‘The country is in chaos, there are bombs everywhere’

Meet Kais Chaya, who fled Syria to study at Queen’s

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“My father said to me, you can either go back and fight and die in action, or you can leave and get an education. Get a proper degree and come back in the future, help the country when it actually matters. When it actually needs you.”

21-year-old Kais Chaya left Syria in 2012. Since then he has taken a six month long English language course in Dubai, and successfully applied to study Architecture at Queens University Belfast.

He’s just finished his second year, and will be continuing his studies in September.

“I used to live in a town called Sweida, in the South of Syria. I did half a term of Architecture at Tishreen University on the coast, until my parents decided that it was too unsafe for us to stay, and my mother and I left to join my Father in the United Arab Emirates. He has been there since 2003.

“Most of my friends are still in Syria, though, trying to get an education. I cannot watch the news, I dread it. I haven’t watched the news in over a year and a half. For my family, and friends, all I can do is contact them to see if they are fine.”

Kais with family and friends in Syria

Kais, second from the left, with family and friends in Syria

And it is a good job Kais decided to leave when he did, as six months later his cafeteria at Tishreen University was hit by a terrorist missile. Less than a week later 15 students were killed by a bomb in the canteen of Damascus University’s College of Architecture.

“Before I left, running for my life was a daily decision. You never know when something could explode.

“And there’s no one specifically to point the finger at. The country is in chaos, and there are bombs everywhere.

“It’s the same story, the government says there are bad people in the country. And the people say the president is terrorising everybody. There are six or seven different parties who are killing each other for the sake of killing each other. There is no answer really, and it’s people like us, the students, who die.”


Kais, second from the left, in his younger days

The Northern Irish capital seems a radically different place to the Middle East, though. “I did research and received offers from Liverpool and Newcastle, but Belfast was more like the city I grew up in. A town with mountains and hills where people are few.

“I couldn’t stay at home, so I chose the next nearest thing. I’m the only one from my family in the UK.”

Kais and friends, with Guinness

Kais and friends, with Guinness

But the second year’s friends and family are not all still in Syria. “Some of them make it into Europe and go to Germany. It’s a common choice because German universities are free.

“Others do not have that choice, and their only other option is to illegally immigrate to Italy on a ship. My uncles escaped this way.

“The majority of people are still there or are trying to escape. So many die, and they die trying to escape. The ships that try to get out of the country are very dangerous. Fortunately I have never lost anyone in this way, both my uncles were able to get out safely to Italy and survive.

“The whole point of travelling is because I want to have a bigger effect and get a better degree. I want to change a big group’s opinion about what is happening in the country.”

Kais in Belfast

Kais in Belfast

While Kais knows his country is struggling, he wants others to return in the future to rebuild, just as he plans to at the end of uni.

“I want to tell people that there is a way and, eventually, when things have settled you can come back and help. As I’ve said the country is absolutely on the floor.

“There are very few people like me who are able to get out and are not completely corrupted from the inside.

“We need to be able to see what is going on around us, like humans, and doing something for the future. This generation are a group of people who can do something for the future. There are people there who are fighting and dying, we need to help those people.

“I have only met one other Syrian man in Belfast. He was from Homz and then moved to Saudi Arabia, before he applied for asylum and came here. That’s the only other guy I know, and it was a long time ago.”