Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Meeting Khaled

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The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca and Alessia Borzacchielo, members 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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I did not meet Khaled, Khaled met me. When I arrived at the house which hosted me for my EVS (European Voluntary Service) in February 2017, Khaled was a regular visitor bringing with him friends, joy and Syrian dances.

Khaled is a quiet but confident, sagacious and active student of physiotherapy at Hacettepe Üniversitesi in Ankara. He left his hometown of Masyaf in 2014 and, after staying briefly in Gaziantep, a city bordering Syria, arrived in Ankara. The fact that he is a refugee is one of the last things you will know about him, unless you specifically ask. Among other things, he is also part of the project “Building Bridges for Refugee Children”, aiming to help refugee children to get the education they have been deprived of, because of the war.

This interview was done in collaboration with Alessia Borzacchielo, a common friend and Master student at the Oriental University of Naples, and it was more of a conversation between friends trying to understand the conflict in Syria and its consequences, rather than a formal interview with separate roles for interviewer(s) and interviewee.

After reading it, the three of us hope that the multiple and interconnected complexities of the civil and proxy War in Syria, the role of Assad’s government and the international community, as well as the situation of refugees coming from the country, can be a little better understood by everyone.

Alexandre Fonseca (AF): When and why did you leave Syria and what kind of life did you leave behind you?

Khaled Farkas (KF): I left Syria in 2014, because I wanted to continue with my studies and had some political problems, because of what I have done in the past against the regime and also because my sister is a journalist on the rebel side. I left my home town, my family, my friends. That’s it. When I finished my high school, I just took my diploma and I left.

Alessia Borzacchielo (AB): And what kind of problems did you have in Syria?

As I said, my sister is a journalist on the rebel side and she works for them, but our city is known as a regime city. It consists of 475 villages and most of them are with the regime, so they were asking about my sister. They knew about her work, but they were not sure about it, so they were all the time asking about her, they asked my father two times. I was also arrested two times, because I used to paint on the walls “freedom” and this kind of stuff, protesting also…

AF: How did you get to the Turkey and what was your first impression of the country? Did that first impression change somehow?

I went from Syria to Lebanon and I took a plane to Istanbul, and from there to Gaziantep. I had some kind of impression of Gaziantep, because no one spoke English. I didn’t speak Turkish at that time and when I stayed for one month in Gaziantep, it was weird for me, because I didn’t see that much Turkish people, mostly Arabs and especially Syrians, because it’s full of Syrians. But [my impression of the country] has changed in the end, because I came to Ankara and life here is different. It’s easier, there are a lot of different people that are foreigners, friends. First, I didn’t have any friends in Ankara, I sat in a dormitory and then I started to go to the Turkish language course and I made friends there in the Turkish lessons. I became friends with other foreigners, Palestinians, Albanians, Venezuelans, that’s it.

I didn’t like Gaziantep at all, because it’s a small city and you can’t do anything there. I just wanted to go out from that city, because I felt that I had came to Turkey to study and to do something, but there’s no possibility to do anything in Gaziantep. And if you want to learn Turkish there, it’s really hard, because it’s really expensive – even more than Ankara – and it’s not that good, because there are a lot of Syrians, so all the time you probably speak Arabic, you don’t speak Turkish. When I came to Ankara, it was easier, because I could speak Turkish and also English.

And, also in Gaziantep, Turkish people they were annoyed with Syrians, I don’t know why. Most of the people in Gaziantep they hated Syrians, because there are so many. I thought I should not stay there, because people have this kind of mentality. And even if they didn’t know me, they hated me already.

AB: Did something happen to you in Gaziantep?

Yes, all the time, they stare at you, if you talk Arabic in the tramway or on the bus, wherever. I felt this reaction in Ankara sometimes, but only occasionally, not all the time. It happened to me, many times, that on the bus some people were angry, because I was speaking a different language. It was not only in Arabic, even if we spoke English with our friends, they were complaining: “Why are you speaking in another language”? Yes, and sometimes about Arabic, but Gaziantep and Ankara are different in that point.

AF: How did you deal personally with discrimination and how can people that arrive in Europe and in Turkey resist being labelled and reduced to “refugees” or “migrants” or even being considered “dangerous”?

A lot of people already have this idea about Syrians, even if they don’t know anything about Syria or the life before the war. They just judge without meeting anyone in person. And I met Turkish people saying: “What are you doing in our country”? “What are you doing here, go back to your country”? And by replying to them in Turkish, as they are speaking, they become shocked, because they don’t think that someone will learn their language and answer them. Actually, there are a lot of foreigners that speak Turkish, but some persons don’t expect that. I always asked: “What do you want from me? I am not sitting in your place, I am not seating in your house. I am studying and I am working and I’m earning my own money, I’m not getting it from the government, I don’t take any money from you, so you should not be complaining about that”.

AF: So for you learning Turkish, being capable of working and studying also was a mechanism of defence?

Of course. It’s different, because there are a lot of Syrians doing nothing or even some bad things, but most people would judge everyone. If one person does something bad, it turns out bad for everyone, not just for himself.

I don’t have a specific strategy to deal with discrimination, but when someone tries to insult me, I just answer them, I don’t let them speak. Most of the people that did that to me started to calm down, step-by-step, when I answered them. I mean they don’t know you, but they start to judge you, even before they know a single thing about you.

AB: When and how did you get the refugee status ?

I got it after two months in Turkey, actually. I stayed one month in Gaziantep and one month in Ankara and then I got it. I was supposed to take the student permit, but in the migrants office, they told me that they didn’t want to give me a student status, because the government will get money from the European Union, for each Syrian registered as refugee. When I asked them for a student residence permit, they said: “No, no need. You can take the refugee status, it’s easier for you, it’s better for you. You can go to hospital…”. “But I don’t want that, I want to be a student”. And when you get the refugee status, it is very different from getting the normal one. The thing is that if you are a student, you are like all the foreigners here, because all of them have this student or tourist status, and it’s the same. As a student, you can travel without any problems, but if you take the refugee status, it becomes harder and harder. If you want to travel, for example, from Ankara to Istanbul – which are 450 km apart – I am forced to go and get a permission to travel.

AF: How do you get this permission to travel?

From the police, from the migrants office, so it was a big struggle for us. Every time you want to travel, you have to get the permission from them.

AF: Is it more convenient for the Turkish authorities to have people with refugee status than as students?

Yes. For them it’s better, they want to have many refugees, so that they will get more money from the European Union.

AB: What does it mean for you to have the refugee status?

My refugee status doesn’t mean anything for me. In the end, it’s something normal, it’s not something that means that you are not a human. We are all humans. A refugee is a human, who is looking for peace, to live in a peaceful place, just seeking safe area, nothing else.

AB: Do you feel that you have less opportunities than someone else?

Yes, if you have this refugee status you are struggling with a lot of things, especially if you want to work. Because six months ago – or less than six months – they applied these new rules that refugees can start to work, but before you could only work and get paid under the table. If the police caught you working, you would have a big problem, because you were working without documents. Until now, the Turkish employers don’t want to give the work permit to Syrians, because it gives Syrians the same status as a Turkish worker. The employer has to provide insurance and also to apply the law and pay the the minimum wage, which is 1300 Turkish Liras (TL) and some Syrians work for 800 or even 600 TL, when they don’t have any other choice. The fact is that some Turkish still say that the Syrian refugees stole “our jobs”, but they don’t think that the one who gave them the job was Turkish and that he is not doing that because he loves Syrians, but because he will gain more money. It happened with a friend of mine. When he started working in a factory in Istanbul, he was the only Syrian and he worked hard to get 800 TL per month, while the Turkish workers got 1450 TL, plus the insurance. After a while, the factory owner fired all the Turkish workers and brought Syrians instead, because they work more and gain less money.

AB: What are your plans for the future?

Actually, my aim now is to finish my studies and then, if I have the opportunity to go back to Syria, I would be really happy to go. I mean if I don’t have the opportunity to go to Syria, I will not stay in Turkey. I will never stay in Turkey.

AB: Do you see any other opportunities you can take advantage of in the future?

I don’t see such big things, that someone might help me or do something for me, no governments and European countries, because, in the end, I don’t want to take the sea route and just drown myself. Maybe I will die, maybe I will struggle in the sea and I just want to travel normally. Get a visa and travel, but the thing is that the European governments don’t want to give this kind of things to Syrians, so you have one choice to reach Europe, which is the sea, or you choose other countries that don’t ask for visa, such as Malaysia or Lebanon. We don’t have much choices, because since the war started, the Syrian passport became the 4th worst passport in the world.

AF: So the only chance for Syrian youngsters is to apply for studies?

Apply for studies and, at the same time, have a large amount of money. A lot of people went by this family reunion program, they call it like that, but now it’s not possible anymore, because people used to come to Turkey and from Turkey, apply at the different embassies for the reunion, and then go from here to their families. Now, the Turkish government is asking for a visa and they don’t give it anyway, so people are trying to make the reunion from Lebanon.

AF: What will happen when you graduate your studies in Physiotherapy?

I have to find a way somehow, because the Turkish government started to say that educated people left Turkey – mostly to Germany – and that they need this people to stay. It happened with a lot of people – they could not leave Turkey, because they are educated.

AF: Do you know any person, maybe friends, family that went by the sea?

Yeah, a lot of friends. My closest friend went by the sea. He went with a big ship, they hide him inside and he paid 2500$ to get to Greece. He didn’t try to get a visa, he just wanted to travel, so he just went. He arrived in Turkey, one week before me, in September 2014 and then went to Greece. He was trying to go to Germany by plane, but he was caught 4 times in the airport. Finally, he did it.

AB: Why didn’t he try to get a visa?

Maybe, he didn’t have the money and, in the situation of war and currency devaluation, a lot of people couldn’t afford that much, even if they were able to do it before the war, I don’t know. If you want to apply for the visa, it’s around 9000 € to get the student visa plus proving that you have health insurance for Germany, so a lot of people choose the sea, because it’s cheaper.

AF: What is your opinion of smugglers?

They are not helping, they killed a lot of people, they are murderers in the end. I mean they are not doing this to help, if they had done this just to help they would not have taken so much money or they wouldn’t even take any money. But they are taking a huge amount of money. In a small ship for 10 people, they call it Balm, they put at least 50 people inside. People drowned in the sea. It’s taking advantage of people in need.

AF: What is, for you, the degree of responsibility of the international community regarding the war in Syria?

They have a big responsibility, since they didn’t stop Assad’s regime and his supporters, until now. The thing is there are reasons for what they are doing and it is bigger than what we think or see. It’s the big countries which deal with these things, but they want this to happen, I don’t know the reasons, but one of the reasons is that the European countries are in need of young people.

The European governments, USA, Russia, Iran, the Gulf countries and China. And the thing is, they could stop this before people started to flee. They could have stopped it from the beginning, lots of people wouldn’t die, if they would have done that. They could just call Al-Assad, who is a murderer of a lot of people, and just make him leave, but they didn’t do that.

AF: Without all the bloodshed due to the civil war?

Without any of that for more than 6 years. They were the reason of this war until now.

AF: The international community has a lot of responsibility?

Of course. In Egypt, they did it after 21 days, they called him [Mubarak] and he left. In Tunisia also, after 3 month of revolution, Bin Ali left, and I think that wasn’t his choice .

AF: What is the solution of the conflict?

The first step is just take off this government, the regime in Syria. It’s the first thing, and then go for the Jihadis and Al-Qaeda or ISIS, or a lot of groups like ISIS. I mean in 2012 there were no ISIS, no Al-Nusra [Front]. They could have stopped it ,at that time, and we wouldn’t be in these troubles.

Now, they saying there are a lot of terrorists. Of course, there are a lot of terrorists! Because the Turkish government opened the borders to everyone leaving Syria, but at the same time they opened the borders to everyone who wanted to go to Syria to fight with ISIS. They opened the way to a lot of Americans, Albanians, Macedonians, Afghanis, Uzbeks, French who have this mentality of jihad. It was really easy for them to go to Syria : “You just come to Turkey and no one asks you what are you doing and then you go to the borders and you cross and no one asks you where are you going”, so they opened the way for them.

This did not happen with the borders in Jordan, because the border in Jordan was closed, just for people that want to go out. At the same time, they let the Free Syrian Army groups, in Daraa, deal with people who wanted to come to Syria, this is why you don’t see ISIS groups in the south of Syria.

AF: Are you afraid that if Al-Assad leaves, even with a political solution and with the end of conflict, that the post-war conflicts and struggle for power in Libya, Iraq and and other countries, could happen?

Yes, definitely this is going to happen, because there are a lot of different groups with different goals. They will try to achieve what they want .When we see our country now, we say that why they didn’t do something in 2012 or 2013. And later, if they don’t do something, we will ask “Why didn’t they do something in 2016 or 2017”?. The longer the conflict lasts, the harder it is going to be to solve it.

AF: And what do you have to say about other Arabic countries which are, according to some, not taking refugees? They say that these countries, like Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia, should be taking refugees from Syria…

It’s right, because these countries did not take anyone and they even kicked a lot of people out. It’s politics in the end, everyone is playing the game. There are no countries that are not playing this game. All of them are to be blamed for what is happening is Syria.

AF: Nowadays, what are your main sources of information about Syria? Your family, on-line channels, mainstream media?

Of course, first my family, especially my sister as journalist who lived in Alepo. She is working with Channel 4, a British TV channel and also my friends, I have a lot of friends, who fight with the Free Syrian Army. Also a friend who is a journalist in the besieged country side of Damascus, and other friends, my father, my mother, in my city.

AF: Finally, can you achieve tell us more about your project Building Bridges for Refugee Children here in Ankara?

When I came here I’ve spent one year studying Turkish, working and then a friend of mine told me : “We are thinking about making a project with Syrian and other refugees”. So we went, we visited the families in a big refugee area in Ankara. We were seven people, we started to teach the children in their houses, take care of them and teach them some Turkish and Arabic. They didn’t go to school, but they have to learn Turkish language, because they live here and Arabic, because it is their native language. Then we saw there were a lot of children, more than 200, and most of them could not go to school. We met children who used to walk for an hour and a half to get to school, and then come back home too, because the parents couldn’t afford the money for the transportation.

We wanted to do something about it, but we had a lot of problems to find a place, because we don’t have a legal status and we are not supported by an NGO. We are just friends working. We got some contacts and we started to talk here and there – with ministries, municipalities and governmental departments. Then we found a small place, we started with 25 children and 15 volunteers. Now we have 90 child and around 160 volunteer. Not all of them are working now, but 160 worked in this project.

In the end, these are people who cannot be left without education. It’s not their fault, if they are uneducated because of the war. We asked our friends to help us and we started a school, teaching Turkish, Arabic, English, mathematics, games, ice-breaker activities, handcrafts and we have field trips. It started last year, in March 2016, and is still running until now, with more volunteers and more students. We are all happy to be part of this project, because we see the happiness in the faces of the children, and that’s more than enough for us.

Alexandre Fonseca is currently a volunteer assistant teacher at the Nicola Tesla Technical School in Belgrade, Serbia. Before, he was working as an European Voluntary Service volunteer in Ankara, Turkey and working as a Customer Support Agent in Athens, Greece. He believes that this project is a way to defend the right for everyone to travel and seek refuge wherever and whenever needed.

Refugee Stories

Face of Migration: Nawras from Syria

The following article appears on the website Face of MigrationFace of Migration emerged from Maryknoll Lay Missioner Greg Fischer’s initiative to listen to the stories of the immigrants and refugees he worked with on a daily basis in his ministry. At first publishing on social networks stories and pictures of immigrants, the project grew to require its own website by 2016 and offer a new platform to share their stories. Video documentaries expands the resources of Face of Migration to document immigrants in their daily activities, their search for employment, leisure, contact with family, worries and joys and demonstrate that they have much in common with each of us.

We will occasionally be cross-posting articles from the Face of Migration site as part of our Refugee Stories series.

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Below is a link to an interview with Nawras, a Syrian refugee living in São Paulo, Brazil.

Click here to read this interview on the Face of Migration website.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Exil et désillusion: le chemin de Khalil

The following article was written by Amadeo Bosser and published at MAGMA, which is a non-profit youth organisation supported and initiated in 2012 by the Pax Christi section BePax in Belgium. MAGMA is a team of journalists and volunteers. In their web magazine the articles reflect the rich diversity of youth in Belgium. The article is re-published below in French.

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Khalil est un jeune Syrien de 27 ans qui a traversé le Proche-Orient et l’Europe pour fuir la guerre qui ravage son pays et venir vivre le « rêve Européen » en Belgique. Cependant, après des mois de voyage dans des conditions difficiles, sa situation en Belgique reste très incertaine. Khalil, rencontré à Bruxelles où il attend depuis une dizaine de mois le dénouement de sa demande d’asile, nous dépeint avec un sourire amer un tableau sombre et désillusionné de sa recherche d’une vie normale.

L’exil et la traversée de l’Europe

Il y a encore quelques années, au commencement de la vague de révoltes soulevée par le printemps arabe, Khalil était officier dans l’armée Syrienne de Bachar el-Assad. Quand la révolution éclate en Syrie cependant, l’armée bombarde le quartier de Khalil, tuant son frère et détruisant sa maison. A la suite de cet évènement, Khalil décide de changer de camp et de rejoindre le parti des rebelles. S’en suivent quatre années de lutte armée et d’horreur où Khalil assiste à la destruction progressive de son pays et au massacre de sa population. Gravement blessé lors de combats, il est évacué vers la Turquie où on lui enlève pas moins de six balles du corps. C’en est trop pour Khalil qui décide avec son père de quitter le pays pour vivre une nouvelle vie en Belgique, pays dont on lui vante l’humanisme et le respect des droits humains.

Khalil, encore affaibli et handicapé par ses blessures et accompagné de son père, quitte donc la Turquie et s’embarque pour la Grèce, où il est rapidement arrêté et incarcéré parce qu’il est déclaré migrant illégal. Il passera cinq mois en prison avant d’être finalement libéré et de continuer sa route à travers la Macédoine puis la Serbie. Dans ce dernier pays il se réfugie un mois durant dans une forêt afin d’échapper à la police, puis, face à l’impossibilité de franchir la frontière, il retourne en Grèce où il prend un bateau pour l’Italie. L’accueil des autorités italiennes est pour le moins agressif et Khalil explique avoir été tabassé par des policiers lorsque, épuisé et menacé d’être empêché de continuer sa route vers le nord, il aurait refusé de donner ses empreintes digitales…

Cliquez ici pour lire toute l’histoire.

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

Refugee Stories: We used to have an ordinary life

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The following interview was done by Ella Holliday, 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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Mohammad is a 22-year-old from Aleppo, Syria who arrived in the UK in 2016 having left Syria in 2014. In the following interview, Mohammad speaks about his experience. The interview was conducted on 12 December 2016.

Ella Holliday: Tell me about your family?

Mohammad: We are a family of four brothers, me, my mum, my dad and my three brothers all used to live in one house in Syria, in Aleppo. Me and my brother now live here in the UK and I still have my father, my mother and two younger brothers who remain in Aleppo.

What was life like in Syria? What did you do there?

We used to have an ordinary life, we would go to school then go to the swimming pool. I swam for the national team. It was just a normal life basically, everyday cartoons, watching football matches, everything that usual kids would do.

What was your social life like growing up back home? What were your interests and hobbies?

We used to play water polo a lot until we got into the team, we were considered the national team I suppose you could say, and we used to train 5 days a week after school and that is it really.

How did this change once the conflict started?

Well, when the revolution started, everything went too fast really, no one thought anything could go this wrong so fast. It was about 3-4 months from our basic usual life until we couldn’t leave the house because it was too dangerous. My mum and dad would usually be very stressed if we were just out the house and they called us and we missed the phone call. It was a really small period between our usual lives and when this all started – nobody really expected that. We never really thought about it. Soon enough we weren’t allowed to leave the house without permission. We had no electricity, no water, it was a very hard life situation to be in.

How did this make you feel?

Well at the start all of this I was just thinking about myself, well this is not fair, I want to go out with my friends or I just want to go out to the mall and just shop. I just wanted to do regular stuff but I wasn’t able to go. Then it affected my life because a lot of my friends got arrested for taking a role in the revolution so my family became more protective of me and my brother, they didn’t want us to go anywhere or be involved in this because if you got arrested, God knows what would happen next, so we were basically protected by my family, my mum and my dad. Anyone who knew me, they would just protect me and keep an eye on me in everything I was doing, from the food I bought to the stuff I wrote on Facebook or anything like that, they would always be watching me, telling me what I should do, and what I should not do. Nobody likes that, because of course, everyone wants some space for themselves.

Tell me about your journey to the UK?

So in 2014 we figured out that there is no possibility of living here (in Syria) anymore because there is no future, nothing, no light at the end of the tunnel. We can just see things getting worse and worse every day, so me and my brother decided to leave Aleppo and we didn’t think how to go or where to go, we just wanted to get out of there. So we said to my dad we need to go, we need to get out of here, this isn’t working, we can’t stay like this, so we decided to go to Turkey. We put our stuff together and we had a car come to my house the next morning at 6 am and we took around a 14-hour trip in the car. Then we had to go to the border by foot so we walked for about 2 hours to get into Turkey. I got to Turkey and stayed there for 2 years. I was studying but I couldn’t stay there legally so I only stayed for 2 years then me and my brother decided we couldn’t stay there anymore as it was not working, there was no future again. So we decided on the UK because we had a lot of knowledge of the English language – because we used to study at the university in Turkey in English. We took a trip from Istanbul to Greece by foot. It was a long trip, it was 7 or 8 hours to walk to Greece and then I spent 20 to 25 days in Greece before I moved on to the next country because I was in the detention prison in Greece for 15 days before I was able to continue with my trip and then I had a couple of failures trying to leave Greece. I eventually managed to leave Greece for Belgium on a fake passport and I stayed there in Belgium for a few days before I had to leave again to Spain with another fake passport. From Spain I took an airplane to London airport. It was around a 40 day trip altogether.

So tell me how do this make you feel having to move around different countries illegally?

It was a long and stressful journey, because all the time you had to be really careful, especially when you don’t know who to trust or who to tell your real story to, who is here to help you or who is there to put you in the next detention centre. For me I was looking at the police, not as someone to protect the people but as just another person that I needed to lie to in order to get to my destination or to get to safety. It was a long trip and I faced a lot of bad people, as well as some good people too, but it was very stressful and dangerous I think, looking back at it now, and I don’t know how I did it. I don’t think I was thinking about how dangerous it was or how dangerous was the stuff I was doing. I was just thinking I want to be done with this and think about starting my life correctly again in the right way.

What did you know about the UK when you arrived?

Not much really, just what I`ve seen in the regular news and some information from the movies. I know some things about the life habits. They speak about it in our country. They say “this is English, so English”. Most of it is not true but it gave me some brief idea about the people. Thank goodness I was not wrong! From the moment I was taken into the UK the treatment of the policemen were different. They were not treating me as a terrorist they were just saying “you will be ok, everything will be alright. Just relax, you’re here now and there is no reason to panic”. Everything has gone alright since then.

So where did you go from here then?

When I first arrived at the airport they took me into a room, an interview room, and sat me down for a couple of hours until someone said “the officers are here to take your fingerprints and to do your first screening interview” and then they took my fingerprints and made me sign something to say that this is my real passport this is my real name and so on. Then they said we will move you now to a detention centre in London as it was a weekend, a Friday I think. They said this was because they needed a translator with us so that we could finish the second screening interview whilst I was there. So they said I will spend the weekend in a detention centre and then come back after the weekend. I said that I didn’t need a translator and that I could understand English but they were insisting that they had to send one with me regardless. So I spent the weekend in the detention centre, two days there. It was a nice place, most of the people there were moving from prison, this is what I understood from talking to them, they said that before finishing their prison sentence they were staying there for a few days before being released. After two days I went back to the airport to conduct the second screening interview. It was around an hour with the same officers and they called me back because they needed to sort a few things. They just wanted a few headlines – some information about me and my trip who brought me here, and they fully searched me and they took my passport and then they moved me to an accommodation house in London.

How has your impression since changed?

Well, at the start I was very stressful in the UK. The moment that we landed I faced a not very nice border force guy. He was very suspicious of me and was very scared. We he saw my passport as I walked off the plane and they were asking for passports but all I had was my Syrian passport. When he saw this he was very stressful and angry asking many different questions, he seemed very careful but I`m not sure how to word it. He was just looking at every simple move I made. When I put my hand in my pocket he would ask why I had my hand in my pocket,” take your hand out!” Immediately he took my bag and started searching it and he was asking “what do you have in your pocket” and “what do you have in your bag? Are you here alone? How did you come here? Do you have a passport? “When I told him I got here on a fake passport to seek asylum they took three officers to search me and some others went on to the plane to look for my fake passport because that is where it told them it was. After that everything went well. I mean I am alright now.

Did you consider seeking refuge in another country first?

No I didn’t, no. At first when I left Turkey I went to Greece. When I left the prison in Greece I was in a really bad place. It was a long 15 days there in the prison and me and my brother were not decided where to go or where we should go. I think the hardest problem we faced in the prison in Greece was that we could not understand the officers and they could not understand us. So whatever we needed the answer was always in a different language and that was so hard for us. Just small things, just basic human rights like can I phone a lawyer or can I call my family because my family did not know where I was at that moment. My family hadn’t heard anything from me in five or six days. After this experience, we decided we needed to go to a place where we can understand the people and they can understand what we are asking so we decided on the UK. So a couple of smugglers helped to smuggle us, all the countries that I visited, it wasn’t my choice it was the smugglers choice. I just told him I wanted to get to the UK and seek asylum there. When we were looking for a fake passport, he kept saying “do you like this one? I can bring another one” but I couldn’t tell the difference between them they were just different nationalities. He just kept saying “this one is this price” or “this one is half price”. Then we went on the trip through different countries. It wasn’t my choice just the way we had to do it.

How would you compare your old daily routine in Aleppo to your daily routine in the UK?

Well it is very different because you have family, friends, people I grew up with, my neighbourhood, my school, my swimming pool-everything is different. My normal basic day in Aleppo I would wake up at 7 or 8 am and we would have breakfast with my family and then I would go to my University, my brothers would go to school. I would finish University around 3 o clock and then go back home, have lunch with family and then we would go to the swimming pool for training. When I got back we would play games with my family, that is about it. In the UK I am waiting for my second interview – I am an asylum seeker, not a refugee and so the basic day would be taking English lessons or helping with creative activities like arranging football matches or parties or drop in centre activities. Now I have found my way back to the swimming pool. I have been training with the Lancaster water polo team and I hope things go better from there.

What are your aspirations for the future while you are in the UK?

I don’t know about the future yet. I can’t think straight; I don’t know why. I think I want to continue with my study as I left my studies in the middle of the road. I am in my third year now, I am studying to be a civil engineer, so first of all I would love to continue with my studies but let’s see after that where life will go.

In 2015 in the UK, 2659 Syrians applied for asylum whereas in Germany there was 158,657 applications. Do you think that the UK is doing enough to help Syrian refugees?

I don’t think that they are doing enough but I will not say they are doing nothing at all. I think the main reason for the difference in these numbers is that Germany is making it easier for Syrians to seek asylum and to be refugees. Nowadays Syrian people are just looking “where are my family located”, even though Germany does not want any more asylum seekers but anyone who is getting out of Syria is looking at what is the better place for him and that will be where his family and his friends are. So I don’t think the people of Syria are going to Germany rather than the UK because they prefer this country over that country. It is just about where they feel welcome or where can I be near to my friends or my family. For me when I think about it, it would have been a new country and a new language and I do not know anything about Germany other than I knew it had a lot of refugees.

The US led coalition, including the UK have conducted over 5826 airstrikes in Syria as of late November this year. Do you think that a peaceful resolution to the conflict can be achieved?

The problem is that there are so many parties, so many groups fighting in Syria and in order to achieve peace you need to first of all find the people who are supporting these groups. Every country is supporting 2 or 3 different groups which for us, for the people of Syria, are just messing around, destroying and stealing everything of Syria and. They don’t look at who is supporting who or who will win after all this or what is the right way to finish it. We just want it to finish, if it is by war so be it, if it is by peace that’s better – but we don’t care about the way how anymore. We just want it to finish.

What one thing would you like to tell me about the situation in Syria that you think the world should know?

I think that the most important thing that people should now is that the most people that are living through this thing are normal people, not Assad’s army, not the Free Army or not the other groups, the people who are living through the middle of all this are just like my family. I am worried about them all the time. My family is still in Aleppo which is not the best place to be right now. The problem is that everyone is doing something bad to them. They are in the government area but even the Free Army are saying that they are coming to make life better for people but when they come they take over a place, they bomb the place and go through it. The Russian’s are also bombing with their airforce and so the bombs are always over the heads of my family and the innocent people there. Of course living conditions could not be worse. There is no electricity, they could spend 2-3 months without any electricity or without clean drinking water. If there was electricity or clean drinking water it would be ridiculously expensive, I really don’t how they are manging to live but of course they won’t tell me over the phone or a message. They just tell me everything is alright do not worry about us.

Would you want Syria to return to as it was before the conflict or would you like to see it change for good?

I don’t think I want it to go back to as it was before with no resolution. The revolution or whatever you want to call it was always going to happen because the people have been unhappy there for a long time. But I sure do hope to see it coming better in the coming months or years, hopefully soon enough before we lose much more than this.

How do you see this conflict ending?

Our problem is not with Assad or any individual, our problem is that the groups are fighting on the streets. If we try to solve it with force it will fall into chaos just like other countries. We have seen that with Libya and Tunisia and other countries. It will not finish just by killing someone or by assassinating anyone or any leader. It will just finish by a peaceful transition of power from the government of Assad to a different government. From my point of view that is the only way a peaceful solution will be achieved otherwise any other different solution would involve splitting Syria into 2 or 3 separate countries and that is not a solution for me.

Lastly, what would your future aspirations be if you were to return home. Where would you start?

I would want to start my life right where I left it, between my family and my friends, continuing my life as any normal person would do and hopefully one day I will be able to go back.

Ella Holliday goes to Saint Bede’s Catholic High School in Lytham, Lancashire, England. She is thirteen years old and has always had a passion for writing. She has also done work with the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD) around the refugee crisis. She says that she has enjoyed the amazing opportunity to take part in the Young Peace Journalists project and she hopes that it makes a difference to this terrible situation.

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.