Mohammed Al Rawi
Cal State LA student earns degree after leaving war-torn home
He serves as the chief information officer for Los Angeles County’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
By Madeline Tondi | Cal State LA News Service
Mohammed Al Rawi was only 21 when war closed schools and divided neighborhoods into territories in his hometown of Baghdad, Iraq. It was too dangerous to continue his education.
“War just happened to stop everything,” Al Rawi says. “But here I don’t have an excuse.”
The 35-year-old Long Beach resident graduated summa cum laude in May with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from Cal State LA.
He pursued his degree while working full time as the chief information officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation after working in information technology for the county for the past seven years. Al Rawi hopes his story will motivate other working professionals considering returning to higher education.
Through his work for the Department of Parks and Recreation, Al Rawi oversees projects including a system that monitors the health of trees, a GPS tracker system to find lost hikers and a camera system for pools allowing lifeguards to better spot drowning swimmers.
“I love that [parks and recreation] is always a happy ending,” Al Rawi says. “It’s how you end your weekend: you go to the parks, and you sit, and you have some quality time with your children. So whatever you can bring in terms of efficiencies will build on and improve this good experience.”
Al Rawi traces his passion for technology back to his childhood in Baghdad. At 18, he began his career running an internet cafe for international news reporters in the country’s capital. The reporters were desperate to send stories of the ongoing Iraq War around the world.
He was later instrumental in the founding of the Los Angeles Times’ Baghdad bureau and survived constant attacks on his life while maintaining its technological infrastructure from the generator to the satellite dish.
Even after Al Qaeda looted and burned down his home and put a bounty on his head, Al Rawi lived and breathed work at the bureau. In 2010, he moved to Long Beach through a program that resettles Iraqis targeted due to their affiliation with the United States.
“It took me two years to stop looking in the rearview mirror to see if someone is chasing me,” Al Rawi says. “But once I got used to the sense of safety, I’m not a target anymore; that’s when I realized that I can live a normal life.”
During his senior year at Cal State LA, Al Rawi led a design project that built a geographical archive system for the Los Angeles County Public Library. The application showcases historic photos from the public library’s records overlaid on an interactive map of the region.
The success of his project helped inspire a pilot partnership between Cal State LA and Los Angeles County that connects the talents of students from the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology to the key technological needs of Los Angeles County. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an expansion of the partnership in March.
“Mohammed introduced L.A. County as an entity for us,” Cal State LA computer science professor Raj Pamula says. “I think all of our faculty are very appreciative of that. He not only took the lead role, but he was very passionate every step of the way.”
Al Rawi was named to the 2018 Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers list by Government Technology magazine, recognizing leaders dedicated to improving government’s use of technology.
After graduating from Cal State LA, Al Rawi plans to continue improving the services of the Department of Parks and Recreation. At this moment of celebration, he feels grateful for the life he and his family have built in the United States.
“I never thought that I would be given more than a fair chance to get to where I am right now,” Al Rawi says. “This country gave me the opportunity to live and to excel. It helped me and my kids get a good education. I feel that this country is really home for me. This is home.”