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Modar Saad came to Belgium in 2015, having fled military service in his war-torn homeland of Syria. He enrolled in the Welcome Student Refugee programme at VUB so he could complete his second master’s degree in civil engineering. Since then, he has almost graduated and after a series of interviews he has three job offers to choose from. Once he has finished studying Dutch, he’s going to focus on French. And while he misses his family and the chaos of Syria, he feels at home in Belgium. “I want to continue building my life here and show that I can contribute to society.”
Written by Ebe Daems. Photos by Brecht Goris.
For the Dutch version of this article, click here.
In 2016, Modar Saad joined the Welcome Student Refugee programme at VUB. Since then, he’s almost completed his second master’s degree and has begun a career in his sector.
Modar Saad, 32, gets off his bike on a terrace beside Antwerp cathedral. Despite his busy schedule – he works three days a week, his thesis defence is coming up, and he’s studying for his final exams – he’s made time to talk to us. Modar came to Belgium in September 2015; like many young Syrian men, he’d fled the country to escape dangerous military service. His brother came here three years earlier, and that’s how Modar ended up in Antwerp.
Now, not quite three years after he arrived, Modar is about to complete his second master’s in civil engineering. “I already had one master’s in the same subject when I left Syria,” he says. “Once I got to Belgium, I applied to have my Syrian diploma recognised. It took a year before I finally got a positive answer, but by that time I was halfway through my studies here, so I carried on studying.”
And he has no regrets about going back to class. “Companies are more likey to take me on if I have a Belgian diploma. Above all, the VUB programme was an introduction to the Belgian construction sector. It allowed me to make contacts in the sector that otherwise might not have taken me on or given me an interview.” These contacts helped Modar to find his first job, at Besix, Belgium’s largest building company. He did an internship there last summer and got a part-time contract as a result.
“To begin with, I thought the first year of my master’s was tough, because I had to go to VUB every day and then study Dutch in the evening at the University of Antwerp,” he says. “When I started working at Besix, I really only went home to sleep. Sometimes I would get back to Antwerp at midnight and would have to get up again at 5.30 to go to work or to university.”
Since then, Modar has found a new job at a construction company closer to home. Leaving Besix felt like a real test. “I’d got my job there via an internship, but now I had to put myself on the job market. I was scared that I would never get another chance like this. The moment of truth had arrived: was I qualified or not? Eventually I got three job offers and could choose which company I found most attractive. And of course, I looked at what they were offering me!” he says with a laugh.
After Dutch comes French
The main reason Modar changed jobs is so he can practise his Dutch more. While everything at Besix was in French, the language at his new employer is Dutch. “The first day, definitely, it was tiring to only be talking in Dutch, but it’s getting better already. It’s the only way I will become fluent.”
Even though he speaks and understands the language well, Modar is not completely satisfied. “If I’m shocked by something, or at emotional moments, I automatically switch to English, because I know the language better and there are things I am still struggling with in Dutch,” he says. “Arabic has just three vowels and you have so many! And I find diphthongs difficult too. The difference between ‘zuid’ and ‘zout’… They’re difficult to tell apart. Just like the difference between ‘b’ and ‘p’, because Arabic only has a ‘b’. Once I’m finished with Dutch, I’m going to study French. As a civil engineer in Belgium, that’s how you increase your chances of finding a better job and ensure you can work in both parts of the country.”
This all shows how remarkably driven Modar is to really make something of himself in his new homeland. And with good reason: “I want to start building my own life. Two of my Syrian friends began the same studies as me and they have also found work in a construction company. We’re trying to show that we can contribute something to Belgium and we’re not just here to take money while we laze around on the sofa. We want to change the image that some people have of refugees. Above all, I want to earn some money so I can have my parents come and visit.”
While Modar and his brother live here in Antwerp, their parents are still in Syria, in the suburbs of Damascus. “If I want to apply for a visa for them, I have to be able to prove that I can support them during their stay. I haven’t seen my parents since 2015. Sometimes it’s difficult. We call each other every day.”
The beauty of a day without plans
The life that Modar once knew in Syria no longer exists. “In January, it was hell. The regime was battling with resistance groups like Al Nusra in the countryside around Damascus. Luckily my parents live near the centre of the city. At the moment it’s relatively peaceful, but nothing is the same as before the war. We’ve been sent photos of our house in Jobar, where we lived before the way; it’s completely destroyed. Despite everything, people try to get on with their lives, but the prices of things have become so high compared to salaries, and the circumstances are difficult. But they find a way to get through it.”
Modar misses not just his family, but what he describes as the chaos of life in Syria. “Sometimes it’s nice to have a day without any fixed plans with people who aren’t organised. In Syria, in the blink of an eye you can decide to go off on a five-day trip. Even with ten other people. It’s totally different to in Belgium.”
Even so, he feels at home here. “Only the weather and the trains could be better!” he says. Asked if he would like to go back to Syria when it becomes more peaceful, he smiles. “That’s the question I have been getting for the past two months at every job interview. My brother has applied for Belgian nationality and has just bought a house in Edegem. In ten days he’ll get the keys and I’m going to move in with him. I want to carry on with the career I’ve begun here. Within a year or two I hope I can also buy a house and apply for nationality. I like it here. I’m happy with the opportunities I have here, and lots of people have helped me. I’m particularly grateful to my social assistant at the OCMW. They have done me a favour and I want to pay them back. And above all, I can’t go back to Syria, because I avoided doing my military service. Even if the war ends, I would be arrested as soon as I crossed the border.”