Ringling College Graphic Design Senior Finds a Home

Arts & Culture


Aiham Kara Hawa was a small boy in 2011 when protests erupted in Syria. Then the bullets started flying. “Some nights you could hear gunshots,” he remembers. By mid-2012 things had gotten so bad that he, his mother and two siblings fled to Lebanon, then Egypt. They tried to establish themselves there for a year, but Egypt too found itself mired in political upheaval and widespread violence. By the time his father tried to join them in Egypt, the country had stopped accepting refugees from Syria, so the family reunited in Turkey. They learned Turkish, Kara Hawa and his siblings enrolled in Turkish schools and his parents found work, but their relative peace and stability in Turkey would be replaced by a different struggle. “By the time we got to Egypt I knew I was gay,” says Kara Hawa, “and that got me in a lot of trouble with my family.” To protect himself, he told his family it was just a phase. By 16, he had already fled a warzone in Syria and avoided the fallout of a coup in Egypt—now he had to flee to be himself. “I felt isolated and defeated,” he says.

Then he heard about United World College, a charity with 18 schools and colleges around the world that offer two-year residential programs for people aged 16-19. Graduates attain an IB diploma and can specialize in any number of subjects—Kara Hawa applied and got a full scholarship to the Maastricht campus in the Netherlands. “I had the time of my life,” he says, “everything was new and liberating.” He studied graphic design and in 2016 when it came time to pick from among hundreds of colleges and universities affiliated with UWC, he chose a little art and design school in Sarasota. “I applied, Ringling gave me a scholarship and I’ve been here ever since,” he says. But getting here and staying has had its own obstacles.

It took two visa applications before he was approved. Then in 2018, the embassy closed in Syria and his visa renewal looked unlikely. Asylum would be his only path to remaining in the US in a protected, long-term status, but there were no lawyers around that could take his case pro bono. In his desperation, he turned to GoFundMe to try and raise money for one. “I never thought it would work,” he says, “but in one week we raised $9000.” Last summer he interviewed at an immigration office in Miami and just last month, on March 16th, learned his asylum application was approved. “Now I’m technically an asylee,” he says, “I have a driver’s license, a work permit, and in a year I can apply for a green card and work towards citizenship.”

Kara Hawa is poised to graduate amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic hardly seems to register as a concern. “I think what happened in Syria prepared me for this,” he says, “and [COVID-19] is easier to live through than a warzone.” With internet, water, electricity and safety, he has a lot to be grateful for. “I just try not to take it for granted,” he says. After graduation he has something else to be grateful for: his first career with a design firm. “It’s so rare for people from my background to get this far,” he says, “but so many people have been supportive of my journey and I’m so excited to make Florida my home.”

Photo by Matthew Holler.

For more about Aiham Kara Hawa.

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