Allison Wolfe is a writer, musician and English teacher. She writes about one student, Shahan Sanosian, whose story starts in Damascus, Syria.
I've taught English to a group of international students for a few years now. I try to make class fun, but it’s not easy for them.
A lot of the students are here on visas that require them to come to my class. Many have already gone through a lot to get here and have a hard time adjusting. I’ve seen students cry, pass out, come to class with injuries, or just sit there in numb silence.
Despite their exhaustion, most of my students laugh a lot in class and go out together on weekends. But one student stood out. A shorter guy with glasses and a constant five o’clock shadow, Shahan Sanosian was quiet, serious and fluent in English. Sometimes, he even corrected me.
I couldn’t figure out why he was at our school. He usually sat on the edges, intensely observing the classroom, kind of like he knew something the rest of us didn’t. Shahan seemed like he was hiding something. It turned out he was.
An Armenian-Syrian college graduate from Damascus, Shahan came to Los Angeles to escape the war in Syria.
“Honestly, I was really shocked that I was even granted a visa to come to the United States. Especially the fact that I'm from Syria, a country that always has question marks,” says Shahan. “Sometimes, when I meet people, I don't tell them where I come from. But if they ask, I just tell them I'm Armenian. So maybe they'll think I’m Armenian-American or something.”
It’s one thing to hear about war on the news, something which rarely touches our soil, and quite another to hear from someone who has experienced it. Shahan says he remembers collecting bullets back home. "Even stray bullets, they're just flying by," he says. "Probably, they weren't targeting us directly, but still — you can't study. You're sitting at home, you hear gunfire, you hear bombs. Sometimes you leave home, and you can't tell if you're coming back alive or not.”
Shahan’s parents sent him to Los Angeles to escape the war. They stayed behind to care for his grandparents, who have since died.
Today, though, with the Syrian refugee crisis looming large around the world, it’s become even harder for his parents to get out — his parents have tried to immigrate to the U.S., but he says their visas were denied.
Today, Shahan talks with his parents over Skype every weekend.
"I try to concentrate on the good things, just joke around, tell them something that's happening here so they can forget," he says. "Although, they just tell me the horrible stories of what's happening over there. Nowadays it's always the same thing: shelling and gunfire, the prices are really high, the water problem, electricity.”
He feels survivor’s guilt and knows he’s lucky that he got out of Syria when so many people are still stuck there.
“I'm not seeing any form of light or hope. I'm here and they're back there,” he says. “You're always feeling like, what's going to happen? Are they safe? How would they get out of there?”
Shahan is safe here, but his life isn’t easy. He works a full-time job, goes to school, is getting used to a new country and thinks constantly about his family. It's a stressful place to be in.
“I don’t feel like I’m going toward something. Especially with someone like me, who's struggling not just with work. I have my immigration papers. I have my parents to worry about. I want to start my own life, but I feel like I can't do that right now,” he says.
The kind of psychic trauma Shahan seems to be going through reminds me that it’s not enough to just survive, as his parents want. People also have an emotional need to be happy, to thrive.
I ask him what, even small things, could bring him joy. Music is his answer, and he plays me his favorite song by Opeth, a Swedish, progressive death metal band. Shahan says it helps him cope and relax.
“It's a mixture of love and hate. It's helping me face these situations," he says. "Music is an imaginary place where you can go. Like a wonderland, you just get lost in there. It gets me out of this world."
I get that. But, as resilient as Shahan seems, I wonder if it’s possible to ever escape what he’s been through. I asked him if he really believes that everything will be okay.
“I don’t know,” says Shahan. “But I wish, and that's just a wish, that I would be able to find peace of mind.”