Start Rania’s journey with Part 1: We Could Hear the Warplanes Overhead.
I once heard a song by Asmahan, a famous Syrian-Egyptian singer from the 1940s, called “Merry Nights in Vienna.” My dad told me that British intelligence killed her because she was a spy, which is pretty weird. But I think that must have been the first reference I heard to Vienna. That and the Billy Joel song about Vienna waiting for you.
I’m so grateful to have been given the chance to remake my life in Vienna. Back in 2013, living through the war in Syria, I thought I’d lost my chance to study or to do something that matters with my life. I have been given a second chance here. I fell in love with Vienna on the first day. I absolutely love it. It’s like a big museum.
Safety, and a life without war, were luxuries that we didn’t have in Syria. Here in Vienna, I am fortunate to have all the safety I could dream of, though it is a safety and peace that can never be quite complete when the people you love are still living in that horror.
When I was younger, I always wanted to live alone, away from my family, to become independent and strong on my own. The reality is a little different.
I worry constantly about my family and want to talk to them 24 hours a day. Syria might be 3,000 miles away, but I can feel every bomb that drops. I sit and daydream about being reunited with my sisters, my brother, and my father, even for just a few hours.
It’s the most normal things I miss, like sitting on the sofa telling my father about a film I’d watched. Or when we’d listen for hours to his stories about life, and he could see that we were bored but would carry on anyway. Or just arguing with my sisters but loving each other all the same.
I felt terrible leaving them behind. I wanted to bring them all with me. No matter how much we fought, I love them so much. I never used to be able to get to sleep at night until I’d talked to Medya, and she’d always make me laugh so hard. She was very sad when I left, and said she wanted to come too.
Maybe the word “exile” is too strong. After all, I’m in a safe place and have a relatively good life. But without my family, it feels like exile.
I was so relieved when I first got on that plane in Athens. Finally, that nightmare of the camp was over. And I had high expectations for Vienna, the city of music.
I landed at the Vienna airport on July 25, 2016, with nothing but 15 euros in my pocket. My friend Ayman and I got a train to the city center, found the police station, and told them that we were Syrian.
An officer checked my papers and told me I had to spend one night in prison.
You have to understand that for decades in Syria, even before the war, the prisons were a living hell. The al-Assad regime would falsely accuse people and abduct them, and they would disappear. Sometimes a tortured body would be returned months later; sometimes someone would be returned alive if a bribe was paid; sometimes other members of the family would be abducted and taken to jail. Disease and torture were rife. Prisons are the hell that every Syrian is afraid of.
Tears began to fall down my face as I asked the police officer why I had to go to prison. I think she understood a little, because she said right away: “Don’t be afraid — this is not like Syria. This is a nice prison, but you have to stay there until the judge can come for your asylum interview tomorrow.”
I was reassured by what she said and did the interview the next day. They told me that until they had decided my case and my refugee status, I was to be transferred to a refugee center in a large house in a small village in what they call Niederösterreich, or Lower Austria. The village was tiny, with only six houses, and we would hear a friendly “hallo” or “guten morgen” from time to time, especially from children.
When I first arrived in Austria, I spent a lot of time dealing with very long bureaucratic procedures to sort out a passport, or an address, or any other kind of help from the government, because I had no money to pay for anything. The process was harder because I didn’t speak German and no one would speak English with me, so I had to keep replying with Google Translate.
I’d given all my money — all our family savings, and more that I had to borrow — to pay the smugglers. In total, I paid 8,000 euros to three different smugglers to get me from Syria to Austria. That’s about 5.1 million Syrian pounds, or 285 times my father’s annual salary when he was still a biology teacher.
Finding somewhere to live was not easy. In Germany, the government helps refugees find housing, but in Austria they do things differently. I found some very helpful locals, and social media helped, too. I was able to find a lovely shared apartment with two nice roommates on Facebook.
I waited four months for a place in a German language course. While I waited, I spent a lot of my time at home watching the Ellen DeGeneres Show on YouTube and trying to improve my English. I love Ellen — she’s an amazing person and very funny. She has a beautiful spirit. And sometimes, when it has been difficult here, and lonely, and when I felt nobody was on my side, I think she lifted my spirits a bit too.
I spent my time looking at university courses and looking for work. I did get a place in a language course, so I’m learning German, which will be my fourth language after Kurdish, Arabic, and English. It’s an interesting language but difficult to speak. I want to learn because I want to contribute. I want to be part of the community I live in.
On October 1, 2016, I was told I had been granted leave to stay in Austria for three years. I felt elated and optimistic about my future. I felt filled with hope for what was to come and excited about learning the language and finding a place to live in Vienna.
What makes me happiest are the small things that many people probably take for granted, like sleeping in a good bed instead of freezing in a tent or waking up to bombing and death. When I first arrived, I was so grateful just for a warm shower and a phone charger.
What I have come to realize about escaping a war zone and surviving what many others did not is that once you get through it, you can see how much it defined your life, how much space it took up. Surviving becomes your life, instead of making a life of your own. But I can see how strong it made me and how much I learned, and I can see life with a totally new perspective.
Ayman often says that he never wanted to leave Raqqa or Syria, and that he spends a lot of time thinking about how he was forced to leave. We both feel selfish when we think about our own situation, because we are in a safe place while our families are going through misery every day.
I get a lot of hope from what he says about going back to Syria someday, when it is peaceful and al-Assad and all the evil is gone, and that maybe we can help rebuild our country and try to make it better.
I have things I want to do with my life, like everyone else, and I always wanted to go to university to study medicine. I loved the idea of being a doctor, and I thought that saving a life was the noblest thing you can do.
But after my odyssey, I want to be a journalist. I want to help people by telling their stories to the world, finding the humanity amid all that chaos. That’s the best a journalist can hope to do. That’s when journalism can be noble and heroic.
I don’t want to be anybody’s hero, but I do want to give a voice to people who have none.
Last month, I finally found work. I’m now a journalist with a Swiss NGO called Terre des Hommes, and we run a project that tries to help refugees tell their stories from their own perspectives. I interview refugees and people from host communities and listen to what they have to say.
Starting your life from scratch is not easy at all. I didn’t know anybody when I moved here besides Ayman and other refugees from some of the camps. It’s incredibly isolating to feel that local people view you as something so different just because you have come from another part of the world. Well, I’m not so different. In fact, other than language, I like to think everything else about us is the same. I dream, I love, I pray, I have my favorite books, my favorite food, I love Game of Thrones…
I do understand the concerns of local people, and I can see why they worry that their lifestyle or traditions will change if they accept too many new people. In Austria, among other places, people keep hearing politicians complaining about the integration of refugees. But for newcomers to contribute fully, they need to be allowed to integrate. They need to be embraced in everyday life, not isolated with other refugees and unable to participate and learn the language, the customs, the laws, and the values of their new home. Most refugees desperately want to do that — to dive into their new life.
There seems to be so little understanding between people who seek refuge and people who give it to them. There are, certainly, people who take advantage of others’ generosity, but that is always a minority, as in any society. We just need to try to understand each other more.
Last week, a neighbor sent my father some photos of our old house in Raqqa.
It is completely gone. There are no roses anymore. Everything is dead.
I always thought that if I was to hear one day that our home had been destroyed, I wouldn’t feel sad and I wouldn’t cry, because I’d be ashamed to weep over stones and dust when so many people have lost their lives.
But I did cry. I felt heartbroken, because things have gone for me that can never be replaced. So many memories lived in that house that we cannot get back. The last things I had from my mother are gone, the old videotapes our father made of the whole family that were the only way I could hear my mother’s voice again. Our memories lived in those things, in that house. Every tiny detail, every last thing is dead, gone, swept away.
Only one pillar of the house is left standing, in an empty, ruined city I used to call home.