Carnegie Mellon University
February 28, 2022

Dietrich Senior Teaches English to Syrian Refugees in Turkey

By Marissa Pekular

Roni Sosis wanted to make a difference in the world by helping people and communities in whatever way they could.

“I just knew I wanted to learn about the world, so global studies helped me do that,” said Sosis, a senior in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences majoring in global studies and minoring in creative writing and Arabic studies.

In 2021, Sosis was awarded the Critical Language Scholarship through the U.S. State Department. During this program, they became interested in volunteering with Syrian refugees. Shortly thereafter, they traveled to Turkey, embarking on a life-altering experience.

For the next eight months, Sosis taught Syrian refugees English, building relationships and becoming a part of their community.

“I went from living in Izmir to living in Gaziantep,” said Sosis. “I went from the west part of Turkey to the eastern part of Turkey, which is a lot more traditional and has lot more Syrian refugees. I was able to use my Arabic a lot and improve it.”

Sosis regularly taught seven classes per week, ranging in difficulty from beginner to advanced. They taught 50 students at a government community center and created the curriculum, emphasizing the importance of a high-quality education for their students.

“Having an English education, [especially] conversational English, was a huge [asset] to them in order to pursue their careers,” said Sosis.“[This experience] taught me how important English is, and how much of a privilege I have coming from an English-speaking country. If I can utilize this skill, I can really help a lot of people.”

Living in Turkey for eight months was a transformative experience. Sosis traveled to Turkey hoping to make a difference in the world. This opportunity showed how an individual could make a difference in peoples’ lives and communities. Sosis knew this was their path.

Although this was a valuable, life-changing experience, it was a path full of challenges.

sosis_body-min.png“It was really difficult, personally, socially,” said Sosis. “I was really struggling with depression and isolation. While I was there helping people, I encountered a lot of trauma and was dealing with my own issues.”

Refugees would confide in Sosis, sharing their harrowing experiences of migration and trauma. They always offered a compassionate ear.

“It was life-changing for me to hear those stories and be entrusted with their stories,” said Sosis. “It was so hard.”

A pivotal figure during their time in Turkey was a friendly neighbor. A single mother of two, Zahour lived across the hall and helped guide Sosis through those difficult experiences with grace and kindness.

“I would go to her apartment to drink tea, and we would talk about our lives,” said Sosis. “That really helped to keep me grounded and give me someone to share my experiences with. She was a huge inspiration to me. She was so strong and incredible.”

Living in Turkey for eight months presented other complex experiences for Sosis to navigate. Turkey is are not as accepting of other faiths.

“I am an Orthodox Jew, which was another challenge while I was there because there is a lot of anti-Semitism in Turkey,” they said.

Sosis recalled living in a state of constant awareness and fear. They stopped wearing their yarmulke and only told a couple of close, accepting friends of their religion and culture.

While living in Gaziantep, Sosis met one of the only Jewish people in the city, Yoel. Together, they shared their experiences and found solace in each other’s comfort and support.

“We made a little community together,” said Sosis. “We celebrated the holidays together. It was a special thing.”

Sosis returned home in the fall and resumed their classes. While graduation is around the corner, they already have post-graduation goals, which are uniquely public-spirited and focused on using their Arabic language skills and cultural knowledge.   

“Something I am hoping to do is work in education for refugees in Pittsburgh. More generally speaking, after graduation, I am hoping to work for a nonprofit in the Pittsburgh community with refugees,” said Sosis. “That is my goal.”