The tattered flag of the Syrian government flying in Aleppo.

Toufik laughs outwardly at my question. “No, there’s no party scene at all. You’d be lucky to meet cool people in your classes and go to cool places after school was out.” He continues, describing his dissatisfaction with the college nightlife in Syria. “No Greek life, no crazy house parties—maybe Christmas parties. Instead you’d have to go out to bars and clubs, see if there were any good DJs playing in Aleppo, that sort of thing.”  He adds with another chuckle, “You need to know cool people to go, though.”

In many ways, 26 year-old Toufik Simo is familiar to me. His anecdotes about college life are relatable to any university student around the world. Being a Syrian Kurd, he nods in understanding when I relate that my Kurdish family gives me a hard time about my juvenile Kurdish language skills. Having migrated to the United States once the Syrian Civil War began spiraling out of control, he also has stories that are pure Americana. “I just went on a two-week road trip. 3,200 miles around the South and Midwest, passing through 12 cities. Passed through Kansas City, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Nashville, Louisville… I travelled alone, but met some friends in the cities I visited.”

Despite our similarities, it was clear where our histories diverged—He is a young professional who was forced to flee from one of the most horrific conflicts of the modern era, and that has profoundly shaped his life’s trajectory.

Toufik Simo

Forged in the Fertile Crescent

“I was born in Aleppo. I lived there for three years, but I was so young I don’t really remember it. Then, I moved to Saudi Arabia because my dad had a contract to work there as a doctor.” Toufik lived there until he was 17, when he returned to Syria to study at the University of Aleppo. Despite the majority of his upbringing taking place in Saudi Arabia, he never quite seemed to fit in with the culture. “The friends I have now—Syrians and Americans—are shocked to learn I grew up in Saudi Arabia. ‘How did you turn out normal?’” they ask half-seriously and half-jokingly.  Toufik explains that he visited Syria every summer, and that he grew up in an insulated compound in Saudi Arabia for the most part. “My engagement in the country wasn’t huge. In the compound, there were lots of Pakistanis, non-Saudi Arab families, and some Westerners. When I hear about Saudi Arabia on the news, I tune my ears in. But, Syria is still closer to my family.”

In 2007, Toufik began his college life in Aleppo. He studied economics with a concentration in finance and banking. “College was much more European in style than American. You went to classes to listen to lecture and took basically one giant test at the end of the semester.” He adds wistfully, “there was really no homework.” During his first year, Toufik took a class on nationalism, socialism, and culture. “I didn’t know anything about the wars that Syria had fought with Israel prior to that class. I had to cram for two days before the test, and I passed. I had a friend who grew up in Syria and failed it”. He finished off his gloating as if his buddy was listening to him. “It was all multiple choice. It wasn’t hard.”

Outside of classes, there was not much to do at college besides hang out with friends. “There was like honestly one club, the Ba’ath Party Club. My first week in college, I was just sitting on a bench on campus. This kid comes up to me and asks where the party building was. Since I’d spent so much time in Saudi Arabia, I really didn’t know much about Syrian politics. So, I asked, ‘which party?’ The kid responded ‘the Party!’ Turns out the Ba’ath party had the most beautiful building on campus.” He also didn’t spend a lot of time in social clubs. “Ethnic social clubs were illegal for Kurds, but were okay for other groups”. As a result of this state sanctioned discrimination, Toufik says, many Kurds simply hung out exclusively with other Kurds in informal settings. This also made him uncomfortable. “But because I grew up in Saudi Arabia, I was more detached. I kept my identity and race acknowledged. I made sure that my Kurdish friends knew I’m Kurdish and that I love the Kurds, but it’s not a solution to isolate ourselves.”

A Growing Storm

The violence that would consume Syria beginning in Toufik’s third year of college was foreshadowed by state military training over one summer. “All men had to go to army training for two weeks to learn more about the Ba’ath party and how to use a Kalashnikov.” When the Arab Spring first came to Syria, Toufik was excited. The first protests cropped up around Damascus and took some time to reach Aleppo. However, once they reached the city, “a lot of protests started on campus.” In the non-violent days of the revolution, Toufik was hopeful for the future. “I participated in a few demonstrations, walking and shouting for freedom. One of the biggest protests on campus was when a UN delegation was visiting the university, and some of the students from the university held revolutionary flags up by the gates of the school.” There was a surprising diversity of opinion on campus, though. Many students were pro-regime. However, most people did not say their opinions because they were afraid of retaliation from government or rebel sympathizers.

A few weeks into protests, though, it was clear that the situation was changing. “The revolution started peacefully, no doubt. But, protesters were attacked by the government. After that, it was like a pressure cooker. Farmers and people in the countryside had guns, and they started to fight back. Peaceful people, like student protesters, were kicked out of the revolution. It just wasn’t a movement for us anymore. The revolution’s legitimacy was going away, and I felt the peaceful days of the revolution were also about to go away. Things were going to get messed up.”

Toufik’s prediction proved prescient. Throughout his final year of college, peaceful protests continued in Aleppo. However, it was clear that the storm of war was going to engulf the city. “It was really violent in the suburbs. While on campus, you could hear planes and gunfire in the distance”. Toufik did not want to get caught up in the violence, but he also didn’t want nearly five years of school to go to waste. “In the weeks just before my final year would end, the violence came to Aleppo. It got really, really violent just three days before final exams, and the university shut down without warning.”

He still did not want to leave the city in case the university reopened. It took a call from his parents living back in Saudi Arabia to convince him to flee in the early summer of 2012. “The Free Syrian Army had just broken into the city, and were nearing the airport. There were rumors that Aleppo was going to be taken. My parents said, ‘you need to leave now’. So, I booked a flight that was set to leave in two days. I had to leave eight hours early to catch my flight because rebel and government forces had closed off most of the roads”.

Rebuilding a Life

Back in Saudi Arabia, he lived with his parents for six months. He watched the news every day, hoping that the university would reopen so he could take his exams and get his degree. After a few months of waiting, he gave up and started trying to transfer his credits to other schools. Saudi Arabia did not accept credit from Syrian schools, and he was not familiar enough with the university system in Jordan to apply. He had a career talk with his dad. “He knew I had always wanted to go to America,” (previously in our conversation, Toufik had told me that he watched MTV religiously growing up), “so I applied to a public school in Ohio as a freshman and was accepted. I was surprised that I was granted a visa so quickly after visiting the U.S. Consulate.”

Unfortunately, his credits did not transfer with him. He continually prodded the administration, but to no avail. He even enlisted his friend, the president of the student government, in lobbying the university to grant transfer credit, but had no success. Finally, it appeared he had a breakthrough. “A friend from university back in Syria said he knew another guy from the University of Aleppo who was able to get his credits accepted at the Illinois Institute of Technology.” In the summer of 2013, he was accepted into Illinois’s business administration program with a concentration in finance. Toufik would still have to study another year and a half to receive a degree, but there was finally an end in sight.

“I definitely liked American college better. There’s this emphasis on leadership. The word ‘leadership’ is so mainstream in the United States, but it’s very exclusive in Syria. I’m so grateful, because they’re trying to teach 20-somethings to be leaders. In an American education, you’re also more engaged, like you’re actually going to university. It’s your life. In Syria, I lived at my own place. In Illinois, at first I lived in the dorms. I really liked dorm life but… it was overpriced.” For one of the first times in our conversation, Toufik began fondly reminiscing about college in Syria. “Tuition was really cheap. It was 250 to 500 Syrian pounds per year, which is around $20.” I asked him for clarification: “$20,000?” “No, just 20.”

Leave to Serve Thy Country

Toufik has had success since moving to the United States. After graduating this December, he just recently began working as a data quality analyst at a bank in Chicago. When asked if he planned to make the United States his adoptive home, he was clear that he plans to stay here in the medium term, but his ultimate goal is to return to Syria. “My sister lives in the States, so it’s nice being able to see her. I’m planning on staying in Chicago for a while. I will move back to Syria eventually. I can definitely see it. But, not now, because of the chaos.”

He pauses for a moment to elaborate on the chaos. “I have friends who are still in Syria. Today, there was a Turkish bombardment on the northwest part of Aleppo, a town called Efrin. My friends were posting pictures of the air bombing on Facebook today. They were updating people on which areas were affected by it, who had been killed.”

By gaining experience with leadership and the private sector in the United States, Toufik hopes to build up a résumé and skill set strong enough to help his home country. “I want to go back to help rebuild. Specifically, I want to work on empowering the Kurds so they are treated as first class citizens. Real equality needs to be established for everyone in Syria. I could see myself as a channel between the Syrian government and the Kurdish population. By the time I’m that age, maybe I’ll be in the public sector. Or, I might have my own business, a consulting business maybe. But regardless, I will participate in public life. The kind of change I want to do requires working with the government in some way or another.”

Even when the conversation shifts to grim topics of destruction and death, Toufik does not dwell on them for long. Every macabre reality seems to spark in him ideas for remedies. In many ways, he talks as if he is living not in the present, but the future. A future for his country that he desperately hopes to realize.

Image Credits: Majd Mohabek/Flickr, Toufik Simo

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