Muskegon’s Own Will Hunting

High school janitor shares Ph.D. journey

Jazzmyne Ortiz, Contributing Writer

A venerable man sits at a table, his expression bright at the chance of recounting the tale of how it is that one of the most educated people at Muskegon High School happens to be one of the school’s janitors.

Mehmet Sinani, 57, begins, “I was raised in Kosovo, and growing up, many in my village were poor, I wanted an education not for me but for my children.” His eyes smile a bright brown at the memory of what once was his home. Now, his wrinkled, black collared shirt reads ‘M facilities,’ and his hair lays gray, as it tells tales of wisdom and history.

Kosovo is a country in Southern Europe. In the small village where Sinani enjoyed his early years, everyone knows everyone. Whether family or friends, young or old, everyone attends the marriage ceremonies. Like this, he celebrated his wedding with his wife, Rabeje Sinani.

Episode One: Education

Shortly after marrying, Sinani begins his master’s degree at the University of Pristina, a college in Kosovo. He still beams with pride when recounting earning his degree in agricultural science. He notes, “I had a plan for my life, and it was education.” Sinani leaves his home of Kosovo, wanting to study at the larger, more prestigious, University of Austria. He plans to return home upon the completion of his doctorate. There is one problem with this plan, Sinani did not know German. “I had to take my German language classes first,” he explains. German would be Sinani’s third language, including Albanian and Serbian. After completing these prerequisites, Sinani begins studying for his Ph.D.

Episode Two: The War

It is the year 1998. Sinani continues his work towards his Ph.D. Meanwhile, Serbia, a neighboring country of Kosovo, is invading Sinani’s home country where his wife and children continue to reside. Serbian forces are hoping to “ethnically cleanse” Kosovo. Over 8,500 civilians are executed, making the war known for its brutality. Sinani worries for the safety of his family, “for two weeks I had no idea where my family was.” He found his family in a village in southeast Kosovo, far from the war front. They are shuffled from one refugee camp to another. The refugee camps only grow as the war continues.

In one camp, where Sinani’s wife is residing, an American volunteer doctor from Arizona detects kidney stones. Sinani fumbles with his hands and takes a deep sigh as he continues to tell his story, “I wanted her to move my wife to Austria with me.” The doctor explains that she could not move his wife to a different country, only to the doctor’s home country, the United States.

Episode Three: The Move

Sinani is devastated, but the situation provides an opportunity for his family to claim refugee status in the U.S. His entire family, including his brothers and children, are allowed into the refugee program. They emigrate to Muskegon, Michigan on Aug. 2, 1999. Olivet Evangelical Free Church takes in the family with open arms. Unfortunately, Sinani is unable to follow due to his residency being in Austria. His options feature a tourist visa or a student visa which both require a return date once the time expires. The alternative is to wait a year. Because Sinani hopes for the U.S. to become his permanent home, he chooses to wait the year.

On March 19, 1999, NATO forces led by the United States begin a bombing campaign that would subsequently end the war. Thousands of refugees residing in camps are forced to return to unrecognizable homes. Sinani hears from old friends of the aftermath of his village, “before, there were three classes of people, rich, middle and poor. After there was no middle, the village was in ruins.”

Sinani emigrates to the United States under refugee status in August 2000. He explains, “I hoped to come here and enjoy my study from Austria.” But as life seems to demonstrate, he faces yet another problem. He has no money and needs to provide for his family alongside learning potentially his hardest language yet, English.

Episode Four: The Adjustment

A month into his arrival in the United States, Sinani enrolls at Michigan Tech University. Once again, he hopes to finish his education which he began in Austria. He laughs as he recalls, “it was an interesting story, the teacher giving me math and giving me history and I’m going ‘what’ and I don’t know how to say it. With my hands, I say, no math, no history, no geography. I say I need English. The next day, she gave me an examination translated to my native language. I give it back to her, and she says, ‘Oh I’m so sorry, you have more education than me!’” He is then separated from the students working on their undergraduate degrees. He is simply taught English. Upon feeling he has learned the language at Michigan Tech University, Sinani begins his job search. His Ph.D. is never finished.

Episode Five: Employment

With no knowledge regarding employment companies in the U.S., his journey begins in Montague. His first job in the U.S. is at Country Dairy, a dairy farm. Master’s degree in hand, he kneels as he milks cows for a living. His family in mind, he holds no regrets, “Doesn’t matter, job is job.” His job at Country Dairy is short-lived. He quits because of the irritation in his sinuses from the poor conditions. He recalls thinking, “okay I have quit the job, where do I go tomorrow?”

His next employer is Holiday Inn in Downtown Muskegon. He shows the manager his degree. Although, due to his lack of language, the manager gives him a job in housekeeping. Always a hard worker, he is quickly moved up to a supervisor position where he stays for 12 years. In 2012, the owner sells Holiday Inn. The workers are offered to stay. Although, the salary would significantly decrease. Sinani opts to move once more.

Episode Six: Life Now

It is now the year 2012. Sinani finds his current job with Enviro-Clean Services. He currently cleans public school buildings such as Muskegon High School. He still jokes with his coworkers about his accent and history. He is happy that his story can bring laughter to an otherwise serious environment.

Despite all circumstances, Sinani feels successful. He now has four children. His oldest son began school in the U.S. in the sixth grade. He did not know English; nonetheless, he graduated from the University of Michigan in 2011 with a master’s in biochemistry and another in biophysics. His oldest daughter did not know English when she entered the U.S. school system in third grade. Regardless, she also graduated from the University of Michigan with a master’s in microbiology in 2013. Sinani will proudly tell, “I am so proud with my children.”

The benevolent man stands from his chair. “Well, that is my story,” he concludes. From war, to love, and family, Sinani is proud to stand where he is today