In 2014, Nidal Battman, now aged 25, fled Syria. He tells the story of when he came to Switzerland, an educated young man whose ambition is to study and learn.
“ We have lost so much in the war but not our dreams and hopes” – Nidal.
You have come a long way from Syria. Please, could you introduce yourself?
I grew up in the Syrian city of Homs where I lived with my parents and three siblings. In 2012, while I was in secondary school, war erupted in Syria. My city was bombarded every day. I continued to go to school but life was very difficult. I participated in protests for peace, even though I was running the risk of being arrested. I couldn’t sit at home while others were demanding freedom. One day, my father was arrested for no reason. I suddenly had to take care of everything, I stopped studying, started to work. I tried to find my father. Four months later, after my family paid a huge sum of money, he was released and we fled to Lebanon. We wanted to go to Turkey but my father was ill so we joined my uncle who lived in Lebanon. In order to treat my father, the doctor said he needed a paper from UNHCR. Soon we were being interviewed to go live in Europe. After many rounds of interviews, we couldn’t believe it: we were finally being resettled to Switzerland. On 9 September 2014, we arrived in Switzerland. I will always remember that day. Today, I’m studying micro- and medical technology. This country has become my home.
Can you share your experience of enrolling in university as a resettled refugee?
Initially, I encountered challenges to enroll in university in Bern; I was not informed properly. One day, I met Jost, a Swiss mechanical engineer. He listened to my story and decided to help me and my sister. He took me to an ‘open university day’, where I started German language classes and began my studies in micro- and medical technology. I believe that if you have determination and if you are lucky to meet someone who is willing to help you, everything is possible. I loved my life in Syria. Now everything is different and there is not much left of the easiness of my youth, but I know what it means to be alive. Learning is so important for me, I want to show the Swiss people that we are good people. We experienced war, we have lost so much but not our dreams and hopes.
How can resettlement countries ensure that the path to education is smooth for new refugees? Switzerland could do better in receiving and integrating resettled refugees?
The most critical aspect is to give refugees the right information about their rights and opportunities. Additionally, it helps to fast-track our integration when we are given the change to combine language classes and university preparatory classes. I personally could not afford doing them together.
How can you help other Syrians who arrive in Switzerland?
I’m part of a programme which aims to support Syrians cope with the stress upon arrival in Switzerland. Refugees who are new to a country can go through so much stress as we go through orientation. Familiarisation takes time, we need to adapt to a new language, a new culture. The programme, which is supported by UNHCR and lasts for four years, contacted us – they needed expert staff to help new refugees with orientation. I am part of a group of 20 persons that helps them to integrate, learn the language, and familiarise with Swiss culture.
Do you feel well integrated in Switzerland?
I feel at home here and the Swiss people have been most welcoming. My family name is Battman and maybe that helps as it sounds German (smiles). Maybe it also helps that I look more Italian or German than Syrian. My grounding factor has been my family. I’m very lucky to have them at my side; their presence made everything easier for me. I have been in odd situations where people ask me how a refugee can own a smartphone. They even ask me if I came to Switzerland because I thought life in Switzerland is better than in Syria. I am often asked if we have chocolate in Syria. There are so many misconceptions about refugees. I sometimes reply that Steve Jobs was Syrian, his father was from Homs. I try to explain that Aleppo is one of the oldest cities and most cultured cities in the world. And then I explain that war erupted, forcing my family to leave. Switzerland is a beautiful country, but if I hadn’t been forced to flee my home, I would never have left my Syria. I am pretty certain that most refugees feel this way. But we are here now, and we are grateful for the safety we enjoy in this country.
By Pauline Haupt
Task team on comprehensive responses, UNHCR Geneva
Photo: UNHCR/Pauline Haupt