‘I learnt how to be a man here’

| Michaela Nesvarova

The father of UT student Mohamad Mahayri (28) owned a chocolate factory. ‘Oh yes, I could eat all the chocolate I wanted. But the factory was near Aleppo and it was destroyed in the war.’ So was Mahayri’s university, which was shot down during an air strike. Shortly after, he decided to come to the Netherlands, and a few weeks ago he obtained his bachelor's degree in International Business Administration at the UT.

Photo by: Gijs van Ouwerkerk

The word ‘refugee’ is loaded with both positive and negative connotations, so I tread carefully at first. ‘Just ask whatever you want,’ says Mahayri. ‘I often see the look on people’s faces. They want to ask me but are afraid to.’

In that case, does he – after living in the country for over three years and studying at a Dutch university – still identify as a refugee? ‘Yes, normally I do. It was an emotional struggle during the first year. I found myself feeling bad about being a refugee, but I left Syria because I didn’t want to be engaged in the war. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything bad, so I shouldn’t feel bad. I only had problems with it once. I was talking to my new neighbor, but once she found out I was a refugee she just bluntly sent me away. That was the only problem I’ve ever faced here. Generally, people here are great.’ 

Five-year plan

The University of Twente isn’t where Mahayri originally planned to get his degree. He was studying economy in Aleppo. ‘I started in 2010 and now I finally finished. Nine years for a bachelor’s degree. Not too bad, right?’ he says, laughing. ‘In September I will start a one year Master programme of Business Administration.’ Which means he is still ‘on schedule’. ‘When I arrived here I made a five-year plan. Within five years I wanted to speak Dutch, finish my bachelor and start my master degree. So it is still going according to plan. Except for the language. Speaking is still a problem.’

'Moving to the Netherlands was the first decision I made all on my own' 

Moving to the Netherlands and finishing his degree was the main priority, says Mohamad. ‘And after three years I still think it was a good decision. It was the first decision I made all on my own and it was a good one. My dad was really afraid to send me to Europe alone. He wanted me to stay with the family in Egypt, but that was not my dream.’ He embarked on a four months long journey. ‘I arrived to the Netherlands on the 5th of February 2016. I’m so glad. I developed so many new skills here. Basically, I learnt how to be a man here.’

Football dreams

While Mohamad’s parents are starting a new life in Egypt, which ‘is difficult for them because my dad built everything from nothing and then suddenly lost everything’, he is focusing on his future in Twente. ‘My ultimate dream is to work in sports management, but I’m afraid that will not work out because I have no network here.’ He does have the enthusiasm, though. ‘I love everything about football,’ he says smiling ear to ear. ‘Working in something related to football would make me really, really happy. I dream of being a sports scout.’

‘If it comes to my personal life I don’t dream yet,’ adds the student. ‘I have a girl I would really like to be with, but it is too difficult because she is still in Syria. I can’t travel now because I have no passport. So I don’t dream about having a family yet.’

Mahayri does want to focus on his life outside the classroom and work, however. ‘In the first years I had to focus on my language skills and my regular studies. I had to work really hard, so I basically just got to go to the library and talk to my supervisor. That was it. So I didn’t make a lot of friends. I want to change things around now and build a good network, meet new people. Because I strongly believe I will stay in the Netherlands.’