Stories of the devastation and conflict that has resulted from the Syrian civil war have been headlining in newspapers and media outlets for a good part of the last eight years.
For Leen Youssef, though, the experiences of Syrian refugees are not just headlines but a lived reality. The 27-year-old and her family left the Syrian city of Aleppo in October 2016, and she is now living and studying in Paris.
Young Post spoke to Youssef at a Model United Nations conference in Spain last month, to learn more about the students there. Although Youssef lived in one of the wealthiest and most closely guarded neighbourhoods in Aleppo, she never felt safe.
“A black Isis flag flew visibly over the buildings, and a sniper [not far away] had a view of our street,” she explains. Like many Syrians, she has had her fair share of near-death experiences. Twice, bullets whizzed close to her face: once after a trip to the grocery store, and again on her way to a friend’s house.
“The [snipers] never miss. I would have been dead if they wanted me to be,” she says. “They didn’t kill me because they were shooting for fun, to terrorise people. Some days, they’ll shoot at kids, or the elderly because they are sitting around all day and bored.”
People living in Syria at the time had become used to living in constant danger. “All households had a box of bullets they collected from their gardens,” Youssef says. But one of the biggest causes of casualties were the bombs, which are dropped in public spaces.
“Once, I went to get pizza with friends and a bomb dropped near me right onto the busiest part of the market,” Youssef says. “We were taught to just run regardless of what happens, because after the first [bomb], a second one will usually follow to kill more people, including those who rush to help the injured.”
The country’s political regime was another huge threat to its people, and taking part in humanitarian work was frowned upon. Youssef did some volunteer work for Red Cross there, and she says “the regime had lists of people leading voluntary organisations to prosecute, [and that] they would disappear for months on end, and sometimes never come back”.
Youssef’s father was a doctor in Syria, and “if a member of Assad’s regime came to the hospital, you [would be ordered to] treat them at gunpoint, even if it was medically impossible,” she explains. “[Even] hospitals are super dangerous to be in,” she says.
Despite all this, Youssef said her family hoped the war would soon end, and she believed they just needed to “stick it out and keep [their] heads down”, which is why it took a while for them to decide to leave. “When you’re living in a war zone, you’re in a constant state of shock, so you don’t really think ahead,” Youssef says.
But as the months passed, Youssef’s family home was affected by multiple bombings, and they had to go for months without electricity.
Finally, they decided enough was enough. Youssef’s family was able to get the necessary travel documents to leave Syria with the help of her uncle who was living and working in Paris. They had to travel by bus to Lebanon to get their visa.
Youssef says, “before the war, you could easily go to Lebanon from Syria with an ID card … but now Lebanon wants to prevent Syrians coming in, so they have much more stringent criteria for documents you must have.”
Youssef’s sister was almost deported from Lebanon because she did not have a crucial document. Luckily, what she did have was enough to grant her a travel visa. From there, they took a plane to France, but the biggest challenge was yet to come.
Youssef describes the application for asylum in France as “highly bureaucratic, stressful, and challenging”. She details how asylum seekers like herself from Syria are required to write about their story and experiences in French, but since they don’t know the language, they need to find someone they can trust to translate their story for them.
At the interview, “being Syrian and fleeing from bombs is not enough because there are too many of these stories,” Youssef says. The need to convey the trauma of the war to the immigration officials is challenging because “you’re fresh out of [the trauma] and are still trying to process what happened”.
Officials ask for details about dates and years, but “they don’t consider that amidst the war, years and dates blur into one prolonged experience. If you struggle to respond or remember [specific dates], they quickly assume you’re lying,” Youssef says.
The waiting period that followed after was very difficult for the family. Like many other asylum seekers, she and her family had a hard time finding a job in Paris. Even the French language classes set up to help refugees integrate were only for those who had been granted asylum.
“I went from being a college graduate to being illiterate in a very short period of time,” Youssef says.
“Not knowing what the future holds for you is hard because you really don’t know what sort of things you can do in the future when asked.”
“I was so happy when we were finally granted asylum,” Youssef says.
“I see being a refugee as a legal status, but in reality, it can be very stigmatising,” Youssef says, referring to an incident where she was accused of taking French taxpayers’ money away. In spite of these encounters, however, Youssef is still glad she was able to leave Syria, as she sees little chance of the country’s situation improving soon.
“The international community and everyone there have seemed to accept that [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] will remain in place as a ruler, and I don’t want to live under his regime,” she says. Youssef and her family are gradually adjusting to their new life in Paris. “I’m a lot more independent here.”