I had 24 hours to run. So with nothing more than the clothes on my back, the shoes on my feet and some personal belongings thrown into a bag which I lugged over my shoulder, I left and never looked back. It was a seemingly normal night of sitting at the dining room table catching up on my studies…until it wasn’t. As always, I had the news turned on in the background, and while the contents were more often than not difficult to digest, what I saw this time was different. My life was about to change drastically. Any man to pass a checkpoint was to be arrested and forced to join their “friends” in the Syrian military. These “friends” were not my friends, and the things the Syrian military stood for, were not battles I was prepared or willing to fight. Thinking about the Syria government and all the tragedy sprawled across my once beloved country left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t like the politics and I certainly wasn’t a supporter of the war. So I fled. I don’t know if I have ever been more terrified than the moment I set foot outside my house that dark and ominous night. Those 130 km from Damascus to Beirut felt like they would never end. The passing of every checkpoint brought chills down my spine as a life of military and war would flash before my eyes. But somehow, despite the odds against me, I made it. I had arrived in Beirut safely…at least for now.
Unfortunately, staying in Lebanon provided limited choices, so rather than try to settle in a place where I would never make anything of myself, I began to research my options. I wasn’t asking for much, just a place that would offer an alternative to a life of struggle, poverty and grief. No matter what I thought about, whether it was Egypt, Turkey or anywhere else around the world, I feared not knowing the language and not being able to communicate with the people who would in theory become my new community, the foundation of my new home. The longer I was away from home, the more obvious it became that returning was not going to be an option..at least not anytime soon. But still, I was stuck between an old life and a new one I had yet to discover. After endless self-deliberation and late night talks with friends and fellow refugees, I had finally made a decision that would shed light on the future I would rebuild for myself. Germany, an idea that despite my initial reservation slowly turned into a possibility and later reality. It wasn’t until after two long gap years of being trapped in a hole of little to no opportunity, that the doors to a better life opened – my arrival in Germany was no walk in the park, but for the first time since I left Syria I felt I was standing on solid ground again. Here, I would build my new foundation, settle new roots and flourish into the man I knew I was capable of becoming.
It has been three years since I arrived in Germany, and while so much has changed, one of the feelings I love most is having my identity back. For two years I saw a man who was lost and unsure of himself. Today, I look in the mirror and see myself with a smile again – my reflection shows a 26-year-old Syrian man from Damascus, a guy who believes in himself and his future, a man who values good people, hard work and education. My name is Yazan and I am proud of my roots and grateful for my second chance at life in Germany. When I first arrived, I was living in Berlin. Here, things were easier because my English was good enough to get around, and in Berlin, I barely needed German. This seemingly easy transition to Germany was short lived. It wasn’t long until I had to move to Magdeburg, which meant my English was less useful and it was time to start learning German. Soon after my arrival I started helping with translation needs with the Federal Volunteer Office in Magdeburg and before long I was focusing on working with the Bundesfreiwilligendienst (National Volunteer Service), in which I was the first refugee to ever support this program!
While I was proud of this, it doesn’t hold a candle to the successes I had among the theater community in Magdeburg. Together with a friend, we put together an exhibition about the life of Syrians after fleeing the war. The exhibition stood for an entire month and was showcased in English, German and Arabic. We also held a theater performance on Democracy Day that told real stories about Syrians in efforts to counterbalance the largely falsified media stories that so many people have come to accept and believe. My volunteer work combined with my community efforts to bring awareness to the struggles of Syrian refugees were for me already great accomplishments. But it was after I started working with an integration program called “New Land” that my successes truly peaked. A mere one and a half years after being in Germany, and only a year after the “New Land” program had been developed, we won first prize in best integration programs for refugees in Saxony-Anhalt…this for me, was unbelievable! I was doing so much for my community, for my fellow Syrians and for the betterment of Germany’s integration issues all at once. I was on cloud nine, and while it was hard to step away from all of this excitement, I know I needed to focus on myself in order to keep helping others. And the only way I knew how to do that, was to keep learning.
Before I left Syria, I was studying Business Administration for at Arabic European University in Damascus. My studies were always very important to me and I was crushed to stop them when I left home. I am lucky that in addition to all my volunteering and part-time work that I was able find time to continue my education! It wasn’t easy to stay on top of my studies, but with Kiron, the flexibility of the hours and easy access to online courses made it possible. What I love most about Kiron is the people, the positive energy is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Here, I am treated like a student, not a refugee! My favorite courses were through Coursera because the structure of each lesson built off the last and the sessions were short and efficient. My writing skills in academic English improved immensely. My favorite course by far was called Science, Religion and Philosophy – to me, these are some of the most interesting and important topics in the world and they were all together in one course! But the best part about Kiron is what it led to. I was accepted to Bard college where I will finally be on track to earn my Bachelor degree in Humanities, the Arts and Social Thought (HAST)! When I visited Bard a while back it made me realize just how different university in Germany is in comparison to Syria. Bard is much smaller, and close-knit than my university in Damascus. I can’t wait to start! I imagine that after a few months the professors will even know my name. It must feel pretty great when your professor calls you by your name. And last but certainly not least, my courses will all be English and I will finally return to the exciting city of Berlin!
Saying I am happy would be an understatement. Ever since I arrived in Germany, my new life has skyrocketed..maybe not from someone else’s perspective, but for me, all that I am doing and everything I have achieved in the last three years feels like a dream. I’m eased at the thought of staying in one place for a few years, being able to read a lot of books and gain endless knowledge about history and philosophy. One day I will worry about the next step, about earning a proper salary and maybe even about starting my own business, but for now, my education comes first. I want to read everything and absorb all I can! I feel everything I am doing and all that I have done since arriving to Germany has taught me so much. Sure, there are a lot of things I miss about my old life, but it is in this new life, one filled with good people, great opportunities and endless possibilities that I feel I am finally home.
Interview by Airi Yamada & Alisha Merkle // #Education4Integration campaign, sponsored by H&M Foundation