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From Damascus to Valencia: Syrians put down roots in Spain

A pilot program in the Spanish region of Valencia has resettled five Syrian refugee families from Lebanon. They are among a comparatively small number of Syrians to settle in Spain.

27 July 2022

ALAQUÀS – The scorching July afternoon empties the streets of Alaquàs, leaving the Spanish town nearly deserted, except for a local bar, El Ateneo. There, a handful of elderly men play dominoes to the jangling soundtrack of two slot machines. At a table next to them, the five members of the Younes family sit and drink coffee with María Ferrer. 

Moeen Sheikh Younes, his wife Wajiha and their three children, Kawthar, Oday and Qusai are one of five Syrian families resettled from Lebanon to the Valencia region of eastern Spain in 2020 through a pilot resettlement program. María, a retiree originally from Alaquàs, is one of the local volunteers helping the family navigate life in Spain.

Between sips of coffee and some local gossip, María tells the family where to find a  better deal on 15-year-old Kawthar’s school books. They talk about summer schools for five-year-old Qusai, who quickly grows bored with the conversation and starts doing headstands at the bar. 

The family says they are the only Syrians in Alaquàs, a village of 29,000 inhabitants, seven kilometers west of Valencia city. The village takes its name from the Arabic word al-aqwas (الأقواس)  meaning “the arches,” possibly in reference to a bridge spanning a nearby irrigation canal built during the Muslim era in Spain (711-1492 CE).

Spain has welcomed fewer Syrian refugees than other European countries. Many asylum seekers, including Syrians, tend to prefer to settle in northern European countries, like Germany or Sweden, with stronger economies and more policies supporting refugees than southern European countries, like Spain. But for those who do come, initiatives like the Community Sponsorship Program in Valencia aim to help Syrians settle into the community. 

The Valencian Pilot Program

The Community Sponsorship Program is a resettlement pilot program in Spain, introduced in 2019 and inspired by the Canadian model, based on the participation of local volunteers in welcoming resettled families. In October 2020, five Syrian families—22 individuals—selected by UNHCR were resettled from Lebanon to five Valencian towns: València, Alaquàs, Almassora, Calp and Cocentaina.  

“We created a local group of volunteers to accompany the families when they go to the doctor, to do paperwork. They also do recreational activities together on the weekend—the idea is that when the program is finished, the families have their support network,” explained Carmen Alonso, Area Coordinator at the Jesuit Migrant Service, the entity implementing the program and supporting Syrian families in Valencia city and Alaquàs.  

The program offers resettled families a monthly allowance for 18 to 24 months. Two of the first five families are already economically independent, less than two years after their resettlement. The Jesuit Migrant Service provided housing to the Younes family in Alaquàs and the family in Valencia when they arrived, but the Younes family has already moved out and rented their own modest flat in Alaquàs.   

The Spanish and Valencian regional governments jointly fund the resettlement program, which  was first introduced in 2019 in the Basque Country, then expanded in 2020 to the Valencia region and in 2021 to the Navarra region. 

The program functions as an alternative to the country’s National Resettlement Program. Under the usual system, as asylum seekers wait for their claim to be processed, they are hosted first in a hostel, then shared housing and finally can seek their own housing. Under the Community Resettlement Program, “families don’t have to go through all those phases, they arrive already having the international protection status, and are hosted and accompanied by an entity,” Alonso explained. 

Meager resettlement figures 

Since 2012, 4,036 refugees—3,628 of whom were Syrian—have been resettled through the Spanish National Resettlement Program. So far in 2022, 650 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Spain, according to the Migration Ministry’s Press Office.

“It is clear that Spain’s resettlement figures are low and insufficient,” said Jaume Durà, head of the legal team at Spanish Commission for Aid to Refugees (CEAR). “Resettlement is a legal and safe way [for refugees to migrate] that should be promoted because it avoids the perils of the journey of coming to Spain.” In 2021, an average of twelve people died each day trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to reach Spanish shores, according to a report by NGO Caminando Fronteras.

But resettlement figures are meager worldwide: In 2021, just 4 percent of the estimated 1.4 million refugees in need of resettlement were resettled. Since the beginning of the Syrian war, 182,668 Syrians have been resettled globally, according to the United Nations.

Relatively few Syrians have received asylum or been resettled in Spain, compared to other European countries such as  Germany, which hosts around 600,000 Syrians. It also pales in comparison with Syria’s neighboring countries – Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – which host three-quarters of the 6.8 million total Syrian refugees. The number of Syrians obtaining international protection—refugee status or subsidiary protection—in Spain peaked in 2016, when 6,124 applications were accepted.

In Spain, refugee status and subsidiary protection provide a renewable residency and work permit for five years. Individuals who are at risk if they were to return to their country of origin but are not able to prove an individual fear of persecution receive subsidiary protection instead of refugee status. “There’s no major difference between the refugee status and subsidiary protection,” explained Durà.  

Lengthy procedures are one structural problem with Spain’s asylum system. “The asylum system has collapsed, you may get an appointment in two years’ time,” Durà said. After an initial appointment, “the time to process the claims is very long, and the recognition rate is low,” he added.

The average rate of international protection recognition in Spain is at 10.5 percent, while the European Union average stands at 35 percent. But among asylum seekers who apply for protection, Syrian nationals currently have one of the highest approval rates: 84.73 percent.

A carpenter’s journey from Damascus countryside to Alaquàs

Moeen Sheikh Younes on the balcony of the family house in Alaquàs, Valencia, 21/07/2022 (A. Medina/Syria Direct)

In the early days of 2011 Syria’s uprising-turned-conflict, Moeen Sheikh and Wajiha fled their home in Reef Dimashq and sought safety in Lebanon. For nine years, the couple and their three children lived in a village near Sidon. Moeen made a living as a carpenter in Beirut. 

“In the last years in Lebanon, the economic crisis hit hard, and the treatment towards Syrians started to change,” Moeen said. Amidst an unprecedented economic crisis that started in 2019, anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric in Lebanon, a country that hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, has intensified. 

“In Lebanon, we didn’t have rights. Psychologically, we weren’t at peace. You’d hear racist comments on the street against Syrians,” Moeen explained. “Here, I have a residency permit. I am a refugee, but I have the same rights as a Spanish person, to healthcare and everything.”

When the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) offered the Younes family the opportunity to resettle in Valencia in 2019, they were surprised. “We didn’t know anything about Spain, it was a shock,” Wajiha said. “Most of the people around us who got resettled went for Sweden, Germany, Canada or Norway,” Moeen added.

The family started googling Spain and contacted other Syrian refugees in the country. Those they spoke to were not very enthusiastic about life in Spain as a refugee, saying there is more support and better job opportunities in other EU countries, Moeen said. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in Europe at 13.3 percent. 

The Younes family arrived in Alaquàs in September 2020. “The cultures between Spain and Syria are very different, it was a complete change,” said Wajiha, half joking. “Here, when they say it is five people in a car, they mean it. We were used to being eight in a car,” she said, laughing. 

But despite their initial apprehension, after nearly two years in Alaquàs, the family has gotten used to it, and vice versa. “Now when we go to Bar José [a local tapas bar] ’, they already know we don’t eat pork. They tell us ‘you eat fish and calamari tapas’,” Moeen said. Some of Wajiha’s Alaquàs friends have learned how to say ‘thank you’ in Arabic, she added proudly.

Learning Spanish was the family’s main challenge after arriving. “The important thing that helped us integrate is that we started with learning Spanish, and [now] we can talk to people in the street,” said Moeen. 

Kawthar took it very seriously. “I would spend every day five hours on YouTube watching videos in Spanish, I would do dialogues on my own—I ask and I answer myself,” she said. In September, she will start her Baccalaureate—the last two years of high school—in science. She dreams of becoming a doctor or a judge.   

In Lebanon, Kawthar was used to being the first in her class. “When I arrived here two years ago it was very difficult, but I got good marks, even better than some of my Spanish classmates,” she said with a proud smile.

Last March, Moeen got a full-time job as a carpenter. “The opportunity came through María—her brother knows the manager and got me an interview,” Moeen explained.

Volunteers like María made it easier for  the Younes family to navigate daily life. “At the beginning, because our Spanish was weak, they would come with us to the health center, or if we had an appointment in Valencia they would come with us,” said Moeen.

They have forged a special bond with one of them, Agustín, and his wife. “Every day we keep in contact. It has become a friendship and a family—they don’t forget any birthday,” Wajiha said. “One night, my son was having breathing problems at night, we contacted him and he told us he would be at our house in a minute.”

“When we came here, we were missing our family. Agustín and his wife make us feel like family,” added Moeen, who hasn’t seen his family in Syria for a decade. Wajiha’s family is in Lebanon, but she cannot visit them because when she left in 2020, Lebanese authorities stamped an entry ban on her passport, as they tend to do with Syrian refugees leaving Lebanon. “The most difficult thing for me is not seeing my family,” she said. 

For now, they see Spain as home, and have given up on returning to Syria. “If the war situation gets fixed…” started Wajiha, but Moeen cut her off: “I don’t think so, I don’t think me and my wife would live to see it.”  

Hussam’s new start

Hussam Al Zein in Alaquàs, Valencia, 21/07/2022 (A. Medina/Syria Direct).

Hussam Al Zein was eleven years old when the Syrian uprising began, and soon developed into a war. Intense shelling forced his family to leave their house in Reef Dimashq. “I remember I saw a plane, and they bombed 300 meters from our house,” said Hussam, sitting in a bar in Alaquàs. 

His father was detained by the Syrian regime for ten days in the early days of the conflict. “Many were taken by mistake, like my father, and never got out of prison. My dad was lucky,” Hussam said. His family is not on “friendly” terms with any side in Syria, he added. “The armed opposition killed my aunt, and the Syrian regime killed my uncle,” said Hussam, now 21 years old. 

In November 2012, Hussam’s family fled to Mount Lebanon governorate, in Lebanon. But life there was precarious. “In nine years in Lebanon, we didn’t succeed in getting a residency permit,” Hussam explained. 

In Lebanon, 84 percent of Syrian refugees do not have legal residency, according to the UN, which leaves them in a vulnerable position. “A Lebanese man once threatened my father to call General Security, which means getting detained and deported to Syria, so we took our things and moved to Tripoli,” Hussam recalls. 

In 2019, UNHCR offered the family the opportunity to be part of the pilot program in Spain. In 2020, Hussam, his parents and two siblings landed in Valencia city, and received residency in two months. “Here, I could go to Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, visit all of Spain, or even go to France. In Lebanon, it was difficult to go from Beirut to Mount Lebanon,” a distance of around 70 km, he said. Syrians without residency permits tend to restrict their movements to avoid the risk of detention when passing through Lebanese army checkpoints. 

Life in Spain offers a new start, but comes with its own challenges. Growing up in Lebanon, Hussam went to school intermittently, and started working at the age of 13. Because he arrived in Spain over the age of 18, entering the school system was complicated, and he believes his options to continue studying are limited, as he would need four years of high school in order to do vocational training or enter university. “I would be 25 when I would be able to enter university, and it’s not suitable for me,” he said. 

His parents divorced after arriving in Spain, and he feels pressure to  find a job and provide for his mother and two siblings, who he lives with in the house provided by the resettlement program.   

Hussam is looking for work, but “the employers don’t trust that a 21 year old has experience,” he said. “In Lebanon, I worked in construction, at supermarkets, as an electrician or butcher,” he added. “I specialized in carpentry and assembling kitchen furniture. I want to be a carpenter.”

Hussam cannot envision returning to Syria. “If we go back to Syria it would be just to visit, but not to go back. This is not the Syria we knew before 2011, it’s not the country I knew anymore.” 

Contrary to Moeen and Wajiha, Hussam finds some similarity between Syrian and Spanish habits. “It shocked me that the culture here is closer to us than other European countries, in terms of values. They care about family, and in general people are very social.”

He speaks intermediate Spanish, and is taking classes to improve. “I don’t practice much because I don’t have many friends,” he said. “It’s difficult for me to make friends. It was the same in Lebanon and Syria—I’m shy.” 

From time to time, Hussam goes with one friend to the beach in Valencia, but “not much” because “there’s too many people, you can’t find a place to sit.”  

Like many in Spain, Hussam navigated the latest summer heatwave by napping the day away. “With this heat, I just sit in my room. My life is my siesta,” he said, smiling, before leaving for Spanish class, winding his way through the sun-drenched Valencia afternoon. 

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