[Audio] Meet Bassel, a Murray State International Student from Syria
As an ongoing series, we invite individuals who make up Murray State University's diverse body of international students to share some background into their native country, cultural traditions and experiences here at MSU. Matt Markgraf speaks with Bassel Alhashemi, an undergraduate student from Aleppo, Syria, studying biology. In a two-part conversation on Sounds Good, they discuss coming to Murray State, life growing up in Syria, how the media portrays the Syrian crisis, how his family is faring, hopes for the future and more.
Studying at Murray State
Bassel Alhashemi is in his senior year at Murray State University, studying here for three and a half years now. He graduated high school in Aleppo and is an undergraduate studying biology with a minor in chemistry. In his time at MSU, he says he's learned and grown a lot, made friends from all over the world and says he's learned as much or more from meeting people as he's learned in class.
Bassel hopes to study medicine or pharmacy after graduating. Interested in the body and human development, he wants to get into either the neurology or pharmacy fields, making medicine. He plans to continue studying the United States.
Growing up in Aleppo, he always wanted to travel. At a young age, he traveled with his parents and dreamed of studying abroad. He says that's how you learn - from other people. He was considering going to Germany, but had a better background in English and eventually came to Murray State, where he says it's affordable, people are friendly, the university is small but not too small and enjoys the smaller classroom sizes and ease of access getting around campus.
Coming to Murray State was one of the best decisions he's made, he says, and considers Murray his "comfort zone" and feels like it's his second home. At MSU, Bassel is a student ambassador and speaks with new and prospective students. He tells them to be open minded and adapt. When you're open minded, he says, and willing to listen to people, your views will change.
Growing up in Syria
Bassel says he owes a lot to his father for giving him a sense of responsibility and independence at a young age. He recalls going on road trips with friends around Syria and says this prepared him for eventually studying abroad. He wanted to travel to Turkey when he was 16 or 17 and his mother was worried about him leaving, but his dad encouraged him to go, saying that the trip would help him experience being on his own. Bassel says he's very fortunate to have gotten to go out and learn not to fear anything.
Bassel wasn't "shocked" coming to the United States because he expected differences and enjoys these differences. Growing up, he wasn't really into American movies and music as much as his friends. The United States isn't 100% what you see in the movies, he says, so if he had watched a lot of movies he'd have had a different idea of what the U.S. was like and might have been disappointed or might have come across as rude to people. Movies don't show how the typical American lives, he says.
The crisis seen in the news really got started about five years ago, he says, and before that it was a relatively safe country where people like to have fun. Aleppo is a bigger city than Murray and had more public transportation, restaurants and things to do. But it was also full of family and friends. He's sad now that people only hear about Syria in the context of bad news. Places getting destroyed and people killing each other wasn't how it used to be, he says.
Thoughts on Media & Politicians
The media has an agenda, wanting you to know a certain thing, grabbing your attention so that they are interesting to watch, Bassel says, adding that while it's true that Syria is in a bad place now, what the media doesn't portray as much is that ISIS is killing more Syrians than any other nation or people. More Syrians and Muslims are being killed, he says, than Christians or other groups in the area. He adds that the media doesn't adequately portray the suffering of Syrians.
Many people don't really know what the Middle East is, he says, referencing the misconception that people have of how Syria is a desert and everyone rides camels (Syria has mountains and lakes and is very green, he says, with few camels except for perhaps rural areas in the east).
People who have been to Syria have a different opinion than what's on the news, he says. People aren't always angry and yelling at each other. They generally like to have fun and be with family - the same values everywhere around the world. Regardless of what governments have done to each other, he says, people love each other.
When speaking with people in Murray, they often tell him they're sorry to hear about the crisis. Professors invite him to their house so that he doesn't spend the holidays alone. Bassel says Americans are a nicer than politicians on TV. He says he's never been discriminated against and says if he's nice to people then there's no reason for them to not be nice to him.
While some people might have different opinions about the issue, Bassel says he's never felt out of place or been made to feel what some politicians are trying to make him feel or are trying to portray. While he admits it's possible some Syrians have felt discrimination, he finds it sad when politicians try to ignite hatred and separate people to gain power - comparing this to policies of dictators in the Middle East like Muammar Gaddafi or Bashar al-Assad. Trying to separate people and getting them to fight each other keeps people from realizing the suppression of the regime, he says.
Family in Europe and Abroad
Some of Bassel's family is studying abroad, others are refugees. His family was all over the world before the crisis happened, either studying or traveling. Those seeking refuge are doing well, and content now that they're safe and not being targeted by the regime, ISIS or someone with a gun.
His mother lives in Turkey and his father was going back and forth across the border because of his business ties and investments in Syria. Bassel says he and his brother and sisters have been trying to convince him to go be with his mom in Istanbul. He says it's difficult convincing a 62 year-old person to leave everything he's worked to build his whole life, his fortune, his properties, to walk away. But he wants his father to be safe and understands why he's fighting to not go. It's a difficult conversation.
It's difficult for the older generations, he says, more than the younger generations. It's easier to leave because they were trying to pursue education and get jobs abroad anyway. But for someone who has been their for a lifetime, it's very hard.
And end in sight?
Bassel doesn't see the war ending any time soon, saying that too many people are fighting each other. It's a complicated and heart breaking situation. He's lost family members in the conflict and tries to avoid news during his final exams. It's difficult to talk about sometimes because he doesn't want to depress people, but when he gets a phone call and learns that someone has passed away or been killed, that the house or park he grew up in is destroyed - it's much harder than flipping on the television and hearing a politicians saying something nonsensical.
While it's hard to talk about, he doesn't mind when people ask because he says it helps people learn and learning can help others be understanding. He says when you listen to someone's culture you'll understand it more and treat people differently, adding that Syrians aren't bad people. It's frustrating to feel like he has to represent Syria when he's just one person, but says when you're nice to everyone, no matter what you represent, you'll represent it well.
Learning about Syria
Syria is smaller than Illinois. Bassel hopes people watch the news, but doesn't expect everyone to know every historical or cultural detail. He enjoys lectures about geopolitics at Murray State and has been on some panels discussing the Middle East and the culture of Syria, the Assad regime and how it started.
While Islam is most of the population, it's not a very religious country, he says. In northern Aleppo, he grew up around Kurds, Muslims, Armenians and Christians, which helped him be open minded. Many of his father's friends and business partners are Christian and he never really thought about it growing up. His mother is Muslim, but he and his father aren't particularly religious.
He says one of the good things about the Assad regime was that it was secular and didn't try to force religion on anyone. He says he didn't grow up in an environment where he had to pray or follow a certain sheikh. He says ISIS isn't really Sryian but just "psychos," crazy people, comparing them to virus.
Every nation has murderers, he says, from racist murderers in Charleston to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to ISIS in Syria. He says not every white person in Charleston is going to shoot people and not every Syrian person has bombs on him.
Road trips in Syria and the United States
In going on on road trips while studying at Murray State, Bassel says he's learned that United States is a huge country, from oceans and beaches to the sprawling desert to mountains. He's been to all but four states and has experienced nice people everywhere.
In Murray, he enjoys the local restaurants and meeting local people, talking to neighbors. He says when you pay at a local shop it goes back to the local community. In Syria, many local shops are having to close and people have to walk five blocks to get water or have no electricity half the time.
Bassel says he misses his mother's cooking. Syrian food uses a lot of olive oil, bread, herbs, rice and lamp. It's not unlike Greek and Mediterranean food. On road trips, he looks for Arabic restaurants and recently visited a Palestinian/Jordanian restaurant in Chicago. Since coming to Murray State, he's also developed a love for Indian and Thai food. You can get hamburgers and pizza in Syria, but there isn't a lot in the way of international cuisine.
Hopes for the future
Eventually the war will be over and will be behind us, but Syria will be a more international country with so many young people studying and learning abroad. Bassel says he's very optimistic about this, a better future with no dictatorship, murderers and thieves. Many countries around the world have gone through what Syria is going through and are in a much better place now, he says.
He talks about the future with his friends from Syria studying abroad, about speaking two or three languages and how some will return to rebuild with a more open-minded, understanding and educated culture. When they eventually meet together in Syria in the future, it will be more diverse than ever. Syrians will meet partners from other countries and the country will become naturally more international. He says the future will be good, it will take a while, but it will be good.