by Aryn Plax
photography by Claudia Ceja
Two families have fled from Syria and now reside in Southern California, trying to adjust to their new life in the West. The parents speak Arabic and struggle to learn English at the same pace as their young children, who started translating for their parents after just a few months in the United States. Due to their limited English proficiency, the parents gained jobs that do not require much communication. Their other children of high school and college age also have much catching up to do. While adjusting to American culture, their transition support comes from Firas Arodaki, a graduate student at the University of La Verne.
Firas, the president of the Muslim Student Association at the University of La Verne, is known for his interfaith work on campus and for his work with nonprofit organizations that help refugees. He constantly strives to improve the environment for Muslims on the University campus and also their image in the eyes of their non-Muslim peers. Firas founded the Muslim Student Association (MSA) with psychology major Nawal Atoura and chemistry major Rasha Dobouni in spring 2010. At its start, the MSA campaigned for the a prayer room on campus, which is now located near the West Gallery on the second floor of the Michael and Sarah Abraham Campus Center. The MSA also surveyed students about their knowledge of Islam, the results of which are captured in a 2012 video titled, “Muslim Student Association University of La Verne” found on Firas’ YouTube account. “It was fun, people laughed at themselves,” says University of La Verne Interfaith Chaplain Zandra Wagoner. “You could be comfortable with your ignorance.” From there, Zandra and the MSA leadership set up an event called Islam 101, in which they educated La Verne students about the faith’s central tenets. Included was Islamophobia, misconceptions about Islam and Muslim holidays. The MSA hosted movie nights and speaker events. MSA quickly became one of the largest non-Greek clubs on campus, with 100 to 150 people attending each event. For Firas, the club’s success is not solely dependent on numbers. “It depends what successful means,” Firas says. “In each event we did, we hit our target. We accomplished what we wanted, and they are different.”
Firas and his family moved to the United States 17 years ago in pursuit of a better life. Now, he is an American citizen who strives to provide the same path for Syrian refugees. He was born and raised in Kuwait to parents of Syrian origin. Due to their Syrian background, they were barred from Kuwaiti citizenship. In contrast, the United States grants citizenship to those born within its borders, offers tourist and working visas to expatriates and allows application for immigration status regardless of one’s origins. The most Firas’ family could gain in Kuwait was residency, which came with restrictions. For example, Kuwaiti universities cap the number of expatriates and individuals with residency accepted, and children of non-Kuwaiti families have a tough time gaining a seat in a desired public school. Non-Kuwaitis also receive different treatment than Kuwaitis at Kuwaiti airports. “In customs, the cops have different dealings for different nationalities,” Firas says. “There’s an aisle for Kuwaitis, there’s an aisle for people from the Arab Gulf, and there’s one for people who are neither. I went to the aisle for ‘none of both’ as a Syrian, and then as an American, and I can distinguish the difference. When giving the Syrian passport, the cop was not so respectful. You can tell from his tone. But when I came with my American passport, I could see the respect. I could see that I’m a valuable person, even though I speak Arabic. I think the consideration was they were looking at the passport itself, not at the person.”
Still, entry into American society had its struggles. Firas’ first three months in the United States were riddled with culture shock. He toiled to learn English, an entirely new language, as Arabic is the official language of Kuwait. He adjusted from the conservative culture of Kuwait to what he calls the more egalitarian culture of the United States. Firas says that the United States has a fluid class system. “There are classes in Kuwaiti society, like first class citizen, second class citizen or residents actually; but here, everybody is equal. Whatever you do, you cannot humiliate anybody. [As] either a worker or a laborer—like working for a cleaning company—there’s not that discrimination happening. It was fascinating for me.” He says when he tells this to people who have not witnessed American culture, he “gets a weird look.” Nevertheless, in Firas’ experience, people were treated unequally in other areas post-9/11. In 2006, the year before he obtained full citizenship, Firas says he entered the United States with a green card, only to spend three hours at customs and one hour in interrogation, thanks to the Bush-era policy of (he makes air quotes with his fingers) “random selection.”
At La Verne, Firas explored three different majors before discovering his passion for computer programming. Following his 2012 graduation, he first worked in information technology at MEDxm and then as a technician at Laptop Masters. He continued to volunteer at nonprofits. In 2016, he matriculated in La Verne’s leadership management program to widen his career opportunities.
Now, his career direction is to specialize in the nonprofit sector, for seeing the improvement of refugee families is what he finds the most rewarding. “In the couple of months that I visit a family, I see the improvement that has happened—when they get a job, when the kids are speaking English fluently—sometimes better than me—even though I stayed here for 10 years. It is a remarkable time. I feel that I did my job.”
His impressive record as a volunteer started with the American Rescue Fund, which supported Syrian refugee orphans living in Turkey. The organization supplied ovens for bakeries, built water wells in Syria, and donated warm clothes so refugees could survive the harsh, snowy winters. When the American Rescue Fund converted into the American Relief Fund, it changed its mission to focus on refugees living locally. Firas holds the position of chief financial officer. Locally, ARF helps adults find jobs and assists children applying to schools. Syrian refugee families find sponsorship as well as association with peer families. Often, the refugees need assistance managing documents and bills. Firas says that, for most families, rent is the biggest problem they face. ARF provides a six-month program in which families get $200 to $600 a month for rent.
Firas also co-founded in 2005 the Syrian American Council (SAC) youth committee, to which he now serves as an adviser. The committee exists to educate Syrian-American youth about the Syrian revolution, which began March 15, 2011. Last year, Firas met with Representative Norma Torres (CA-D) and convinced her to co-sponsor H.R. 1677, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2017, which put sanctions on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “Whenever I leave the meetings, I feel like I narrated the story of the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution. I feel like I got the word out,” Firas says. “I really feel unlimitedly happy.”
Prior to the revolution, SAC pushed for civil liberties in Syria, which Firas describes as a “dictatorship.” The Syrian people pressured the government to free political prisoners, conduct democratic elections, and to gain freedom of speech. These demands were met with force. “You would just vanish,” Firas says. “The government killed hundreds of people.” In contrast, Americans have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Despite this, Firas did not always feel safe in the United States practicing his religion. During the Bush administration, he feels that he was under constant investigation due to his faith, whether that was through “random selection” at the airport, or through suspicion from the general public. During President Barack Obama’s term, he feels the tension eased. “I could move freely in the airport,” Firas says. When Donald Trump utilized xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric during his presidential campaign, Firas says he was not as afraid as he was under Bush. This was because he had gained his citizenship. “I already established my identity,” Firas says. “I know my rights.” And he is certain that he belongs. “I’m not different from anyone. I’m not labeled as a ‘stranger’ in the country. I became a citizen, so I can be myself. I can be normal, regardless of what I do.”