Refuge in Waco: Syrian refugees look to find home at Baylor, MCC

Damascus, Syria junior Amjad Dabi is not like most Baylor students. He migrated to the United States in 2013, leaving his family, to be able to escape the war zone and continue his education at Baylor. He is studying piano and pre-med. Trey Honeycutt | Lariat Photographer

By Helena Hunt, Staff Writer

Notes played on a piano stream out of an office in Roxy Grove. A piano pedagogy student bends over the black and white keys, playing what he came here to study, showing the work of years at Baylor.

The student is Damascus, Syria, junior Amjad Dabi. He has been studying the piano here since 2013. Dabi, like so many other students at Baylor, is also pre-med. After he graduates in 2017, he might continue to pursue music in graduate schools, or apply to medical programs. As any undergraduate, he is still deciding exactly what to do with the rest of his life.

But unlike most undergraduates at Baylor, Dabi is an immigrant from Syria. His home has been caught in civil war for about the last four years, since protests decrying the regime of President Assad began in March 2011. Dabi’s family still lives outside Damascus, which is largely controlled by Assad and pro-government forces but has also been caught in the throes of the conflict between rebel and government forces.

Dabi and his friend Andreh Maqdissi, who attends McLennan Community College, came to Waco in 2013. Dr. Bradley Bolen, who teaches piano at Baylor, was instrumental in bringing them here after meeting the two students at an American Voices workshop in Damascus in the summer of 2010. American Voices brings American music and instructors to young musicians in countries that have recently become independent, seeking to promote cross-cultural understanding and awareness.

As Bolen details on his blog, he first noticed Dabi’s and Maqdissi’s dedication and ambition during the workshops that summer. He kept in contact with them over the years and, as he noted the escalating conflict in Syria and the risks that both of them faced by remaining, he had the idea to bring them to the United States.

“The war was heating up, and these guys had done a great job of their educations and were actually close to finishing there. They decided, well, maybe they wanted to finish their educations and were trying to figure out how they could do it,” Bolen said. “In the process during that period I remember Andreh calling me having had a rocket grenade go across the front of his car, [which] blew up the building and the windows out of some of the cars around him.”

Although Maqdissi did not suffer any serious harm from the rocket grenade, Dabi suffered lacerations to his face after a car bomb detonated outside his home. Bolen calls these experiences a wake-up call for the students, who soon after left Syria for Thailand, where they stayed in an apartment owned by John Ferguson, the head of American Voices. Once in Thailand, they did not know whether they would be able to come to the United States or return home.

However, both Dabi and Maqdissi were accepted into their respective institutions with nearly full scholarships available. Seventh and James Baptist Church also gave them free housing once they arrived in Waco.

“Being at Baylor, I have met a lot of supportive people, starting with Dr. Bolen. The School of Music and the university have been extremely supportive of my education here and what I’m trying to do. I think it’s just been wonderful all along, in terms of having social, financial and educational support,” Dabi said.

Of course, Dabi’s mind is always with his family in Syria as well. Any phone call could contain news of a relative or friend’s injury or death.

“How many times do you expect to call someone in your family and the first thing they say to you is, ‘We’re all alive’?” Dabi said.

Dabi said that the obstacles to arriving in the U.S. were difficult for him and would be nearly insurmountable for his family. They are trying to bring his brother to the country, but financial and immigration difficulties remain a major impediment to his arrival.

The U.S. has so far accepted about 2,290 of the 4.2 million refugees who are fleeing the civil war in Syria. About 194 have come to Texas, which is one of the top six states for refugee resettlement. While President Obama pledged to accept 10,000 refugees in the coming year, the vetting and approval process can still take about two years.

That process may become even more demanding in the wake of the attacks in Paris. While no confirmed Syrian refugees were among the known attackers, the governors of 31 U.S. states, including Governor Abbott of Texas, oppose the entry of Syrian refugees. However, the authority to close state borders does not lie with these governors, but with the federal government. Several presidential candidates have also expressed opposition to immigration, or enhanced screening of potential refugees.

Dabi urges these lawmakers to consider the situation that these refugees are coming from.

“I would encourage people to actually look at the scale and the severity of this catastrophe, and for them to look up what the living conditions of these people that are living in refugee camps, or internally displaced in Syria, or even that are still living in Syria. Aside from the general war zone, there’s food shortages, there’s barely any electricity, nobody has any sort of fuel derivatives to warm themselves in the winter, and we’re coming on a very harsh winter. Just imagine living a day where you have no electricity, it is 20 degrees outside, and you have no means of warming yourself, and then imagine that happening every single day with no end in sight,” Dabi said. “I would also encourage people to look up whether such fears are actually rooted in truth.”

Bolen additionally urges politicians to look at the facts of the situation in Syria and the demographics of immigrants before closing our borders. He pointed to the thoroughness of the vetting process, saying that entry of refugees into the U.S. takes longer than for almost any other immigrant group due to the background checks that are in place.

Despite the difficulties he had in coming here, and the obstacles his family continues to face in Syria, Dabi is glad to have found another home in Waco.

“Being in a war zone sometimes it is hard not to lose faith in a lot of what humans can and want to do. But also, seeing the side of people who are willing to help, who are willing to take some time to [take] a great leap of faith in you, I think it’s the best cure for losing your faith in the world,” Dabi said.