International Students Feature: Syria

Monday, October 31st, 2016

This week, three international students from Syria, Bashar Alisber, a senior studying aerospace engineering, Fadi Eshak, a senior studying civil engineering, and Hamze ‘Leo’ Sukkar, a senior studying computer engineering and engineering management, were interviewed about the differences between their life back home and their life at Illinois Tech. As always, all interviewees were quick to say that they missed the food back home. According to Alisber, “food-wise, it’s a lot healthier back home…I used to rarely go and eat [out], like fast food or something, that was rare…even sometimes when you’re going hiking, we would cook our own food and then take it with us.” Alisber mentioned that food was commonly cooked using olive oil, and that his diet consisted of a lot of vegetables, especially salad. “Salad is very, very essential,” Alisber explained. “Every day, there has to be a salad dish before you get to a main meal.” Both Eshak and Sukkar also mentioned that the diet was much healthier back home. According to Sukkar, the “food [in Syria] has always been way, way healthier than the food we get here…It always felt right. Whereas here, a lot of times, it’s good but you don’t feel right when you’re eating it. And your mom’s cooking is always the best.” A typical dish you would find in Syria, Sukkar said, was usually served with rice or bread. One of the best dishes that Sukkar remembers from back home consisted of rice and ground beef stuffed in grape leaves, which was called yabra or diwali.

The weather, of course, also differs. “In winter, it’s cold, but not that cold,” Eshak said. Although, while winters are less harsh, due to electricity problems and less insulation, “you feel it more than here,” according to Eshak. “You freeze inside more than outside.” Both Alisber and Sukkar also mentioned how the temperature inside buildings was much colder in Syria than in the US. In Sukkar’s words, “once you’re inside, you expect something warm but you get something cold.” In Alisber’s opinion, this difference may also be because “prices of fuel for warming the house is going way up.”

In terms of general culture, Sukkar explained how odd it was to be questioned about things about yourself that you thought were commonplace, such as religion or attire. In his words, “you don’t have to explain yourself as often as you do here. When you come here, you start noticing that people realize different things about you. You never thought that would be something you would have to explain.” Eshak mentioned that Syria is “more conservative than here.” Eshhak explained that young people dating is frowned upon, and is usually done in secret, which is especially important for the women. “There is no gender equality there,” Eshak said, although he added later that “there is gender equality in the well-educated families.” Alisber had similar thoughts, and in his words, “dating doesn’t happen as public as here. I had a girlfriend at home, but holding hands in public was frowned upon…Thing that I hate most is the inequality.…You would still find people who have problems with their wives working.” Sukkar, however, presented a different perspective. “The school that I went to is a co-ed school, so I grew up with mixing both genders all of the time. There are parts of society where you can see issues with gender inequality. If you go there today, you might not think it’s as it should be. But if you ask both parties, both parties are happy with what they have.”

Academically, Alisber mentioned that, “it is busier here. School keeps you busy.” In Syria, Alisber was used to solely a final exam at the end of the semester, with no homework. Alisber, however, appreciated the homework and found it useful. “I find it helpful,” Alisber said, “it’s a lot better to absorb the material that you’re learning.” Alisber also appreciated the internship opportunities he found here. According to him, “[internships] are not something common back home, it’s not at all common.” Sukkar commented on the fact that while high school is considered easier than college in the US, it is the opposite where he was from: high school was much harder. “I guess it’s a good thing, looking at it now, because now I’m used to all this, regardless of what pressure is put in my hand. The amount of work, what I’ve experienced in Syria, is way more. And a lot of it is the way they teach, it’s very dry: here are the textbooks, do your homework, do you exams. There’s nothing practical, nothing hands-on.” Perhaps the reason why high school was so difficult in Syria was because of the largely stressed exam that takes place at the end of high school. “Our last year, the graduation year,” Sukkar said, “is a standard test across the country where you have to memorize nine books cover to cover in two months. Then you have two weeks to get tested on all nine subjects…It’s the most disciplined I’ve ever been in my life…Thankfully I performed well, because this is the deciding factor of what you can do with your life…If you get over 300, you can go to medical school, which is the highest, usually. The lower your score, the less your choices are.”

As most of the world knows, Syria is currently involved in a civil war. Eshak remembers mornings in Syria where he would go outside to collect empty bullet shells that could be found on the ground. He remembered six separate incidents in which a bullet came into his house: once, Eshak recalled, “taking a shower, a bullet came through the bathroom window.” Because of this unrest, Eshak initially decided to move to Lebanon; however, the war in Syria spread through the Middle East. At that time, wanting to go to the United States, Eshak was pleased to receive a scholarship at Illinois Tech that allowed him to attend school here. However, Eshak said, the “visa process was difficult.” Eshak spend a lot of time on the phone with a counselor, who asked him a little bit about his education but mostly what he was doing in Syria. In the airport, after the 20 hour flight, he was sent to an interview room and sat for two hours, waiting, while the Illinois Tech bus came and went. Eshak said he was asked same questions but in different phrases,” things like “are you planning to go back after graduation?” Alisber had a similar experience at the airport, where he got held up at customs for three hours; however, he recalls that nobody actually asked him anything during that period of time.

At the end of his interview, Alisber made sure to mention that he wanted to thank Illinois Tech for the opportunity to go to school here. “Without the scholarship I got here, my life would be a lot different,” Alisber said.

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