Student, 1993, Qamishli, Syria.

My new life started the day a resident family opened up to me

July 17, 2017

I am from Rumilan, a small village close to Qamishli, a city on the Turkish-Syrian border in the Kurdish region of Syria. The city is the capital of the Jazira (Cizre) Canton of Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria, and is considered a center for both the Kurdish and the Assyrian ethnic groups in Syria. I am Syrian.

I’m the youngest child

I have such good memories growing up in my huge family. Life was good then. My sisters looked after me a lot. My father was working for a petrol company and my mother was at home, taking care of me and my siblings. Though my mother never taught me to cook, I have had a strong interest in cooking from a very young age on. Cooking is one of my passions.

The first time in my life I left my hometown was in 2010. I was 17 years old. I left for Damascus. I wanted to live my life, be independent. I was working as a waiter in a small restaurant. Then I progressed to be a bartender. My plan was to open a little business selling sweets like the one my brother managed in Rumilan when I was a child. I combined two jobs while starting my university studies in Damascus. I had a Kurdish girlfriend by then. She went with me to Damascus. She studied psychology. We had a tough time in Damascus, her family did not accept me since I’m not Kurdish but Arabic. She finally left Damascus for Iraq and married someone else. I was heartbroken.

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Mike Zenari

The Syrian civil war

On 12 march 2011, shortly after the Arab Spring spread to Syria, major protests took place in Qamishli to both protest the Assad government and commemorate Kurdish Martyrs Day. The situation got increasingly confusing and dangerous, especially for young men. Many people I knew died under the attacks in 2012.

I left Syria for Lebanon in 2012. I was fleeing from the threat of the mandatory flag service. I had no choice besides joining Assad’s army or the Kurdish army. Both parties requested my entrance to their army.

You don’t have much choice when the Kurds ask you to join their army. Women do have the choice to join or not. I grew up with Kurdish people, I speak their language. I know some Kurdish girls, rebels, who joined the army. I have many Kurdish friends. Kurdish women are very strong minded women, and when they decide something you have to follow, to give in. Some of my Kurdish friends are fighting in Raqqa now.

I left for Lebanon alone

My parents didn’t want to leave everything behind. It wasn’t a good timing for me to leave Syria as I had just started studying journalism at the University in Damascus. The only people I told about my plan were my mother and my sister. By that time, I had never left my homeland. I had no idea on what to expect but I knew many people from my village were established in Beirut. That gave me confidence and strength. Most Syrian refugees have left Syria for neighbouring countries like Lebanon or Turkey.

In 2013, I returned to Syria for one week. My mother had called me back, she missed me. It was risky for me. Both Assad’s army and the Kurdish army were after me. I had no choice other than to leave my country.

Over the last years, all my friends left Syria, one after the other and for the same reason. No one of us wanted to join the killing or run the risk of being killed. Until now I don’t understand why the civil war started. Somehow everything got so confusing.

Mike Zenari
Mike Zenari

I earned my life in Lebanon for almost three years

During that time, I witnessed more and more refugees establishing themselves in Lebanon and consequently how the living conditions dramatically worsened. The first eighteen months in Beirut were okay. I worked as a bartender, very successfully actually. I got more and more responsibilities. Then the mindset and the attitude towards refugees shifted. There were so many refugees arriving. The jobs got scarce, wages dropped. Many Lebanese consider Syrians as a threat to their economy. It got increasingly difficult to find work and earn a decent salary. Refugees were denied access to work.

All that time we hoped the war would stop. But that never happened. I was stuck as I couldn’t go back to Syria due to the war and couldn’t make a living in Lebanon. I couldn’t see any future for me there.

I googled “good countries for refugees”

The situation got so unstable, I started to think about the possibility to leave for Europe. I knew many people who had left Lebanon for Germany. I spent much time reading about the European countries. I googled, “good countries for refugees”. It came out that Belgium in Luxembourg were the right choices for me. The website said, “Open-minded, nice people”. My friends in Germany, though, told me not to go to Luxembourg as they considered the chances to be recognized as a refugee were very small. I didn’t care and made my firm decision to head for Luxembourg.

Mike Zenari
Mike Zenari

Leaving the Middle East felt like an adventure

I left Beirut by flight on 5 November 2015 for Adana, Turkey. From Adana, I went to visit my cousin who lives next to Izmir. I was on the bus for fourteen hours, happy to leave Lebanon and start a new chapter in my life, escaping war and poverty. Leaving the Middle East felt like an adventure. After all, it was the only option I had to change my life for the better.  I was so ready for a new life. I was full of hope.

I travelled light

All I took was an old rucksack mainly filled with clothes. I took one book, a present a friend once gave me: a sad novel about life and love that moved me. I also took my passport, my Syrian ID, the letter the regime sent me to get me to register in the army, some university papers, and my phone. That’s all. I left Turkey very early early in the morning on 26 November 2015. The smugglers put me on a wooden boat, a kind of fisher boat. We were more than 140 people on the ship. Mostly Iraqi people. The children were scared and crying.

Mike Zenari
Mike Zenari

The sea was not good. The sun was shining, many waves made the boat increasingly unstable. When the Turkish captain left the boat shortly after leaving the shore, I took over the steering board. I am a very good swimmer. At no point did I feel scared on that boat.

Mytilene, Greece

When we arrived, the volunteers from the Red Cross helped us to step out. We were given biscuits and fruits. I only stayed a few hours in Mytilene. They organized a big boat to Athens. There were hundreds of refugees on that boat from all around the world. The people from Red Cross gave me a map and told me what itinerary to take to cross Europe. I took many buses and trains. Since my English is good, I offered my help to other refugees. I met a young Iraqi on the boat. We crossed Macedonia together but I lost him in Serbia when we registered. I was in the Syrian line, he was in the Iraqi line. Since I had a passport, I managed to cross the border quicker than him. I continued to Croatia, Slovenia, Austria. Once arrived in Munich, I took a bus to Luxembourg. It stopped in Kirchberg (a suburb of Luxembourg City).

Luxembourg – at first it felt weird

It was late evening in November 2015 when I arrived. My phone was empty. The streets were empty. I had no idea where to go to. I couldn’t ask my way because I was all alone. I randomly walked from Kirchberg to Strassen. I didn’t meet anyone. I was looking for my way. In Syria, the streets are bubbling at night. I didn’t understand why no one showed up. It felt weird. In Strassen, I finally saw an ambulance. I ran after it and I arrived at the hospital. I told a young girl at the reception that I was a Syrian refugee and I was looking for a camp. People took me to Logopédie, a refugee center just a five minute walk away. The people in charge told me I have register in Luxexpo, a refugee center located in… Kirchberg! So I went back all the way to Kirchberg, hours of walking. Once I registered, I was moved to an inside tent together with four other asylum seekers, two Eritreans – very discreet people – and four Syrians. I arrived on a Thursday. I slept through Friday and woke up on Saturday. I registered for international protection at the immigration service on a Monday. They took my fingerprints. I stayed in the Luxexpo refugee center for 22 days. Then I was moved to the Monopol camp for four months.

Monopol camp

Monopol was a dangerous place and people fought a lot, especially the Russians. I stayed away from them, trying not to get involved. We were ten people in the room from ten different nationalities. I made friends with one Iraqi and two Syrians. I felt awful, powerless. I remember I was sick with a cold for weeks. I tried to see a doctor but that never happened. I saw a nurse instead. Finally I left for a camp in Sanem. I attended a French course in Athénée de Luxembourg, but only once a week – that was clearly not enough to master the language quickly.

I realized then that the only way to thrive was to get out of the camp as much as possible and connect to residents. And that’s what I did.

Mike Zenari
Mike Zenari

Keeping myself busy

Asylum seekers are not to allowed to work during the status obtention procedure. Some exceptions exist but they are rare. I tried not to spend my days at the camp. Staying in a room doing nothing is not why I came here. The atmosphere was depressing at the camp.

Sharing a room with six strangers was difficult. The longer I stayed, the more I longed for privacy. Staying in a camp with no prospect to get out one day is extremely depressing.

Soon I started to go to Hariko (hariko.lu) almost every day, enjoying my time there and participating in the numerous activities. Spending good times with people of all ages from all around the world was precisely what I needed. I started volunteering and found a way to cook for Hariko events together with a friend. That’s how I managed to connect to many people. Me and a friend also started to cook Syrian food at private people’s parties. Not only was I busy and happy, but my social circle widened considerably.

Mike Zenari
Mike Zenari

Cathy – my “princess sister”

I met Cathy in Hariko. She wanted to learn Arabic and she hoped she might meet some person there who could teach her. Marianne Donven who runs Hariko suggested me and I agreed immediately. That was the beginning of our friendship. We communicated in English, she taught me French grammar and, in return, I taught her Arabic. We started to exchange many things. Over time, she became my confidant. My closest friend. I wanted to get out of the camp. I couldn’t study there as we were four to six people in a room. I was never frightened but life was tough there. The lack of privacy in the camps is difficult to stand over time.

During our conversations, I told Cathy in confidence about my wish to leave the camp and live in a family. Cathy wanted to help me and organized a meeting for me and her father in August 2016.

It was a great meeting. He told me I was welcome in their house. I was so relieved. I felt lucky and thankful. My new life started the day this family opened up to me. Meeting Cathy changed my life.

Today I have many friends, refugees as well as residents. People know my name and know that I cook well. I got many invitations to cook at restaurants but I don’t know anything about European style. I can only cook Arabic specialities, especially desserts, which I have a passion for.

Mike Zenari
Mike Zenari

I have three mothers now in my life

My Syrian mother, Rita, my Luxembourgish mother (Cathy’s mother), and my Belgium mother Chantal whom I met a few months ago. Rita helped and still helps me for everything like accompanying me somewhere, arranging things for me, and most importantly, giving me the family feeling—warmth and emotional support. Chantal and her husband also support me daily. She tries to find jobs for me and she relentlessly practices French with me. She makes me feel like I’m her son. She is there for me for everything. She cares for me. I try to be helpful, too, even if nothing that I will ever do will be enough to say thank you.

Tom, Cathy’s father, is like my father now. I still live at his place. If he hadn’t offered me a place to stay last year, I still would be in the camp. And then nothing in my life would be like it is now. I know I will be all right in Luxembourg thanks to all these people around me.

It is tough to start a new life

Refugees under 25, even after having obtained international protection status, do not get RMG. We get financial support from the communes. If and to what extent they will help or not depends on the commune you registered in. Also, three months after an asylum seeker gets his status, OLAI will start asking for rent. That puts us under real stress. Without financial support we can’t pay any rent, supposing we would have found a place to live. This is very unlikely given the housing situation in Luxembourg. We can’t easily work, either, as it takes months to learn the languages. This means that we need to take any kind of very basic job to survive with the consequence that we can’t concentrate on studying. It’s a vicious cycle.

I will never find a way to thank all the people who have supported me and offered me opportunities to gain independence.

Today I study French at CLAE asbl and Luxembourgish at Moien asbl and I’m a guest student at the University of Luxembourg. My goal is to study journalism. But I’m not fluent enough in French yet to join university. I have been promised by the Ministry of Education to enter a CLIJA class (Classe d’insertion pour jeunes adultes) in September. This summer, I’ll concentrate on practicing French and Luxembourgish, do sports – I love swimming. I’m airborne when I swim.

My goal is to finish my studies and then open a business.

I’m strong now. I’m ready.

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