- Some came to Mexico fearing they would find more violence. But instead they’ve found a new home and a second chance
When they still lived back home in Derik, northern Syria, Silva Hassan Namo and her family would gather each evening around the television to watch the latest episodes of their favourite Mexican telenovelas.
Even after civil war forced them to flee to Iraq, the family would follow the soap operas whenever they could, to escape the grim monotony of life in a refugee camp.
So when Hassan was granted a scholarship to study in Mexico , her family was uneasy about her moving to a country they’d only ever known as the setting for melodramatic tales of revenge, family feuds and mafia bosses.
“My dad’s dream was always for his children to study and become something. But he was scared about me coming to Mexico because he thought it was a country of criminals and marijuana – that’s what we would see in the TV series and the news,” she said.
Hassan is one of 10 young Syrians in Mexico thanks to Project Habesha – a small not-for-profit organisation arranging university scholarships for youngsters whose education has been disrupted by the civil war.
Almost half a million Syrians have been killed, with another 11 million forcibly displaced. Only a handful of refugees – 39 since 2014, according to immigration figures – have reached Mexico independently, but that is likely to change thanks to Project Habesha.
Hassan, the second female student to be picked so far, arrived in March with her husband, Jack Mohammed, 24. Neither of them spoke a word of Spanish, but she describes the experience as a rebirth.
“Imagine you’re dead and someone gives you a miracle cure. That’s what coming to Mexico feels like, like I’ve been born again,” said Hassan.
‘This is what Syria was like before the war’
Her new home, Aguascalientes, is a small industrial city in north-central Mexico of a million people, best known for its Nissan plant and arid desert heat.
The couple live in a newly refurbished apartment in a small gated complex, which has become the group’s social hub.
Hassan puts on her hijab before opening the door to Zain and Hazem, two of the male students who arrived last summer and live across town. She started wearing the headscarf after getting married, and for her it’s an integral part of being a Muslim woman.
“I’m the only woman wearing hijab among millions of Mexicans and people do look at me, but it’s important to my religion,” she said.
Tonight the students are sharing makdous – aubergines stuffed with walnuts, garlic and chilli, pickled in olive oil – while bickering good naturedly about whether Aleppo or Damascus has the best cuisine.
They bemoan the lack of halal and popularity of pork in Mexican street food. Food is a recurrent topic of conversation; politics is not.
|Silva Hassan Namo, 22, and her husband, Jack Mohammed, 24, at their new home in Aguascalientes.|
“This is what Syria was like before the war, we mixed together,” said Jack, who met and married Hassan in a refugee camp.
Aguascalientes has largely been spared the drug-fueled violence that has wracked much of Mexico in recent years, and the students expressed disbelief at the conclusions of a recent – and largely discredited – report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) that concluded Mexico was the second deadliest country in the world after Syria.
“I walk to the shop at 3am alone and everything is fine, no one is going to kill me because of my religion or my nationality. There are mafia in every country. You cannot compare Mexico to Syria or Iraq, the dangers are very different,” said Mohammed.
‘After being a refugee, to be a student feels good’
Project Habesha is the brainchild of Adrian Meléndez, a lawyer from the city, who first met Mohammed in 2013 while working in Iraq for an international NGO.
It took two years to persuade the Mexican government to sanction 30 student visas. That was the easy part. Organising travel documents, persuading universities to offer discounted places, finding language courses and accommodation, and raising funds has been a huge challenge.
But the cogs are turning more smoothly now. The first three arrivals are at university in Mexico City, and seven more are studying Spanish in Aguascalientes. Several others are preparing to make their way to Mexico or Costa Rica, where a sister project is about to open.
Ahmed Aldabak, 23, who arrived last month straight from western Aleppo, is the quietest of the group. His conservative Sunni family briefly left the city in 2012, when he was shot by a sniper, but decided to return to their home despite the fighting.
“We love Syria. My family doesn’t want to leave and my grandparents are too old. But coming here was a one-time chance I had to take,” he said.
Aldabak admits that he was a little nervous about Mexico’s violent reputation.
“I was worried about my safety, my family was worried too. But Aleppo is very dangerous, Aguascalientes is fine,” he laughs. To underline the point, he reveals the scar on his chest beneath which the sniper’s bullet remains lodged.
Aldabak plans to complete a master’s degree in telecommunications engineering, and then return home to help rebuild his devastated city. The others are not so sure about going back: there is still too much uncertainty to imagine that peace will come to Syria.
But Meléndez was confident that wherever they ended up, they would make a contribution.
“We are giving them the best of the best to help create 30 super Syrians, who are all successful in their chosen fields and will make a great impact globally.”
Mohammed said: “There will be many challenges in Mexico, but we will do it. After four years of being a refugee, to be a student feels very good. It feels like normal again.”