Tyler Ready wanted to get away from the northern cold, and ended up leaving Syria in haste in January as the Arab Spring turned violent in the civil war torn country.
Ready is a 2003 Laurel High School and 2007 Montana State University Billings graduate. After a stint of teaching in Twin Falls, Idaho, for two years, he traveled in 2010 to Syria to work as a sixth-grade language arts and social studies teacher in Damascus. He spoke at the Wednesday Alternative Service at the Billings Unitarian Universalist Fellowship last week.
Syria is the oldest continually inhabited country in the world. Its population of 23 million is 74 percent Sunni Muslim, and the ruling minority Alawite Muslim population makes up approximately 14 percent of the population, and the other 10 percent or so of the population consists of various Christian and Jewish sects.
Although Ready admits he’s not an expert about Arab culture or the Middle East, his understanding is probably better than most Americans just because he’s lived there awhile. He’s often asked what the differences are between the United States and Syria.
He replies, “In a word: Everything.”
Upon his arrival in Damascus, he thought he may have made a mistake after seeing how rundown and dirty everything seemed.
His apprehension eased when he went inside buildings, and everything seemed modern with marble and wooden floors with nicely designed interiors.
Syria is a cash only culture. At the end of the month, he’d get most of his money deposited in a U.S. account, but he’d receive the equivalent of $500 cash in an envelope for spending money. He said, “I felt like a Mafia guy being paid off!”
To shop, Ready frequented small outdoor shops in alleys called souks that featured a wide variety of goods. “You can basically get anything you wanted, as long as it wasn’t real specific,” he said.
There was no pork because it’s forbidden to eat it in Islamic culture, and there wasn’t much processed food, so there was a lot of fresh fruits, lamb, and chicken. Ready said beef was available, but always tasted funny – even at more expensive restaurants – so he avoided it.
His school featured an American-styled college prep curriculum. The students were a mix of roughly 70 percent local well-to-do Syrian children, and other international students who lived in the Embassy area.
One of his students was the Saudi Ambassador’s son. Not one of his students spoke English as a first language, but all worked hard and didn’t take their education for granted.
He didn’t want to knock the U.S. public education system, but Ready admitted he can’t picture himself teaching now at U.S. schools where it’s overcrowded, there are always budget constraints and debates, and it’s seemingly a chore to get some kids motivated.
Because Syria is technically still at war with Israel, “You’re supposed to go through and edit your history books and tear out any of the sections that dealt with Israel, Jewish traditions, or the Jewish faith because it was deemed offensive,” Ready said.
“I didn’t actually do that. My approach was to wait, and if someone complained I was going to go about it, but no one ever did.”
Tyler noted how students were excited over the notion of fast food because it’s just starting to make its mark in the region. There was no McDonald’s in Syria, and it was a considered a luxury to eat there.
“When kids would go somewhere like Turkey with their families,” Ready said, “the big question was, ‘Did you eat at McDonald’s?’”
An all-around athlete in high school, Ready was the varsity basketball coach at the school.
He was initially frustrated by his team not taking sports seriously – one player chatted on his phone as Ready addressed them – and was irate when the other team didn’t bother to show up for the first game.
He soon realized it was a cultural thing he’d have to adapt to, and if the other team actually showed up for a game, it’d be considered a bonus.
Growing up in Montana and Idaho, Ready had never experienced a “snow day” that canceled anything. But in Syria he experienced two of them. There were electricity problems, trees were falling because they weren’t trimmed, and there was flooding.
He told how all of the students were intensely gazing out the window one day, asking if they could go outside. The distraction? Huge snowflakes. It hadn’t snowed in Syria for 27 years.
“It just didn’t click,” Ready said, since he had grown up with snow all of his life and took snow for granted. “So I shut the blinds so they couldn’t see out.”
One of his female students asked to go to the bathroom, and came back in covered in snow. So they all went outside, and students made snowballs and put them in their pockets – in spite of Ready’s warnings of what would happen to those snowballs in a few minutes.
His base salary was equivalent to what he’d make in the United States, but his travel expenses and rent were always paid for by the Syrian government. As a result, he’s traveled extensively in Europe as well as other places like Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.
Ready suspected a lot of Montanans and Idahoans automatically stereotyped Arabs as all being anti-American. Although there was a small minority of radicals, there were also a lot of moderates and mostly friendly people.
“There’s this mindset in parts of the U.S. that Muslims are all out to kill all the Americans - or ‘Death to Americans’ or ‘West,’” Ready said. “I can’t tell you how many people came up to me while I was in Cairo and asked, ‘Are you American?’ I’d tell them yes, and they’d say, ‘I want to welcome you to the new Democratic Egypt!’ or the ‘New Egypt!’ They’re just very warm and welcoming.’”
One thing that stood out for Ready was how family oriented Syrians were. “On the weekends,” which were Friday and Saturday, Ready said, “Their whole families would get together and go to the grandparents’ house. It’s just how they would spend their day. There’s a real emphasis on family.”
As the turmoil in Syria blossomed, Ready was mostly immune from the chaos that struck other towns like Homs.
Living in the well-protected embassy area bubble, he only felt genuine concern for his safety after twin car bombings targeting police in December killed up to 26 people in Damascus.
“There was always this overhanging cloud since last spring about what was going to happen,” Ready said of the attitudes since the Arab Spring protests took hold in Syria. Children started rumors along with the growing tension, but Ready would have none of it.
“First of all, I hate gossip as it drives me nuts. So I didn’t allow it in my class. But my secondary reason was that I had children of the regime that were students,” Ready said. “Like in class last year, there was a fourth-grade student who was the son of the No. 1 or 2 guy in the Syrian Army.”
He explained how the fourth-grader would get dropped off in an SUV surrounded by large bodyguards. “I didn’t want to open up this type of discussion when I had kids who were very pro-government vs. the ‘other side,’” Ready said. “It would not have been a good situation for me to have students arguing about that.”
Like most observers, Ready said, “My two cents is that Assad is going to meet a nasty end like other dictators in that area. What exactly happens after that is anyone’s guess.”
Although there are reports of violence in places like Egypt and acts of revenge have been reported in Libya, one likely scenario involves the ruling Alawite minority and Baathist Party that’s ruled with an iron fist for 42 years.
Because of the severity of leader Bashar Assad’s crackdown – more than 8,000 killed so far with thousands imprisoned and tortured – the Syrian regime will face a revengeful majority Sunni public that could likely spill into genocide against all of the privileged Alawites.
For the most part, those who have been spared from most of the violence so far in places like Damascus support the regime, if not just to maintain the status quo as opposed to seeing the country drift into anarchy like after the Iraq invasion as ethnic and religious scores are settled.
However, for the rest of the country, which has no electricity, water and few goods because of the crippling international sanctions, “When they go down to protest, there’s a very real possibility they might get shot and die,” Ready said. “The people have so little that the threat of death is no longer a deterrent for them.”