Abdul Mohammed Saed, 12, wants to be a policeman when he grows up. An immigrant from Iraq, he is eager to show his new neighbors in Madison, Wisconsin, that he can benefit the community.

The Odyssey Project helps the Saeds (Umaima, Shaimaa, and Mustafa) improve their English while earning college credit. Above, front (left to right): Mustafa, Abdul, Shaimaa. Back: Umaima, Safaa.

The Odyssey Project helps the Saeds (Umaima, Shaimaa, and Mustafa) improve their English while earning college credit. Above, front (left to right): Mustafa, Abdul, Shaimaa. Back (left to right): Umaima, Safaa. (Credit for top photo: Colleen Johnson)

“Many people think Islam is equal to terrorism, but ‘Islam’ means peaceful,” says Abdul, who moved to Madison with his family in 2014. “As a policeman I can help people and show that Islam is about peace.”

Abdul, parents Shaimaa and Musab, and siblings Mustafa, Umaima, and Safaa left their native country in 2006 after receiving a threat from Al-Qaeda.

“It was a family dinner night, and everybody was laughing and chatting,” says Musab Saed. “Suddenly the doorbell rang, and I went outside to see what it was. I found just an envelope, with a letter and a bullet. The letter said, ‘You must leave your home within 72 hours or you and your family will be killed, because you violated the Islamic law by not supporting us.’”

The Saed family fled to Malaysia, where they lived for seven years. Shaimaa focused on teaching her children, determined to give them a good education in spite of the difficult conditions. Due to their status as refugees, they couldn’t attend Malaysian schools.

The Odyssey Project's class of 2015-16 will graduate in a May 4 ceremony at UW Union South.

The Odyssey Project’s class of 2015-16 will graduate in a May 4 ceremony at UW Union South.

“I used to look at the kids going to school with crying eyes because I couldn’t go,” Umaima says.

The Saeds moved to Madison after hearing about it from a friend. They feel lucky to live in the pleasant Midwestern city, where Shaimaa and all four children have become involved in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Odyssey Project.

Odyssey offers a two-semester humanities class for adults facing barriers to a college education, providing them with free tuition, textbooks, childcare, a weekly dinner, and six UW credits in English. Mustafa and Umaima enrolled in the program last fall after graduating high school, and Abdul and Safaa signed up for Odyssey Junior, a related program for younger family members. Shaimaa joined her children in Odyssey to fulfill her own dreams of a college education.

The Saeds will graduate with the Odyssey class of 2015-16 on Wednesday, May 4, at Union South’s Varsity Hall. The ceremony begins at 6:30 p.m., with a reception following at 8 p.m. The event features music, refreshments, and brief readings by each student. Umaima and Shaimaa will receive Wanda Auerbach Memorial Scholarships.

A way of life

Odyssey is helping Mustafa, Umaima, and Shaimaa improve their English while they earn college credit, along with providing other, more intangible benefits. Current and former Odyssey students form a supportive community, encouraging one another to overcome life’s obstacles.

Umaima (left) hopes to enroll in UW-Madison, while Shaimaa is studying in Madison College's Nursing program.

Umaima (left) hopes to enroll in UW-Madison, while Shaimaa is studying in Madison College’s Nursing program.

“Odyssey gave me strength to handle the difficulties that face me now and will face me,” says Mustafa, who plans to study dentistry. “I feel Odyssey is not just a class, but a way of life.”

Shaimaa values the chance to immerse herself in reading and writing.

“Odyssey, for me, is the gateway of my new journey,” she says. “I feel now that I have an open mind to understand everything around me.”

New hope

The Saed family wants to show that Islam is a peaceful religion, despite the radicals who grab all the headlines. Mustafa, for example, goes out of his way to counter negative stereotypes.

“Because of how respectful and generous I am,” he says, “it represents Muslims as friendly and helpful people.”

Both Mustafa and Umaima plan to spend two years at Madison College, then enroll in UW-Madison. Shaimaa, meanwhile, is studying in Madison College’s nursing program.

“All of us wish to be successful and part of this community,” says Shaimaa, who hopes her husband will join Odyssey’s class of 2016-17. “We are now studying and working to achieve our goals. We left our country with hopelessness, but we start here with new hope.”

To learn more about the Odyssey Project, contact Emily Auerbach, emily.auerbach@wisc.edu, 608-262-3733. To make a donation to the program, see here.