A long way from home

From Syria, to Jordan, to first-year engineering at Queen’s

Yaman Alankar holds a photo of his previous home in Syria.

Yaman Alankar’s childhood home may no longer exist.  

Tucked into the Syrian suburb of Zamalka, on a Friday morning the house would fill with the smell of cooking fūl, a bean breakfast dish simmered together with tomatoes, lemons and sauces. 

Alankar is the baby of his family. Two older brothers, three older sisters, and more relatives than he could easily count would cook together amid the scents of shawarma and falafel.

It’s been just over a month since he arrived in Canada without any of them by his side. Sitting in The Journal’s office at Queen’s, Alankar shook his head. 

“My village is destroyed now. I don’t know if my home still stands or not.” 

Home has been a transient idea for Alankar since those days in Zamalka. After the war began in Syria, he moved to the capital of Damascus only to escape the violence by fleeing to Jordan. Now, years down the line, home is in Victoria Hall. 

“I feel my life has entirely changed, once I came here.”

Now a first-year engineering student, a bag filled with notes was tucked to the side of his chair as he tells stories of his postlife.  

Alankar’s time at university is just beginning — but, it’s been a long road for the young engineering student, a long road away. 

The Alankar family left Zamalka because of the war. “The bombs, people killing each other, the government using all kinds of weapons, all kinds of airplanes,” Alankar listed.   

He had grown up in the village, despite being born in the city. It’s where he made his earliest memories. But, in the fall of 2013, the news broke of the Ghouta chemical attack — where sarin-filled rockets killed over 1,000 people, according to some estimates. 

That same year, his family had uprooted to Damascus.  

“There’s no, how I can say it?” he says, rolling his hands in search of the right words. “Like, not two people facing each other every day. But the government can pick anyone, for any reason, and put him in prison. If the government kills him, he will be lucky.”

He himself isn’t against the government, he clarified. “But this is how it was.”

Still, he went to school — though it wasn’t easy. By his estimate, it was hardly ever a week or two between bombs dropping or cars exploding in close proximity to the school’s property. 

There were days when it was too dangerous to leave the house, and days where the classroom would lose members.

“I lost my friend who was next to me in the seat.”

 

At this point, Alankar paused and asked if it was alright to continue. “I don’t want to talk about the politics too much. It’s very complicated, but that’s what I saw and what I dealt with.”

The electricity would routinely be cut off or damaged in the deteriorating city. For Alankar, the blackouts were reason to take the power into his own hands,  “try to fix it,” he explained.

He and his oldest brother fashioned a device to fix the electricity of the phone lines. “We opened a workshop in different houses. Three houses. And we made 1,700 pieces, and we sold them.” 

His interest in fixing things, as it turns out, would far outlast the single year he spent in Damascus. 

As the war grew, so did the wish to get out.

In 2013, the family was left with two options — either stay in the capital or flee to Jordan. “It was the only place that accepted Syrians at that time,” Alankar explained. 

His brother left first, followed shortly after by Alankar, his mother, father and sister. The others were to follow suit shortly. However, after a month, another brother was denied at the Jordanian border and months later flew to Turkey with his wife and children.

Another sister left Damascus through Turkey to safety in Austria. Turkey, Alankar explained, was relatively easy to access by air travel. However, for many, it was just too expensive, and the other methods of travel were both illegal and dangerous. 

For three years in Jordan, Alankar, his parents and his sister were separated from the rest of their family. 

“Because we’re Syrian, we aren’t allowed to go out of Jordan and return,” he explained, “it’s very hard to stay away from your brothers and sisters.”

Family aside, life in Jordan was hard. “I lived there three years, and it was an awful three years,” Alankar admitted. “It was very difficult, because everything there is very difficult. It’s like a prison without walls.”

He recalled racism, fear and discrimination. They were unable to work legally, forcing the family to take jobs under the table. 

“You work illegally, and if the government picks you, they do many things. Maybe send you back to a camp, or to Syria sometimes. Sometimes you get put in prison for a week,” he said.

It was a great shame, he said, to see the similarities between Jordanians and Syrians ignored. “They’re Arab, they speak the same language. There are so many similarities in the traditions and cultures.”

However, he found a handful of individuals in Jordan who welcomed him. “They really helped me to achieve,” he said with a smile. “They pushed me to determine my goals.”

He began to learn English, a subject he’d had a foggy background in from his school in Syria. 

After completing eleventh and twelfth grade in Jordan, he began to look for chances to study further. “University is very expensive there. I looked for a scholarship, but I couldn’t find any unfortunately,” he said.

After a pause, he smiled. “Now, actually, fortunately. It’s brought me here.” 

“Who would refuse to go to Canada, the chance?” Alankar asked with a laugh.  

Amid bleak memories of Jordan, Alankar recalled one that lit up the dismal situation, a message from the World University Service of Canada’s (WUSC) student refugee program. 

A year before, he had sent in an application and braced himself for a long waiting period. As it turns out, it was only a single month. 

Following an English proficiency test, language classes and an interview-round, he was given the green light to apply to Canadian universities. 

While it wasn’t a university acceptance just yet, it was a step. Acceptance into WUSC’s program meant assistance with the embassy, with travel documentation and with applications to schools. Alankar was eventually accepted to Queen’s as an engineering student.

Better still, the University offered to sponsor his education entirely.

“It was so very good,” he recalled, a smile breaking out across his face. “I jumped up from happiness, actually.” 

He was flown across the world with a handful of other young refugees. A pair of them struck up a friendship on the way over and were picked up from the airport together when they landed. 

“The first day, I felt like I was in an American movie. Everything is different, and all people speak English, and what’s going on?” he said, laughing at the memory. 

“In the first week, I didn’t understand anything,” he said, noting how quickly the engineering professors would talk in lectures. “But, I’m getting better. People here are very kind. And they’re willing to help. You’ll never get lost in Canada.” 

In larger groups, conversation was still difficult and his peers spoke in quick slang often. “I just want to communicate with others, and to understand everything, but I can’t,” he said.  

But one-on-one people were patient with English as his second language. In his first week in residence, he said he felt more at home than anywhere else he’s been on his long road here.

“People called me a friend,” he recounted happily. “I never heard refugee, the refugee word, from anyone. In Jordan, I was there three years and they still called us refugees.”  

“If I get a chance to get a better job here, I’ll stay in Canada and try to bring my family here,” Alankar said. 

“They don’t have any chance to get out of Jordan, and I have a sister in Syria still.” 

“I hope to succeed, first of all, in my degree with good marks. After that, I will be proud to be a Syrian-Canadian citizen, and I hope to get a job and to make something useful to my country,” he said. “My country Syria, and my country Canada.”

“The weather is so beautiful,” he said. Even a warning that it’ll soon be much colder hardly dampened Alankar’s spirits. 

“Ah, but you can do many things in the snow!” he said. “You can skate! I like everything here. Everything.”

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