The UNC junior’s first arrest was at the University of Aleppo, where he was a student. He spent a month in prison for having a Kurdish book in his dorm room.
Frustrated with the repression of his culture’s history and language, Rushk then opened a Kurdish school at his home in Syria, with books illegally brought in from Turkey. Within three months of its opening, he was arrested again and jailed for seven months.
After suffering psychological and physical abuse while in prison and being threatened by the Syrian government with the possibility of more jail time, Rushk fled Syria in 2005.
He illegally crossed the border into Lebanon and hiked through the mountains with no possessions aside from bribe money tucked away in his pockets.
He lived there in the capital city of Beirut for five years. During this time, he applied to the United Nations for refugee status, an exhaustive two-year process that eventually legalized Rushk’s stay in Lebanon.
He then applied for resettlement in the U.S. Five years after leaving Syria, Rushk was placed in a one-bedroom apartment in Durham, given one month’s rent and told to find a job.
“It was a gift for me, I was happy for that,” Rushk said. “I had a one chair, I had one bed and I had a table to eat — that was awesome for me.”
Rushk enrolled in an English as a second language program at Durham Technical Community College, where he earned an associate’s degree in science. He became a U.S. citizen last summer and entered UNC this fall.
Rushk came to the U.S. years before the Syrian Civil War prompted one of the largest refugee crises in history.
The war began in 2011, after peaceful protests were interrupted by open fire from security forces. This triggered nationwide unrest and demands for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. An armed rebellion soon took hold of the country, resulting in a civil war between rebel brigades and the pro-government, pro-Assad coalition.
More than 50 percent of Syria’s population is currently displaced because of the civil war. In Lebanon, where Rushk found solace, one-in-five people are refugees.
Flicka Bateman, director of the Refugee Support Center in Orange County, said there are about 30 Syrian refugees living in Orange County and more in Durham. The support center helps more than 500 refugees annually by providing basic instruction about topics such as finance and housing.
“We might start out with helping somebody understand how to open a bank account,” Bateman said. “Later, in maybe a year, they’re looking at passing the driver’s ed test.”
In addition to nonprofit organizations, government agencies such as the Office of Refugee Resettlement assist with support services. These agencies rely on federal funding; therefore, politics dictate refugee policy.
Bud Kauffman, a UNC lecturer in Arabic language courses, said the upcoming election holds massive repercussions for refugees from an administrative and logical standpoint. But more important, he said, is what the political conversation has revealed.
“The election process has laid bare the real nature of American interest in, or knowledge of, or desire to assist refugees,” Kauffman said. “It’s revealed the way we look at refugee populations, specifically the way we look at Arab, Muslim majority refugee populations.”
Abdurrehman Kamdar, UNC Muslim Students Association community service chairperson, said misconceptions about refugees can be changed by meeting them.
“The standard fear of outsiders or foreigners is applicable to the refugees,” Kamdar said. “But when you meet them, they’re so nice — they have nothing, but they’re always offering you something.”
UNC MSA currently provides ESL services to four refugee families. Kamdar said the association is broadening its efforts as more refugees move to the area.
“The Triangle is a prime location for helping refugees, compared to other parts of North Carolina,” he said. “There’s a lot of open-minded people that want to help.”
“In general, it’s more than welcoming,” Rushk said. “Honestly, I feel like I’m from here more than where I spent 25 years of my life — this is home.”