Iraqi refugee styles student hair at event

Matthew Stottlemyre

At a Hyde Park house where 12 UT students speak to one another in Arabic, a hair stylist new to the country offered haircuts as an opportunity to build her clientele base Sunday.

Intesaar Abu-Jus, 47, grew up in Baghdad, Iraq, and came to Austin with her family a year ago as a refugee after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. She said she has enjoyed American culture but has struggled to find work. Abu-Jus worked as a stylist and operated a salon in Baghdad for five years before she moved to escape the war.
“When I find work, life will be great,” Abu-Jus said.

The Department of Middle Eastern Studies helped her to find steady employment by holding an event for Arabic students to get haircuts in exchange for a donation Sunday.

Rachel Levine, a Middle Eastern studies graduate student, said Abu-Jus first came to Arabic House — a co-op style house in Hyde Park that offers students an immersion experience in Arabic language — for a meet-and-greet with other Iraqi families in Austin. Levine, who organized the haircut event, said it offers an opportunity for Abu-Jus as she works through the difficult process of getting a cosmetology license and building a clientele base while adapting to the language barrier.

Levine said this event and Arabic House showcase UT’s Arabic department and speak to the work
it does.

“It’s great to walk across this campus in the middle of Texas and hear a group of students all speaking in Arabic like it’s a normal thing to do,” she said.

On the porch outside Arabic House, willing Arabic students put their language-learning mettle to the test by describing to Abu-Jus the cut they wanted. Before the cuts began, her easy smile greeted the requests, along with any necessary input from more advanced bilinguals standing by.

Reid Campbell, a Plan II Honors senior and Arabic Flagship student who lives at Arabic House, said the house operates the way a co-op does, except all the residents sign a pledge to speak Arabic with each other. He said students with different knowledge of the language live at the house and work together both to learn the language and to get to know one another.

“If you are lower level, you have to be patient, and if you are farther along, you just have to teach,” Campbell said.
Events coordinator for Arabic House, Anita Husen, said the house offers an opportunity other language programs cannot. She said the house receives funding through UT’s Arabic Flagship Program, which is a federal grant program. UT also participates in a Urdu/Hindi Flagship Program but does not have an Urdu/Hindi immersion house.

“There are a lot of Arabic floors or Arabic wings in the country, but we are the only people independent of University housing who run like a co-op,” Husen said. “I mean, we don’t have to live on campus and deal with those regulations and the meal plans. We live in Hyde Park. It’s pretty awesome.”