Untold stories from Syria: one student’s inspirational journey

Posted by nm365 at Dec 31, 2020 12:00 AM |
Told as part of Refugee Week, Monday 1 to Friday 5 March.

When I asked Osaid what he missed most about Daraya, his Syrian hometown and one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the Syrian revolution, he paused to think for just a moment before smiling. “The seasons. In Syria, you would see all four of them. Each one unique, each just as beautiful as the one that came before it.”

Osaid is a second-year accounting student at the University of Leicester. In 2013, he escaped the terror and authoritarian practices of the Syrian regime and moved to neighbouring country, Jordan. During his time there, he completed three out of four years of an accounting degree, before moving to the UK in August 2019 through the Syrian Resettlement scheme.

Although he talks about Daraya fondly, it is not without pain. “I left Syria when I was 15-years old, I barely got out of Daraya. And when someone asks me about it now, it fills me with sadness, because they know more about Syria than I do – but for the wrong reasons.”

A suburb of Damascus, Daraya had a population of around 250,000. But, for a city just outside the country’s capital, for its citizens it felt intimate, personal and friendly. “Everyone knew each other, like you’d expect everyone to know each other in a small village,” explains Osaid. “My father knew every family in Daraya. There was never a time that I can remember that we wouldn’t stop and talk to at least one person when walking through the city. It was a sociable place. It was my home.”

Osaid goes on to describe the villa that his family owned and the memories he has of it. Each Friday, more than ten families would join him, his parents and his nine siblings. The adults would share their stories of the week, while the children would jump in and out of the pool, over and over again until tiredness finally kicked in. “I had heard stories from my father and uncles about the trouble there before I was born. My family had struggled in the past, but my time here was wonderful.” Osaid pauses. “A few years later it wasn’t as beautiful as that.”

An oasis of hope: Syria’s secret library

Daraya was at the centre of the Syrian revolution when it began in 2011. Peaceful protests calling for reforms, freedom of speech and basic human rights, would spiral into mass killings by government forces who felt their regime was threatened, intent on oppressing basic rights, like to education, for fear it would provide civilians with unyielding power. The once village-like town was now a place of violence and fear.

But there was still one place where people could go to feel safe and experience a semblance of normality: a secret library, buried deep beneath the skeleton of a bomb-damaged building. Daraya’s students, determined to continue their education and a small victory over the regime, scoured burning buildings, dodged cascades of bullets and risked life and limb to find books buried among the rubble of destroyed houses. They gathered these books and created an oasis in the form of a library – a place where people could escape reality in fiction, or search for vital information to save lives.

Osaid left Daraya before the library was created, but his brother stayed behind to support his friends, the city and the revolution, working as a journalist and then as a nurse and paramedic. Osaid’s brother sadly lost his life, but it was his friends that would go on to create the library. When Osaid speaks about his brother and the library, you can hear the pride and the passion in his voice, that his family and friends were part of a movement that brought a glimmer of comfort to so many. “They created this library to try and bring some hope to the people of Daraya. The residents wanted to have a place where they can rest, read and learn.”

The library became an integral part of people’s everyday lives, in many different ways. When people needed to explain something to the fighters, they used books from the library. When families wanted to teach their children in lieu of school, they used books from the library. And when ordinary citizens needed medical information to treat the injured, they used books from the library. “It helped everyone there, it was an amazing idea, but unfortunately, it’s gone now.”

Life in (and out) of Leicester

Osaid now lives in Gloucester with his parents and brother. When I asked him why he chose the University of Leicester, he gave me an honest answer – simply because it was the only university that would accept him. No other university would take into account the studying he had already done at the Philadelphia University in Jordan, and transfer him straight into his second year of the course. But it wasn’t as simple as joining, he had to meet the English language requirement too. “At the time, I didn’t have an English language qualification that would be accepted by the University. But by luck, a local resident in Gloucester told me about the free English courses at the University, and so she helped me to email the University and that’s when I first met Pascale Roussel, who works in the Sanctuary Seekers’ Unit.”

The University of Leicester started offering Sanctuary scholarships in 2017, and was awarded University of Sanctuary status in 2018, meaning it strives to be a place that’s understanding towards the needs of refugees and asylum seekers, is welcoming to them and provides opportunities for them through a range of initiatives. This includes free language lessons and scholarships, and a study support package. The staff who work with refugees and asylum seekers, like Pascale, are hugely passionate about making sure that they know they are welcome, are safe and that they are valued. “Osaid started studying on the Presessional English Programme remotely in March 2020, before coming to Leicester to start his academic programme in September 2020,” says Pascale. “Becoming part of a shared accommodation dominated by first year British students was a culture shock for sure!” Osaid laughs and, understandably, agrees. “I had no in-person meetings with my tutor because of the restrictions, but Pascale did arrange for me to meet some other Sanctuary students, they made me feel comfortable and welcome.”

Adjusting to a new life in a new city is difficult for anyone, but adjusting to life in a new country having escaped the one you called home is incomprehensible. The culture differs. The style of teaching differs. And, for Osaid, there is always a worry that he won’t be accepted because he is from Syria. “Most of the time, I try to avoid telling people where I’m from, because people might feel differently about me.” When I asked why he thinks that, Osaid was very clear. “Because the media portrays us badly.”

This week is Breaking Barriers Refugee Week

Monday 1 to Friday 5 March is the University’s Refugee Week. It’s a week for activities and events that raise awareness of the lives of refugees, like Osaid, and educate staff, students and the public on what we can do to help. As citizens of the University, we can help refugees and asylum seekers by being kind, patient and supportive. If someone is struggling, lend a hand. If someone reaches out, be there to support them. We can also help by learning more through the events taking place this week, including through a talk by BBC International Affairs Correspondent and author, Mike Thomson, who investigated and wrote the story on Syria’s Secret Library in 2017. There is also an event called ‘Students Supporting Refugees and Creating a Culture of Welcome’ by Hannah Carbery, the former Vice-President of Nottingham STAR (Student action for refugees) and Maryam Taher, from the University of Sanctuary.

This is the third year that Pascale has organised the week, and for her it’s important that it’s a success for a personal reason. "I learn a lot from our sanctuary students and stories like Osaid's really touch my heart. When you get to know and care about someone and hear they've been through such hardships, it's truly heart-breaking.” Pascale takes a moment to pause. “But seeing them doing everything they can to achieve their dreams despite all their struggles is so inspiring.”

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