Written by Abigail Diskin
Photos by Courtney Hendricks
Home is politically unstable and thousands of miles away. The violence of war has made many people suffer and has devastated their communities; It has permanently altered history. Family and friends could be in harm’s way. Things are changing at a rapid pace, shifting those strands of familiarity that encompass the feeling of home. But studying in the United States is an opportunity toward a better path, a chance to change the future. For Farai Marazi, Vasil Verulashvili, and Uri Fintzy, this is the reality of every day.
These three international students came to the United States to study, and while they were away, conflict and war erupted, causing a wake of instability in their home countries. Each student’s country has a unique history and set of challenges impacting them in different ways. Nevertheless, the hardships these students face parallel each other as they navigate their paths abroad; being acutely aware that home is in danger.
“When I was growing up I didn’t have nothing. There were no opportunities for me…My family was just trying to survive.”
Marazi came to the U.S. in 2004 from Harare, Zimbabwe to escape the dire economic situation at home and to attend Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Marazi sent money home to his family at least once a month, funding his brother’s education and enabling his family to buy the basic things they needed to survive. He worked 20 hours a week, the maximum allowed for international students, until he graduated in spring of 2008.
“You have to think about working extra just to buy toothpaste. My dad makes $20 a month. Whatever I can afford, I send to my family. I don’t think people in my classes worry about work, but I do,” Marazi says.
Uri Fintzy, born in Israel, always wanted to live in the United States. Every summer he would visit his father, who married an American from Portland.
Four weeks after Fintzy graduated from high school, he was handed his first rifle. Wearing a khaki uniform and a blue beret, Fintzy marched into three years of mandatory service, despite feeling like it was going to hold him back. In retrospect, Fintzy says the army helped to build his character. He says he got to know himself better and learned how he reacts to stress and pressure. But it was never easy. At times, he says, it was depressing.
“It was one of those things that I would never do again but am glad I did,” Fintzy says.
After serving in the Israeli Defense Forces for three years, Fintzy decided to move to Portland, joining his father and stepmother. Soon thereafter, Fintzy applied for a U.S. Visa. After a successful interview, he is glad to be eligible for U.S. citizenship at the end of next year. After a term at Portland State University in the summer of 2007, he transferred to the University of Oregon where he currently attends. Fintzy plans to graduate this spring, with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.
What Fintzy did not plan was the recent spike of instability and violence in Israel. The first conflict he experienced from afar, while living in the U.S., erupted in the summer of 2006 when Israel went to war with Lebanon. Fintzy, already establishing his new life in Portland, was racked with worry and “glued to the news.”
“They melted irrigation equipment and poured concrete into the water basin and left…Zimbabweans who did not know how to use the land got it. And so nothing was produced and the economy crashed.”
“As more and more soldiers died, I’d look at the names, hoping I didn’t see anyone I knew,” says Fintzy. Then, this year, fighting between Israel and Hamas broke out in Gaza. Fintzy’s in-laws, who live in Ashkelon (near Gaza), were now in missile range. Fintzy’s army unit was drafted to fight and he says he was once again plagued with worry.
“It’s really hard to be remote and to know that people are constantly suffering. I am living my carefree life here in Oregon and my friends back home aren’t. It’s not my fault and I shouldn’t be upset about it, but it is hard,” Fintzy says.
Verulashvili dreamt about the same “carefree life” when he watched Hollywood movies as a child. Verulashvili was born in Georgia when it was still a part of the USSR, at a time when the economy was so bad, the crime rate so high, and the education system so inadequate, he says it was “uninhabitable.”
“When I was growing up I didn’t have nothing. There were no opportunities for me…My family was just trying to survive,” says Verulashvili, who didn’t attend school until the third grade.
Verulashvili followed close behind his older sister who came to the U.S. when she was 15. Two years ago, Verulashvili moved to Spokane, Washington to study abroad and to see for himself what life in America was really like. There, with the help of his host family, he learned to speak English and decided to stay in the U.S. longer than expected. After a year in Spokane, he transferred to Lane Community College in Eugene, where he is studying hospitality management and plans to graduate in the summer of 2009.
“This is big for me, a big opportunity,” says Verulashvili with a grin.
However, the recent five-day conflict involving Georgia, South Ossetia, and Russia, which began in August 2008 when a clash between the semi-autonomous region of South Ossetia and Georgia resulted in violence, almost convinced Verulashvili to change his plans once again.
“My first reaction was, ‘I’m getting a ticket and flying home to join the army,’” says Verulashvili, who talked to friends on the phone who were being deployed as reserve forces. “I was in tears. I said, ‘You’re there and what if something happens to you? I would never forgive myself for not being there.’ They pleaded with me not to come.’” So Verulashvili stayed, reminding himself of the opportunity provided by his stay in the U.S.
Some conflicts are deeply rooted and complex, while others erupt suddenly. Marazi outlines the following as a tumultuous history responsible for Zimbabwe’s current instability. From roughly 1888 to 1980, Zimbabwe, nicknamed the “breadbasket of South Africa” for its fertile farmland, was colonized by Britain. The British had control of all the farmland and exported most of the profits and resources from the land directly to Europe. After years of struggle, Zimbabwe won its independence in 1980 and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), headed by Robert Mugabe, came to power. The British, who had promised to turn over the land upon Zimbabwe’s independence, didn’t, until the Zimbabweans forcefully reclaimed the land in the late 1990’s. The British abandoned their farms but left the land infertile to unskilled Zimbabweans.
“They melted irrigation equipment and poured concrete into the water basin and left…Zimbabweans who did not know how to use the land got it. And so nothing was produced and the economy crashed,” Marazi says. “The government printed money to pay off the veterans and this fueled inflation…Now 90 percent is unemployed and there is political unrest.”
Marazi says that Mugabe won the recent election in 2008 by killing, harassing, and intimidating citizens who voted for the opposition party -unjustly allowing him to continue his 28-year dictatorship. The end result: conditions in Zimbabwe are worse than ever and Marazi is miles away.
“Compared to when I was growing up, it is different. We never worried about what we were going to eat. They do now. Sometimes there’s just not going to be any food for two or three days…” Marazi says. “I wonder if they think: ‘I have to get money from other people because I cannot support myself’… like it’s not really satisfying to get money that way.”
Marazi explains solemnly that his “people are dying.” Those who are lucky enough to have a job in Zimbabwe only make $20 a month, but a gallon of gas costs $15 and bread costs $1.50. “They are starving. If you catch cholera, you are going to die because there are no doctors. We are in line to die, so that’s what it has come to,” Marazi says.
Like Zimbabwe, Israel has a long history of conflict. The dispute between Israelis and the Palestinians over the ownership of territory in Israel has been long-standing, eventually leading to an escalation like that of the recent war in Gaza. Although Fintzy is so concerned about what is happening there that he hourly checks the news for updates, he says he did not seek comfort from others around him. , Fintzy says he does not feel compelled to discuss his country’s affairs with his peers, because he knew he “wouldn’t get what [he] wanted.”
“They wouldn’t understand,” says Fintzy, who prefers to maintain a neutral stance on the conflict, like any “professional journalist would.”
Fintzy isn’t the only one who feels like he can’t talk with other students about the situation back home.
“I don’t blame people, but most people have no idea where Georgia is or don’t have any idea about the recent conflict…They didn’t even know that Georgia exists,” Verulashvili says.
Marazi also notices a gap between him and his peers, magnifying the difficulties of being a foreigner.
“Compared to my classmates, I find myself thinking about other things,” Marazi says. “You cannot talk to anyone about those problems because they don’t care or might not know about it. I doubt many people in my class are worried about Zimbabwean inflation.”
Marazi is here to improve his life and the lives of his family members in Zimbabwe. It is a mission, he says, many of his peers might not relate to. After observing his college roommate, who, Marazi explains, came from a wealthy family and had his tuition covered, Marazi realized he had a different set of priorities. Marazi says even though his roommate was provided with the opportunity to attend college for free, he spent most of his time partying or just “chilling and not caring about school.”
“That’s when you start thinking about why you are here, things like responsibility,” Marazi says.
Although the weight of Marazi’s words hung in the air, he quickly wrote off any chance for sympathy by shrugging his shoulders. “So these are just my problems. Everyone has problems.”
Verulashvili, like Fintzy and Marazi, is also here on a mission: to learn and to prosper. He hopes to return to Georgia to open up his own bed-and-breakfast along the shores of the Black Sea. But first he says, he wants to spend a year in Las Vegas, Nevada, to gain experience working in the hotel business.
Verulashvili believes that although the recent conflict in his country may have set it back, a bright future is around the corner. The root of the problem stems from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two separatist regions located within Georgia’s borders that are backed by Russian forces. Friction between Georgia and Russia reached a breaking point since Georgia does not want to give up these territories. Nevertheless, Georgian law has no power in these areas.
“Georgia is open to Western ways and an alliance with the U.S., and Russia doesn’t want this. It is using two occupied territories to control us. It would be nonsense to fight against the biggest country in the world,” Verulashvili says.
If Georgians were to enter these areas, “They [Russian troops] would shoot you. They could shoot anyone and we can’t do anything about it,” Verulashvili says. Fortunately, his family lives in the capital, T’bilisi, and is safe there.
The five-day conflict that began on August 7, 2008, ended when France called for a ceasefire. Verulashvili says about 200 people died as a result of the short war. This number, however, has been disputed, as Russia and Georgia have claimed different death tolls. Additionally, he explains, Russian forces burned acres and acres of old growth forest belonging to a national park, a devastating environmental loss.
Despite the discomfort that comes from being far from home during turbulent times, all three international students see their experiences in the U.S. as an opportunity not to be taken for granted.
“If you have a good head on your shoulders, you can go far in this country. All the knowledge I’ve learned here, how people cherish their freedoms, it will be very useful to go back and share it with my country…I don’t regret any day that I’ve stayed here,” said Verulashvili.
It’s simple, really, Marazi explains. There are two choices to be made, and one is clearly favorable; “That’s the decision: you can go [to Zimbabwe] and get paid 20 bucks and essentially not be able to buy food, or stay and have a good job.”
Fintzy, who plans to permanently live in the U.S. after he is granted citizenship, says, “I am comfortable with visiting and having internet-based relationships with my friends and family…This is what I want. This is where I need to be.”