A Syrian refugee in Latvia: Bashar builds a new life in Riga

Bashar Yousef was living in Latvia as a student when the war in Syria broke out in 2011. Hearing all the news about the atrocities taking place in his home country led him to the conclusion that it was much safer to stay in Latvia.

by Didzis Melbiksis, Riga

As in many other cases, he was granted alternative status after a few months. Bashar is originally from Damascus, and his father, mother and sister are all still in Syria. Some of them tried to leave Damascus, but the situation in other towns was not much better. ‘I am in contact with them almost on a daily basis – writing or calling. I miss them a lot and I am worried about them’, says Bashar.

Bashar himself has found a new life in Riga, the capital of Latvia. Bashar speaks fluent Russian, as he had previously studied in Kyiv and Moscow. This has been an enormous advantage for him because many Latvian residents speak good Russian. For the last four years Bashar has been supporting himself financially by translating from Arabic to Russian and vice versa, as well as giving Arabic language classes. In his spare time he studies Latvian when free courses are offered by the state, but the progress has been slow so far: ‘It is simply easier for people to talk to me in Russian. Most of my acquaintances here are actually Latvians, but in the daily life when we meet we speak Russian’ explains Bashar. He adds that the lack of practice makes it harder to master the Latvian language, but he is not giving up and would like to become a Latvian citizen one day.

Bashar meets locals every day – sometimes to teach them Arabic, sometimes to act as a consultant offering information on doing business in the Arab world, and sometimes simply to discuss new possibilities. People should be proactive, there are always possibilities, says Bashar, ‘any human being desires to give some meaning to his life. And this can be achieved first and foremost through work.’

Bashar is already in his fifties and has no children of his own to take care of. In addition to his work he founded the NGO EU Syrian Association in 2013 which promotes the integration of Syrians in EU. In 2014 they organized a charity concert for children in Syria with support of the church and musicians. It was held at the Dome church in the old town part of Riga, a popular place for Latvians. Now Bashar is enthusiastic about organizing another similar event and to attract the attention of Latvian public towards the crisis in Syria. He hopes Latvians will be empathetic.

His own experience in Latvia has been positive. ‘I have never felt in any way discriminated here. On the contrary – I am really glad and in general very satisfied with regards to the level of culture and societal attitudes towards foreigners’ he says.

In 2014, 373 people applied for asylum in Latvia. Thirty-four of the applicants were from Syria, and 19 Syrian nationals have been granted alternative status.