Because we value curiosity and learning from each other more than anything, the idea with the “Meet a Member” series is to get to know our members and to give you a behind-the-scenes look at our amazing community.
This time though, the conversation took a different turn. We hesitated on whether to share this with you as a regular “Meet a Member” blog post, or as something else. That is because, with Mohammed, we mostly discussed his journey before Cohabs.
Raising awareness about diversity and inclusion, and acting on it at our level, has always been a priority for us. That’s why we partner with Singa, a nonprofit organization that helps newcomers integrate into society. Mohammed was introduced to us thanks to them, after his long and complicated journey from Syria to Belgium.
So, meet our member Mohammed, a Syrian engineering student living at Cohabs Botanique 28, Brussels, and this is his story.
Disclaimer: This text contains passages that may hurt the sensitivity of some.
Can you introduce yourself?
I’m Mohammed, I’m 26 years old and I come from Syria. I left my country in the summer of 2016. I wanted to improve my studies and my life, and I couldn’t do that there because of the war.
Do you still have any family in Syria?
Yes, we’re 11 (laughs)! Part of my family still lives there, I miss them, I haven’t seen them in 6 years. Two of my brothers are in Canada now as well, they even have the Canadian nationality. We all stay in contact through WhatsApp and social media.
Will your other brothers and sisters leave Syria as well and join you?
I don’t really know, it’s an expensive journey. My parents are staying there to take care of the family. But we will arrange something to meet together soon!
How was it to leave Syria?
In Syria, I had my family, a fiancée, my studies, and an apartment. It was difficult but I had to move on with my life and go on with my engineering studies. I wanted to have the best degree and job possible and that wasn’t an option with the war. I also had to break up with my fiancée, because I really didn’t know what would happen.
So I first left by foot from Damascus to Idlib, and from there to the Turkish border. You cannot enter Turkey without a smuggler, it’s so dangerous. I don’t know how many times I tried before I succeeded. That time, I said it was my last chance because I wanted to go back to my family. Also, every time I got caught, they would send me to prison for a few days to discourage me from trying again.
How did you feel when you finally entered Turkey?
Oh my God… It was amazing! I was sad to leave Syria, happy, exhausted, hungry,… Full of emotions.
It was a very very dark night so we managed not to get caught by crawling on the grass. It took me 15 hours, walking, climbing in the mountains, crossing a river, a 4-meter wall, hiding from the police, the army, and the snipers… I will not forget that. The day before I crossed, 13 people from my village were shot dead.
We were 8 that night, including a family with a baby and a little girl. I’m so proud of that little girl, she held on the whole time and we helped each other. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life, you have to focus the whole time. It’s emotionally exhausting; if you fall, no one will help you get back up. It’s like something out of an action movie.
At some point, there’s a small road with a police car. When you cross that road, you are in Turkey. By chance, really, nobody saw us there that time. The other times, that’s where I got caught. It was my dream to cross the road beyond that fucking car (laughs). Then we went to a village to meet the smuggler.
How was it when you arrived there?
I just wanted to drink a big bottle of water! I didn’t have to hide anymore, even though we saw nobody except our smuggler there. The police are not allowed to take us back to Syria once we’re there, because we’re already in Turkey. So our smuggler took us in a van and asked us where we wanted to go.
At that point, I had no more money because I had lost it in the mountains. By chance, my uncle was still in Turkey and could lend me some money. I had planned to stay in Turkey for a while to see my relatives and friends living there, and recover from the border crossing. I found a job for a month, working 16 or 17 hours a day, and at the end of the month, they decided not to pay me. This really hurt.
After 6 months in Turkey, it was enough and I left for Greece by boat. That was hard. If God is with you it’s okay, if not…
I got in touch with a smuggler through Facebook, we negotiated the price and the number of attempts : 3 times in 2 months.
The trip was very risky, I really thought I was going to die. We were 74 on the boat, and it turned over just 5 kilometers away from Chios island’s coast. I had some energy and I’m a good swimmer, so I went back and forth and I managed to save 4 people. Unfortunately, not everybody survived. I saw 3 other men drowning and really tried to help them out, but my body didn’t follow. That was really hard, I was helpless.
So what happened once you got to Greece?
We were helped by volunteers and NGOs who gave us blankets, clothes and a really nice soup. I was starving! I also met with a doctor who checked how I was feeling etc. Then I stayed in a refugee camp for a few months, to follow the procedure.
Once I got permission to move, the Blue Passport, the UNHCR paid for my boat ticket to reach Athens, to stay in another camp called Elaionas. It wasn’t easy. I’m curious so I wanted to discover but I didn’t even have money to eat. So I reached out to Khora Organization and they were really nice and helped me out a lot.
Are you still in contact with the people you met during that journey?
Yes! The family I crossed the Turkish border with is in Norway now! Some of the people I met during the crossing to Greece are in Germany, some are now studying…
I also became friends directly with some of the volunteers in Greece, I was the only one in the group who could speak English so I was the translator! I met super friendly Greek people, it’s not easy for them either.
Let’s recap, how long did you stay where?
So that’s 6 months in Turkey, then almost 2 years in Greece, until August 8, 2018. I’ll never forget that date! I left sunny Athens with my t-shirt and shorts, then I got here by plane and it was raining, I was like: “why?!” (laughs).
If not for the weather, why Belgium?
I met great Belgian people in Greece, we became friends and they told me that life in Belgium was good and that I could continue studying, but I just had to learn French and Dutch (laughs)! I’ve been here for almost three years now.
Did you have any plans in Brussels?
I directly went to the immigration office to let them know I was there and show my documents etc. But when you don’t do anything and don’t talk to anyone all day, you can get very bored. I’m a social person, I need to meet people and exchange. So a friend of mine told me about Singa and I went to one of their Blabla events and I said I was looking for a house and a school and they helped me out a lot!
What do you think about Belgium?
I really think Belgium offers everything. They help me with everything, even the tiniest things. It can be a bit slow because there are a lot of people waiting, but they offer everything: studying, working, meeting friends, staying in a dream house like this… Actually, my mom doesn’t believe me when I show her my house!
What are you doing now? What are your projects?
Studying french! It’s hard but I have to, I’ll manage. I’m also learning Dutch. I’m planning to study at the University of Ghent and they told me I needed a good level so I’m working on that. Everything is possible here. But you have to put in the effort and be patient. Things will come at the right time.
So I will get my Master’s degree here, then look for a good job in engineering, then I’ll travel for actual holidays. I was able to go back to Athens already!
Anything you’d like to add?
I don’t wish it on anybody. It’s impossible, don’t do the same as I did. But now that I’m here, I try to focus on the result. I’m meeting so many nice people here.
How do you feel about your journey?
I’m really proud of myself. I feel like I’m a brave person.
Our sincere thanks to Mohammed for sharing his story with us, and to Marine – former Community intern – for conducting this interview.
Interested in joining your own new family in Brussels? Let’s have a chat together, apply to join here!