Coming up for air after the war

by Bjeen Alhassan

The new Poland (Issue III/2021)

  • In 2020, Bjeen Alhassan received the German Integration Award for her work. Photo: Guido Bergmann

    In 2020, Bjeen Alhassan received the German Integration Award for her work. Photo: Guido Bergmann

  • With her sister in her hometown of Qamishli, circa 1995. Photo: private

    With her sister in her hometown of Qamishli, circa 1995. Photo: private

  • With her mother on vacation, 1996. photo: private

    With her mother on vacation, 1996. photo: private


Bjeen is a Kurdish name. It means “alive”. I feel vibrant when I can affect and change things. I know I can’t change everything. But I’m doing my bit to make life better.

I grew up as the daughter of a teacher and a civil servant in Qamishli, in north-east Syria. Our identity as the Kurdish minority was politically repressed. Our language was forbidden, and my identity card identified me as a “Syrian Arab”. I never had the feeling this country was my own. As a kid I’d ask yourself, “What did I do? This is the language I was born into. Why is it banned?” 

I’d go to school and couldn’t understand a word. Maybe that’s why my mother sent me to school a year earlier – so I’d have more time to learn Arabic. Children learn languages quickly, and I had a talent for that. Later, in secondary school, I learnt Assyrian – the mother tongue of my Christian schoolfriends. Then in Damascus, I picked up another Arabic dialect and, in Erbil, a further Kurdish one. On top of those, I speak English, French, and now German. Languages have always been a way for me to feel like I belong. 

“The power cuts were bad. We went whole days without power. When you’re studying in a situation like that, you either give up or it makes you strong. And I thought, if I get through this, that’s really good”

In 2010 I was 17 and had finished school. I moved in with my sister, who was studying in Damascus at the time. The war started in the second year of my Business Studies course. A lot of people moved back to live with their families. But my sister said that she wouldn’t leave the city before she graduated. And I stayed with her. She’s 13 years older than me and I thought at the time, if she says that, then we’ll do it together. We weren’t afraid. We thought it wouldn’t last long. But it was far from easy. The power cuts were bad. We went whole days without power. When you’re studying in a situation like that, then you either give up or it makes you strong. And I thought, if I get through this, that’s really good. I was getting much better grades than before the war.

When we went back to Qamishli in 2014 with our qualifications, my hope had died. All the explosions, bombs, planes. I didn’t want to stay in Syria any longer. When I was 21 I went to Erbil in the Kurdish part of Iraq – alone and without a visa. I worked there in a marketing agency and lived in peace and freedom for three and a half months. That was like coming up for air after three years of war. Maybe the best feeling I’ve ever had.

One day my sister phoned. She said it was no longer possible to stay in Syria. My brother, who’d already been in Germany for some time, had sent an official invitation. So my family went to Ostfriesland to stay with him. I came three months later. I landed in Bremen on 11 February 2014. I had no desire to start from scratch all over again, to learn a new language all over again. I didn’t want to stay. But there was no way back, because the ‘Islamic State’ were taking over larger and larger areas. I did a German course and tried to fit in.

“Was it their fear of a foreign culture? Did they hold a grudge against me for succeeding? One day I stopped asking myself. I developed a thick skin. But something of that feeling is still there.”

I was lucky and able to do an internship in an advertising agency, then got a grant for a language course in Hamburg. I was finally alive again. I wasn’t just a refugee learning German. I had a purpose. That gave me self-confidence. But there were still many times when I didn’t feel welcome or accepted. I nearly gave up my studies in Emden. There were 30 of us studying for our master’s degrees, mostly all from north Germany. They refused to do groupwork with me. It was hard for me not to take it personally. Was it their fear of a foreign culture? Did they hold a grudge against me for succeeding? One day I stopped asking myself. I developed a thick skin. But something of that feeling is still there.

With my Facebook group “Learning with Bijin”, I’d like to pass on what I know about life in Germany to other refugee women. I had to find my own way and ask many questions. By now I know that there are endless possibilities. They’re just really difficult for many people to understand. I received the German Integration Award in 2020. That’s helped me – now I can express my opinion and know that I’ll be heard. It gives me courage and I hope that many things for refugees can be changed in Germany.

I don’t set myself long-term goals anymore. I’ve experienced war and know that everything can change within minutes. But I hope that with my work I can reach many more women.

As told to Leonie Düngefeld

Translated by Jess Smee



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