International Student Voices: Mohamed Amine Abassi

This spring, the International Student Center hosted the International Student Essay Contest where students were encouraged to describe life “in their shoes.” The response was overwhelming and inspiring. Be International is excited to highlight SDSU’s outstanding international students by presenting some of these submissions. In our first installment in this series, we meet aerospace engineering graduate student Mohamed Amine Abassi. Abassi shares his harrowing experience in the Tunisian military and how, through perseverance, he was able to break free to pursue his dreams in the United States.

If you want to be successful, you have to jump!

My name is Mohamed Amine Abassi and I am a 31-year old Tunisian graduate student in Aerospace Engineering at San Diego State University. My story can be summarized in one sentence: If you want your parachute to be opened, you have to jump. During my life, I have been aspiring to be among the best, to dream high and to be an achiever. However, I found my self hampered by an environment which was not auspicious to unleash my potential. I was like a person standing on a cliff and watching people soaring by gliding down with their parachutes.

One day, I took the decision, and I jumped.

•••

“I got into the Military Academy, and because I was valedictorian, I was the only Tunisian cadet accepted in the French Air Force Academy in Salon de Provence, France with a full scholarship offered by the Tunisian Ministry of National Defense.”

I was born in a family which believes that education is the primary social elevator. My parents were both teachers. Since my childhood, they have endeavored to inculcate in me and in my sisters the values of integrity, hard work and excellence. Though our austere conditions, my eagerness to be a high achiever impinged on all the difficulties that I have encountered. My long-term objective was, incontrovertibly, to come to the United States and to work for a prestigious aerospace company. It may seem unrealistic as a citizen coming from a developing country and without any financial support to aspire to get such a position. But I did not give up and I tried to circumvent all the obstacles that I had to face. Tunisian universities do not provide a state of the art aerospace engineering training. Hence, the only option that might pave the way to such field was to be enrolled in the military and to become a pilot.

So, I got into the Military Academy, and because I was valedictorian, I was the only Tunisian cadet accepted in the French Air Force Academy in Salon de Provence, France with a full scholarship offered by the Tunisian Ministry of National Defense. I got a pluri-disciplinary curriculum. I was an aerospace engineering student, a military cadet and a pilot trainee. To be precise, in total, we were only five cadets among 180 candidates selected to continue our studies abroad and I was the only one accepted in a French military academy.

After graduating in 2010 as an aerospace engineer and a pilot, I was the only one to come back to my country because my friends found better opportunities and perspectives in France and they preferred to stay there. Conversely, I had the ambition to serve my country and to apply what I have learned in a practical setting. The experience that I acquired while studying in France was unique. In fact, I participated in the design of a vehicle to take part in the Shell Eco Marathon, which consists on building an aerodynamically efficient car which goes as far as possible just with one liter of fuel. My second project was about analyzing the impact of the cyberterrorism on the national security. Finally, for my Engineering Diploma thesis, I participated in the French Air Force brainstorming about their new UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). I helped them to weigh up pros and cons between developing their own UAV and buying an American one (an MQ-9 Reaper).

I was ambitious when I came back to my country in 2010 and I was ready to make the difference as a military leader.

•••

“I ended up by discovering that it was an excuse to interrupt my progression as a pilot (I had accumulated at that time 400 hours of flight, whereas my colleagues had only about 200 hours). I felt that my pilot career was frozen.”

During the first years after graduation, I had occupied the rank of lieutenant. But, I started to figure out that there was something wrong with the system I lived in. My training as a pilot was not complete in the French Air Force Academy and required me to carry out about 100 hours of flights. The Tunisian military thought that by finishing my training in the French Air Force Academy, I was supposed to be an operational pilot. However, it was not the case. So, my chiefs decided that I should finish my pilot training in Tunisia.

On the other hand, they refused to recognize my theoretical pilot license obtained in France and they estimated that I should retake the same exam again in Tunisia. That was completely ludicrous to me. Obviously, I refused to be treated unfairly like this. So, they sent me to undertake the worst pilot training in the military which does not require a license. I barely accepted this injustice because I had my friends who studied in Tunisia and they were going to become pilots with a certified license, whereas it was not the case to me. I was destined to become a pilot without a license and thus, without the ability to work if I leave the military.

After finishing my pilot training, I applied to become a fighter pilot and all my instructors endorsed my request. But, without giving any reason, I was assigned to become a transport pilot. I tried to overcome my failure and to work hard to be among the best. I knew that I could become a C-130 Hercules pilot, which is the best Transport specialty in our Air Force. I asked about the requirements to be selected and I started to plan for it. However, every time the military asked for volunteers to join the C-130 Air Unit, my inquiries were rejected and other people less experienced than me were assigned.

In 2014, I was assigned in the Tunisian Aviation Academy as a Cadet trainer. They told me that they need someone who has excellent leadership skills to take care of new recruits. But, after eight months, I ended up by discovering that it was an excuse to interrupt my progression as a pilot (I had accumulated at that time 400 hours of flight, whereas my colleagues had only about 200 hours). I felt that my pilot career was frozen.

After finishing this period as a cadet trainer, I undertook a special training for subaltern officers to be promoted to the rank of captain. I was among the best in my class. I thought that after having an excellent result, I would have the opportunity to join the C-130 Air Unit. Again, I was disappointed because I was assigned in an administrative position in the Ministry of National Defense. I was taping reports and looking after archives.

At this point, I felt angry and I wanted to occupy myself with a more productive activity. I wanted to continue my graduate studies at a local university. However, to be eligible, I needed an equivalence of my French Engineering Diploma. To do so, I needed my transcripts. I submitted an official request through my hierarchy to get these transcripts. However, another big surprise emerged. They didn’t have any record of my five years of studies. How could an institution like the military forget to have my personal documents up to date? So, I insisted that they should give me my personal records. However, they gave me only the transcripts of my first two years in the Tunisian Military. They were unable to provide the ones issued from the France Air Force Academy. Obviously, the documents I have afforded are not sufficient to carry out the equivalence.

Furthermore, after that period in the ministry, I was assigned in an Air Unit which has no perspectives in the future. I spent time doing nothing, just going to work, watching TV, doing some bureaucratic tasks and that is it. At that point I had the choice between two options: Accepting this treatment and continuing a non-productive career, or leaving the military to endeavor for a better chance.

You guessed it, I decided to resign.

•••

“The difficulty was doubled by the unstable conditions in my country at that period due to terrorism. We were on alert all the time and it was too difficult to have free time even to choose the date of the GRE test. Despite all of these conditions, I finally got it.”

However, at that period, there was an incredible tendency among the officers to leave the military for similar reasons basically related to professional injustices. So, instead of trying to understand this phenomenon, the military acted aggressively and started to harass anyone who thinks of leaving the military. There were even some officers who became crazy because their resignation’s requests were rejected. Sometimes, you might wait more than one year before your resignation can be approved.

At this point, I estimated that there was no way I could give up my dreams and stay in a place where there is no justice and equity. I decided to leave the military without authorization and to continue my graduate studies abroad. Obviously, the USA was my primary destination to achieve this goal. I started discreetly to improve my English skills and I passed the IELTS test. The reason why I kept this test secret is that it is prohibited to study out of the military frame without special permission. But, if I ask officially to get the IELTS test, the military will figure out that I am intending to resign and hence, they will make my life hell.

The second step was to get the GRE. Unfortunately, there was no center in Tunisia which provides training for it. I had to study by myself on the internet. The difficulty was doubled by the unstable conditions in my country at that period due to terrorism. We were on alert all the time and it was too difficult to have free time even to choose the date of the GRE test. Despite all of these conditions, I finally got it.

The third step was to apply for my transcripts from the French Air Force Academy. Technically, I didn’t have the right to contact my old school directly because it is a foreign institution. The Tunisian military was not serious and assertive to get my records back because they thought that it was not an urgent affair. So, I decided to contact the French Air Force Academy hoping that nobody would discover it. Fortunately, I received my transcripts and the last step was to apply for an American university. It was an arduous task for me to start seeking for an American University and to follow the application process. But finally, I was blessed and accepted to pursue a master of science program in aerospace engineering at San Diego State University.

•••

“Sunday, Aug. 7, was an unforgettable day because I took the airplane and I came to the US without being arrested in the airport. Nobody knew about my escape, even my colleagues who used to work with me. They discovered my absence by Aug. 16 and I became wanted.”

The last step, and the most difficult one, was to leave the military. In fact, I didn’t even have the right as an officer to keep my passport at home. All passports are held by the military. So, to be able to travel out of the country, we need to apply for a special authorization. Hence, I applied for a tourism travel toward France for 15 days between Aug. 1-15. After having the Visa to France by July 26, I came back to the Ministry of National Defense to show them the passport so that they can verify that I have applied only for a Visa to France.

Once they approved me to travel, I took an appointment with the US Embassy in Tunis. It was the greatest day of my life when I saw that my Visa application to the US was approved. Sunday, Aug. 7, was an unforgettable day because I took the airplane and I came to the US without being arrested in the airport. Nobody knew about my escape even my colleagues who used to work with me. They discovered my absence by Aug. 16 and I became wanted.

Currently, I am waiting for my sentence by a martial court. I really don’t care if they treat me like this because six years ago, my intention was pure and I wanted to serve my country honorably. When I discovered that integrity and hard work are not the primary criterion to be successful, I just decided to leave. I prefer to live freely, productively and to be treated fairly, rather than living passively and without objectives and dreams; A person without objectives is a dead person to me.

To sum up, my experience shows the limits of a system where unfairness and sometimes corruption are its hallmarks. I tried, with my best, to adapt myself for each uncomfortable situation, and to circumvent difficulties. I enrolled in the military voluntarily, and I could have stayed in France for a better future, but I preferred to go back to serve my country. However, after six years of professional experience, I did not accept that my first objective of getting in the aerospace industry in the future could be compromised by some bureaucrats who do not care about my ambitions.

Some people may judge me and blame me for fleeing the military. I can understand that. But, I did not leave the military to commit crimes or to chase for money. I aspired to feel free and to control my future and to be responsible for my success and failure.

Finally, if I have something to say to the youngsters, it is this: If you want to be successful, you have to jump first. Do not stay where you are and wait for a miracle. Be the miracle that you want to see happen, and be the change that you want to see in the world.

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