As President Trump persists in defending his ‘Muslim’ travel ban, and Brexit negotiations plug on – driven as they have been by concerns over immigration – Sarah had a chat with a Syrian friend* who recently applied for, and has been granted asylum in the UK. The friend was still living in her home city of Damascus when civil war broke out in Syria in March 2011. Witness to the war’s escalation, she decided to travel to the UK to study humanitarian issues, hoping to be able to return home when the conflict was over armed with knowledge and skills that would be useful in the post-war rebuild. However, driven by the ruling Assad regime, combat continues to decimate the country, and has triggered one of the largest humanitarian refugee crises the world has seen. Our interviewee is still waiting for her opportunity.
Where were you when the conflict began? What was the impact on you?
I was in Damascus. I had my job there, and my family – my normal life. In the beginning there wasn’t a direct impact for me, but everybody was preoccupied with watching the news, and what was happening. It started in a city south of Damascus, in Daraa. There were some demonstrations in Damascus, but it was mostly calm. Life was pretty much normal, for me at least, and it was just some tension between people who are on the side of the regime, and people who are on the side of the [Arab Spring] revolution. Then bit by bit, there were more checkpoints in the streets; they were always checking people in the cars, or in taxis. That’s the main thing that you would notice in Damascus streets in the first months of the revolution.
How did you get from that point to leaving Damascus, and not being able to return?
Things escalated bit by bit in Damascus, and the tension increased. Many of my friends were helping the surrounding areas, providing them with food and medical supplies when these areas were under siege. I was never brave enough to be in the demonstrations, or to go to those hot areas, but I was indirectly helping my friends. Socially I was affected, because I was not in the mood to talk to people who were on the side of the regime, because I just felt that this is totally inhumane, to be on the side of someone killing the people and bombing their cities. I was just more and more in the house, watching news with my family, going to work, coming back from work and that’s it.
My job moved to Beirut, because the situation escalated in Damascus. They asked me to join them, and I said yes, because I was suffocating in Damascus. I just wanted to be out. I lived in Beirut for a year. I was feeling happy – especially because Lebanon is a country where you can say whatever you want, without being afraid. It’s a country of freedom.
For Lebanese, yeah. For Syrians, of course we can speak freely, but the country is now filled with Syrians – so you might notice incidents of social tension. But this happens anywhere. In my case, I was happy. I had a job, I was doing well, and I still went back and forth to Syria on some weekends, to see my family. But the situation was really escalating in Damascus. Not just hearing the bombs elsewhere, there were some bombs falling in the city. At that point I was already thinking about going to do a degree abroad, and I was thinking, ok, the war will end very soon, so if I do a degree and I come back with such a degree I will be able to do something in the reconstruction period, when Syria is back on track.
I was busy focussing on that, at the same time I was volunteering in Lebanon with the child refugees. There was a huge number of children who were out of the schooling system for some time when they were displaced, so they were not ready to join the educational system in Lebanon. There were many organisations working on that, and I volunteered on weekends to teach small kids – English, mathematics, Arabic, reading, whatever. Something to help them be ready so that the organisation would then either put them in Lebanese schools, or private schools or anything – like, they will find a way. Meanwhile, I was accepted at Uni, and I did my visa, and I came to the UK to study.
During my Masters year, the situation in Syria just kept escalating, it was never going to calm down. But I was still hoping. I came back to Syria after I finished my Masters, and it was just the same – the situation was getting worse and worse. I already felt like I couldn’t live in Syria anymore, because it was just too much, but I had already lost my job in Lebanon when I left. Somebody else replaced me, and it was becoming more difficult in Lebanon to be allowed to enter. You need a valid reason, as a Syrian. They have certain conditions. So I was a bit lost, I didn’t know what to do – where I should go.
I decided to postpone the decision, and I came back to the UK to attend my graduation ceremony, and I was thinking that maybe I should go to Turkey. At that time it seemed like the best option. I thought, maybe I can get residency somehow, and I can work. On my graduation day, after I left the ceremony and I was calling my parents, telling them ‘I wish you were here’, they told me that on that day Turkey decided to ask for visas for Syrians. Syrians were not allowed to automatically enter Turkey. I still had one month valid in my student visa at that time, and I was thinking, what should I do? Turkey is not an option anymore. Lebanon is not an option anymore. Syria, for me, it stopped being an option for a long time. That’s why I decided to apply for asylum.
What would happen if you tried to return to Syria now?
There is always a risk of getting arrested. Because I articulated my political opinion too much. And while I was studying here I volunteered with a Syrian organisation that is against the regime, that helps refugees in Turkey. The situation in Damascus now is very – the regime’s iron fist on Damascus is becoming stronger and stronger. Because now it’s only a few areas that the regime controls. Damascus, the coast, and a few more cities here and there.
So it’s a pretty important territory.
Exactly. That’s why it’s difficult.
But your parents are still living there?
What was the process when you chose to apply for asylum in the UK? How did that work?
As a procedure, the process is very simple. They take your picture, they take your fingerprints and then you talk to a case worker. They ask you lots of questions, the kind where you just say yes or no. Then I waited for them to ask me to come for the main interview, that was after three-and-a-half months. I was so stressed when I went for it, but it went smoothly, and at the end they said, we will contact you when the answer is ready. After two months they sent me the letter saying I was granted permission to stay, and to work, for five years.
How does that feel?
I was jumping in my living room. Literally, with the letter.
What was it like waiting?
It was hard. But, to be honest – when I look at other people, who wait for 10 years or something, I was like, how did they manage to wait? Five-and-a-half months, it’s nothing. I was already volunteering, doing some simple volunteering here and there. That kept me feeling ok; I am busy, I am doing something, even if I’m not working, or I’m not independent.
Do you find that people interact differently with you when you say that you’re Syrian?
To be fair, no. Neither here or in Lebanon. I know some people experience such things, and I do sympathise when somebody tells me that they have faced such incidents, but I also have to be honest that no, nothing happened to me.
What’s your understanding of where things are at with the conflict now?
I haven’t changed my mind. I still hate the regime. I still hope the president falls down, right now. The difference is that I’m not optimistic anymore. I used to believe that revolution would succeed in like, one year.
Just to backtrack for a second, what – from your perspective as a Syrian person – was the revolution about? What is this all about?
Freedom. From dictatorship. I still believe it is a fight between people and the government. It started as a very peaceful revolution – demonstrations in all cities. But unfortunately there has been a lot of violence by the government towards the people, which eventually escalated to make people start defending themselves. Then the scene got complicated with ISIS.
I used to watch news from morning till evening, all the time. But now I’ve lost faith in politics, so I’m trying to focus more on the humanitarian side. Because at least, with the humanitarian side you can – I mean, not that you can do anything, because unless you solve the root cause, the humanitarian need will continue to grow. But at least you feel that little thing that you do might improve something for someone. But in politics, no.
When you say you’ve lost hope that things could get better, what do you mean by that? That things will continue as they have been?
Bloodshed will continue. Displacement will continue. And I believe, maybe – I’m not a political analyst – but maybe Syria will be divided.
How do you think that would look?
It could be depending on where ISIS is; where the regime has control – where some cities aren’t free from the regime. I don’t know. It could also be according to – we have different sects, so maybe if the international community suddenly decides, ok let’s have a Sunni area. And a Shiite area, a Christian area. Anything can happen.
The revolution happened at the time of the Arab Spring – so it wasn’t just Syria going through this, several other countries were too. What’s your understanding of that overall picture?
I was really happy when the Arab Spring started. It first started in Tunisia, at the end of 2010. Everybody watching TV was like, way to go Tunisia! I hope we’re next. I believe in the Arab Spring and I am completely against any military or religious rule, because Arabs deserve better. But the Arab Spring dream got smashed down. Tunisia succeeded to a point. They threw out their president. Yes, afterwards they got a government of the Muslim Brotherhood, but still – it was democratic somehow, and they overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood, also by democratic election. The country was not destroyed – now I believe their dictator is way better than our dictator! At least he just left the country. This is not to mention all the other countries in the Arab region that have been affected.
It is complicated, and I don’t claim to know much. I haven’t studied politics. When I watch TV and listen to TV shows discussing politics, and there will be two, three guests – everyone representing a certain point of view, I do listen, and I do try to learn and understand. I cross-analyse. But still, I don’t get anywhere.
Do you think it would be better if the revolution had never taken place?
We could never know how it would be to be ruled under our previous dictators for another 50 years. Maybe the situation would be worse if the revolution hadn’t taken place. If the Arab Spring didn’t take place, if the Arab world was ruled by the same stupid rulers, and they kept making the people not able to express their opinions, not able to think. Maybe trying to make the people ignorant, maybe trying to make the people poor, to make them weak, and to control the people more and more. So yes, now the situation is really bad, but maybe it would have been really bad to stay under their rule, and not to try. At the same time, I’m not the right one to answer such a question because my losses are incomparable to others’. I’m not a person who has lost their loved ones in the war. It takes a person who lost everything to say, I wish it didn’t happen.
What has it meant for you to leave Syria, and to feel like you can’t go back? Do you miss Damascus?
Of course I miss it. But I also miss Lebanon. And I feel at home here in the UK. Home is a controversial concept; it’s a feeling, rather than a physical place, and I think as a person I have the ability to feel at home everywhere. It doesn’t mean that I would be 100% integrated. Even in my country I wasn’t 100% integrated. We always have our differences with people around us. It doesn’t mean that everybody in Syria – or even Syrians who are here – it doesn’t mean that I’m 100% just like them. We have so many differences. I just miss my family. That’s what I lack everywhere I go, as a sense of home. Other than that, as long as I’m doing well – as long as I have a job – I’m ok. Having a job is very important to me. Because then you feel you are part of the place, you are doing something. That’s how I feel home.
*This interviewee has chosen anonymity.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.