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This academic year, some 18 refugees will begin studying at VUB, as part of the Welcome Student-refugees Programme. Another 70 of them are awaiting admission, provided they pass some final tests. Yazan Rajab, of Syrian origin, has already secured his place. Here is his story.
Text: Bartosz Brzezinski
As the youngest of three brothers, Yazan Rajab says he has always looked up to his family. “I come from an educated household. My dad is an engineer, my mother a dentist. Growing up, I would always hear how important it is that I study hard and get good grades. As a kid, I surely complained a lot, but I listened.”
He attended high school, hang out with friends and found particular joy in family picnics. Despite political constraints, he says, Aleppo was a city with a lively atmosphere. “We knew that there were limits to what we could do, but we managed to get around.”
In 2011, as the last year of high school was drawing to a close, Yazan became determined to get the best grades before heading off to Aleppo University. “My dad would say, ‘Your pen and paper are your way in this life.’ It was a mantra he repeated every day.”
Elsewhere in the region, the Arab Spring had started. As the revolutionary wave swept through Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, toppling dictators and bringing together people of all social classes and ethnic backgrounds, Yazan’s family watched the daily news reports with great anticipation.
In March, 2011, 15 children were arrested in the southern city of Daraa for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school. “They wrote the word freedom,” Yazan says. “And for that, the security forces took them to a police station, where they were tortured. You know, their fingernails were pulled out, one by one.”
As outraged crowds took to the streets, Syria became part of the Arab Spring. “What the security forces did to those children,” Yazan says, “that was the spark that ignited the revolution in my country.”
The 18-year-old student yearned to go out and be part of the protests. “Be in the streets, shout and express my frustration,” Yazan says. “But I knew I couldn’t risk failing my exams, because it would mean losing an entire year. I felt awful.”
Instead, he spent some 20 hours a day studying, like a machine, he says. As the exams loomed closer, he found it difficult to focus because of the escalating situation in the country. Soon the protests turned into violence, and the revolution, which Yazan so eagerly wanted to be a part of, came knocking at his door. One early morning, as he was waking up from a long night of studying, a car-bomb exploded just outside his house.
Although he had made it out unharmed, shortly after the explosion, he lost the ability to move his body from neck to toe. Doctors said he would recover within days, but after months of physical therapy, he still found it difficult to move his fingers, let alone hold a pen.
At the start of the university year, he asked his dad to tape a pen to his hand. “I wanted to prove to everyone at the university that I was still here, capable of doing things,” he says. “When I arrived at the university, it was actually kind of funny. People were staring at me, thinking ‘what is he doing with that scotched hand?’”
The first year went by quickly, and he passed all of his courses. In the second year, the situation in the country took turn for the worse, with hundreds of people dying every day. As the casualties increased, deaths turned into numbers. “At the beginning, every bombing felt like a tragedy,” Yazan says. “But over time you got used to it because you couldn’t handle the loss of all those innocent people. Every morning, at breakfast, we would ask each other, ‘What’s the number?’, and someone would say ’51’.”
Halfway through his second year, his older brother, who was about to graduate from the university, was asked by the security services to spy on his fellow students and give away names of people who were part of the protest movement. “To say yes, means you are for the regime. To say no, means you’re for the revolution,” Yazan says. “My brother asked for a month to think about it, because he still needed to finish his exams. He was buying his time to figure out how to escape from the situation.”
In March of 2012, as the security services stormed the dorms at Aleppo University, arresting and killing scores of students for keeping anti-regime flags and banners in their rooms, Yazan was recorded by a circuit camera speaking to some UN observers who were visiting the campus. Fearing that he also would be targeted by the security, he met with his brother and both decided to flee.
Most of Syria had by then become a dangerous place to live. In 2013, his older brother managed to cross the border with Turkey. Yazan followed him a few months later. His mother made an attempt to join them, but, as a Palestinian national, she could not legally cross the Syrian-Turkish border. “She tried twice to come to us,” Yazan says. Later that year, she passed away following a short battle with cancer.
Yazan’s oldest brother, who had remained in the country working as a telecom engineer, joined his brothers in Turkey in 2014. While the middle brother eventually found work at a currency exchange, Yazan and his oldest brother knew there was no future for them in Turkey and left Istanbul for Greece with a help of a smuggler, who promised that he would get them to Belgium within three or four days.
“Those four days turned into four months,” Yazan says. “When we got to Athens, the smuggler took the money, changed his number and we never heard from him again.”
After numerous attempts to leave Greece with fake passports, the brothers decided to sail across the Adriatic Sea to Italy and continue north from there. This time, another smuggler, who asked for eight thousand euro, also promised a swift journey. “Instead of leaving the next day, we spent eight days hiding in the forest in the rain,” Yazan says. “But there was nothing else we could do.”
When the time was right, Yazan continues, they were squeezed with some 60 other people on a boat no larger than eight by two meters. “We asked for life jackets, but the smuggler wanted another four thousand euro for each. Obviously, we could not afford that.”
For ten hours, they travelled on what Yazid describes as “the scariest trip in my life. Jumping from one wave to another at 80 miles per hour, people flying up and down, everyone freezing in the gushing wind. I saw a man land on the edge of boat and break his back. For the rest of the journey, when I couldn’t hear the sound of the engine, I could only hear his wailing.”
When the boat landed on shore, the group was immediately arrested and taken to a police station, where they were forced to strip off all their clothes and wash themselves with a disinfectant. Early next morning, as the police woke them up, they were naked, cold and terrified at the thought of what could happen next.
The officers beat us repeatedly. They made us wear women’s clothes and demanded our fingerprints. But Yazan and others knew they couldn’t relent. Under the EU law known as the Dublin Regulation, if they were registered in Italy, they would not be able to apply for asylum anywhere else. They tried to persuade the police officers to let them go but, after nine days without proper food and fearing that they would be separated from each other, they finally gave in. “I could not believe my eyes when I saw the police officers applaud and congratulate each other, as if they had won some great battle, as if our ordeal had made them happy.”
With the fingerprints collected, the officers simply let everyone go. In November 2014, following a long and laborious journey, Yazan and his brother finally arrived in Belgium.
Since then, Yazan has joined a social-services organisation Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen and has begun visiting schools to share his story and expose students to the realities of refugee life. When a small publisher approached him to write a book about his life, he quickly agreed. “I felt it was important to change the negative opinion about refugees,” he says.
The title Nooit meer bang zijn refers to a promise he had made to himself along the journey. The front cover is dominated by his portrait. “It’s a photo of me, but it could very well be a photo of you one day,” he says. “That’s why you should never judge and generalise. Treat every person individually, for their faults and merits. I know, because on my journey, I have met both good and bad people.”
By December, the brothers were finally granted asylum in Belgium. His brother found a job as an engineer at Proximus and Yazan began looking for a way to resume his studies. Some friends at the organisation where he was volunteering mentioned VUB.
In September, he will join the university to pursue a degree in social sciences. “When I graduate, I will do what I can to help every person I meet, whether they’re from Syria or any other country. I may not be able to help them all but it would be great if I could bring a smile to someone’s face or feed a hungry stomach.”
Coming from an IT background, social sciences is not something he had ever considered studying before. “But after this long journey,” he says, “I know that I will never give up that dream. Because as long as we’re willing to fight for oil and as long as there are weapon factories, we will continue to have more wars and suffering. And wars bring refugees who will need our help.”
Asked if he will be as diligent at studying as he was in Syria, he smiles. “Of course I’ll do my best; there is a lot I have to prove. But I was insane back then, studying 20 hours a day. I will never put myself through something like that again.”
He remains in touch with the some of the refugees he had encountered along the road. One of them was recently granted asylum in Germany, another lives in Sweden. Most of his extended family has since left Syria, but Yazan says he will never forget those who had stayed behind. “The people who are still suffering and dying, I don’t know how to help them, but I will find a way.”
He thinks a lot about home. “I miss the streets and I miss going to restaurants and cafes on the weekends. I miss having picnics with my family and friends. But I know that if I were to return, I would never find the same Syria again.”
Looking back at the perilous journey, he finds it difficult to move on. “Now I have a future ahead of me and I should be thankful,” he says. “But I can’t be thankful for the fear that I had to endure and I can’t be thankful for the smugglers who exploited us and risked our lives. I can’t be thankful for the politicians in my country who did not have the will to stop the war and prevent the destruction of millions of lives.”
But in a strange way, he says, he is grateful for the experience. “Because while I might have been afraid and have lost so much, I have also learned how important it is to never give up hope.”
And since arriving in Belgium, he has also met the love of his life. “But I don’t want to go into details,” he smiles. “Not just yet.”
Read our other student-refugee stories:
“Bon voyage, Antoine”
het verhaal van Antoine Bakhash
“The first enemy of any dictatorship is knowledge”
The story of Basel Addoum
“Eindelijk kan ik met mijn toekomst beginnen”
Na vier jaar wachten start Sulafa Abdulghani met haar studies farmacie
Modar Saad’s story