My name is Joseph Makdisie and I’m 29 years old. I’m Syrian and I’ve been living in Luxembourg for about 5 years. I studied civil structural engineering and I’ve also been playing the piano for twenty years. In addition to Arabic, I speak English, German, and a bit of French. Right now I’m learning the Luxembourgish dialect.
I came to Luxembourg first with the intention to study and second to work. I came by sea like so many other refugees who took the same journey, and like anyone else, I needed some help in the beginning. There was a family friend who was already here in Luxembourg—he’s the one who met me at the train station when I arrived. He helped me out in the beginning until I was assigned a place in an asylum housing unit. I stayed in contact with him.
After I got settled into my accommodations, I started my linguistic journey by learning French, because it’s one of the major languages of the country. During this period, there was a musical performance by a Luxembourgish band at the asylum housing unit to which I’d been assigned. After the performance, as the band stood around chatting with the audience, I took the opportunity and sat down at the piano and began to play. The audience responded so warmly, and the local band were also listening to me play, and everyone seemed surprised at what was happening.
I’d only wished to play, I really didn’t have any other goal in mind, but the audience response was so good. Meanwhile, as I played there was a Luxembourgish person watching me. I didn’t see them at the time and only found out about this later, but this person was an administrator at an institute for music and arts that was affiliated with the Red Cross. They opened the first door for me into Western society, giving me the chance to integrate more fully. At first this person didn’t know how to reach me, so they left word with the social assistance office who then informed me that I needed to meet with this person.
And so, that’s exactly what I did. It turned out that this person was a woman, an extraordinary woman who ran this institute. She offered me the opportunity to teach piano there and I accepted joyfully. Some two months after I started working there, she gave me another opportunity, this time to play music for a Luxembourgish audience. There was a recital for all the teachers at the institute, and so I decided that when it was my turn to play I’d expose them to a new sort of music. I improvised spontaneously without having rehearsed before, and it was so surprising, because the audience loved the performance and asked me to play again, to play more. I’d originally been slated to play for ten minutes but with the encores I ended up playing for 20 minutes. It was really such a beautiful event.
I began my own studies. A year into it I had to leave my housing for urgent reasons and look for new accommodations. It’s really difficult to find housing in Luxembourg, and the only solution was to speak to the director of the institute where I taught piano. She came through for me again, finding me accommodation with a Luxembourgish family, a mother and son. The son was a cultural director in Luxembourg, and we had a shared love of music, specifically for playing piano. Everything felt very open and accepting when we met, especially when he found out that I’m a very tolerant person with a desire to fit into Luxembourgish society and a respect for the culture.
Even though he was gay, which isn’t so accepted in Eastern society, I was accepting and respectful toward him, because this is his own private life. This was the beginning of my new life with this family. In turn I introduced them to the Syrian lifestyle and Syrian culture. During the time I lived with them, I was treated like a member of the family, not like a stranger or refugee or even a mere tenant. Not at all. I met so many of their friends, who were all very classy and respectable people, and I also earned their respect and love because of my own background and my openness to their society, the fact that I’d been able to integrate in the right way. In turn, I was able to give them a good idea about Syrian culture, whether through food and or talking about my country.
I had a deep desire to keep learning, and a desire to have them know more about our society. We had a kind of cultural exchange; we sang together. My flatmate would try to sing Eastern music and I’d sing Western music, and this brought us closer together, made us like brothers. And just as we shared moments of joy in that house, they also stood beside me during moments of sadness. While I lived with them I received word that my only uncle had died, and they offered me so much compassion and support. Both the mother and her son stood by me and helped me get through that difficult time.
Finally, I want to say to you: it’s true that there were difficulties, in fact nothing is easy. But in the end, I was able to find my place in this society and I learned so much from it.
I’m Joseph Makdisie from Luxembourg 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