Aleppo to Fresno: Student designs refugee center inspired by her experience

Dalia Moudarres talks about her senior project, "Mission Refugee Center"

The bus ride was long and frightening. The trip that typically took six hours took Dalia Moudarres more than 18 hours. 

“It was so dangerous. They plant bombs in the street so any car that goes there explodes,” Moudarres explained. “You also can’t tell if it’s going to happen to you or the other person because it happened to other people before me or after me.”

Moudarres’ goal was to get from Aleppo, Syria to Turkey and take a plane to the United States in hopes of finding safety during Syrian civil war. In normal times, she would just drive a little over an hour north to get to the Turkish border. However, that border was closed, so her only option was to travel south to Lebanon, then go to Turkey — whatever it took to find safety. 

Moudarres had not felt safe for years, and she was able to use her status as an American citizen to get out of Syria. The Syrian civil war started in 2010-11, about the time Moudarres graduated from high school.

“I was doing my high school degree during the war when the bombs were all over. That was so stressful. I don’t know how I finished,” Moudarres said. 

After high school, Moudarres enrolled in the interior design program at the University of Aleppo, as the war continued around her. In early 2013, during finals week, she said she was in the cafeteria when an explosion shook the architecture and fine arts building. As she and the other students were rushed to the basement, a second explosion rocked a nearby dormitory. According to news reports, 82 people were killed and 192 wounded. 

After getting her degree, Moudarres planned to continue her education and get her master’s degree, but it was clear to her that continuing in Syria was too dangerous. To have any chance of enrolling in another country, she needed to have her degree translated and certified, which required her to head into a treacherous area of old-town Aleppo. 

As news reports at the time explain, some areas of the city were controlled by the Syrian Arab Republic led by President Bashar al-Assad and other areas were controlled by factions of opposition groups. The streets that border these areas were often lined with snipers from both sides requiring everyday citizens to run through gunfire to cross between them. In an effort to make things safer, sheets were hung across the rubble-filled streets to block the snipers’ view.

“Me and my dad, we were running because there were a lot of curtains, but there are some areas where they’re empty and those snipers can shoot you. And it’s crazy because you’re just running, and you never know if it’s going to hit you or hit the other person,” said Moudarres. “It actually hit the person in front of me. It was crazy. I’m so glad I got out of it. Like a miracle!”

Now, she is graduating from Fresno State with a bachelor’s degree in interior design, the same program her father went through decades earlier. The College of Arts and Humanities commencement ceremony is at 12:30 p.m. Friday, May 20, at the Save Mart Center.

Pursuing education in the U.S.

When she first came to the United States, she took English as a Second Language courses in Virginia. She then traveled to San Diego, where she got a job helping international students with college admissions. However, given the war back in Syria, she was not able to get her college degree confirmed. 

Eventually, she enrolled at Fresno City College after they were able to confirm her high school degree, and she said her college journey began for a second time. She received a degree in studio arts at Fresno City College and transferred to Fresno State. 

“Dalia has this unique ability to explain a refugee’s experience as they come to the United States and all of the difficulties they encounter,” said Holly Sowles, professor and coordinator for the interior design program at Fresno State. “She constantly talked about how an individual isn’t aware of any cultural differences. They don’t understand rules, laws, regulations – all the way down to how to drive a car, places they can and can’t be and why.” 

A personal twist to her senior project

The basis of the interior design senior project assignment is simple. Students find a vacant building to reuse, then propose redesigning the building as a functional space for a fictional non-profit organization. Moudarres used her experience and the challenges she faced when coming to the United States to inform her senior project, the “Mission Refugee Center.” 

“Refugee center came to my mind because I felt this was what I needed when I first came here,” Moudarres said. “I needed help with getting into school. I needed help with finding a job, maybe buying a car, or apply for a driver’s license and a lot of small stuff.”

These were all things that she did not have to worry about in Syria, but are commonplace in the United States. Her project addresses these issues for refugees from other countries. She envisions a one-stop shop for people to get help finding resources to begin their new life.

“You just need to go there, and they will direct you where to go. They will try to find you a job, they will try to get you in school,” Moudarres said. 

Inside the center, Moudarres proposed using the height of the abandoned K-Mart building in Riverside to create a grand yet comfortable entrance that evokes a sense of wellbeing. From there, refugees can find classrooms for learning English, emotional support rooms for those fleeing traumatic situations in their home countries, a library, a daycare center and a community and entertainment room. Several residential apartments include single and family units intended to serve as temporary housing while the tenants search for permanent housing.

“I struggled for a couple of years, but now, I’m a pro,” Moudarres said with a smile. “At that time, I needed so much help, and now I can help people.”

Still, through the struggle of violence and war, to the enormous effort to build a new life in the United States, Moudarres is inspired to use the path she forged to help others thrive as they begin anew. 

After graduation, she plans to start her own business. She also hopes to find funding for the Mission Refugee Center.

Posted by

Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities Communication Specialist

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