At Al-Furat University in Syria, Muhammad Sinjar studied English language and literature. He likes to joke he has always been interested in tragedy, which is now in full supply in his home country. Sinjar left Syria in 2012. He said it was the hardest decision he ever had to make.
Today Sinjar teaches English at Montgomery College’s Refugee Center and is adjusting to life in the United States. He says he knows how to motivate his students who, like Sinjar, have been through their own challenging circumstances.
It wasn’t long ago that Sinjar was leading a relatively normal life in Syria. He grew up in a city near the Euphrates River with his parents, a brother, and ten sisters. After college, Sinjar began working as an English instructor.
When the revolution started in 2011, Sinjar wasn’t especially concerned. The trouble spots were still far away and like many Syrians he believed President Bashar al-Assad would simply squash any dissent.
Over time, of course, things got worse. Sinjar, his mother, some of his sisters and his father, who was battling cancer, were displaced from their home in Deir Zour twice. They lived without electricity, phone service, and gasoline for their cars much of the time. Once, while driving some of his family members to a safer location, his car was stopped and a teenager pointed a gun at him. (After he left Syria, his family was displaced twice more from their home; they now live in Damascus and do not know what happened to the family home where Sinjar grew up.)
In 2011, Sinjar received a call from a representative of the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital. They were in Syria and needed help with English and navigating the government bureaucracy. Sinjar had worked with the group before but turned them down this time to recover from an exhausting semester of teaching. But after several calls pleading for his help, Sinjar agreed to volunteer.
At the hospital, he met one of the American managers, Rebecca. Soon she was spending her vacation time visiting Sinjar in Lebanon (where they could both travel freely) instead of visiting her own family in Boston.
In 2012, Sinjar made plans to leave Syria. Besides the deteriorating conditions there, he wanted to start a new life with Rebecca. He cried every day the last week of his life in Syria, knowing he might never see his father or family ever again.
Worse yet, he was not sure he could leave. Because he had once, briefly, taught a course for a government agency, he was considered a state employee. State employees must get permission and a special passport stamp from the government in order to leave. The government was not in a hurry to provide it.
He had agreed to meet Rebecca on August 27, 2012, in Lebanon, but with phone service out, he could not contact her about the potential delay. He considered a risky move. He could freely travel to Lebanon with just an ID. But once he was in Lebanon, how would he would get out without a passport?
His bus was scheduled to leave at 9 p.m. He did not get the official papers to leave until that morning.
It was just the beginning of his journey to the United States. Because the American Embassy in Syria had closed, his application and his visa interview were transferred to Jordan. It took 16 months to process his application during which time he could not leave Jordan.
Today, Sinjar and Rebecca are married and call Washington, DC, home. Syria is never far from his mind though, and he calls his mother in Damascus almost daily.
He is especially impressed by the diversity of people in the U.S.; Syria was very homogeneous. “Living here makes you learn how to accept differences, accept other people,” he says.
And Sinjar says he appreciates the rights he has in the United States “Living under a dictator means any day could be a last day. When I drive my car to work, no one can stop me or accuse me. There you can be stopped and thrown in jail…detained for years or forever of course with torture. Many people have died in prison,” he says.
“Even before the war, the regime was terrible. We had money and everything but we did not have dignity. We did not have civilian rights there; that is why I love it here.”
Most of all, Sinjar is enjoying American life, grilling in the backyard, and cheering on the New England Patriots.