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Syrian immigrant Bahij Dahdal juggles parenting and school

Bahij Dahdal, a Syrian Refugee, has been living in the U.S. since 2012 and transferred to UNC this fall.
Bahij Dahdal, a Syrian Refugee, has been living in the U.S. since 2012 and transferred to UNC this fall.

For transfer student Bahij Dahdal, school is not the only thing he has to worry about each day.

The father of three has to get up early each day to take his children to school before making the commute to UNC from Wake Forest.

“I have to drop the kids off at school first and then come here. So, my days start at 4:30 or 5 (a.m.),” he said.

Dahdal left Syria to come to the United States in 2012. He brought his wife, Mariam Elias, and his three children, who are 12, 10 and 6 years old.

“I (left) because I needed a safe place for my kids. The situation (in Syria) is very ambiguous. Nobody knows what the future is bringing,” Dahdal said.

The move was not easy for the family of five, and they have definitely faced challenges.

“The biggest challenge here is that the system is different from our country,” Dahdal said. “So there is a language barrier, so you can’t find a job, because you can’t communicate very well with people.”

Dahdal, who is a computer science major, said it took his family more than a year to close the gap the language barrier created. He said language is not the only challenge to face when finding a job in the U.S.

“The other (challenge) is education, because if you want to have a good job, you need a degree,” he said.

Elizabeth Barnum, director of International Student and Scholar Services, said international students might struggle with a number of things when coming to the country. The program aims to help these students issues beyond academics.

“There are a lot of things that are beyond what the student needs to know in the classroom to comfortably participate in community life,” she said.

Dahdal and his wife are both dedicated to creating a great life for themselves and their children. They both attended Wake Technical Community College the past two years and had part-time jobs. This year, they both transferred to four-year universities — Dahdal to UNC and Elias to N.C. State University.

Dahdal encouraged his wife to apply to N.C. State, even though she was skeptical, because he would be a full-time student this year, and she worried about how the two would manage their time.

“I’m such a different woman because of the way he makes my family, especially my kids, feel secure,” Elias said. “He’s a supporter. He supports our dreams, and he pushes me a lot.”

Elias said both are able to juggle school and parenting with the other’s support.

“He believes in me, and I believe in him,” Elias said. “I am so proud of him. He is a great dad. The way he treats my kids — he is a wonderful father.”

Even though he juggles the role of student, father and husband, the man also finds time to dream big. Dahdal wants to create a universal health care system.

“It is my dream to build an international health care system which is connected together and wherever you go, in any country, you can just slide your ID, and they will give your record and help you to know what is your medical history,” Dahdal said. “This is a big dream.”

He also has dreams for the University. He said he thinks UNC should create elective courses that educate students about the struggles that people around the world face.

This hits home, especially for Dahdal, because of his past in Syria. He wants students to graduate educated in the struggles people outside the U.S. face.

“In a university like UNC, we graduate leaders in the future, and I’m sure this University will graduate some decisionmakers,” Dahdal said. “So we need our decisionmakers who graduate from here to understand exactly what real challenges (are) in the world.”

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Dahdal said he loves it at UNC and is glad to be here this year.

“I feel UNC is like a big family. They have their ethics and their rules. You can see the harmony — it’s calm and noise at the same time,” Dahdal said.

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