For a Syrian student at Saint Leo University, home is 'wherever offers you safety and freedom'

A Syrian exile enjoys the big game with college friends, but has weightier things on his mind.
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ST. LEO — There are too many rules in football, but Ammar Mohrat watches the Super Bowl anyway. This is his collegiate American life, with orange stacks of Little Caesar's pizzas and cartons of Hooters wings. He laughs with his fraternity brothers, tossing a beanbag while TVs follow Tom Brady's warmups.

"How long is the game?" he asks a friend.

"Eight hours." Mohrat's eyes widen.

"It's not eight hours," another friend says. "But the Super Bowl is long."

Mohrat is 26 now, a senior. He fled Syria at age 20, a pro-democracy exile with a target on his back, and landed a full scholarship at Saint Leo University.

These days, he counts the days to graduation as he strolls through the dewy quad, past wet-haired sorority girls clutching coffee, past the tolling chapel. He's outgrown the university's tiny campus in what feels like the middle of nowhere, Pasco County. He misses swimming through crowds of strangers in a lit-up city, late at night.

Trump flags hang in a few dorm windows, navy curtains against the yellow facade.

Too many Americans fail to comprehend why Syrians seek refuge, what they have suffered and lost, Mohrat thinks. To him, America has always meant freedom. He has watched friends die marching for that kind of freedom.

These are the things he tries to explain to his fraternity brothers who rallied to make America great again. He describes the desperation. He tells them about how if he leaves the United States to see his family, he might not be allowed to come back.

But in the end he sees past the politics. He believes in his friends' freedom to support a different candidate, even one whose politics deeply concern him. He wouldn't want to live in a country where they couldn't.

• • •

The Syria of Mohrat's childhood exists in two realms — before and after. Before, his family had a little farm of olive trees. They ran a supermarket in Homs, a vast city of 1.5 million. Mohrat played soccer and Atari. He was 6 when his dad, an engineer, brought home their first computer. He remembers crying as the Twin Towers burned on TV, because he loved America.

He studied computer engineering at the university in Homs. Only his brothers knew he was slipping out at night to join pro-democracy protests in the streets. As leader Bashar al-Assad cracked down, arresting and killing protesters, civil war erupted.

By 2011, Mohrat had gotten deep into the resistance, using his job at an internet cafe to upload videos. He spoke with reporters under a false last name. He became a wanted man. His father warned him not to march.

"Everyone in the streets and me at home?" Mohrat said. "No."

His best friend died beside him, shot by a sniper. Mohrat cried for three days. Citizens were slaughtered at sit-ins, and soon Mohrat lost his ability to cry. He counted more than 100 friends among the dead. Streets and playgrounds became dust and rubble.

"Imagine all of your memories just ripped out," he said.

Fractures exposed by the civil war set the stage for future chaos, when the Islamic State and other combatants would rush in.

In 2011, his parents told him he had to leave.

• • •

On move-in day at the university, Mohrat watched parents bear their children's bags and boxes. He set up his room alone. He was 22 years old in a sea of 17-year-olds, a freshman again.

College itself was familiar, but his English made him vulnerable. He might say something stupid. Maybe classmates wouldn't understand his accent. One woman asked him if his family had lived in tents in the desert.

He rushed a fraternity, but dropped it. At night he walked down to the dock at Lake Jovita to calm his mind. He gained the fabled freshman 15, then a little more, with unlimited swipes at the dining hall. His roommate brought him home for Thanksgiving, with strange and delicious cranberry sauce.

Bureaucratic hang-ups meant he had no work permit and no income. He stayed on campus that first stifling, lonely summer, eating Ramen noodles and reading Arabic sci-fi novels.

Sophomore year brought more familiar faces. He waved at everybody and excelled in his classes. He joined a different fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon, and found something like a family.

His close friend Joe Carney, 21, remembers his first look at Mohrat's Facebook page: posts in Arabic and articles about Syria.

"Who is this?" Carney thought. But then Mohrat told him his story.

Carney had grown up in Spring Hill. He's in the university's Army ROTC program and leans conservative. But knowing Mohrat has led him to take classes on the Middle East, and to see beyond what the news tells him about Syria and Muslims.

"He helps me see the other side," Carney said. "We talk about every little thing."

As the election approached, Mohrat put a "Stronger Together" sign in his window. A lot of his brothers supported Donald Trump. Mohrat told them he understood their security concerns, but he wanted them to see his reality, too. That Syrians aren't evil people. They're engineers, doctors, people like you.

Hillary Clinton came to speak in Pasco. Mohrat went to cheer. A few brothers went to protest.

"This is what I want," he said. "For you to be able to speak up."

• • •

Mohrat remembers the email that changed his life.

It was 2013. He had drifted around the Middle East, landing in Jordan, feeling futureless. He found a list online of scholarships for displaced Syrians.

Two Midwestern schools could only offer partial funding. He tried Saint Leo University — same answer.

Then he wrote the University in desperation, explaining that he still couldn't afford to come. The university asked to hear more, so he emailed them his story.

They came through with free tuition, room and board.

Syria's breakdown created an academic emergency, said Denny Moller, vice president of Saint Leo advancement and communications. An international consortium asked the university to help fund the studies of students like Mohrat. Leaders at the school felt the request served its core values, emblazoned all over campus, and said yes.

In the university's earliest days, when it was illegal for black students to study with whites, the university defiantly enrolled its first black student, Moller said. Enrolling a Syrian student, he said, furthers the university's obligation to community and enriches all students.

"It's our little, small piece of trying to get that dialogue going," Moller said. "There's a real value in getting to know them as people, to eat together, live together."

• • •

Sun gathers on Mohrat's desk in the mornings, strewn with notes on the Cyrillic alphabet and pieces of an artificial intelligence device he hopes will one day help kids with homework. Arabic music fills the room.

This semester, he's taking six classes and working three part-time jobs: tutoring, programming for a furniture company and valet parking at Moffitt Cancer Center. When he has time, he plays video games and hangs out with his TKE brothers, even if it means watching a football game he doesn't quite understand.

He's waiting on his green card. Maybe he'll move to Seattle, or San Francisco. He wants a master's degree, a family and a robotics business of his own.

First, though, he has his mind set on becoming the student speaker at commencement. He has a good story to tell. And he thinks some people need to hear it.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.

               
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