Taleen Dilanyan was 13 years old in 2006 when her family, fearing for their lives, fled the violence in Iraq to find safe haven in Syria. She and her parents and older sister traded Baghdad for Aleppo, where Dilanyan made friends and recalls being very happy. By 2011, though, Syria itself erupted, devolving into a brutal civil war and becoming as dangerous and unstable as her native Iraq once was.
Dilanyan found a way out when a nonprofit organization called the Iraqi Student Project offered to help her pursue a college education in the United States. Her exceptional English, honed by years of watching American TV shows and movies, helped her ace her TOEFLs (a proficiency test for non-native English speakers) and land a spot in the Smith class of 2016. Coming here meant leaving her family behind in besieged Aleppo, a situation that caused her constant worry since she began her first year at Smith.
On homesickness “Sometimes I just collapse, and my ability to be strong and endure living here by myself weakens. Last year I think it didn’t sink in how much I haven’t seen my family, but the beginning of this year was awful. I was really missing them and struggling to keep my cool. Once school started, I realized I needed to move on.”
Her family’s flight “They moved out of Aleppo [to Armenia] when I was doing my finals last spring, at the end of my first year. At the risk of sounding cliché, it was a mountain that was lifted off my shoulders. I guess it relieved the guilt of being away from them. If something would’ve happened to them, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
Her ambitions “I declared chemistry as a major, and hopefully I’ll be doing either a minor or a major in Italian. It’s a very pretty language. I tried it out my first year, and I fell in love with it. For my junior year, I might apply to go to Italy. I’m hoping it would be a chance for me to see my family—to be closer to them, at least. I haven’t seen them for, effectively, two years.”
On stereotypes “People assume I’m a Muslim because I’m Iraqi. And people sometimes don’t believe me when I say I’m Iraqi because of my appearance. Looking white and being Christian—it’s not the same as people would think an Iraqi would look like.”
From Syria to Smith “After the initial ‘Whoa, oh my God,’ it got normal. I’m thankful for each day that I’m living here and not having my life threatened and enjoying this beautiful little town. I never thought of myself as prepared to do this, but apparently I am because I’m doing very well in academics and in my social life. I feel like Smith was the perfect place for me. I’m really fortunate to be here. I’m blessed.”