By Laura Scott
One of the first things Monzer “Moe” Shakally bought after stepping off the plane from Damascus, Syria, was a huge, puffy jacket. The other thing he bought? Starbucks.
Shakally fled Syria first as a refugee to Egypt, and then at 16, he moved to Des Moines to live with his older brother and attend high school. He learned to speak English from watching “The Simpsons” and took his nickname from Moe, the bartender on the show.
Shakally shared his experiences Thursday at a presentation hosted by the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council about his experience growing up as a Syrian asylum seeker.
Shakally’s talk was at times emotional, but with his straightforward style of storytelling, he managed to have the entire room laughing at times, too.
In one of the most powerful moments of his speech, he described the disparity of wealth in Damascus, a place where, he said, a 12-year-old orphan could be looking for food with a younger sibling, and yet across the street, people are out getting drunk and enjoying the entertainment and restaurants in Damascus.
“Civil wars destroy the fabric of society,” Shakally said to a silent audience. “Those kids will not grow up without hatred in their hearts.”
More than 80 percent of Syrians now live below the poverty line, according to a U.N. report. Shakally is an intern for the council, and he spent the summer setting up speakers and creating program brochures for the organization. The idea of him giving one of the talks this year was brought up to him this summer during the planning stages.
During the presentation, he showed the audience, who were enjoying a luncheon of chicken kabobs, pita, and tahini, a selfie he had taken at the top of Willis Tower in Chicago, formerly as Sears Tower.
Now, he’s a junior and evolutionary biology major who is minoring in international relations and is on the pre-med track, hoping to become a dentist.
“He says exactly what’s on his mind; he doesn’t beat around the bush, and that’s what I like about him,” said Michael Buffa, a junior psychology major who is also on the pre-med track.
Buffa, who is Shakally’s roommate, has known Shakally since freshman year; they met in a chemistry class, Buffa said. They spend a lot of time studying together, and they are also both in the Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
Shakally also spoke on a panel earlier this year hosted by the Human Rights Student Collective as part of Refugee Relief Week.
“Right away, he just kind of radiates this openness,” said UI junior Brooke Roberts, an economics and marketing major and a close friend of Shakally. “You just feel OK saying anything to him. And you feel comfortable around him.”
Roberts saw Shakally speak at the Refugee Relief Week panel, and she said she learned a lot about his history that she didn’t know before, and continued to talk to him after the talk was over about his experiences.
Shakally said that going to talks like his, discussing the refugee crisis enough to keep the issue alive, writing to representatives, and having conversations with people about immigration reform are all important steps to take to help the cause.
War, Shakally said, “exposes societies”; it shows both the worst of a country but also the best. And in the state of Iowa, Shakally found well-intentioned, kind people and an accepting, open community. The differences among all of us, Shakally believes, are so minute, and louder, angrier voices often drown out the kind ones.