"When a soldier gives someone a thumbs-up here, they're actually insulting them without even knowing it," said U.S. Army Spc. Fadi Mallouhi. "Then the locals will think that Americans are a bunch of rude people."
Mallouhi's father, a Syrian Special Forces veteran, was hesitant about his son's decision to join the United States military, as was the rest of the family. But joining the military was something he had wanted to do since he was a kid.
"I watched a lot of movies and documentaries about the military," Mallouhi said. "I finally got a chance in high school to talk to a recruiter and start the journey."
Though hesitant, Mallouhi's father understood the benefits of serving your country. His mother was happy for him but doesn't like the time he has to spend time away from home. That's especially true now. Mallouhi is currently deployed to the Middle East as a computer/detection systems repairer with Headquarters Support Company, 628th Aviation Support Battalion, 28th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade.
He admits that he sometimes felt conflicted growing up, in terms of self-identification.
"It confused me as a child because I would often think to myself if I was American or Syrian," Mallouhi said. "I'm in better standing with my culture now than before, and I can say I'm proud of it."
Though raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Mallouhi spent much of his childhood in a village in Homs, Syria. He fondly remembers the three-story, rebar-reinforced home surrounded by a sand pit and farm; playing soccer with friends; and the cuisine you can find in only that part of the world.
Mornings were "bright and hot, but amazing to wake up to." Nights were "cold and dark, but amazing to walk."
While there, Mallouhi picked up farming, hunting and learned how to dance, immersing himself in the lifestyle and culture of his people.
He now uses his knowledge of that culture and language for many things, even as small as helping his fellow soldiers set up their Wi-Fi hotspots, where the default language setting is usually Arabic, so they can call home. He is also using that knowledge of Middle Eastern cultures to help serve U.S. interests and keep his fellow soldiers safe.
"Being from Syria helps me in a lot of ways, including bringing diversity in my section, being paid more for knowing another language, and being a valuable asset to my unit as I communicate with locals and translate information," Mallouhi said. "It could save someone's life and keep people within our unit from being disrespectful to the civilians here."
He asserts that when one goes to another country, like the 28th ECAB has, they must respect the values and lifestyles there. In return, they will earn the respect of the locals.
He takes the time to teach his fellow soldiers how to respect the locals. He sincerely hopes his efforts will make a difference throughout the Army in the long run. He says some soldiers agree with him and feel the need to respect the locals, but others are harder to convince and he gets a lot of pushback sometimes.
Spc. Christian Barbezat, Mallouhi's roommate and fellow soldier in the 628th ASB's communications section, says the lessons he has learned about the language and local culture have been enlightening.
"He's taught me a couple words, and he showed me some things about the language, like how they read right to left, instead of left to right like in English," Barbezat said. "He's a good soldier, but his background adds a cool element to the unit."
"The way I see it, I'm in a position to inform and highly encourage others to respect and learn the lifestyle," Mallouhi said. "This can make the Army have better mission-capable soldiers and have fewer incidents that could cost American lives."
Mallouhi said he feels good about being back in the Middle East. Even though he's deployed to a U.S. Army installation, some things make him feel "at home" like seeing something as simple as Arabic writing on water bottle wrappers. As for returning someday to Syria, he hopes to but only as a vacation.
"While it is my family's homeland and it is beautiful, it is not somewhere I see being a peaceful place in the future and I do not see a successful future full of opportunities like I do in the U.S.," Mallouhi said.