My name is Ahmad, I am from Syria, from the suburbs of Damascus. I am 32 years old. I studied French literature and I worked in this field for quite a long time as a translator in a French company based in Syria at that time. I am single and I live with my mother. When I went to Egypt, I was with my father and mother, for safety purposes of course I couldn’t stay in Syria anymore, especially in my town, which is now in ruins. Moreover, the idea of living in Syria, either in the hands of the Syrian regime or those of the opposition, means that I would have to adopt ideas that I don’t share. This forces you to completely change the way you live because of your opinions and that is why I chose to leave Syria, and also because I had my father and mother with me. I lost my father a couple of months ago. At the moment, I live with my mother in Cairo. I have been in Egypt for 4 years now.
You say that you don’t consider yourself as a refugee, why ?
Actually, this might be a change from the general vision that people have of refugees but refugees…who are they? These are people who have suffered from an occupation and this is not my case – we have started a revolution against a regime, knowing that the regime is a republican one, so it is relatively easy to shake it up to get another regime in comparison with shaking up the head of a regime, because Syria is not a monarchy. And I, I have left the country with particular conditions, I am not a refugee. Refugees are the ones who can’t afford to have a roof over their heads, who live in tents, are waiting for food aid and so on …these are not my conditions. When I arrived, I wasn’t feeling comfortable because I had to look for a job but now I work and I am earning, I pay for my own life. Life is not rosy but I consider myself as a citizen more than a refugee.
And the rest of your family ?
I have lost a brother in Syria, because of the bombings. He was calling someone in the street and a bombing started, some shrapnel hit his head and he died a few moments later. (As is often the case, the Syrian regime would cut the cellphone network and at any given moment, they would re-establish power in a small part of the city when everyone would suddenly gather to make phone calls and after a little while, bombing would start).
I have a sister left in Syria, she lives in Damascus with her family. I talk to her from time to time but she considers the fact that I have left the country as the wrong thing to have done. I respect her point of view, because in the end we are the “owners of the land”. It’s true that I have left, I have left my property…but I haven’t had much choice. I have a brother who went to Sweden like others have. I have a brother and a sister here. They live in their own apartment, each of them are working to pay their way.
And your brother in Sweden, what does he do ?
He is working there. It’s been six or seven months now. He came to Egypt first and then he made his way to Europe. When he arrived here, he started to work, making Syrian bread, that’s his job, like many others who have restarted the activities they did in their country. And now, he is doing the same in a Lebanese restaurant in Sweden.
Do you hope to return to Syria, if you have the opportunity to do so?
I would never miss the chance to do so. I would rather live there with even worse conditions. What has pushed me to come here at the beginning was my parents. That being said, I also don’t want to carry weapons against my fellow citizens, my brothers. This is one of the main reasons that have led me here. I don’t want to kill. I don’t want to kill people.
And when you have decided to leave, did you talk about it with people around you? People knew you were leaving ?
Usually, I don’t talk much about myself but yes, I spoke to some people about it, especially a friend of mine, who used to pretend to be a more of a practicing person in terms of faith. He tried to go back to a place with the extremist opposition – which is not the Islamic opposition, people have to make the distinction between those two – he tried to move back to live there, but he told me life was unbearable, even for a very practising person.
And what is going on today in Damascus ?
Actually, we cannot blame the people who live in Damascus, because in the end, everyone is following their own interests. The people who live in Damascus – I’m not going to give a percentage because it’s going to be wrong – but most of people there want to live and refuse the fate that other cities have faced. They don’t want to destroy Damascus, because it is the oldest city in the world. We could divide this percentage in two types of persons: the ones who are taking advantage of the war in a way or another, with the will to live and to have a good life, and the others, who do not know how to say no to the regime because they are aware of the direct consequences of such a statement.
And you, you were taking part in the revolution, weren’t you?
Yes, I carry the idea of the revolution in my head.
But what have you done during the revolution ?
A revolution begins with a revolution in the habits, the behaviours, internal changings; it is not a political revolution. I used to gather with the youth, people from 14, 15, 16 or older persons and the people who didn’t have the chance to continue their studies in Syria. Each time, we started to talk about the revolution; I would share my ideas on the matter. I have clearly seen that it was about a change in the people before being a political change. My task was not to be a revolutionary or a rebel, but it was more the work of sociology, would I say.
Have you been to protests? How did these go?
Yes, well, at the beginning I hesitated because there is a problem in our country -we cannot trust people who are next to us in the protests because they would take note of our names and send it to the intelligence services. That’s the mentality over here. We pretend to have taken down the wall of fear, but I don’t think it is actually the case because the fear has always existed and still exists to this day. So, at the beginning, it was a question of fear, fear to go out, after that I started to go out, wearing a mask and trying not to show my face. I started walking with the people who chanted slogans, songs, we used to walk to gather and say no. The president first understood our claims, because those were legitimate. But after that, I saw a brutal transformation in the reaction of the government, which started to shoot at protesters and kill them. One time, I went out, it was during the month of Ramadan, after Iftar. I was going to the great mosque of my city, and there, at the end of the street, stood the protest and on the other end of the street, the armed forces. It was calm, the calm before the storm, a threatening calm. There were a few protesters who asked to get closer to another protest, but they were really far away, maybe 800 meters. We started to walk one step forward, two steps backward. Some people had chosen to stay behind and suddenly, a bus came out of nowhere and someone started to shoot like crazy. The government pretends that there are terrorists among the protesters. I never saw anyone carrying any weapon, not even a wood stick or a ruler to threaten the government. It was a peaceful revolution, but of course, I am talking about the first 6 or 7 months of the revolution. I couldn’t even believe my people were able to show such pacifism at that time.
And today, what is the scariest threat for Syrian people? Al-Assad Regime or Daesh ?
Concerning Daesh, it is not very clear, there are only video tapes shared on social media and reports published by the intelligence services. It is not clear at all. What is clear is that there is a country that has started a revolution against the regime and it is doing anything it can to keep its power. Daesh is often mistaken with the rebel forces, but they are not the same. One proof is that when the bombings stopped with the ceasefire that begun a couple of days ago, we saw that people went outside again to keep on protesting, asking for the same things as in the beginning of the revolution, and we didn’t see Daesh anywhere. They are really much more of a mediatic thing. I am absolutely not denying their existence, but I don’t think they have a role in the revolution, their role is just political. These are not Syrians, most of them speak English as their mother tongue. Why are they always hiding their faces? We should ask ourselves this question. One time, I watched a video on YouTube of an Egyptian guy who was beating two people because they had harassed some girls in Syria. I considered that these are not Syrians who had fled for the revolution, for legitimate reasons. It is the best for these kind of people, who went to settle their little “caliphate” in our country, there are other places to do that. This is not our business. We went out in the streets to make a total reform of the Syrian regime, not to establish a “caliphate” or any other thing like this.
So you explain that today, most of the big international powers, mostly western ones, have focused on the extermination of Daesh as the key to solve the Syrian conflict ?
I don’t deny the role of these big states who have let the situation get worse and worse to this point. They have tried to empower, to sustain the existence of Daesh, and to tell us: you have one choice and two options: the Syrian regime as it is today, or Daesh. The global media talk about Daesh and Al-Assad but they forget the suffering of the people, forget about the people who are against Daesh, even in several opposition parties. But this is not the case. In the end, we only find kids who are dying… it’s really rare to find terrorists as the victims of the bombings. The innocents are dying.
And what about Russia?
It’s a military intervention, an occupation. I don’t know, I haven’t read all of the world’s history but calling upon a foreign force to “save” the country, this is not help, this is an occupation. Because in the end, who is going to pay for it? The people of Syria, not the current President, it is not a kingdom. The current president, was saying unfortunately that the opposition was calling for external help to shake up the government. But in the end they fell into the same trap. That being said, a soldier who came to defend his own interest, whether called by the government or the opposition, he is an invader, it is an occupation.
But don’t you think that today Syrian has become the battlefield of the global powers` game ?
No one will tell you the contrary. If I can blame someone, it is really the regime. He had all the power in hand to handle this political game and could have changed our fate for something better for us, the people and for himself as well. At the beginning, to be honest, I didn’t think the president could take all powers to become a totalitarian person. I thought he could put a new constitution in place, a reform of the regime and the country. It would be ridiculous to say that we used to live in paradise. But in comparison with today, it’s like living in hell. I wouldn’t say the contrary. In our paradise, where we used to live, we could have had escaped the war in developing our trade, our wellbeing with a better education and health system. If this hasn’t benn implemented, if the war started, the regime is to blame. Now we are in the 5th year of the revolution. The government doesn’t want to stop the war. I am not talking from the point of view of an opponent or a pro-regime person, but just as a simple citizen. If you don’t keep your promises, if you can’t manage your own country, you have to leave, you have to quit. There are many really well educated people in Syria who could lead the country to rebuild itself. We won’t forget the people who have left the regime because they didn’t accept what was going on and have expressed their disagreement.
Why did you come to Egypt? Why didn’t you go to Europe like your brother and a lot of your fellow citizens? As a francophone, you could have gone to Belgium, France or Switzerland.
As I said in the beginning, I was close to my parents. Coming here was the choice I made to make them feel comfortable. I had two options, Turkey or Egypt, but I chose Cairo so that my parents could stay in an Arabic-speaking environment so that they could meet people and integrate without too much pain.
Honestly, it didn’t work for my father. When he arrived, he started shutting himself off and would watch TV all day long to watch the news, to watch our country falling apart. Each evening he would tell me “what are we doing? We are destroying our country!” In the end, he became very ill and I think it was because of this. I tried to get him out but it didn’t change things much.
And how do you see your future here?
I have no answer because I suffer a lot. Life is not calm here. The fact that the country has forbidden Syrians to come in Egypt and close the border is a legitimate decision of the country, I have nothing to say against that. But in my head, I have this idea that we could be asked to leave the country at any moment. I don’t know my future and staying in this uncertain state of mind is making me feel very uncomfortable.
You mean that you don’t feel safe here ?
Yes, there is not enough safety. I am talking from a personal point of view.
And from what do you suffer the most?
But not as much as in Syria?
The fact that I am not accepting the status of refugee put me in a situation of choice. The refugee has no choice and he is here because he is a refugee but this is not my case, I have to find a solution for my future. I am doing this but really slowly.
You don’t want to move away from here ? Try something else elsewhere?
I don’t want to take risks. You asked me if I would rather leave, but I would rather begin everything with a job than to start everything with the status of refugee, which will cause me problems in the end. At least I can start things as a normal person and with a job that can enable me to move afterwards.
Why is it so bad to be a refugee?
It is hard to explain. To be a refugee… you can ask a Palestinian, a Yemenite or a Syrian who has accepted this status. When I was in my country, I was so proud to be Syrian. I don’t want to change my citizen status. I don’t want to lose my citizenship.
For you, being seen as refugee, is reinforcing the feeling of being stateless?
You cannot or you don’t want to mourn and forget your country? That would prevent you from being a Syrian…
It would, it would…
But you don’t have a country anymore, in the end ?
I am far from my country, yes, but I have the choice to die here or in Syria and be buried there. I am suffering for my father, because he is buried here.