human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

At home in Europe

Testimony from a Syrian migrant

Migrants come from all backgrounds and circumstances. To migrate requires being brave enough to make the decision, and being brave enough to make a constant effort to adapt to the receiving community and circumstances. Many take the life-long journey successfully and create a new home away from home. That is the case of George Joseph, a Swedish citizen of Syrian origin who owns a café in Brussels.

Not far from the European Commission and European Parliament headquarters, in the Saint-Josse-Ten-Noode neighbourhood, George pleases his customers everyday with warm, tasty food, served with a warm smile. His story started in his native Kuburbid, in Northeast Syria.

“I had a normal life there, I went to school, I had friends”, he recalls on a chilly Belgian autumn day. “As a teenager I got involved in politics. I did it because I noticed so many injustices around me and wanted to do something about them”.

Corruption was rampant in those days in a Syria ruled by Hafez al-Assad, who had appointed himself president after participating in three coup d’états in the 1960s. He led an undemocratic government for 30 years.

“I saw how corruption was steering the country and shaping our way of life”, says George. Freedoms were very restricted and the government ruled with an iron fist at every level. “Everyone felt observed, spied on. Those who were not in the Baath party were discriminated and could not access certain jobs”.

George continued with his political activism while studying. He obtain a diploma in Finances and Administration and got a job at a state owned company.

“I was an auditor in a government project related to the army. I had been working for five years when the regime intensified its control over normal citizens and asked all companies and public institutions to profile their employees: checking political and religious affiliations and ethnic backgrounds.

Life changed in 1987

George was set aside for his political affiliation to an opposition party and transferred to a “security agency” (a kind of merge of military, police, and civil authorities) for questioning in early 1987. “I was interrogated about my activities and they proposed me to spy on their behalf. I refused”, he says. “Shortly after I got sacked from my job on the argument that I was ‘unacceptable for the position because of security reasons’”.

In the summer of that year, George flew to the capital Damascus to pick up some political materials to disseminate in his region. “I was stopped at a police control in the airport on my way back and they discovered the material. They put me on the plane and told me that I would be arrested for an interrogation as soon as the plane landed”, he recalls with a bitter sweet smile.

“Fortunately, no one was waiting for me in the airport so I took the first taxi home and within an hour I left my town and went to stay with some friends in Aleppo”, he says. The decision that would change his life forever was right in front of his eyes: “I decided that it was safer to leave the country and few days later, I left for Turkey”.

A Swedish national

In the space of one month and with the help of his loved ones, George put together 2,500 dollars, an astronomical amount for him, to obtain a visa to Sweden: “I chose Sweden because I already had an uncle living there and Belgium did not offer any reasonable opportunity to move there. It was also easier to find a job in Sweden back in those times”.

He arrived in Stockholm in the autumn of 1987. Adapting to his new home was not easy but he did it armed with hope: “To come to a new place is never easy but if you think positively and stop thinking about how things were back home and quickly adapt to how things work where you are now, you will have the basics to move on with your life”, he says.

He learned to speak Swedish, lived in Stockholm for 16 years, and obtained Swedish nationality. He had different jobs at restaurants and cafes until he managed to open his own business with a friend, a newspaper kiosk that he held for a several years.

He has fond memories of his life in Sweden: “There, I met my wife, we built a family, our three children were born there. My wife was a teacher. My children went to school”, he says. “We had a good life”.

Reuniting with family in Belgium

Even when life was good in Sweden, George and his wife (also a Swede of Syrian origin) deeply missed their families. His parents and all of his siblings were living in Belgium, as were three of hers. In 2003, they made the bold decision of migrating again, this time to Brussels.

“As the eldest sibling, I felt that it was my responsibility to join them, and help to take care of my parents”, he says.

Again they had to adapt and faced several obstacles such as the lack of employment opportunities for his wife, who has only worked for a year as a teacher since moving to Belgium. In association with his relatives, George started a business again in 2004, the pizzeria where he serves customers every day. The place was named after the strong family ties that had brought him to Belgium: Les Quatre Frères.

Learning yet another language, French, was not easy but overall, George is please he took the step to move to Belgium: “I really liked our life in Sweden and it was not easy to adapt again but here we feel more stable because we have family around us”.

His children have graduated from university and are currently looking for employment or enrolled in postgraduate education.

Never back to Syria

George still misses the Syria where he grew up but has never been back, first for fears of persecution given his political past and after because, as his closest relatives migrated too, he has little ties left with his country of origin.

“I have been away from Syria for 33 years. Sometimes people ask me if I would like to go back and I always reply: To whom?” He says very few of his old friends are still living there and his town has changed so much that he would struggle to recognise it.

Overall, he is proud of the decisions he has made: “We have taken risks but it was worth it and we are lucky to be with our family. We are safe and live a good life”, he says in the place he now calls home.