Omar Al Ajlani December 15, 2011 Room 346, Pugh Hall at the University of Florida Esam Alhadi, Interviewer and Translator for University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries Edited by Jardee Transcription Narrated by Richard Saltzburg Alhadi: Thank y ou, Brother Omar, for being with us this morning. My name is Esam Alhadi. I am a lecturer at the Arabic Language Unit here at the University of Florida. Welcome to my office, Room 346, Pugh Hall, at the University of Florida. Today is Thursday December 15, 2011, and it is now 11:30 AM. Thank you one more time for being here and thank you for agreeing to give us this interview. It is a great pleasure to have you. Al Ajlani: I am honored to have gotten to know you and to be with you here. I hope I wil l be of some help with the information I have. Alhadi: Thank you sir. As we usually begin, I am going to ask you to give us some of the basic background details about you, including birth and early stages of education. Al Ajlani: My name is Omar Mahmoud Nabil Al Ajlani. I was born in Damascus in February 1988. I had my education from kindergarten to high school in Damascus. After finishing high school, I started preparing my paperwork and applied for admission here. This is how the early stages of my life looked like. Alhadi: Does that mean you never had any college education in Damascus? Al Ajlani: I never joined any college there. You may be aware of the situation that surrounds applying for colleges there. Some of the Arab universities are goo d, but many others are still following an old high educational system. When I came
here, I had no English language on me. My second language was French. This system has been changed the year I finished my high school education. Now, English has become the second language there. Alhadi: How many years have you been learning French? Al Ajlani: I have been learning French throughout my school years from kindergarten to high school. Alhadi: That means you speak French well. Al Ajlani: Yes. But being unable to practice my French after coming here, I began to lose it. However, through communication with a number of French colleagues here, and also with some Moroccan teachers who teach French here, I am trying to retrieve the part that I lost of my Fren ch language. Alhadi: Very good. Now, I want you to tell us about your decision of coming to America. Why and when did you take this decision? Al Ajlani: I came here in October 2008. You may be aware of the situation there. Having a degree from Americ a or from any other good university in the world will be enough to open all doors for you, such as work and even marriage. If you is more important. A good degree will make things very easy. Alhadi: That means you were looking for an opportunity outside Syria that will provide you with a good education. Why did you pick America specifically? You speak French and we know that Arabic countries, especially Syria, have strong er connections with Europe.
Al Ajlani: That is true. My brother was here at this university. He finished his education here and now he works as an architect. It started with a visit by one of our relatives who had been living here for many years. He t old my brother about Gainesville and the University of Florida and suggested to him that he should My brother kept this idea on his mind and continued to think about it seriou sly. After finishing his college education, he had to do a military service. His next step was to apply for this university and, because of his good grades, he was offered admission. He came here and apparently he liked it. He then proposed that I shou ld come and try it. I came here and spent two semesters at the English Language Institute (ELI) and then moved to Santa Fe College. Alhadi: That means you had a brother who was living here before you came over. Al Ajlani: True. Alhadi: Where is this b rother now? Al Ajlani: He lives in Los Angeles, California. He works there. Alhadi: Is he settled here? Al Ajlani: Yes. He has the Green Card. He is fully settled here. Alhadi: I want to go back to your academics. You said you studied English as a second language and then moved to Santa Fe College. Al Ajlani: Yes. After I finished my study here, I went to the English Center in Santa Fe College and started picking the subjects that I wanted to study. I decided I should finish my study as quickly as I can. Alhadi: What are you studying now in Santa Fe College?
Al Ajlani: I study business. Alhadi: I want to ask you to tell us a little bit about your study at Santa Fe College and also about the college. Al Ajlani: I went there and I knew no one in the college. It was absolutely a new and different world to me. It was a new education, new teaching methods and new way of thinking. At the beginning, I had some troubles because of my French speaking background. It took me a while to get to know some people there. I had my schedule set up, and then proceeded with my study. Alhadi: How do you see the school system here compared to the system that you used your entire life in Syria? Do you see a big difference? Al Ajlani: There is a huge differe nce and a big gap between the two systems. I am not saying that the system we have back home is terrible. I am just saying it stopped at one certain stage and never moved forward again. I can tell you that some of the subjects that I am taking here in c ollege such as math and geography are equal to or not higher than the elementary school level back in my country. I studied the geography of the entire world, but no one outside our countries knows even where our countries are located. This is one differ ence. However, when it comes to technology, it is way different in favor of the system and students here. Alhadi: You are now in your third year at Santa Fe College. What future education plans do you have? What do you intend to do? Al Ajlani: This is my last semester here at Santa Fe College. I am planning to apply to the food economic resources program in the school of business here at the
University of Florida. I am also planning to minor in public relations. I am required to start my application procedures six months early. I hope it works. Alhadi: I wish you luck. I want you to tell me about your first days in America. Did you face any problems? Did you notice any cultural differences, and were you immediately able to adapt to the American life style? Al Ajlani: There are certainly many differences. I was aware of the life style in America and Europe before I came here. I had the chance to educate myself on this. However, being in one setting your entire life and then moving into a new on e will require some time to get adapted. I found that culture is different; the way of dealing with others is different. I was accustomed to a system where there are always people around you preparing things for you. Here, you have to do everything by y ourself. My character has changed from who I was before. It is true that living abroad teaches you many new things. It makes you a new person and a new man who entirely depends on himself rather than depending on his family. You will learn how to make your decisions and also what is right and wrong. You will learn to manage your own school schedule and you will also learn when to go, come, and leave. You become responsible for everything that relates to you. Alhadi: It is true that life is a vast fie our life experiences. I am still interested to know if you may have experienced yourself immersed in the American system? Many people who go into a new and
different setting experience a level of cultural shock. I know you said earlier that you knew, read, and saw many things about life in America before you came here. Al Ajlani: There will still be differences between t he person who stays in his country all his life and another one who experience living abroad. It is true that I knew about the life style here, but I still found a huge difference when I saw it from within. What happens is that when a person comes here, he will impatiently wait for his first year to end so he can go back and take a break. This is exactly what had happened to me. I went back after finishing my first year here and spent the entire summer there. After my second year ended, I went back onl y for part of the summer went back. This shows that getting adapted to the system happens gradually. Life here is like a rotating wheel. You get into it and then you find yourself rotati ng too. When I think about it, I find it hard to believe that I have been here for three years. I still remember my first day when my brother picked me from the airport and took me to the house of the American family where I arranged to be living. Alhadi : Tell us more about this experience of living with an American family. You are a young Arab man and got used to living in an Arab family setting. You suddenly found yourself part of an American family. How did you manage your life in this new setting? It is known that the American house setting is very different from the Arab one. Al Ajlani: This is true. When I came here, I already made arrangements to live with this family. The woman works here at this university. My brother knew her for some ti me and I knew her too. She is a very polite lady. I remember on the day of my
arrival, my brother brought my luggage into her house, closed the door and left. That day marked a new life for me. It was like being reborn. I got settled there and it was a true experience for me. I experienced American life from within. It has been truly a different experience for me. Alhadi: Have you been through any bad, good, funny, or embarrassing situations during the time you were living with that American famil y? Al Ajlani: You may be aware that the tradition we have back home is to have the whole family together. We live together and eat together. Here everybody is having his/ her own space. I had a great difficulty to cope with this. I was used to big fam ily Over there, the family has to get together every day. In the American culture, the child may leave his family when he is eighteen years old. He may never come back or ask about his parents except in very few cases. Over there, no one thinks of leaving his family until after getting married. From there, he goes on to his own house. Alhadi: I meant by my question to ask about the everyday details of your life when you we re with the American family. I know that, for instance, you may rarely find an Arab man who washes dishes. Here, as you said, everyone has his/her own private space, but they also have a specific role or duty to do. Did you encounter a problem like this ? Al Ajlani: When I came here I barely had any experience of doing any house work such as cooking. After I came here I started to learn how to wash dishes and clean any
mess I may make. I learned how to cook; otherwise, I would either have starved myse Alhadi: Does that mean you did not know how to cook when you were in Syria? Al Ajlani: I observed my mother cooking. When she had to travel somewhere, she instructed me on how to do this or that. I nod my head yes, although without really carefully listening. Alhadi: Did you ever cook any Arabic meal for the family you were living with? If yes, what kind of meal did you cook? Al Ajlani: I did that many times. The tradition we have back home is to offe r anyone who comes to visit you something to eat, regardless of what you may have at home. Alhadi: What Arabic meal did you cook for the entire family members? Al Ajlani: I cooked many meals, but the truth is that I had some Arab fellows to help me. I am still not that good a cook. I do my best and I add a few things here and there that help to make the meal O.K. Alhadi: Was your hosting family big or small? Al Ajlani: The lady lives by herself. Alhadi: You said she works here at this university. Al Ajlani: Yes. She actually came to visit us in Ash sham. Alhadi: Is that right? Did she make that visit after you went back to Syria? Al Ajlani: She knew my brother when he was here. She came to visit us during the first summer I had to go back home after being here for four months. Alhadi: What impression did she have about her visit to Ash sham?
Al Ajlani: Her visit to Ash sham was part of a tour she made to Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, and Syria. People tried to scare her about her plans of visit ing Damascus, but she told them that she was going to a family that she knew. She had a great time there. Alhadi: Did you meet her at the airport? Al Ajlani: She came through Jordan. Alhadi: That means you met her in Daraa. Al Ajlani: True. Alhadi: B y the way, I lived in Jordan and I have been to Damascus through Daraa. Al Ajlani: Yes. She came through Daraa. She had a great time in Damascus. She saw many things of our ancient civilizations. She also had many chances to see how simple people live Alhadi: Did you take her to Suq Al Hameediya? Al Ajlani: She visited Suq Al Hameediya and the national museum. She saw many things relating to our history and civilization. Alhadi: How long did she stay in Ash sham? Al Ajlani: She stayed there for two weeks. You may be aware that Damascus is the oldest capital on earth that still exists. We have a deeply rooted civilization. She was very happy to see it. We showed her many things that affirm the notion that we actually exist. Alhadi: Are you st ill living with this lady?
Al Ajlani: No. I stayed with her for some time. It was a very good period for me. I lived with her for about one and a half year to two years. I decided that I wanted to experience living alone and to fully bear my own respo nsibilities. Alhadi: In what terms did you feel the period you spent with this lady helped you? Did she help you improve your language through talking to her? Al Ajlani: Yes indeed. She helped me immensely. In a situation like mine, anyone will feel at a loss at the beginning, not knowing what to do or where to go. You need to get your feet on the ground and then to start walking. This is like a PC that has been re formatted for a fresh start. It is like having a new building. Having strong founda tions for this building will help it to stand strong, otherwise it will collapse. Alhadi: I know that in Santa Fe College, there is an association for the Arab students. Would you please tell us a little bit about it if you are aware of its history? Al A jlani: I am the one who started this group. Alhadi: That means it is a new group. Al Ajlani: Correct. It is an association that aims to bring the Arab students together. no one association to bring them together. I began this association with a group of Egyptian, Lebanese, and Iraqi students. We called it the Arabic Culture Organization. I was elected to be the president and I am still serving in the same position. A lhadi: When did the organization begin?
Al Ajlani: Late 2009, early 2010. This makes it between one and half to two years old. We planned and presented many activities. One of the most successful activities was the very recent event of the Islamic Mo nth. We invited many people, and about 160 persons showed up. The college president, TV, radio, and many journalists were there. It was a big crowed. We began by talking about Arabic countries and culture there. We showed a movie about Arabic history. We told them about important people in our history such as Ibn Batouta. We told them that Arabs were actually the ones who laid the foundations for all the present day inventions and civilization including the one here. Another speaker gave a talk abou t the current Arab revolutions including the one in Egypt. Alhadi: How many members does this organization have? Al Ajlani: We are too many, but the problem is that they all keep transferring to the University of Florida. Alhadi: Are you aware of the number of membership you have now? Al Ajlani: We are about twenty, including Saudis and Moroccans. Alhadi: Did all your members come from the Arab countries, or are some of them residents here? Al Ajlani: Some of them live here. I met some of them by chance and figured that they organization and they became very happy when they knew about it. Alhadi: Did you talk to the Santa Fe College administration to offer Arabic langu age classes?
Al Ajlani: I heard many times about the plan of offering Arabic language classes in Santa Fe College. Many people told me that credited Arabic classes similar to the ones you have here at the University of Florida have already been offered i n Santa Fe College. Alhadi: Very good. These are very excellent activities. I pray to God to grant you good luck. My next question is about your plans after you finish your study at the University of Florida. What plans and thoughts do you have for t he future? Al Ajlani: I have many options for the future. I may get a job here and continue to live here like my brother. I may also go back home if the situation allows and things are settled. I personally prefer to go back home, to start from the be ginning and to continue living with my family and relatives there if the situation permits. If not, then I will also think of going to one of the Gulf countries where usually Arabs go to work. Alhadi: Now, Brother Omar, if one of your friends in Ash sham asks you for advice regarding his university study plans either in European, American, or Arab universities, what would your advice be to him based on your own personal experience? Al Ajlani: Some Arab countries have universities that are no less than an y American university. Still, my advice to him is to go out and have the experience of living abroad. This will make him a new person. Living abroad is an educational experience. For instance, I will advise them to come to this University of Florida wh ich is a very good school and offers too many opportunities.
Alhadi: You mentioned earlier that your trips to Syria became less frequent. When are you planning to go next back to Syria? Al Ajlani: I had plans to go back last summer. The situation did my plans. You and I know about the situation there. I hope to go there as soon as possible. Alhadi: Are you currently maintaining constant contacts with your family and relatives back in Syria? Al Ajlani: As you know, Skype made it possible to have audio visual communication. It made it as if they are with you in the same place. When my mother talks to me, she appears like she is sitting next to me. I hope, regardless of all that is currently going on in all Arabic countries, t hat things will be better. Alhadi: I wish you all the best. You are still a young man and you still have life and a future ahead of you. I pray to Allah to grant you with good luck. We are happy that we had you today with us, Brother Omar, and I hope to meet with you again. Al Ajlani: I hope that my answers will be of help to your project. I also hope that my statements will show who I am, although I feel I still have too much to talk about. Alhadi: We wanted to have a documentation of your experien ce because you are still a young man and because we always wanted to add voices of young people to our project. Yours is a very good life experience. Thank you again Mr. Omar. Al [END OF INTERVIEW]