My name is Iyad, and I’m from Homs in Syria. I was born in 1985 and I lived in Homs pretty much until the outbreak of the uprising against the regime. I was detained in a regime prison for seven days, and when I emerged I was suffering with an extreme nervous and psychological condition. Still, I continued going to protests against the regime, which meant I was wanted by the security forces, and so I was forced to leave Syria at the end of 2011.
I first went to Jordan and lived there for about 9 months. But then I was deported by the Jordanian intelligence apparatus because of my media activities against the Syrian regime. So I had to go to Egypt, where I remained for less than a month. After that I went to Turkey, where I lived for two consecutive years. I worked with some UN and EU-affiliated humanitarian organizations and with a number of international organizations. But the organization I was working for told me that my job in Turkey was over and now the work that needed to be done was in Syria, even though they knew I was wanted there. They continued to insist that I should go continue my job in Syria, so I decided to leave Turkey and go anywhere else, it didn’t matter so long as it was safe. I decided on Cyprus, hoping I’d be able to leave it and continue on my way to France.
In the beginning I couldn’t really form any impression of Cyprus because I’d emerged from a state of total fear and terror, and Cyprus was just this place of utmost safety. I met many other Syrians who’d been living here for a long time and they played a really positive role, helping me find a place to live. I decided that while I looked for a way to leave Cyprus and go to France, I needed to work. As soon as I found a job, I also found some measure of stability. At first everyone was trying to convince me to go apply for asylum, but at that point I was totally against it because anyone who applied for asylum and got fingerprinted in a certain place would find it incredibly difficult to have his asylum accepted in any other country. So, I always refused. For six or seven months I stayed in Cyprus without applying for asylum. But I began realizing that it was a beautiful country, a place where life was both simple and sweet, and so I finally gave in and applied for asylum so that I could begin a new life in this country, so that I could create something for myself in this country.
I worked as a restaurant photographer, taking photos of diners. These restaurants also had a weekly program every Saturday with live belly dancing shows, so it was quite a lovely atmosphere. I didn’t communicate much with the Cypriots themselves, the true inhabitants of the country, because I didn't know their language and my command of English was quite weak, but whenever I entered a place to photograph the people, capturing their joys, their laughter and smiles, the beautiful atmosphere they were enjoying, they often tried to engage me, a stranger to the country, but one who seemed to show them a kind of respect. They’d try to communicate using sign language, and this reassured me. Of course there were some people who had no idea how to communicate with me, but the majority were so friendly. The minute someone smiled at me it was clear they were saying thank you, and this really meant so much to me.
I was granted political asylum, or what they call total asylum, and it was like being reborn. I truly felt I’d been reborn. I felt something I’d never experienced before. I felt a sense of belonging to a country that wasn’t my own. I felt that I could settle down, I felt I could begin a new life that really represented me, represented my ambitions, meaning I could become a human being, a person, a person with worth, in a certain country, in a specific spot on this earth, at a time when this feeling had been totally lost to me in Syria, my own country. My terror in Turkey had to do with the fact that I was an atheist and secular person. It was a complete overhaul of everything to be granted total asylum.
It so happened that there was a young Syrian woman who’d been living with her parents in Cyprus for a long time, and she had also studied in Cyprus, so she spoke Greek very well. She gave me some invaluable help every now and then. It’s important to mention that this young woman was in a relationship, that is, engaged, and that her fiancé and I then became friends. As a liberal person, I’d managed to get away from all of those restrictive customs inherited from Syrian society, and this was a very positive thing for me here in Cyprus. The young woman and I hung out together as friends, like siblings, without any narrow-minded ideas constricting our friendship. Through her, I met a woman dancer who used to frequent the restaurant, and the dancer was also married. Her husband then became my friend, even though we didn’t have a language in common. We used translation apps on our phones to converse together. Because I’m Eastern, Arab, and Syrian, the dancer considered me someone who knows about Arabic music. I do in fact have a passion for music in general, and so she’d send me audio clips, music clips, songs, and ask me whether I thought they’d be suitable to dance to, for a show or performance. So I began to have, as they say, these social relationships, which is something I’d been longing for quite some time. This was one of the things that gave me a sense of mental stability, that allowed me to feel more settled in this country and more balanced in general.
Right now I’m still at the beginning of that phase of settling down. I’m trying to create something new in my life. I need to start by learning the local language, because honestly I really love this country, I love the general atmosphere, which is so open and welcoming of strangers. People here accept differences of opinion and accept anything new they might encounter. Contrary to the general stereotype, or what people usually say, that the Cypriots are racists… no, they’re not in the least bit racist. As far as my experience goes they’re not at all racist and anyway generalizations are always wrong.
I’m Iyad, here in Cyprus, and this was my story.
This summarised transcript of Haneen's story was prepared by Omar Alshikh, edited by Monzer Hayek and translated by Leena Mounzer