Growing up in Assad’s Syria

I grew up in Aleppo, Syria, one of the most ancient cities in the world. After my dad returned from the UK—where he had completed his postgraduate education on a scholarship from the Syrian army — he became more interested in his Syrian heritage. He moved us from the modern suburbs of Aleppo to live in a charming Ottoman-era house, which he restored over two years. At the age of seven, I would go after school with my dad and brother, al-Hakam, to work on the restoration. It’s comforting to know what’s behind the surface of the walls of that house—my connection with it was not superficial.

I still remember one day when my dad, in his Peugeot 504 army car, picked my brother and I up after secondary school. He begged us not to talk about the new leader, Bashar al-Assad, or politics altogether. One of his friend’s car had been bugged, then he was arrested, just for talking about sectarianism (ta’efieh) in the country. Uttering the word “ta’efieh” was taboo. No one was allowed to say that the regime favoured Alawites (the Muslim sect of the Assad family, about 10% of the population) over everybody else. You had to live through it without being able to talk about it.

Even before the 2011 uprising every Syrian knew the saying, “the walls have ears.” You could see the fear in the eyes of whoever dared to talk about the way the country was being run.

From the 1980s through to the uprising, wages never kept up with the cost of living, to the point that working in the public sector would not cover the living costs of the average family. Public employees had to either embezzle public money—if they were high-ranking—or, if they were front-desk employees, take bribes from the public for getting their work done. I remember asking my mom for new flip flops, as I kept slipping in my old ones. She suggested I try carving their back with a knife instead: flip flops were expensive on my dad’s salary. That was the life my dad, with his PhD from Kent University, had to endure in Assad’s Syria: day in and day out, borrowing from his friends and family to keep us going. I remember him slapping his cheeks and the steering wheel after a car accident in Sa’adallah al-Jabri square in Aleppo. He panicked at the thought of borrowing more money to get the army’s car fixed.

Welcome to Saudi Arabia

In 2002, as our financial situation became untenable, my father found a job as a university lecturer in the Saudi resort city of Abha, where I spent four of my adolescent years. We became richer overnight.

It was there that I met Arabs from different countries and learned more about our cultural differences. I was surprised to know it was only Syrians who had such strong pan-Arab feelings. Arabs from other countries thought of each other as close enough, but never to the point where unifying the Arab world into one country was an objective. My greatest shock was to learn that I had much stronger feelings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than Palestinians themselves. I later realised it was because I'd been taught “nationalism” at school in Syria, starting from the seventh grade (13 years of age) until the first year at university. Everyone had to take this subject, whether you studied medicine, English literature, or economics. It taught us that Syria is a state in the greater Arab world that must be unified, alongside the achievements of Hafez al-Assad’s military coup in 1970 (dubbed the Corrective Movement).

My stepmom and her friends in Saudi Arabia. Abha was among the freer regions in the country, where women were allowed to show their faces back in 2003, though with no guarantee of avoiding the occasional harassment from the religious police.

It was also in Saudi Arabia that I developed my views on the significance of secularism. Religious police were allowed to dictate who was allowed to enter a mall or a park. They would close all shops four times a day for prayers. Not fasting during Ramadan would put you and your family at the risk of deportation.

During my time in Saudi Arabia, I also witnessed the discrimination endured by migrant workers from India and Bangladesh. A Bengali farmer, who later became a friend, would tell me stories of deception and the slave-like treatment he had to endure to get to stay in Saudi Arabia to support his family back home. Arabs, in general, used to ridicule non-Arabs. They would make fun of their accent, even on TV shows, and treat them miserably. One of the favoured games of teenagers in my high school was to drive recklessly around non-Arabs in the streets of Abha, to get them to jump in kneejerk reactions, giving the schoolboys a good laugh. I was outraged.

Living in Saudi Arabia for four years was a transformative experience for me. In certain aspects, it was like living on another planet. I’m delighted to see the efforts of Prince Muhammad Bin Salman in fighting religious extremism, although I tend to disagree with pretty much all of his other policies.

Back to Syria

I went back to Syria in 2006, after four years in Saudi Arabia. I began pursuing a degree in economics, while also working as a textile designer.  The teenager in me was excited to go back to a country where girls didn’t have to be veiled.

As I mastered the profession of programming textile machines, I was paid more than a university professor. I travelled with the company I worked for to Turkey and Germany to promote the business and see what other factories around the world were up to.

Despite the few good moments, it was in that textile company I decided I would never work for a business in Syria again, let alone run one myself. Deception and outright lying to customers were viewed as perfectly reasonable business practice. The owner of the company once whipped one of the employees with his belt—I can’t recall why. This certainly was not the norm, but it would occasionally happen in other companies, too, especially with younger employees. I still loathe the days I had to work in that business, although I was the most critical employee in the company of roughly 50 employees. Sometimes I was wakened in the middle of the night to go and fix a broken weaving machine.

Like most other businesses in Syria, the company would avoid taxes and bribe their way into anything, from importing production materials without paying tariffs, to tax avoidance and the arbitrary dismissal of employees. I had to work in that industry for five years, knowing deep down that I was much more interested in research and policymaking. It was not a choice, but a necessity—working for that company supported me in my next move and granted me a comfortable lifestyle. Much of my life satisfaction at that time came from studying economics.

Comes the 2011 uprising

When the uprising began in March 2011, I was ecstatic: the long-awaited moment had arrived. I had been closely following the news of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and had wondered: When would Syrians stand up? I was among the very first people in Aleppo to organise demonstrations against Assad’s regime.

I remember my sister, my brother, and myself all protesting without telling each other, fearing the danger it might pose to each other. Many people were killed by police—or, more often, by government-sponsored thugs (shabiha, plural for shabeeh) during or after the demonstrations.

I still remember, during one protest, running away from a shabeeh for more than ten minutes. I was afraid that turning my head back to see if I was still being chased would slow me down and get me caught. I stopped when I couldn’t run anymore. There was no one chasing me—the shabeeh had probably stopped a long time earlier.

During one of the biggest demonstrations in Aleppo, I was shocked to feel a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see…my brother. Being able to walk in the streets of Aleppo’s city centre and shout, “People want to bring down the regime!” was liberating enough. To realise the feeling was shared with my brother was all the more exceptional.

The ashes covering the raging fire in the hearts of many Syrians have been blown away by venting in the streets. The barrier of fear has fallen—there’s no going back.

My fellow Syrians in the opposition could not realise why I would panic from seeing the civilian uprising turning more religious: the last thing I wanted was to give a man who believed he was fighting on the side of God something to fight with. My fear was justified; I had lived in Saudi Arabia for four years. Most of the funding for religious extremists came from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Some of the prominent leaders of the Salafist fighters in Syria are Saudi nationals.

By March 2012, three of my friends—with whom I used to organise protests—had been arrested, and my father started to push my siblings and me to leave Syria.

Goodbye Syria, one more time

It was April 2012 when I knew my father was right:  I had to leave.

The fear I experienced at the Aleppo airport haunted me for a while. I had my sister and brother waiting for me outside the departures hall for my call; either I would confirm that my passport had been stamped for departure, or to relay that I would be taken to prison for activism. Apparently, I was not wanted—border control allowed me to leave. What a relief!

I flew to Malaysia, hoping I could find a job as a textile designer and continue studying economics. That was the last time I saw my city, my father, stepmother, and two of my siblings. In 2018, my father passed away in the United States, but I couldn’t see him for the last time because of Trump’s blanket travel ban on Syrians (among other nationals) from entering the United States. Not seeing my father’s face for the last time is by far the darkest moment of my life. He was the dearest person to me.

With every blow I suffered, I’d always tell myself “I swear I’ll do something about it”. It might be just a coping mechanism, but it’s also very empowering. It turns sadness and anger into action. My passion for policy research is motivated by a desire to help others to avoid experiencing what I’ve gone through. I still dream of having an impact on this world. I’m hoping that’s not because I’m a young idealist still, but only time will tell.

The pain of being away from Syria while seeing it burning was unbearable, especially in those first days while I was trying to adjust to my new environment in Malaysia. The stress was even worse when, for days at a time, I couldn’t reach my remaining family in Aleppo over the phone. I had no way of knowing whether it was because of damage to the phone lines or because they had been harmed.

By 2014, all my family members had fled. Our family that used to live in one city now lived in Canada, the United States, Germany, Hungary, and me in Malaysia. We all tried to survive by holding on to any possible opportunity abroad.

The house I grew up in and witnessed being restored was destroyed by the regime’s barrel bombs. Which photos should I retrieve from my memory when I think about our house? I wish I could erase the new ones. Deep down, I know we will restore it again. That’s the first thing I want to do when I can finally travel back to Syria.

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In Malaysia, I focused on my master's research and on making enough money to survive without continuing to borrow from my brother in Turkey, who later moved to Hungary to work in the Aleppo Project. I worked as a private International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and econometrics tutor while realising I had to excel at my masters if I were to find an excellent PhD opportunity afterwards. I used to work and study for an average of 12 hours a day. Sadness is an exceptionally long-lasting fuel.

After finishing my masters, and while applying for PhD scholarships in other countries, I volunteered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for almost a year, working with Rohingya refugees and campaigning for their cause. The situation of Syrians, especially in Malaysia, is much better than that of the Rohingya, who are almost all stateless and are neither recognised by Myanmar, nor by the main host countries, Bangladesh and Malaysia.

The bitterness of being away from my country and my loved ones was lessened by meeting my wife Hanna in 2012. Hanna is Iranian, born to a Kurdish mother and a Persian father. She had lived through the oppression of the Iranian regime and still recalls childhood memories of running away from the bombardment of the Iraqi forces during the Iran-Iraq war. She remembers pouring her dad’s whisky down the toilet whenever religious police raided their house in search of illegal possessions, such as video players and alcohol. She fondly recalls taking part in the 2009 protests in Tehran.

Hanna understands my suffering as a Syrian very well, especially since her government’s support is the main reason Assad is still in power. She tells me, “You do not want the end of this regime more than us, believe me.” Visiting Iran with Hanna for a couple of months was a transformative experience for me. It is the most polarised and beautiful country I’ve ever visited. Most Iranians view themselves as more civilised than their Arab and Afghan neighbours. Apart from family and friends, I certainly did not feel welcome in Iran. Many Iranians also believe that Arabs in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen are stealing their resources, not knowing that most people in those countries would love to see Iran and its proxies out of their countries sooner rather than later.

Hanna believed in me and was the reason I applied for PhD scholarships outside of Malaysia. I was awarded two merit PhD scholarships—one from Florence University in Italy and the other from Victoria University of Wellington. I chose the latter: living in New Zealand, Australia or Canada had always been a dream for me, primarily because of their respect for human rights, their openness to migrants, and speaking English. After being stranded in Malaysia, Cambodia, and Iran for seven months, our visas to New Zealand were approved—the immigration authorities in New Zealand were (finally) convinced that I’m not a terrorist. The most beautiful chapter of my life began.

To New Zealand

After arriving in New Zealand, I sought asylum, which was accepted, allowing me and my wife to reside in the country permanently. It is a relief to have a place I can call home. New Zealand’s compassion towards me makes me feel at home indeed. The support I receive from Kiwis makes me feel I’m one of them—what an honour. New Zealand is my second home.

I’m determined to repay New Zealand for its kindness by contributing to the wellbeing of its people through public service and policy research. When I arrived in New Zealand in 2016, I thought the country’s public policies might only need some fine-tuning. But after my research at the Reserve Bank, the Treasury, and Victoria University, I currently believe that fundamental reforms are quite essential, though the nature of the policy questions New Zealand faces is entirely different from those faced by Middle Eastern countries. I do my policy research with love, focusing on the humans behind the numbers and statistical models.

I completed my PhD in 2019, and currently work as a full-time Senior Analyst at the New Zealand Treasury, after previously doing research for the Reserve Bank. Hanna and I live in Wellington, with our cat, Coffee.

I split my early morning hours between researching and writing on Syria and the Middle East and exercising. I’m determined to help my home country by researching the issues that matter, turning that research into policy solutions, and making those solutions come alive through thought leadership. In the end, I want to be a part of bringing prosperity back to Syria, guaranteeing that our children do not experience what we have gone through.

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I remind myself, every day, of those I love but can’t see anymore