I was born in 1982 near Damascus, Syria into a big, middle class family. I have ten siblings but there’s seven of us now. Most of my siblings went off to work at an early age. I was the only one that got into education. We lived in a neighborhood where all our neighbors were family friends and relatives. We were used to playing together until the sun sets. During the holidays, we used to go out into big groves and gardens, eating fruits and swimming, climbing trees.
My siblings and I have always been close and we still are. There was a certain point in my life where they were even helping me financially. After I graduated from college in Morocco and decided to return to Syria to settle down, I couldn’t find work, it was difficult for journalists there at the time. My brother used to help me financially and now I help him since he became a refugee in Lebanon. His work is really slow. We speak almost daily. When I first left I wasn’t able to see them for seven years because I was banned from returning to the country. But two months ago my mother snuck into Turkey and I was able to meet here there while on a business trip for Accuracy Press.
When I started schooling, my favorite classes were always Arabic (literature, in all its forms) and history. I was an avid reader. I had an uncle that had disappeared in the 80’s. He was a political prisoner, so we had a rich collection of books at our home library. I used to spend hours looking through the books and reading everything from politics to theology to English literature, trying to find something to connect me with him. I’d never known him in person, just from what people told me. I loved finding his comments on the page margins, trying to understand what was going on in his head when he read it.
I studied in Syria until high school after which I went to Morocco for college, I studied both law and journalism. In 2006, I graduated from the college of law, and in 2007 I graduated from the college of journalism. My experience in Morocco changed me. I became a very serious person. I used to neglect things before. It was a big challenge for me, I either failed or succeeded. I wanted to challenge myself and prove to my father that I was able to succeed. My dad supported this decision. My dad had such a strong passion for education, by every meaning of the word. One of the things that really embodies/represents my father’s greatness is when I think about how he did everything in his power to make sure I got my ticket to Morocco. A plane ticket at the time as not an easy or cheap thing for my family. He really put a lot of pressure on himself to save the money I needed to get the ticket and had some spending cash. He was always like this, sacrificing his own comforts to make sure we were comfortable. One time he even sold one of his lands to help me. He really hated that, land was something sacred. Where I come from, land is the single most important thing. I grew up playing in these fields. It roots you to your home, identity, family. But he sold it to help me.
By 2007 I was a full-time journalist. I decided to return to Syria because there was some talk about reform and I felt that since I was sent out on scholarship it was my duty to go back and serve my country. I decided to go back. I came to Syria with very unique work experience by Syria’s journalism standards, considering that you could count the number of Syrian journalists with international experience on your hands. I wanted to go back to contribute to this wave of reform. I returned and worked in Syrian television for a little while. It was mostly news but I did some entertainment in the form of features. During those short months, I discovered that there was no real journalism here. It was like I was exposed to the internal corruption where I was faced with the reality that I wouldn’t be able to work, write, or report the truths I had to tell freely. I decided to seek opportunity elsewhere. In 2009, I received a scholarship from the Swedish government to attend a month-long training program. To be honest, when I left for this training program, I didn’t know whether I’d come back or not. I was trying not to return because if I came back, I didn’t know if I’d get another chance.
Some people seek stability. They’re content doing their job and getting that check at the end of each month. I’m not like that. I want to debate, I want contentious, I want action. I want meaning. I want to feel that what I am bringing forth is of value. I suppose this is one of those things that drove me out of Syria aside from everything else. I just wanted to work in my field. It wasn’t easy to get that degree in journalism. I spent months and years studying and preparing myself for it. I wasn’t just going to throw all that away: studying in Morocco was a very difficult experience. My first years I remember I often didn’t even have enough money to eat. It couldn’t all have been for nothing. I couldn’t just leave this sacrifice.
I went to Sweden knowing that I wouldn’t be going back to Syria. There was no future for me there as a journalist. I had a friend in Norway and he told me that the only way for me to stay in the country would be for me to apply for refugee status. Since I was a journalist and the situation for us in Syria is threatening, I was told that I was likely to be accepted. I've long had an interest in the legal aspect of journalism, in particular laws associated with media and freedom of speech. I saw there was no reason for me to return to Syria because it wasn’t there. I applied for refugee status in Norway. I stayed there from of 2009 until 2011, when they told me that Syria was safe and it was possible for me to return home. By then I had met my wife online and we had spoken about getting married. She came to Norway and I decided to return to Syria with her so that she could meet my family while we wait for my US visa and then I would come here with her. Plans changed when I was imprisoned two weeks into my arrival in Syria. My wife was no longer able to come see me and meet my family. After two months, I got out and came here.
I first arrived in Richmond V.A. in the end of Sept. 2012 I received three job offers in my first week here. I was lucky. In terms of freedom, it was actually one of the worst experiences I ever had. The channel was opposed to the Arab spring, plus I worked with people that didn’t have any journalistic experience. My boss was famous for being a dictator. About 20 of us quit because of her. I sued them so they fired me. There were a lot of reasons that factored into my decision to start my organization. I felt Syrians needed professional journalism. I also wanted to contribute to the revolution and for Syria’s brighter future. I started to think about what role I can play to contribute to the growth of our society. I don’t know how to use a weapon so I won’t be doing it that way. I don’t like to participate in humanitarian projects because I feel as though they’re degrading. So journalism was the best option, especially since I had the experience and background. The biggest motivator on top of all this is my brother and father’s passing. I had to do something. It was very difficult for me but I needed a way to transfer that anger and energy into something positive. The natural reaction would be for me to go back, pick up a gun and go after the people that killed my father and brother. But I thought what was the message that my father and brother died for? And what can I do to make it heard? I was thinking of the bigger picture, so it gave me a motivator to contribute to the community and play a role in the revolution.
When I came to America I just decided this was going to be my home. It wasn’t that hard for me to adapt. I was already displaced for so long and discovered along the course of my journey that the first few weeks of our arrival are always hard, it takes time for people to adapt. I learned that and stopped worrying about the process, I knew the stages of the process so it was easy for me to be patient. I knew the final result was belonging. I felt as though I belonged from my first day here. In Norway, I was always considered a stranger because the Norwegian community is very conservative. There’s no diversity, you’re either white with blue eyes or you’re a foreigner so I was always an outside, even if they respected me. I didn’t like that. I just wanted to feel like part of a community. When I came here it was different. No one looks at you like a stranger no matter what you look like. For me home now includes two factors: I have a family and kids now so this is also a part of any plan. I also always judge my stay in a country by the value that I add to it. Am I contributing to this country or not? As soon as I notice that my presence doesn’t contribute to the project that I’ve dedicated myself to, I’ll leave America. But right now, I see that America is the right place for me to be.
Facilitated in collaboration with KAMA D.C.