I am Haysam Youssef and I’m 55 years old. I left Syria in 1989. I was in my fourth year studying law at the University of Aleppo and my goal in leaving the country was to set sail and see the world by finding a job at sea. I did in fact realize this dream, visiting 58 countries over the course of my work.
I never thought I’d be away for so long or that I’d never go back to Syria, but that’s exactly what happened. Being away was difficult in the early days, but it got easier as time went on and I was able to move on with my life. Here I am today in Greece, a country I love dearly. I’ve been greatly inspired by its legends, and influenced by its great writers and directors and their lives. After ten years as a seaman, I had the opportunity to settle here, when, by chance, they opened up the opportunity for those in the country illegally to amend their residency status. And though I was in the country legally on a valid visa, I applied for a residency permit, which was approved, and I got to realize my long-held dream of living in this country.
In the beginning I had a very difficult time of it, but I made some progress step by step. After 8 years here I married a woman from my own country who followed me here to Greece. Meanwhile, I’d gotten to know a Greek family, a mother and her middle-aged daughter. We became quite close and spoke often, and so I decided to find a home near them, in the same building. After my wife arrived in Greece I was involved in a massive car accident. I spent about 16 months in bed, and my Greek neighbors truly became my family and support system, never leaving my side. My wife had only in fact been in Greece for around two months at that point and didn’t know the language at all. Every day they brought her to the hospital to see me and then took her back home. They took care of her like their own daughter. This is why I never felt far from my family, because they were my family, even closer than family.
The Greeks in general are very hospitable people and they love Syrians. Their lifestyle is very similar to ours; it was very easy for me to enter their society. I adapted to them quickly, living among them and celebrating their holidays and festivals. They never once made me feel like a stranger or foreigner, and they never once shied away from an opportunity to make me feel incredibly well taken care of. It’s a wonderful society, an extremely beautiful country. I loved everything about this country and I never imagined that it would open its arms to me and embrace me so fully. I now have Greek citizenship, and I’m so happy to belong to this country. I don’t hide the admiration I feel for the Greek spirit that has entered me and inhabited my soul.
It was an amazing sight the way they’d head down to the port every time a ship full of Syrians arrived. They’d greet them and bring them food and blankets—it’s something you’d rarely see in another society in Europe. They are a hospitable people, a beautiful people. I’ve lived among them and never felt like a stranger. I hear from friends who ended up in other European countries about how they suffered; thank God I never suffered. When I’ve had friends visit me here from the US or other countries they were “shocked” by the way people think and live here. When I applied to receive my citizenship they asked me very precise questions, they wanted to know exactly what kind of person wanted to acquire Greek nationality. My answers were excellent and so was my interaction with them. Now I have a son here in Greece, and he holds both Syrian and Greek citizenship, but he doesn’t know Syria at all. I taught him Arabic; he speaks it well. During this last period of Covid-19 confinement I taught him how to read and write Arabic. He needs to feel a sense of Arab belonging, and because I love the Arabic language I planted the seed of that love in my son’s mind as well. We live here like any other Arab family, practicing our own customs and traditions, preserving them in our own home, and then outside the house we have respect for the people we live among and for their opinions.
I will repeat it again: life is wonderful here, and we have nothing to complain about. Greek society remains very close to our Syrian one, and their mentality, the way they think and live is very similar to ours.