Michaal is 41 years old and from Damascus. He has a Master’s degree. While living in Damascus, he often travelled abroad for work, including to France. When the situation worsened in Syria, he came to France on the long-term visa he had already been granted for work, and after six months passed, he requested permission to stay. After a short stay in Paris, he came to Marseille, where he had some friends. During the 6-month stay on this visa, he cut off all contact with Arab and Syrian communities and studied French on his own from 9am to 7pm daily. “I was reading in French every spare minute, on the metro, everywhere.”
He also went to every cultural and intellectual event he could -festivals, museums, concerts, lectures at the university - and met many, many people, all French. He made friends quickly and at one point he was living with three friends in exchange for cooking for them. They also spent 2-3 hours a night helping him with his language studies.
He started to give private lessons in English to French people as he had acquired good English through his university studies and international travel while living in Syria. He also registered his translations services in the Chamber of Commerce and got occasional jobs translating at conferences at the rate of 500 Euros a day for three days. One friend told another commercially powerful person in Marseille: “I do not know how you will do it but you have to find a way to get him a good job.” This happened a few days later. Michaal also really wanted to teach at the university and so he went there often to attend lectures, introduced himself to relevant departments, and offered to teach. It so happened that a professor was absent and they needed someone to cover him. Michaal was in the right place at the right time and they hired him. He was later given several classes to teach on a regular basis. A little over a year after arriving in France with no French skills, he was teaching business management courses in French. He also received French nationality in half the regular time because of the intervention of friends of friends in high places whom he met in parties he attended.
He said this first period of making so many French friends enabled him get established. He felt that once he started working, he would rather have a group or two of core friends.
One thing that changed in him was a habit that is common in Syria of constantly judging others, even making fun of them. He says they used to make fun of people returning from the Gulf countries who are now doing so much better than those who mocked them. He says he now is more accepting of difference and two of his closest friends are a lesbian couple and he has no problem with this, of course. Michaal more recently reintegrated Syrians into his social life and now has a mix of friends.
His wife will give birth to their first child soon and he worries about raising him, in terms of his child’s identity and languages. He says there are so many Syrian refugees and immigrants living in contradiction, not know who they are anymore or what to do. He says in terms of religious practice, there are Muslims who drink, fast during Ramadan, and go about leading rather immoral lives, all in an incoherent jumble.
He is thinking of returning to Syria (and he had been visiting Syria and family since in France). After all that determination to integrate and his remarkable success, why? He says he misses most of all his daily ritual of meeting an older friend, a mentor, in Damascus at a certain café at 10 am every morning to talk and enjoy a cup of coffee. He says his friend passed away recently. Michaal has very close and lovely French friends but this kind of intimacy in friendship, an uncalculated habit and time shared no matter what, is impossible elsewhere. And this is most important to him.