The war in Syria has been going on for more than two years, resulting in the worst humanitarian crisis in the last two decades, according to UN. While the media can’t seem to agree on a correct term for this conflict, and while many AAU students only imagine numbers and statistics when they hear about it, one AAU student sees something completely different: home. This young Syrian, who studied law for 3 years in Damascus, moved to Prague in search for a better life.
After much reluctance and persuading, he finally agreed to share his story. Chatting at McCafe in Mala Strana over a latte, the friendly and funny IR student speaks enthusiastically about his love for his country. Later, his thoughts trail off to the challenges of his new life in Prague, including a partial refugee scholarship from AAU.
Now that he lives in Central Europe, he says he realizes he never fully appreciated his life in the Middle East. “I think about Syria all the time,” he says. Although he realizes that it is being destroyed, in his mind, he always sees his home as he remembers it.
Winding streets and ancient mosques of Damascus; the Qassyoun mountain from which this eternal city stands before the eyes. Standing there overlooking the city, the student says, one suddenly understands why prophet Muhammad left without entering it. The prophet said a man can only enter one paradise and he preferred the one above.
Many people in Prague quickly scan through the news over a cup of morning coffee but this student holds his breath every time there is a new report about another blast in Damascus. He then quickly goes on Viber and calls his family to find out if they are OK.
When he’s lucky and the electricity is not cut off, as is typical for this war-torn city, his mother picks up. She often jokes to ease up the situation and to make sure he doesn’t worry too much. “When I ask her how she is and what the situation is, she says, ‘you know, bombs, rockets, same old, same old’,” he says.
As the capital hadn’t yet seen as much damage as other cities, the 22-year-old Damascene decided to finally leave his homeland only 6 months ago. What he had to leave behind were not only his family, friends, his house and his country, but also his way of life and the image he held of himself.
Back home, prior to the war, he saw himself as an educated young man from an upper-middle class family. Here in Prague, he had to start from scratch. When the Syrian economy collapsed and its currency lost value, it didn’t help, either. He illustrates the situation saying, “My brother’s salary before the crisis was approximately 75 000 Czech crowns and now it’s about 22 000 crowns.”
His difficult financial situation was the reason why he applied for a refugee scholarship at AAU, as the university is known for offering a range of scholarships to help its students. After a long application procedure, a letter was sent to him saying he was given a refugee scholarship, which would cover 50% of his tuition.
Yet, according to the AAU Handbook, a refugee scholarship is supposed to cover the tuition in full. Katarina Svitkova, vice provost for student affairs, clarified the situation in an email, saying “The student we are talking about does not have an official refugee status and AAU awarded the Scholarship to another applicant, who has the status. As we understand the difficult situation the student is facing back home, we offered him a special scholarship of 50% to help him with the costs of studies and living here.”
However, during an application procedure, the student was told that an official refugee status “would make the application stronger” but not that it is a requirement. He was also told by an AAU staff member that he would be the first ever applicant for a refugee scholarship.
When asked why he hadn’t applied for a refugee status before, the student says he simply wasn’t ready. “I didn’t want to apply for a refugee visa because I felt like I wanted to see Damascus one more time,” he says.
One of the requirements to maintain a refugee status in the Czech Republic is to remain outside of the country of origin until receiving permanent residence, which takes 5 years. Additionally, it is impossible to leave Czech Republic until the decision is made regarding the official refugee status.
The student remains grateful for the 50% tuition waiver he received, although his financial situation has him in constant stress. The only way for him to continue his studies at AAU is by receiving an additional merit-based scholarship. “I can only afford to pay for one year here,” he says.
If he doesn’t receive a merit-based scholarship, he is planning to interrupt his studies. Along with the pressure of university studies comes the pressure of working 2 jobs in order to support himself financially.
However, despite the struggle, he refuses to complain about his situation. “I don’t think I deserve to complain,” he says. “There are people in my country far worse off than me. I’m quite lucky, actually. My story is nothing compared to theirs. Sometimes I feel like I’m being a drama queen. I have nothing to complain about.”
Many other Syrians are indeed worse off, with an estimated 2 million refugees now outside of the country and 6.5 million internally displaced, which makes up almost half of the country’s total population before the war. The estimated cost of rebuilding Syria so
far is reportedly between 20 to 70 billion dollars, according to the Arabic international news channel Al Arabiya.
The conflict started in March 2011, when people decided to finally protest against Bashar Al Assad’s severe dictatorship. It hit the point they said “enough”, after a group of 9 to 15 year old children were arrested and tortured as a result of their spraying the wall with “The people want to topple the regime” as a joke. Some children were tortured to death. The spraying later became a slogan of the revolution.
Outraged by the horrible incident and inspired by the “Arab Spring” in neighboring countries, Syrians finally took to the streets. The demonstrations continued to be peaceful for a year but were met with gunfire, torture and other atrocities of pro-Assad forces. The forces didn’t hesitate to even use tanks and airplanes against the masses.
Today, the war is raging, with many different opposition groups unable to organize and unite. Cities are divided into parts that are government-controlled and those controlled by the rebels. Rebel-controlled parts lack medical care and electricity is permanently cut off.
Millions of people flee the country leaving everything behind, and some of them get to as far as Europe. “It was extremely difficult for me to get here,” says the student. His personal connections were the only reason why he was interviewed for a visa. “It definitely looked like they were not very willing to let Syrians into the EU,” he says. As for the future, he still hopes to return home, despite admitting that chances are very slim.