About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Leen wearing an oversized sweater against a red wall

Leen Sukkar

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Photo and interview by:




Shanthuru Premkumar

“My dream is to have a big position… To tell my story. To study music and to be a good human,” says student Leen Sukkar (23), in hopes that sharing her experiences can motivate people going through difficult times. She left her home in Syria with her father after her mother was imprisoned for humanitarian work, which traumatized Leen and still affects her mental health. When she first got to Belgium, Leen says she felt afraid, depressed, and empty. She missed home and her mother, who was still in Syria. “Life seemed very dark and difficult without her,” she says. When I left I felt like I’m leaving very big part of me there.” But Leen maintained hope for the future, and drew on her mother’s love when they were reunited: “You have to stay living, so you will find ways to handle it.” She focuses on the positive influences of her experiences, which have made her independent and stronger: “I appreciate all what happened in the past, because, without that, I will not be in my place now.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

Okay, so if you can tell your name, and where you are from, or where are you now?
Okay, so my name is Leen Sukkar. I’m in Brussels, Belgium, and I came from Syria, from the capital, Damascus. I’m 23 years old. I’ve been in Belgium for almost five years.

So this is the opening. So we’re going to have the first question. So, the current situation. What kind of housing do you live in?
It’s, we call it in Dutch, kot, and that means it’s something for students. But I can say, it’s a small apartment. Small, lovely apartment.

Can you describe the conditions?
It’s pretty good because I made it like that. I invested very a lot of energy to make it look beautiful, like, really like a home.

Who do you live with? Who do you live with?
What does that mean?

Who else lives with you?
No one. I live alone. I live alone for almost three years, three years [inaudible].

And how do you spend your time here?
I’m a student. I study nutritions. And my second year, I also go to music school. I learn piano. I work also. So, yeah.

What are some of the things that bring you joy?
Music, nature, love. Yes. And animal. My lovely cat.

Okay, very nice. I would invite you, now in the next questions when you’re answering, to answer with the question in the answer. So, for instance, [inaudible] what brings me joy [crosstalk] – so it’s easy for you to also reflect that and easy to answer. So, the next question. How has life been since you arrived in Europe? What’s been good about being here? What’s been difficult?
Yeah. The life has been first very difficult, because I missed my home country. My mother was still in Syria, so I had a lot of, yeah, I missed her a lot. And the life seemed very dark and difficult without her specific. I was also afraid, because I’ve been in a different culture. Everything here is different. The life is different. It’s more difficult too. But what was really great and good, you can really work on your dreams here. You have, I think, in my opinion, you have the opportunities. When you have the, when you have, I don’t know how to say it but [inaudible] the possibilities, when you have the possibilities, you can work hard for it, and hopefully you will get something at the end. So it’s not like my home country, you will be like an artist, or a very educated person, but eventually you are nothing. Yeah, that’s my perspective to this life here.

So can you describe maybe how living here has made you feel?
Empty. It made me feels empty because the peoples here are really closed. It’s the opposite in my home country. All care for each other, but here, like you see, the neighbors don’t care about you, when you are living alone. If you get sick, yeah, you are alone. If you want to do something, you are totally alone. So that really made me empty, totally empty.

Can you ever have imagined that you would have been able to handle a situation? How were you able to – no, sorry, this is wrong question. Before that, how does being away from the rest of the family, home, make you feel? How does the feeling of not belonging, discrimination, stigma, impact you? Can you describe?
Can you repeat the question?

Yes. How does being away from the rest of your family make you feel? That’s one part. How does the feeling of not belonging, discrimination, stigma, impact you? Can you describe?
Okay, the first, the first [inaudible] my family is here. My father and my sister came here before me. My mother came, like, two years after I’ve been in Belgium. So I kind of, I don’t miss anyone in Syria as a family, because I feel here like I’m surrounded by my family. But belonging is really something very difficult, because the last four or five years, I was really working hard to feel belong, to belong to, I can’t say to belong to Belgium, or the culture here in Belgium, because, yeah, I will never be able to belong to here. It’s like, yeah, you are very different. But I belong to myself. So that’s my idea or, yeah, now I belong to myself.

Next question. Do you think you’d be able to, that you managed to handle the situation? Because you said, there was a time when you were alone because your family didn’t come here, you had your mother away from you. So my curiosity is how have you been able to overcome, survive, live with it?
Um, [laughing] that’s a difficult question. I’ve been through many difficult times. I couldn’t handle it. In a moment, I was really depressed. But, yeah, because you have to live, you have to stay living, so you will find ways to handle it, like small, small things can really make big differences. When you, I think the first thing is appreciation. Yeah.

Thank you. Do you think that developed the ability to deal with these challenges? Or do you think you always had those skills, strengths, mechanisms, resilience?
No. Of course I hadn’t those skills. It came by time. It came by situations, like many situations made me more strength, and I think I had already a big strength because I’ve been through many difficult situations, before when I was 15, 16, 17, so I was able to make my strength grow. Yeah.

So last question in the current part. How has COVID-19 affected you in terms of daily life? Your mood, your feeling, emotional well-being?
COVID-19 has really affected me because it seems like a war here. First, like, no one could leave their houses. It was really very similar to the war in Syria. I got really depressed. I hadn’t the mood to do anything, even my study. It has affected my study in a very negative way. And till now, it affected me also when I see now the life is, like, almost normal again. It feels something strange. Like, yeah. So, yeah.

Okay. So we’re gonna go now into the next part, which is your past. And, as I mentioned earlier, whenever you feel a question is triggering, or difficult to answer, you can skip the question. Or if you need a break, or you take time, you can – don’t worry about the recording, because only your voice is important. And also when you’re answering again, you can answer with the question in the answer.

So it’s also easier for you. And do not hesitate to always ask me for clarification. So my first question, for your past, why did you leave your country? Can you describe what happened?
Of course. I didn’t had choice, because my father chose to leave and to, like, to immigrate to Europe. I was almost 16 when he left, so, like, I was a child that can’t really make decisions about her future. But the reason why my father left is because my mama’s imprisoned. She was active in a, also, in a humanitarian [inaudible]. She was helping children in forbidden areas, so she got arrested. She stayed imprisoned three years in a [inaudible]. So that was my big trauma. That was the reason also why we came here, because the life was there really, like, shit. Yeah.

How did it make you feel at that time?
It was really difficult. I was really in a bad situation. I was totally alone because my mother was everything for me. I was lost. I was totally lost. Yes.

How was the journey to Europe? Is there an experience that was particularly difficult that you could tell us about?
Luckily I didn’t go through the normal way that many peoples had to go through. Like, you know this cross the sea, also the countries. I came with the airplane. I can say I had really good luck to have that, because I didn’t face the dangers, of the dangers. But, yeah. I didn’t want to leave Syria because my mother was there. So when I left I felt like I’m leaving very big part of me there. So it was like forcing. I didn’t choose really to come to Europe. No.

And how did that make you feel at that time? When you had to leave, when you had to leave behind…
Sad. Really sad. Yeah, that made me feels very sad. Also, like, how can I describe it? I don’t have words to describe it. It has, it was really something new, yeah. But I was really, really, really sad. Yes.

Do you think about these events often? When? Is there something in particular you think about often?
Yes. Actually, my mother was arrested in November. So now, I guess every year that month affect my mental health. My psychological well-being. I didn’t know that at the beginning. But after many sessions with my psychologist, I discovered that, yeah, this trauma has and still affecting my life in a one way. Normally, I don’t think about that, because it has, like, now it’s been six or seven years from the accident. But, yeah, in a non-physical way, it affected a lot. Yes.

Like, I know it’s gonna be a little more deeper. What do you feel when you think about it?
It has positive things and negative things. I admit that it has positive things, because now I feel that I appreciate all what happened in the past, because, without that, I will not be in my place now, we would not be in a safe place. Yes. But the negative things, it has really many, yeah, it did many scars in me in one way. Yeah.

Could you ever have imagined that you would be unable to handle that situation?
No. No, if I look back to the past, I feel really surprised because I could, yeah, I made it to this difficult situation. I never thought that I could face this situations or being in this situations.

Now I’m gonna go deeper. How were you able to survive, get through it? Have you created any kind of strategy, coping mechanisms, to get through the hard times, difficult memories? And then a connecting question is: where do you find the strength and support? So, I repeat the question. How were you able to survive, to get through it? Have you created any kind of strategy, coping mechanisms, to get through the hard times, difficult memories? Where do you find the strength and support?
So the first part of the question, how did I survived, I think hope in the future, but also hope, at some points I was hopeless. I was totally hopeless. I hadn’t any energy. So my strategy was just living the day, day by day. And the future, over the time, will fix everything. And what was the second part?

Second part was: have you created any kind of strategy, coping mechanisms, to get through difficult times or hard memory?
Feeling loved by my mother was my biggest strategy, because now she’s here. So now, she can surround me by lot of love, lot of things that I missed in the past. And I think, if she was not here, it would be totally different. Yes.

Okay. So now we’re gonna go to the last two questions. This is more special because, so you’re gonna answer with a particular line. So before the event that led you to flee home occurred, what was your dream? So you have to answer, “Before the war, or before the event, or before… my dream was…”. So you have to say, “Before this moment, my dream was…”.
I think, before the war, I hadn’t dreamed, like I hadn’t any dreams because I was 11 years old when the war started. So a child will have, like, really very small dreams. You can say that’s really a big dream. But after that I got really very big dreams.

Do you want to say anything about those dreams, or…?
Yes, that’s really something for the future. My first dream is to finish my studies and to study and study, like to never stop study. My second dream is to tell everyone about my story, about really details that I’ve been through, to write a book or to be like a public figure, that can motivate peoples to go through difficult times.

Now the last question. So now, when you were leaving home, what was your dream for the future? So you have to answer, “I dreamt that…”
I dreamt that I live in a, I live, you know, dignity. Like, I will have my rights that I didn’t have in my home country. I dreamt that I reunite my mother. That was also a big dream that I dreamt about. And like, to be, yeah, to be a thing that peoples will, like, maybe peoples will really remember me after my death, like I can really make thing or maybe change a small thing here in the world to the best.

Okay, so we’re finished with the past. So now we’re gonna go to the wrap-up questions. So before leaving your home country, what would you describe as your strengths? Have you maintained these? If so, how? If not, why not?
Yes, my strength before I leave my country was my friends. My friends has big influence about my strength because they supported me in my difficulties. And I guess, small things in my city was also, yeah, they meant to me, like, maybe streets, jasmine. All of these tiny details, yes.

Yeah, what you’ve been through is very difficult. And do you feel like you’ve grown in any way as a result of this experience? Has anything positive come out of it?
Of course, it has really very positive influence. I became independent. I became strong woman. I can face many thing. It also affected my intellectuals. Yeah, so it has positive influence more than negative influence, I could tell.

The last two questions. What are your hopes and dreams for the future now? And you can answer, “My dream is…”?
My dream is to have a big position, maybe to work in the United Nations, or the World Health Organization. My dream is, like, I already told it, the question before, to tell my story. To study music and to be a good human to the human, yeah, to the others.

Yeah, thank you again for all the… answering all the questions. This is gonna be the last one. Is there anything you’d like to add that might help people in Europe better understand the life of refugees here?
You mean, white peoples? [Laughing].

Yeah, I mean… 
Or refugees?

Yeah, that might help people in Europe? I think the European people.
European people. I think we are all equal. We all share the humanitarian parts inside of us. Like, don’t label humans, please, like just don’t put a label to humans. That’s the most important things because human can never be labeled, and it should never be labeled. Yes.

That’s your message, to understand other refugees?
I think also they has to be more sensitive, to try to feel, and to feel the story that there are people that they’re went through many things. The life was not easy to them, like, they’re easy to the Europeans. They had to fight hard to have what they has now. Yes.

Thank you so much.
Thank you. I hope it was good.

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.