My name is George, I was born in Damascus in 1993. I began my degree in Pharmacy at the University of Aleppo. Then, when the crisis began in Syria, I went back to Damascus to finish my studies there because the commute between Damascus and Aleppo was very difficult. I began feeling really lonely after leaving. Aleppo is one of the world’s most beautiful cities in my opinion, and I hope one day to be able to settle there. I started attending these workshops on social work because I was so bored after having left Aleppo, and I was also depressed because I’d lost all the friends I’d made there, the kinds of friends a person dreams of having. Anyway, so I went to these training workshops organized by the Plato program and I started learning about social work and the various organizations that did it, and I began feeling that I could really do something, that I could create change in my community by becoming active in this way. I hadn’t been thinking that I could do anything, frankly, I’d been thinking about leaving the country. But deep down what had kept me back was my fear that I wouldn’t be able to integrate in another society. I was already having trouble integrating in Syria with my red hair and my accent, so different from the people surrounding me. I had always suffered from not feeling accepted, and I was afraid that if I went abroad I’d face the same problems and challenges, so I didn’t like the idea of travel. But in 2018 I was called up for compulsory military service and that’s when I decided it was time to leave, because as a person who contributes to building peace in his society, I cannot possibly carry weapons, and anyway I am someone who fundamentally believes in non-violence. I applied to a Chevening scholarship to go study in the UK and I was accepted, so I came here to study for a MSc in Global Health and Social Justice at King’s College London.
Even before leaving I had that terror that I spoke of earlier about being able to integrate socially and fitting into a new society. Like I remember how I sent an email to the person in charge of housing and I signed off with “my dear,” and he responded with a harsh email saying: “the words ‘my dear’ should never be used when addressing someone like me. You can only say them to someone younger than you or someone who works for you.” And I became sick with fear, because I felt that there were things I did with the best intentions, things that didn’t seem wrong to me at all—on the contrary, they were things that represent the beautiful aspects of the culture I come from—but they might end up annoying someone else. So I became even more afraid of traveling.
In general, I decided that I would define belonging as a sense of belonging to planet earth, not to a certain society or other. I could belong to a culture, of course, but I dislike cultural chauvinism or this fanatic profession of belonging to any city or country, and so when I left I felt encouraged by the fact that wherever I went I’d be able to find people with whom I could belong based on the bonds of common humanity between us rather than cultural or societal bonds. This idea emboldened me and I came to the UK deciding that I wouldn’t look backward toward the past but keep my eyes fixed firmly forward, because I don’t even have the choice to look backward and think, “I’d rather stay in my country”.
I faced some problems with other people when I arrived at my housing in London because of basic cultural differences. They spoke about things that meant nothing to me. So I had to rise to the same challenge I’d faced before, asking myself how I could help, how I might be able to change people’s perspective or ideas about Syrians, because very often they see us as people coming from the desert, they ask me questions about what we wear, what we eat, like they just assume we’re all Bedouins.
After that I thought to look for elderly people. I thought I could benefit from the wisdom of an older person’s experiences and how they live now. I approached this company that pairs younger people with older people so they can live together as flatmates. Through them I met a very nice man named Norman, 92 years old. He already knew I was Syrian and was in fact excited that I’m Syrian. He wanted to welcome someone into his home, to tell them, “please, this is your home,” especially if that person were coming from a war-torn country. When we sat down together to talk, his questions were so nice. He asked me about my country, my parents, the economic situation. He asked me about the various religions of the country, and whether there was conflict between the different groups. He’s a deeply knowledgeable person.
I wanted to stay with Norman, and so I told him: Honestly, I really like you and I’d like to live here. And he replied: I’m very excited about having you come live with me, you’re of course more than welcome here.
He was so happy to eat Arabic food, and I was so happy to cook for him, just as we both enjoyed our long, steady conversations. I asked him about himself, and he’d tell me funny stories about things he’d lived. Norman really helped me feel that it was possible to find people I could get along with in London. He understood me, he showed me that this huge city has so many different kinds of people in it, none of them really knowing to search for a place that resembles them, all of them feeling as though they’re living in an airport. This analogy he gave me about London made me feel that the city unfortunately offers no real sense of belonging. No one feels as though they belong to London unless they’ve lived here for a very long time.
I’m much more comfortable here now. I’m giving myself time and space until I can say that London is my city and that I can see myself living here long term. But Norman definitely helped me feel comfortable in this society and feel that I can express myself. When I’d make mistakes in English, he’d correct me rather than get annoyed with me. On the contrary, he’d teach me things, saying, “we don’t say it this way in English, you have to say it differently”. I’m so grateful to Norman and I’ve so enjoyed talking about him here because he really helped me take strides toward the future. He helped me improve my life so much, to lift it up from where it was, at a point well below zero. I can’t quite say that my life is above zero right now because I’m still trying to create a new life from this new experience.
So thank you so much to Norman, and thank you to everyone who listened to my story.
This summarised transcript of Haneen's story was prepared by Omar Alshikh, edited by Monzer Hayek and translated by Leena Mounzer