Refugee student finds home in ‘Burg

Americans enjoy very basic freedoms in every day of their lives, like freedom of speech, religion, press and peaceful protest, among others. But Americans tend to overlook a freedom that is less obvious: the freedom to live without daily fear.

Fadi Shahin is an 18-year-old English Language Institute student on the campus of The University of Southern Mississippi.

Shahin made it through his senior year in high school when his family was displaced from the Gaza Strip in the Middle East.

Growing up, Shahin was not the quiet kid. He had a personality that attracted everyone around him. To the boys in his neighborhood, Shahin was the one to whom everyone looked.

“Back home, I used to be funny with my friends,” Shahin said. “Here, I just don’t know what jokes you guys like.”

Not only was he the popular guy, but his father was also a powerful man. His father worked for the South African Embassy of World Relations.

Shahin and his family come from one of the most war-ravaged places on earth: the Gaza Strip. It is a 360-square-kilometer Middle Eastern country, that borders the Mediterranean Sea.

“We went to the crossing border,” Shahin said. “We drove through the town (and) all the buildings were destroyed.”

For years, the Shahin family lived in peace, despite war going on all around them. Buildings were commonly destroyed. People were constantly misplaced. It became increasingly difficult to find stability in the region.

Finding a safe haven in the war-ravaged city was tough, but the Shahin family managed. As Shahin grew up, he actually loved the life he lived. He had a great family, a nice home and plenty of friends. But it all changed in one night.

“The last night in Gaza, there was an explosion,” Shahin said. “We saw the news that the next-door building was bombed.”

That building that Shahin saw was 14 stories tall. The buildings in the front, behind and on the side of his family were all destroyed. The bombings did not start that night, but they were going on for months.

“At midnight, the F-16 planes would drop bombs every night in this war. After the war ended, I still woke up in the night and had nightmares.” – Fadi Shahin

Shahin’s family faced three aggressions while they lived in the Gaza Strip, spanning from 2008 to 2014. In the Gaza Strip, violence was all around them. The wars with Israel displaced natives of the region, separating generations of families from their loved ones.

Although the region they lived in gave them a prosperous life, the area was 365 square kilometers. The families in the region had to stay in the parameters to stay out of the wars between both Islamic extremists and the Israelites. That is, until the war came to them.

In the very region that Shahin grew up, he also had his grandfather who did not live too far away. His grandfather housed his extended family, including some cousins, aunts and uncles. After his cousins finally decided to live on their own, disaster struck.

“My cousin’s home was bombed,” Shahin said. “They were all killed.”

The tragedies of living in the area took no one in particular. No matter what class, family or how much you meant to the native land, violence would find you.

The fear of living in their native land drove Shahin’s family away. Trying to find a way out, they fled 45 minutes south to Egypt. On the way there, the images implanted into Shahin were hard to conceptualize.

“If you saw it from overhead, it would look like flat land,” Shahin said. “All the people were killed in this area.”

The bombing did not just stop with Shahin, but it affected everyone, even the ones with whom he grew up.

“I had a friend,” Shahin said. “He saw in his eyes that people were killed. He was not normal after that.”

His family did not leave once they starting seeing the violence and wars. Fadi was merely in high school when the harshest violence came their way.

His father resented wanting to leave the country. After holding office in the South African Embassy, he held a very high power in society. When things were good, Shahin enjoyed his life in the Middle East. Things took a turn for the worst back at the apartment bombings.

The family realized that they could not do it anymore. They had to leave once the bombing came too close to home.

The family moved to America on July 23 and they have not looked back since.

Now in America, Hattiesburg has been kind to Shahin and his family. He hopes to become a photographer someday. He has numerous pictures on his personal Instagram page and he carries his own camera.

“It’s a good and beautiful place,” Shahin said. “The nature is beautiful. I like it.”

Adjusting to the American lifestyle is different for everyone. But the thing he believes is to just find your place. No matter what you have gone through in your past, you future is what really matters to him.

“I want to live a normal life. I want to see beautiful places and take pictures.” – Fadi Shahin

One thing that brought his family here was the abundance of Christians in America. According to the Pew Research Center, America is just over 70 percent Christian. In the Middle East, it was very rare, if at all, to meet a person of the Christian faith.

“In Gaza, we don’t have a lot of churches,” Shahin said. “There are only 1,300 Christians, but the population of Gaza is (1.8 million) people.”

One adjustment that he said he has to make is in terms of the way American society can be judgmental. For years, the U.S. has dealt with race issues. Whether it is Trayvon Martin, the L.A. riots or how Americans have viewed the Islamic society after the Sept. 11 attacks, society’s views have changed. Even though Shahin’s region had the disparity in religion, they also didn’t recognize other things.

“All of my friends were Muslim,” Shahin said. “We don’t have time to look at color.”

As of now, the family lives downtown in the Hattiesburg area. He is here with his father, mother and his sister. His sister is a student at Southern Miss, but his father struggles. His father is currently unemployed, despite being a Southern Miss alumnus. He has requested permission to speak with the president of the university to help in his job search, but to no avail.

With their backs against the wall financially and having just left the war, Fadi only has one message.

“Palestinians and Israelites can live in co-existence,” Shahin said. “We hope that peace will prevail. We want people to have hope and live free.”