A journey from Aleppo to Delft
Escape a raging war, cross multiple borders, pay a smuggler for help and survive a harrowing boat journey. It’s not how most internationals end up in the Netherlands, but it is Amr Ranneh’s story. The Syrian master’s student has lived through a series of difficult yet inspiring events that led him to become one of the first refugees admitted to study at TU Delft.
Growing up in Aleppo, Ranneh always knew he wanted to be an engineer. At the time he enrolled at the local university to study control systems there was no conflict in Syria. By the end of his third year, the fighting was so intense he knew he had to leave. So he went to Turkey, where he intended to continue his studies. He soon learned that would not be possible so, despite the dangers, he returned to Aleppo to finish his degree. After graduation, his entire family fled to Turkey.
Determined to further his studies, Ranneh made the difficult decision to leave his family to attempt the journey to Greece along with four friends. They paid a smuggler who led them on the first leg of their journey. “We were 41 people on a rubber boat,” he said. “It was really crowded and not safe at all. We didn’t know if we would even make it on the boat or if we would be robbed before that. I don’t know why, but I had a strange feeling that after a few hours or at the end of the day that I would be in Greece.” But just before entering Greek waters, Turkish authorities stopped their boat and said they couldn’t continue. After some negotiation, they were allowed to stay on the boat, but not before the authorities confiscated all remaining fuel.
Ranneh used his cell phone to determine they had about a kilometer to go before leaving Turkish waters. He phoned the Greek coast guard, but was told they couldn’t help unless they were in Greek waters. After unsuccessful attempts at paddling with their hands, someone suggested pouring a bottle of aftershave into the fuel tank to see if that would power the boat. Somehow it worked. “When I bought it at the supermarket in Turkey, I wanted some first aid things, like bandages and I picked up this bottle,” Ranneh said. “My friend asked me what I was doing, he was against the idea but we bought it anyway. I actually don’t know why I bought it; I was thinking just to use it as alcohol or something for cleaning.”
From Greece, Ranneh and one of his friends continued the journey towards Germany.
“Actually they caught us, the policemen on the border,” he said. “They took all of the people like me to their department for 24 hours.” There they were given a choice to apply for asylum in Germany or to go to another country. After seeing the massive numbers of people there and driven by his desire to study, Ranneh made the quick decision to go to the Netherlands. “I knew it was a highly developed country, one of the best in Europe,” he said, “I was sure that I would be in a good place.”
Three days later he arrived at a refugee centre in the Netherlands. “I went to the reception and asked the lady how I could start my studies here, what were my possibilities,” he explained. “She was kind of laughing because I just arrived and she told me I would have to wait a long time, but I didn’t believe her.” So he started searching for universities and the first one he made contact with was TU Delft. He attended the Dies Natalis and a robotics conference. “I was living on a very low budget so I made very simple, cheap business cards in case I met someone who would be willing to talk to me,” Ranneh said. “But at the end of the day I ended up without making any contacts. People are very busy and nobody was much interested.” He left discouraged.
While waiting for his residence permit, Ranneh requested to be housed in one of the three cities with a technical university. The immigration office told him he did not have a choice. “I didn’t think it would take so long to get my residency permit, but it did,” he said. “In that period I was very frustrated, sometimes hopeless. It’s very strange experience.” He felt like he had tried hard, but had to accept that his dream of studying wouldn’t happen.
Against all odds
But things were about to change. In April 2016, Ranneh received his residence permit. Despite the relief, he felt like he had missed his chance as the TU Delft application deadline had passed two weeks earlier. “Then I felt like I would have to settle into life as a refugee as much as I could, just start the integration process,” he said. “I started learning Dutch and maybe by chance, by luck, I don’t know how you say it, I ended up in Delft.” He got a letter from the immigration office stating that he would be placed here.
Then a Dutch journalist that featured Ranneh in a video about refugees asked him what he was hoping to study. He told her he was interested in control systems and sent her a link to the department at TU Delft. “She suggested asking for them to make an exception because I had what it took but just missed the deadline,” he said. “I was going to tell her don’t bother because what are the odds.” After two days she called him to say the faculty agreed to meet and would consider making an exception. “I was actually on the bike when she called and I jumped off!” he said.
Professor Hans Hellendoorn, department head of the Delft Center for Systems and Control, contacted Ranneh. They first needed to assess his academic level, transcripts and language so in June Ranneh took a test. “He had some deficits,” said Hellendoorn, “so we bought and lent him the necessary books and he worked hard during the summer.” Also the director of education for the Faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering (3mE), he explained that management had agreed to be open to refugees and support them to continue their studies.
Against the odds, in September Ranneh started a two-year master’s programme focusing on robotics and prosthetics. He still finds it hard to believe. “You know when you have something you really waited for, like a dream you are not sure is going to happen? You are so distracted by achieving that dream that you don’t have time to even think further than that. That’s what happened to me,” he said. Hellendoorn said it was a pleasure to see Ranneh at the introduction week with all the other new MSc students from around the world. “I am happy that we could offer him a position and I sincerely hope he will be able to finish his MSc with us,” he said.
Ranneh maintains a sense of humble optimism and is grateful for his opportunity. But he hopes the story doesn’t end with him. “There are many students I know that are willing to do what-ever it takes to get here,” he said. “There are stories that deserve to be heard more than mine. I already got my chance. Just over one year ago I arrived to a new emergency refugee shelter in Zaandam. It was rough, but now I have transitioned from there to here. I hope this will be an inspiration for anybody who wants to go to university.”
Uncertain about his future after graduation, for now Ranneh is focused on completing his studies. He also hopes to get a visa to visit his family, most of whom are living in Turkey now. When asked about what he misses most about Syria, he said “I miss my home. Even when times were bad, I just miss home.”
Amr Ranneh (23) was born and raised in Aleppo, Syria. He received a bachelor’s degree in control engineering from the University of Aleppo. His father is a contractor and his mother is a dentist. They are now living in Turkey near the Syrian border along with Ranneh’s siblings.
Originally written by Heather Montague and published at delta.tudelft.nl.