Part 1: A British-Syrian’s experience of a refugee’s journey

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Part 1: A British-Syrian’s experience of a refugee’s journey

By Danny Ryan Youssef


A damaged street with sandbags as barriers in Aleppo's Saif al-Dawla district, Syria March 6, 2015. © Reuters/Hosam Katan/File Photo

The reality of civil war and migration brings cruelty and hope, writes Danny Ryan Youssef in part one of this three part blog series.

I am a British-Syrian. I grew up in London and I have enjoyed the benefits of two fantastic cultures. My childhood was similar to other British schoolboys. I was interested in football and fun. I was never very popular but I had a small group of friends and was generally happy. But I was confused about my identity. Every summer, and sometimes at Christmas, my family and I spent a month or two in Syria, and my other life began. I spent my time with a different group of friends who thought and behaved differently; this was an extended family with more conservative values than my parents and a very different lifestyle from my life in London. I loved it. I spent my days playing with my many cousins, visiting my dad’s old village in the mountains, or by the beach where my sister and her friends wore bikinis next to others in a hijab.

With these two different lives I was not sure which culture I really belonged to. As time passed and I grew up and I realized that I belong to both. I was as British as my friends: I screamed for England at the World Cup, sand the national anthem and had the same liberal views as my friends and neighbours. But, with the guidance and wisdom of my parents, I realized that this did not mean I could not also have a connection to Syria. I loved my family in Syria, I believed in (most) of the strong Syrian family values, and I enjoyed the Syrian way of socializing as much as the British. Until the Syrian civil war started.


Residents in the damaged buildings in the rebel held area of Old Aleppo, Syria May 5, 2016. Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail

Since then, I never returned to that beautiful country, and I am afraid I never will. I studied at University, trying to avoid conversations about Syria and tried to forget all the happy memories of Syria. Sometimes I remembered - the homes we ran around in, the homes we played soldiers in, were now destroyed. And I cried. I had a British girlfriend at the time who understood this. But I began to distance myself from Syria to protect myself. I became a colder person. My mother, a very strong woman, an NHS doctor, cried about events and I tried to help her. But I couldn’t understand what she was feeling.

Time passed and I began to forget; and I was happy to forget. My life was going well; I had a good degree, a close group of friends, and a high-paying job that allowed me to travel. I continued like this until September 2015 when I was on holiday at Budapest’s Keleti railway station. I saw all around me the terrible consequences of the Syrian civil war.


Migrants sleep outside Keleti station, which is closed to them, on Sept. 2, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Freedom House

Like many other tourists who had heard about events on the news, I had gone to Keleti train station to donate some goods before finishing my holiday. It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing: a full transit camp in a modern European train station. It was so strange: hundreds of tents outside modern shops and restaurants, commuters walking over sleeping children. Then I saw that these exhausted people had the same accent as my family and I, that they were from the same places that we were from and that, even though they looked different from me, we were the same. As I stood there, confused, I saw a small girl running to a food stall wearing the pink coat I had donated. I felt a strange emotion. I went to speak to her, she was very shy, her name was Nour, she was from Idlib and she was hungry. The kind people at the food stall gave her as much as she could carry and she went to find her family. The people at the food stall saw that I spoke to Nour in Arabic and asked if I could help them give out food. I agreed and spent the next day working there, becoming more emotional as I spent the time talking to so many refugees.

Most people going through Keleti station were trying to get to Germany, men, women, children and whole families. It was chaos. Everyone knew this ‘golden opportunity’ to get to Europe wouldn’t last forever. They came from many different backgrounds: from big cities like Damascus and Aleppo, to small rural villages like my father’s in the mountains. Some came with lots of belongings; others came with nothing. I started to realize that this wasn’t just one group of people fleeing, it was a whole country, my country. There were all types of people, generations, genders, professions and personalities.


Refugees storm into a train at the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary, September 3, 2015 as Hungarian police stopped blocking their entry.Freedom House

In Keleti I saw the kindness of people as well as the cruelty. One family that had just arrived had done so with nothing but their clothes. The father had his son on his shoulder, his wife was carrying the youngest in a sling and holding her eldest daughter’s hand. They were trying to get to Vienna to cross into Germany. It was getting late and the last train was about to go. The team at the food stall got together to make sure the family got on the train. We found train tickets, packed them as much food as possible, pointed them in the right direction and told them to run. At the last moment we remembered to ask them if they knew what they were going to do when they got to Vienna. ‘No’ was the answer, but the train was about to go and the father really wanted them to get on it. They began to move and the team looked quickly for some warm clothes for if the family had to sleep on the street in Vienna. A colleague took off his hoody and jacket and gave it to the family. They tried to say no, but he made them take it. They couldn’t stop thanking him. My colleague didn’t want any thanks he just told them to run for the train.

But there was also cruelty. Three young teenagers arrived at the food stall, one girl and two boys. They were very upset and the young girl was crying. The police who guarded the stairs had robbed them and said they would arrest them if they didn’t give him what they had. The three of them had $1,140 to get them through the journey and start a new life in Europe. There was very little we could do, and we couldn’t go to the police. The boss of the food stall got a few hundred dollars from some generous people, but nothing could help with their experience of persecution and intimidation by police.

The main feeling I got from the people passing through was that they were good human beings. Honest, kind people who had done nothing to deserve this. Because I speak Arabic with a Syrian accent, most of the refugees were as comfortable speaking to me as they were speaking to each another. And most of them, amazingly, still had a sense of humour. The kids were still cheeky, the parents still wanted the best for their family and the young people were bright and ambitious.

The people I met in Keleti were no different from the people I had known all those years ago when Syria wasn’t just a war zone. My memories started to return. Memories of playing basketball by the sea with my Syrian friends and talking about our life ambitions in the local cafés. Most of all I started to think about all of the family members whose love I had enjoyed for so many years, and how terrible I was to distance myself from them when things got difficult.

See parts two of this blog series next week.