Iraq refugee finds solace in studies, security in America

Born and raised in Iraq, adjunct lecturer of Arabic Akil Aljaysh has a passion for learning, teaching and being a positive influence in people’s lives. Aljaysh experienced many hardships in life, all while still maintaining his enthusiastic outlook. Growing up in the countryside outside of Basra, Iraq, Aljaysh loved cars so much that he decided to pursue mechanical engineering. Despite Aljaysh’s dreams, though, he could not pursue this path due to the restrictive Iraqi government. Instead, he went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in education and graphic design, as well as a master’s degree in geology.

Aljaysh’s passion for learning and teaching drove him to study at multiple institutions throughout his life. Due to the stifling environment and dangerous circumstances, however, he had to leave Iraq in order to ensure the wellbeing of himself and his family, which was an incredibly difficult transition.

Before leaving, Aljaysh’s father encouraged him to leave for his safety. “If you love me, don’t ever come back while Sadam Hussein is here,” Aljaysh recounted his father’s words. “And don’t ever think that Iraq is the only country you have.”

Nevertheless, the Iraqi government jailed Aljaysh for a year for making jokes against Hussein before forcing him to leave the country with just a temporary passport. Aljaysh went on to live in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. While Aljaysh felt comfortable in Lebanon, he didn’t feel safe returning to Iraq. Aljaysh applied to and received a job with the United Nations, which offered him his only way out of the Middle East. With this job, Aljaysh moved to America where he finally felt at home.

“[Lebanon] was a base country for me; I felt really comfortable there,” Aljaysh said. “When I came [to America] after a year, I was like, this is my country. That’s it, I can’t go anywhere else.”

After moving from country to country and finally settling down in America, Aljaysh went on to receive his education at Rochester Institute of Technology, Monroe Community College and Pennsylvania State University for a curriculum design certificate before coming to Geneseo.

After working at Geneseo for the past eight years, Aljaysh has become a favorite professor of many students. Despite all the hardships in his life, humor became his coping mechanism, a quality that his students love about him.

“I’ve become very, very sensitive,” Aljaysh said. “To be honest with you, the most difficult thing for me to see are people crying. I try my best to make people laugh, and have a happy moment for the time I’m with them.”

As a refugee from Iraq, Aljaysh understands the struggles of coming to a new country with next to nothing. Furthermore, Aljaysh has used his firsthand experience starting over to work with refugees.

“Refugees can do a lot if they have the opportunity,” Aljaysh said. “I believe in people who are coming from the outside.”

Aljaysh’s optimism and humor pushes him through every difficulty he faces.

“When life squeezes you to the limit … there are two outcomes of that. Either you start hating everybody, or you become really sensitive to people, and you just want to see people happy,” he said. “Because [of] what you’ve been through, you don’t wish it on anybody … I’ve been put in jail, I’ve been tortured, so I’ve become very, very sensitive.”