[i] Day [name]. I would like to hear your story. Who you are, from where you come… So all your story. Can you introduce yourself? Who are you?

[r] I am [name], I am from Syria, Aleppo. And, I’m 25 years old now. And next week I will be 26 years old. I am from Syria. And, yes… And… My parents are here, my family is all here. They have been here for a year and a half. I went to school in Syria until my second year of secondary school. And I worked as a pharmacy assistant for five years. I was educated. And that was all fun. I would like to stay here and continue my studies. For a pharmacy assistant, but it takes a long time. Five or six years. I’ve already asked, but it takes a long time. That’s why, I said, no, I’m going to do something else. You come from Syria… Yes, I’m from Syria… Where in Syria are you from? Aleppo city. That’s… Aleppo city… If you ask Syrian people what they know about Aleppo. It is known that in Aleppo more bussines are done than Damascus. Damascus is the capital of Syria. But, Allepo… many people know about Allepo that they are very much… They do much more about bussines than other cities in Syria. And it is bigger. It is a big city.

[i] Can you tell about your youth? As a child… How was life in Syria as a child?

[r] That was very beautiful. When I was four or five years old, I always stayed with my grandmother and grandfather. They always wanted that. They said: ‘Come and sit and sleep with us.’ Throughout my life… I’ve been with my grandmother and grandfather more than with my parents. That was from five years to seven years. Because the first year started around seven years ago. But I used to be with them all the time. I could always do what I wanted with them. When I asked my grandfather: ‘I want to do this, I want that sandwich’ ‘I want that…’ He does everything for me. If he wants to go to a restaurant, he will bring me along. Then I go with him. If they want to go to, for example…like Bobbejaanland here or something like that, then I would always go with them. That was very nice when I was little.

[i] Were you an only child, or were there other children?

[r] My sister, my sister is bigger than me, 2 years older. We have two more sisters. But one sister died a month after she was born. I have my sister, but she always stayed home. My grandmother and grandfather always asked me to come. Because my sister didn’t want me to. She always wanted to stay at home. That’s why they always said, come to us. I am the first son on the side of my mother. I have two aunts, but they have no sons. They always have girls. I am the first son in the family.

[i] First son…

[r] They love me very much, so I always went to them.

[i] Yes…

[i] How was life in Syria as a child?

[i] Going to school? How was that?

[r] I started my first year. That was difficult, but I always got positive results. Always successful. Then I was allowed to go to the second, third and fourth grade. And then the first high school… That was almost good. But I had a bit too little for mathematics. And physics too… A little too little. But for the rest that was all good. Yes… And, I’ve seen a friend of my father’s. He has a pharmacist. My father asked him: ‘Can he come?’ ‘Just look and get an education with you?’ He’d say, “Yes, no problem at all. I kept working with him for five years. It was like a summer school, like a student job. Yes… I worked there for five years, every summer. And also on Wednesdays, when he has a job, or when I’m free after school. Yes, then I went to him. But I learned a lot. I would also like to continue studying here, but that is difficult. Because I am married now and have a son. If I have to study for a long time, it’s also a bit difficult here. That’s why I did another job.

[i] So you have from… What age did you start as a pharmacy assistant?

[r] I think I was twelve years old. Yes, twelve years.

[i] Until, how old?

[r] To 18 years or thirteen years, to 18 years. And then I stopped there and then I came here.

[i] Can you explain, How is Syria? What does Syria look like?

[r] Syria? Syria is a very beautiful country. In Syria, every week we did… on Monday… My father had his leave day. Because my father… He is a hairdresser, and every Monday he has his leave day. Then we went to different places in Syria. In Allepo. Yes, because Allepo is very big. We didn’t just go everywhere. But to places where my father buys material for the shop. Where he… We went shopping. We did a lot of things, that was very nice. Yes… Sometimes it wouldn’t open on Sunday or Monday. Then we went to another city by the sea. Then we stayed there for two days, sometimes three days. That depends on what it was like… But Syria is a very beautiful country. Sometimes we did… Sometimes we went with my parents and uncles and aunts. We went to another city together. To Damascus. To Homs. To Hamaa. Each city has something that makes it special. For example Hamaa, there they make ‘Halawaat al jabl’. I don’t know what the meaning is in Dutch. But that’s something very, very good. Yes, we also went to another city. To Idlib. We ate some kind of dessert there too. That was very tasty… What they make there.

[i] What kind of dessert?

[r] I don’t know that in Dutch either. But that’s called ‘shabiyaats’.

[i] And in Arabic?

[r] Shabiyaats arrieha. If you look that up on the internet ‘shabiyaat arieha’ you’ll find it. If you taste that, you’ll really like it. Every time we went to different cities. It’s a very beautiful country. But it’s a pity, a pity what happened now. There’s nothing we can do about it. But I hope it will be the same as it was then. I hope so…

And Allepo himself? How is Allepo? Can you… Where did you live, in a house? Apartment? How was the street where you lived?

Yes, our street was good. That was a bit of a busy street. Because the city, Salaheddine, was very busy. Not a bit, that was very busy. And… There you do what you want. Nobody says, you can’t do this, you have to do that… If you want to work… For example, a lot of people work on the streets. That’s no problem at all. Nobody tells you not to, like here. No one is allowed to act like that here. On the street with a small cart. Where he puts a few things on. No, that’s not possible here. But it is allowed there. Those people try to live like this. Some people are not rich, but they can live that way. They do what they want… It doesn’t matter. And… Yes, I lived in Salaheddine. We had an apartment there. There are three brothers and two sisters. And my parents… They had it before we were born a very good life. My sister is the first. Then I am the second. The third one was my brother. But with him the birth was at home. Not in the hospital. Because then we had it a little less. She gave birth at home. In our apartment. And… He had a virus. He had hepatitis B and C. He had gotten it. And… The first hour, said the doctor to my mother, your son died. After an hour, he started crying again. Then they have established that he was still alive. After that it started to be difficult. My father took him to the hospital. My brother spent more time in the hospital than at home. That was very difficult. My father is a hairdresser, he did every time… Sometimes he didn’t open anymore. Then he went to the hospital. Sometimes he did open the door. He didn’t work well and then, every time, he sold something from our apartment. A couch, a carpet… He sold almost everything. To be able to pay the hospital costs. He stayed for one year with the same problem. And then, my uncle, he had been living here for 20 years. He had lived here much earlier. In 2000 that was… My father called my uncle. He said, something like this happened to my son. And every time I pay, but he doesn’t get better. He gets antibiotics, he gets injections, but it doesn’t help him. It always makes him worse. And very skinny. When you see him, you only see his bones. Without anything. And my uncle has put the documents in order for him. And my uncle is married to a Belgian woman. They put that in order together. And they came to Syria. They brought my brother here. He stayed here for four years. He received all the documents, no all the medication. And then things started to get better. And then the doctor said, there is nothing more we can do for him. He said, that doctor, to my uncle, when he gets bigger… Then the first virus, B, will be gone. But virus C is going to stay. He said, when he grows up… Can that virus kill him or can make him stronger? And will he overcome that virus. And… Then he has returned to Syria. The first year was very difficult because he didn’t speak Arabic. If he wanted something or we wanted something, we couldn’t understand him. He repeated the first year twice. To get some exercises. That was very difficult. Yes, that’s why… That’s why it was a bit hard for my parents. Then came my second sister. She was fine. By the third, everything was fine. And then we grew bigger and bigger, and my father just had a small shop. That was hard to live on. We always say “Al Hamdoulilaah” for everything. But, when I was 17 years old… When I was 17 years old, my father asked me to go to my uncle. I said, yes, no problem at all. He said, you can work there and achieve more than here. You can do anything you want there. I said, no problem at all. I would come here… And… I came here with a visa. My father’s friend is a big businessman there. He went to the Italian embassy. He said, this boy works for me and I want to send him to Italy. To get an education. I got a visa. I went from Allepo to Damascus. And then from Damascus to Rome. And then from Rome to Napoli. My uncle had a girl who worked for him, that girl had a sister in Napoli. That’s why I went to Napoli. I stayed there with her for one day. That was very nice. I saw Italy. That was very nice. Her father was there too.

[i] Syrian people too?

[r] No, they were Moroccan people.

[i] Moroccan people?

[r] All her friends came and we all ate together. It was quiet, talking and chatting and that was very nice there. The second day we woke up, we ate breakfast… and then we left. She has bought a ticket to come here. Because I had a visa, I could go all over Europe. I came here… To my uncle. I have three uncles here, who were already here.

[r] They are all alone, only one is married here. And he has three children. I’ve always stayed with him the first month. He has a large apartment. House, not an apartment, but a house in Sint-Niklaas. That was very nice with him. After that my visa had expired, and I applied for insurance. I lived in an asylum centre for nine months. That was hard sometimes. Sometimes well. Why? Because I left Syria… I always loved Syrian food. From the Syrian kitchen. And here it is the Belgian cuisine. Every time I ate something here, I said, ah I don’t like it, I don’t like it. Yes, that was nine months. Sometimes my uncle came to me, to the centre, and he brought something with him. Then I said, yes today is my best day. When they came… And, that was good. Better than nothing. And after nine months, then my uncle said, that it was enough there. You have an orange card, a work permit. You can start working. He had found me a studio. Big enough for me. I then went to that studio. The first day I cleaned everything, polished everything. The second day I started working in second hand clothes. I worked in a large warehouse. And… I worked there for two years. I always went with a friend. He had a car… The warehouse is in Zelzate. That’s far from Antwerp. I used to go back and forth with him. That was the case in the first year. That was difficult, because I was always alone at home. Normally in Syria, when I returned from training at ten o’clock in the evening, my parents, my sisters, everyone… Everyone was there. We had dinner together. If we wanted to go somewhere… to our family, for example… Then we would always go together. But here I was always alone. My uncle is here. I have three uncles here. But they were all busy. But here I have seen, if you do not work, you get nothing. And you always pay extra, for taxes, for this and that. But in Syria, if you work, it’s no problem at all. You don’t have to pay anything. If you have an apartment, if you have bought an apartment or a house… Yes, that is the difference between here and there. The first two years were difficult. But then came the women of the two uncles… From Syria to here. They also came with a visa. Every Sunday, when I was free, I went to visit. They cook. They cooked every day. Every day, sometimes that aunt or the other aunt would give me one. Each time I ate different dishes. I thought, only now the same system started again as in Syria. I was not only in Syria, but I could not cook myself. Sometimes I look at Youtube to see what I have to do. I cook myself, but sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. But that’s okay, I’ve lived like this for two years. That was difficult, but…

[i] I’m going back to your life in Syria for a while. Can you tell me, who were your parents? Are you from a large family?

[r] We have a very large family in Syria. Because… Sorry… They were with five brothers and five sisters… My father’s family. And from my mother… She had two sisters and two brothers. For example, if there is a party… The first is the Sugar Feast and the second is the sacrificial feast. If both feasts take place… Not only then, but… But every Monday we go with my parents, to the grandmother and grandfather on the father’s side. All aunts along father’s side then went there. And every Friday we went to my grandmother and grandfather on the mother’s side. And also there everyone came. We stayed there until twelve o’clock or one o’clock. We are always laughing and making good food. The boys play then… They had a very large garden.

[i] How was their house? How were the houses in Syria?

[r] A large apartment. Ground floor. With my grandmother and grandfather. There were seven rooms. Yes, seven rooms. It is in the form of an L. The apartment. And the garden, also has the shape of an L. Each room has a door, which leads to the garden. Evenings and afternoons. The garden is in the middle? So, I mean, like an ‘L’. Here are the bedrooms. And here is the living room. Here is the kitchen. You can go like this and then like this. So, was that apartment. Sometimes we all slept with my grandparents. That was always a possibility with them. It did not matter, they came with all the children. And so did the other children. All a big family. It was a very beautiful life there. I hope…

[i] You had a strong bond with the family?


[i] – Many cousins?

Yes, that’s true. I want that back so badly. Whenever I talk to them… Via Whatsapp and social media. They asked, “When are you going to come? When are we going to sit down together again?’ ‘When are we going to catch up? When are we going to see you again?’ ‘Before we die.’ They said, “We want you to come back to Syria soon. Not just me. Everyone, all people… I came here, my parents came two years ago. But they still have daughters and sisters. They all left. Some people died because of the war. And, yes… Al… When that party started… Or without a party, every week….

[i] Two parties?

[r] Those were two big parties.

[i] After Ramadan and the sacrificial feast?

Yes, sacrificial feast. But without those two feasts. Every week we leave for two days. One day to one grandmother and grandfather and the other day to another. And everyone must come. We must all sit together and eat together. If my grandmother wants to cook, she can’t do it alone. Everyone comes to help. If she wants to do something, she makes such a big pot for all of us. Because everyone comes to her. And, sometimes we sit together. Sometimes someone is funny and then everyone is laughing. Sometimes we put on dance music and then we’re all dancing.

[i] You have a special tradition of dancing?

Yes, we have a special Syrian dance. I love it… I want to learn that. I’ve been practicing that a bit already. I always watch on TV as they dance. Sometimes when I’m alone here… I’m married now. And I have a son. When I’m alone, I watch on TV and then I try to do the same. That’s very nice. Really, I want to live here like in Syria. I also want to go back there, but just to visit. I can’t stay there. Because I left, for… I left here before I had to go to military service. If I leave for Syria now, that’s going to be a big problem. Maybe they won’t talk anymore. They are going to take me to the police station immediately. Life there and then I can be found dead. And nobody knows about it. Why? Because me and my cousin… We are the same age, there is only one week between us. One week or one month. I came here. And he went to military service after two months. Now he’s dead. Why, because he had one week’s leave. He couldn’t go to his parents anymore. Because they stood with the others. Of those… How can I say that… Terrorist, or…

[I] Is on the…

Yes, there are two sides. One side of…

[i] Assad?

[r] Assad and the other side the people…

[i] Against Assad?

[r] And his parents were against Assad. They cannot come to him and he cannot go to them. He came to my parents. He stayed there for one week and then went back to another city. In Syria. He told that to his friend. How his leave of absence was. He told everything. I went to my uncle.

[i] Sorry to interrupt the military service for Assad? Or for the other side?

[r] For Assad.

[i] For Assad, so he was in military service for Assad.

[r] Yes.

[i] And he didn’t want to go to the other side anymore.

He can’t go to the other side anymore. If he goes there, he is killed immediately. Therefore he stays there. And he told everything to his friend. He said yes I have been to my uncle. I stayed there for one week and then I came back here. He asked, “Why didn’t you see your parents? He said, “because we are against Assad. He then went to sleep and his friend also fell asleep. His friend woke up the next day, but he didn’t. Someone came and shot him with a gun. He died. Why? Because his parents are sitting there and not here. That’s the problem.

[i] Who killed him?

[r] I didn’t hear who it was. But I think the friend told the person responsible.

From Assad?

[r] From Assad also Why, he works for Assad and his parents are against him. Because, they think so… His parents are with the other party and he wants to stay here. But he is not allowed to stay here, so he is dead. Every time I think about it and bring back memories… Then I think amai… When we were little… Every time we went to our grandmother and grandfather. To our grandparents. He also came to play together. Because he and I are the same age.

[i] Grown up together?

Yes, he grew up together. And now he is gone. And the same with his brother. When the war started, he moved to Turkey after two years. And his parents who said, go to Turkey, there it is quiet. Better than here. He stayed in Turkey for two years. And then he said, my parents are there. How am I going to stay alone in Turkey? He has returned to Syria, and also dead. Too bad. Now my uncle is always like… So far, I’ve been here in Belgium for seven years. Until now, I still don’t talk to my uncle. Why? If I talk to him, he’s going to cry a lot. Why? Because me and that son, we were always together. When I talk to him, he always thinks about his son. That’s why I don’t talk to him. I say to my father, sorry but I can’t talk. When I go and talk to him, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Or what he is going to do. Yes, that is really difficult. I always tell my father when you call my uncle. Give him my regards. And tell him that inshaAllah will be fine. Yes… That’s really hard.

You left when you were 17?

[r] Yes.

[i] In what year was that?

[r] That was in 2011.

[i] How was life in Syria? That was before the war?

[r] That was before the war.

[i] How was life? Were there any problems?

[r] No no, there were no problems. I left. Everyone was happy, everyone was alive, everyone was fine. Very good health. That was… Yes, no problem at all. When I left, I was eighteen years and three months old. Adult. But, if someone wants to move to another country. For an education or to live or something. Then he must have an account at the bank. He must have an account, longer than eight months. If you leave the airport… Then you have to carry 5000 dollars with you. And he must have proof of why he is going there. If someone asks. If not asked, it doesn’t matter, he can go on. Someone asked me. Why are you going there? I said, I’m going to go to an education. He asked, do you have any money? If you need something? Or if you want to buy something there. He asked, can I see? I showed him that. He said okay, put a stamp on it and left.

[i] How was it? You were eighteen years old when you left?

[r] Eighteen years and four months. Four months, three months.

[i] How was it? Your father asked you, do you want to go to Belgium, Europe?

[r] He asked, because we had a bit of a hard life. Because of the situation with my brother. He sold everything. And after four years, my brother, he has returned to him. He worked a little bit. I couldn’t work there because I’m a minor. And, he’s always worked, always working, and he doesn’t get any leave. It was hard to live. When I turned 17, he asked me. Do you want to go to your uncle? I said, no problem.

Did you know that uncle well? Did you have a lot of contact with your uncle?

Yes, because every summer, he came to Syria for one month or two months. Yes, I knew him well.

[i] What was it like for you to leave Syria? Was it difficult? Easy?

[r] That was hard. That was hard. Before I left. I prayed that everything would be all right. I found it difficult. And when I was in the airport. I sat down on the floor, and I made a dua (supplication), to our God. That everything will be in order. That I’m not going to have any problems. And yes, then I came here. I said it, that was, the first three years… Were difficult, because we were here alone. But after that the wives of my uncles came here. Then it started. Back then it wasn’t quite all right. Why, my parents weren’t there yet, if I want to say something. Or if I need something, I can’t always go to them. They do say that I can come and visit them anytime. If I need something, they bring it to me. She took my clothes and washed them, my aunt. She brought my clothes. She came to my studio to clean up. I then said, that it is not necessary, I do it myself. I can do everything myself. But she cooked every day. Syrian kitchen and then she sent it to me. Yes, it went well then. But I don’t say well, because my parents.

[i] Your parents weren’t there?

[r] Yes and I’m here, that’s not good. Before the war it was hard to live there. But after the war, how are you going to do that? That was much harder than before. That’s why I said… That’s why I told them to move to Turkey. I helped them a bit. I sent money to them. To help. They had an apartment there. In 2014 I went there to see them again. That was five years, four years, that I didn’t see them. I applied for a visa and left for Turkey. I saw them there again. I have been there for 15 days. That was really great fun. After four years.

[i] Seeing your parents again… How was the departure? Saying goodbye to your parents when you came from Syria to Belgium?

[r] That was very difficult Before I left, my father hugged me very hard. And so did my mother. She said, I’m going to give you three tips. If you always do that, then you are always correct. That I always have to pray, I can’t let it go. When I talk, I always have to tell the truth. Nothing else to say but the truth. When I do that, I’m always okay, my mother said.

[i] What was the third tip?

[r] I forgot the third one, which is why I didn’t say so. The third I forgot what it was. In the asylum centre, if someone lives there, he gets seven euros a week. Eating, drinking and sleeping are all theirs. I did, seven euros plus seven euros plus seven euros. When someone left, I gave them that money from the asylum centre. If someone went shopping or something, I would give them money. To bring a phone card for me and I called every week. Every week I shared my money. Five euros for this week and five euros for next week. That’s right. I called them, and then it was “How are you? You’re not sick?’ Is everything okay? Can you take good care of yourself? Then I say yes, everything is fine. Until two years ago, when it was 2016, right? Or 17? 2017.

[i] Two years ago, then it was 2016.

[r] They came before I got married, one month before. Yes then everything was fine. They left Syria in 2013. Then it was war. Once they were asleep. And then a big bomb hit the apartment. Nobody died. My father has nothing, always healthy. But after that bomb, he now has high blood pressure. He has diabetes, he has… I don’t know what else. He always takes medication. My brothers, sisters and mother are fine. That’s why, after I’ve heard that, I said to them, go to Turkey. And I’m going to help a little bit, what I have I’m going to send to you. To help. They have that apartment there, I’ve been there. For two weeks. I went to Turkey and I saw my wife there for the first time. I said, yes, she is a very beautiful girl. I asked my parents to ask her parents… To engage us. They said, no problem at all. We have seen each other, we have walked together. Together with her parents and my parents. That was all nice. And then back here, April 1st it was. Or two April. In 2014, yes, I will come here. To Belgium. I always kept working. And then she went to Hungary. And after Hungary she always came here with her mother. And her brother and sister. And then my grandmother came here. She was my grandmother and my wife, aunt. And my parents, they were all together in Turkey. My parents came to Greece by boat. And then they stayed there for two years. In Greece and then they came here with a visa. My grandmother also came by boat. To Greece. Then after Greece, to Serbia, Macedonia, Hungary. Then Austria and then here. Via Germany to here. But what was heavy… It was hard for my grandmother, she paid 20 000 euros. That was an Iraqi man, or I don’t know from which country. He got 15 000 euros from her. And then he left. And then… That’s right, all her money is gone. They said to her, come by boat to Greece and then from Greece. Then we go further step by step. And then she came to Germany and my uncle went by car. He brought her here. And then she also applied for asylum. But she did not go to the asylum centre. She continued to live with him in Sint-Niklaas. It took a while and then she got an identity card. She is old, my grandmother. She got it quickly. And now she lives here in Mortsel next to us. Every day we talk to each other. When I am free, we go there together. Me and my wife and son. My aunt too, two aunts live here in Mortsel. And my uncle, he still lives in Sint-Niklaas.

[i] Now the situation is good?

[r] The situation is good but not the same as when we stayed in Syria. As between the feast of sugar and the feast of sacrifice. If all the family would come. Then we need three months extra for those feasts.

Going to visit?

Yes visit One day at an uncle, second day at the other. That is with my uncles. When that is done, we go to my father’s cousin and my mother’s cousin.

[i] Big parties?

[r] Those are very big parties, we keep busy until New Year. But here is that one day, everyone visit and the second day back to work. That’s not a very good life. In terms of being together with the family. But it is a good life, better than in Syria. Here you have work. Yes, we do what we want. We have a good apartment here. We have a car. Not for me, but for my family. I started working here, I started with second hand clothes. Two years and then stopped there. I said yes, I’ve been here for two years, but I don’t know anything about this country. I went from the asylum centre to the studio in Antwerp. Here in Berchem. That was one day and the second day back to work. I left at seven o’clock and came home at seven o’clock in the evening. Then I went to sleep. When I come, they come at eight o’clock in the evening. Then I have to leave at nine o’clock and go to sleep. On Sundays I also have to work sometimes. I didn’t have time to visit. All of them work in the warehouse as Arabic people. So I didn’t learn anything. I learned French, but I forgot all that.

[i] You learned French? If I have understood correctly, you are from Aleppo to Damascus. From Damascus to Rome. From Rome to Napoli.

[r] That was transit. And then I slept there for one day. And then I came here.

In Zaventem, Brussels? Where did you go? The first period?

[r] That was from Napoli to Brussels directly. Then I came here, I was with my uncle in Sint-Niklaas. I stayed there for one month. And then my visa expired and I applied for asylum.

[i] Where?

[r] In Brussels, in the commissariat.

[i] How was that?

[r] That was all new to me. My uncle has said, that if you want you can ask for your documents here. To put everything in order. You have to do it like this. For your future that will be good for you. I said, “Okay, no problem.” I have applied for asylum. That was nine months, I already said it, it was difficult. And very difficult, but there was nothing I could do about it. If… That’s how I have to do it… There’s no other way.

[i] Did you meet people there in the asylum centre?

[r] I met a lot of people there, from different countries. From Somalia, from Afghanistan, Polish people. Also from Ukraine.

[i] How was life in the asylum centre? Did you make friends?

[r] Yes, because four people have to sleep in each room. There are two parts. One part is for the boys, who are not married yet. Another part is for the people who are already married. If they are married, it is in one room for the family. If you are not married, it is four people per room. In some rooms there are eight people. Then they do it in two parts, four here and four here. That is difficult, especially because (…) But I can’t do anything, just wait, keep waiting until it’s all right.

[i] Did you learn French there?

[r] I learned French, I passed two levels. We had a very sweet teacher. I always helped her. When the lesson was finished, we started from nine o’clock to twelve. When the lesson was over, I stayed with her. Talking, why? I will always be there to learn extra French. To always practice. And she says to me, that’s not what I want… Just stay here and I’ll give extra lessons. Because, the other people, when it’s time for a break, they quickly walk outside. During the lunch break, they quickly walk to the restaurant to eat. That’s why I’m always with her and she says stay here. She was very, I don’t know what word you can use to name her. When you’re happy, you always laugh, but when you’re not happy, what do you call it?


[r] Negative Negative, because I said I’m moving to Antwerp. After nine months. She said “Why, stay here, you learned French here”. I’m going to find you a small studio to live here. “I’m going to find you a job to work for, you can live better here”. “And I always come to visit you” “If you need something and you can’t do it, I’ll go with you” “To the town hall, I’m going to make everything all right for you.” I said, yes, but there is my uncle. I have three uncles, I have family there. I go with them (…), but better that I go to them. And then it was negative, she got very angry. Not against, but because I’m going to move … And for the first three years she always sent me a text message. To ask what it’s like and so on… That was good, but in the third year there were fewer text messages sent. Why? Because I don’t have the experience to always speak French here. I haven’t been able to practice and every time it went less. I answered with fewer words each time. I always say in French I don’t know it, but in Arabic I mean this. She then says, ‘yes, I don’t understand’. Then I said, yes, what should I do? I worked for two years as a warehouseman, but I don’t know any Dutch. If I also speak Dutch, I can tell it in another language. Or English, but I can’t speak English, just a little. She didn’t understand me, it became less and less.

[i] That was a Belgian woman?

Yes, that was a Belgian woman. The asylum centre was in Liège, French-speaking Liège. And in Dutch I think so… Yes, it was there. Those were the first four months… I applied for asylum and for the first four months… That was also a transit centre, and after four months I moved to Liège. The first one was in Charleroi, (Marilois?), which is after Namur. If I want to go there, I spend two or three hours on the road. From there to here.

[i] What was it like for you to be in Belgium? How did you like life here? Different than in Syria?

[r] There is not such a big difference. Yes, there is a big difference, in terms of family. On the level of food and drink. If we want to eat and drink something, we have more there than here. In terms of vegetables for example, I don’t see them here. For example, jam, flower jam. A red flower, that’s really good. Next to it cheese and cucumbers, in the morning or whenever you want. That’s no problem at all. That’s very nice, but I don’t find it here. I don’t see many things here. Here I see a lot of things that are not natural. For example watermelon… If I want to eat watermelon, I can see it but that is all plastic. Here it all comes from the freezer. But there, when it’s not the time of the watermelon, you can’t buy it. If the time of the watermelon is there… Then you have a whole stock, and that is very tasty, exactly sugar and red. That’s really good. That’s the big difference between here and Syria. I really want to stay here. Why? It’s not because if I go back, the military will take me. I want to live here because… Here they have… How should I put it… I don’t know what I mean in Dutch. But, ‘Nizaam’ (order), in Arabic. Here there is more ‘Nizaam’ than in Syria. The ‘Qanun’, ‘Al Qawanun’. All the articles of law here, are completely different than in Syria.

[r] Which makes it difficult here sometimes, when you are busy with your documents. In the town hall. Which makes it difficult, for example I have applied for nationality. They say, “you have to bring your birth certificate from your country”. You have to bring your original passport. I bring everything and then they say, if you bring your birth certificate… then you have to send it back to Lebanon to organize everything. Put a stamp at the Syrian embassy. And other offices. They make it difficult. I said, but this is Belgium, I brought my original passport. They say that’s not enough. That is one difficult step. But for the rest, it’s all right. Before I married, everything was very clear. Very good life. But after the wedding it became difficult. Why? I had a son… And I have to put everything in order for him, that’s difficult. Because his recognition came too late. We applied for recognition before she gave birth. Three months before that… But that was too late. And then, the identity card or residence card was not finished. If we go to the doctor and stuff, it’s going to be hard and stuff. That’s the difference, they make it difficult. But here the articles are better than in Syria. So step by step…

[i] Because how did the war start there? How long were you in Belgium when the war in Syria started? How did you hear that?

[r] How? Always on TV. Because when I talked to my parents and asked them how they were doing. How is the war now? They don’t tell me anything. Then they immediately talk about something else and give a different answer. They can’t, when they talk about the war. When people start talking on the phone. Those who are with Assad, the military services and so on. They have a computer and can eavesdrop when something bad is said. Yes, that’s why they can’t say anything on the phone. Yes, it’s difficult here, there are a lot of bombs here and there it is… Otherwise, second day, I can’t talk to my parents anymore. Then they all leave, that’s hard. Here, when they came here, they told me everything. For example, pudding, sugar, milk or eggs… If they want to buy something, it’s very difficult. If they want to do something… If there is a car, you see four people from the police. And my father who wants to walk past it, for example. He can’t look at them like that anymore, if he looks at them they will catch him immediately. That’s the difference. Here, when you see the police, say good afternoon. Shake hands, joke, that’s no problem at all. But that’s true during the war, before the war there was nothing. When you see the police on the street, you say good afternoon… And then you go on, that’s no problem at all. But during the war they didn’t talk about it.

[i] How long have you been in Belgium?

[r] The war started towards the end of 2011. I think I was here almost seven months. When the war started. Or about one year… No less than one year, that was in 2011, towards the end, in December like this.

[i] How was it for you to hear that things were difficult there?

[R] Difficult. Hard to see, many people died. Many people came on TV. When the war had just begun, nothing came on TV. And there I ask my parents how they are doing. They said, that everything is in order. We have a very nice life here. Why? They can’t say anything anymore on the phone. Nothing came up on TV. During the first period. But after that, after the great war has started. After the bombs, after many people died, it came on TV. That was difficult. Many people here… Did ‘mudaharaats’, I don’t know what it’s called in Dutch.

[i] Demonstrations.

[r] A lot of people were organized, that’s why a lot of people died. Once, a building, where all family members were. That was not our family but other people. Then there was a bomb and all family members died. That’s why many people went to a square.

[i] In Belgium?

[r] Yes in Belgium. I saw that on Facebook, I didn’t go there. But I saw that, once I was watching on facebook. And I saw that those people were standing there. What does it call ‘mudaharaat’?

[i] Demonstrations.

[r] Yes, demonstrations, that was on Sint-jansplein. This is here in Antwerp. A lot of people came, because all their family members died. If all of them have died, what are you going to do? Or brothers or sisters or fathers or something, what are you going to do? He says, then, why should I live here and I’m going to do something else. That’s why a lot of people came here.

[i] Have you started to argue?

[r] No, I haven’t been. Because I’m always busy, working. I leave at seven in the morning and am back at seven in the evening. I am very tired then, because working in second-hand clothes is very hard work. I have to open three thousand kilos a day. That comes in a large bag with small bags. I have to divide the small ones, open them and then divide them. Separate the trousers and shirts and all that. Three thousand kilos, three tons, is very heavy.

[i] But did you still have contact with Syrian people here, no family?

[r] I have a friend with whom I worked in the pharmacy. He is like my brother, more so, I love him very much.

[i] He is also here?

[r] He is in Syria, but every three or two weeks we send messages. I ask him how he is doing, what he is doing… He is married and I went to his wedding in Syria. And I brought his CD of his wedding. I see what it was like, I see him and my boss in Syria. All the friends… I have all the friends…. I know a lot of people there, but when I left my mobile phone broke down. I bought a new mobile phone here and I don’t have any more of their numbers. That’s why I don’t have any contact with them anymore. When I talk to him, I say, say hello to everyone. To everyone who asks for me. And so far, I still search for my boss through social media. To contact him and ask him how he is doing. But I haven’t found him yet. I have heard from my friend that he is leaving for America. Because he has a pass, an American nationality. Him and his daughter and son and sister and so on. I’m looking for him, but I haven’t found him yet. But a lot of people… I know them very well… I see them on social media. I see their pictures, through their family or friends. They post the photos on facebook with the message that he is dead. They post the pictures, but they are nice pictures, in costume or something. In a positive way, “He was here, but now he’s gone.

[i] And did you see that Syrians came to Belgium? Do you have contact with new Syrians in Belgium?

[r] I have seen that, already three years ago… It’s not about one person… But really a lot of people. But there was one person I always helped. His family, his wife and his son and daughter were in Turkey. He was busy bringing them here. But he didn’t know how. I had seen him with my uncle before. Before I left for Turkey. I said, I’m going to Turkey for two weeks. And then I’m going to help you. I was busy with him for a year and a half. To put all the documents in order. Other people too… I saw a lot of people at the social service, the PCSW. I saw a lot of people there, so I sat down with them to translate. I saw that many people did not speak the language well or did not understand the assistant. Then I said, “I’m going to go to him and help him translate. In the past, last year, I spoke much better than I do now. But I had an accident. I was cycling and then I got hit by a car. I was in a coma for three days. I was hit here (side of the head) by the tire. That’s why I forgot a lot of words. Before the accident my Dutch was better than now.

[i] You took Dutch lessons here?

[r] Yes, I took Dutch lessons and I followed a course. In the catering industry. And I followed a training as a salesman. I learned a lot of Dutch. Now it’s a bit less, but it still is.

[i] So your first job was as a warehouse assistant in second-hand clothes?

[r] – Yes.

[i] – A lot of Arabs worked there.

Yes, a lot of Syrian people. There were also Moroccan people, but not many. Ten Syrian people and one Moroccan. And then, for example, twenty Syrian people and one African.

[i] Only a few with a different nationality.

[r] Yes, and why? Because it is hard work. There were people who tried, but they said it was too difficult. And then they left and started doing something else.

You did that for one year?

[r] Two years. I started on February 1, 2012. Until December 31, 2013. That was two years.

[i] What else did you do about work after that?

[r] I went to the RVA after that. To apply for unemployment benefit. But I had too few hours. They had calculated that so that I did not get it. Then I went to the PCSW, which was the first time. Many people asked me… What I did when I came here. I went to the PCSW. If someone is new here, you get money for furniture.

[i] Furniture.

[r] Yes, to buy furniture and stuff. But I didn’t. Why? Because (…) with the work. Because a lot of people asked what I did. I say, nothing, I’ve had nothing from them. Because I immediately started working. And then I went to the PCSW. They were very clear and quickly worked out a plan. Because I first had a job and now I don’t anymore. I just got a benefit from them, without anything. It was very clear at the PCSW. I have studied in the meantime. I went to the PCSW, but I did not speak Dutch.

[i] Did you study Dutch at that time?

[r] I studied Dutch and followed a course for sales. I followed an internship in the carrefour in the Lange Lozanastraat. That’s not so far from here. I did an internship, that was fine, positive, I got my diploma. But my training in the hospitality industry, was in 2017. I started in February until April. And then it was Easter holidays, fifteen days. During the Easter holidays I found work. In the Middelheim Hospital. And then I called back to that school to say that I won’t be coming back. Because I found a job at the Middelheim Hospital. Then in 2013 or 2014, I went to the PCSW. I stayed for one year or one year and a half, at the PCSW. I followed that course and received that lesson. And then the social worker saw me… Every time I went to her, I brought someone with me to translate. But for the last five months, I’ve always been on my own. My Dutch started to improve. She said, yes, if you’re good now. You’re very good now, I’m going to be with another assistant. To hear for this job. I worked in Saint Augustine, it’s a rest home, as a logistics assistant. For old people. The nurses start at seven and I start at eight. They help with putting on the clothes, that everything is clean. And all the old stuff from blankets and stuff, may be gone. I then put everything new, between eight and nine. I clean everything. From nine o’clock to ten o’clock, I brought down all the blood samples. For the blood tests. And then we make… If it’s someone’s birthday or if there’s a party, we decorate the room. Together with the nurses. Then I sit with them and we talk and dance. That was a lot of fun.

[i] That was a nice job?

[r] Yes, that was a nice job. That was my job as a logistics assistant. I did that for one year via the PCSW, under the project ‘article 60’. After one year, I went back to the RVA and the ABVV. To indicate my unemployment. During my first month of unemployment, I went to all the interims. I registered everywhere and they sent me to the Albert Heijn. I worked there as a salesman for a few months. First I worked in Saint Augustine and then in the Albert Heijn. But I combined my job at the Albert Heijn with…

[i] Middelheim Hospital?

No, I had already done that by then.

Ah, that was already over by then.

[r] Yes, in the first period at the Albert Heijn, I first worked full time. After that I started in the hospitality industry. A training in the hospitality industry. I stopped in the Albert Heijn. And I called the interim manager. I said that I wanted to follow a training in the hospitality industry. That was from February to April. That was from April. Then the Middelheim Hospital called me. Because my social worker called them. Because I had asked to contact me if she found good work. She called them and told them that she had a good candidate. That he is very social and the ideal candidate. And then they called me. That was part-time at the time. I worked at the Middelheim hospital from six to ten o’clock in the morning. Then from twelve to eight o’clock in the Albert Heijn. That was the case for a while. After that I had that accident.

[i] That was an accident with the bicycle?

[r] Yes by bike. I was at home for a long time. After that I worked as a salesman again in the Handelstraat. Next to the Stuivenberg hospital. I also worked as a salesman then. That was in the ‘Promo Market’, that’s what the shop called. And there I fainted again on the ground. After I was free. Or, I already worked in the morning and then in the afternoon I was free. I had finished my work. And then I fainted. My boss would have seen me and called the ambulance for the hospital. I was in the hospital and he came to visit me there. He said, don’t worry, everything will be fine. But the problem is that I suffered from amnesia. When I had that accident, the first week, I forgot my name. The first week I didn’t recognize anyone. My wife, my parents,….

[i] You had a concussion?

Yes, I didn’t know anyone. But my boss saw that and he said everything would be fine. Just rest well. I continued to work until May or June. And then I was unemployed again. I went back to the interim. I had explained what had happened, but I said I wanted to work. And, she also helped me. I now work via interim. But that’s not every day, three or four days a week. Yes, that’s my story, from Syria to here.

[i] I’m going back for a while, your parents are here too. Since when have they been here?

[r] They came in 2017. Yes, since May 2017.

[i] Yes, and before that they lived in Turkey?

Yes, they lived in Turkey.

When was that?

[r] In 2013 they left for Turkey.

[i] Where in Turkey?

[r] Mersin. They stayed in Mersin until 2015. After that they went to Greece by boat. They stayed there from 2015 to 2017.

[i] Did you have contact with your parents during that period?

Yes, every day. They had internet there, so I called them every day via Whatsapp. I saw them via video calls.

[i] What was it like for you to see them again? Because you went to Turkey to visit them. What was it like to see them again?

[r] The first day I saw them again, it was really… That was real, very warm, very intense… When I saw them again I hugged them very hard. I said, amai, four years has flown so fast. I said, four years flew very fast, but for me it was very slow. Because I didn’t see you. Yes, I hugged for almost 15 minutes. I was very lucky then. When someone asks me to do something special or my parents, I say, “No, I choose my parents. Because I haven’t seen them in four years. That was real, I don’t know how to put it in Dutch… But, ‘Al farha kanat shedid ktir’ (the joy was very intense). Haseet haali, malakt adenya’ It felt like I was reborn. As if I was born again.

[i] Seen only your parents? Or also brothers and sisters?

Everyone was there, my two siblings and sisters-in-law. And my sister’s husband… My brother-in-law. That was the first time I had seen him. My sister was married in Syria. But then I was here. I hadn’t gotten to know him yet. And when I spoke to him, every week, at least twice… And when I talked to him, it wasn’t a video call, it was just a phone call. That was just five minutes or two minutes. I ask how it goes. That was all.

So you hadn’t met him yet.

[r] So when I went to Turkey, I saw that brother-in-law for the first time.

[i] You met your wife there too? First time met…

[r] Yes, I met my wife there, that was two weeks… That was really great fun. During that holiday I saw my parents again and got to know my wife. My parents, my grandmother and my aunt… They left for Hungary, because my wife was born there.

[i] Your wife was born in Hungary?

Yes, they lived there for seven or ten years. My wife then returned to Syria. Her parents lived in Hungary for 25 years. For a long time. Then they went back to Syria. They wanted to stay there. After five years the war started and they went back to Hungary. My grandmother finally came here, so did my parents. And she goes to Hungary to see her parents. And in the summer they come to visit us here. We were engaged for two years.

[I] – Were you engaged for two years? In the summer they come and at New Year’s Eve and now Friday. Then her mother comes to visit us. During the school holidays she always comes here. Because all the brothers and sisters of my aunt come here. Me and my wife are family. Yes, she is coming. She also comes in April and in the summer. She comes to visit here. But my trip to Mersin went very well. That is a very beautiful city. And we visited everything there. Many Syrian people live there. They have moved from Syria to there. They have opened shops there, and restaurants. They have different desserts, homemade ice creams, all very tasty. Those people also have dessert, but only desserts without anything. I have brought them here and to both my uncles given. Yes, that was very nice, my trip to Mersin.

And when did your wife come here?

[r] She came fifteen or sixteen June.

[i] Last year?

[r] Yes indeed, last year. She came one week before our wedding to make things right. We were married last year on 29 June. And our son was born on 29 June 2018. On the same day as our wedding day. He is called Youssef.

[i] How was the wedding? Did you give a great feast?

[r] It was a great feast. We were married in the Royal Ballroom, in Abdijstraat. We booked there. The room has two floors. Downstairs there was the women’s room and upstairs there was the men’s room. We have done so.

[i] Did you also do your traditional dance?

[r] A little, not so much. Because, traditionally, it’s done by artists in special clothes. But it’s not here, it’s only in Syria. But many of those artists have moved to Turkey. Then they will perform in the traditional clothes in Turkey. But I haven’t seen them here yet. I looked them up, but I didn’t find them right away. So that’s why I said, yes, I’m just going to throw a party.

[i] You’ve become a daddy of a little boy, how old is he now?

[r] Six months next week. How does it feel to be a daddy now? I used to be completely free before I got married. But now I’m responsible for him and her. My wife is new here, she doesn’t know much yet. I don’t know much myself in Belgium. I used to go home from work all the time. And on Sundays I went to my aunt or uncle, that was all I did. But now when I’m free, I have to bring things, walk together… Going to a place together or to a park. She wants to see her father, but she can’t go to Hungary anymore. Because her papers are not in order. But if that’s okay, her first trip to Hungary will be. Her mother and brothers and sisters will come. But her father doesn’t, he has a restaurant and can’t close it. Well, your whole life changes when you have children. When I see him cry, when he’s sick or something… When you see your son or daughter like that, you get a bit of a hard time. Why, because they are in pain and I can see that, but there is nothing I can do. I bring medication, but I can’t do more than that. That’s the problem. But that will work. Everything has changed. Some people say, when you get married, it’s not the same… Like when you are free. And that’s not the same either. And when you have children, your life will change completely. It gets much better then. It improves! You see your own children… And then you see what you were like as a child, what it had to be like for your parents. I think, was I very sweet and very big myself? My son is like this, very good and very quiet.

[i] What do you want for your child? Or maybe children, in the future? What kind of future do you see for them?

[r] What I want for them is not only for mine, but for all children. For their future, I wish a better life, better than ours. We have seen a lot in our lives. The war… And in your life you sometimes meet very good people. And sometimes you come across people who are not so good… I hope that our children don’t have to meet such people. I want a beautiful life for them, that they will study well. That they get very high diplomas. I hope for a very, very good future and a beautiful life for them. And that they will not see what we have seen.

[i] And what are your dreams for the future? What else do you want to achieve?

[r] My dream is to travel a lot. I would like to… For example, I would like to travel to Australia. I would like to travel there by plane and then fly back there. With another plane to another country. My hobbies… Whenever I apply for a new job, the second question is… What are your hobbies? Then I always say, my hobby is to be a pilot. Then they always say, you have a very expensive hobby. Yes, pilot, I like that very much.

[i] You want to see the world?

[r] Yes, those are my hobbies. Would you ever want to return to Syria? If I go back, I just want to visit it, but I want to live here. That is a different world between here and Syria. Here there is a lot of nature, there too… When I go back to Syria, it is to visit it, but here I want to live.

[i] Do you see your future here in Belgium?

Yes, for me and my son and my wife.

[i] Ok, thank you for your time.

You’re welcome.