PORTLAND, Maine — Five years ago, Ali Farid was in his native Iraq living like an American soldier. He slept on same base, ate the same food and wore the same uniform they did.
Today, he is one of three international students in a new master’s degree program at the University of Maine School of Law.
“I used to dress exactly like a soldier, but I didn’t carry a weapon,” Farid, 24, of Westbrook said recently in a telephone interview.
What he did do was translate for the American forces. His first assignment was with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. He also worked as a translator with 101st Airborne Division.
“I went on patrol with the soldiers,” he said. “They would usually go out to talk to people to establish security in certain areas. They did checkpoints and road clearance.”
Farid began learning English in his early childhood. His father, who is an electrical engineer, and mother, who has a college degree in psychology, valued education and sent him to one of the top schools in the country at an early age, he said.
“In school, we studied Arabic, English and French,” Farid said. “As a teen I listened to American songs and bands. What really helped improve my English was my connection with Coalition Forces when I spoke English 24/7.”
Farid worked with American soldiers for three years. During that time he also was studying law and taking exams. Law school in Iraq is not a graduate program as it is in the United States, but students must earn very high grades in high school to be admitted to the college program, he said.
His close work with the Coalition Forces also put his life in danger, Farid said. Shortly before he left Iraq for the United States, a taxi driver held a gun to his head and threatened to kill him and his family. His aunt, who lives in Westbrook, told him Maine was a safe place to live and a good place to start over.
When Farid first moved to the state a year ago, he went to the law school to see if it offered a graduate degree. Since Maine Law, as the law school is known, had not yet started the program, he considered moving to Boston to take classes there. But Farid decided to stay in the Portland area and be one of the first three students in the law school’s master’s degree program. The other two students are from Somalia and Saudi Arabia.
The one-year program is designed for students who, like Farid, have earned a law degree abroad but want to gain an understanding of the American legal system.
Practically speaking, the class of 2013 is part of a pilot project, according to Charles Norchi, director of the new program. The goal is to keep the program small, with a dozen or fewer students enrolled each year.
“We want the graduate program to enrich the educational experiences of the J.D. students,” Norchi told the law school alumni magazine earlier this year. “When they exchange views, it makes the classroom so much livelier. It brings the material alive because there are people who have had experiences in other countries, and they have diverse points of view.”
The new master’s program is part of Maine Law’s global outreach effort, according to Dean Peter Pitegoff. The school’s newest law clinic, the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, also opened this year. It serves clients seeking asylum in the United States.
In addition to those programs, the law school has student exchange programs with universities in France, Canada, Hong Kong, England and Ireland. Visiting scholars from Japan, Thailand, China and the Democratic Republic of Congo are scheduled to be in Portland this fall.
Graduates of the new master’s program could return to their home countries to practice law or take the bar exam in the state where they decide to practice, according to Maine Law.
Farid, however, will not be able to return home when he graduates next year.
“Nobody in Iraq is safe, to be honest,” he said. “I wish, believe me, from deep in my heart, I wish I could say my family is safe.”
Farid’s interest in international law and human rights is based, partially, in his experiences in the country to which he can’t return and in the United States.
“The law, whether it’s in the United States or in Iraq, is a way to help people live better and respect each other — respect liberties,” he said. “From the education I’m getting here, the law is a way to protect the values of the people.”