Bayan Tawakalna- Syrian refugee and future Emergency Physician

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My name is Bayan Tawakalna. I am a Syrian refugee and this is my story

I left my country 6 years ago during the Syrian revolution. I am originally from Damascus and lived my whole life in the countryside. We moved to many different places in Syria for about a year until we had to flee in 2012 and go to Egypt. I stayed in Egypt with my mom and two younger siblings while my dad went to the United States to get asylum in hopes to find a safe place for us to start a new life. Life in Egypt was both difficult and dangerous. Because of the revolution and consequential uprisings, there was no government which caused us to be incredibly unsafe. We decided to move to Turkey after staying in Egypt for one year. We first moved to Istanbul where we had to stay with a family friend for five months. When you don’t have a working man in the family and don’t have Turkish citizenship, it is incredibly hard to find a landlord who will rent to you.

We decided to move to another city in Turkey called Konya, just south of Ankara. We had another friend there who had promised he would find a house for us; it didn’t work out. We stayed with him for a year and a half while we waited for news about our asylum visas. In February of 2016, three years after leaving our home, we were finally approved for our visas. One week later, we left Turkey to join my dad in the United States of America.

I was so excited to come to America. I really missed my dad and I had high expectations for our new country. I wanted to finish my education and have a normal life like before when we were in Syria. It didn’t start off quite as I expected. When we first landed in Chicago, I had an extremely mean boarding officer. I spoke English but it wasn’t perfect, so he wouldn’t listen to my questions about the process. That was the first experience that made me feel really self-conscious. There was another officer who came to help us with our paperwork who was friendly and made us feel more comfortable. Time was going so slow. We finally boarded our plane for Minnesota and arrived around 11:30 pm.

When we landed, my dad was waiting for us. The past three years in Turkey and Egypt had been the hardest time in my life, especially as a 16 year old. It was very hard for me mentally but this moment made it all feel worth it. That night, I remember being both ecstatic and sad when I saw my dad. It had only been three years but he looked so much older than when I had seen him last. He had wrinkles and black circles around his eyes from stress. He was exhausted and it broke my heart to see him that way.

When I was in Egypt, one of the biggest challenges I faced was experiencing culture shock. It was the first place I ever traveled to outside of Syria. We were so alone. It was a new country and the people were alarmingly different. Even though they spoke Arabic, I was still easily recognized as a Syrian refugee which made it hard to assimilate. In Egypt, it was unsafe at all times. Every time I went to school or somewhere else by myself, I was filled with fear. I was especially worried about my siblings. I tried to stay with them whenever I could and tried not to leave them alone but, regardless, we always felt like we were in danger.

When I moved to Turkey, it was a little safer but the language barrier was arduous. Because the people there didn’t speak English or Arabic, I was unable to communicate with anyone. You need to know how to talk to people, particularly when you’re looking for housing or other assistance. During this time, my mom’s health got a lot worse and it was hard for us to communicate with her professional health providers. There were a lot of misunderstandings between us and them as I tried to help her get the care she needed. I didn’t know anything about the medical system over there- how to go to the hospital, how to make an appointment, any of it. Learning a new language in a new country was draining. It made me think about the uncertainty of leaving Syria. Was this really the right thing for us to do? When we left, we did not know if we were ever going to go back. We didn’t know what would come next.

Looking back at everything that I went through, especially in Egypt and Syria, everything happening to me in America is much easier. The issues I struggle with here are much different. I have financial problems, which we never had before. We lost everything in Syria so now I have to work really hard to support myself. Something I deal with often are the stereotypes surrounding Muslims. People stare at me because of my hijab, which at first made me really uncomfortable. Right now I don’t really care; it is nothing compared to the violence and uncertainty that I experienced.

Over here, refugees are portrayed to be people who are uneducated and here to steal other people’s jobs and money. When I wear a headscarf, some people will look at me like I’m a bad person, possibly a terrorist. At school and at work, they underestimated me. I had to ignore these false opinions and prove myself. At my current job, I got promoted after only 5 months. In the beginning, they didn’t see my potential. I was the youngest and they didn’t expect me to perform like I did, but I showed them otherwise.

Being a refugee is not something you can control, it’s just a situation you are put in. Being young and a refugee at the same time is difficult in America because you have so much responsibility. You need to educate people about where you came from and why you came. A lot of people really don’t understand why refugees need to come here. It’s important to be educated and know exactly how and when to speak up for yourself. We need to teach the youth to take right action against the oppression and injustices of the world and to never stay silent. A huge problem that happens all around the world is youth being pressured not to talk about all of the inequality in their communities. Not speaking out against this behavior is what normalizes it. When I hear a stereotype about refugees or muslims, it’s my duty to clarify why it is both wrong and offensive.

Currently, I’m a full time student completing my generals at Normandale Community college. I’m on the Pre-Med track, working to become an Emergency Physician in the future. I’m applying for schools so I can transfer for my four-year degree. Last summer, I was a scholar for a very competitive program called Summer Health Professional Education Program. It helps students who are seeking a career in the professional health field learn more about their future careers. I got the opportunity to go to a medical school and participate in activities like shadowing and going to the mobile clinics. I learned the art of networking. It was very competitive but I got in easily. I also volunteer as a teacher and teaching assistant in two different schools. I do a lot of work in the community, educating people about my country and the conflict that is still occurring. I want to be an Emergency Physician because I want to help people around me and make them feel safe. When I was in Syria, I wanted to do that but didn’t have the skills or resources to do so. In the United States, I feel like I have the chance to learn how to make change by caring for others.

Being a refugee is hard. It is not a choice. After coming to this country and being presented with an array of opportunities, it is your choice to determine what your future will be. Refugees growing up in America should use all resources they have to become successful. You have the chance right now, so why not use it? Being a refugee gives you strength and teaches you a lot about resilience and conflict. I feel like it helps you mature at a younger age which is good to channel while planning for your future. All the difficulties you have been through as a refugee fleeing from country to country and surviving despite all odds, I encourage you to use that knowledge to fight hard for a better future in America.

Felicia Philibert