At the age of 23, Essan Hassan had to decide whether to leave Syria or die there fighting.
He arrived in Mexico City less than a week ago as the first member of a group of 30 young Syrian refugees who are being sponsored by a Mexican humanitarian organization so that they can finish their education in Mexico.
With most of the schools and universities having been destroyed since the Syrian conflict broke out in the spring of 2011, their studies had been put on hold.
Now Hassan can look toward the future. “And this means a lot for a Syrian,” he says.
Thanks to Adrián Meléndez, a Mexican volunteer at a refugee camp in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Hassan is in Mexico. Meléndez saw first hand the tragedies of hundreds of displaced persons while living in the camp. It was the Mexican who first came up with the idea of offering the refugees a little more than just food and warm blankets.
“The day peace finally comes to Syria, how are you going to rebuild a country that has left a generation of young people without any options or studies?” Meléndez asks. “If it’s not them, who is going to help them?
Hassan has made it clear: “I want to return with enough experience so I can do it.”
Meléndez is one of the founders of the Habesha Project, which was started two years ago with the help of professionals who have experience in humanitarian aid and experts with knowledge of the area.
Mexican universities have also contributed to the project by offering scholarships.
A good chunk of the $11,000 they raised to bring Hassan to Mexico for one year – money that will also allow him a monthly stipend and cover his health insurance – came from the group’s own pockets.
The Mexican government helped out by expediting the paperwork in the immigration process.
Habesha Project’s goal is to bring in 29 more refugees, in a bid to help people who have been affected by a conflict that has seen 250,000 klled and displaced more than a million inhabitants.
Bringing a young Syrian to Mexico isn’t an easy task. Besides the fact that most don’t have their papers in order, there is no Mexican Embassy in Iraq, which is were many have fled to, while others are located in other countries but are in a similarly irregular situation. And those who do have valid passports don’t have the necessary permits and visas to fly through Europe or the United States. As such they have to go through Rio de Janeiro, which ups the cost of bringing over the Syrians.
Among those selected in the group, there are Kurds, Sunnis and Christians, who all belonged to opposition groups who were fighting each other
With a student visa, however, they can immediately enter the country.
“I cannot really remember my dreams before the war,” says Hassan “I was a student, who wanted to finish his studies and find a job – like a normal life.
“Now I have a lot of long-term plans in my head. For many years, I couldn’t plan anything in my life for the following month.”
Hassan will be studying engineering at the Pan American University at Aguascalientes. On the day he arrived, television cameras were waiting for him at Mexico City’s international airport.
“Many of the prospective donors want to see where their money is going and I understand they also want to see what I look like – if I have the face of a terrorist, for example,” a smiling Hassan told reporters, but declined to offer details about his past life, which he considers private.
Among those selected in the group, there are Kurds, Sunnis and Christians. They belonged to opposition groups who were fighting each other, but now they will be united in Mexico. “They will all sit down together here and we are aware that it might not be easy,” says Meléndez.
“A lot of the people don’t know the truth about Syria, just like a lot of people on the outside don’t know the real Mexico,” he says.
English version by Martin Delfín.