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Translator Serves as Bridge Between Cultures

A tragic 2006 car bomb that blinded an Iraqi police officer led to a new life for English/Arabic translator Aqeel Abdulaalee.

Abdulaalee left his wife and infant son in Iraq to travel to the United States as a volunteer guide and translator for the blind officer, Salah Nasir, who was receiving therapy and treatment at the famed Lions World Services for the Blind in Little Rock, Ark.

This act of international volunteer service led to educational and professional opportunities for Abdulaalee, who graduated with a Master in Liberal Arts from the University of St. Thomas on May 15.

Abdulaalee parlayed his bachelor’s degree in English and Arabic comparative literature into a career as a translator. Early collaborations include translating for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and American journalists visiting Iraq. Abdulaalee assisted Newsweek journalists reporting on the Jessica Lynch story. Lynch was a Private First Class in the United States Army Quartermaster Corps serving in Iraq during the 2003 invasion by U.S. and allied forces. On March 23, 2003, she was injured and captured by Iraqi forces but was recovered on April 1 by U.S. special operations forces.

In his role as translator, Abdulaalee said he conveys more than the spoken word to his clients. He tries to serve as a cultural guide. Many translators in the field, he said, do not paint a completely accurate picture of conversations because they omit the cultural context of what is left unsaid.

“As a translator, you serve as a bridge between two cultures,” Abdulaalee said. “Many people who come to Iraq don’t know anything about the country. If you translate the whole truth and the story behind the story, you help people to understand the big issues. There is often a misunderstanding between the two cultures, and I try to foster a dialogue between the cultures instead of a clash between the cultures.”

After helping Nasir in Little Rock, Abdulaalee knew it was not safe to return to Iraq. The decision to stay in the United States meant a prolonged separation from his wife and son, who is now 5 years old. Abdulalee’s family joined him in the U.S in September 2009. Abdulaalee left Little Rock to join friends in Houston, where he discovered the University of St. Thomas Master in Liberal Arts program while searching for master’s program on the Internet.

“When I came to St. Thomas, I was treated like family,” he said. “My professors were always willing to help and took time out to talk to me. UST gives people the opportunity to study and work regardless of where they come from. I am Muslim at a Catholic university, but I have never felt out of place because the student body is very diverse, and the faculty is very welcoming.”

After graduation, Abdulaalee said he hopes to continue his communication studies and pursue a doctorate.