Ammar Mohrat’s family was unable to attend when he was the student commencement speaker at his graduation April 29 at St. Leo University in St. Leo, Florida.
While other families were there to see their loved ones receive their diplomas, his parents, Mohammed Amin and Maisson, and siblings Abdul Baset, Daiana, Tarek and Adnan were in the Middle East, watching it via online streaming. Mohrat has not seen his family for six years — except on Skype — and he doesn’t know when he’ll be with them again.
Mohrat, 26, fled Syria in 2011 under the dark of night. He packed a few belongings in a bag, said goodbye to his mother and made his way out of the country with the help of members of the Free Syrian Army. He was a protestor against the Assad regime and a wanted man. The path that led to his graduation is a testament to the power of welcome.
Dreams and democracy
How he made his way from there to the classrooms at St. Leo’s is a story of his courage and the Church’s welcome to people who have left or are leaving war-torn Syria.
“When I was in Jordan before coming to the United States, I had no future, no hope to continue my education,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “I will always be grateful for this opportunity that St. Leo’s gave me for the rest of my life.”
Mohrat, a Muslim, grew up in the Syrian city of Homs. When he was 6 years old, his father, an agricultural engineer, bought a computer, and Mohrat was immediately fascinated. The internet soon exposed him to the United States, and by the time he was 14, he wanted to pursue the American dream. He enrolled in Al-Baath University in Syria to study computer engineering after graduating from high school.
“Things began to change when I was in my second year at university,” he said at St. Leo’s commencement. “The people in Tunisia decided that they had enough of dictatorship and corruption, so the citizens rose up and went out to the streets to protest. They won, and their dictator fled. They had free elections and they could speak their minds freely for the first time in decades. Those of us in other Arab countries watched this on TV and online, and we thought that if Tunisians could do it, we could, too. So we went out on the streets and began to protest.”
Leave or die
It didn’t turn out the same for Syrians. President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces came out strong, and Mohrat saw about 100 of his friends killed or captured and led away to horrific prisons and torture. It was a full-blown civil war by December 2011 and cities — including his town — were being bombed. Mohrat knew that he was in danger.
“Syria will be back. Now you are hearing how radical groups are killing, but you will hear better things, good things about Syria, and about freedom. I want Americans to know this: Welcome refugees and open your arms to refugees. Even if we are from different cultures, in the end we believe in the same God but in different ways. That’s not really a huge difference.”
— Ammar Mohrat
“I was afraid that they would either arrest me and torture me, or force me to serve in the army and kill my friends,” he said. “You either die or you leave, and people decided to leave. How can we fight airplanes? How can we fight tanks? The Syrian army was really strong, and now there are the Russians and Iranians. How can we resist? There’s no way you can fight against an army when no one is supporting you. Unfortunately, the world did not respond. After six years of war, they did nothing, and that’s why we have this refugee crisis.”
He stayed up all night watching in early April when the United States launched 59 missiles at a Syrian airfield in response to a chemical weapons attack against civilians.
“I wanted to see what was happening, if this new government really wants to stop Assad from doing what he is doing to his own people,” Mohrat said. “I wish that President Trump continues. The first thing we have to do is beat ISIS and other radical groups to remove the source of evil and terrorism.”
Core Catholic value
Mohrat had been safe when he had fled to Jordan, but he wanted to pursue an education. His only chance was to get a scholarship through the Institute of International Education, and St. Leo University accepted his application.
“The idea was to take the humanitarian step of allowing this generation to finish their education,” said Denny Moller, vice president of university advancement and communications at St. Leo. “We felt compelled to respond because this call fit with our Benedictine Catholic core value of community and hospitality, and with our profile as a university that gives all our traditional campus students some exposure to international influences.”
Mohrat came to the United States with the status of an international student seeking asylum. He was concerned about a possible language barrier, but was comfortable about relocating to a primarily Christian country.
“I used to have a lot of Christian friends — mostly Orthodox — and some of my best friends were people of other faiths,” he said. “It’s not like the media shows you. In Syria, Muslims, Christians and Jews all lived peacefully together.”
He found a warm welcome at the university, as well as a Muslim community and mosques in a nearby town. He now has a degree in computer science and information assurance and wants to pursue a master’s degree in robotics.
“We are so proud of this young man,” Moller said. “Ammar has ended up teaching his fellow students about international events, whether it is in the dining hall or among his fraternity friends. He has even gone to classes at the request of a professor of political science to talk about what he saw in Syria.”
Mohrat has applied for a green card so that he can work in the United States and can apply for citizenship in three years. Once a citizen, he can freely travel and return, and he’s eager to see his family again.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.