From Refugee To Aid Worker: One Determined Young Syrian’s Story

"I never thought about my future after the war until I heard these stories and met these people."

02/14/2017 06:58 pm ET | Updated 6 days ago
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A scenic view at sunset of the ancient ruins of Palmyra, Syria before the war.

Twenty-three-year-old Humam grew up in Palmyra, Syria, the popular tourist hub long known for its remarkably well-preserved ancient ruins. His family all worked in the tourism industry, operating a restaurant and shops and taking visitors around the desert by camel. Humam himself eagerly studied tourism and business management at school, and was registered to start university when the war broke out.

In 2011 Humam fled from Palmyra to avoid conscription. He was later shot in the arm but recovered, only to be injured a second time in another strike.

“My arm was in a bad situation, so they told me to go to a hospital outside of Syria,” Humam explained. “My friends took me on a long trip over the mountains, to the border of Turkey. It was really dangerous.”

When he arrived at the border, his arm had deteriorated further due to infection. A Turkish ambulance took him to a hospital, where he had eight surgeries.

Humam stayed in Turkey for two years but could not find any legal work. Desperate to make ends meet, like so many other Syrians, he decided to get to Europe at any cost. He paid a smuggler to take him to Greece.

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Migrants arrive in Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, on March 19, 2016.

“I knew nothing about Greece, I was just looking for a safe place where I could fix my arm, study and find a legal way to work and support myself,” he says.

Humam arrived in Mytilene, Greece, but the refugee camps were so full there that they kept him and the others in the port for a week. Hungry, scared and exhausted, he was finally allowed into a camp, where he successfully applied for asylum.

In Greece, Humam found housing with friends and got a job with Mercy Corps. He now works as a field assistant, training people to use the pre-paid debit cards we distribute as part of a cash assistance program. He also works with other young refugees stranded in Greece.

His work has inspired him to move forward in his own life, while also staying connected to his home country.

“I feel like a human again. It gives me a chance to help my people. It feels good to support them in some way, and at the same time support myself. I hear a lot of stories from others, and I see my story in everyone I work with,” said Humam. “Working with refugees helped me to understand what I wanted in my life. I never thought about my future after the war until I heard these stories and met these people.”

Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland
Humam speaking at a conference in Finland in January 2017

Humam is also now passionate about speaking out on behalf of other young refugees.

“A lot of youth don’t have the chance,” Humam continued. “They don’t have that support, and they need it. A lot of youth just need an advisor. They know what they want, but they need someone to help them figure out how to get there.”

Indeed, many of the young people fleeing Syria today have very little support wherever they end up. Before the war, more than 70 percent of Syrian adolescents were enrolled in secondary school, and 95 percent of the country could read. But now, more than 1 million of those young people are seeking safety in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and other countries. Roughly half of refugee children and one-quarter of refugee adolescents cannot attend school in these countries.

“A lot of people, including me, want to study,” said Humam. “But it is not easy.”

At Mercy Corps, throughout our work in the region over the past several years, we have paid particularly close attention to the needs of young Syrians like Humam. These youth are at a crossroads and struggling with what to do with their lives. Like others throughout the region, they are at risk of becoming alienated and hopeless, at risk of making harmful and dangerous choices. Yet we know that promising young people like Humam, when given support and a chance, are hungry to succeed and make something of their lives. Thousands of young refugees throughout the region have told us how they long to finish school, return home and help their country pick up the pieces.

Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland
Humam speaking at a conference in Finland in January 2017

“For me, I’m waiting for the war to stop so I can go back and rebuild Syria,” he said. “I believe that we can rebuild Syria better than before. I have a lot of power that I bring from my skills. I can now speak out and lead. I want the same for other youth, too.”

Last month I traveled with Humam to Helsinki, Finland, where he shared his story with government officials, U.N. agencies and non-governmental groups attending a pledging conference as the crisis approaches its sixth year. He emphasized that Syrian youth must be given a voice and an opportunity to speak out about what they need and desire and, most important, what they can contribute when the time comes to rebuild Syria.

In a global climate where some countries and communities are shutting their doors to refugees, Humam’s story reminds us that young refugees enrich the communities that welcome them. Millions of young people like Humam are spending their critical development years displaced from their homes and stuck in limbo, yet determined to succeed. They need our help. When we focus on youth like Humam, listen to them and help them see the path forward, they can build a brighter future for themselves and those around them.

“Refugees they have lots of skills and a big will to work and create new life. If they are only given a little support, they can do miracles,” Humam said.

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