Deemed one of the top students in the country, Meir Sofair ’42 became one of three Iraqi students selected by the nation’s government to attend Cornell University for his undergraduate education in 1938. He is now 99 years old.
The son of a Jewish Iraqi scribe, Sofair said he attended a Hebrew school in Baghdad, Iraq, where he was taught from Jewish educational texts — Midrash, Talmud and Torah.
Sofair said he excelled in math and science, which prompted him to pursue civil engineering.
“Because I was good in math, and I was good in physics, that was it,” he explained.
Sofair said he placed among the highest in the country on an Iraqi standardized exam and was the first of his six siblings to attend any university.
Although many find the process of integrating into a foreign academic and social system daunting, Sofair said he had “no concerns at all.”
“All I want to know is to learn and learn more,” he said.
In fact, Sofair said his most challenging dilemma was that many women were reluctant to date him, because they did not want to be in a relationship with a man bound to return to Iraq.
“The women at Cornell were apprehensive because they knew [Sofair] was required to return back home at the end of four years,” his son, Andre Sofair ’82, recalled.
After a year at the American University in Beirut, Sofair came to Cornell for his full undergraduate education, where he studied civil engineering, economics and architecture, according to the Cornell Alumni Magazine.
After his four years at Cornell, Sofair said he was slated to return to Iraq to work for the government. He was assigned to a desk job at the Iraqi state railroad, a job in which he felt he did “nothing.”
In addition to his unsatisfactory job, Sofair said he did not consider Baghdad a proper place to raise a family due to the location’s “daily harassment” and turmoil. So under the guise of attending an engineering conference, Sofair moved to Cairo, Egypt where he meet his wife and raised two children. He later left Cairo for the United States, which he called “a place where I could raise a family.”
Once back in the United States, Sofair said he applied for a job at the National Parks Service, where he worked on master plans of national parks like the Isle Royale, the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Statue of Liberty.
Following the job at the National Parks Service, Sofair said he worked with numerous organizations, including the Washington D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, the U.S. Health Service and the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization.
Sofair currently lives in a retirement community in Woodridge, Connecticut.
During the first weekend of September this year, Sofair visited Cornell with his son, Andre Sofair, and his grandson, Luke Sofair ’19.
Andre Sofair said he was delighted to be able to make the trip, especially after his father suffered a broken hip last year, making such a visit seem unlikely to take place.
“It was really an answer to prayer,” Andre Sofair said. “My father and I went to visit last fall. We were at a hotel in Binghamton when he fell and fractured his hip. He survived the surgery and some other maladies this year and wanted me to take him to see his alma mater. The fact that we were able to return is nothing short of miraculous, in my mind.”