By Nora Shelly, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Elias Shammas says he is the “luckiest” of his fellow Syrian students at Monmouth College in western Illinois.
Shammas was born in the United States, but grew up in Damascus, Syria. A little more than a year after the civil war started in March of 2011, Shammas’ younger sister and mother moved to France. In the fall of that year, he started at an English-language university in Germany, which he chose so he would be close to his family. His father, the general manager of a distribution company, stayed behind in Damascus.
Three colleges and five years later, Shammas is set to graduate in a semester from Monmouth, with a degree in political science and sociology. Although Shammas says his “favorite place to live” has been Syria, he is planning on staying in the United States to pursue a career in academia.
“Career-wise, I would have no future in Syria,” he says. “Maybe someday if the situation with the war is better, I can retire there.”
Shammas’s grandparents and aunt live in California, but he often misses his family. His mother still lives in France, his sister is now in England, and his father travels between Europe and Damascus.
Shammas says roughly 20 other Syrian students attend Monmouth. Shammas credits his American citizenship and relative fluency in English for his ability to succeed in his new country. Some of his friends, he says, have not been so lucky.
Amjad Karkout, a junior at Monmouth, has encountered difficulties during his time in the United States. Karkout, whose brother is a senior at Monmouth, came over from Damascus on a student visa in August 2012.
Unlike Shammas, Karkout says his English proficiency was not up to par when he came to the U,S. something that was a surprise to him. Additionally, Karkout has had to support himself financially since he came to Illinois for college, and he says working and balancing classes has been a challenge. Although he calls Monmouth his “second home” and says he has found a family there, he has found it difficult to get used to life away from Syria.
“Because it is a different country, a different system, we did not know many things,” he says.
Primarily, Karkout has run into confusions about the U.S. legal system as he tries to submit an application for asylum. First, it was hard for his brother and him to find an affordable lawyer, and once they found one, it took ten months before they realized it was a scam.
Karkout and Shammas are part of a group of Syrian college students in the United States having to make the decision on where to go after college, as the perilous situation in their home country is not lifting. Some, like Shammas, have U.S. citizenship or green-card status. Others have refugee status, or, like Karkout, have a temporary protected status or a student visa, both of which are time-limited.
Shammas and Karkout said the dual pressure of college courses and the uncertainty and anxiety that clouds their future has at times been overwhelming.
More than 18,000 Syrian refugees have come to the United States from October 2011 to the end of 2016. Of those 24 percent were between the ages of 14 and 30, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Most of the nearly 5 million Syrian refugees who have escaped from Syria have been taken in by neighboring countries, T. Alexander Aleinikoff, the former United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, said at a panel held at Northwestern University in December of 2015.
At the panel, Aleinikoff said that less than 1 percent of refugees are considered for resettlement, and although some are looking for a more stable existence than is available in a refugee camp, not every displaced person is looking to settle in another country.
“Not every refugee wants to come to the United States or be resettled,” he said. “The vast number want to go home and they’re hoping for peace in their own country and a rebuilding in their own country.”
More than 100,000 of Syrian refugees worldwide are university-qualified, according to the Institute of International Education.
Galya Ben-Arieh, director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies at Northwestern University, says the United States’ “self-sufficiency model of early employment” for refugee resettlement can be detrimental to refugees living in the country. Ben-Arieh is currently studying refugee resettlement strategies.
The focus on employing refugees quickly can often limit their options, Ben-Arieh said, as experience or education gained in their home country is often useless when it comes to finding skilled work later on. So, some refugees end up taking minimum wage jobs so they are able to start paying the bills.
Although Syrian refugees tend to be better educated than other displaced groups of people, these issues still affect them, Ben-Arieh says.
“The problem is with that kind of mindset, people have language barriers, or skills, it’s hard to translate your skills, it’s hard to find a job,” she says. “When you think about Syrians, or people who have interrupted degrees or interrupted education … you’re then, in the way we resettle refugees, really stuck.”
This often has a “generational” effect, Ben-Arieh says, as young adults from refugee families can be limited when looking to go into higher education if they need to work to help support their families.
Karkout’s mother lives in Sweden and his father, a journalist, lives in Turkey. With his family spread across Europe, he has had to work several jobs in order to support himself while also taking courses to earn his degree in political science.
Although work and school are a sizeable load, Karkout says they aren’t his biggest worry at the moment. While he is still trying to apply for asylum, it has been “tough” to plan out the future.
Similar to Shammas, Karkout says he is not considering going back to Syria if the situation there remains the same, as his family has been outspoken in their criticisms of both the Assad regime and extremists groups.
“The second that we step back in Syria and the situation is still like this, we don’t want to compromise anyone against us,” he said. “I am going to try to find anything that will help me stay here after graduation.”