Long journey for Clark College grad-to-be from Syria

Immigrant finds new life in U.S., will pursue engineering degree at WSUV

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

Published:

 

Did You Know?

• The 2015 American Community Survey estimates that about 65 people from Syria reside in Clark County. 

On a recent Friday, students crowded around two arenas just inside the entrance to Clark College’s STEM Building. Others observed from the second floor.

A semester’s worth of engineering classes came down to this: A battle between student-built robots for the most gum balls, in a more nuanced, nerdier version of the board game Hungry Hungry Hippos.

Kinan Badr, president of Clark’s engineering club and contest referee, helped come up with the challenge, as he does every semester. The rules? No intentional bashing. Everyone gets a 30-second and 10-second warning. Make sure the robot returns to its side before time’s up.

“Ready?” Badr asked before removing a piece of cardboard that unleashed 500 red gum balls from a black tube. He dutifully swept stray gym balls out of the goals and into the center of the arena, so each side got an equal start. A level playing field.

The aim was to collect as many gum balls as possible in under two minutes. Speed bumps made traversing the arena more difficult, and some students struggled to navigate their robots.

Badr’s journey to this moment — refereeing an engineering competition on the cusp of graduating from a community college in Washington — had its own speed bumps. Eight years ago, at age 16, Badr immigrated to the U.S. from As-Suwayda in southern Syria. His immediate family still lives there.

As-Suwayda, also spelled Al-Sweida, is a 7 1/2 -hour drive from the ongoing turmoil in Raqqa, where Syrian Democratic Forces have been advancing. Syria is about the size of Washington. (Imagine living in Vancouver while groups are fighting on the northeastern side of the state.)

“It could go wrong any minute. It could not. Suwayda is still protected by the government, which I think is best when you think about ISIS or al-Qaida,” Badr said. “It’s difficult to live, but they are safe as a people. So, they are just surviving this period.”

The government is a dictatorship, the price of goods has gone up amid all of the warring, and a lot of people are leaving the country. Electricity comes on one hour a day. Badr primarily communicates with his family through Facebook and Skype.

“It’s heartbreaking. If you think about the town you lived in, the city you looked at, you look now, it’s just a bunch of concrete in a pile,” Badr said.

He points to the ancient city of Palmyra, sometimes referred to as the Venice of the sands. Earlier this year, the Islamic State group demolished much of the facade of the city’s Roman theater and the nearby Tetrapylon, a collection of monumental pillars. The Arch of Triumph and the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin were destroyed, too.

“The people that are coming out of the country to fight, they don’t care about the history. They don’t care about the country. They don’t care about anything. They just destroy whatever they want,” Badr said. “I’m always thinking about my family, you know, so it’s hard to see that happening.”

The youngest of five children, Badr has not returned to Syria since he left the country eight years ago.

“I’m really homesick. I want to see my mom, dad, my family,” he said.

Upside-down

Maybe Badr will visit Syria in a couple of years after graduating from Washington State University Vancouver with his bachelor’s degree. It depends on how school goes and how the country is doing at that time. He plans to major in mechanical engineering, with a focus on megatronics, and minor in mathematics. He landed a paid internship this summer with Marks Brothers in Boring, Ore.

School wasn’t always his thing. Growing up in Syria, he went to school during the winter and spent summers working on a fruit orchard. Advanced education was something more easily achieved by people with connections to the right people.

The plan for coming to America was to focus on working and making money, then return to Syria. But, after arriving Sept. 22, 2009, to stay at his uncle’s house in Brush Prairie, his life turned upside-down.

“When I started going to school, I was like, ‘This is really cool. They care about students. You can make something out of your life here,’ ” Badr said. “Since I was a little kid, I always liked to open things apart and put them back together and know how they go and which order and stuff like that.”

Badr started as a freshman at Hockinson High School at age 16.

“I got pushed back two years because my English wasn’t very good. I wasn’t speaking it. I didn’t even know the alphabet,” Badr said. “Arabic goes from right to left and English goes left to right. And, it’s a completely different alphabet. We write in cursive in Arabic all the time. English you can write in print or you can write in cursive.”

Speaking English got easier, and he gave one of the student speeches at graduation. He told his peers that if they have something that they want to achieve, they can do it.

“Look, I’m 20, and I just finished high school, and I’m still going,” he said to the Class of 2013.

Writing was still challenging, and Badr didn’t meet college-level English requirements. So, his first two years at Clark College were spent bringing up those language skills.

“You always look forward, and you finish that barrier, and now there’s another barrier that comes, and you want to overcome that barrier. That’s how life runs,” he said.

Citizenship challenge

Becoming a U.S. citizen was complicated by the fact that Badr’s father didn’t come to the States at the same time as him. His father stayed for a wedding in Syria and arrived about a month later than Badr did, before deciding that the U.S. wasn’t the right place for him and returned to Syria.

“That was a big no-no,” Badr said.

To become a citizen, an immigrant must have lived here at least five years. So, Badr applied for citizenship on the incorrect date — the date he arrived in the U.S., not when his father came here. He paid the $680 fee and went through the whole process twice.

“It’s worth it,” Badr said. “As an immigrant here, sometimes you can’t do a lot of stuff. As a citizen here, you’re like anyone else.”

He is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Syria. He, along with his cousin Rawad Bader, rent a room from one of his former high school teachers, Heidi Morris.

“She’s a great person. She’s been basically a great mother,” Badr said. “Every time I have a hard time with anything, she’s the person to go to.”

Besides classes and the engineering club, Badr works full time as a custodian at Hockinson Heights Elementary School to help pay his way through college. He also earned three years of scholarships from the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington totaling $14,000. Rawad Bader, who’s also pursuing an engineering degree, got a $2,000 scholarship.

“Kinan is always involved in everything and taking classes,” said Olga Aspidoff, a friend and classmate. “I don’t know how he does it all.”

Aspidoff remembers when last year she was on a team with Badr and their project won the engineering competition. They were tasked with making a launcher that safely delivered a light bulb, an egg and a candle in a jar to whichever randomly generated house they were assigned.

“Calculation is not everything. You have reality of life and calculation. Calculation can give you an estimate, and then reality is what determines your project,” Badr said.

If everything goes according to his calculations, Badr wants to get his bachelor’s degree and land a sweet gig at Boeing in Gresham, Ore. He hopes to have a house, maybe in Ridgefield, and bring his family here someday. He’s undeterred whether or not reality gets in the way.

“It’s been a long ride, but that’s what makes me so strong. Every barrier that comes across myself and my life, I try my best to take it out of the way. English is still a big barrier, but that does not stop me from becoming an engineer,” Badr said.