My name is Omar, and I’m 33 years old. I’m a Syrian writer and journalist. I’d basically decided to move to Cyprus back in 2008, but the circumstances were never really suitable until, unfortunately, the situation in Syria gave me the push to actually leave. I arrived in Cyprus in December 2015. I picked this island to live on because my brothers have all been living here for over 20 years now. Since I have family here, I thought I wouldn’t feel this sense of alienation, but things proved in fact very different, because society here is very different than it is in Syria. The climate is quite similar, and so are some of the traditions and customs tied to food and the way people communicate. But personal culture is something else, and the isolation of the island has in one way or another really impacted the nature of the society here, in that they’re not very open to communicating with foreigners until they learn the local language. That’s why I enrolled in a university to learn Greek, and I kept at it for about two years—well, one year and nine months. The course was extremely difficult. I’m not so proficient in English, which actually forced me to grasp enough Greek to be able to have conversations in it, and so I managed to build some relations and friendships.
I felt somewhat close to my country in Cyprus; I didn’t feel so estranged. My brothers were really instrumental in this since I was able to have conversations with them in our own language, and to keep up with the customs and rituals that are part of our culture. But there was still a distance, the distance of the cultural clash between our two societies. I’m a pretty social person, but here I needed the key of language to be able to communicate with people. My brothers’ lifestyle wasn’t really suitable to me, and so I lived apart from them, moving to my own place with my little brother who had come with me from Syria. This impacted us negatively however, because it allowed us to live our days in isolation for three years, until my proficiency with the Greek language let me break that bubble and pierce through our isolation.
Speaking of learning the language, I’d like to tell a story about some things that happened to me that helped strengthen my sense of belonging to this society here. I’ve always believed that language is a bridge of communication with others, no matter the language, whether it’s Greek or sign language or the language of music or literature or the common language of speech. So I deiced to learn Greek, and I started from absolute scratch so that I could eventually use this tool in my life and in writing. At the same time, my profession is fundamentally dependent on language, and Arabic is my mother tongue; I don’t speak any English.
When I started learning Greek, I became friends with my private tutor, who wasn’t part of the teaching staff at the University of Cyprus. By the way, I used to travel 80km back and forth to get from my home in Larnaca to the university in the capital city of Nicosia. So I needed someone closer with whom I could review my Greek lessons. My teacher was both a good guide and a good friend who really gave me the keys to unlock the language, and I was able to explain to her what I wanted from the language and what I wanted to learn exactly and where I wanted to go with it. This relationship with my teacher grew my love for the language in a slow and very calm way, as though I were watering a garden in my imagination, a new garden with new kinds of flowers and new smells and a totally different landscape.
I continued with my lessons at the University of Cyprus and continued reviewing them with my tutor. The first time I tried writing in Greek, I kept thinking in Arabic and trying to translate it into Greek, but it felt like a kind of personal challenge for me. Afterward, when I had passed levels 4 and 5, I started looking for a place where I could find my passion, and in fact I kept going back to this place that regularly held poetry readings. I read a poem I’d written in Arabic, and there was an accompanying reading of it in Greek, a translation that my friend had undertaken, with help from my tutor of course in editing the text. This was my first piece of writing to be translated, and it made me feel truly present in this new society, present through language, through hearing my voice as a person who writes, as a poet, a writer.
So for me the key to forging a connection was through language. I felt no yearning for traditions or customs or food because my brothers really had that part of things covered for me. But the human connection, that communication between souls and minds, this happened for me through language. Greek is a very difficult language, but it’s enchanting and musical, and is of course a very important literary language.
Greek is my second language, and it helped me open so many doors, to make new friends, to have meaningful exchanges, to share a common passion for writing, for poetry, for an exchange of philosophical ideas and of books and conversations and debates. All of the things I used to have in Syria when I was at my prime. At the age of 28 or 29, I used to work at a television station, I was a journalist, I was writing, I was independent—I’d been independent of my parents since around the age of 12. Then when I got here, I lost the most important key to my life, which was language. After putting in an exhaustive effort, and with the help of friends and with help from the university, which really provided a lot of resources to make things easier, I managed to learn. There were no courses to offer help in coexistence or integration, so I started knocking on doors, trying to find my own way in, because Cyprus isn’t a country that’s really prepared for refugees.
I didn’t see myself as a stranger; I always saw myself as a person who wanted to flavor this culture with a little bit of Syrian, and I also wanted to flavor my Syrian culture with some Greek, to bring Cypriot society closer to me.
There were several little occurrences that strengthened my sense of belonging. There was a restaurant I frequented called Psistaria, a traditional Cypriot restaurant in downtown Larnaca. Once I was speaking in formal Greek to the owner of the place, and she asked me: Why do you speak formal Greek, are you a Turkish Cypriot?
I said no, I’m a refugee.
Refugee, she said, from where?
From Syria, I said.
It means we’re siblings, she replied.
How can we be siblings, I said, if you’re a Cypriot?
I’m a Cypriot, she said, but I’m a refugee who was displaced from the occupied northern region of the country.
This exchange left a lasting impression on me. It made me feel so much more a part of this society, when you hear someone saying to you: “We are siblings in asylum.”
I am Omar from Cyprus, and this is my story.
This summarised transcript of Haneen's story was prepared by Omar Alshikh, edited by Monzer Hayek and translated by Leena Mounzer