« Living in Lebanon was worst than living in Syria. For me it was like hell », tells Anas Touleimat, a 22 year-old Syrian from Homs. For almost three months, Anas lived in Beyrouth, in an area controlled by Hezbollah, a Shia terror group. “I had to tell the militants where I was going and what I was going to do and they would give me a length of time to complete all my errands”, Anas complains. He shared a studio with four other men, with no bathroom, no kitchen and electricity for only four hours a day. But Anas escaped war. On an early morning in April 2013, he jumped into a car that drove him from Homs to Lebanon and left his family behind. “I did not want to go because the day before, there were huge airstrikes and I did not want to leave my family but my mother insisted, she was so strong but I know she was crying in her heart”, he adds. The country he escaped was destroyed by airstrikes and firmly held by Bashar Al-Assad. At university, pro-regime students were spreading propaganda and spying on other students to prevent anybody from rebelling.
When I ask him how life was before the war, Anas smiles. “It was a simple quite life. I was not very serious at school; I was going out all the time with my friends. My parents grounded me, I was like a prisoner at home but I got to love to study”. His hard work paid off since he is now studying mathematics and computer science in France. He landed in Paris in July 2014 and when talking about his first day in France, his face lights up. “I was so enthusiastic and hopeful. I thought I would learn French quickly and that I would be a tourist, visiting the Eiffel Tower”. He stayed at his cousin’s apartment for a while and it was then that Anas got his first cultural shock “When I arrived in the flat, I thought it was my temporary accommodation, it was like 30m2 for three people. It was so tiny I had troubles realizing it was actually Nizar’s apartment (his cousin). In Syria, even if you do not work a lot you can have a 100m2 flat”, he explains. His second day was not as cheerful as the first one. Nizar woke him up at 8 am because he had to go to work and he sent Anas out for a visit in Paris with a map and metro tickets. “I thought it was a joke but when Nizar slammed the door behind me I understood it was for real”, he remembers. Anas did not have a phone or any idea of the address of the flat and he did not speak French. He took the first metro he saw and stopped randomly at the Arc de Triomphe. From there, Anas had a good view on the Eiffel Tower. “At first I was quite angry at Nizar to leave me all alone in the city but at the end I was really happy”. But this first day out in the jungle did not quite prepare him for what was coming. Learning French was not as easy as Anas thought. He struggled with the pronunciation and almost gave up on his French adventure. “I did not have any friends, Nizar was a bit hard on me, I thought I did not have any future in France”, he remembers. His efforts started to be rewarded and little by little, he improved his pronunciation and made friends. Sometimes however, the war he had to face in Syria flashes back. On the French national day, “when I heard the fireworks, it reminded me of airstrikes in Syria and I thought something was going to fall on me”, he admits.
Anas has a political refugee status in France, which means that it cannot go back to Syria before a very long time. A constraint that does not seem to bother him “of course I want to go back to Syria because I have a lot of memories and there is my family but I love France, I feel good. In fact, I am going to ask for the French nationality in a few months, that way I will be Franco-Syrian. Or so I hope”.