Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: A glimmer of hope from Aleppo

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The following interview was done by Perla Hajj, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. It is translated from Arabic into English.

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We live in a world that is constantly moving. The Middle East today is facing a big crisis, whether it is in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq or Syria. Those countries are being shaped by this huge instability and everything’s changing.

In 2011, a new war started in the Middle East. This war is taking place in Syria. Today we’re in 2017 and the war is still there. Is it possible to imagine the damage that has been caused by this indescribable war? I’m not even talking about the material damage but the psychological. Is it even countable?

In this interview, I would like to highlight this point and share with you an interview I conducted with a young Syrian girl. A girl who should be like any other girl of her age but is not. Her name is Layla. Layla is only 18 years old, but she is much more mature than her age.

This interview has been conducted in the light of prejudices against Syrian refugees. It emphasises the identity crisis refugees are facing. The integration process, the adaptation of a new culture, in a new country … this takes time — a lot of time.

In this interview, Layla confides in me her thoughts and fears about the prejudices towards and rejections of Syrians.

This is an open letter from a young Syrian girl:

“My name is Layla. I’m 18 years old and I come from Aleppo, Syria. I’m currently living in Lebanon.

“We moved to Lebanon almost one year and a half ago. I live with my family, my parents and my little brother. I have to admit that moving wasn’t easy; it wasn’t easy at all.”

Layla seemed ill at ease.

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Malala walks through Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon with other young women.

“I mean, if I could, I would have stayed in Syria. Parts of Aleppo were secure when we left, but my father insisted on fleeing. He says, ‘Syria was a beautiful country, and to me, it will always remain the most beautiful country, but the reality is that Syria no longer exists…’

“His sentence literally breaks my heart.

“Whenever I hear bad things about Syria or Syrians … it makes me so sad. Maybe it’s because I am young and thus vulnerable, but it truly affects me.

“I have mixed feelings: a part of me wants to hide, ignoring what the others think or say. While, at the same time, a part of me doesn’t want to hide anymore and wants to change this connotation and misunderstanding.

“I am 18 years old today but I feel as if I’m at least 40 or even 50 … I feel old in my head, in my body, in my way of thinking. I’m afraid, afraid of the present, of the future. I think that I wasn’t prepared for this … for all of this. It’s … It is too much.

“My parents want me to apply for asylum (mostly in Europe) so that I can leave this chaos in the Middle East. ‘Go get a bright future,’ they say, ‘we don’t want you to be like us. At least you can get a chance, Inch ‘Allah. At first, you would feel bad and sad but trust me, later on, you will have a decent life.’”

At one point, she burst into tears.

“But how? How can I leave my parents, my language, my Arabic, my life? Why does this have to happen to me? I don’t feel ready. If I were a citizen from a developed country, there would be no problem. Why does it have to be this way just because I was born in a place I didn’t decide? Why? Why? Why? Young people from developed countries have never been through this before.”

She wrenched her thoughts back to the present. She took a moment to wipe her tears, and then, she started to open herself to me and share with me the deepest thoughts she encountered. Her voice quavered a moment.

“For a while, I was ashamed of my origins. I know that I should not say that, but it’s important. I reckon that I was young (and still am, even though I don’t have this feeling anymore), but the truth is that I didn’t understand, I wasn’t aware of the situation. Today I feel a bit more mature.

“In a way I think that I lost my innocence. This sentence may sound sad, but it’s not. I’m happy I have become like that.

“For the last couple of years, I was angry at the world, angry at the international community, at all these supposedly big countries that promote human rights because they let all the bad things happen in my country.

“Sometimes I have the feeling that I would be rejected just because I am Syrian. I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t share these thoughts with my parents because I don’t want to disappoint them. I don’t know if I’m ready to bear this. When does a period end?”

Layla’s reflection reminded me immediately of the Portuguese writer, José Saramago. I guess he was right when he said, “I have a sense that life, real life, is hidden behind a curtain, roaring with laughter at our efforts to get to know it.”

“I’m not bad just because I am Syrian, I’m not a refugee just because I’m Syrian, I’m not just a Syrian. I am a human being and I don’t want to be ashamed of my nationality, of my home; I don’t want to be ashamed because of who I am, my region, my parents, the life I had.”

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And this young girl understood it while facing this situation.

“Nevertheless, I want to persuade this reluctant child in me to change. People can say whatever they want to; I don’t want to be the vulnerable young girl I used to be. It won’t hinder me. I want to be treated on equal footing with any other person.”

Dreaming of a new horizon

“I know that wherever I go, I will carry the Syrian identity with me.”

Her warm, brown eyes lit with hope.

“I just want to be happy like I used to be before. This is all I want, all I wish, and all I aspire for. Is it too much?”

Perla Hajj is a young woman from Lebanon. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and is currently pursuing a double degree Master in Management between Paris and Beirut. Perla was an intern at Pax Christi International during autumn 2015 where she assisted the communications department. She believes that this project enables all of us to be a voice for those who don’t or can’t speak.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Young Peace Journalists: Each one of us holds a story

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The following interview was done by Perla Hajj, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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The etymology of wanderlust is quite simple. It has German origin, in which “wander” means “to wander”, and “lust” means “desire”. According to “Travels with a Donkey”, Robert Louis Stevenson likes to “travel not to go anywhere, but to go. Travel for the travel’s sake. The great affair is to move. Those with ‘wanderlust’ don’t necessarily need to go anywhere in particular; they just don’t care to stay in one spot.”

In the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, much has been written and many interviews were conducted. But at the sight of all what’s happening, does the number or the quantity matter? I started working with Pax Christi International because I needed to make a difference, or at least try to, and making a difference starts with sharing refugees’ stories. As Filippo Grand, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said: “Refugees have skills, ideas, hopes, and dreams… They are also tough, resilient and creative, with the energy and drive to shape their own destinies, given the chance.” This project enables me, enables all of us, to be a voice for those who don’t or can’t speak.

Each one of us holds a story, and Laura has accepted to share her story with me, with us.

Laura is a young and lovely woman who is 23 years old. She was born in Syria, in Aleppo precisely. She is now living in Lebanon (in Broumana, mostly a Christian area) for almost 5 years and is a humanitarian worker; in fact she works in an NGO mostly to assist Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Before leaving Syria, Laura was in a private high school; then she moved to Lebanon in 2011 and went to a private university in Lebanon where she obtained her bachelor degree. Laura came from an educated Christian family where she could attend private schools and attain privilege. She describes her life in Syria as very comfortable, maybe a bit separated from the majority of Syrian cities because she was living in a bubble in Aleppo: very secure, very safe, very happy.

What actually made things easier for her to leave Syria is the fact that her grandfather owns a house for 20 years in Broumana. When she was little, she used to come sometimes during Christmas or to spend summers there, and so she was a bit used to coming to Lebanon.

“My father made the decision because we felt at some point that Syrian-Christian-Armenians started to be threatened and my father sent us to Lebanon while he stayed behind. I didn’t really realize what was happening; I think I wasn’t aware of the situation enough.”

When she was at university, Laura was living in Achrafieh (mostly a Christian area) close to her university. She explains how people used to approach her because she was a Christian Syrian girl with a name that sounds more like a Christian name.

“I actually didn’t realize this until I moved to Hamra (mostly a mixed area). I felt my Christianity more than when I lived in Hamra where my religion didn’t really matter.”

A refugee who became a migrant

After having spent 3 years at university, she was able to get a job in an NGO. At first, she was planning to travel but then she got a job offer. She confirmed that having a good educational background and being able to speak 3 languages fluently (Arabic, English and French) were a big plus. Being Christian helped her also since she belongs to this category, “Christian of the Middle East”. Her integration was smooth due to her social class. “I applied online and because I was Syrian and because I could speak different languages, I got the job.”

Laura affirms that she has already heard some people being racist in front of her while thinking that she was Lebanese. Some other people, even though they knew that she was Syrian, assumed that she was Christian or privileged so they had racist talk and comments.

“Lebanon is a mixed country; I know it may surprise, but living in Lebanon is like living in many countries at the same time. Each Lebanese is different from the other. At the beginning I used to say explicitly that I was Syrian just to provoke a debate and see if there’s any reaction; but I don’t do that anymore, not to convince or to prove any point anymore. I think I gained more maturity about the subject. I feel better about the subject today.”

Nevertheless, Laura is planning to leave; she didn’t leave yet because she feels the need to be a humanitarian worker here but she will eventually leave.

“I don’t have a place. It may sound nonsense, but I see myself in a very cosmopolitan city and it’s where I can be happy. I would be happy to live in New York and be a local there just because it’s a huge city!

“Some people ask me why do I want to leave Lebanon, or if I was actually waiting for the end of the war to come back to Syria. They don’t know that when I left Syria, I left something that I could never get back. Everything changes and even though Syria will be rebuilt someday, it won’t be the same again. I’ve changed. I’m not the same person anymore. As Taiye Selasi explains: ‘We can never go back to a place and find it exactly where we left it. Something, somewhere will always have changed, most of all, ourselves. People.’

“I wish I could stay in Lebanon; if only I could make it my home, I would stay here. When I will leave Lebanon, my heart will be heavy. It’s very beautiful but it’s very unfortunate. Many good people, but the thing is that Lebanese are facing their own continuous problems. In my opinion, if they had an easier life, things would be simpler. We can’t deny the very sensitive Palestinian subject with their settlements in camps for many years and the shadows of tension that were caused by the intervention of the Syrian troops in Lebanon previously. All this has generated lots of instability and a lot of people are concerned. How much can a country be open and willing to help its neighborhood country while in need for help for itself? How is it possible for such a small country to contain so many refugees – more than any European country or developed country? I don’t blame Lebanon or Lebanese. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way it is. The material conditions, everything. I wish Lebanon was a bigger country with greater institutions. I wish it wasn’t that way.”

While Lebanon is a land of refuge, the massive influx of refugees fleeing the war in Syria has many negative consequences on the political, economic and social stability of the country, which have been severely undermined.

Laura pictures herself in a big city where she belongs. She explains how tired she is to always have to pay attention to her accent, because when she speaks in the Syrian accent, there will be a lot of questions involved and she doesn’t feel like sharing the same information all the time. She’s just tired of this. The fact that she doesn’t and can’t speak her own dialect that she is comfortable with is something that bothers her. She is emotionally exhausted. At least in a cosmopolitan city, nobody would care, nobody would know. Everyone will speak a common foreign language and that’s it. And that was the whole point. She explained to me that she doesn’t want to be seen as “the refugee”. Not being the foreigner, but simply a foreigner.

Laura is just a girl, just like me, just like you, just like any of us. She is not a refugee, nor a number, nor a burden, nor a terrorist. There is never one single story about a person, about a community, about a country. Refugees. Syrians. Middle East. No more stereotypes. Do not fall into the trap of the danger of a single story. What do I mean by this? I’m simply referring to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

What I’ve learned from this project about Peace Journalism is sharing human feelings during the interview. The quality of information relies on the ability to build trust.

At the end, the collection of testimonies is at first admitting and listening to the torpor lived. It is then spreading the message and veracity across the world. And it is finally the path that must be taken to build peace.

As Gandhi said: “Faith is not something to grasp, it is a state to grow into.”

Faith in love.
Faith in humanity.
Faith in peace.

From Beirut, to the whole world.

Perla Hajj is a young woman from Lebanon. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and is currently pursuing a double degree Master in Management between Paris and Beirut. Perla was an intern at Pax Christi International during autumn 2015 where she assisted the communications department. She believes that this project enables all of us to be a voice for those who don’t or can’t speak.