Shahim Shaar’s last days in Syria are a blur.
From arranging transportation to the Turkish border, to saying goodbye to his grandmother, Shaar and his parents quickly prepared to leave their home in Aleppo. On the dawn of their departure, Shaar’s closest friend helped them with their luggage. After spending three years in the midst of the Syrian crisis, Shaar and his family were beginning their life-altering move to the United States.
Three years later, 18-year-old Shaar is beginning to accept the reality that those goodbyes might be final.
“It all happened very quickly. I didn’t realize the finality of it,” he said.
At the start of the revolution in 2011, Shaar’s father lost his job as a professor when all Syrian private universities were suddenly closed. After depleting nearly all their savings, Shaar’s family used the last of what they had to leave Syria and begin the process of starting a new life in America.
“We had no intention of leaving, but in the last week or so things just clicked into place,” Shaar said. “We knew that our country pushed us out. We were so close to being broke.”
Now residing in California, Shaar is preparing for yet another move — this time to Galesburg. After months of gathering the appropriate funding and obtaining employment authorization, Shaar will begin his studies at Knox this upcoming Spring Term.
Joining the consortium
Before deciding on Knox, Shaar first discovered Monmouth College through the Institute of International Education’s Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis. Implemented in response to the conflict in Syria, IIE’s Syria Consortium consists of 60 higher education institutions that believe in the importance of assisting Syrian students in continuing their education through providing either full or partial scholarships.
Prior to starting this fall as Knox’s new full time Director of the Stellyes Center for Global Education, Bren Tooley led efforts to bring Monmouth into the Syria Consortium back in 2012. One of Tooley’s first goals upon arriving at Knox was to add the college to this list.
“It took almost no time at all for Knox senior administrators to say, ‘Yes we need to belong to this consortium,’” Tooley said.
Knox was added to the consortium last fall.
Shaar will be the second student from Syria to join Knox’s campus this year, following freshman Farid Freyha who started at Knox this Winter Term. Both students made the decision with the help of Tooley, who’s been working with Freyha and Shaar for over a year. Shaar first came into contact with Tooley when she was still at Monmouth, and has since followed her as she’s made the transition to Knox.
Obtaining a better education was one of Freyha’s biggest reasons for leaving his home in Damascus, as it became harder and harder to live day-to-day life. Access to water was scarce, and by the end of his time in Syria, Freyha often only had four hours of electricity a day. The situation was unpredictable, leaving Freyha to worry about the future of his education.
“We still had our lives going out and so, but it was hard,” he said.
The process of getting here wasn’t easy. Freyha was twice denied an F1 visa, a nonimmigrant visa that’s required for international students to study in the U.S. Due to the fact Freyha is in the States on an F1, he is not classified as a Syrian refugee.
Tooley worked with Freyha for two years before he finally made it to campus.
After working with 27 Syrian students, 19 of whom have come to study in the States, Tooley is familiar with the difficulties surrounding the visa process. Despite these challenges, she believes the process of giving students from Syria a chance at a U.S. education benefits both students and their peers.
“I think there is a particular depth of understanding of the privilege of education when you’re coming from an unstable state, when you’re having deep difficulty continuing your education in your home country,” Tooley said. “They model that commitment to their education.”
Only a few weeks into his first term at Knox, Freyha was hit with news of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Syria.
“I got crushed that day,” Freyha said. “I kind of didn’t believe it at first.”
Freyha’s brother attended Monmouth, which stood as a motivating factor in his decision to come to Knox. Knowing he’d have few connections, Freyha looked forward to having his brother not far from campus.
But as of a few weeks ago, Freyha’s brother has moved to San Francisco. His parents made the decision to stay in Syria.
“I’m afraid, but you know there’s nothing that I can do, so I wouldn’t think about that,” he said. “I have this rule of not thinking about something if I can’t help changing it or do anything about it.”
Despite starting his Knox education in the midst of a turbulent political climate, Freyha has been pleasantly surprised by the support he’s received from students and faculty. For Freyha, moving about life as normal has been his way of coping, and ultimately, moving forward with the process of settling in.
“The Knox community helped me a lot, because they wouldn’t make me feel weird or different,” he said. “They were themselves.”
While Shaar is eager to get started at Knox, he’s anticipating the adjustment of moving into a community with few people who’ve shared his experiences.
“It still is kind of difficult to not have people who totally align with your culture,” Shaar said, “It’s always kind of difficult to begin.”
After communicating solely through Facebook, Shaar looks forward to meeting Freyha on campus.
Mariela Shaker ‘15, a Monmouth alum, arrived in the first wave of Syrian students to be accepted after the college joined the Syria Consortium. Shaker has fond memories of the efforts Tooley made to make her and the other incoming students feel at home. From carving pumpkins for the first time at Tooley’s apartment, to being driven to Peoria to shop for Middle Eastern food, Shaker is grateful for Tooley’s continuing support.
“I’m so thankful I found a family here, and a second home,” Shaker said.
Tooley has enjoyed staying in touch with the students she’s worked with over the years. She’s even met their families.
“I love what I’m doing,” Tooley said. “I’m helping kids go [abroad], as well as come.”
While it was already challenging for many students from Syria to return home, whether it be for financial reasons or because families have scattered, Trump’s 90 day travel ban is leaving many international students in a state of limbo. Although the original ban is currently suspended, the Trump administration will soon announce a revised version of the executive order.
Until then, it’s a waiting game.
“I’m still young, so I was kind of attached to my friends and family in Syria, I was hoping I’d see them in summer, but now I can’t leave the States or otherwise I wouldn’t be able to come back.” Freyha said. “We can’t do anything but wait.”
Although Shaar’s parents are in California and one of his brothers is in Wisconsin, he has five other siblings residing across Europe and New Zealand. Just when Shaar’s brother in New Zealand had saved enough to make the trip out to visit, the travel ban stopped him in his tracks.
It’s been five years since Shaar’s brother has seen his father.
Having lived in the U.S. for two years now, Shaar had never felt scared for his family prior to the Trump administration.
“It’s kind of like we’re locked in this country. I’m feeling scared for my family and for myself regarding our status in this country and our being in this country,” he said. “With the language that’s being spoken, it’s become very clear that there’s a big portion of American society that doesn’t want us here.”
Behind Tooley’s desk in the Stellyes Global Studies Center, she has a poster featuring a Muslim woman in a hijab. It reads, “Everyone is Welcome Here.”
Like Freyha and Shaar, she’s waiting to see what happens next.
“There are narratives that have commonalities, but there’s no one narrative. These are individuals each with their own interests and needs and family histories,” Tooley said. “Their circumstances continue to change.”
As much as Shaar would love to return to Syria, he knows this is unrealistic.
“I’d love to go back, I just can’t. I want to study here,” he said. “I want to have the tools and the knowledge to help out as much as possible, to help out the Syrian people.”