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Syrian refugee attending University of Iowa hears echoes in U.S. turmoil

Monzer Shakally: Tear gas, threats, violence evoke deja vu

Monzer Shakally of Iowa City is a third-year dental student at the University of Iowa, photographed Saturday at the UI C
Monzer Shakally of Iowa City is a third-year dental student at the University of Iowa, photographed Saturday at the UI College of Dentistry in Iowa City. Before coming to Iowa, Shakally was active on the front lines of pro-democracy protests in Syria. After living through the violence of Syrian civil war, he cautions that “a war of ideas only comes through peace.” (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — If you had told Monzer Shakally a couple years ago about citizens being subjected to flash bangs outside their homes and on their city streets, “I would have told you that was Syria, not the U.S.”

“If you had told me people were getting tear gassed to make way for a photo op for the president,” Shakally said, “I would have told you that was Syria, not the U.S.”

But it is the United States. Although not his idea of it. Not the nation Shakally as a teenager fled to from his war-torn home in Syria, where he was arrested for protesting, tortured and threatened with death.

It was not the kind of United States that gave him a high school education and welcomed him onto the University of Iowa campus, where he joined a fraternity, found a job and thrived in the classroom — earning not only a degree but a spot as a graduate student in the College of Dentistry.

This America — the one he’s seeing in violent videos online and on dramatic television broadcasts showing officers in riot gear, burning buildings, broken windows, tear gas and flash grenades — seems an echo.

“The progression of things is what really scares me,” Shakally, 24, said. “I’ve been through a lot in my life and I don’t want that to happen to anyone else again.”

Shakally told The Gazette he feels a warning burning in his gut that he can’t tamp down.

“I can’t help but hear echoes of what (Bashar al-) Assad said in what (President Donald) Trump says right now,” he said. “He is failing to unite the country in any real way and he’s kind of turning up the heat on the flame of what’s going on. And that’s what truly scares me.”

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In a June 1 conference call with governors, Trump called many of them “weak” and admonished them to “dominate” the streets.

Later in the Rose Garden, he said he would order the military to quash unrest in cities if mayors and governors don’t escalate their own law enforcement presence.

Any yet later that day, authorities in riot gear outside the White House forced people to clear out by deploying smoke, flash grenades and chemical spray. Trump soon walked to a church nearby to pose for a photo.

Such images and threats, Shakally said, give him “flashbacks.”

“We would see security forces cars roll up, and honestly I just get flashbacks of what I went through when I see those videos of cop cars just rolling up into people,” Shakally said. “I’m just extremely disappointed. And I’m just shaken about the fact that this is taking place here.”

At 15, Shakally started participating in non-violent protests in Syria — protests for more political freedom, not for dismantling of government or a coup, he said. He would wave flags, burn a tire from time to time, chant and march.

“The protesters were not calling for the government to be brought down; people were asking for more political freedom — just very simple and humble demands,” he said. “And the people were hoping that Assad would come and speak and calm things down and help bring down the heat of the country. People were scared, so they were hoping for a leader to unite.”

But Assad called them terrorists. He said they would be met with swift power and force.

“He just inflamed everything,” Shakally said.

Eventually, Shakally got caught up in the crackdown, with government forces capturing his image at a protest and later arresting him at a supermarket, shoving him into the back of a Jeep where they forced his face down, pulled his shirt over his head and launched an interrogation. They beat and searched him and transported him to something akin to a concentration camp. His well-connected father got him out, and Shakally eventually was blacklisted, with authorities taking his photo and fingerprints and ordering him to be an informer.

He didn’t though, and ended up protesting again. While he escaped arrest, his brother didn’t — and was subject to torture before eventually returning home.

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The risk was great enough for Shakally’s family to send him away to Egypt, where he eventually found a path to the United States in 2012.

He’s been in a battle to obtain some form of permanent resident status since — although after years his application for asylum recently was denied. He’s still fighting for continued “temporary protective status” as a Syrian refugee.

Those immigration woes gave Shakally hesitation about speaking out with his concerns.

Although Shakally’s biggest concerns lie with the government, he also has concerns about what he’s seeing in some of the protests — particularly those that turn violent and involve burning buildings and looting.

“I think there needs to be a call and demand for non-violence from the people who are protesting,” he said. “It needs to be unequivocal, because I’ve seen it in Syria. I’ve seen how when there is any potential calls for violence, that just get covered so the government can crack down even more. And it just escalates things.”

Syria probably feels a world away and vastly different from the United States, Shakally conceded of his appeal for peace and more organized activism.

“I’m sure people will read what I’m saying and think this place that Syria was will not happen here,” he said. “But I did not see what happened in Syria happening. I was told by friends who are from Iraq, who were refugees in Syria, that things can get a lot worse, even if you don’t think they will.

“And I failed to listen to them.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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