Moving people story
I fled Syria in 2012
Because I defected from the Syrian army, and it was starting to get really dangerous for me during the Syrian war.
If I didn’t come back to Syria, they would take everything from him
From 2001 to 2007, I studied in France for my Master and PhD, and worked as a postdoctoral researcher in a laboratory in Nancy. In 2009, I was forced to go back to Syria to start working as an assistant professor at the Al-Furat University in Deir ez-Zor. Before getting my scholarship and PhD in France, I had to sign papers in Syria – a university agreement – for coming back to Al-Furat University.
One person, in my case a good friend, was used as a sort of a warrant. If I didn’t come back to Syria, they would take everything from him. With the help of a government employee or by paying a lot of money, many students were able to get out of the deal. Unfortunately, I was not able to do that.
While I was working at Al-Furat University, I also still had to complete my military service in Syria. I was 37 years old, a scientist and university academic. Fighting really wasn’t my job. I tried to avoid it, but I was forced by the military and secret services.
So, in December 2010, I joined the Syrian army. I tried to be patient until the end of my military service, which normally lasts one year. But the regime decided not to release us after that year, because they wanted to involve all people to stop the revolution, which had started in March 2011. It was awful. I couldn’t support the army and the criminal regime because they started killing innocent civilians everywhere. While the revolution started with peaceful street protests, the regime began to kill people. Within six months, hundreds of people were killed.
They started killing innocent civilians everywhere
In earlier years, Assad had given civilians a bit of freedom. People started creating debate clubs, to discuss economic and political issues. But when these clubs got bigger and bigger, Assad stepped in. He arrested people for being a member, including some of my friends. They were tortured, stayed in prison for 2, 4 sometimes 6 years. If you were even a little bit critical of the regime, they would arrest all the members of your family; your brother, your father, your sister and your mother. People were afraid.
The opposition grew; they got weapons to defend themselves and their families. But the army had a bigger force, and a much more violent response to the opposition and civilians. Before, they used Kalashnikov rifles, but now they used tanks, chemical weapons and bombs without any concern for children, women – or any human being, for that matter.
I left after I defected from the army in July 2012. I decided to flee after a bomb attack at the military base next to the farm where I was working as an officer. It became really dangerous. Innocent people were killed. This was not my job, to fight, to kill people. So I decided to run away from this criminal army and regime and to join the revolution. That was very dangerous though. The roads were blocked and I went into hiding in Alghouta, a region liberated by the opposition.
One week later, I lost my brother
After a month, I joined my family in Raqqa city. One week later, I lost my brother. He was visiting Deir ez-Zor city, to get some clothes for his children and his salary from his work. When he tried to get out, there was an attack by Assad’s forces. And they began killing young people. Within three days, about 600 people were killed. It was a massacre. He was killed too. He left behind his wife and three children…
My family was really worried and advised me to leave. I had no choice. I didn’t want to leave my family, but they said: “You have to go first and we will join you later”. It was too difficult to flee with such a big family. With the help of some guys of the opposition, I fled Raqqa city on a dangerous motorcycle trip. Before I could enter Turkey, I stayed at a military base of the opposition near the Turkish border.
With the help of my brother, I then got a visa to Qatar, where he also lived. I first tried to find a safe place, I wanted to work and start a life there. But as I was working in food science and agricultural products, I couldn’t find a job. Qatar doesn’t produce anything within the agricultural and food sectors; they have nothing but oil. I tried to find a position at a university or food company, but it was so difficult.
After a year, I decided to go back to Turkey. I was desperately looking for a job, but you have to speak Turkish. At some point, I asked a friend in France to prepare a visa invitation for me to go there. At the same time, I contacted Scholars at Risk, an international organisation that helps scientists at risk. They helped me get a scholarship at Ghent University. I was so happy! But now I already had a French visa too.
So, I travelled to Paris, and went to the Belgium embassy to apply for a Belgian visa. They told me I first had to get a permanent status in France before I could apply for a Belgian work visa. I didn’t have a choice; the only solution was to apply for asylum in France, get a refugee residence permit and then apply for a visa in Belgium. So I did.
In Belgium I arrived in August 2015 and started my work at Ghent University as a postdoctoral researcher. As long as I have this job, I can stay here. I have a contract until August 2016. After that, if I don’t find anything else, I have to go back to France.
In my case, it is hard to find another job. First, because I’m a refugee and I am 42 years old – not as young as others who are looking for a permanent position. Second, because I couldn’t do anything between 2012 and 2015 when I moved between Syria, Turkey and Qatar. I lost three years of work experience. When you apply for a job and they notice a three-year gap in your CV, you get rejected.
And now I’m also trying to set up a kind of university in Turkey for Syrian academics and scientists. It would be very helpful and we could gain a lot from it. First, lots of them are living there now – more than 15,000 Syrian university students and more than 10,000 academics. And second, it’s cheaper than getting them here and giving them scholarships. Most of them can stay in Turkey that way, and will not take the risk of coming to Europe by boat. If you have a job and a safe place in Turkey, you will stay there.
No country can replace your homeland
I dream of peace, freedom and democracy in Syria. A Syria without Assad, without a dictatorial regime. No matter whether you stay in Europe for 1 or 10 years, there will always be the nostalgia for your homeland. No country can replace your homeland, just as no mother can replace your own mother.
As part of the Belgium street art route ‘Sorry, Not Sorry’, our Moving People were placed in different locations in Ghent. On April 26 (2016), thousands of miniature refugees (Tourad, Kassem, Avin, Kassala and Claudine) were scattered in the streets and in public places in Ghent. On May 7 & 8, during the festival, again 500 miniatures were placed.