Faculty Profile: Meet Mohammed Harba

Mohammed Harba’s thirst for learning led him from his childhood in southern Iraq to the top of his university in Baghdad, to translating for the U.S. military, to a Fulbright Scholarship at UPenn, and now, to Phillips Academy to teach Arabic. Harba was born in the Hillah-Babylon region of southern Iraq. Growing up in a city where “seas of date palm trees and gardens of oranges” suffused throughout the streets, Harba led a relatively normal childhood. “I would say that [my siblings and I] were pretty much just like any other children,” Harba said. “We didn’t have access to a lot of the things children here in this country have, but in general we were blessed to have very great parents. Both of my parents always supported us and encouraged us to be free thinkers.” A young movie aficionado, Harba loved to watch the old American cowboy films of the 1940s and 1950s. His favorite ones, he later recalled, were John Wayne movies. Yet the sense of liberation in these movies, characteristic of the classical American cowboy, was strictly a fantasy for Harba. “I was living in a dictatorial regime, so the word ‘freedom’ was unfortunately not an option. I was looking at the things I saw in American films or European films and I’d wonder what’s wrong with us, why can’t we get the same things that other people have,” he said. After finishing his high school education, Harba moved to Baghdad in 2000, where he attended Al-Mustansiriya University as an English major. He said, “I love learning languages, and that’s why I ended up in my school in Baghdad. I had a great college experience filled with beautiful years…almost the best years of my life.” In 2004, Harba graduated as one of the top five students from Al-Mustansiriya University. Under normal circumstances, this honor would have allowed him to pursue a postgraduate education. However, as a result of the U.S. invasion in Iraq, stability in Baghdad was deteriorating by the day, Harba later recalled, and keeping the school open was not an option. Harba returned home from college shortly after. “I was still a student when the American troops showed up in my hometown. I was always fascinated with John Wayne’s country—I had read a lot about it and knew a lot about it. I just wanted to go up and talk to them, so I did.” From there, Harba was assigned to work as an interpreter for Seth Moulton ’97, who was serving his duty in Iraq as a U.S. Marine lieutenant. “[While working in the military,] you woke up everyday feeling that you could make a difference, like you were changing something,” he said. Harba continued, “So, to me, it was the best experience of my life, hands down. I always look at the time I spent working for the U.S. armed forces, and it was a wonderful opportunity not just from a career perspective, but from a human perspective…you get to meet the best friends of your entire life.” Just a few months later, however, the military camp stationed in Hillah was relocated. At this time, Harba began to work with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an independent federal government agency that works to foster economic growth, improve global health and educate nations in the principles of democracy. While working as an educator, Harba spread awareness to his local communities about the coming elections, which were to be held in 2005. He said, “[Working with the USAID] was a good chance for me to learn more about my people, my country and all those small communities. It was really just another great opportunity I had doing something that really makes me feel good.” Nevertheless, Harba was restless; he had still not yet entered in graduate school. Upon the recommendation of a friend, Harba applied to the Fulbright Program, a scholarship opportunity funded by the United States Department of State designed to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” Soon after, Harba was accepted into the program. In 2005, he boarded a plane destined for Philadelphia, where he spent the summer living in dormitories at the University of Pennsylvania with fellow Fulbright scholars. That fall, Harba moved to New York where he attended Binghamton University. Though Harba took classes in Ancient Greek, comparative literature and pursued advanced degrees in translation and Middle Eastern studies, his primary focus was on the Holocaust. He said, “I really wanted to be a Holocaust educator back home and do something different. We had never learned anything about the Holocaust… I once asked some Iraqis if they knew what the Holocaust was and they didn’t even know what that word meant.” After finishing his studies a year later, Harba found himself in a quandary. He had not yet received his working papers, had no means of employment and no place to live. However, Harba had kept in contact with many of the U.S. soldiers he had met in Iraq.Moulton, for whom Harba had served as an interpreter in Iraq, invited him to stay with his family in the nearby town of Marblehead, Massachusetts. During his stay, Harba worked in the local community to raise awareness about Iraq and to send care packages to his home state. On Christmas night, December 25, of 2007, Harba received a surprise. After months of waiting, he had finally received his working papers. Harba began to search for a job. Upon reading an advertisement in search of a teacher for Arabic at Phillips Academy, he decided to apply. Harba received the position and moved to Andover on March 30. He currently teaches two Arabic classes with students he described as “very committed and very smart.” “They just give me some very good reasons to wake up every morning and come to teach. They are so hungry to learn. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”