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The Hard Way

Three AU students beat the odds. Here's how Andrew Buchanan surmounted battle wounds, Gaina Dubuisson overcame poverty, and Bilal Wahab became a voice against political corruption.

Andrew Buchanan, SPA/BA ’12, Political Science

Military and Civil Servant: Andrew Buchanan

“I was sitting around doing nothing, then September 11 happened,” remembers Andrew Buchanan.

The recent high school grad had been roofing houses in his rural Wisconsin hometown, just coasting.

By November 2001, Buchanan had reported for boot camp. “I felt like it was just something that I needed to do.”

Deployed in the infantry to Afghanistan, he served on foot patrols, hiking valleys and ridges, crossing through Asadabad, Ghazni, Nangalam, and Kandahar. His job was as daring as it was straightforward: “You’re supposed to go to the front lines and engage the enemy. Directly.”

He came home in May 2004 and was redeployed to Iraq in August 2005. This time, instead of trekking on foot, he would be part of Humvee mounted patrols. Often, the American and Iraqi armies worked on joint missions. Another major difference between Afghanistan and Iraq were the IED’s (improvised explosive devices).

“You could never tell when it was going to happen. We would find some and get rid of them, but it was the ones you didn’t see that would hit a Humvee.” He adds, “That’s what happened to me.”

Buchanan’s memory of the attack is hazy. He had been in a Humvee in Amarah, driving down “one of the roads we’d gone down a hundred times.”

One moment he was talking to his first sergeant. The next, he woke up with a horrible pain in his upper back and asked the medic riding behind him to remove the piece of metal that was lodged there. 

The medic was unconscious. Eventually, someone came to Buchanan’s door, and it wasn’t until he tried to get out that he noticed the blood.

The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital in Baghdad, with his sergeant major and company commander bedside. The message was brief. “Here’s your purple heart. You’re going home.”

Buchanan was confused. He knew he was hurt—he was in the hospital after all—but he couldn’t remember what happened. His pain convinced him that it wasn’t a dream. Patting his hands over his arms and legs, he checked to see what was still there.

Shrapnel had blown off his heel. He recalls, “One doctor told me it was like taking an ice cream scoop to the back of your foot and scooping it off.”

Buchanan was at Walter Reed for two and a half years recovering from his back and foot injuries. There, between surgeries, occupational and physical therapy, he witnessed how life’s challenges separate us. “There are two roads at Walter Reed: you’re going to get past it, or let what happened define who you are.

“People have all these dreams about what they want to do with their lives. A lot of times, people get stuck. They don’t even have to go through a traumatic event. Sometimes they just get stuck in a rut.” 

To support five boys, Buchanan’s father was a factory worker, his mother, a waitress. It was work that provided for children who have each found their own measure of success, but Buchanan says, if he works hard, his life will be better than theirs. His future children, he hopes, will have an easier life than his own.

He considers his own goals—counterterrorism and federal law enforcement with the FBI or State Department. Now that his time in the military is over, he sees this as his chance to continue service to the nation. 

“I’m going to do whatever it takes. My injury made me realize that.”

Gaina Dubuisson, SIS/BA ’12, U.S. Foreign Policy

Future Diplomat: Gaina Dubuisson

“Before the world tells you who you are, we’re going to make sure you know who you are.”

That message came to Gaina Dubuisson by way of her parents, followed quickly by these ideas: You’re good. You’re beautiful. You’re intelligent. Their words stuck. Dubuisson is a confident young woman with a clear sense of self. 

That wisdom is in no small part defined by the Dubuisson family history. In Haiti, Dubisson’s parents skimped on basics to fund her private school. “We used to eat corn-meal every day,” she laughs at the memory.

Even after immigrating to eastern Pennsylvania, her parents held down two factory jobs apiece, which has left visible signs. “My mother has the most elegant, long, and beautiful hands, and after working in a factory for so long, her hands have started to get so hard.” Dubuisson sighs. 

By many measures, though, the Dubuissons now have the American Dream within their grasp. By the time Gaina was 15, the family had bought a home in Levittown, Pennsylvania. They have unofficially adopted two other young women and supported them through college. Their second biological daughter, now seven, aspires to be a ballerina, lawyer, and diplomat. 

Dubisson juggled two jobs and pushed herself to excel in high school. Still, when she came to AU, she had the experience of many first generation college students—better resourced classmates whose academic foundation surpassed her own. 

There were Friday nights spent playing catch-up while friends went out, teasing her to lighten up, have fun. And there was the dorm room refrigerator that was better stocked than the one at home. Its significance was a poignant sign of success: her parents’ work had paid off. Her life was already easier than theirs.

But Dubuisson says that you would never know how much her family struggles. “It’s not like they’re not aware of their situation, but their attitude is, in our home, we choose joy.”

Dubuisson is fostering joy in others. During her time at AU she founded the Minority Women’s Initiative at her former high school to encourage leadership among teenage girls. “Most of these girls don't grow up seeing older siblings and friends achieve their goals, because of financial difficulties, family problems, or just lack of opportunity."

She has also cofounded Haiti In Transition (HIT), an international nonprofit that seeks to build new leadership from among the nation’s youth. 

Her next steps are clear. Thanks to a Pickering Fellowship awarded this year, she has a full scholarship for her senior year at AU, fully funded graduate education, an internship at the State Department, another at any U.S. embassy in the world, and a secured job as an entry-level diplomat. 

Years of family sacrifice and hard work have led to a personal mission. “I know there are other little girls waiting for someone to tell them that they can do it . . . There are little boys like my father, whose education was stolen from them. Others waiting for people to decide enough is enough.” Dubuisson grows quiet, and in a tone of conviction with a generation’s force behind it, she adds, “I want to be a person of action.”

Bilal Wahab, SIS/MA ’07, International Politics, Fulbright Scholar

Voice For Democracy: Bilal Wahab

Bilal Wahab was a member of the wrong ethnic group. His vocal father had the wrong politics.

Born the year that Saddam Hussein came to power, the Iraqi-born Kurd would bear the brunt of authoritarianism and corruption.

When Wahab was in second grade and during a time of Kurdish resistance, his father, an imam, refused a blanket order for all religious leaders to pray for Hussein at Friday prayers. There was a house-to-house search for the family, which first escaped to Halabja in the Kurdish region. Soon, that area was declared a war zone.

The family fled again the year before Halabja was gassed in a chemical attack and spent almost four years in refugee camps within the Iranian border. His youth spared him the deepest reality of his situation. “But of course, in hindsight, it’s a little different when you think about it.”

In his emerging adulthood, cronyism would threaten his larger dream.

In 1991, the family returned to Iraq, but the Kurdish civil war had split the region in two and his family didn’t align with either party. As Wahab rose through upper grades and excelled at university, the family’s unwillingness to bootlick meant that his options for advancement would be limited. Despite graduating with a cumulative average 11 points higher than the second-place student, Wahab was denied a graduate school slot. An exasperated professor explained, “I gave all the extra credit that I can to your competitor, but you still have the full mark, so I have to downgrade you.”

So, Wahab tried his luck elsewhere, applying for the only jobs that required a résumé (rather than favors or letters from politicians)—international NGOs. He landed a job with the U.N.’s Oil for Food program in the procurement office and saw corruption first-hand.

He’d always held hope for the future after Saddam. But, Wahab adds, “Then we got freedom and democracy.” 

That freedom gave malfeasance a new guise. 

There were still bribes, patronage, and all the old grievances. He found his peers increasingly interested in material compensation for all their years of suffering. A comfortable lifestyle, a new car every few years, these promises are understandably attractive, and can buy votes. It’s a position that is easy to exploit. 

“But the harms are, if not equal, more.” It’s a bitter lesson for a young man, because now, the young democracy is establishing the institutions that will define the nation’s course. 

For Wahab, scholarship has been an opportunity to turn bitter reality into action. He studied corruption under a Fulbright Scholarship at AU and now in a PhD program at George Mason University. Google his name and you will find links to the New York Times, National Review, and Al Jazeera English. He raises his voice because he understands the stakes are high.

The stamp of freedom, when it is still riddled with injustice, offers no guarantees. “The challenge is, Saddam Hussein did it under the name of, call it fascism, call it Bathism or whatever. You can do the same thing under the name of democracy and give democracy a bad name.”

“Saddam Hussein didn’t come out of a vacuum. He wasn’t a dictator because his mother taught him to be a dictator,” says Wahab. “There were structures in place that allowed him to be like that. And I don’t see any guarantees of that not happening.”

As a professor, he plans to teach the rising generation that freedom cannot be bought. “We’re supposed to be the model for the Middle East.”