From Syria to Columbia: One Refugee's Journey Between Music and Medicine
In the early 2010s, Sumar Frejat began his university studies in Aleppo, Syria, where he attended medical school. However, due to the worsening situation, Sumar was forced to stop his studies, and move to Iraq, a place he had never been. He had to quickly adapt to a new environment, and after about three months, and attempting to transfer to medical school in Iraq in vain, Sumar moved back to Syria.
In Latakia, Syria, Sumar returned to school, despite the war. On the side, he began to teach himself Spanish, and worked to pay for his studies. By 2013 however, as the Civil War escalated, Sumar had to leave for Iraq again. Unable to transfer his academic credits, he began working as a scientific representative at a pharmaceutical company, while continuing to learn languages and work on his music.
In 2014, Sumar decided to change paths completely and auditioned for Season 3 of Arab Idol, the equivalent of American Idol for the Arab world. From the thousands of Iraqis who auditioned during the first phase in Erbil, he was one of the dozens who were chosen. During the second round, which took place in Beirut, Lebanon, he was one of 8 Iraqis who made it to the round preceding the live shows, which selected 80 contestants out of the thousands that had auditioned from all around the Arab world.
When Sumar moved back to Iraq after the competition ended, the show was being aired. Although he had some fans and supporters, his newfound fame became problematic as his liberal views began to be exposed. When this hostile environment caused simple tasks like commuting to his job too difficult, he decided to deactivate his fan page and flee Iraq. Shortly thereafter, Sumar decided it was time to return to academia, and moved to the United States, where he eventually applied for asylum.
My favorite thing about being a Columbia student is having the opportunity to grow and learn in a fast-paced environment, where you can learn a lot in a short period of time, and that the professors push students to think critically and question the world around them.
While waiting for a decision on his asylum request, Sumar worked two jobs, all while getting accustomed to the American lifestyle. At night, Sumar would frequent the library at Rice University, where he read biology books, trying to decide whether he wanted to pursue a career in music or in medicine.
One of those jobs was working at a Starbucks located within a hospital, which allowed him to stay in touch with his interest in medicine, by constantly meeting doctors, nurses, and medical students. One day, a doctor who was a regular customer started speaking with him and asking questions about his past and his interests. After learning that he was interested in medical school, the man introduced Sumar to some of his colleagues and promised to keep an eye out for any opportunities.
“By dedicating only a few moments of his time, he altered the course of my life. If you can help, help. You never know how much a small act can change,” Sumar said.
After five days, one of the doctors contacted Sumar and pushed him to apply to a scholarship offered to students from Syria who had been displaced due to the war who wanted to attend the School of General Studies at Columbia University. Sumar did just that, and was eventually accepted to both GS and the scholarship program. Juggling his studies and working several jobs to support himself, Sumar found Columbia and New York City to be overwhelming at first.
“The GS staff was incredibly helpful during these stressful times. They were always helping me try and find a way to make this happen,” Sumar said.
Now a full-time student studying neuroscience, Sumar has not given up on his passion for music. He continues to play with groups both on and off campus, including the Columbia Arab Music Ensemble, and tutors students on the oud, a Middle Eastern and North African string instrument. Sumar also has a passion for other arts, including painting and acting (having acted in four short films so far), and foreign languages—having learned English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew, on top of Arabic, his native language. Upon graduation, Sumar plans to re-apply to medical school.
“My favorite thing about being a Columbia student is having the opportunity to grow and learn in a fast-paced environment, where you can learn a lot in a short period of time, and that the professors push students to think critically and question the world around them,” Sumar said.