“The first enemy of any dictatorship is knowledge”
On the unusually warm Christmas Eve last year, Basel Addoum was taking an evening walk through the centre of Brussels. It has been months since his arrival in Belgium; more than a year since he abandoned his literature studies at the Aleppo University in Syria.
That evening, as he strolled by himself through the lit up Grand Place, he felt a pang of longing. “People around me seemed so content,” he says. “I thought to myself, it’s been so long, too long since I felt this way. I have to do what makes me happy, I have to go back to school.”
Growing up in Idlib, in the northwest part of Syria, he says he wasn’t like others his age. Instead of playing sports or hanging out in cafes or restaurants, he spent entire days reading.
His favourite authors included the likes of Thomas Hardy, Albert Camus, William Faulkner and Frederic Nietzche. If he couldn’t obtain their books in the library, he downloaded them from the internet or smuggled them in from abroad.
“Under a dictatorship like the one in Syria, reading some of these books was considered a crime,” he says. “The people who want to maintain control have to keep the masses ignorant, so when you start learning the truth, you become a threat. The first enemy of any dictatorship is knowledge.”
He says his family was poor, so, out of four siblings, he was the only one to go to university. “My brothers and sister had to work to support the family, but my parents wanted to see me graduate. I always dreamt of going abroad, mingling with people from all over the world. Education was one way of achieving that.”
On the table next to him lies a copy of one of the books he’s reading this summer. “I’ve always been fascinated with literature on human rights,” he says. “I even wanted to write my master’s thesis on post-colonialism. My professor, Haifa Kraid, urged me to do so and I travelled to the main campus in Aleppo to see a special committee about it.”
His proposal was rejected. “They threw it back at me, said my idea was too novel and told me to stick to the classics,” he says. “When I came back to Idlip, Kraid advised me to return to the subject when the time was right. But Syria was neither the right time, nor the right place.”
Long before the war, he found the life in the country suffocating. “My city was characterised by a very narrow-minded way of thinking,” he says. “You had to keep your eyes closed and your ears covered, and you were only allowed to say what the government wanted you to say. I yearned to break those rules and live on the other side of the wall.”
Before leaving Syria, he had never travelled anywhere, but when the war began, the desire to go abroad grew stronger. “I didn’t have the financial means to just get up and go and I couldn’t get a visa anywhere, so I was forced to tolerate the conflict.”
He saw books as a way of escaping the numbing oppression. “I love revolutionary characters, but those who started the war in Syria are nothing like them. All their empty slogans – this is not the kind of revolution we all wanted.”
Focusing on his studies, he maintained a relatively normal life, working as an English teacher and lecturing at the university as Kraid’s assistant.
Four years into the conflict, he finally reached a breaking point. “Both sides tried to drag me in,” he says. “The government wanted me to abandon my studies and join the army, and the opposition fighters wanted me to side with them.”
But the thought of standing on either side of the barricade never even crossed his mind. “They were both driving the country to hell. I didn’t share their mentality; it was a dead end for me. I decided to leave.”
Preparing for the departure, he remembers mouthing a quote by a Syrian philosopher. “‘If you didn’t achieve your dreams, at least die trying.’ I took it to heart when I decided to leave. I thought to myself, what else do I have to lose? They’ve taken away my education; they’ve taken away my future. I might as well die trying to get it back.”
He decided to go to Belgium. “I know it’s a country that most people wouldn’t think of going to because it’s so small, but I’ve heard of its multicultural and cosmopolitan vibe, so I thought it would be the perfect place for me,” he says.
In early 2015, he crossed the Turkish border, with a passport and university diplomas in hand. He met a smuggler, who helped him cross by boat to Greece, and headed north for Macedonia.
By then, thousands of refugees were entering Europe through the Balkans every day. Basel didn’t know the road to Belgium. “I didn’t really have to. I would always find groups of people walking through the forest and I’d just join them or they’d show me the way.”
But the change from the university life to the unfamiliar territories of southern Europe proved challenging. “I would wake up at random times, finding it difficult to imagine that I’m actually doing this. Surrounded by wild animals in the dead of the night, thinking only about survival, I felt a bit like the Hulk.”
Last Christmas, as he paused in the middle of Grand Place, he made a commitment to himself. “I decided to go back to my old dreams. For almost a year, they had remained suppressed in the back of my mind as I struggled to find work and didn’t really know what to do with my life. My only tools have always been my pen and my mind; my only skills reading and writing.”
Belgian friends suggested he applies to a literature programme at one of the universities here. He visited schools all over the country, but luck wasn’t on his side. As some universities were cancelling their programmes, others required language certificates or simply didn’t offer a degree in English.
Earlier this year, he came in touch with professors Elisabeth Bekers and Ann Peeters from VUB’s literature department. “They fought so hard for me to be able to study here,” he says.
In September, he will resume his graduate studies at VUB. “My plan is to finally finish writing my thesis on post-colonial literature and globalisation.” Having recently read works of Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi, he’s also considering focusing on women’s rights.
His parents are still in Syria and he’s tried in vain to get them out. “I miss them with all my heart and I will never forget all they’ve done for me. They’ve always believed in me and I hope I can continue fulfilling their dream.”
Looking back, he says he’s not ashamed of what he’s been through. “What hurts me is that when people hear the word refugee, they immediately jump to conclusions. To many people, a refugee means someone who’s good for nothing; if he’s not a complete loser, he might be a terrorist. But the state of being a refugee is only a temporary period before you can get back on your feet. I don’t mind being a refugee, if only so I can pay back the debt to the Belgian society.”
Even though he’s busy preparing for the start of the new academic year, he’s already thinking of life after university. “Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who lived in Syria, once said, ‘We dream of a life that is a life’. My dream is to have a home to come back to after my lectures at the university, where I can sit down with my wife and kids and read something before we go to sleep. That’s pretty much it.”
This story was originally published in Henri Magazine