Passing the Test
Bassam Theodory ’17 and his family dropped everything to escape Syria. Now the former transfer student wants to become a doctor like his dad, who is back treating patients in Aleppo.
By Omar Shamout
For many high schoolers, math tests stoke a variety of emotions, including fear, anxiety, and stress.
Bassam Theodory experienced all of those during his final high school math exam in early 2012, but they were far removed from calculus. Instead, they had everything to do with the violent and bloody civil war rapidly ensnaring
Bassam is from Aleppo, Syria — one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities with roots dating back some 8,000 years. Aleppo used to be the country’s largest city with 4.4 million residents. Then the fighting started.
“Out of nowhere, we heard gunshots,” Bassam recalled of the math test. “We all stood and looked at each other, like, now what?”
While he and his classmates finished the exam, Bassam, then 17, and his family didn’t stay in Syria for long, as the now seven-year-old conflict started to escalate all around them. The war has pitted the government forces of President Bashar Al-Assad against a host of opposition groups, some of whom, such as the Islamic State group and Nusra Front, are striving to impose fundamentalist Islamic rule.
Within a week, the Theodory family, who are Roman Catholic, had fled their home since birth for Southern California. Making the trip were father George, now 62, mother Ruby Sayegh, 51, brother Majd, 28, and sister Myriam, 26.
“We got scared,” said Bassam, now 23. “We realized it was starting in Aleppo and felt insecure. I didn’t even wait for my exam scores.”
Luckily, Ruby’s brother, Antoine Sayegh, 54, and parents, Salem Sayegh, 82, and Nadia Khoukaz Sayegh, 77, lived in Glendora. Antoine, a dentist and U.S. citizen, had secured green cards for the family back in 2007.
The plan was to stay with Ruby’s parents for a few months until fighting died down. But when things only got worse, the family was faced with a decision: return home and risk the danger of living in a war zone, or start from scratch in California.
For Bassam, who had grown up dreaming of one day moving to the United States after visiting his uncle as a kid, the choice was clear. He was at a natural transition point in his life, and also faced the prospect of being drafted into the Syrian army. So, starting over in a foreign country was a challenge he was happy to accept. But his parents and siblings had obligations back home.
His dad, a doctor who serves as medical director of Aleppo’s St. Louis Hospital, would not be able to practice in the United States, posing a major financial burden. Plus, George felt a sense of duty to his Syrian colleagues and countrymen. Myriam was ready to enter her final year of pharmacy school in Aleppo, while Majd was still in dentistry school in Damascus and would not have to serve in the army as a student.
“The fact that I just graduated from high school made my transition really smooth compared to my siblings,” Bassam said.
Ultimately, Bassam and Myriam stayed in Glendora with their grandparents, while the rest of the family went back to Syria.
“I was not sure if it was a good decision, but I told my wife, ‘We must leave the children here, it’s too dangerous in Aleppo now,’” George recalled.
Bassam felt torn. On one hand, his wish to live in the United States was coming true. On the other, his family was being ripped apart, with his parents heading home to a potentially life-threatening situation.
“It was not easy to take that in, but day after day we pulled through together,” Bassam said, noting he and his sister checked in with their parents every couple of days. “We’d call them to make sure they were safe. Although we were working and studying here, emotionally or mentally, we were with them.”
After six months of home-schooling and learning English, Bassam enrolled at Citrus College in Glendora, studying biological and physical science. Myriam, meanwhile, started community college with Bassam and then took up nursing at West Coast University in Ontario.
The move was tougher on Myriam, who had to give up pharmacy school. She
was also particularly close with her mom and dad, as well as her friends back
home, whom she communicated with constantly on Skype, as well as messaging apps WhatsApp and Viber.
“Bassam was — and still is — my support,” Myriam said. “If Bassam was not here, I would not have considered a nursing program. He was pushing me out of my comfort zone all the time, like, ‘Go, do things, make new friends. We can work together through any challenge you’re facing.’”
Bassam also helped his grandparents with cooking, grocery shopping, ensuring they took their medication, and driving them to regular medical appointments. Salem struggles with cardiovascular disease and kidney stones, while Nadia is diabetic.
The grandparents came to think of Bassam and Myriam as their own children. They run a tight ship, albeit one driven by love and concern.
“They had my schedule, minute-by minute — classes, work shifts, study hours,” Bassam said. “If I finished class at 12:30, and I wasn’t home by 12:45, I would expect a phone call from grandpa.”
Even now, copies of Bassam and Myriam’s weekly schedules still hang in the kitchen, handwritten in Arabic.
Bassam adapted to community college well, and his English skills developed rapidly. The biology faculty at Citrus recommended him for a position as a supplemental instruction leader. The job involved tutoring students in classes he had previously taken and excelled in, and also leading biweekly discussion groups.
“Whenever I was not working, I was either studying or helping in a student organization,” he said. “I was always on campus.”
When it came time to transfer to a four-year institution, Bassam had his sights set on a UC school because he wanted to perform research. He applied to all but one UC, with his heart initially set on either UC Berkeley or UCLA.
But his opinion changed after visiting those campuses, and then taking a look at UC Riverside.
While Berkeley and UCLA were big and had great name recognition, Bassam felt they didn’t offer enough resources to help students. Overall, he just didn’t get a good vibe — until he visited UCR.
“There was a stressful tension I felt around the campus,” Bassam recalled about Berkeley and UCLA. “UCR didn’t feel like that.”
He also left feeling excited about UCR’s science offerings — in particular the STEM Pathway Program and its Summer Bridge to Research initiative, which offers incoming community college transfer students in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences the chance to perform paid research for 10 weeks before the start of fall classes. The federal grant-funded program aims to increase the number of underrepresented students transferring into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields and improve their success and retention in the university.
“I visited the STEM Pathway program’s website, and I emailed the coordinator right away,” Bassam said. “The entire STEM team was very welcoming. The STEM peer mentors answered all of my questions and gave me a tour of the science side of campus.”
Bassam, who said he received acceptance letters from every UC he applied to, chose UCR and attended the Summer Bridge program in 2015. He worked on a research project in the lab of Eugene Nothnagel, a professor of plant physiology in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences.
“He did really well on that,” recalled Nothnagel. “He learned quickly and
understood the method.”
Since then, Nothnagel has served as Bassam’s mentor, instructing many of his college classes. Bassam worked as the lead peer mentor in the STEM Pathway Program while at UCR and graduated in 2017 with a B.S. in biochemistry and an emphasis in medical sciences. He now works in Nothnagel’s lab as a research assistant while studying to take the MCAT in the spring.
“The support is like nowhere else, and the people become a part of your life. Not just students, professors too,” Bassam said about UCR. “I wanted to be
part of a small and close community, and everyone I have met here was willing to help me.”
Taking care of his grandparents has given Bassam an appreciation for treating
the elderly. While at UCR, he and some of his fellow premed transfer students started a group devoted to educating Riverside residents about diabetes. Community medical outreach and education remains one of his top interests. As a student, he also volunteered at Loma Linda University Medical Center’s adult acute care unit, where he provided companionship to older patients.
“I wanted to help people like my grandma,” he said. “One day, I was sitting with a lady for about four hours talking about cooking. I was able to get closer and know them on a personal level and reduce some of their anxiety.”
Bassam hopes to one day work as an endocrinologist or anesthesiologist, though he’s keeping his options open.
“He does have this desire to serve,” said Nothnagel. “He’s very bright. He has
high standards. “I anticipate he will get accepted into a good medical school.”
Though Bassam moved to Riverside while studying at UCR, he’s back living
with his grandparents and Myriam in Glendora. His brother, Majd, has since graduated dentistry school and moved in with them while working in his uncle’s practice.
George and Ruby came back to the United States in 2013 after the Nusra
Front threatened George’s life if he didn’t pledge his loyalty to the group or pay them $10,000.
“They threatened my father for providing help for injured civilians in
Aleppo,” Bassam said. “We always take pride for being community leaders and Catholics in the Middle East, but leaving Aleppo immediately was the only option for my father’s safety.”
While here, George trained as both an emergency medical technician and an electrocardiogram technician, though he failed to find work.
“We possess a big mission in our family to help people in need,” Bassam
said. “My father tried his best to accomplish that in the United States, but things did not work out.”
George and Ruby went back to Aleppo once again in February 2014, but the situation there only got grimmer.
It reached its nadir in the final months of 2016 as Assad’s forces launched a
large-scale offensive, aided by Russian airstrikes, to recapture the city following a four-year siege.
The lengthy battle for Aleppo saw intense fighting, with more than 31,000
people killed, more than 33,000 buildings destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee, according to reports. As a result, Damascus has overtaken Aleppo as Syria’s largest city.
While things got scary for George and Ruby — including bullets piercing through their kitchen and a three-hour lockdown in the bathroom during heavy bombardment — the couple made it through unscathed.
They’ve been able to visit their children in Glendora, who became U.S. citizens last year — a moment Bassam will never forget.
“A flash of cheerful and harsh memories came across my mind while saying the pledge of allegiance,” he remembered. “I have worked really hard
and almost cried because I finally became an American citizen and felt like I belong here.”
The University of California’s goal is to enroll entering student cohorts of California residents at a 2:1 ratio of freshman to transfer students, according to UC’s 2017 Accountability Report. This ratio is an important consideration as UC looks to enroll an additional 10,000 Californians across its 10 campuses by the 2018–2019 academic year.
UC Riverside offers a number of resources designed to help incoming transfer students succeed and thrive. Some examples include the STEM Pathway Program, on- and off-campus housing for individuals and families, alternative transportation options such as free bus rides, and a host of academic advising and mentorship opportunities designed specifically for transfer students.
UCR also distributes more than $450 million annually in financial aid, with 86 percent of transfer students at UCR receiving financial aid. Of that number, 82 percent qualify for grants and/or scholarships that do not need to be repaid. Meanwhile, UCR graduates rank in the top 7th percentile for highest salary potential out of 568 national public universities in 2017–18, according to Payscale.com. UCR graduates have a starting median salary of $51,600 and a mid-career median salary of $107,400.
These efforts and positive statistics are bearing fruit. UCR registered its
largest-ever number of applicants for the fall 2018 term, at 60,285, and
showed the largest percentage increase in transfer applications of any UC
campus, at 13.2 percent.