Qusay Hussein

The University of Texas Department of Psychology Newsletter, Spring 2019

By Tamara Kowalski

Originally published in the University of Texas Department of Psychology Newsletter, Spring 2019

UT Psychology undergraduate Qusay Hussein has been traveling far and wide to share his story of survival with the world and to inspire others. He has traveled to Romania, Iraq, Germany, and across the southern US and DC, giving motivational speeches, as well as speaking to the media and with us right here on campus. His goal is to inspire others and, as he has said, “share ways that faith, persistence and technology can help others in difficult or dire circumstances.”

This part of his life story began on August 3, 2006, when he was 17. Qusay was in his hometown of Mosul, Iraq, warming up for a volleyball game on an outdoor court with his three brothers, with many onlookers and other players nearby. A man drove on to the field, made eye contact with Qusay, smiled, then laughed as he honked his horn, blowing up the car, the man, and sending shrapnel across the entire area. In that one moment, 56 people were injured and 16 were killed. Qusay himself suffered severe head injuries, to the extent that doctors at the local clinic told his father he would be dead within 30 minutes and he should go take care of his other sons instead, who had comparatively minor injuries.

With shrapnel lodged in his head, in and out of consciousness and unable to respond, he was put in a room with the bodies of others killed there that day. When his father returned to demand his body so the family could clean him before burial (as is tradition), Qusay was able to tell him, “Father, I’m not dead. Please take me to the hospital.” His father started driving him toward a hospital in the nearest large city, 80 miles away. They were stopped at an American checkpoint on the way, where an American doctor looked him over and ended up taking him to an American base. At the base, they put him in a sleeping bag, which Qusay mistook for a body bag. “I’m not dead,” Hussein said. “Don’t bury me!”

He then fell into a coma for the next 12 days. “After that, I thought I was waking from a nightmare,” he told the Austin American-Statesman in a 2013 article about the Statesman’s Season for Caring program, of which Qusay was a part. “I couldn’t see anything. I felt IV tubes all over my body. I started shouting and pulling everything out.” He awoke another two days later, not remembering anything about the bomb until the nurse began reading his medical charts aloud. “That’s when it all came back,” he told the Statesman. “My first thought: Where are my brothers?”

The nurse told him that the shrapnel had missed his brain by millimeters. His vision was gone, his nose was gone, and while he had been in a coma, the hospital didn’t know how to contact his family, so they had no idea where he was. “Once again, they thought I was dead,” he said. “They already had a funeral for me,” he told the Stateman. When he was conscious enough, he was able to give a phone number to the military translator so that they could call his parents and tell him where he was. He later found out that his brothers had survived the bombing, as well.

After finally getting back home, he sat for two years inside the house, unable to see nor take care of himself. His father would stay up all night to read and talk to him, as his blindness had caused him to not be able to sleep at night (a common disorder called non-24 that can affect those unable to sense daylight). At some point in the middle of the night, Qusay heard a TV ad for Doctors without Borders offering medical help to those who had been injured. He was able to pause the TV and wait for his brother to wake up and write down the phone number for him. They called and were invited to meet for a consultation. After being certified for help with their program, Qusay was sent to Jordan for more treatment and more than 50 surgeries to reconstruct his face. His vision, however, was gone forever.

From Jordan, he was sent to Austin as a refugee based on his medical condition. When he arrived, he knew no one and could not speak English nor get around by himself. With the help of Refugee Services of Texas (RST), which helps settle refugees in Texas, and the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center, which taught him how use a cane and get around Austin as a blind person, he got his feet back on the ground. He has now had 60 surgeries on his face, including some here in Austin.

Early on, a caseworker in Austin told him he needed to learn English and get a GED, which he took to heart. He took English as a Second Language classes at Austin Community College (ACC), studying intently. At the end of the four months, despite having never studied English before, he was told that they could no longer help him because he had already reached such a high level of English ability. He then enrolled in ACC’s GED courses, and in May 2016, at age 27, 10 years after a bomb shattered the life he knew, Qusay received his GED—with honors.

Wanting to give back and help others survive trauma, he next set his goals on becoming a social worker. “I want to give back to the country that saved my life,” he told ACC after his GED commencement. “There are many good people in Austin and at ACC who have helped me to learn English and find my passion in life. Now I want to counsel others who have suffered.” He stayed on at ACC, earning an Associate’s Degree in May 2018, and was even the keynote speaker at his graduation. He still worries about his family still in Mosul, which has been ISIS controlled. He would like to bring them to the U.S. “I think about them every night,” he says.
Coming to UT Psychology

Qusay’s many accomplishments before arriving at UT in Fall 2018 are a remarkable feat for anyone, much less someone who has been through so much, who had not previously attended a US school, nor known English before. Now he is an undergraduate in our department, and he aspires to go to graduate school here, as well, all in his pursuit to become a trauma counselor.

He says his “primary goal is to obtain a doctoral degree in Psychology from UT Austin in order to help other people who have undergone traumatic events. After completing my education, I would like to help treat patients around the world. Likewise, I would like to help remove the stigmas and misconceptions that plague persons with disabilities by showing that we are capable of doing anything we choose as long as we get the same opportunities as everybody else.”

As he said to the Statesman, “I’m an ambitious person, and I work hard,” Hussein said. “I want people see that, if I can do it, they can. Don’t give up. Have hope.”

At UT, Qusay found UTeam, a new student-run mentorship program created in Fall 2018 by UT COLA’s Liberal Arts Council. The stated goal of the program is to “create a formal avenue between university faculty/staff/graduate students and undergraduate students from communities who often do not seek out this form of mentorship.” These communities include students of color, LGBTQ+ students, first-generation students, religious minorities (Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, etc.), as well as students with disabilities.

UTeam matched Qusay with our own Prof. Andrew Gaudet, who himself came to our Department this past Fall semester. The two met a few times and chatted over email to discuss his interests and goals. Prof. Gaudet says Qusay’s interest in studying positive psychology, motivation, and reward is not directly related to the work being done in his own lab, so he helped him find potential lab matches on campus. Prof. Caryn Carson’s Well-Being in Context Lab was one of the matches he proposed. Dr. Carlson welcomed him to her lab and he says “it seems it was a good fit.”

Dr. Gaudet, whose lab looks for ways to improve recovery from the physical repercussions of spinal cord injuries, including developing new ways to find pain relief (see more about his work below), says he was excited for “the opportunity to support someone who did not have the inherent connections that other students may build more easily. Clearly, being blind would pose significant challenges for meeting professors and discussing potential research options.”

He describes Qusay as “a remarkable student and human being. Through all of these challenges he has persevered and speaks internationally as a force of positive change. He has a unique, positive perspective to add, and this is amplified by the fact that he is from Iraq – so he can put a friendly face to a side of the world we mostly hear about through news updates. Although his daily life is filled with challenges (like commuting from home to campus), he remains cheerful and moves on when people are not thoughtful towards him or his disability. His dedication, perseverance, and passion deserve recognition —and he’s on the path to success.”

Qusay has joined Dr. Carlson’s Well-being in Context lab as a research assistant. He will be working with Dr. Carlson’s graduate student, Talya Feldman, on a research project to better understand stress and resilience in first responders. He will be helping to develop a better understanding of what allows first responders to thrive despite the traumatic events they witness. Qusay will be bringing his own personal background to the project, as well as conducting literature reviews of the existing research. Through this project he will also be exploring his interest in pursuing graduate school.

Outside of his Psychology studies, Qusay is already giving back to the community in many ways. He is the co-chair of UT’s Texas Center for Disability Studies, serves on the advisory committee for Refugee Services of Texas, and he interprets for Arabic-speaking refugees in Austin. He is a mentor for incoming students at Austin Community College and was vice president of the Alpha Gamma Pi Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society there. He serves on the board for the Austin Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind and was previously on the board of the Texas Association of Blind Students. While in Jordan he served as a patient counselor for Doctors Without Borders.

An Introduction to Prof. Gaudet

Dr. Gaudet came to our department in Fall 2018 from the University of Colorado Boulder, where he was a postdoctoral researcher. A native of Canada, he earned his Ph.D. in Zoology/Neuroscience from University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. He says of the move to UT Austin, “UT has been great so far. The Department of Psychology has so many welcoming staff and faculty members, and there are incredible resources available for research, collaboration, and innovation. The undergrad and grad students I have taught and worked with have been world-class. On the personal side, my partner is originally from Austin, so we have family here to assist while we raise our two young children. Austin is a fun place to live!”

His research interests are in behavioral neuroscience in the context of spinal cord injury and other inflammatory changes to the brain. He explains, “After spinal cord injury, links between the brain and body are disconnected permanently, and no therapies restore function. Thus, spinal cord injury causes unhealthy changes throughout the body. Behaviorally, this results in motor paralysis, potentially chronic pain, and changes in bowel/urinary function. Our lab models spinal cord injury to discover new ways to improve these functions. We are developing new tests to reveal pain-relieving pathways. Spinal cord injury also worsens metabolism – the ability of our body to process fuels and nutrients – so we are identifying pathways that enhance metabolic function, and increase overall health.”