It was the summer of 2011; my schoolmates and I were ordinary students who were preparing for exams and anticipating the summer vacation. But this was going to be my last Syrian summer.
Homs, my neighborhood – the old part of the city – bordered an area loyal to the Syrian government. In the long run, this meant only trouble for us.
Normally, we whiled away our days by hanging about outside, just living our lives. We heard news about events elsewhere, but it didn’t affect us at first. Everything remained as usual for us. Then, one day, people in our area decided to hold a sit-in in the main square of the city to peacefully protest the deaths of seven people. The sit-in started in the afternoon; the organizers wanted to make it last for three days. Hundreds of people came from many different areas of the city to participate.
I still remember how calm and placid the city looked that day – until the shooting happened, just after midnight. When the gunshots were fired, people ran around crying for help. Women and children were bawling as the salvo of shots rang out.
Not long after, a group of gunmen came to our neighborhood and arrested most of the young men who had participated in the sit-in.
The next day, as I was walking around, I felt like the air was filled with death. I couldn’t breathe without inhaling sadness. I could barely look at the places where my friends and I had spent our time – good times, normal times.
The entire scene was colored black by my eyes.
The situation deteriorated. Soon, we understood what it meant to be bombed. As a student, all I worried about was the destruction of my school. I neither knew nor understood why anyone would target, let alone harm, Syria’s future leaders.
After more than 12 months of the crisis, a group of government supporters came to our neighborhood and announced on a loudspeaker, “Every single family has to leave the area, unless you want to be killed. We’re coming tomorrow, and we hope to find nobody here.”
Three people refused to leave. We never heard from them again.
My family and I fled the neighborhood, and eventually the country. For a while, we moved from the western part of the city to the eastern part, which was safer. Eventually, we left Syria and went to Jordan, because the situation had become too unpredictable and unstable.
Peering out the window en route to Jordan, I was happy to be moving, glad I would be meeting new people. But I felt I was leaving something significant – a part of my life and memories. I was leaving behind many relatives and people I knew, and I was heading to an unknown place and situation.
Maybe it would get better. Maybe it would get worse.
We knew the first task was rebuilding our lives in Jordan. I got a job at a huge automobile company. I asked my Jordanian workmates about the local cultural practices. Most of them were friendly and helpful. They explained to me specific nuances in their cultures, and they tried to help me with our Arabic dialects. Jordanian accents are similar to ours, but some words have different meanings, and some Jordanians used phrases that I hadn’t heard before. At first I found this strange, but after a while of living and walking in Amman’s city center, I felt differently. Encountering people from different cultures and backgrounds, I felt the soul of coexistence, love and peace, which were all basically derived from Islam. I realized, as a family, we were an adaptable group of people. I knew we could cope with living in a new and different society.
With the huge influx of Syrians, Jordanian attitudes toward Syrians have changed, however. They believe the Syrians are now taking their job opportunities and driving up the cost of living.
I think that’s why Jordanians have started treating us like strangers day by day.
The reality of life in Jordan is not at all like I imagined it would be. Life here is different from Syria. Everything is expensive. Nobody helps me or my family financially. I have shelved the idea of going back to school and have started working instead.
I had to get a job, of course. It’s true that the work opportunities were not spectacular for me because I am both a foreigner and 14, but it’s much better than nothing. I work at a huge automobile company in the spare parts store, secretly and illegally. I take a serious approach in my dealings with technicians, and that is what makes them think that I am much older than my age.
Although I am working, I am not convinced this is what I should be doing. At some point, I realized I wasn’t on the right track. However, if I accept a defeatist status as an outsider, without access to any kind of further education, I will destroy any chance I might have of a decent future.
By chance, my mum found a learning program where she can volunteer as a teacher, and she told me about the online higher education courses organized by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM) program. At first I was worried I wouldn’t be able to return to class because of my work schedule, but fortunately JC:HEM is designed for people who have to work to get by.
My first day at the JRS learning center was so exciting; I met many people from different countries. Literally, it was my first meeting with people from Africa. I did not know that they are very fun, spontaneous people. Without any problem, I got to know more about their cultures and what is happening in their countries. I didn’t experience any discomfort. Instead, I feel close to them, even more than those who were once part of my daily life. Perhaps it’s because living through a crisis brings people – especially outsiders – closer.
We face many common hardships. We have almost the same stories. We’re not entitled to work legally. It’s difficult for refugees to get work permits in Jordan. We all struggle to continue our studies. We feel like outsiders, confined by all these rules.
Everyone should work hard to get what they want. It’s also reassuring that there are so many people who want to help refugees. I always tell people that the work should be done by refugees themselves. However, they say that it is not our fault, we are victims, and we need help. But I don’t believe that’s the correct strategy to create communities that can survive on their own two feet.
After completing two certificate courses, I’m proud to say that I am now enrolled in a three-year online diploma program. I’m also proud to say that my English has improved, and now I can communicate with many people from all over the world. Learning another language has made me a better communicator and more open-minded. I hope that one day I will be able to leave Jordan and study media in an international university. I aspire to be a journalist with my own channel that reflects only the truth about what is going on in the field. The law in Jordan does not allow me to enroll at a regular school or even to take the high school examination because I am now too old to enroll in public schools and I am too young to apply for the high school examination.
My dream to study media at university is impossible without a high school diploma, but my circumstances prevent me from studying for my diploma in Jordan.
Back in the summer of 2011 in Syria, my schoolmates and I were ordinary students who were preparing for exams and anticipating the summer vacation. But that was my last Syrian summer. Now it’s a Jordanian winter.
This piece came out of a writing workshop set up by Jesuit Refugee Service and the JC:HEM program in Jordan