The life of adjunct Arabic lecturer Akil Aljaysh has been a difficult one, punctured by political disputes and continuous struggles to study and teach in peace.
Aljaysh was born in Basra, South Iraq. There, he finished high school and moved on to study geology, but changed his major to geography. After graduating, he taught for one year when his life was tragically interrupted.
"My family had always had some trouble with the government," Aljaysh said. He was accused of being part of an anti-Hussein organization and was imprisoned. "I hated Saddam Hussein, but I didn't have any organization," he said. During his imprisonment, government officials tortured Aljaysh, trying to force names and information out of him regarding an organization that he was not involved with.
"My dad paid to find out where I'd been and I got out after eight months, but after I got out of jail I couldn't finish studying to teach," said Aljaysh. "But I had professors who had connections with the government and thought that I should be able to practice what I had graduated for, so I got a job teaching at the high school I graduated from."
The triumph, however, did not last long. "I taught for a year, but my father and I knew that they were going to come back for me and I had to sign a paper if I was going anywhere," said Aljaysh. "I knew that I had to leave, so I tried to flee."
After spending some time in Syria and Lebanon, he applied to the United Nations and was accepted into the U.S. as a refugee.
"My dad told me that wherever you go, if the country gives you freedom, it is your home. He told me not to come back to Iraq just because it was my country," Aljaysh said. "It was hard for me to leave my family and to leave Iraq, and I miss my family very much, but I have to keep my promise to my dad."
Once in the U.S., Aljaysh began studying at Rochester Institute of Technology and took classes at Monroe Community College, in addition to working as an X-ray technician to better his opportunities in the U.S.
"I decided that I had to do something that would really help, but it was so boring," he said. "I changed my major to graphic design and now I do Web design as well. Back home they don't encourage people to do what they want. You're either an engineer or a doctor. I have always loved to draw and write."
Still a student in Rochester, Aljaysh said he thinks "for the rest of my life I will be studying. I can't imagine leaving college and I love to teach." He also currently works in Rochester with a Catholic family center helping people from other countries as an interpreter and translator.
This winter Aljaysh was able to return to Iraq to visit his family for the first time in 12 years. "This was a huge thing for me," he said. "I was so glad to visit my family, and so happy. I was amazed by how Iraq has changed to better things."
Aljaysh noted that in visiting and observing Iraq he gained some personal insight. "Sometimes you think you're still the same person, but that's not true," he said. "I realized that I have changed a lot being in this country. I look at things from different angles. Looking at two worlds and seeing and comparing how people live has changed me."