An unheard voice – Interview with a Syrian student

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The Syrian civil war that started in 2011 was a consequence of the 50-year-old dictatorship. What started out as peaceful protests for freedom turned into rebellion due to the violent response of the government. The rebels supported by neighbouring countries became serious armed forces, then even the Kurds, a minority living in Syria, joined in. Of course, the government, who is backed by Russia, did not give up the fight, either. Using it to their advantage, terrorists infiltrated the rebels who finally took over in the north of Syria in 2013. That’s where they proclaimed themselves the Islam Caliphate. The story is far from being straightforward, it has many aspects, there are many sides, everyone is supported by others, and the interests confront. The situation is very complicated, therefore some topics are dealt with in the most superficial way.

With that in mind, a Syrian student caught my attention with his introduction in his essay about Orwell’s novell 1984. In his writing, he compared his country to the dictatorship of Oceania where systematic oppression, observation and „thoughtcrime” exist. That’s when I decided to ask him if he would like to participate in an interview in which he tells his story and experiences of a world we have no idea about. His experiences, based on which we will get a piece of what he has seen over the years. 

I am asking Nasir Hak now, which is an alias, because he did not want his real name to be featured. He is scared that they would take revenge on his family and relatives in Syria. This is his story. 

You asked me not to use your real name, because you are afraid that they would take revenge on your parents in Syria for what you say. Whom are you afraid of? Why and how are they still there? 

Nasir Hak:Basically, it’s a dictatorship that is known for its surveillance capabilities. They would track people down and arrest them or their family members. The government has many security branches, for example a military security branch, a police security branch and many others and each of them has its own name. One of them is even called the Palestinian security branch and it does not have anything to do with Palestine. They just use the name to show their support of the Palestinian cause. These intelligence agencies are what I am afraid of, because we grew up in a state where our parents and grandparents always told us „The walls have ears, be careful what you say!”. 

My parents and most of my relatives are still there, because they cannot afford to leave the country. If you want to flee, you either have to do it illegally and it costs you a lot of money to pay the smugglers and many others. To do it legally, you need a visa. After the revolution, most of the countries closed their embassies in Syria. They do not want to deal with the Syrian government anymore, because they realized it’s a dictatorship and killing its own civilians. Closing the embassies had a negative effect on people who wanted to leave.

My parents are still in the city I grew up in, because my region was not affected by the war or the bombings very much, we are a religious minority there. Most of the people chose not participate in anything, because we were afraid to protest. That does not mean that we did not have protests, but it was very little compared to other cities. Six months into the demonstrations, the regime started ordering the military to shoot the protestors. My people chose not send their sons to the military, because they did not want to kill other Syrians. Since we barely protested, people from other provinces came to ours to be refugees inside Syria. We ended up becoming a protective area. 

My province is called As Suwayda, it’s in the south of Syria, next to Dara’a, the place where the revolution started. Some people in Dara’a were moved by the Arabian Spring protests taking place in other Arab countries like Tunisia or Egypt because of their own dictatorships, so they started to go out to the streets demanding the removal of the current regime. Some children in Dara’a wrote on the school walls „Down with the regime!”. These children were arrested and tortured and that is what sparked the entire revolution. 

Do you remember the day when people realized that it was actually a civil war? How was it? Could frequent protests be distinguished from the war itself?

Nasir Hak:Initially, it was not a civil war, because protestors were peaceful. They kept doing that for a year and a half. It started on the 15th of March in 2011, and people did not use guns. These demonstrations were happening in the entire Arab world. All the countries have dictatorships. For example in Syria the dictatorship started in 1970, we had one president from 1970 until 2001. Then his son became the president after having made modifications to the constitution, so they can transfer the presidency from the father to the son. Now the son has been in power for 20 years. So we are talking about a 50-year dictatorship. It’s the same thing in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. All of these places that we hear about have had 1 or 2 rulers from the same family since they gained independence from the colonial powers. So it wasn’t a civil war until people from the military started defecting, because they refused to shoot their own people. They formed something called the Free Syrian Army and started defending the protests. They didn’t shoot first, only protected the protestors. If the official military started shooting the protestors, they would shoot back just to defend these people. That’s when people started thinking it was a civil war. 

When the city of Homs started protesting, it was around 500.000 to 1 million people on the city’s main square and the government bombed their neighbourhoods from airplanes. Throwing bombs at these people. Like a capital punishment. They thought „if these people don’t want us, we will teach them a lesson”. That’s what created the refugee crisis starting from 2013 to 2015. First they were fleeing inside Syria and to Turkey and Lebanon or Jordan, but even these countries couldn’t accept them anymore, so they headed to Europe. They wanted a safe place, because in the neighbouring Arab countries, they were sometimes sold as slaves. A rich man would come and marry a girl as young as 16 just because they have so much money and parents are forced to accept that. These people did not want to live under these circumstances or in camps there. Camps in Europe were much better, not tents at least.

Would the situation have been the same in rich Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia?

Nasir Hak:Yes, because Saudi Arabia doesn’t want us, Syrians. We are different than them. Saudi Arabia actually supported the Free Army with logistics, but they never wanted to do anything for the people, because they just did not care about us.

Many people in Europe asked the question why Syrians don’t go to rich, Arab countries that are close to them. 

Nasir Hak:Because they didn’t open their borders. You can’t just go in there. Syria has so many minorities and not all of them are muslims. The minority I am from is called Druze, it is considered a sect of Islam in the Levant countries. However, other more strict Muslim countries, like the Arab Peninsula countries do not really acknowledge us, because we have our own religious philosophy. Actually, the Druze religion’s real name is The People of Monotheism, and some sources say that the movement dates back way before Islam. But anyway, in Syria there are many Islamic sects other than Sunnies like Alawites and Ismaeilies and these have sects inside of them, too, and other religions like Christianity ( 10% of the population: Catholic, Orthodox and others) and ethnicities like Kurds, Jews, Armenians and many others. And by the way, people from all of these backgrounds participated in the revolution. So we are not entirely an Muslim country and that’s what makes it hard for so many of us to go to other more strict Muslim Arab countries.

If you had the same religion, would they accept you as refugees?

Nasir Hak:No. It’s easier for a person to go to Europe than the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. Even legally.

Many people did not know that there was a dictatorship in Syria. How was it manifested? Tell us about the everydays.

Nasir Hak:As I have already mentioned, the first dictator, the father, Hafez Al Assad acquired the presidency in 1970 after a military coup and killed all of his rivals. He established a dictatorship with one party and a one-party rule. It is called Al Baath Party. Of course, there were elections every 7 years, but there were no other candidates.

There was a lot of surveillance. You couldn’t speak anything or criticize the government. In the 1980s the province of Hama had protests, they followed the same method. Bombed the people, killed and arrested them. If you take a look at the population of Syrian prisons, you will find that the majority of the people in there are political prisoners. Because they dared to criticize the government. There was torture and killing inside the prison, electricity was used, submerging underwater, sometimes they would fabricate a story about the person that he or she is working for the Americans or the Israelis and was paid to criticize the government or protest. 

This person was in power until 2001. The constitution was modified to make his son, Bashar Al Assad the president. There were no elections or candidates, he just appeaared in front of the people in the Parliament and the TV, saying that „I am going to be your next president!”

Before the son acquired the power, the only TV channels that were allowed were the Syrian ones. People weren’t allowed to be exposed to any foreign media. The son changed that, and that’s when computers became available the public. When normal people could buy them. But there was no internet until 2007. Facebook comments were totally under control. They were everywhere. 

There were a lot of interviews with refugees back then. They all claimed that Syria had been a rich country and that they had earned a lot of money. As far as I know, a dictatorship is not famous for providing its citizens with a decent life. How do you remember it?

Nasir Hak:It was somehow a decent life since the son became president. Before that, people were on the verge of poverty. If your parents worked in a governmental job, they earned a decent salary that can provide the basics of living, but no luxuries. They obviously got a salary, but it was nothing compared to Europe. Most of the people are working class. We were living in peace because no one dared to criticise the government. We were forced to accept what they were offering. No one was really happy. Everyone realized that they could make more money and live a better life, but they were humble, they just wanted a home, their family and nothing more. If it’s there for them, they dont bother with anything else. But there were so many intellectuals that criticized the government that „We can be better, we can do other things, we can invest in our country and do big projects”. But of course, they were chased after or arrested or forced to leave Syria. Because Syria indeed is a rich country. We have oil, cotton, wheat, so much export. Still, 80% of the money was going into the military, because the government always planted in us that we are fighting Israel. It was spent on weapons. They have never tried to attack Israel or do anything that showed their opinion on the occupation of Palestine. They just used it as an umbrella and actually, the money was going to the president’s family and relatives from the mother’s and the father’s side. All the people had left was crumbles. But the crumbles were just enough to make a decent living. Since I was born, my father has worked 2 jobs. He was a teacher during the day and worked in a restaurant afterwards. So many people are like this. 2 jobs are necessary to be able to get by.

What was it like in 2011? Have you been in a refugee camp? If yes, for how long? How did you end up here? What other countries had you been to until you got here?

Nasir Hak:2011 was an exciting year, because people finally broke this wall of silence. They were actually able to scream and demand their rights. That was a weird feeling, because you always lived in a state of fear. „I can’t do anything, what if they hurt me? What if they took someone from my family?” So many people went out to the streets. At first, nobody thought it was a revolution. 

Children get brainwashed from the age of 6. Do you remember the novel? The Youth League in it. We had something like that. Once you enter school, you are immediately admitted to an organization called The Children of Al Baath Party and they start stuffing their head with this propaganda and big statements. „We are fighters and we need to free our lands from the occupation!” 

When I was in the eleventh grade in 2011, at first I believed „No, this can’t be happening. These people must have an agenda. They cannot be screaming freedom.” After a month, when I saw the government torturing children, I was like „No, we should all participate in this. Take our lives back. Take matters into our own hands.” It was a significant year in my life. These memories will stay with me forever.

In my high school I often criticized the government, therefore they filed a search warrant for me. My high school years were spent with security people coming for me every once in a while to ask me what I do, whom I contact, why I talk about the government at school. 

I have never been in a refugee camp. Although I have relatives and friends who lived in these camps in Europe, Lebanon and Jordan. They say that Europe is much better. They actually give you a place to live. Not a tent. 

I ended up here because when I entered university, I was an architecture student in the province of Lattakia. It’s a coastal province in the north. My home is in the south. I was studying there. 

When I became a university student, I had to cross the whole country by bus to get there. The trip would take 12 hours even though I travelled from Budapest to Berlin in 12 hours by going through 4 countries. But Syria is a small country. You might ask how it took 12 hours. Because every hour on the road there is a military checkpoint. You have to show your papers, prove that you are a student and if you are not, they can capture you and take you to serve in the military. If they were in a bad mood, they kept you there for an hour and you missed your bus. That’s why many young men escaped the country. They did not want to serve and kill their own people. They did not want to be killed, either. 

So it took me 12 hours to get to my university and it was nerve-racking. The bus used to cross dangerous areas subject to bombing, the bus assistant would come up to me and pull the bus curtain, then looked me in the eye and said that there were snipers there. They might shoot the bus, that’s why it’s necessary. It was dangerous and scary. I left the university, because I couldn’t afford living in a remote city while the currency was getting weaker. 

I went back home and started looking for scholarships. After 2 years of doing nothing, only working in translation, the only job I could do as my English is my best skill, I applied for a Hungarian scholarship and I was accepted, then I came here and started studying physics. Then I changed my major, because I wanted to do something related with humanities. I want to be a journalist, a voice of the unheard people. 

Many people in Europe did not understand why young men came here instead of fighting terrorists in the country. Can you explain it?

Nasir Hak:Because they are civilians. They are not military people. Most of them are women, old people, children. They don’t want to be killed, either. One cannot ask people to fight terrorists. It’s the job of the government. But the government itself is not fighting the terrorists. 

3 years ago, after my first year in Hungary, I went back to Syria in the summer. There were around 5 suicidal bombings in my province. And an attack against border villages by ISIS, and the government did not do anything about it, because ISIS was made by the Syrian regime.  It was people from my province that used their guns and sticks and knives to fight ISIS. Once the revolution started, the Syrian regime did a very tricky thing. They released all the criminals from the prisons and planned to hire them as mercenaries to fight the protestors. These people became the ISIS. Just like Jihadi groups were armed in Afghanistan to drive out the Russians and what later became Al-Qaeda. They made this whole play in Syria to make protestors look like terrorists. 

How do you like Hungary? Many people say we are living in a dictatorship here. What is your opinion about that? 

Nasir Hak:First of all, I like Hungary. It gave me a chance to change my life. And to be safe. That’s the main thing. To be safe and feel human. In Syria, you don’t acually feel like a human. I’ll also try to apply for a scholarship for the second time to do my master’s degree. I wasn’t really focused on the social life in Hungary very much, because I wanted to study and actually do something with my life, because I have already wasted a lot of years after leaving the university in Syria. The university environment, the professors, the students, all of them were friendly, I have never experienced anything annoying. Although in the supermarkets I get these looks, but I am foreigner. I stopped worrying about that a long time ago. Some of the places I go to buy things from are already familiar, they know me there, these looks are turned into smiles. Some of them try to speak to me in English, because I haven’t got the chance to learn Hungarian. Pécs is a quiet and lovely place. It reminds me of my own city.

I can’t say anything about the government, because I am not a taxpayer. I am a guest, so I can’t criticize it. If I were a citizen, I would have my opinion.

How do people react when they realize that you are Syrian? Do they have many questions about the situation there? 

Nasir Hak:Not really. Most of them will approach with a feeling of pity. I don’t really like that. I would prefer that they say „Your people are brave! Good job! You are not going to be defeated! You have to keep following your cause!” Not all of them have many questions, because I have mostly dealt with people close to my age and what I have realized is that Hungarians are not really concerned with politics. I was shocked that people from the English Studies department aren’t very much concerned with politics. For me, it’s one of the reasons why I chose this major. Because I am concered with politics and cultures. 

Do you talk to your old friends? Where are they now?

Nasir Hak:Every day. I talk to some of them every day. They are all over the place. I have friends and family in Germany, my best friend is in the Netherlands, other friends in Spain, Ukraine and Romania. These are the people I grew up with. 

I did not have to go to the military, because I am an only male child in the family. My parents have me and my sister. Most of my friends have male brothers. So they should have joined the army, but escaped Syria instead. All of them were university students at home. They are attending a university now as well. They became refugees, but after learning the language, doing the integration process, most of them are enrolled in universities. Some of them are studying architecture, photography, journalism, fine arts. Most of us became impressed with humanities because of what happened to us and our people.

What do you miss the most?

Nasir Hak:Right now, I miss my parents. I miss the little things. Hanging out with my friends, being with them, talking to them. Hug them, be there for them. My little sister and my relatives. My aunts, who raised me alongside my parents. 

When do you think Syria will be safe again? Would you ever like to go back?

Nasir Hak:I don’t know when it’s going to be safe again. Right now, it’s bigger than Syria. Bigger powers are fighting all over the Syrian land. Russia, Iran, America. Fighting over my land. I don’t think it’s going to be safe anytime soon. Of course, I would like to go back. But I don’t know when. It’s not a place good for living right now. Especially if are in your twenties trying to start your life. You can’t live in a place where one US dollar is worth 3000 Syrian Pounds. If you apply for a job, you will get a payment of 50.000 Syrian Pounds, your salary would be around 20-30$ a month. Can you imagine that? 

How do your parents get by there? 

Nasir Hak:Both of them are retirees. They don’t have governmental jobs anymore. My father was a teacher of tourism at the local high school, and now, he gives private lessons to tourism students and German and English lessons because he is well-spoken in both of them. My mother has recently started giving private lessons in mathematics and Arabic language to primary school kids in our neighborhood.  That’s how they get by. 

Thank you for the interview! Good luck with your studies!

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