refuge /ˈrefjuːz/ Noun 1. The state of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or difficulty.

It's a beautiful Saturday morning like any other - what would you be doing? Leisurely rolling over in the sheets for a while, looking at the sunlight patterns on the wall? Enjoying your coffee still in pyjamas? Walking your dog? Lazily strolling around the kitchen where your parent is preparing breakfast?

An open window lets in familiar noises of life outside going at its casual pace. After a long school week, this flow of things you’ve experienced a million times before feels good, and the day still has so much to bring – you can stay home and watch series in bed, go out with a friend, maybe even stop procrastinating and do your homework, go for an evening run through the neighbourhood, share a family meal.

Now imagine it is all gone. Just like that.

Because of decisions you don't understand made by people you’ve never met, your whole world crumbles. You’re thrown out of the universe of familiar sights, smells, sounds, and habits, and thrown into a hectic uncertain.

This is more than a collective story of an overwhelming number of people – it is a story of a person.

Marwan was born and raised in Damascus. He was 14 when the war started in 2011. In 2012, a year after tanks first appeared on the streets he has grown up on, he fled to Egypt with his mother and sister.

"Egypt was one of the 3 countries we could go to without visas. It was a completely different world – very conservative and unlike what we got used to back in Syria. We couldn’t feel safe there, there wasn’t enough freedom to feel safe. My mother and sister didn’t wear hijabs for example, and it was dangerous for them to even go out dressed in a more liberal way."

After a year they moved to Turkey, which despite its rising nationalism and hostility towards newcomers, has provided them with a slightly better environment to organise a life of their own.

"There is a very defining line in Turkey between "us" and "others" that I feel makes it hard for anyone to feel fully welcome and integrated. In both countries we lived in a rather closed, secluded community of Syrians and didn't get many chances to interact with the locals.

It's not always the fault of Syrians themselves - it is hard to blame anyone for trying to stay in touch with their culture and identity, and often it's the receiving community that pushes them to separate rather than participate."

It is sometimes the case that the receiving states perpetuate this problem by implementing certain policies, as for example restricted access to housing that pushes refugees off to socially deprived suburban neighbourhoods in many European cities, or deliberately allocating newcomers by the American resettlement programme to areas where populations of the same culture group already exist .

Imagine you are forced to leave behind everything and everyone you have ever known. Have you ever been to a foreign country where you cannot even pronounce street names and nothing around makes sense? Can you imagine you are being left there and expected to call this strange place home out of the sudden?

You find yourself in chaos and unfamiliarity, and as your family faces the same fears, they can no longer shelter you. Somehow you need to figure out how to find a school you can go to, all on your own. Your adolescence is spent in a sense of guilt that your parents need to take care of you while you cannot help them in their struggle.

"I had no life. I had no youth. These years when I was growing up, I have spent moving from one place to another, caring about rent, bills, and papers, trying to figure everything out."

Then yet another cultural transition happened - getting into an international school in Mostar did not just mean moving to Bosnia; it meant opening endless possibilities to travel and discover Europe that he has grown to love just as much as you or I do.

While many Syrian refugees emphasise a longing to go back to their motherland as soon as the conflict comes to an end, Marwan did not feel that way living in Europe. Here is where he is in place. Here is where he, and his future, belong.

"Europe is my safe zone."

Meanwhile his family contributed to the breathtaking 1,015,078 - number of refugee arrivals to the EU by sea in 2015, to reach Sweden. The support system existing there made it possible for them to settle in - most importantly by providing them with language classes, as well as workshops preparing them for the labour market. To avoid pushing them into poverty in the transitional period before their qualifications are recognised, the state pays for the time they spend at these workshops; they did not have trouble finding jobs because there is a dedicated service to connect them with employers. They plan to stay there.

Where is home?

"I don't think of a particular place when I think about home. One of the things that war taught me is that physical homes can be destroyed very easily. If we tie our identities to these, then our identities will be destroyed easily too. As I did not want to let this happen, my home became the people who were around me in the most difficult times."

Travelling around Europe, Marwan also witnessed people of different cultural backgrounds growing more and more distant and wary of each other. He is disturbed by the current rapid rise of right-wing populist parties all over the continent, and the shift in people's approach towards diversity that is connected to it.

"It's sad to see some countries like Poland, Hungary, or Slovakia shutting themselves off, but I understand it. In such homogeneous societies letting in something new and different always brings change, and change can be scary."

Language is of greatest importance in overcoming these barriers. "It's important that I know English, because this way I can share my perspective and experiences, I can tell what it's really like." A lot of hostility comes from a lack of understanding, and it is harder to relate to someone if they cannot communicate their feelings and stories to us.

"I feel that if it would be possible for people to talk to each other, to somehow connect, they would have more sympathy towards each other."

Marwan and I were both 14 when the Syrian war broke out. The only reason why I could keep waking up in my own bed afterwards, while he could not, was that his bed happened to be in Damascus, and mine safe thousands kilometres away.

Fragment of a Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery, Berlin

Marwan Safar Jalani is the beautifully-minded person to thank for sharing this story. I encourage you to read his personal experiences of war and displacement: One sound - Two Crimes, The Picture of a Lost Generation

Created By
Weronika Betta


Yarmuk camp - AFP PHOTO / STRSTR/AFP/Getty Images; Marwan's portrait - Weronika Betta; Berlin Wall - Jari Järvelä

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