“Life stopped for me and I’m not the kind of person who likes stopping.”
Anas Al-Hakim’s life changed forever after a major spinal surgery left him permanently paralysed. As a disabled person living in Syria, he struggled to be fully independent in his country. When the war started, he couldn’t even leave the house. Now, living in Berlin, Germany, Anas’s future is looking much brighter. He has his own apartment, studies at university, and has launched a project to help other Arabic-speaking students rebuild their lives.
The 24-year-old from Damascus was born with Craniofacial Dysplasia, a rare condition caused by the malformation of bones in parts of the head. Anas was able to walk throughout most of his childhood, but as he got older the condition grew steadily worse. Scoliosis, a condition that causes the spine to curve, left Anas in need of urgent care:
“It was a very sensitive case and the doctors said I had no chance to make it in Syria.”
Anas said his only option was to seek specialist treatment in Germany, where he underwent surgery in 2003. At the time, Anas was only 12 years old and his body did not handle the pressure caused by the surgery. He never walked again.
Life in Damascus as a disabled Syrian
After eight months of intense treatment in Germany, Anas travelled back to Syria. But, as a wheelchair user, life in Damascus proved to be challenging. Anas said it was rare to see disabled people outside on the streets. He explained it was so unusual, that seeing one would come as a surprise:
“It’s like people are ashamed of having a disability.”
Being a disabled Syrian didn’t stop Anas from wanting to continue his studies, but he didn’t want to go to a school for students with special needs. “I think my mom was afraid of me going to a regular school because she didn’t know of any regular school in Damascus which was accessible,” he said.
“I was able to finish high school but after the war started I wanted to go to university, but it was very hard. The roads weren’t safe and the public universities weren’t wheelchair accessible.”
Because of Damascus’s lack of wheelchair accessible places, Anas and many other disabled people were often forced to stay indoors. According to the World Health Organisation, physical barriers to basic mobility result in the exclusion of many people from full participation in society.
“Everyone went out but I wasn’t able to do that because of my disability so I started to do web design and programming as my hobby. I found it very interesting and I was fascinated by the things I could do with it.”
Even though the global unemployment rate for people who are paralysed is over 60%, Anas still managed to turn his programming hobby into a business. In 2011, Anas started freelancing from his home in Damascus, providing design services to clients in Europe and United Arab Emirates.
No alternative but to leave Syria
Anas’ business was booming but the Syrian civil war was getting worse. He finally realised he had no alternative but to leave his home country.
“I came to a stage in my life where I wasn’t able to go further,” Anas said. “Life stopped for me and I’m not the kind of person who likes stopping”.
In 2014, Anas applied for a student visa and moved from Damascus to Hannover, a large city in northern Germany. Like most newly arrived people from Syria, Anas wasn’t fluent in German.
“It took me one year to learn the language. The language is not easy but when you love it and understand the structure, you will be able to learn.”
After one year in Hannover and with the dream of being able to carry on studying, Anas moved to German’s capital, Berlin. He began his studies with a year long preparatory programme at Technical University of Berlin, followed by a bachelor degree in computer science and mathematics.
Berlin didn’t only opened doors for Anas to study, but it also gave him the freedom of movement he had never experienced as a disabled Syrian. Accessible public transportation allows him to travel within the city, meet his friends and get to university every morning. Anas also has access to the health care system, which includes getting a new wheelchair that is more suitable for his needs.
“A lot of people from Syria would like to be in my situation, to be given the chance to succeed, the chance to survive and the chance to be in a safe place like Berlin.”
Giving back to Berlin
Since Anas moved to Berlin, he has been trying to give back by getting involved in different community projects, including Living and Studying in Germany, an association providing information about life in Germany to Arabic-speaking students.
Recently, Anas also founded ‘Make it German‘, a similar organisation supporting Arabic-speakers, including refugees, who want to study in Germany. Their aim is to “establish links between newcomers and locals” and to advise students on different degrees offered by German universities. On the day Make it German was launched, more than 1,000 users from different cities in Syria visited the website. So far, they have signed up over 100 people.
It took him four months to create the website and put together a team of 12 people, who are all students themselves. The team also includes refugees, who can offer support to people going through similar situations.
Two years in Germany were enough for Anas to start a new project and regain his long lost independence. But as most Syrians living away from home, he still faces challenges. Anas hasn’t seen his parents, who still live in Syria, since he left the country in 2014. He worries about them everyday but moving back is not in his plans.
“I have the chance to go there but I don’t think I have the courage to do it,” Anas said. It is also hard for his parents to visit him in Germany due to visa restrictions for Syrian citizens.
“I’m afraid I go and then I’m stuck there, and everything I fought for here in Germany is done.”
Anas has a list of things he wants to do in the future, from being an academic to starting his own company. For now, he will focus on finishing his degree, using his skills to help other students in need of support, and making the best of the freedom Germany has given him.
He said: “Berlin is better for my life.”