Iraqi refugee defies odds to pursue ASU education

August 26, 2014

All the odds were stacked against her when Najla Abdalla came to the United States with her family from Baghdad to escape the Iraq war in 2004.

“When we came here, I kind of felt lonely and I didn’t even want to be here. I didn’t know many people who spoke my language,” Abdalla says. woman sitting with book in library Download Full Image

She recalls one high school teacher who discouraged her because she did not speak much English. "He told me I wouldn’t be able to even graduate high school,” says Abdalla.

Now a student at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work, part of the College of Public Programs, Abdalla is set to graduate in December with her bachelor's degree.

But it wasn't easy getting to that point. During her first year at an American high school, Abdalla says she dropped a critical class after her teacher used a Muslim slur against her.

“We were getting beat up by teachers in Iraq if we didn’t do our homework,” says Abdalla. “I didn’t know my rights here.”

Afterward, Abdalla began taking an additional class to meet graduation requirements. Between her regular school day and the additional class, she was attending high school from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

During that time, Abdalla’s family sought the nonprofit organization International Rescue Committee (IRC) for the resources they needed to find new jobs and a home. But the more they visited the IRC, the more Abdalla found herself wishing for support to continue pursuing an education.

In 2008, Abdalla enrolled part time at ASU. She had to work two jobs to support her family, but her fierce determination would not allow her to settle for the life her high school teacher had expected of her. “Follow your dream and never give up,” she says.

With a minor in global studies, Abdalla began her undergraduate career by providing the resources to refugees that her family didn’t have, returning to the International Rescue Committee in Phoenix once more to complete an internship.

High school friend Bimala Pudasaini recalls Abdalla’s determination when they began attending ASU. “Najla is a very determined student,” Pudasaini says. “When we used to live in the dorm together, she used to wake up at 5 a.m. to do her papers.”

School of Social Work professor Layne Stromwall encountered Abdalla’s dedication to her education when she was enrolled in her course last year. “Most [School of Social Work students] are serious about their education, awesome multi-taskers, motivated to contribute to improving their community and people's lives ... and have strong communication and interpersonal skills.” Stromwall says. “Najla definitely was serious about her education.”

After graduation, Abdalla plans to pursue her master’s in social work and, eventually, her doctorate.

“Some people just get the degree because they want to get money,” Abdalla says. “But if you’re willing to help someone with your heart ... that’s what I think is the most important.”

Written by Adrianna Ovnicek

Heather Beshears

director marketing and communications, College of Public Service and Community Solutions


Diverse artists featured this fall at ASU's West campus

August 26, 2014

The fall 2014 arts events season at Arizona State University’s West campus, with the theme “Pushing the Edge,” will feature classical and electronic music concerts, plays, nationally known authors and visual art installations. The wide variety of artistic events reflects the rich artistic and cultural life on the West Valley campus, anchored by the interdisciplinary arts and performance (IAP) program in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

“We have planned a diverse selection of events and activities to entertain and enlighten ASU students, faculty and staff, as well as members of our surrounding communities,” said Jeff Kennedy, an IAP faculty member in New College who worked with colleagues Marianne Kim and Charles St. Clair to plan the fall season. Calle 16 mural project Download Full Image

Details about the season may be found online at, or by calling the Arts Information line at 602-543-ARTS (2787). For events with an admission fee, tickets may be purchased at

The fall event schedule on the campus, at 4701 W. Thunderbird Road, includes:

Theater: “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark”

Sept. 12, 13, 18, 19 & 20 at 7:30 p.m.; Sept 14 at 3 p.m.

University Center Building, Second Stage West

Tickets: $10 general; $7 seniors; $5 students, faculty & staff

This new comedy from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage draws upon the screwball films of the 1930s to take a funny and irreverent look at racial stereotypes in Hollywood. The play takes a 70-year journey through the life of Vera Stark, a headstrong African-American maid and budding actress, and her tangled relationship with her boss, a white Hollywood starlet desperately grasping to hold onto her career. Circumstances collide and both women land roles in the same Southern epic movie, with the story behind the camera leaving Vera with a surprising and controversial legacy. “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” is directed by New College’s Charles St. Clair in a co-production with iTheatre Collaborative.

Theater: “La Razón Blindada (or Reason Obscured)

Sept. 26 & 27 at 7:30 p.m.; Sept 28 at 3 p.m.

University Center Building, Second Stage West

Tickets: $10 general; $7 seniors; $5 students, faculty & staff

This play by Aristides Vargas is based on a mix of “El Quijote,” the classic novel by Cervantes, Kafka’s “The Truth about Sancho Panza” and testimonies by Chicho Vargas and other political prisoners held during Argentina's dictatorship. Oppressed by physical and emotional abuse, two prisoners find solace in meeting every Sunday at dusk to tell the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. This production won the 2011 LA Weekly Production of the Year, as presented by guest artists 24th Street Theatre, also winners of the 2012 TCG Peter Zeisler Award for Innovation in the American Theatre. The play will be performed in Spanish with supertitle translation.

Public art: Calle 16 Mural Project

Annual mural painting project: throughout the day, Sept. 30-Oct. 2

Sands Classroom Building Courtyard

No admission charge ($2 per hour for visitor parking)

Hugo Medina returns to lead the West campus community in painting a new and unique mural designed by the renowned team from the Calle 16 Mural Project, whose work has become a part of the artistic fabric of the city of Phoenix. Plan to visit during the afternoons and watch the process, or pick up a paint brush and participate in the work yourself. The project is part of the Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at ASU’s West campus.

Authors visit campus: Joy Harjo and Winona LaDuke

Joy Harjo, keynote address: Sept. 30, 7 p.m., University Center Building, La Sala Ballroom

A conversation with Joy Harjo & Winona LaDuke: Oct. 1, 4 p.m., Sands Classroom Building, Kiva Lecture Hall

Winona LaDuke, Keynote address: Oct. 2, 7 p.m., University Center Building, La Sala Ballroom

No admission charge ($2 per hour for visitor parking)

Native American poet, musician and author Joy Harjo and Winona LaDuke, an internationally acclaimed author, orator and activist, will visit the West campus for a series of thought-provoking discussions.

West Valley Symphony: Beethoven’s Fifth!

Oct. 25, 7:30 p.m.

University Center Building, La Sala Ballroom

Tickets: $15 general; $10 seniors; $5 students, faculty & staff

The 70-piece West Valley ensemble returns to perform Beethoven’s most recognizable work, his powerful and dramatic Fifth Symphony, along with Mendlessohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, featuring soloist and ASU professor Katherine McLin. It promises to be a remarkable evening of music.

Electronic Music Festival

Nov. 17-22

IAP faculty Barry Moon leads a week of guest artists, master classes and performances by important sound artists for this year’s Southwest Electronic Music Festival. Guests include Konstantinos Karathanasis, Leigh Landy, Stephen David Beck, Pincushioned and Garth Paine. The festival’s daily schedule of events will be posted at

ArtSpace West gallery exhibitions

Located on the second floor of the University Center Building (UCB), Room 228

Gallery Hours: Monday-Thursday, from noon to 5 p.m. (except school holidays)

Gallery admission is free; parking in the visitor lot is $2 per hour.

The fall schedule is:


Sept. 4-Oct. 2

Opening Reception: Sept. 3 at 6 p.m.

Phoenix-based artist Jacob Meders explores the cultural “other” (alternative) as well as the western social alteration of North American Indigenous identity through commodification and historical documentation (alter-native). This installation incorporates 15th century-inspired hand carved woodcut prints with video and sound in the setting of a unique Native American gift shop that has many surprises. The piece offers questions for the imagination of the viewer as it portrays ideas of self and cultural identity.

Call and Response: Visual Culture of Race and Identity

Oct. 9-30

Opening Reception: Oct. 8 at 6 p.m.

Students and faculty respond with their own artistic creations to the work of Jacob Meders as they explore cultural identity and otherness, with a focus on process and native cultures. Always a favorite for the West campus community, this is the third “Call and Response” exhibition. It will be curated by IAP faculty member Patricia Clark and Mr. Meders.