A Refuge from War: Syrian Student Embraces Life at Davidson

Most of Zouzou Debs' classmates at Davidson recall ninth grade as the beginning of high school.

He remembers the start of war.

His classmates cheered at their high school football games, ran errands without care or hung out with friends.

Zouzou took exams punctuated by the sound of bombs and gunfire. He once huddled inside a grocery store in his hometown of Aleppo, Syria, as metal roller doors slammed down over the entrance to protect against nearby bombs and an armed chase in the streets.

Most Davidson students visited with their families at least as recently as the start of the semester or school year.

Zouzou last saw his parents and younger brother three years ago.

From his room in Richardson Hall, email and Skype bind them.

"You get used to it. It's not that I don't miss them," Debs said. "If I got to see them I'd be grateful. But I'm also grateful that we get to talk and that they're safe."

During the period known as the Arab Spring, peaceful protests were met with violence by the Syrian government. Not long after, the country slid into civil war when defectors from the military formed the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government. Five years later, more than half of the country's prewar population have been displaced from their homes.

War still rages in Syria, as Washington and federal courts struggle over the fate of Syrians seeking safety in the United States. Debs and fellow Syrian Davidson student Hani Zaitoun recognize their good fortune.

Debs' path to Davidson wound through Russia, where, in 2013, his father found a refuge for his family. He secured a job as an embryologist at an in vitro fertilization medical laboratory in Moscow, through a Syrian gynecologist with whom he had worked in Aleppo.

In Moscow and later in the Volga River town of Nizhny Novgorod, the younger Debs studied some Russian, and lots of English. He read Tolstoy and listened to American music on the internet. One day, he spied a Facebook post that led him to apply to the United World College's high school in Montezuma, New Mexico.

As he prepared to leave for the states in 2014, the entire family had to surrender their temporary protected-status visas and go back to Syria for a time before returning to Russia.

Debs has not seen his parents or brother since then.

And given the current strains and uncertainties of American diplomacy and immigration policy, he does not know when he will.

Hope for Humanity

Zouzou (a Syrian nickname for Joseph) Debs is an introspective, quietly enthusiastic, 19-year-old, first-year college student, lean with long curly brown hair pulled back. He moves as easily with friends through the hubbub of the college union's upper café level as he does in a meditation camping retreat organized through the Chaplain's Office. He expresses himself as fluently in his classroom or theatre production work as in conversation at an interfaith dialogue supper.

His favorite author is Tolstoy.

"When I was in Russia, I read Resurrection," he said. "The protagonist in that book is a rich aristocrat who grew disenchanted with that way of life and the government and the church and all kinds of authority and power. He was more interested in spirituality and forgiveness. That resonated with me when I was really skeptical of my government and any authority, and just wanted some hope for humanity."

The lenses of religion have remained particularly useful ones along Debs' journey, from a place and time in his life where people were killing each other over religious differences, to his international high school where he felt non- or even anti-religious, to Davidson, where people celebrate differences of faith over the blessing of a meal.

Debs is Christian by cultural and religious heritage, baptized in the Armenian Church, with Orthodox and Catholic family roots. He attended a private Christian school in Aleppo.

"Private schools in Syria are more or less the same as public schools," he said. "Mine was a mostly Christian parochial school with some Muslim students. It's not an aversion to mixing or because of conflict, more just natural affinity. Religion is something you inherit.

"Coming here has brought me back into learning about different religions and philosophies and respecting spirituality a lot," he said. "I'm in a community that thinks about it and cares about it, and I'm able to have conversations more often."

Cooperation and Inclusion

Debs has experienced that openness and inclusivity in all aspects of campus life.

"Davidson is all the academic challenge you would find at any other big name college, but more cooperative" he said. "You're not required to be experienced in something. There are a lot of opportunities where you can just go and try something new."

In his first year, he assistant-stage-managed Middletown with the Theatre Department, joined the Interfaith Dinner Club, and jumped into the middle of the pack at Davidson Outdoors. He completed his "DO" Trip Leader training on Mount Mitchell and Mount Rogers, and led efforts to boost international student participation at Davidson Outdoors. He is one of the male leaders invited for the first time to participate in Women in the Woods camping trip conversations, which focus on topics concerning women in male-dominated fields.

It all feels a long, long way from Aleppo. It's also a long way from his family in Russia.

"The chance that I see my parents this summer have diminished a lot," he said.

Instead, he scouted around his new home for summer opportunities–The Farm at Davidson, Davidson Outdoors' Summer Odyssey, a campus internship, maybe even July Experience.

He recently emailed news of his decision: "Now I know that I'm doing Odyssey over the summer!"

As a member of the Odyssey crew on the French Broad River in Western North Carolina, Debs will help welcome the next class of Davidson students through shared experiences of service and skill building in the great outdoors.

He's grateful to be able to share the sense of home he has found at Davidson.

And he holds faith against uncertainty that his family might even get to visit him here: "They tried. They might try again."

John Syme




  • March 23, 2017