Syrian Scholar Finds Safe-Haven at Center for Contemporary Arab Studies


by Will Todman (MAAS’16)

On April 22, 2015, CCAS Visiting Lecturer Dr. Mohammad AlAhmad and his family left their home and lives in Syria behind. “Human smugglers drove us to the Turkish border,” says AlAhmad, “and then my wife and I carried our two young children, walking through barbed wire and muddy water into Turkey. We were full of trepidation, fear, and the pain of being displaced.”

Though AlAhmad left Syria because he had been accepted to participate in the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, which provides support for threatened scholars and places them with visiting appointments at partner academic institutions, he did not yet know his family’s ultimate destination. Once in Turkey, AlAhmad learned that his appointment would be at Georgetown, starting in August.

AlAhmad was born and raised in the town of al-Tabqa, part of the governorate of Raqqa in north-eastern Syria. In 1992 he moved to Aleppo to pursue his bachelor’s degree at the College of Arts and Humanities at Aleppo University, where he went on to earn his MA and PhD in Arabic language and literature with specializations in modern and contemporary Arabic poetry. After completing his PhD in 2008, AlAhmad moved back to eastern Syria and became a faculty member and he Vice Dean of Academic Affairs at Al-Furat University’s campuses in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, where he remained until 2014.

Living in Raqqa, AlAhmad witnessed the different stages of the Syrian revolution that began in the spring of 2011. “Like millions of Syrians, I hoped that the totalitarian, authoritarian regime would be replaced by a pluralistic democracy that respected freedoms and human rights,” says AlAhmad. However, as the revolution transformed into an armed conflict, AlAhmad began to lose hope that things would change for the better. Though the Free Syrian Army seized Raqqa from government control in the spring of 2013, over time radical militants infiltrated and overran areas of the city. By 2014, the most extreme of these factions had gained control of the whole city, proclaiming themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and subsequently designating Raqqa as the capital of their self-declared caliphate.

5--Education-w450ISIS soon shut down colleges and institutes of higher education, replacing secular education with a system of religious indoctrination and leaving AlAhmad without a job. He held on to hope that other opposition groups would be able to defeat ISIS and expel them from his city, but the situation deteriorated as ISIS enforced an extreme interpretation of Islamic law and Asad’s regime bombarded the city with airstrikes.

In the summer of 2014, AlAhmad found information online about the Scholar Rescue Fund and applied. When he found out he had been accepted, he—like thousands of other Syrians trying to flee from ISIS territory—had to hire smugglers to help him and his family cross the border to Turkey. After arriving in Turkey, he met with MAAS Alum Ava Leone (2010), who was working there for the US Department of State and with CCAS Associate Professor Dr. Rochelle Davis, who had been responsible for securing AlAhmad’s appointment at Georgetown.

“We saw the opportunity to work with the Scholar Rescue Fund to bring a scholar at risk to a place of safety, as well as to fill our needs here at Georgetown for someone to teach Arabic literature in Arabic to our students,” says Davis. “Dr. AlAhmad has made a smooth transition to teaching non-native students and we are delighted to have such a gentle, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable scholar among us.”

AlAhmad and his family arrived at Dulles International Airport on August 21. “After arriving in America, I felt safer and experienced a tangible sense of peace for the first time in four years,” says AlAhmad. He had only a few days to acclimate to life in DC before the start of the fall semester, when he began teaching contemporary Syrian literature, but AlAhmad’s first impressions were favorable. “Georgetown’s beauty amazed me,” he says, “and I was surprised by how kind people were and [by] their friendly personalities.”

AlAhmad says that the opportunity to teach at a respected university like Georgetown and the welcome he has received on campus have prompted him to reconsider some of his former preconceptions about what life is like for Arab and Muslim Americans in the United States. He was surprised not so much by the rights and freedoms that these groups experience, but rather by their relationships with other Americans. “I see the depth of mutual understanding and widespread acceptance of others as part of a civilized dialogue,” says AlAhmad.

AlAhmad will continue teaching at Georgetown during the spring semester, introducing new courses in modern Arabic novels and poetry. After that, he hopes to remain in the United States by working with the Scholar Rescue Fund to find an appointment at another university.

Will Todman is a student in the MAAS program (’16) with an interest in conflict resolution and issues pertaining to refugees. Will is currently working as a research assistant to Professor Rochelle Davis and had the opportunity to conduct research with her in Jordan in 2014. He has previously worked for the office of the UN’s Special Envoy to Syria and for the British Embassy in Beirut, and has translated for the Sunday Times. This past summer, Will wrote a research paper for Mercy Corps on sieges in Syria.