From Aleppo to Montclair: Escaping War and Finding Refuge

By Awije Bahrami, Entertainment Editor

Fadi Hilani in front of his office in Schmitt Hall.

Four years ago, at his office at the University of Aleppo, Syria, Fadi Hilani recalled conversing with a visitor when all of a sudden a bomb struck close to his office building and the glass window shattered into pieces. He said he remembered seeing smoke rising out of the building next to his. A few seconds later, military officers entered the building for evacuation.

“I didn’t know if I would make it to the exit alive,” said Hilani.

According to Hilani, people were dying every day. Not only was Aleppo  targeted and bombed, but other Syrian cities as well. Hilani had been following the news. The whole war had been a life changing event for him and millions of other Syrians, but the incident at the University of Aleppo was the first time he was personally so close to getting killed. Everything happened within seconds and he kept thinking to himself, “Will I manage to live a life? Will I have time to reflect on what happened? Or is that it? Is that the end of my career as a researcher, as an academic professor?”

Four years later, he has managed to escape the war in Syria through his professional ambitions. Professor Hilani came to Montclair State University in the summer of 2013. Through the International Institute of Education, he received a scholarship to be a visiting scholar. Hilani’s field of study is language and society, and some Montclair State professors, most notably Susana Sotillo, were working on a similar subject, which is one of the reasons why he was placed at Montclair State. In addition to teaching at Montclair State, Hilani also teaches Advanced Composition for English Language Learners at Kean University.

Born in 1978, Fadi spent the first six years of his life in England while his father was completing his PhD in electrical engineering. Even though his parents were originally from Syria and native Arabic speakers, they never spoke Arabic to him during their stay in England. When they moved back to Syria in 1984, he always needed his parents or his brother in the beginning to translate for him.

Since he spoke English well after he finished high school and the job market in Syria was in demand of people who spoke English, he decided to pursue a degree in English literature. Fadi eventually went back to England, not as a tourist but as a student to complete his Masters degree and PhD in sociolinguistics at the University of Essex, Colchester. In 2008, he came back to Aleppo where he continued to teach English at the university within the Higher Institute of Languages.

The year 2011 was simultaneously the happiest and saddest year of his life. He got married in January and the civil war escalated in March. In his own words, “things were going from bad to worse” in his home country. More than once, the University of Aleppo became the scene of a battlefield.  The most infamous one took place on Jan. 15, 2013, two weeks before he left the country. More than 80 people died in the attack. “That was one of the worst days at the University of Aleppo,” he remembered.

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Aftermath of the second blast at the University of Aleppo on January 15,2013. The attack took place two weeks before Hilani left the country. –Photo courtesy of Flickr (Felim McMahon)

It was becoming increasingly difficult to do research for professors in Aleppo and other Syrian cities. By 2013, all he had finished were unpublished papers. “In the academic field, especially in America they say, ‘You publish or you perish,'” Fadi said. He was unable to engage in international conferences or publish with his colleagues in other countries. “It was high time for me to think about my professional career,” said Fadi.

He originally planned to go abroad and teach at a university for a year or two, and when the war ended, he and his wife would start a new life in Syria. He soon received a short-term contract with the University of Jordan. However, the situation in Jordan was neither pleasant nor safe for a Syrian.

Fadi explained that although the Jordanian people were generous people, the government placed restrictions on Syrian refugees to enter the country. The government-owned radio and television broadcasts tried to convince the public that Syrian refugees are stealing Jordanian jobs. “The only reason I was able to enter the country is because I had a contract with the University of Jordan, otherwise I wouldn’t have even thought of going to the country,” said Fadi.

Luck was on Fadi’s side. He received a scholarship to teach at Montclair State University only three months after he came to Jordan. However, Fadi’s plan to go back to Syria after a year or two never became a reality. His daughter was born in 2014, his son in 2015 and his youngest daughter was born two weeks ago. “That was the time when we realized that with our kids born here and the war not having an end in Syria that we will stay here.”

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Portrait of the Hilani family. Hilani’s wife, Lama Chamie, right, hopes that their children will one day be able to live in Syria and learn about the life, the culture and the people.–Photo courtesy of Fadi Hilani

Hilani’s wife, Lama Chamie, is a stay-at-home mom and has been taking English language classes on and off since she got here. The couple makes decisions together and when they feel like things are not going the way they want them to, they don’t blame each other. She thinks that if she shows her husband that she firmly believes in him and in what he does that it will keep him strong.

Living abroad for a longer period of time and experiencing new cultures had been on Chamie’s agenda. However, she never imagined the war in Syria to escalate to such an extent and for her and her family not to go back for the foreseeable future. “I live with the dream that the war will end,” she expressed. “And our children will have the chance to live there and learn about life, the culture and the people.”

Fadi’s parents, sister and brother and their families still live in the western government-controlled part of Aleppo. The house has been damaged before and they had to leave it twice. However, Fadi said that it is still much safer than the eastern part of Aleppo. From a military perspective, “the people who lived in the eastern part under the control of the opposition had to face the military action from the government, whereas the people living in the western part of the city didn’t have to face these consequences,” he explained.

The chairperson of the linguistics department at Montclair State, Eileen Fitzpatrick, converses with Fadi every once in a while and has gotten to know him over the years. Upon asking what kind of person Fadi seems to be, she tried to find the right words to describe him. She said that from talking to him, it is obvious that he planned out his life very carefully. “He did everything he was told to do to have a good life,” she said. After contemplating for a few seconds she added, “I think that there is a feeling in him that he did everything right. Nevertheless, he can’t rely on that.”

The situation in Syria doesn’t seem to get better and the photos and videos from the most recent sarin gas attack makes it unbearable to watch. “I think you are very brave for still being able to live your life. If it were my country I think I would fall apart,” I confessed.

“I think about it all the time, and believe me I try not to fall apart. Every time just watching the news, seeing what is happening to people in Syria, is enough to break your heart…,” he revealed. “I tell you it’s not easy. The worst feeling is that you can’t do anything, your hands are tied. But I will never lose hope that one day I will be able to return to Syria.”