A resilient Iraqi Engineer Joins NJIT and taps USDOC Data to Secure a Better Environment for the Garden State
Back in 2004 Firas Saleh and a handful of other Iraqi nationals teamed up with a few American Officers assigned by the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS) to establish the USFCS’s office in Baghdad. Saleh and the other patriotic Iraqis saw their work with the Commercial Section in the newly comprised Embassy as a way to contribute to the rebuilding of their country. Challenging days continue in Iraq –most acutely in the besieged North of the country with the rise of a fresh insurgency. Back in 2004 terrorists and organized criminals ruthlessly targeted Iraqi citizens who worked for the U.S. government or the coalition. The employees exposed themselves and their families to enormous risks to carry out their duties. Every day for two years Saleh and his colleagues departed their homes in Baghdad to commute to embassy jobs in the International Zone, running a gauntlet of surveillance, intimidation, and attack. As security deteriorated, so did their personal lives. Threats and stress eventually forced several to resign; one subsequently lost his life to kidnappers. Saleh and an equally talented and brave colleague were presented with a USDOC Gold Medal for Heroism at a ceremony held in Washington, D.C. on November 8, 2006 for their exceptional valor and service.
In 2004 — even in the midst of great personal risk and national tragedy –Saleh, a young civil engineer with a specialization in hydrological engineering, thought about the plight of others far away. The flooding which accompanied Hurricane Katrina was headline news in Baghdad, too, and Saleh wanted to apply the knowledge of the Mississippi River system, which he had obtained during his undergraduate studies to help prevent a repeat crisis. Saleh had to wait a few years to make that contribution in the United States, via a doctoral program in Quantitative Hydrogeology at France’s prestigious Université Pierre-et-Marie-Curie (UPMC), which he completed under scholarship.
In 2013, Firas Saleh — now Dr. Saleh — realized that ambition by finding a position as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he relocated with his engineer spouse and growing family. Over the past 18 months he has worked on projects including the bioremediation of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on Alaskan beaches and environmental analysis within design studies aimed at reducing storm surge and flooding risks to New Jersey coastal communities following 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. A key part of his work has been informed by data from NOAA’s Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) resources. The coincidence was not lost on Dr. Saleh, who remembers his days with Commerce fondly and can imagine himself returning to the Department someday to continue his contributions.