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Iraqi migrant sisters reflect on overcoming obstacles to achieve their dreams

Juliana and Rania Jundi (left to right) will graduate this spring with bachelor's degrees in biology from the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

May 03, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

In December 2014, sisters Rania and Juliana Jundi emigrated with their family from northern Iraq to Arizona amidst the fall of Mosul. At the time they emigrated, Rania and Juliana were teenagers and spoke only Kurdish and Arabic. 

“My parents decided that they have to get out to give us a better life and better opportunities,” Rania said. “At first, I was very sad and it was very difficult for me to leave everything behind. … I wasn’t able to communicate with people and I wasn’t able to understand them.”

Now, less than 10 years later, Rania and Juliana will both graduate with bachelor’s degrees in biology from the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University this spring.

Because their father was a math teacher, Rania and Juliana excelled in math and science early on. Their mother attended law school, and always encouraged them and their four siblings to make education a priority. But because of the language barrier, making the transition to the U.S. education system was challenging for them.

“I remember I got a 50% in my math class,” Rania said of her experience entering high school. “Math was my favorite subject and I was always scoring really high in math. So seeing a 50% in my favorite class was very sad for me. I would start crying and I just didn't know how to figure things out because I wasn't able to communicate with people.”

As Rania and Juliana began to acclimate over time and learn English in high school, they took advanced math and science classes. Upon graduating from high school, they knew they wanted to continue their education journey. They landed on ASU’s New College, enticed by the biology program.

“ASU was the dream school for me,” Rania said. “I Googled one time, ‘What is a good school to go to in Arizona?’ ASU popped up and I read a description and it really caught my attention.”

Right away, Rania and Juliana became involved with a number of initiatives on the West campus. Rania, who minored in psychology, founded the Cultural Diversity Club as a second-year student. Juliana founded three clubs: the Pharmaceutical Student Association, Sun Devil Cosmetics and the Iraqi American Student Association. She also served as the vice president of the Cultural Diversity Club.

Juliana shared that she was inspired to start the Iraqi American Student Association in an effort to bring Iraqi students together and create a sense of belonging.

“Iraq is a country of rich culture and one of the most culturally diverse nations in the Middle East. I started the association to promote awareness and appreciation of the culture, while helping the community to better understand the misconceptions that some people face,” Juliana said. “There's a phrase that I always use — kulnah al Iraq — which means we are all Iraq. It doesn't matter what ethnicity or religion you are — we are the same. I wanted to promote this idea across ASU.”

Carolyn Starr, the director of community events and experiential programming at the West campus, served as a club adviser for the Cultural Diversity Club.

“When Rania and Juliana heard that anyone can start a club with two other friends, they jumped in with both feet,” Starr said. “I knew from the start they were both high achieving, hardworking, encouraging students. They always participated in class and encouraged their friends to do the same. They tried different things but their passion really came out with the Cultural Diversity Club. Rania and Juliana are true leaders who are an inspiration to myself and others.”

Although their path wasn’t always easy, Rania and Juliana agreed that having each other made the experience much easier to navigate.

“Going through my college career with my sister has been an amazing journey,” Juliana said. “Me and her have gone through so many things that were really hard for us … but it only showed us how strong and smart and talented we are to overcome all the challenges and obstacles we’ve had. … We started from the lowest level you can think of, and here we are right now, getting ready for our graduation from ASU.”

Looking back on their road to graduation — from the time they arrived in the U.S. to today — Rania said if it weren’t for the sacrifice her parents made she and her sister wouldn’t be graduating.

“My parents had to leave a lot behind such as friends, family, their language and the community and environment where they were raised most of their life. They left all of that behind to be able to provide for me and my siblings a better life and to give us the opportunity to have a better future,” Rania said. “This means a lot to me, and I respect what they did for us a lot. They basically sacrificed their lives to give me a life.”

After graduation, the Jundi sisters plan to continue pursuing their education and aspire to start careers in the medical field. Rania will continue doing research and is gearing up to take the MCAT, while Juliana plans to attend pharmacy school in the fall.

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