Before leaving to visit my family in Liberia this summer, my friend, Raed, and I were remarking upon some of the traditions we shared. At the time, Raed and I were planning to host a gathering for our mutual friends where we would grill and provide a meal one Saturday evening. In planning for the evening, we reflected upon, that in inviting many of our American friends they often asked what they could bring to the event. Americans have this wonderful tradition of a “potluck”, but for Raed and myself our backgrounds suggested that as hosts, we would provide all the food for our guests. So we decided that we would just tell our guests to bring themselves (and their appetites) and we would grill as we would in Sryia (Raed’s home), and in Liberia (my home). This small-shared discussion touches upon just one of many long conversations we have had about our new home in here in Chicago, our studies at Illinois Institute of Technology ( or Illinois Tech or IIT), and our hopes for the future. But, I’ve gotten ahead of myself because this story is not about grilling and having friends over. It’s about the meaningful friendships that were developed during the previous 2012-13 academic year.
As I reflect on the friendships that were created this past year, my friendship with the Syrian students comes most to mind. It was the beginning of the fall 2012 semester and I remember standing in line for my new CTA UPASS (this is the small card which allows you to travel on public transportation in Chicago). Next to me was a young man like myself name Raed (also known as Ray). I met Raed just a few days before when he initially arrived at IIT but this was the first of many substantial conversions we would have together.
I remember us talking about Syria. He explained to me what the current situation was like in Syria. He talked about infrastructure being damaged, young people been denied an education, and many of the deaths and ongoing war. I related to what he was saying because my home is Liberia – a country experienced fourteen years of civil war which started in the late 80’s. The civil war damaged our infrastructure; kept many kids out of school, turned young boys into child soldiers, and left young girls with teenage pregnancy. The war ended in 2003 and since then the country has been very peaceful and have been making good progress in terms of development in education and infrastructure. Liberia also elected the first female president in the whole of Africa- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf).
After this conversation (about the lack of educational experiences, good communication lines, and damaged infrastructure – and human suffering and loss) it was clear that we both had similar viewpoints and wanted to someday to change things in our countries. In the months ahead, Raed and I had a lot more chances to talk and we sought each other out for these conversations of nation building and healing. We also talked about music, food, the differences between the U.S culture and the cultures of our countries, education, etc. Through these conversations, we became good friends and would later work at the same office as Student ambassador (which has strengthened our friendship the more).
In the weeks/months that followed, I meet nearly all of the 26 newly arrived students from Syria during the 2012-13 academic year, and I had the privilege to welcome them to IIT. Since then I have had the honor and great joy of building academic and personal friendships with Syrian students through different activates and in different settings. We have shared lunch and dinners together, reflected on our studies, prepared for exams, enjoyed the roller coasters at Six Flags (an amusement park outside of Chicago), and played a variety of sports (on the soccer field and basketball courts).
Through of all these activities I have come to realize that Syrian students at IIT love to challenge themselves and strive for greatness, at the same time they love to have fun. They are not afraid to try something new and they have no problem asking for help when they need it and, like many of us at Illinois Tech, someday to hope to return home and contribute in immense ways. (As a side note, IIT is home to undergraduate, graduate, faculty and staff from more than 100 countries.) Across languages, religions, histories and varied traditions, we have learned that there are commonalities, which connect us across the human spirit.
Our collective stories have educated us here at IIT and given hope to us all.
For me, the friendships with Raed, and his fellow countrywomen and men have meant the world to me. I am happy to call them friends – life-long friends. I know for sure that our paths and futures will continue for decades to come, and that together we will – with our fellow IIT alumni from the US and around the world – work to rebuild our countries and regions.