U bent hier
Text: Ellie Mears
Photography: Lies Willaert
I meet Modar Saad in his neat, sparsely furnished bedsit near Antwerp’s grand central station. On one wall hangs a Firenzian watercolour; a vase of lilies adorns the windowsill. There’s little sign of the Syria he has left behind. Smartly dressed in a light shirt and blue jeans, Modar offers me a cup of Earl Grey, laughing when I refuse to add sugar.
As we sit around the table, Modar tells me it’s the first time he’s been interviewed, ever. He seems at ease, though, and helpfully checks my microphone is switched on: the consummate engineer. As I sip my amusingly unsweetened tea, I expect to hear a riches-to-rags tale of successful graduate turned disenfranchised refugee. Modar’s story, like most, resists such a simple narrative.
The golden years
In March 2010, life was looking rosy for Modar Saad. With a degree in Civil Engineering from Damascus University, the 24-year-old had just been promoted to assistant project manager at British consultancy, Halcrow (later taken over by US firm CH2M), where he picked up his fluent English. He lived with his parents in the eastern suburb of Jobar. Modar still fondly recalls this life of a young man on the up. He was studying for a master’s alongside his job and had his own set of wheels.
He describes those years after graduation as the happiest of his life, and when he uses the phrase “full of joy”, you can see he means it.
The upward trajectory of Modar’s life in Syria followed that of his whole family. His father had struggled to support his wife and three children on his Arabic teacher’s salary. “Before the year 2000 we were the poorest people in the neighbourhood,” Modar explains. But the parents’ emphasis on education paid off. His sister, nine years Modar’s senior, trained as a doctor and worked at a city hospital. His elder brother, who is now studying for a PhD in Antwerp, became a pharmacist. Everyone contributed to the family pot.
Religion was an important part of family life, too, but it wasn’t prescriptive. Modar’s father belongs to the Shi’ite Ismaeli Muslim minority, while his mother is Sunni. “So what route do you follow?” I ask. He smiles. “I follow my own route!”
His mixed parentage typified the sense of tolerance and togetherness found in the mainly Sunni neighbourhood before the war.
“Before 2011, in Damascus, and Syria in general, you could do whatever you wanted. I mean whatever you wanted. You could pray, go to the mosque, go to church, visit nightclubs. Muslims and Christians celebrated each other’s festivals. I had many friends who were Christians, or came from other Muslim groups”.
“I never felt like a stranger in Jobar. I was surrounded by people who loved me for who I am”.
They wanted to kill us
But by mid-2012 that tolerance had evaporated. Islamist groups controlled the area. Houses were shelled indiscriminately. Modar’s family had their most personal possessions stolen. “The jihadists wanted to kill us, “ explains Modar, “because we belong to the Ismaeli minority”.
The threat of death was everywhere. A day in June: a crowd gathers. Modar’s best friend helps an old lady to cross the road to safety. As they part company, a bullet from an unseen sniper finds its way unerringly to the back of his head, killing him instantly. To this day, Modar has no idea who fired the shot that took his friend’s life.
A new danger
The family took the decision to flee. Their new home on the Western outskirts of Damascus offered some respite from the carnage of Jobar, though daily living became an increasing struggle as inflation soared. Whilst Modar’s religion no longer put his life in jeopardy here, his age and gender did. As a young man living in a government controlled neighbourhood, Modar faced forced conscription – which augured almost certain death.
“If you become a soldier, there’s a 90% chance you’ll be killed because they send you straight out onto the front line,” Modar explains. He’d also heard that recruits were banned from leaving the country three months before joining the army. It was crunch time.
On 31st December 2014, Modar packed a small bag with dollars he had exchanged on the black market – an act punishable by imprisonment – and set off for Turkey. Unlike the majority of Syrian refugees he travelled alone.
Modar is keen to emphasise his good fortune. The word “lucky” runs as a refrain throughout our interview.
He took a taxi to Beirut in Lebanon, and then a plane to Istanbul. “When I reached Beirut Airport, I saw on Facebook they were now demanding visas at the Syrian-Lebanese border. That same day. So I was very lucky to have got across”.
No hero’s welcome
With an IELTS English test under his belt, Modar had secured a place on PhD programmes in Leeds and Manchester, but was denied a visa. Now he switched his focus to working in Turkey as an engineer. He took weekend classes in Turkish and studied hard at home, but his labours brought little fruit.
“Turkey has its own engineering programmes with their own standards. Firms there don’t follow international standards, and people don’t even try to learn English. So it was a waste of time trying to find a job”.
With no prospects in Istanbul, Modar decided to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean into Europe.
“Like everyone, I arranged the crossing to Greece with a smuggler. I never met him. I just got his phone number from a friend who was also trying to cross. The smuggler spoke Arabic fluently. I guess he was Syrian. But the big bosses are all Turkish”.
The price of his one-way ticket was exorbitant. “I paid 1200 US dollars. Just to cross the sea in a rubber boat!” he laughs dryly.
There were 52 adults in the motorised dinghy, and unlike the other vessels pulling out from shore, no children – “no one who couldn’t keep themselves alive”.
The boat’s “captain” was inexperienced and started off in the wrong direction. A passenger took over, successfully steering the vessel towards the island of Lesbos. 500 meters off the Greek coast, the motor broke down. Modar’s friend, Mohammed, swam to shore to get help, which came in the form of a Greek fishing boat. The fishermen threw a rope overboard, dragging the refugees to shore.
Was it a bumpy ride, our photographer Lies asks.
“No, it was smooth. Everyone has an app on their smartphones which tells you when the sea is calm”. Even when fleeing persecution, there’s an app for that.
Lesbos to Antwerp
Modar walked the length of Lesbos to register at one of the EU’s “hotspots”. The pokey office cannot cope with the thousands of migrants applying for a temporary permit. Modar and his friends took shifts, queuing for four days and sleeping in line.
Finally, clutching papers. Ship to Athens. Train to the border. Six hours through Macedonia by bus (better that than four days by foot). A night in Belgrade.
Crossing the Hungarian border was the scariest part of Modar’s 11-day trip. The police pursued them through the night, as Modar and his friends scrambled through field and forest in the blackness. “It was the most awful night… If they caught people, they wouldn’t treat them well. They had dogs, cars, everything!”
They were lucky: the journey continued. Budapest to Austria. Austria to Frankfurt. Frankfurt to Antwerp.
Despite the difficult journey, Modar acknowledges he is in a fortunate position. “I can’t imagine taking a wife and child with me to Europe, as some of my friends have. You only do that if you really have no other option.”
Life in Belgium
Modar now has refugee status in Belgium, obtaining his Belgian ID card in March of this year. In May, he was accepted into the VUB’s 2-year Master of Civil Engineering programme. He starts in September. A scholarship covers great part of the student fee, and he is hoping to find a student job to cover living and accommodation costs. And with three levels of Dutch lessons already under his belt, Modar is adapting to his new country with impressive speed.
Initially placed in the rural province of Limburg, then moving to Antwerp, Modar has a lot of affection for his adopted home: “In Limburg people are very friendly. The neighbourhood was calm and quiet. The dialect is sloooow… not like the Antwerpenaarrrs” he says, imitating the accent of his new city.
It’s not just Belgians who have shown Modar a kind reception. He is effusive when he describes the volunteers in Budapest who welcomed the refugees, providing taxis to make sure they arrived at the train station safely.
But what of those politicians who say we should shut the borders to refugees? Modar is philosophical. “You know, everyone is afraid of the unknown, even me… I want to say, give us a chance”.
According to the UNHCR, some 85% of Syrian refugees have completed high school or university.
“Statistically that’s quite impressive,” says Modar. “We are eager to show people that we are good, and we can do something for others. My brother keeps telling me, find a job and show people you’re contributing to society. That’s why most of my friends have opted to start Dutch courses straight away”. Modar says he wants to learn the language as quickly as possible before obtaining his master’s. “My long-term dream has been, and always will be, to become a project manager.”
With his fast progression in Dutch, evident determination and a place at VUB, there’s every chance this dream will come into fruition.
Read our other student-refugee stories:
“Bon voyage, Antoine”
het verhaal van Antoine Bakhash
“The first enemy of any dictatorship is knowledge”
The story of Basel Addoum
“Eindelijk kan ik met mijn toekomst beginnen”
Na vier jaar wachten start Sulafa Abdulghani met haar studies farmacie
The story of Yazan Rajab
“I have learned how important it is to never give up hope”