‘Everyone knows someone who has died’: Syrian Masters student on the horrors he’s left behind

He hopes Durham will teach him how to build a better Syria


When you find yourself missing mum’s cooking this term, imagine leaving your family behind in a war-torn country deprived of basic amenities, uncertain if you’ll ever see your brother or sister again.

25-year-old Yaman Islim was born in Syria and comes to Durham University this year to start a MSc in Finance and Investment. He’s already completed an Economics degree at Aleppo University in 2012, and an MBA in Istanbul. His family remain in Syria, unable to visit him in the UK.

Yaman, 25, is studying in Durham on a scholarship

Yaman, 25, is studying in Durham on a scholarship

The Tab spoke to Yaman to find out what life as a student in Syria was like and how much his country has changed since the initial protests of 2011.

What was student life like in Syria, before the conflict began?

Amazing. Undergrad is the best years of your life. I studied economics, and there were 2000 of us in freshers. We had lots of parties. It was really normal student life.

Is it still like that now?

No, now it’s totally different. Inflation affects everything. You can’t afford to just go to the café and have tea. Also, it’s not really safe to go out at night anymore. There are lots of patrols where they stop and search you, so you don’t go out after seven, especially if you’re a girl. Even my mum and dad wouldn’t go out after seven. It’s dangerous.

There are shellings everywhere. The weapons they are using isn’t accurate so people die, the civilians die. You just stay home. Now, you only hang out in groups at people’s homes and at class.

Shelling in Aleppo

Shelling in Aleppo

Many students are in the military service, how long is this for?

It was one year and six months. Now, once you join, you never leave. It’s a time of war so they will never discharge you. They take your passport and you cannot leave the country.

Your father is a Professor of Pre-Islamic Arabic Literature at Aleppo University. Has he noticed a difference in student life after the last few years?

If you consider how many people are leaving the country, he said the number of students enrolling hasn’t been affected much, because students from other cites are coming to Aleppo and their grades are awesome. It’s just in their spirits: if you check their Facebook accounts they are smiling and having fun.

It really affected us for the first two years but now it’s the fourth year and we’re dealing with it. We’re living our lives. It’s really hard. Maybe they’re hiding it, but they want to live their lives and they’re doing that. Aleppo is the most dangerous city in the world, but the university is functioning, unlike many of the other war-torn areas.

When you left Syria in 2012, how was the situation?

When I left, we’d not had electricity for ten days and it was freezing. There was no sun, so I barely saw my parents’ faces. There was no internet or mobile signal, so communicating was hard. Aleppo was going through a siege, so we had limited access to things like bread. It wasn’t about the money, those things just didn’t exist. Aleppo’s suburbs were going through militia and street war. You only heard the noise, the bombings and the aircrafts, as the majority of Aleppo wasn’t going through anything. You could just hear it. We saw tanks every now and then.

Yaman at his graduation in 2012

Yaman at his graduation in 2012

Have you been back?

No. I left Syria, and I never went back. I can get back, but it’s so hard to travel. It would include a one-day bus, checkpoints and searches.

Will your family come to England to see you?

They will stay in Syria. They cannot visit me in the UK, as it’s almost impossible to get a visa to come to the UK. With the Syrian salary, you cannot have enough money to live for even two days in Britain, and you need to show a bank statement to get out of the country.

Was it difficult to leave your family?

It was a very difficult decision. I felt like I might not see my family again. I thought I might get to Istanbul and something would have happened to my mum or dad or my sister and her two beautiful children. However, I don’t miss them like before. I always check the news and Twitter and I’m always worried, but I’ve adapted. I accepted they are in danger, and I have to cope with it. Otherwise it will affect my life and my health.

Christmas in Aleppo 2010

Christmas in Aleppo 2010

How do you maintain contact with them?

The internet has been off for a couple of months, but there’s mobile service and I call the land line. But they do not have electricity, so they use generators in the buildings. The water network was destroyed, so you have to buy water from a tank for ridiculous prices.

Have you seen many of your Syrian friends since you left?

Of course, many. My best friend came to Istanbul with me and studied with me. There are many Syrians who went to Turkey. I guess you’re familiar with that. If I don’t know a friend, I know a friend of a friend. There are huge numbers of Syrians, and we really connect with each other.

Do you think that because of what’s happened, when you do meet other Syrians it brings you closer together?

Actually yes, as you’ve got to go through something together. Such as finding an apartment, shopping or cooking together. You don’t do that in Syria, as you live with your family. We support each other. My best friend supported me to get this scholarship, and I supported him to get his. We want people to be more aware of the Syrian people, telling them we are good people.

What expectations do you have for a British university?

The excellent education. The globalisation I will encounter maybe for the first time, and the British culture. The most important thing is I believe I can learn things from this scholarship which will help me to build a better Syria. That’s what all 37 Syrians who got this scholarship put on their application: we want to learn things which will help our country.

If you think about Syria, it’s really hard to change people and present a new idea, because the country is not controlled by young people like you and me. It is controlled by people who don’t want change. But our time will come and we will bring the change and we will bring the new ideas.

Yaman, back, third from the right

Yaman, back, third from the right

When the original protests started in 2011, did you think at that time it was the start of something huge?

I have to be honest, I said it wouldn’t last for more than 6 months. Then people started dying. In 2012 and 2013, people were saying “It’s over”. People don’t say this anymore.

How have the streets in Aleppo changed since 2011?

You’re touching a nerve here. It’s totally different. It doesn’t matter if the buildings are there or if they’re not, it’s still totally different. In some areas, there are no bullets. But, when you walk, you’ll see the shops are closed. Empty houses. Everyone knows at least one friend who has died. I know five. If I went back now, well, I don’t know how to describe my feelings. It’s terribly sad. It has changed the emotions you feel in the street. The laughter…it’s not the same. There’s no emotion. There’s nothing. There’s no life.

Do you know people who have tried to come over in the refugee crisis?

Actually, my friend’s brother died in late 2013 on his way to Greece. He drowned. It was terrible. His brother was here, in Istanbul, and we didn’t know what to do. I didn’t do anything, because I couldn’t do anything. All I could do was call them. Just knowing someone died in such a way…it’s terrible.

Do you have a particular memory from your time in Aleppo?

I was playing football with my friends and had just finished my finals. I was walking home and my friend from the examination department called me. He told me I’d graduated, and I was so happy, but then I started crying, because I knew I was going to leave my family. So I called my Dad and told him and he said congratulations, but I could feel in his voice that something was wrong, as if he was thinking “my son is leaving”. I was so happy, but at the same time I was not really happy. It’s a mixture of feelings I still can’t understand and I sometimes still feel it. It was the best moment of my life, but it was also when I learned I was leaving the country.

Yaman would like it to be made clear all opinions expressed in this interview were entirely his own.