By Rashaan Ayesh, UNC ‘18
Zubair Rushk was told from a young age to suppress his Kurdish identity. His parents warned him of the punishments that waited for him if he spoke Kurdish. His Syrian teachers proved his parents right. They would physically reprimand Rushk for speaking Kurdish in school.
Yet instead of keeping his head down and forgetting his people’s past, Rushk kept his head up. As an adult, he collected illegal Kurdish books, became fluent in the language and even started a school in his home to teach Kurdish children their history and language.
That very school landed Rushk in a Syrian prison. He faced horrors and torture at the hand of guards during his seven months there. He finally escaped to Lebanon with the help of his family, and in Beirut, the United Nations and the U.S. embassy helped Rushk find refuge in Durham, North Carolina.
Even though Rushk already held a degree in electrical engineering, he returned to school first at Durham Technical Community College, then applying to UNC-Chapel Hill. It was during this time that he also met Daniel Romm, a retired physician who learned about Rushk’s experiences through a newspaper article and offered to help share his story. Together, the two wrote “Escape from Hell: Based on the True Story of a Syrian Political Prisoner” published in October 2017 by CreateSpace Independent Publishing. The book catalogs Rushk’s turbulent journey until he finds sanctuary in North Carolina.
On Thursday, January 25, 2018, the co-authors presented Rushk’s story in a public talk at the FedEx Global Education Center, UNC Chapel Hill. Over 100 students and community members came to hear his story. However, Romm hopes people take home more than just a book.
“I would like people to put themselves in Zubair’s position and think about how they would like to be treated,” shared Romm. “Also, I hope readers ask themselves: should someone, like Zubair, be prevented from coming into the United States? And what actions will readers be inspired to take because of the book?”
During the talk, Romm and Rushk emphasized the intensive process of coming to the United States as a refugee. The process involved five years of background checks with the United Nations, as well as interviews and health screenings to feel confident in resettling Rushk in the United States. In addition, the U.S. required an additional 18 months of background checks before allowing him to fly into Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
The number of Syrian refugees is staggering. There are about 5 million displaced Syrian refugees in the world. Many live in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. About 12,600 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the United States, compared to the 250,000 Syrian refugees living in Germany. The authors emphasized that accepting a displaced group of people cannot harm the United States. In fact they say it can only help, reflecting American values of diversity and inclusion, supporting the economy, and even strengthening national security.
This event was held as part of the Carolina Seminar on Middle East Studies, supported by the Carolina Seminars program and the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. Copies of “Escape from Hell: Based on the True Story of a Syrian Political Prisoner” can be purchased from Amazon here.