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Dietrich Senior Teaches English to Syrian Refugees in Turkey

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Abby Simmons
Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences

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

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

In 2021, Sosis was awarded the Critical Language Scholarship through the U.S. State Department. During this program, he became interested in volunteering with Syrian refugees. Shortly thereafter, he 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 more traditional and has more Syrian refugees. I was able to use my Arabic a lot and improve it."

Sosis taught seven classes weekly, ranging in difficulty from beginner to advanced. He 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. And while he found their time in Turkey rewarding, the experience also was challenging.

"It was really difficult, personally, socially," Sosis said. "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 harrowing experiences of migration and trauma. He always offered a compassionate ear.

"It was life-changing for me to hear those stories and be entrusted with their stories," Sosis said. "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 difficult experiences with grace and kindness.

"I would go to her apartment to drink tea, and we would talk about our lives," Sosis said. "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 presented other complex situations for Sosis to navigate.

"I am an Orthodox Jew, which was another challenge while I was there because there is a lot of antisemitism in Turkey," he said.

Sosis recalled living in a state of constant awareness and fear. He stopped wearing their yarmulke and only told a couple of close 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 supported each other.

"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 classes. With graduation around the corner, post-graduation goals are his focus.

"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," Sosis said.

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