Abu Zuhair

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Peaceful Coexistence in the Diaspora,
Original Interview Length:
Interview Location: Marseille, France
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Abu Zuhair is 51 years old and is originally from Syria. He went to France in 1985 to study physics on a university scholarship. After 3 years, he stopped studying but did not go back to Syria until 10 years later due to his work as a former employee in one of the official departments in Syria.

After being almost 5 years in France, he started working, got married and decided to change his educational specialisation. He joined a university to study local administration and economics. He says, "I worked in commerce, restaurants and opened a store in the Arab market. I had a place and I was bringing goods from Syria - wedding dresses, Jalabia, full sets, evening dresses, dancing suits."  He also confirms that the market at the time was strong.

In the nineties, despite the university degree he obtained, Abu Zuhair was unable to work in the public sector in the field of local administration and politics because "the responsibilities and the circumstances of life make a person changes his ambition.” He says, "I applied for a job for the first time when I gained my citizenship but it was not easy, especially during the racist period in the 1990s. It used to be impossible to find an official but now there is a person in every ministry who is originally Arab. Of course, this affected me a lot because my ambition still exists.”

Abu Zuhair left Paris, and went to Marseille, where he currently lives. He says, "I worked in a restaurant while I was studying. I combined work and study." He got married and his wife gave birth to their first child a girl.  He says, "then I left the restaurant because I had different desires. I wanted to work on my own. I opened a clothing store, and after five or six years, I opened a restaurant next to it.  A couple of years later, I sold it because of the workload.”

In 1997, Abu Zuhair returned to Syria after finalising his official papers with the government. He did not have a passport due to the scholarship. His return was long and difficult, which is why he stayed for 10 years. Afterwards, he entered with his French passport.  In 2004, he opened a shop selling wedding dresses and dancing clothes. He says, “my work was 90% with the locals. The Arabs were not interested in the goods I imported from Egypt, Jordan and Syria.”

Abu Zuhair learnt French immediately as he studied at the university and his other language was English. Depending on the city he was living in, he changed his accent. He says, “"The first six months after my arrival, I learned French at the same university I was studying. We studied mathematics and physics in French, which helped us learn the language and progress in our studies at the same time. He comments on how long it took him to learn the different accents.  He says, “I don’t know, I can’t judge myself, it is other people who judge my language skills, but I speak French naturally.  When I was in Paris, I had a Parisian accent and when I came here (Marseille) they laughed at me because I sounded like a Parisian. When I had been here five or six years, I started to speak with the Marseille accent. " With regards to his integration into society and the Arabs and Syrians in Paris, Abu Zuhair says, "I used to organise and attend the activities of a civil society. I organised a meet-up at the sea a few days ago (August 2019) for the Syrians and a feast as well.  The trip to the sea was for the Syrian families to get to know each other. I stopped organising parties - the last one was in 2013.” In addition to the clothing store he has, Abu Zuhair seeks to progress his work by organising activities to unite Syrians and help them adapt. He says," Of course I am here every day to help them with administration.  This office is dedicated to helping refugees and Arabs with their administration and paperwork.” During the conversation about Syrian refugees, Abu Zuhair says that, "The young Syrians and the children who came here adapted more quickly to the environment than the elderly people. Women who go out frequently adapt faster too. There are also reserved families who finds it very hard to integrate.” After tens of years of living in France, Abu Zuhair says, "My mind, my standards and my thinking are 100% French but not my blood! This important point has repercussions politically, administratively and culturally. I do not have Syrian papers, nor an identity card, nor a passport nor a recruiting notebook!”

He remembers his family in the countryside of Damascus, and his small town called Al-Saboura. He longs for his childhood there. He is always in contact with his family but his father passed away a few months ago. He had visited his father in Lebanon at the beginning of 2019. He says, "I am the only one who does not live there; the whole family lives in in Al-Saboura.” Abu Zuhair currently lives in France with his wife, who is from Algeria. He has a son and a daughter, and is currently taking care of a third child, his wife’s nephew. He says, “We adopted him after his mother died. His father did not want to take responsibility and left.”