What do I want people to know about my Syria?

GSBTBers Hania Hakiel, Mohammad Othman and Waael Alafandy visited Wroclaw in April on invitation from the Goethe Institute, to attend an evening of connection-building between refugees and Polish locals as part of the European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016.

Here Waael from Syria gives his impressions of the trip.

I’m sitting on the PolskiBus from Berlin to Wroclaw with my headphones, my music, my laptop, writing this or that, preparing for the presentation I will make that evening.

It’s so important to me that I give a perfect – perhaps more than perfect – impression of the Syrians, and of my city, Aleppo, too, so that people will know we are a good people and we come from a beautiful place.

My plan is to present a slideshow of rare pictures of the city that people would not have seen before and I really want to avoid pictures of Aleppo after the war – the ones people see on television. It’s more important to me that they see it has been a pretty city.

It’s funny how, when you google a big city like Berlin, you get so much accurate information from sources like Wikipedia, but when I tried searching for Aleppo, there was so little factual information – numbers that don’t seem right, because of so many people leaving during the war. It just doesn’t speak to how magical the city was. I can see how powerful the media can be in creating an image of a place for the world to consume.

I will talk about my beloved city the way I knew it – as I loved it, and will keep loving it.

Suddenly the bus driver starts speaking Polish, and then English, announcing our arrival in Wroclaw. People wake up and start repacking their bags. Everyone seems excited, but I feel more than that: this is the first time in almost a year of being stuck inside Germany waiting for my papers that I have been allowed to visit somewhere else. This trip to Poland is an opportunity for me to escape the refugee identity and just be my self for a day. In Poland they won’t know who we are, so let’s show them the best of us – how peaceful and kind people from Syria can be.

As we step off the bus and start walking through the city, I like it instantly. I’m taking pictures all over the place, to save this feeling of elation in these pictures. I feel so emotional: I remember my mom, my family, good friends back home, and I wonder whether they will be proud of me, of the person I have become. Am I doing the right things? Am I on the right path to becoming a good person? For me this is what matters most.

We walk for nearly 10 minutes to reach our hotel. Surely we can’t be staying in this hotel? It’s so big, beautiful in every way anyone can imagine, a real luxury place. It’s ours for the night – we can hardly believe it.

After lunch – in an amazing restaurant with tasty food near the hotel – Hania has a surprise for us: she has a friend in Wroclaw who will give us a tour of the city.

Magda takes us all over the city, telling us about the city’s history and asking about where we come from too. My main impressions of the city are that it is clean, pretty and the people are amazing! I can feel that although I look different to them, their feelings towards me are kind and welcoming.

We walk for hours but I can’t feel the time: it feels so good to be a regular tourist, and not feel like I have to do anything to avoid the refugee label here.

Back at the hotel it’s time for a rest before the big event, but I’m busy looking over my presentation. Should I start with a joke? How will what I say impact the people we’re going to meet?

First we head to the Goethe Institute, which has organized the event. We meet the field volunteers as well as three more Syrian guys who live in Poland. As we get to know each other there’s some obvious tension between those of us who fled the war and those who left Syria before the war turned bloody. But we all agree that we are here to show the best sides of ourselves. In the end we are one nation, one people, brothers and sisters.

The Goethe team is extremely nice and warm towards us. We finish our coffee and then all walk together to the main event.

A giant, lit-up glasshouse in a city square awaits us: this is the Goethe Institute Pop-Up Pavilion. Every guest is seated by someone he hasn’t met before, so we can connect with new people. The dinner is served while we get to know each other.

Soon comes the time for my presentation. Turns out my jokes goes down well: I explain what it’s like trying to get through airport security with a name like Ahmad, and relate it back to how people fear us even as we continue to live peacefully in their communities.

I start the slideshow of pictures of Aleppo and for the first time I can see people of different nationalities reacting with emotion as they realize that all the city’s beauty I’m showing them in these pictures has since been destroyed.

I am so pleased to show where I come from, and it’s a blast to see people from other parts of the world appreciating Aleppo and Syria, imagining how pretty it once was. I explain a little about the city’s history, the castle and some of the other famous places.

What is most important to me is that I am able to show that Syrians are just like every one else.  In Aleppo, for example, Christians, Muslims and Jews were all able to live in peace together prior to the war. People must be surprised to hear that.

I also try to answer the most important question: why did you all come here? Why did you all come to Europe, threatening to take our jobs and interrupt our lives?

The answer is given in a few pictures of Aleppo as it looks today: the massive destruction caused by a six-year-long war that still rages on.

At the end of the dinner we trade gifts from our homelands, and prepare to say goodbye. The event is more than two-and-a-half hours long, but I wish it could be longer. Hopefully in the future there will be more of these opportunities, not just for Poles to meet Syrians, but for people from all over the world to meet us.

The war in Syria will be over someday. I promise myself I will make trips back there and show the beauty we will rebuild and enjoy once more.

What I learned from the Polish people I met in Wroclaw is that we can forgive. We can become one again. No matter how bombed Poland once was, no matter how many deaths there were and how much blood was shed, no matter how the war damaged them, it was possible for them to rise once more. That’s what I saw on my 24-hour trip to Poland – that there is still hope for my beloved Syria.

Waael Alafandi is a Syrian writer and journalist who volunteers at GSBTB. The photos in this story were all taken by Waael, except for the image of the glasshouse, which was taken by Filip Basara.