An Interview with a Refugee

Image via Vice

Alexa Boncimino speaks with a Syrian refugee named Yazan living in France. Refugees struggle with language barriers, finding work, and meeting people in their temporary new homes. But this refugee has no shortage of hopes and ambitions.

In light of recent attacks in London and Paris and with tragic memories of the attacks September 11th, which remind us that the threat of terrorism exists on our own soil, it is easy to be succumb to fear.  However, decisions made on the basis of fear often neglect the common, which we share with those from far away places, including the Middle East. 

The world today may be divided, but there are exceptions. Take Reims, France: a city which lies around 40 minutes North East of Paris.  Statistically, France has taken less refugees than other large European nations, but the impact of turmoil in the Middle East and European migration is still very visible.  

In Reims, I spoke to a student association, which works to integrate refugees into the community of Reims through French language assistance.  This association works to counter the reality that refugees are quite isolated from the rest of the city.  

Without a working knowledge of French, many struggle to find employment outside of the refugee community itself.  As expected, children develop language skills quickly. But when working with adults, the association says that barriers of language easily become barriers of understanding.

Language is the primary obstacle which divides the refugee community of Reims from the rest of its citizens.  The association does its utmost to assist refugees with language acquisition.

Given the divide which language and politics can pose, images and stories have become the solution to bridging the gap between people.  Photos, such as that of Omran Daqneesh, the Syrian boy who became the face of the refugee crisis, remind us that refugees are people not statistics.

This was my motivation behind interviewing Yazan, a Syrian refugee who is currently rebuilding his life in France.  Yazan is a poet and a journalist.  Yazan came to France via Jordan after leaving Syria in 2011.  Yazan is from Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria just north of the border with Jordon.   Daraa is also commonly referred to as the “cradle of the revolution,” as it was there that protests following the arrest of fifteen students for anti-government graffiti sparked the Syrian Uprising.  

While in Syria, Yazan was called for obligatory military service but left for Jordan, unwilling to work for the Assad regime.   Yazan then found himself in the Zaatari refugee camp across the Jordanian border.  However, he was lucky.  He spent only a night in the camp due to the dire conditions he met there.  Population at the Zaatari camp grew extremely rapidly after the outbreak of the Civil War in Syria and concerns quickly emerged regarding the lack of sufficient food supplies, the state of the accommodations, and a surge in crime reports.  

After one day in the camp, Yazan left due to what he describes as terrible living conditions and a lack of communication with the outside world.  He then began living with other refugees, whose situations he reported as being much worse than his own.  Not wanting to accept aid from the Jordanian government, Yazan began working several part time jobs.  These were small jobs outside of his specialty in poetry and journalism.  

However, he was eventually caught by the Jordanian labor ministry as an illegal worker and was sent back to Syria.  Because he was requested for military service, Yazan was unable to go home, and he began living close to the Jordanian border for several months.  He described fearing for his life in the last few days on the border as fighting quickly intensified in the region.  Compared to others, Yazan acknowledges that he was very lucky.  For one, he had the opportunity to leave the refugee camp when he did.  He also had poet friends in France, who were able to contact the French foreign ministry on his behalf.

Yazan came to France in 2014.  Again, he was lucky.  Yazan’s story also highlights the difference which connections and assets can make in refugee status.  I have spoken to many others who made the perilous journey to Europe via sea and who lost many loved ones along the way.  

I will never forget speaking with one Sudanese man who traveled from Sudan to Italy on a raft. “60 people went into the sea,” he said, another way of saying that they drowned during the journey.  Yazan’s relative privilege is also what facilitated this interview, as most refugees I have interacted with do not have the level of proficiency in French or English to share their stories. 

Yazan states that he was aware of the political situation in France before he came.  He knew about the refugee crisis, the economic situation, and the high unemployment rate.  He did not choose France; however, he is happy and grateful to be there.  The main problem, he says, is not being able to find a job.  He writes articles where he can, but it only brings in around one hundred euros per month.  The language barrier remains a problem. 

While he is actively seeking work, he is entirely starting from scratch in France.  In Syria, he was a journalist with an area of specialty.  He was also studying law in Damascus.  He wants to finish his studies, but there are obstacles.  For one, in his mid-thirties, he is too old for the French bursary system, which provides educational funds to refugees.  In the future, when he has saved the money, he would also like to study politics and psychology, as he is particularly interested in working on the psychological effects of war on children. 

One of the main issues, he finds, is that he is unable to make many friends.  It is an issue which I have heard from many refugees during my time in France.  Like many others, he feels that this would allow him to adapt and to learn the French language.  He also feels that it would help him with his current goal of moving forward.  He is determined not to let the situation in Syria affect his psychological state or the beginnings of his life in France.   

Yazan hopes to soon be fluent in French and to the read French poets in their native tongue rather than translated to Arabic. He would like to find a job and for the war to end.  

Most of all, he hopes that one day he and his fellow refugees will be able to return home.

Alexa Boncimino is a student at Columbia University. She is interested in issues pertaining to refugee resettlement.

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