Syrian Student Hopes Park University Degree Helps Him Repair His Torn Country
Taher Barazi left his parents and siblings in Damascus, Syria last month to study at Park University in Parkville, Missouri.
He's on a student visa. He's not one of 10,000 Syrian refugees who’ve come to the United States under the United States resettlement program, which just reached its quota at the end of August.
But even though Barazi is not associated with that controversial program, he still worries he could face some of the same suspicion his fellow Syrians have encountered as refugees.
He's not letting that get in the way of his studies.
Barazi's face reflects no sign of concern as he sits, hands folded on his desk listening to a philosophy lecture on the principles of critical thinking.
Barazi knew in high school he wanted to pursue a degree in computer science. He was sure he'd get better training outside of Syria.
He wasn’t sure when he'd start his college studies, but when he saw violence escalating , he felt he couldn't wait any longer.
He saw the Park University scholarship on a website for something called EducationUSA, a U.S. State Department program aimed at bringing international students to the United States.
Weeks after he thought he'd been denied the scholarship, Barazi was surprised and elated to learn he'd been accepted.
In only these first few weeks, he already feels like he’s learning more than he would be in Syria.
"The professors are so proficient here," Barazi says. "They explain every single thing. We don’t have this in Syria."
Barazi worried he’d encounter anti-Islamic feelings in the U.S.
"I actually expected some people not to like me but I’m having a lot of friendships just because I’m from Syria," he says. "Everybody is being so welcoming."
Many other things have surprised Barazi in the short time he’s been here.
For example,that a family would be waiting for him at the airport at 3 a.m. after his plane was 13 hours late.
Barazi also was surprised at how hard it was to leave his real family back home. When he saw his brother and sister crying, he almost changed his mind and stayed.
"That was heartbreaking and at the last moment, actually to be honest, I was like no I don’t want to leave my family."
It was his youngest sibling who ultimately motivated Barazi to follow through with his plan.
"My little brother who is nine years old said 'no, you need to follow your dream, we’ll be OK.' When I heard this from a nine years old boy I said yeah, I’m gonna do it.”
Barazi has already lost an uncle to what he euphemistically calls “the crisis.” He doesn't want to talk about any of the details. It's too painful.
And now that he’s in Parkville, he does find himself wondering if–when he ventures off campus–people will link him to the terrorists back home.
"You all know Isis are not Muslims. They’re just some group of people who are trying to give a false view about Muslims. Syrians got out of their counties to be safe," he says.
Barazi's sponsor at Park, Steve Youngblood, believes it is inevitable the young Syrian will run into some prejudice.
Youngblood has traveled the world teaching something called Peace Journalism – the practice of journalism with the intent of resolving conflict, of building relationships. He believes Barazi ultimately will have a good experience in Parkville.
"As you’ve discovered by talking to him, he’s very intelligent- and I think he understands that most people here do have open minds."
As Barazi enters his third week of classes at Park, he’s enjoying the friends he’s making, the campus and his studies.
But don’t ask about the food, he warns me. He misses his mother’s rice, he says diplomatically.
Barazi is looking forward a few things: Halloween, an American Thanksgiving, and perhaps most of all, returning to Syria when he finishes his degree. He has one goal.
"To make Syria better than it was before the crisis," Barazi says.
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer at KCUR 89.3. You can reach here on Twitter @laurazig or at email@example.com.