CARBONDALE — The 12 desks almost fill the space in the classroom, where the professor is writing on the white board and using an overhead projector to explain when to use "which" and "where."
He's seeking constant feedback, asking students if they understand and trying to engage the quieter ones — not just the eager student with the ready answer: the young woman draped from head to toe in a black burqa, only her eyes and the edges of her blue jeans and black sneakers revealed.
At the end of the 50-minute class, the professor relaxes the pace and jokes with the students. He asks if any are planning to join him and the school's staff for a weekend trip to Chicago. No, no one is, they say.
He packs up his brief case and readies to leave. He is held up by some of the students wanting to talk to him.
It's the kind of freedom Ali — who asked that his full name not be used for fear of retribution against his relatives is Iraq — relishes, being carefree enough to follow his life passion, or chit-chat with students and plan and enjoy a leisurely weekend away in the big city, with little fear that he might be deliberately targeted for injury or worse.
Running for one's life
Because he worked with the U.S. military, Ali believed he would be targeted if he returned to his native Baghdad and he was driven to seek asylum in the United States. He applied in 2010, after arriving in the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship to study English.
Asylum is a protection guaranteed to foreign nationals already in the United States or at the border who can be classified as international refugees, according to the American Immigration Council.
Ali said he was threatened because of his work as an air traffic controller at the Baghdad International Airport; the training was provided by the U.S. Air Force and other civil engineers.
"I could not go back to my country," he said. "I was threatened by death or torture."
Ali said he shared his fears with one of his neighbors in Carbondale, who happened to be a law school student at Southern Illinois University. The neighbor told him about his law professor who did work with those seeking asylum and immigration.
Unbeknownst to him, Ali had already met the professor, Cindy Galway Buys, at another SIU event.
"She took the case and worked it out without a problem," he said.
He is among a growing number of Iraqis granted asylum to the United States in recent years.
From fiscal years 2013 to 2015, the largest number of people seeking asylum in the United States were from Iraq and Burma. In 2013, 19,488 people were granted asylum from Iraq and 16,299 from Burma; in 2014, 19,769 came from Iraq and 14,598 from Burma; and in 2015, 18,386 from Burma and 12,676 from Iraq.
There is not a cap on the number of people who can apply for and be approved for asylum, which differs from the cap on refugees.
Each year, a cap is proposed for the number of refugees to be allowed. This cap for fiscal year 2015 was up to 70,000; the crisis in Syria prompted President Barack Obama to propose a cap of 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016 and 100,000 the next fiscal year.
Buys is not surprised that such a large number of asylum-seekers are from such countries as Iraq, where many risked their lives to help the United States.
“The people who come to the United States seeking asylum are people who have suffered persecution in their home country, and the things that have been done to them — the stories that they tell are really compelling — and they need our protection,” Buys said.
People seeking asylum cannot just be fleeing countries where there is strife and discord, said Marilu Cabrera, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"You personally have to be fearful of persecution," Cabrera said. "Just because there is unrest in your country, it does not mean that you’ve met the fear of persecution.
"If you have received a death threat to yourself or your immediate family based on those different categories … then you may meet that," Cabrera said. "That is what the asylum definition threshold is."
Helping the asylum seekers
Buys' career has been full of work helping asylum seekers, immigrants and others. She is director of SIU's International Law Program and also leads the Immigration Detention Project, which uses SIU School of Law student volunteers to do work with detainees at the Pulaski County jail.
Professor Buys said in the past 10 years, she's handled about six or seven refugee cases, taking on the work pro bono. She will ask for student volunteers to assist.
She takes on only one case at a time and said she has one pending.
Ali is grateful for the help Buys' gave him.
He would like to go back and visit his family one day, but does not know if or how that would happen.
When he was in Baghdad, working as an air traffic controller, Ali said he would disguise his work by putting a taxi sign on top of his car, hoping to lead others to think he was ferrying passengers to and from the airport. He said when he felt he was being followed, he would just circle neighborhoods.
"Of course, I want to get (my family) out and I want them out, because it’s just becoming more and more difficult to leave the country,” he said.