5,700 Miles to Safety

Montclair State provides a safe haven for Syrian artist Jumana Jaber

Photo: Mike Peters

Jumana Jaber

In July 2013, Jumana Jaber arrived in Montclair, ready to take up her position as a visiting assistant professor of Art and Design at Montclair State University. But Jaber is not a typical new faculty member: she is a protected visiting scholar, who, along with her husband and son, has been displaced by the Syrian civil war.

“We left because our lives were in danger,” Jaber says. “The violence in the country was only intensifying and we needed to leave.”

Jaber came to the attention of Marina Cunningham, the Global Education Center’s executive director of international affairs, when the IIE, or Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) sent her a list of scholars needing placements.

“I thought her CV was very interesting and unusual,” Cunningham recalls. “She’s an artist and a designer, so I thought our Department of Art and Design would be interested.” After a round of Skype interviews, Jaber was offered the opportunity to teach visual arts and theater design for the departments of Art and Design and Theatre and Dance. “They were delighted to find out that she would be interested in teaching painting as well as design for an opera the College of the Arts will be staging in spring 2014,” Cunningham adds. “She has a one-year renewable contract with SRF and the University.”

Montclair State has supported refugee scholars in the past from Rwanda, Iraq and Iran. The IIE provides a partial grant and the University matches at least 50 percent of that funding. “Besides Jaber, we have another SRF scholar from Syria at present,” says Cunningham. “But he doesn’t want people back home to know this.”

“We Left Everything”
As a painter and interior designer in Syria, Jaber’s work had been exhibited in museums in Damascus. She taught art at the University of Kalamoon in Damascus, where, she says that “many students liked me and the way I do art.” Her husband, sculptor Nazih Alhajari, also taught at the university. She hopes to eventually exhibit her work in this country.

“Syria has many differences between people,” Jaber explains. “Every day, I didn’t know what would happen.” Eventually, the family was forced to flee. “We left everything: our home, our studio, our family,” she remembers. “We took some clothes, our IDs, some photos and locked the door and left. Our neighbor now waters the flowers in our garden.”

Since their arrival in America, things have changed for the better for the family. “It’s so different now. We live in peace and security.” She is enjoying her new life and appreciates the calm and quiet of the area. “Our neighbors have been very friendly,” she adds.

Her 19-year-old son, Sam, is a Red Hawk freshman studying computer science thanks to a scholarship from the University. “He has totally different interests,” says Jaber. “He likes it here very much. The University has supported him tremendously and have done everything they can to make his transition to school here very smooth. They take good care of their international students.”

Her husband is learning English at the moment. “Since he’s an artist, he keeps himself busy making small sculptures,” Jaber says.

Settling into a New Life
Jaber is enjoying her new students. “Students are students everywhere. But I have noticed that my students here are much more independent,” she reports. “They express themselves freely, are confident in their ideas – and that goes a long way.”

The family members are settling into their lives here with the support of the IIE and the University. “It’s tough when you have to suddenly pick up your belongings and leave your home country indefinitely,” Jaber says. “The IIE and Montclair State have been tremendously helpful – from official documents to finding housing – they’ve helped us every step of the way.”