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Fleeing a Brutal War, Syrian Students Find Opportunity in Illinois

This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle and with the permission of the author.

In peaceful times, a bus trip from Aleppo, Syria, to Beirut, Lebanon, takes about seven hours. On the day in July that Mariela Shaker began the first leg of a journey from her battered country to the cornfields of western Illinois, it took 17.

The main roads out of Aleppo were closed. Forced to take an unfamiliar route, the driver got lost, and for hours the bus traveled through a parched landscape that Ms. Shaker, 23, had never seen before. Along the way, soldiers boarded the bus and demanded identification from the passengers. It was Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, and although Ms. Shaker is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, to avoid drawing attention to herself, she had brought no water or food.

Her goodbyes had been rushed. After hours of waiting for the bus with her mother and brother, suddenly it came, and she had to go. She hugged and kissed them, not knowing when they’d see each other next. She carried one bag and a case containing her most cherished possession: the violin she had played for nine years, a gift from her mother when she graduated from the Arab Institute of Music at the top of her class. Throughout the trip, Ms. Shaker kept the case close to her, even as soldiers ordered her to open it. So much care for the violin, she would recall later. Like a baby.

As a civil war ravaged her country, Ms. Shaker was determined to keep training as a musician, to find a way out of Syria. For months her family’s apartment had been largely without power as Aleppo sustained some of the war’s worst fighting. Still, she continued to perform and teach violin. And throughout the fall of 2012 and into the winter, she made the rounds of local cafés, where generators provided sporadic access to the Internet.

In January, Ms. Shaker discovered Monmouth College, a tiny liberal-arts institution 20 miles east of the Mississippi River that was offering at least eight scholarships to Syrians. In one frantic week, she filled out all of the necessary documents while her mother ran from place to place to get transcripts and other materials translated. Three weeks later, the young woman heard, with surprise and relief, that she had been accepted.

In Syria, options for aspiring students are bleak. Since the war there began, in 2011, more than 100,000 people have died, and millions more have fled their homes. Bombings this year at the country’s two premier universities, in Aleppo and Damascus, have underscored the instability of higher education. In response, a global consortium of more than three dozen colleges has emerged this past year to aid Syrian students. Monmouth is one of its newest members.

For Ms. Shaker, who has expressive eyes and a quick smile, covering the $40,000 cost of attendance took a tuition waiver and a fine-arts scholarship from the college, sponsorship from an international group for Syrian Orthodox Christians, and a donation from a Saudi businessman arranged by an organization of Syrian expatriates. Having completed a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Aleppo University a few months earlier, she would enroll at Monmouth as a junior, to earn a second bachelor’s degree, in music.

After the long, hot bus trip from Aleppo and a month in Florida with friends who had left Syria more than a decade before, it was time to lay eyes on the small college she had scrutinized online for months. On August 16, she flew to Peoria, Ill., where a Monmouth student picked her up and drove her to the campus, a hilly place dotted with mature trees. Stricken over leaving her family in Aleppo, where mortars continued to damage their neighborhood, she nonetheless liked the brick buildings with pitched roofs. This could be a second home, she thought. I feel safe here.

(photo by Adam Gerik)

Twenty new international students were due to arrive over the next few days, 10 originally from Syria. Here they would try to pick up their studies and their lives, at a small college with Presbyterian roots in Middle America.

Late last year, at a monthly gathering of Illinois colleges, an official from the Illinois Institute of Technology made a brief but heartfelt plea. The university was newly working with several organizations to provide scholarships to Syrian students. Please, she said, consider helping.

The situation in Syria was dire, and worsening every day. Clashes between government forces and rebel groups opposed to the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad had escalated across the country. Although universities, controlled by the government, remained nominally open, many students were unable to keep attending classes.

Brenda Tooley had been following the news from Syria, and at the meeting, she listened closely. We could help, thought Ms. Tooley, associate dean for academic affairs at Monmouth College. And quickly. Seeking to increase enrollment, the president had recently asked her to recruit more international students. And while on a Fulbright fellowship in Bulgaria two years before, she had met Syrian students who impressed her. She wondered what had become of them.

Presenting the possibility to top administrators, Ms. Tooley got the go-ahead. In an email to the Institute of International Education, which was leading the aid effort, she laid out Monmouth’s commitment: full-tuition scholarships for two strong students and waivers to cover more than half of the college’s total costs for several more. By the spring, the college had begun to ask for donations from alumni and other sources.

“Part of our responsibility as an institutional citizen of the world community was to find a way to educate a limited number of students,” Monmouth’s president, Mauri A. Ditzler, later recalled. “We don’t have the resources to provide an education to 100 students from Syria, or even to 50. But we have the capacity to educate a dozen.”

(photo by Adam Gerik)

It was a big promise from a tuition-dependent college, but only a small step in meeting the overall need. In the first few months of the program, more than 5,000 Syrian students completed IIE’s online questionnaire to get access to its scholarship listings.

Ms. Tooley was immediately flooded with messages from Syrians wanting to learn more about the college. A few wrote to her from refugee camps. She responded to them all—more than 100—telling them how to apply and explaining what the scholarships covered.

Anas Karkout, slim and soft-spoken, had been yearning for an opportunity like this. He had planned to enroll in the fall of 2012 at Damascus University, but on the day he was supposed to apply, it took so long to get there—more than two hours, with several security checkpoints along a road lined with government tanks—that he realized it wasn’t going to work. Throughout the fall and into early 2013, he stayed at home, airplanes humming overhead and windows shaking from the pressure of nearby explosions.

Internet in his family’s apartment cut in and out. In February he discovered the Illinois Institute of Technology and its partial scholarships, but realized that tuition there would still be too expensive. In an email to the coalition for Syrian students, he explained how hard it was to come up with the money. An adviser responded. There are other options, she said. One was Monmouth.

Mr. Karkout halted his search and pinned his hopes on the little college in the American Midwest. One day in March, he stayed up all night, refreshing his email every half-hour, certain that some news would come. The time difference was eight hours, and by 7 a.m., as the sky was beginning to brighten, he acknowledged that the work day in Illinois was long over. No news today after all, he thought.

In the doorway of his bedroom, on his smartphone, he refreshed his email one more time. There was a message from Ms. Tooley. Only the first word mattered: “Congratulations.” He rushed back to his laptop to view the attachments, wanting to shout—”Dakheel Allah!” (“Oh my God!”)—but his parents and brother were still asleep. He was going to college.

By midsummer, Monmouth had accepted 10 Syrians for the fall semester—seven men, three women—with several more to come in the winter term. They scrambled to secure visas; Mr. Karkout was rejected the first time, finally getting his visa during the final weeks before orientation.

Meanwhile, Ms. Tooley and her colleagues mobilized for the students’ arrival. The officials recruited host families to have the students over for meals, and arranged for the dining hall to serve halal meat. Some space in the religious-studies department became a prayer room. A Syrian flag went up over the main entrance of the Intercultural House, joining those of the college’s other international students.

A couple of the Syrian students would come with relatives, but most were on their own, scheduled to arrive at all hours at bus and train stations and airports. They were full of last-minute questions: What should I pack? How do I get from Chicago to Monmouth? Can I take French? On Facebook they connected with future classmates, posting to the college’s page for the freshman class. “After 5 months of preparing, tomorrow I’ll be in Chicago!” one posted. “So excited and eager to meet you all!”

Mr. Karkout flew from Beirut to Paris to Chicago, hoping that his stomach wouldn’t flip the way so many people had warned him it might on his first plane ride. Clearing passport control was more of an ordeal. An agent pulled him aside for additional questioning, which distressed him. “I’m only 18,” he recalled later. “What would I have done with my life to make me suspicious? Just my Syrian citizenship?”

Finally, after a late-night bus ride to Peoria, he got to the campus around 2 a.m. He sent a quick Facebook message to his parents, made his bed with sheets he had brought from home, and went to sleep.

The other international students gradually arrived. But just a few days into orientation came alarming news. Chemical weapons had killed hundreds of people in an area east of Damascus. Details were still emerging, but early signs implicated the Syrian government. By the weekend, there was talk of American destroyers in the Mediterranean launching cruise missiles at Syrian targets.

Meanwhile, Monmouth was buzzing with anticipation for the new academic year. Sororities and fraternities promoted rush events, and a heat wave baked the campus. On the first day of classes, American officials said military strikes on Syria could happen within three days. Mr. Karkout, whose family had just made it safely to Turkey, wondered why American leaders had waited so long to act. Ms. Shaker, fearful for her family in Aleppo, hoped they wouldn’t.

Monmouth is a sleepy town of about 9,400 surrounded by farmland. Its claims to fame are few: Wyatt Earp was born here, and Ronald Reagan lived here briefly as a child. Every so often, a whistle pierces the air as a train speeds past on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks.

By mid-September, life on campus has assumed a certain rhythm. Several of the Syrian men are roommates. One joins a fraternity. Mr. Karkout becomes vice president of the International Club. He also conquers the college’s climbing wall, changing his Facebook profile photo to one of him waving down from the summit. Ms. Shaker is the concertmaster, or principal violinist, in Monmouth’s small chamber orchestra. Professors who wondered early on if the students would have trouble adjusting are relieved to see that so far this is not the case.

The students do struggle, though, with English. Mr. Karkout, who learned the language in school and by watching American movies, becomes a frequent patron of the writing center. One afternoon he huddles with a peer tutor over a paper on Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire. As they go over it, another Syrian student walks in and takes a seat near the window. At his high school in Abu Dhabi, he says, “We never talk about a thesis. It’s the first time I’ve heard this word.”

In Mr. Karkout’s dorm room, he keeps Google Translate open on his laptop. The keys display English letters above Arabic ones. Toggling back and forth between the languages dozens of times a day, he tries to build his vocabulary: waterfront, shrew, fanatical, marvelous, Wichita, offspring, sophistication.

As many of the Syrians labor over reading and writing assignments, Petra Kuppinger, a professor of anthropology who speaks Arabic and lived for a time in Egypt, tries to help Monmouth’s American students learn more about Syria. Her “Introduction to Liberal Arts” seminar includes two Syrians, so she devotes a class to talking about the country.

That morning, about 15 freshmen settle into their seats. Ms. Kuppinger—trim and animated, with an accent from her native Germany—opens packages of traditional Arabic snacks: pitted dates; ma’amoul, shortbread cookies with figs; and halawa, a sweet, crumbly sesame paste, with pistachios. A few of the students eye the unfamiliar foods warily.

“What do you guys know about Syria?” Ms. Kuppinger asks the class. “Anything?”

A student shoots his hand up and offers a quick list. Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons against the Syrian people. The civil war started two years ago. The United States is trying to get involved to stop it.

The two Syrian students listen quietly as the professor writes their classmate’s comments on the board and moves quickly through Syria’s recent history, emphasizing the violent turn of events there since the Arab Spring.

“At this point, it’s a question mark,” she says of U.S. intervention. Two million Syrians have fled the country, she tells the class, and five million more are internally displaced. “That means one-fourth of the Syrian population is on the run somewhere.”

Samer, a Syrian student who prefers that his last name not be used, listens solemnly, chin in hand, as the professor asks the class which other countries are supporting the Assad government. Another student pipes up: “Russia, Iran, and … ” he trails off. “China,” Samer says softly.

Back in Syria, Samer had completed one year at Aleppo University. When it became too dangerous to get there, he stopped going. His sister and brother-in-law, who live in Chicago, set wheels in motion last year to get him out of Syria and enrolled in college.

Still, he longs for home. “It’s a shame to leave the country,” he says. “My mind is here, and my heart is there.” Just a few days after arriving at Monmouth, he left for Chicago to join a protest against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. In a yellow T-shirt with a stark silhouette of a gas mask, he marched along Michigan Avenue, waving the three-star flag of the Syrian resistance.

It was nothing like the demonstrations back in his hometown, Homs, “the capital of the revolution,” he proudly says. Back there, to gather publicly was risky. “You were screaming with your heart,” he says. Chicago was different: “The feeling wasn’t there.”

To keep up with the latest developments, he checks Facebook pages for Homs and Aleppo University dozens of times a day. Sometimes exchanges with friends just cease. He pulls out his phone and looks at his final chat with his friend Eyad, last seen May 11. A few days later, Samer says, he found out that his friend had been killed.

Life at Monmouth is different. Later the day of the Syria seminar, Samer heads to a lighted sand court uphill from the football stadium for a pickup volleyball game. A few minutes late, he quickly jumps in, falling backwards in a bicycle kick that sends the ball sailing over the net.

After the game, the students are planning to surprise a classmate with a birthday cake. They tease one another and laugh in the breezy, humid night air, diving into the sand and chasing the volleyball as it rolls down the darkened hill.

As September comes to a close, Ms. Shaker puts the finishing touches on a piece she plans to play for her first performance in the United States. Family Weekend at the college is fast approaching, and she will have a solo in a concert that Saturday evening. The chamber orchestra’s director, Carolyn Suda, selected the piece: “Hungarian Variations.” Ms. Shaker liked it immediately, drawn to the phrases that remind her of Arabic music.


She practices five, sometimes six hours a day in Austin Hall, the white clapboard house that is home to the college’s music department. She sees the other Syrians around campus, but during the week she limits her socializing to mealtimes. “If they need me, they can come to Austin Hall,” she jokes. “I’m planning to move my mattress there.”

Ms. Shaker’s parents are still in Aleppo. She worries about them constantly, and when she thinks of home, her concentration wanes. The situation there is so complicated, and she feels helpless to change it. While an unexpected turn of diplomacy has put American military intervention on hold, the fighting in Syria continues.

There Ms. Shaker’s mother attended all of her concerts. This time a phone call will have to suffice. Some days Ms. Shaker dials dozens of times before getting a line. Once she got through to learn that the previous day, a mortar had landed outside her parents’ apartment building, killing several neighbors.

The day before the concert, there is no bad news. I’m with you, her mother says. We’re proud of you.

(photo by Adam Gerik)

Ms. Shaker is already thinking about what she’ll play in the spring, for her first solo concert. That performance will help determine where she goes after Monmouth. A large university? A conservatory?

She wants to devote herself to her studies in the United States so she can go on to play professionally, she says, “and let my country be proud of me.”

But she doesn’t know what the future holds. Life is precarious for all Syrians right now, she says, and especially dangerous for religious minorities and artists. Time will tell if she can go back.

Her solo tonight comes at the end of the chamber group’s performance. At the final flourish of her bow, Ms. Shaker breaks into a wide smile, rising from her seat to acknowledge the applause. Backstage, she throws her arms around her director.

Ms. Shaker had given her cellphone to a friend sitting in the audience, close to the stage. That night, the violinist uploads a shaky video of the performance to Facebook and YouTube. She hopes her parents will be able to see it.


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