My First Syrian Friend

A few weeks ago, I went to a friend’s party here in Berlin, and a Syrian refuge for the first time, a guy that might be my first Syrian friend.
As sad as it sounds, but an experienced Israeli woman like me knows exactly how to act when she meets an Arab. Rule Number One: Never say you are from Israel. Lucky me I can say I am from Ethiopia and no one will ever suspect. In any case, whenever I do say I am from Israel, people tend to ask me for my origins and what am I doing in Israel.

Somehow, I trusted him, and I wasn’t so paranoid, so I told him I am from Israel. Of course, he then asked, “But where are you really from?”

I was very interested to hear the story of his journey to Germany. So I asked him, very gently to tell me his story and about what’s happening in Syria. From the way he reacted, I realized he is very skeptical of my intent, but then I told him that I am genuinely interested in hearing his story. So far, I only heard about it from the media and I wanted to know more.

It’s a story of a young man name Hussam, 27-years-old from a small town in north Syria. He fled with his twin brother and left his parents behind. They started their journey by marching toward Lebanon, then from there they flew to Turkey, where they stayed for a year and a half, before they arrived to Germany, a few weeks before our encounter. Hussam is an intelligent young man, received an engineering diploma in Syria, and now he is looking to the future in Germany, where, he says “I can have better opportunities.”

I kept telling Hussam all night, how excited I am about this encounter but I wasn’t sure if he understands my excitement. I wanted him to know how excited I am to meet him, “He would probably think I’m crazy”, I told myself.

I told myself I will do it next time.

I wanted to tell him about my childhood, and how growing up in Ramla, in the heart of Israel, and yet thousand years far away from mainstream society, made me so tough and faithless.

I wanted to tell him about my childhood experiences in a city that has more than 20 percent Arab residents. Childhood experiences that were not so pleasant. My friends and I had an intense fear of Arab men. No other group of men had harassed us like them, and in extreme cases, we experienced violence and what today I call “verbal terror”. We also knew that the reason for that is not necessarily on Jewish-Arab base, but primarily ethnic reasons. They have never dared to harass white girls in our neighborhood. Never. White girls have parents who can support them and file a complaint with the police, and we, we didn’t even trust the police. We were pushovers and we hated it, but over the years we have outlined strategies and knew exactly how to behave and what to do in a case of any encounter with Arab men (as I said earlier); lean down to avoid eye contact, avoid any conversation and If possible grab maximum distance, if necessary, move to the other side of the street. Due to the fact that the only encounters I had with Arabs for all my life were of this kind, for the rest of my life, I perceived Arab men as hostile and violent.

Later on, when I got older I decided to act in order to change it. I knew deep down that it is not true, I refused to surrender to this reality and wanted to get to know my neighbors more closely. So I joined a multicultural leadership group at the youth center in Ramla — a group of young activists from all religious and ethnic background, together we learned to know each other and acted in the community in order to affect a change in the city, by engaging all cultures and religious to create a multicultural environment. It took us a long time, more than a year I would say until we were able to trust each other and speak freely, share our thoughts and political views. Miraculously it worked! our perspectives have definitely changed, we do not only tolerate each other, we became real friends, with all our differences and that is the beauty of it.

Hussam and I realized how much we have in common that we thought, how life can be so much easier if we leave religion aside, or on the contrary if learn how to share our thoughts and beliefs without involving politics.

Young people around the world, all they want to do is find a decent job, and enjoy life, so at my friend’s party we were a group of international young people, we opened a bottle of Israeli Arak, had long night talks about life, politics, religion, gender, culture, food and so on. It was spectacular.

About the Author
Tikva Sendeke is from Israel. She is a blogger and a social activist involved in the fields of minorities rights, multiculturalism, preserving Jewish Ethiopian heritage and Jewish life.