2016-10-27 / Front Page

'Now I Can Walk to School Without Fear'

By Olga Enger

Araz Khajarian, 21, risked her life to leave her war-torn home of Damascus, Syria and study at Salve Regina University. More than 1 in 10 Syrians have been wounded or killed since the beginning of the war in 2011, according to a 2016 report. (Photo by Olga Enger) Araz Khajarian, 21, risked her life to leave her war-torn home of Damascus, Syria and study at Salve Regina University. More than 1 in 10 Syrians have been wounded or killed since the beginning of the war in 2011, according to a 2016 report. (Photo by Olga Enger) Two years ago, Araz Khajarian risked her life every day she commuted to school in war-torn Damascus, Syria. Today, the 21-year old transfer student may walk or take the bus to Newport’s Salve Regina University, two options that were not possible in her home country due to stray bullets, bombs and a shattered infrastructure.

“One of our classmates was shot walking to school,” said Khajarian, speaking to Newport This Week in a campus coffee shop. “Four of us would commute together in a car. Each day, we guessed which roads were safe. We might have heard there were snipers on a road, so we would take another route. One day bullets shattered our rear window. We had a lot of close calls.”

As the conflict escalated, it became too dangerous to hold classes.

“We would study and just go to the exam. It was chaos. There were no emails or notifications about cancellations,” said the college junior.

With a rich command of English and a gregarious smile, it is easy to imagine Khajarian, like the majority of her classmates, grew up in New England. However, her journey to Salve Regina was lengthy and taxed with obstacles.

“When I first told my parents that I wanted to study abroad, they laughed. They thought it was a joke,” said Khajarian. Equipped with only English, which she perfected by watching television, and a love for learning, she took to the Internet to investigate opportunities.

Khajarian stumbled upon a scholarship program established for Syrian students through the Institute of International Education (IIE).

“It was around Christmastime in 2015 that I applied,” said Khajarian. To obtain transcripts, she risked her life commuting back and forth to the school and authorized translators, usually with no success. “All they have to do is print it out, but because the country is in war, nothing works well,” she said.

IIE has partnered with higher education institutions, including Salve Regina, which commit to full tuition waivers for qualified Syrian students. In return, IIE provides up to $50,000 to cover student living expenses.

Once she got accepted to Salve, the next hurdle was obtaining a U.S. visa.

“The American Embassy in Syria was shut down, so my mother and I traveled to Lebanon,” Khajarian said. A decision to accept or reject a visa is made on the spot and can be subjective. With so many Syrians trying to leave the country, the odds were stacked against her.

She made her case to study in Newport, handing over the required documents from the college. She provided her Armenian passport, arguing that her request was about more than just leaving the war-torn country. Despite risking her life to make it that far, the visa was declined.

“I was devastated,” said Khajarian. However, her stalwart resolve pushed her to try again. She requested another interview and in two weeks she returned to Lebanon with her mother. This time, she walked out of the embassy ecstatic. Her visa had been accepted and against all odds, she was headed to Newport, Rhode Island.

“Now I can walk to school without fear,” said Khajarian.

As Christians and Armenians, the Khajarian family is a minority in Syria.

Before the war, Syrian Christmas celebrations were similar to American traditions, with family gatherings, feasts and presents. But with the relentless sound of bullets outside her family’s apartment, food rations and a ruined economy, holidays are now overlooked.

“There is no way to think about doing more than just surviving. People don’t feel like doing anything anymore,” said Khajarian.

“For the last couple of holidays, we literally did nothing,” said the student. “When you are living in a war zone, there are electrical cuts. Most of the time, you are worrying when the electricity will come back on.”

On multiple occasions, bullets have pierced her family’s windows. “We try not to stand by the window, but our kitchen has two windows. You can’t always avoid the kitchen,” she said.

As the conflict evolved into a full-scale war, Syria’s fluctuant currency is now worth four times less than it was in 2011.

“You can’t plan economically, because you don’t know what is going to happen,” said Khajarian. “What are we going to plan for? We don’t know what is going to happen in five minutes,” she said, referencing civilians who are killed driving or walking down the street.

Her father’s job as a toy wholesaler has been deeply impacted by the war.

“Who is interested in toys? People are not going to buy those things anymore,” she said.

Khajarian returned home this summer and discovered a startling change to her community, which remains unstable.

“It may sound shocking, but there were new restaurants and bars. People are spending the little money they have at having fun, because they don’t know where they will be tomorrow. Everyone is like that now, including my friends. But nobody is happy. They don’t have a purpose. That’s exactly how I felt when I was there.”

Today, the ambitious student has a purpose. She plans to graduate in a year and pursue a job with a focus on human rights. She is immersed in academic life, has a strong circle of friends and is engaged in extracurricular activities, a luxury Syrian colleges did not offer. She checks in with her family every day.

Khajarian is often confused for a Syrian refugee, which she admitted can be frustrating.

“It’s a huge misunderstanding that when I say I’m Syrian, people assume that I am a refugee. But another problem is the stereotype of refugees, based on a small group in Europe. That’s not how it is.”

During her free time, Khajarian volunteers helping other Syrian students navigate the process of applying to study abroad programs. She is also working with the IIE to encourage more universities to join the consortium.

“With the currency devaluation, there is no way Syrians could pay for their education,” she said.

Khajarian recently began organizing a Salve Regina TEDx event, which is a concept she hopes could bring solutions to her home country.

“TEDx is about sharing ideas. This relates to Syria. You can think about rebuilding it or stopping what is going on there, at least the things that are hurting individuals and families.”

The event will take place on campus and she hopes to livestream the presentations online.

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