Illini Everywhere: Syrian Illini, Since 1909

Since at least 1909, Syrian students have been attending the University of Illinois. Early Syrian Illini have included agricultural engineers, civil engineers, coaches, dentists, electrical engineers, and medical doctors too.

Read on to learn about early Syrian Illini!

Early Syrian Illini

The First Syrian Illini

The first Syrian Illini might have been Mr. Shukry El-Aswad, (Civil Engineering, 1909-1910), of Brummana, who was the first university soccer coach from 1909 until he withdrew in 1910 to continue his education at Columbia University. At that time, today’s “soccer” in American English was sometimes also known as “soccer football“. During his year at the University, Mr. El-Aswad was a member of the multicultural student organization Cosmopolitan Club, and Cosmopolitan Club even played a role in popularizing the sport on campus. Through the Cosmopolitan Club, Mr. El-Aswad gave at least one campus talk on Syria too. As the first soccer coach, Mr. El-Aswad actively developed the 1910 Spring Team as the sport’s popularity grew nationally. That same year, Mr. El-Aswad tried-out for the Track Team in a 35-yard dash (and he came in third place). While on the 1910 Illinois Track Team, Mr. El-Aswad competed in Relay against Chicago. He also played chess too.

The Syrian Relief Fund

Concurrent with World War One and continuing after the war, a humanitarian crisis across the space of Syria today was felt as far away as the cities of Urbana and Champaign. Local communities organized relief fundraising called the Armenia and Assyrian (later Syrian) Relief Fund. To help raise money for Syrians and other affected peoples, local community members organized a Relief Committee which included many University members like History Professor Albert H. Lybyer. Professor Lybyer was a scholar of Ottoman history who had traveled Anatolia and Greater Syria through the 1919 King-Crane Commission which surveyed populations formerly within the Ottoman Empire. Some citizens sold antique furniture and organized food collection drives, cafeterias hosted fundraiser meals, movie theaters ran film fundraisers, and even theaters ran theatrical performance fundraisers. Fundraising efforts began in 1917 and continued through the 1920s.

The Second Syrian Illini

The first Dentistry student and second Syrian student might have been Mr. Abrahim Kalil Bashur who completed his Doctor of Dental Surgery in 1919. Although, like Mr. Elaswad before him, not much more is known yet about Dr. Bashur’s life as a student.

Later Syrian Illini

Following the end of the French Mandate on Syria on April 17, 1946, Syrian Illini enrollment at the University of Illinois had grown significantly. During the 1950s, there were multiple students in in agricultural and electrical engineering. After graduation, a few students started families and they remained in the United States too.

Mr. Adib Zakiyah, (B.S. Agricultural Engineering, 1953) did not leave many records of his student days behind but we do know from his yearbook photo that we was an early member of the Moslem Students Association (later “Muslim Students Association“) which was established in 1948.

Mr. Asa Helleny, (B.S. Electrical Engineering, 1954) remained in the United States after graduation, and multiple generations of Hellenys have been proud of their home in Southern Illinois. [1]

Mr. Daniel Abdulian may be the first Syrian student to graduate as a medical doctor from the University of Illinois College of Medicine, in 1958.

Mr. Mohamad Anouar Darkanzali, (B.S. Electrical Engineering, 1957) was invited into Phi Eta Sigma, the national scholastic honorary association, during his freshman year. With other students, Mr. Darkanzali co-founded the registered student organization Association of International Students, for promoting international understanding and assisting the orientation of students from foreign countries.

Mr. Zaghloul Kadah, (B.S. Electrical Engineering, 1959), was a transfer student from Miliken University, before completing his degree at Illinois. He lived off campus with two roommates too, one Daily Illini reporter wrote.

Mr. Fawzi Nimr Abo-Niaaj, (B.S. Civil Engineering, 1961) was also involved in the Association of International Students. In fact, through the student organization, he met former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, during her visit to campus in 1956.

While many decades of Syrian Illini have come and gone, bringing students from many different cities of Syria, the campus community has benefited from their contributions left behind. Whether it be Mr. Elaswad organizing soccer, Mr. Zakiyah participating in a faith-based community, Mr. Helleny’s decision to remain in Illinois and to raise a family here, or Mr. Darkanzali’s role in co-founding an organization for international students, many Syrian Illini have helped make the University of Illinois community richer for Syrians and Illini everywhere.

Are you a Syrian Illini? Do you know someone who is? We’d like to hear from you! Please send us a message or leave a comment below. We want to include you and your story, as we celebrate the first 150 years of the University of Illinois.

Happy First 150 everyone!

(A special thank you to Illinois History and Lincoln Collections Archival Operations and Reference Specialist Krista L. Gray who provided access to the book Williamson County Illinois Sesquicentennial History.)


[1] For more information on the Hellenys, please see: Williamson County Illinois Sesquicentennial History. Edited by Stanley J. Hale. Paducah, Kentucky: Turner Publishing Company. 1993. Pages 265-266.

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