His Family Fled Syria. He Didn’t Cry Until He Heard About His Sisters.

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This is the third dispatch from a project following a family of five who fled Syria in 2015 and are now rebuilding their lives spread across four European cities. Read more about the project here.

In summer 2015, when Yousef’s mother, Suhair, decided the family should leave Syria and began selling everything to fund their journey, the then 13-year-old offered up what he had of value: a PlayStation 2 and a few bootleg games, including his favorite, “Shadow of the Colossus.”

His father had abandoned the family; his sister Souad — whom he hadn’t seen in more than a year — had just asked for asylum in the Netherlands; and his mother feared for the futures of her three children who were still in Syria: Yousef and his two older sisters, Naela and Maisam. The family decided that joining Souad in Europe was their best shot at safety and the only way to be together.

The youngest of the family, Yousef did his best to be as little a burden as possible as they set their plan in motion. (Out of concern for the safety of his relatives in Syria, The Times is using only his first name.) He said nothing to anyone, including his friends, about permanently leaving the country. He didn’t complain when he lost the feeling in his legs under the weight of others pressed on top of him on the rubber raft that carried them from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. And he didn’t cry when it stalled adrift in the Aegean Sea, causing many of the adults to whimper and pray.

ImageMaisam and Yousef waiting in line to receive their authorization papers to leave Kos in 2015.
Credit…Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

For the next stage of the journey, the family temporarily split up to catch outbound flights from Kos. Yousef and his mother would try to fly to Brussels. Naela and Maisam would fly to Zurich, and the whole family would reunite in the Netherlands. Yousef had to pretend to be 16 and Czech — to match the fake ID made for him by a smuggler he had never met — even though lying made him anxious. He was worried that his height would expose the deception: He was too short to be a 16-year-old. He and his mother stood at the check-in counter and watched in horror as a suspicious ticket agent ripped up their boarding passes in front of them. Yousef and Suhair were left to trek overland for seven days from Greece through the Balkans to Western Europe — the route a majority of migrants took that summer.

But Yousef never complained, and instead quietly passed the time reading a paperback copy of Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.” He spoke up only when his mother needed him to translate instructions and directions from English to Arabic. As terrible as the entire journey was — the thieves who robbed people as they slept, the mud they made their beds on, the daylong waits at border crossings — Yousef bore it because his mother and sisters wanted this, and he wanted them to be happy and together.

It was in Croatia where Yousef finally lost his composure. As he and his mother queued for food at a border checkpoint, he asked her if she had heard from his sisters, Naela and Maisam. In Kos, the sisters’ fake IDs had allowed them to board their flight to Zurich, and they expected to take a train from there to Amsterdam. He figured they were already there. Suhair, who had known the truth for days, finally told him: His sisters had been arrested on the train in Germany because of those false documents and had to ask for asylum there. They wouldn’t be able to join them in the Netherlands — assuming she and Yousef managed to get there themselves. Only then did Yousef lose it, crying hysterically, according to his mother.

Today, he can remember how it felt, but he has no memory of the moment. “Pure sadness, unobstructed by any other emotions,” is how he describes it. Back in Syria, he had rationalized that not much would change in his life once they reached their destination, as long as they were all together. Instead, “being separated was something I didn’t expect, and it broke me,” Yousef said. “Like the end of a chapter of my life, the one where we lived together.” He wouldn’t see Naela and Maisam for nearly a year.

Five years later, Yousef has come to terms with his new reality, one in which his family is separated indefinitely, spread across four cities in two different countries. He and his mother made it to Amsterdam at the end of September 2015, where they reunited with Souad, who after several years of displacement has for now settled in the city. Naela is in Berlin, while Maisam lives in a small village outside Heidelberg, Germany. Yousef has adjusted to life in his Dutch high school, grappling with college, girls and fitting in with the same ennui that awkward 18-year-olds seem to exude toward everything, from getting their homework done to, in Yousef’s case, becoming a refugee. “I had some good times and some bad times,” he said, looking back on his life so far. “But most of the time I was bored.” Whatever interruptions to his life and education came with his family’s decision to leave Syria and become refugees in Europe, he knows his mother and sisters are much happier today, and for him, that makes up for everything else.

Credit…Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

By the time Yousef and Suhair made it to the Netherlands, the school year had already begun. In Damascus, Yousef would have been starting ninth grade, but he instead spent months being moved around different refugee centers by the Dutch authorities. He recounts an almost complete loss of privacy, filthy “vomit-inducing” bathrooms, food so bad “it’s part of the reason I became a pescatarian,” constant exhaustion and uncertainty about his family’s future. He chafes at how they were often separated from the rest of society. “One of the camps was literally in the middle of a forest,” he says.

Eventually, he began to receive some schooling in the camps, mostly with Iraqi and other Syrian children, with lessons in Dutch, mathematics and English for several hours a day. A year after arriving in the Netherlands, he and his mother were placed in public housing in Vlissingen, a seaside town alive with tourists in the summer but sleepier during the school year. Once he and Suhair painted the walls, installed parquet floors and furnished the house with secondhand furniture and tchotchkes, he finally started to relax.

In the fall of 2016, when he would have started 10th grade back in Syria had they stayed, Yousef enrolled at the public school that sits on Vlissingen’s edge and was placed in the Dutch equivalent of eighth grade. In Damascus, he had already completed it with high marks.

What he noticed the first time he visited his new school were the Ping-Pong tables outside its doors; one of the few good things he attributes to his time in the camps was learning how to play table tennis. Inside, the walls held pictures of various sports teams, and lockers lined the halls, where a resident cat roamed freely, unbothered when the halls filled up with students changing classrooms at the sound of the bell.

The school’s student body of more than 1,000 reflects the Netherlands’ increasingly multicultural makeup, though Yousef was one of the school’s first refugee students from the large influx of 2015. Now there are 14.

In Latin class one day, Yousef’s teacher handed out a short poem by Catullus (“Odi et Amo,” or “I Hate and I Love”) and told the students to take a few minutes to translate it. When everyone else broke into groups to collaborate, Yousef worked on his own. His classmates had all taken two years of Latin already; Yousef had started only the year before, but still he had managed to catch up.

Academically, Yousef is excelling. In his second year at the school, he was moved into the university track, and he’s been near the top of his class ever since. He says learning comes easy to him. Yousef already knows he wants to go to graduate school after college; for now, he’s interested in physics, nanobiology and computer science. His economics teacher, Ahmed El Gauadi, who has taught him for three years, says Yousef has “a beautiful mind.”

Schools in the Netherlands closed for several months because of Covid-19. While Yousef was happy that the closures meant he didn’t have to deal with what he calls the school’s “arbitrary rules” — no gum, no beanies, no listening to music — he missed being able to ask questions during class and getting answers in real time. He fell behind on some homework assignments, for which he blames his lack of self-discipline, but he doesn’t regret how he did spend his time. He watched several television shows, movies and anime; read a lot (“It’s for school, sort of”); redecorated his room; socialized with the family. Yousef even read up on music theory and got a digital piano.

But for all his academic success and after nearly four years at the school, Yousef has yet to make a single friend. He doesn’t join in the chatter in the hallways between classes, at the lockers or in the classrooms before teachers call the students to order. Rather than have lunch at school with friends at crowded tables — eating, laughing, flirting — he sits by the cafeteria door, getting a start on the evening’s homework, or lingers by the Ping-Pong tables to see if he can pick up a game. “I do interact with them, but I can’t make friends,” he says. “I always feel awkward around them. I think it’s because nothing I say gets a reaction. They don’t respond.”

Credit…Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

Yousef attributes this to his inability to be himself in Dutch the way he can in Arabic or even English. And though his Dutch classmates speak nearly flawless English as well, Yousef refuses to switch languages. “It’s like giving up,” he says. “I don’t want to be that Syrian guy who can’t even speak Dutch. It would probably make meeting friends even harder.”

While Yousef’s intellectual curiosity has been rewarded in the Netherlands, it got his entire family in trouble in Syria. In 2012, when Yousef was 11 and about a year had passed since the start of the protests against the regime, armed men from the Mukhabarat, the country’s notorious internal security force, burst into the family home. The problem? The child’s telescope, which he used to look at Mount Qasioun from the dining-room window, was visible from the street, and on that same street was a Mukhabarat office. They suspected that somebody might be spying on them. Inside Yousef’s home, the men shoved his mother aside, confiscated the offending telescope and took all the family’s laptops and mobile phones. Despite his shock and fear, Yousef, not quite understanding fully what was happening, asked one of the men innocently, “When are you giving it back?”

The violent intrusion reinforced what Syrians had been taught for generations under authoritarian rule: The country was not for them. They did not have meaningful rights as citizens of a state. Rather, “Syria is Assad,” as the indoctrination went, and Yousef had already had lessons to that effect in both his history and nationality classes — and in the schoolyard, where students had to line up in the mornings to salute Bashar al-Assad.

It’s a kind of education that he doesn’t miss in the Netherlands. But as different as his life experiences have been from those of his Dutch classmates, Yousef insists that he has more in common with them than not. “I’m an introverted, Syrian-born Gen Z nerd of above-average intelligence living in the Netherlands.” Beyond that, he says, he’s not actually sure who he is — but he’s quick to add that too is a typical Generation Z characteristic.

Though he says he’s not “super into” anything these days, Yousef is working his way through the discography of the Australian rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and reading a lot of Japanese comic books. He tries to ignore the news out of Syria and confine his fretting to things closer to home, like whether he’s genetically bound to lose his hair, which he wears long now, usually pulled back at the neck. He also jokes that it is a “great injustice” that he can’t grow an even beard — something he’s wanted to do for a long time. “If I let my beard grow out,” he says, “I’ll just look Amish.”

While he does acknowledge the gravity of what happened to him, he says knowing at the time that it wasn’t permanent and knowing now that he’ll soon acquire Dutch citizenship (and the opportunities and freedom of movement it offers) has mitigated any lingering bitterness. Nor does he think there’s anyone to blame for what happened to his family. “Blame the Man?” he asks rhetorically. “But no, the world is more complicated than that. You can’t blame anyone.”

His sister Souad, who lives a few hours away in Amsterdam, thinks that Yousef doesn’t want to give too much weight to his hardships because he doesn’t want to be seen as a refugee. “It is hard to accept it’s a part of who you are,” she says. “He can be uncomfortable, but he’s not ashamed of being from Syria.” Besides, as Yousef sees it, others have it much worse, and on balance, he thinks he got to be a kid, at least for a while. “What’s more important,” he says, “is that a lot don’t.”

Credit…Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

With time, the separation from Naela and Maisam has also become manageable. Now he gets to see them at least once a year, and he talks to them weekly. He is comforted knowing they are doing well in Germany.

Even when asked what he likes about the Netherlands, Yousef returns quickly to the subject of his family’s well-being. He says he appreciates his school, running water, electricity and decent internet. He also mentions liking the trains and Dutch architecture. “But most importantly,” he says, “I feel Mom and everyone else are happier as well.”

He still loves playing video games, but given how into them he can get, he claims to play only in bursts during the holidays and sometimes on the weekend.

When he thinks back to that PlayStation he sold in Syria, the games he’s nostalgic for don’t include his favorite game but several others — “Ratatouille,” “Madagascar 1 and 2,” “Narnia” and “God of War.” Why those? “I played them with the rest of my family.”


Alia Malek is the author of “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria,” the editor of “EUROPA: An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees” and the director of the international reporting program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. This dispatch is part of a reporting project intended to span 10 years.

Peter van Agtmael is a member of Magnum Photos and the author of “Buzzing at the Sill” and “Disco Night Sept 11.”

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