Zeina and Jamal use the words honor and lucky when talking about their arrival at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
They are honored to be two of 14 students from Syria attending the South Side university, part of an initiative by IIT to bring some of Syria’s brightest talent to its campus at a time when many Syrian universities are closed amid destruction from a raging civil war.
“Did I really make it?” Zeina, 22, said she asks herself.
“We are qualified students,” Jamal, 19, said, “but maybe we are lucky. You need luck.”
Last week, I wrote about IIT’s two-month summer scramble to bring Syrian students here. Generous donors and an organization of Syrian expatriates called Jusoor helped make it happen.
Yet getting to the U.S. was an arduous task for the students, who asked that their last names be withheld because they don’t want to draw attention to their families in Syria.
The American embassy in Syria closed earlier this year, which forced the students to secure their student visas in neighboring countries.
“We thought it would be impossible for them to get here,” Megan Mozina, IIT’s assistant director for international outreach, told me.
Zeina planned to go to Jordan from the city of Homs but a main road was closed because of violence. Instead she went to Lebanon, although that border area is dangerous. She was not afraid.
“I lived 1œ years with shootings and bombings,” she said.
Jamal took a risk by leaving his home in Aleppo, one of the hardest hit cities, to head to Turkey.
Many men his age are being forced to join the government or rebel forces.
“My brother can’t leave the house,” he said, “or they will get him.”
Shortly after he secured his visa in Istanbul, Jamal got on a plane to head to the U.S.
Zeina returned to Syria and started her journey from Damascus, unsure whether her plane would take off because many flights do not.
Yes, they are lucky. And determined.
Both are in awe of the way Americans embrace technological advancements and are constantly seeking breakthroughs in engineering and sciences. They want to be a part of that.
They say that a running joke among friends is that if Steve Jobs, whose biological father was Syrian, had grown up in Syria, he wouldn’t have become an Apple genius but a compact disc salesman because Syrians aren’t groomed for technological innovation.
They are part of a generation that wants to buck that trend. As children, Zeina and Jamal could take apart computers and put them back together. So their fields of study are a natural fit: Zeina is an information technology major and Jamal is majoring in computer science.
They maintain an extraordinary level of optimism and ambition amid constant worry about their loved ones back home.
“People lose homes,” Jamal said of life in Aleppo. “People don’t do anything. They are dead but not really dead.”
Zeina is fortunate that her sister also was accepted at IIT, though their parents remain in Homs. Jamal said he feels guilty because he got out of Syria and left behind his brother. They try to communicate with their families through Skype but electrical outages often make that impossible.
Still, they are enthusiastic about their studies, eager to succeed. I asked what keeps them focused and upbeat.
“Someday my country will need me,” Jamal said, “to help rebuild it. Nobody loves Syria like it citizens.”