A Syrian perspective on Europe and the refugee crisis – a chat with Razan Ibraheem

Posted on 01. February 2016

by Elisa Montesinos Aguilar

elisa-montesinos-aguilarWar has been raging in Syria for almost five years now. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the conflict has pushed over four million refugees out of the country and made hundreds of thousands of victims. Many Syrians have embarked on very perilous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life in Europe.

In order to better understand the Syrian people’s perspective on living in Europe and the refugee crisis, I would like to introduce my friend Razan to you. I met Razan Ibraheem, a young Syrian currently living in Ireland, during my Erasmus year in Limerick. Razan worked for ten years in order to save money to study a Master’s degree in English language teaching at Limerick University. She arrived in Ireland on a student visa in 2011 and has recently volunteered in Kos, Greece, providing support to the Syrian refugees arriving on the island.

Last May, Razan was invited to speak in front of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about Syria, on occasion of the UNHCR’s celebration of the anniversary of Ireland’s participation in the UN. She was chosen to share her experiences in general and her views on the Irish immigration system as she had brought her family to Ireland under the Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme (SHAP)

In this candid interview, Ms Ibraheem shared with me some experiences of her personal life, the difficulties of adapting to Europe and her opinion on the current refugee crisis.

What’s it like to be a Syrian woman in Europe? What were the main struggles that you encountered?

Europe has been giving me the voice that I have been looking for. I feel I am equal and free to express my opinion. The main struggles were to adapt to the new culture and understand it. It took me a while but eventually I was able to understand the society and the values of Irish culture.

Your mother, father and brother were admitted to Ireland under the Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme (SHAP). Would you say that the government authorities/NGOs/ succeeded in providing what was necessary for them to have a decent living and integrate in their new society?

The Irish government started a programme in 2014 that allowed Syrians living in Ireland to bring over their families. I applied for it and it took me nine months to get them here. The programme is very good but it didn’t provide the newcomers any financial support. I was all on me. I had to take care of six people. The money I had wasn’t enough, so my parent decided to go back to Syria. They are in Syria now. My sister and brother stayed in Ireland and are all working now. They did very well but it wasn’t enough. More resettlement programmes should be developed to relocate refugees from Greece and more scholarships for students should be offered, I think.

How was your experience in Kos (Greece) helping refugees? What surprised you the most?

It was a difficult and sad experience. I saw all the sadness, misery and death in their eyes. At the same time, they were positive, happy, determined and wanted to live. I met many people from different religions, and political opinions. Their stories were heart-breaking. People lost their children, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers and loved ones.

How are your friends and acquaintances facing the war in Syria?

My family and friends are suffering a lot. Syria is not a safe place, the country’s economy is destroyed; people’s dreams and future are destroyed too. Food and water are used as weapons. But, there are still 18 million people living in Syria and they want to stay there despite the war. We should try to help them to stay and live safely.

Do you think that Europe is managing this humanitarian crisis properly? What else could be done?

No. First there should be serious attempts to stop the war. This is a priority. No war means no refugees, no ISIS, no deaths and no one trying to cross the sea.

With regards to the refugee crises, the EU should open the door. Those people are escaping death and all they want is a safe place.

Should the EU give money to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan?

I believe there should be more help going to Syria’s neighbouring countries and that Syrians should be given work permits, human rights and be treated equally in all matters.

How, do you think, can the Syrian population contribute to European societies?

Can you imagine a country with one religion, one culture, one language and one ethnicity? How boring it would be. Syrians are hardworking, educated people and they integrate easily with any new society. Diversity should be reinforced and celebrated.

How, do you think, are mass media influencing the management of the crisis and even the migrants’ minds?

They are not doing very badly. Some media focus on the negative side and some are neutral. Media should focus more on the reasons why refugees are fleeing and on the refugees’ backgrounds and stories.

Did you feel that anything changed after your speech in front of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon?

It was an absolute honour for me to be chosen to speak in front of him about Syria. Things have gotten better. More countries are willing to host Syrians. Ireland for example agreed to host 4,000 Syrians soon.

What kind of initiatives should be taken to integrate Syrian refugees?

Language classes, cultural orientations, and introduce them to the laws and values of the country. It’s important not to isolate them, but to let them live in places where locals live.

Do you think that a peaceful end to the war in Syria is possible in the short-term? Do you think that most of the Syrian refugees will go back to their homeland after the war is over?

When I was a volunteer on Kos Island in Greece, a Syrian woman said to me “I want to go back to Syria, I was forced to leave”. I think many of them will go back to Syria when the war ends. I don’t think the war will be over soon though.

What is your reaction to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris? How are they going to affect the refugee crisis?

In relation to the barbaric attacks in Paris, I feel nothing but utter condemnation. The French shock and pain are universally shared, but not more so than by those who are victims of terrorism themselves – us, Syrians. ISIS has changed our Syrian way of life beyond recognition, and we call on all peace-loving people to stand up to its attempt to destroy the French and European way of life.

I am aware that some of the attackers have been to Syria, and that at least one of them posed as a Syrian refugee. Surely, this calls for a more thorough vetting of refugees. But it is no reason at all for the racist backlash against those innocent people who became refugees to escape ISIS terrorism in the first place. That would add insult to injury, as president Obama, leaders of the G20, the UN Secretary-General, and Nobel Prize winners have recently emphasised. It would also show that ISIS has succeeded in destroying the best European values of tolerance and human decency. The challenge ahead, I believe, is to keep our hearts and borders open to refugees and close them to terrorists.