my future educational endeavor changed 100 percent,” Haji said. He and his family had to seek political asylum to stay in the U.S. As the conflict in Iraq was escalating, Haji deemed it too dangerous for him and his family to return to Iraq. “This wasn’t something I was expecting,” Haji said. “I planned to earn my masters and go back to Iraq, but God had other plans.”
It was during this tumultuous time of his life that Haji found a new relationship in Jesus. Haji had always followed Islam — the religion of his parents — and there wasn’t room to question or have an opinion of his beliefs. He had a serious inner conflict with himself when he was invited to attend a church service while at Arkansas.
“I felt that I was going against what I had been taught for my whole life,” Haji said. “I remember thinking that God was going to punish me for this. Instead I found a community of people that showed us the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. It was that love and compassion that changed the way I interacted with my family, colleagues and students in my day-to-day.”
Since Haji is now a Christian, Hajis and his family can never return to Iraq. “I can’t go back to my hometown because of political and religious persecution,” Haji said. “My family would not be safe over there.” This meant leaving his own medical laboratory behind and possessions that couldn’t fit into a suitcase. It also meant that he, his wife and children would have to leave what was known and familiar, and adapt to a new culture and way of living.
Haji was living in a new country without a backup plan. Shortly after graduating from Arkansas, Haji and his family moved once again from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Saint Louis, Missouri, to work as a medical technologist for Mercy.
Although most of Haji’s professional life had been in the healthcare sector, he had discovered a passion for higher education when he first taught at Akre Technology University in Kurdistan. “I found a great gratification on being able to influence upcoming healthcare professionals and instruct them in the best practices for patient care and safety,” Haji said. So, in pursuit of this passion, he moved once again to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, to work at Western Nebraska Community College, where he currently serves as program director and instructor for the medical laboratory technology and phlebotomy programs where he continues to serve in an indirect form in the healthcare industry. “I might have left the practical side of healthcare, however, I am still serving the healthcare sector indirectly by educating the lab technicians and phlebotomists by providing them with the best quality of education.”
With all the abrupt change in his life and the many ups and downs he had gone through, Haji began to give up on his dream of earning his doctoral degree. He applied to a couple of universities and was rejected because of his immigrant status. The dream seemed to be fading away, but he remembered a Christian university back in Saint Louis, that he had heard of while working at Mercy Hospitals. Haji decided to apply to Missouri Baptist University’s Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership program and got to meet with program director, Dr. Amy Harrison. “When I first met with Dr. Harrison, I saw the genuine passion and vision of this program, as well as the time and care they invested in every student, Haji said. “I immediately felt that I belonged in this institution physically, mentally, and spiritually.” Currently, Haji is part of MBU’s Ed.D. Higher Education Leadership 2019 cohort.
When asked about his future endeavors after completing his Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership, Haji hopes to influence those around him to reflect the servant leadership attitude of Jesus Christ. “As higher education leaders, especially Christian leaders, we have the responsibility to provide unrestricted access for all kinds of students regardless of their differences and backgrounds,” Haji said. “Jesus was helping and serving people without asking them about their identity and without criticizing their differences. Lord Jesus is my typical standard example in my personal and professional lives. My dreams and goals are to be an active, efficient, visionary member and servant leader in higher education institutions.”
This wasn’t something I was expecting. I planned to earn my masters and go back to Iraq, but God had other plans.