The crisp fall air swept across the University of Montana in 1999, while a life changing moment took place on the third floor of the Liberal Arts building.
A single bulletin board stood in the Foreign Language Department lobby with countless announcements posted for University activities.
Only one stood out for the now 59-year-old Arabic lecturer Samir Bitar.
“Arabic Language Instructor Wanted.”
Nowadays, Bitar ponders anxiously on what his own future holds.
A drop in enrollment at the University led to financial problems, and in an effort to cut costs, UM started to reduce academic programs.
One of those was Arabic. Course offerings were cut by more than half, down to only three classes.
After administrators twice flip-flopped on firing all lecturers this semester, only to retract the termination letters both times, Bitar and his peers are left wondering what their fate may be after decades of commitment to UM.
It isn’t the first time Bitar has faced the struggle to survive — from escaping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to overcoming institutional racism in America — but his fate at UM is still unclear after 18 years of service.
Bitar was born in Mount of Olives, Palestine in 1958. He survived the Six Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967.
Over 300,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes after the war, according to the U.S State Department.
Life for Bitar and other Palestinians lingered on, often without access to basic human necessities. As a runner, he said he would sneak out under the cover of night to bring food or medicine to neighbors in need.
“The terrain in the village ... you could go house to house without really being on the street. I did it to help the people; the mothers who need milk or the elderly who needed medicine,” Bitar said. “I never got hurt, but at times it was risky.”
Without access to a quality education in the Israeli-occupied area, Bitar’s mother, Samira, began a plan for him to attend Saint George’s School in East Jerusalem. But leaving behind his family wasn’t what he wanted.
“I can stay here and work at the Vo-Tech to help the family,” he told his mother, Bitar said.
But she insisted he pursue higher education, and leave the violence rampaging in the West Bank. He finally agreed to go to Saint George’s School, but was determined to “use his pen and his tongue to fight and change the status of the Palestinian people.”
He finished high school at 16, and completed tests to qualify for universities in England and the United States.
Bitar landed at O’Hare International Airport in September, 1974, bound for Monmouth College southwest of Chicago. He stayed with his cousin, Muhammad, in the city for three days waiting for his delayed luggage.
Coming from a small village outside Jerusalem, Chicago proved too drastic a change. Just navigating the bus system was extremely difficult, he said, and decided he couldn’t stay.
Of the five states that had accepted Bitar, his cousin and he decided Montana would be the ideal environment for him to settle into. He enrolled at MSU Northern, and at the end of the semester his cousin asked Samir if he was coming back to Chicago.
“‘I love Montana. These people greet you. You can talk to anybody. When I was with you in Chicago all I heard was ‘don’t look, don’t stare.’ Here, they are beautiful. They shake hands, they have different phrases like ‘Which neck of the woods are you from’ or ‘howdy’. I’m staying,’” Bitar says he told Muhammad.
Bitar spent two years at Northern before transferring to Montana State to achieve a bachelor’s degree in Civil/Structural Engineering in 1979.
In 1980 Bitar traveled to Saudi Arabia for eight years to support himself and his younger brother’s college expenses where he worked as a general contractor, predominantly for the royal family.
But after he came back in 1989, finding a job in the States proved to be difficult, and he believes it was because of his Arabic name.
Over a hundred sent resumes under his legal name, Samir Bitar. Not a single response. He said he started applying as Sam instead, and every single place he applied wrote back.
He eventually landed a job in San Antonio, Texas, as a computer aided drafting and designing coordinator. Stability finally looked possible for the Palestinian.
Then the Gulf War started in the early ‘90s, and Bitar was immediately laid off from his job.
“I was really saddened that I was let go, and mainly because of who I am,” he said.
Maureen Curnow, chair of University Center of Language and Literacy in 1999, guided Bitar once he became an Arabic Instructor at the University of Montana. Curnow and Bitar implemented the Arabic section being taught five days a week, with Friday being a culture day.
Curnow asked in the beginning to see Bitar’s lesson plans every Thursday and was baffled by his amount of organization and hands-on teaching style. By the second Thursday checkup, she told him she had seen enough.
“I was just outside his classroom talking to his students and they said they loved him. If he could do that in two weeks, I told him to keep doing what he was doing,” Curnow said.
Bitar was promoted from instructor to lecturer in 2005, and seven years later, the Board of Regents approved the Arabic minor at UM.
Among his accomplishments, Bitar counts teaching Arabic for the U.S. Department of Defense, bringing State Department scholarship opportunities to UM, creating the Mount of Olives Arabic Culture Club in 2005, helping student, Sara Thane, earn a White House Internship, and receiving hundreds of appreciation notes from students.
Susannah Cragwick serves as a teacher’s assistant for Bitar and began her pursuit of Arabic from being in one of his classes. She was dedicated to the music school, but one semester in Bitar’s 2010 Arabic class changed her life. Now, she is a bilingual tutor/on-call translator for Missoula County Public Schools, teaches English as a second language, and teaches beginner and intermediate level Arabic.
She attributes her drastic change and success teaching the language to professor Bitar.
“Samir has had such a huge influence on me,” Cragwick said. “I just knew by the end of the semester Arabic and language would be my permanent career.”
This is the first year Bitar doesn’t teach both sections of first year Arabic.
Almost all lecturers, including Bitar, received letters on Friday, Dec. 1, which informed them they would be out of work come the end of spring semester. UM administrators retracted the notices the same day, after the faculty union threatened an unfair labor practice claim.
Similar letters sent to lecturers in August were also retracted in September after the union filed a formal grievance.
After Bitar received the first letter in August informing all lecturers they were losing their jobs, he decided to send a formal resignation to the University the following week – retiring at the end of the fall semester.
However, Bitar said his termination form was never processed by the University and they registered him to teach spring semester, but only for one of his three normal classes.
Now that a second round of letters were sent to lecturers firing them, only to be withdrawn hours later, Bitar only has further uncertainty.
Paula Short, UM’s spokesperson, issued an official statement reflecting the budget issues and the lecturer’s circumstances.
“We thought the issues that prompted the earlier grievance were resolved and we wanted to proceed as expeditiously as possible to give lecturers as much notice as we could. However, a couple of technical questions were raised that merited another look, so we took a step back and rescinded the notices to review these new concerns,” Short said.
The recruiting for Bitar's higher level Arabic courses begin in the fall semester, but since he had assumed he would not be teaching, he did not advertise the classes. Without having the time to recruit, he believes it will be difficult for students to fit it into their schedules this late in the semester.
Bitar said the lack of communication from the University started when he spoke out for his students, protesting the way administrators were handling the budget crunch.
“I love my students, and when I stood to protest what the administration was doing to the students I became a target of the retaliation,” he said.
President Sheila Stearns said with a fiscally struggling campus, hard choices to cut faculty aren’t personal. She said they handled the situation with care but understood they could have messed up along the way with the lecturer notices.
“His feelings toward the treatment from the University can’t be sanctioned as wrong because that’s how he feels,” Stearns said. “I hope he knows it isn’t personal.”
Bitar said looking at lecturers as just a budget number doesn’t reflect the lives affected. The bad decisions, lack of transparency and accountability have left him feeling sub-human.
“One must remember they are looking at numbers. These are lives of people,” Bitar said. “I really feel bad for the younger lecturers who are starting a family. I have been here 18 years, to me I was just retiring. What about the lecturer who is starting who has a wife and two kids and it's Dec. 7 and he doesn’t know what their future is?”
If the Arabic program he helped construct can remain prestigious and continue to care about the students above all else, he trusts his job has been accomplished.
“This is not about me, this is about the students, it’s about the University, it’s about a higher calling. It took all these years to build this program and it only takes a sweep to take it down,” Bitar said.
For this reason, he decided to come back for one last semester despite only having one class.
Bitar will leave his legacy and years of building the Arabic program behind at the University of Montana but that doesn’t mean he will stop his love of teaching.
Once he officially retires in the spring he will continue to teach Arabic online and for the Department of Defense.
And when he stands in front of a class for the last time, he will say his four-word catchphrase every student in his class, from the past or present, can recite.
“You can do it!”