He fled the war in Syria after saving himself from two attacks, took refuge in Argentina and today teaches English in high school
Life story of a Syrian refugee: similar customs and reflections on the integration opportunities
Argentina was a fuzzy thing. His intellect had conceived a stereotype of the country nurtured by what he saw, what he studied and what he read. When he was less than ten years old, on television he pursued “Marco, from the Apennines to the Andes”, an animated cartoon based on a short fictional short story from the novel Heart of the Italian writer and novelist Edmundo de Amicis. The plot chronicles the adventures of a 10-year-old boy who travels to Argentina to track down his sick mother, an immigrant who had landed in search of work. When he was of school age, he discovered that Latakia, his hometown in Syria, is located at 35 degrees north latitude and that Buenos Aires is located at 38 degrees south latitude. And on Google he noticed that the climates and landscapes of both countries are similar. He wanted to come, meet and check the Argentina he had learned. Although as a tourist.
Okba Aziza is 33 years old, brunette complexion, beard. It fulfills the clichés of the appearance – according to the dominant canons – of a man of Arab origin. He was born in Syria, in Latakia, a town bathed by the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. “I come from a middle-class family, my mom’s a nurse and my dad’s a tax collector. I lived a normal life with my brothers and my parents.” He studied English language literature one at the university and won a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in Essex, England. He left in late 2011: civil and proxy war had broken out months earlier.
The Arab Spring spread from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to other countries in the region. In Syria, peaceful demonstrations sprang up in a bloody confrontation between official supporters and opponents. The war conflict still lingers. Nine years of armed struggle. According to figures from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the UN refugee agency, more than 7,000 children were killed or maimed and more than 3,000, recruited to fight, there are 6.2 million internally displaced persons and 5.6 millions of people had to flee.
When Okba finished his master’s degree in London, he decided to return to Syria: “I wanted to see if I could help with anything. I’d rather be in my village.” He returned to work at the university and, through the phenomenon of internal displacement, came into contact with people from Aleppo, one of the main hotbeds of conflict. “They were very sad years,” he charted. In Latakia, where he lived, he survived an attack twice. “Once I got on the bus, two blocks later a missile fell where I had climbed. Twenty college kids died that time. Again, a car bomb exploded in a square, where I had spent walking a minute earlier. I felt the full explosive force of the bomb on my back.”
He hasn’t been back in Syria for three years and didn’t visit his parents. Their relationship is reduced to video calls. “They always tell me they’re fine. I understand them because they don’t want me to worry, I also told them in my first few months here,” he said. He was afraid and helpless: he did not want to be drafted for war and understood that he could do nothing to help the victims. One day, he was summoned to do a military registration process. He was thirty. When he left the office, he texted a friend who lived in Argentina: “I want to get out of here. Is there a way to study or work in Argentina? Please let me know.” “I had my job, my life here and I didn’t want to leave it all that way. I wanted to leave the country legally,” he explained. The friend asked for his personal data and told him of the “Syria Programme”, an action implemented by the Argentine government in collaboration with UNHCR and IOM (International Organization for Migration), the financial contribution of the European Union and the “Support Mechanism Set for Emerging Resettlement Countries”.
“I had never imagined being in the army or learning anything from the military. I didn’t want to be armed. My weapon is the word and civil action,” he said. There came a time when I couldn’t stay any longer, there was no future, no way to train. If I stayed there, I was going to end up in the army and I was going to be forced into the war. The war against who? No one knows. The government says it’s counter-terrorism. The opposition says it’s against the regime. But everyone is fighting for their own interests.”
Syria is the largest exporter of Argentine mate tea. Here, a sample. Okba with three friends (none of them live in their country) drinking mate. “The difference is that the matte is not shared. Everyone has their own. And it’s usually bitter, just water and weed,” he explains. His mom didn’t want him to leave. One brother died, the other was in Germany working as a journalist. His friends had also begun to emigrate in search for a better future.
He arrived in Buenos Aires on May 15, 2017. It wasn’t same, what he read, learnt or watched in movies. His new life had a difficult start. He moved to Tristan Suarez. He saw dirty streets and houses without running water. “I knew Argentina was a very resource-rich country, but the poverty I saw surprised me. There is also poverty in Syria, but you will never meet any homeless people on the streets,” he said. After two months, without even speaking the language, he began teaching in companies. While he worked, he learned Spanish. And then he started to teach in the high school.
“It was a tremendous change. In Syria, my students were university students. In my first week with fourth graders, I told my supervisor I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know anything about Spanish and the kids were screaming a lot.” It took him little time to overcome the language barrier. “From the boys I learned not to have any form of discrimination, to be innocent and intelligent at the same time, to solve things in a practical and creative way,” he said. And he appreciated the openness of Argentine children, in contrast to their own upbringing: “In Syria, unfortunately, children suffer a lot from social, religious, political constraints.”
“Do you speak Spanish? I’m going to show you one word every day,” one student told him. And once he even spent New Year with a student’s family.
“The country’s main wealth is human resource,” he said. He never felt rejection or left out: “The welcome I was given here was amazing. There is no xenophobia or i heard phrases like ‘go to your country’. Argentina is a country that always struggled with the economy but never closed the doors to outsiders. They don’t say the problems are to blame for refugees or foreigners.” Appreciate the principles of acceptance to different and respect for diversity. But the highest valorization associates it with integration, to the shaping of its identity as if it were an Argentine more.
“I miss Syria a lot, but I feel like I live a double life. In my dreams I’m always in Syria wanting to cross the border. I even sometimes think, that I’m in Syria but with people who speak another language. Two months ago, when I was in St. Martin of the Andes, I pictured myself in Syria. I woke up and wondered why people weren’t speaking Arabic.” Okba hasn’t seen his parents in three years. He can’t come back because of the bureaucratic reasons. He would love to return to his village, but he understands that his future is in Argentina, with a program that allows better integration for refugees like him.