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Sana Mustafa, Syrian refugee, US

Suddenly separated from her family four years ago, Syrian refugee Sana Mustafa has just completed her second undergraduate degree in the US. She tells The PIE News how an international education can empower an entire family and how she is dedicated to putting a human face on the refugee crisis.

The PIE: You first came to the US on a scholarship, right?

"Of course when it comes to the rebuilding process I am going to be part of it, but I don’t think I’ll be in Syria in the near future"

SM: Yes, but it wasn’t to study really. It was a summer training with the State Department and it was about leadership skills and social engagement. Every year they bring students from all around the Middle East and North Africa to the US on leadership training for six weeks.

The PIE: And that was when your dad was detained?

SM: A week after I left to the US he got detained, on July 2 2013. That was the last we heard from him. This July, it will be the fourth year anniversary of when my dad was taken.

The PIE: Can you walk me through what happened next?

SM: His detention basically meant that I could not go back home because of the political situation in Syria and the conflict. We would have been targeted, me, my mom and my sisters, because we ourselves are activists and have been detained before.

It was very hard in my first year, I was dealing with my dad’s detention and I was suddenly in a new country alone. So that was a huge challenge for me, but I definitely made it because of the support of others.

“You always think something ends when you have a conclusion, but we don’t have a conclusion yet”

The stress has brought my mom and my sisters more together, because they had their own struggle when they were smuggled to Turkey where they are living now. They had to figure out life. And it has not passed, we still live in the same situation. You always think something ends when you have a conclusion, but we don’t have a conclusion yet, they are still refugees in Turkey and my dad is still detained, if he is alive, and I am still here.

It does not end by the borders, by leaving the country. It starts actually, because you have extra things to worry about, and now everywhere is not welcoming. Even neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, are hell for Syrians. There is a lot of racism not only in Europe or in the States, so it is not like any country is doing any better.

The PIE: Where is your family from in Syria?

SM: We are from a small town called Masyaf, it is in the countryside of the province of Hama. I was born and raised in this small village town and then I went to Damascus for my undergrad where I did four years in business and marketing. Then due to my dad’s detention while I was in the US, I couldn’t go back, so I had to stay.

When I came here, people were not really aware of the refugee crisis then and it did not mean much when I said “I am a refugee”. Yet people helped me regardless, in spite of my background. Total strangers. I lived with them and they trusted me with their kids and in their houses. It definitely was the American values we don’t see in the media anymore, we see the opposite discourse. It is a country that is built on immigrants. Every family that I lived with has some international background, from their ancestors, their grandparents or themselves.

The PIE: Have you felt a change in those American values recently?

SM: I felt welcomed in the sense they thought it was safe for me here so they were glad there was some sort of security here, which I don’t necessarily feel anymore because of the current xenophobic discourse and political climate. I definitely don’t feel as safe and secure anymore – statistically speaking, the percentage of racist and discriminatory incidents have been increasing ever since the new administration came in.

“I think idealising the refugee population is one of the most mistaken approaches towards the crisis”

The PIE: Have you continued your activism during your time in the US?

SM: Yes definitely, I mean activism outside of a totalitarian regime is so different. Here you protest legally, no one comes to detain you, you are protected. I don’t know how much I can call it activism. I feel like activism is associated with danger, that is why I am always hesitant when they call me an activist outside Syria or the conflict area. I am like ‘hmm, maybe I’m an advocate or something’.

The PIE: So what are you advocating for now?

SM: My main goal is humanising the crisis. I think idealising the refugee population is one of the most mistaken approaches towards the crisis. A refugee committed a crime in Germany last year, you feel obligated to respond and ask “Is he an ISIS terrorist?”, because you are idealising this refugee. But if you humanise this group as just another population like any other population where you have good people, bad people, criminals, lawyers, you have successes, you have losers, you see they are human beings just like me and you.

So idealising does not help anything. If a refugee committed a terrorist attack how is that my fault? He is the only one responsible for his actions and he is one person who committed this.

The PIE: A lot of our readers are trying to find ways to help refugee students like yourself. Having been through the process what would you do to improve it?

SM: One of the obstacles is that we came from a very different education background and different education system. Just the application process itself is so ambiguous and scary for Syrian students. First because it is in English, secondly it is very complicated, even for a native speaker to know what to do, what to talk about, what not to talk about, how to navigate the system.

When I applied, I got mentored by an American friend and she literally just helped me to articulate what I wanted to say, because sometimes you have the ideas but you don’t have the vocab or know-how to present it as a native speaker. So I would say help with application would help.

“Just the application process itself is so ambiguous and scary for Syrian students”

And I always say to be people do not separate the political or policy activism from giving money activism. For Americans, I say call your congressman and say we want refugees. It does make a difference in the system.

The PIE: How do you see this going forward? Are you optimistic that educators will help find a solution?

SM: Yes I am. I am very optimistic about those people who already know something and may want to be involved as educators. There are a lot of initiatives and projects that are working on different aspects of the refugee crisis, so there are ways for educators to be involved.

However, I am less optimistic about those who do not agree with us and we need to get them on board. There are people who have never met an Arab or Muslim refugee in their lives and it feels like my duty to put a human face on these numbers because they believe they are terrorists. They believe that we are oppressed women and incapable.

What changes peoples’ minds is a conversation, and we don’t listen to them enough. Tell me why I am dangerous or why you think I want to bring others here. When you make them feel like you aren’t attacking them, that you are trying to understand, that is a better approach.

The PIE: You said earlier when you empower someone educationally you are empowering their whole family. What does that mean?

SM: I was 22 when I first arrived and my mom was always extra worried for me because I was here. You can’t imagine a Syrian mom who sees her child off to the US and that is the last time you see her. She was alone worrying about survival for herself and my sisters and for me. And I couldn’t give anything back because I was barely surviving here. My elder sister had to work three jobs, almost 17 hours a day, just to be able to afford things, because there were no other financial means, they took everything.

So the moment I started studying and working on campus was when I was able to start being able to help them. I got my sister to school in Germany and I got my sister to programs in Turkey and I can even financially help them. I am kind of the pillar of the family now because I was here and because I was able to continue my education and I graduated. And during my studies I made a lot of contacts; I was out there talking with people and because I am here they also applied to come here.

“When you are in a refugee camp studying, everything is negative and everyone around you has worse stories than you”

The PIE: What do you think about the programs that are trying to take education to Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan or Lebanon? Are they effective?

SM: I think these are a very temporary solution. If that happens there with mental support then yes, it can be effective. But if I am thinking every day ‘what am I going to eat?’, I can’t focus. When you are in a refugee camp studying, everything is negative and everyone around you has worse stories than you. People do not focus much on the mental health issue so much and it is a main issue. I did counselling in my school purely just to be able to continue. It is a good temporary solution, but it is better to be in the right environment.

The PIE: Do you have hopes that you will ever be able to go back to Syria? Do you even want to go back?

SM: Oh yes, if I could go back now I would go back. But do I think I will be able to go back? Not in the near future. You know the average years for refugees living outside of their country is 17 years? Say the war stopped in Syria, the work on reconstruction and conflict resolution takes years. The reconciliation among people just to be able to go there and feel safe takes so much time.

Of course when it comes to the rebuilding process I am going to be part of it, but I don’t think I’ll be in Syria in the near future. I don’t really care about the geographical location anymore. I am more interested in where the opportunity takes me or where life takes me. I don’t feel any geographical or identity ties to any place other than Syria and I can’t be there, so let it be anywhere.

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