Middle Eastern students’ experiences offer glimpse into another world

With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and nuclear tensions in Iran, the Middle East is a subject of constant debate, discussion and dispute. Americans would be hard-pressed to turn on the television or open the newspaper and not see the latest news from the battlefront, and yet many know very little about the region half a world away.

Kettering Fairmont High School boasts students who have lived in the Middle East and can give a little insight into this world that is so often a mystery to Westerners.

Students from Jordan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq and other countries in the Middle East or Asia Minor walk the halls of Fairmont. Their experiences vary widely depending on where they came from, be it Westernized and prosperous Turkey or war-torn Iraq. Their stories offer a glimpse into an ancient and conflicted region. “These students have much to share,” says Dolly Wehbeh, a Fairmont English Speakers of Other Languages translator and tutor.

Push factors

Why these students immigrated to America depends on the conditions in their home countries. Some have come with dreams of economic opportunity, while others are fleeing conflict or persecution.

TulyaganovViolence since the start of the wars in their countries has prompted millions of Iraqis and Afghanis to flee to places like Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Dilshod Tulyaganov, a Fairmont senior, describes a similar situation in his homeland. Two years ago, Tulyaganov left Uzbekistan, a country ravaged by inflation and a depression.

“The economy is very tough right now. People don’t even have money to feed their family,” he said. A full education is only a fleeting dream for some Uzbekistani kids, who have to work in fields instead of going to school. “People really want to come to the U.S., but it’s too expensive. We would go without food to save money to come. The government isn’t letting people leave, and they will kill them if they try.”

The Uzbek government is notorious for violating human rights. Tulyaganov recalls the 2005 Andijan massacre, where troops gunned down more than a thousand protesters. To this day, the Uzbek government has not released full information about the event, but witnesses have relayed the tale to the world.

“What really happened was the people tried to speak to the president. They were waiting for him outside his house, women, too. The tanks came, and he ordered them to shoot. People ran anywhere they could. When more troops came, they refused to shoot because the protesters were their brothers. So the president ordered the troops shot, too,” said Tulyaganov. “You keep your mouth shut if you want to live.”

Islom Karkimov has remained the Uzbekistani president since 1990. “It’s a dictatorship man. He does what he wants,” said Tulyaganov.

Terrorism in the eyes of teenagers

KilicThe U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is far from unanimously supported by people in the Middle East. “People look at America sending their army and think, ‘How can we believe they won’t hit us next?’” said Mahmut Kilic, a senior from Turkey.

The Taliban, one of America’s primary targets, had huge marches in Turkey. “They are still hard to find because they move around so much,” Kilic said. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is one of the most influential terrorist organizations in Turkey, but the government has fought them by weakening their base of support. 

Turkey is right next door to the Iraq war and allows the U.S. to use its air force bases to run missions and transport troops and supplies into Iraq. The nation serves as a safe haven for Iraqi refugees and provides water to Iraqi citizens. “At the same time,” said Kilic, “the Turkish people are heartbroken because they are helping the U.S. fight other Muslims.”

Militant Islamic extremist groups like the Taliban are still active in Middle Eastern nations like Uzbekistan and, as Tulyaganov says, there is no one tougher. “They grow up in the mountains. At 5 years old, these kids can load and assemble a weapon. At 10, they can shoot an AK-47,” he said. “They become so resistant to pain from opium. Some do not have any choice but to join.”

finished headMost of the extremists’ power is in isolated and impoverished regions in the Middle East where there are few education or work opportunities. Restless young men, desperate for purpose, become easy targets for Taliban recruiters.

Tulyaganov saw the devastation wrought by terrorism first hand. He vividly recollects a day when he rushed out of school after hearing an explosion to see smoke rising over the horizon. A children’s store in a nearby bazaar had been bombed, taking the life of his neighbor’s daughter.

“It was a sad day,” said Tulyaganov. He was 14 at the time.

Wehbeh, who works with Fairmont students from the Middle East every day, says these students are very brave. “Despite their past, they have the will to keep struggling on.”

A look at another side of the region

If there is one thing the Middle East is, it’s diverse. The war-torn nations like Iraq and Afghanistan and developing nations like Uzbekistan depict one side of the region, while prosperous countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, The United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey portray another. Turkey has the 17th highest gross domestic product in the world and is one of the most progressive nations in the Middle East in terms of human rights.

Hanandeh goodThousands of years of history come to life through the art, architecture and literature of the Middle East. Humble villages become metropolises like Cairo and Istanbul, with skyscrapers reaching for heaven. The flat desert gives way to snow capped-mountains. It may seem like a whole different world, but in some ways it is simply a crossroads of many. Today, the region still holds much of its mystery, despite Western influences. 

Religion in the Middle East

The Middle East, though predominantly Muslim, has a considerable Christian population, and holds the only Jewish state, Israel. Muslims, Christians and Jews meet at Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and one of the oldest cities on the planet. These major religions all trace their origins to this region. It may be this long tradition of devotion to faith that makes religion such an important part of Middle Eastern life.

“Usually people pray five times a day,” said Kilic, who is Muslim. “When Christians go to church on Sunday, Muslims go on Friday. On Fridays, everybody goes to the mosque.”

Islam is centered around the holy text known as the Qu’ran – or Koran – which is regarded as the final word of Allah, or God, in Arabic. Tulyaganov says the Koran and the Bible are very similar.

“They came from the same place, but they went in different directions. I would say more than 15 percent of what’s in one is in the other.”

Aiding the poor and those who cannot help themselves is one of the main “pillars” of Islam. Many Muslims give Zakat, which is the sharing of wealth for the greater good and those less fortunate. During the month of Ramadan, people fast and refrain from any indulgency from sunrise to sunset.

“It is a time to purify your soul and refocus your attention on God,” said Sumayyah Shermadou, a Fairmont sophomore who was born in America but whose parents came from Libya. She says Ramadan is also a chance to see what it is like to be poor and hungry. In some parts of the Middle East, people will give up food and shelter for a traveler, even if he or she is a stranger. This comes from a story that the prophet Muhammad came disguised as a destitute traveler; therefore, any stranger could be a messenger of God.

One of the Western misconceptions of people from the Middle East and Muslims is that their faith or culture ties directly to violence and terrorism. The groups that carry out violent acts represent only a small faction of extremists.

“People will say, ‘Oh, you are a Muslim, so you are a terrorist.’ This isn’t true at all,” said Kilic.

Just as all Muslims are not terrorists, all terrorists aren’t associated with the Middle East. “The terrorists are everywhere,” said Zaid Hanandeh, a freshman from Jordan.

Coming to America

Since 9/11, it has become harder for people from the Middle East to immigrate to America.

“They check your background to see what kind of life you lived in your other country,” said Kilic. “Even if you plan on going to college, they only let so many people in.”

The process for becoming an American is not an easy one, as most immigrants can attest to. Tulyaganov said that if an immigrant has one document that isn’t filled out right, the U.S. will send the person right back. His mother had never been outside of Uzbekistan. Needless to say, it was not an easy transition.

“Most of them have a relative or friend in the U.S. that helps them get here,” said Valerie Hough, an English Speakers of Other Languages teacher. “From day one, they are submersed in American culture. Sometimes there is more sinking than swimming.”

The students in this story did not mention any specific cases in which they felt discrimination against them because of ethnicity or religion. Many, in fact, say they feel comfortable at Fairmont. “I love Fairmont. There are a lot of students; I have a lot of friends here,” he said.

But a few still had some instances of hatred that they could relay.

 “At a Muslim school in Indiana, the principal got a paper accusing the students of being terrorists and saying that they need to leave the country,” said Tulyaganov. This was after the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Kilic and Fadi Afram, a junior from Iraq, feel that Americans and people from the Middle East could understand each other if they would just research a little. “It seems like so few actually research what is going on,” said Afram.

The reactions of Americans who practice Islam or who come from the Middle East to events like 9/11 and the Ft. Hood shooting are generally like those of other Americans: one of horror and grief. There is a clear distinction between extremists who believe in exercising their faith through violence and those who simply wish to live their lives.

“I understand Muslims aren’t perfect,” said Tulyaganov. “But the ones who act with violence will have to pay for what they did in the afterlife.”

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