Crumbling Buildings, Broken Families: Syrian Scholar, HMC Professor Shares His Story

Ahmad Adib Sha’ar was walking with his wife on the streets of eastern Aleppo when a bullet punched through the air past his face.

“I was walking with my wife. I noticed that something was in front of my face. It went to the wall in front of me,” Sha’ar said.

It happened so fast that the professor and researcher was barely able to process the fact that he had just made it past a brush with death. It was at that moment that he realized it was too dangerous to stay in Syria for much longer.

“My brother was killed because a rocket fell on the café he owned, killing him and four of his workers,” Sha’ar said. “I escaped death twice. [The other time], one rocket fell just 10 meters in front of me.”

Currently a professor at Harvey Mudd College, Sha’ar was forced to abandon his life in Syria and relocate to the United States.

He is one of 4.9 million Syrian refugees who have had to flee their homes since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Sha'ar comes from eastern Aleppo, once the most populous city in Syria and an area that recently came to international attention for the human rights violations caused in the brutal guerrilla war between government and rebel factions.

A middle-aged man with a kind smile, Sha'ar hardly seems like a man who has experienced unimaginable hardships and been forced to flee his home country. He has been at HMC since May 2016 and is now teaching two half-credit courses, one on cryptography and one on communications.

Additionally, Sha'ar has been prolific in his research, finishing two papers during his time in Claremont. One of these he submitted to the magazine Advanced Mathematics of Communications. In honor of the college that accepted him as a visiting professor, Sha'ar named his newly-discovered algorithms the “Harvey Mudd codes."

In Aleppo, Sha’ar taught computer science at the private Mamoun University. He was able to come to the United States through the Scholars at Risk Fellowship by the Institute of International Education, a New York-based organization that enables outstanding professors, researchers, and public intellectuals from countries in turmoil to pursue their academic work in safety.

Although he is currently hosted by HMC, Sha’ar is beset by the same sense of rootlessness that has plagued other Syrian refugees, as their home country becomes uninhabitable and much of the outside world continues to reject them.

“We have security, but unfortunately the program to which we came is considering us visitors,” Sha’ar said. “Each year there are new arrangements to find us another place, which I feel makes us like Gypsy doctors, or Gypsy scholars.”

His wife and children are now scattered across the globe.

“I have a son in New Zealand, I have a son in Hungary, I have three married daughters in Germany, and one son in Wisconsin, and one son here with me,” said Sha’ar. “Except my eldest girl, all of them are [displaced] due to the war in Aleppo.”

Twenty years ago, Sha’ar bought a traditional Syrian house, which he renovated and lived in with his family. However, the house was severely damaged by a bomb that landed in its vicinity. Its doors are kept open, so that every night looters come seeking its bounty.

Neighborhood upon neighborhood in eastern Syria is now empty as their inhabitants have either died or fled. Once a thriving metropolis, the war-torn Aleppo is now virtually uninhabitable.

Although the Syrian government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, won the battle for Aleppo in December 2016, Sha’ar said that the situation in Aleppo is far from normal.  

“In the previous two months, we are not seeing that people are returning,” Sha’ar said. “Ninety percent of the houses are not inhabited by their owners. There is no safety to return back to.”

More than 6 million refugees are now in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, with more in Europe and the United States. As the situation grows more pressing, countries are still debating about what to do with these refugees.

“People have lost their jobs, they lost their houses,” Sha’ar said. “If the international community does not work together to solve these problems, these will be factors that turn their children towards violence.”

The surge in refugees has featured prominently in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of right-wing parties across the globe. U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban on citizens from countries that are predominantly Muslim, although overruled by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, has nonetheless inflamed these sentiments.

“America used to be the country of refugees, of people who are seeking freedom of religion,” Sha’ar said. “This is the wrong decision because this will increase the feelings against the USA in Muslim countries.”

Despite all that he has been through, Sha’ar said that he still harbors a deep love for his country, to which he fervently hopes to return one day.