About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Safi with his arms folded across wearing a sweatshirt

Safi Sahyouni

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:




Ehab Onan

“My dream was to be a soccer player,” says Safi Sahyouni (20, pseud) while recalling his life in Syria. Safi, who now lives in Athens, Greece, left Syria when he was 17 due to the war. “I don’t want to kill or be killed,” he says, “I want to be a normal person like the rest out there.” While traveling through Turkey to reach Greece, he was made to walk in the cold mountains for two weeks without food or water. Safi says that everything he went through made him more mature, thus making him stronger. While in Greece, he has laid out a path for himself by working and cultivating friendships. Although being away from his family makes him sad, he knows he had to leave for a successful life. “This feeling is what drives you to work hard, to build a life for yourself, your family.” He now hopes for his family’s situation in Syria to become more stable. “This is my biggest dream, to meet with them again, to live with dignity like any other human being, and to have my own life and my own job.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

What type of house do you live in?
I rented a house with another guy. Each of us has his own room and we have a shared living room.

The house is not provided by any organization, you rented it?

Could you describe the house for us?
 The house consists of two rooms, each of us has his own room, and we share the living area and the American-style kitchen, and there is a bathroom and the rest of the things.

How do you spend your time?
I get up in the morning and go to my work, and when I come back from work I take a shower and change my clothes, then I go out to see my friends and spend time with them until it’s 11 or 12 AM and then I go back to my house, eat, talk to my family a bit and then sleep. This is my daily routine.

How do you feel about spending your time the way you said it? Are you satisfied?
When you have work to do, you will definitely feel satisfied with your time. When you go to work, you benefit yourself and benefit others so you will be satisfied, but when you don’t have a job and do nothing useful to pass the time, you certainly will not be satisfied with your life.

So you say that you are satisfied with your life because you’re using your time, don’t you?
Yes, I’ve laid out a path for myself and I am following it. I use my time in what benefits me and my country.

What are the things that bring you happiness?
My job, seeing my family and friends doing well, and that there is still good in life.

You mentioned your friends a lot. How is your social relationship with them?
Everyone has a family; a mother, a father and siblings, but everyone has another family which is  friends.

Since you are away from your country, are your friends only Syrians? Or do you have friends of different nationalities?
I have friends from different nationalities. My friends are like brothers to me, whether they are from Syria or any other country.

So you mean you live in a diverse society, not just from Syria. Don’t you?
Yes, I do. I have friends from Greece and other countries, and we share respect and peace with each other, and this is essential.

Does your relationship with them make your day lighter?
Yes, my relationship with them makes the day more fun, as our days are full of jokes and laughter. 

I want to ask you, how did your life change when you arrived in Europe?
When I was in Syria, I had my own life. I owned a shop and worked there and I used to go out with my friends after finishing my work. But when I came to Europe, the situation was a little different. I came to a country that I know nothing about and don’t speak its language. I encountered some difficulties in learning the laws of the country and integrating with them. I tried to learn the language, but until now I couldn’t learn it or speak it, but I am still trying.

I want to ask you about the positive aspects, which aspects have contributed to changing your life for the better?
One of the positive aspects was the love I received from friends, which helped me to develop my skills so that I could understand and integrate into Greek society.

What about the downsides?
One of the negative aspects of this country, especially Greece, is that you don’t find support from society and government until you develop yourself and benefit the country. They only look at you as a refugee, and this look is not good, it makes you feel like you are not a normal human being like them, you differ from them, but the truth is the opposite. The apartheid view of Syrian or black people is very bad.

Can you describe how you feel about life in Greece in general?
Greece is a beautiful country, with beautiful weather. It’s full of joy and life.

It’s similar to our country.
I noticed that Greece, especially Athens, is similar to my city Latakia. It has the same weather, the same sea, and the same nature, and that’s why I love Greece.

How do you feel being away from your family and country?
I feel sad and distressed. Any person who lives far from his family and country will feel the same way because all people prefer to stay with their family and live in their country, regardless of the circumstances, but sometimes you are forced to leave your country in order to succeed in your life and this feeling is what drives you to work hard, to build a life for yourself, your family and even your country.

I hope the war ends and we all return to Syria. Have you felt that you belong to a place other than your country since you left Syria?
In Greece, I felt I belonged to the city of Athens. But this affiliation is different from affiliation with our country Syria. But there is something about this city that embraced me, this is the city that I grew up in and learned new things from. Of course, I feel a sense of belonging.

So you felt like you were loyal to Athens but not as much as your loyalty to Syria?
Yes, exactly.

Do you think you’ve developed an ability to deal with challenges?
Yes, 100 percent. I have developed as a person a lot, I used to live in Syria, I had a job, and lived with my family. But when I came here, there were some challenges such as learning the language, dealing with new people, finding a job, and establishing a new life in a new country that I had only heard about before on TV and the internet, but in reality, you don’t know anything about it. you don’t know what their religion is, and how they work. All these were challenges and I have to make an effort to understand its people so I can live like them.

So the big challenge was dealing with people.
Dealing with a strange society because I came as a stranger to a country I knew nothing about before. So of course, this is a difficult challenge, and when you overcome this challenge you are taking a step forward because you now know the country and its laws, so the challenges become much easier. 

Knowing you, I am pretty sure that you overcome all these challenges and they already are history.
These challenges have become a part of my daily life.

Do you think that the skills of resistance and persistence became an instinct in you?
Yes, these instincts are running in my blood, because I must resist in order to live, but if I didn’t resist, fight for my life and didn’t prove to people that I am a successful person, then I am a failure. The instinct of resistance should be in every person so that he/she can prove himself/herself in society as a successful person, no matter how difficult the circumstances are.

Let’s move to COVID, how has it affected you?
COVID affected my work, my work stopped and my life in general stopped. I am not the only one whose life has been affected, the whole world has been greatly affected by corona. I went through a difficult time in terms of work and life. I became unable to see the people I always hung out with. I became unable to go out without a mask, and I became afraid of approaching people and shaking hands with them. I feel sad because this virus made the world cold and boring.  

It reduced the interdependence of the world.
Yes, it reduces our incentive towards life, and you feel like you are stepping down.

Has COVID affected your mood?
Certainly, because you can no longer go out with your friends to a cafe to drink coffee, go out to the sea, or attend parties. You are forced to stay at home, and staying home for a long period leads to a psychological state of boredom, and this makes a strange feeling so you start to hate going out and seeing people, feeling bored is very difficult.

Boredom makes you want to stay home like you don’t have to stay at home but at the same time, you don’t want to go out.

Let’s back up a bit, why did you leave Syria?
I left Syria because of the war. I should have joined the army, but I didn’t.

You told us that your legal age is twenty, would you like to tell us your real age? And you left because you didn’t want to join the army, did you?
Yes, I did. I chose to leave Syria.

You don’t want to kill, right?
I don’t want to kill or to be killed, I want to be a normal person like the rest out there and live a normal life.

Absolutely. How did you feel before leaving Syria?
It was a very difficult feeling, it’s so painful leaving your family, your friends, the neighborhood in which you grew up, and your homeland. This feeling is very painful and ugly because once you leave your country, you can no longer return and you cannot see your friends and family. I can’t go back to the neighborhood in which I lived for seventeen years, it’s suddenly erased from my life. This feeling is very painful and always makes me wonder when I will see my family and friends again.

How was your trip to Europe?
It was a challenging journey.

What was the most challenging thing about the trip?
The most difficult thing was getting into Turkey because I traveled from Syria to Iran and from Iran to Turkey.

You crossed two countries. right?
I crossed two countries until I was able to enter Turkey, the journey was very difficult because the person responsible for smuggling migrants was very bad and merciless, he was a human trafficker. He made us walk in the mountains for two weeks without food or water and it was very cold. It was winter and the thickness of the snow was higher than us, and we slept in the snow for two weeks without water or food, so the journey was very difficult. There were people who died on the way, and there was a person who froze from cold, and a pregnant woman who miscarried her child during the walk. We walked in the mountains where there was no one, only stones and valleys, then we arrived in Turkey, particularly Izmir, and from Izmir, we took a rubber boat to Greece.

How many were you on the boat?
There were 43 of us.

Was it winter when you traveled by boat?
It was summer.

How long did the journey from Izmir to Greece take?
An hour and a half.

What island did you go to?
Island of Chios.

Did anything strange happen to you during the journey?
Yes, the engine of the boat broke down five minutes before reaching the territorial waters and the Turkish gendarmerie was chasing us, so I and three other guys got off the boat into the water and started pushing the boat in order to cross the territorial waters so that the Turkish police could not catch us and return us to Turkey. So we pushed the boat for five minutes until we crossed the territorial waters, thus the Turkish police didn’t have the authority to return us.

When you crossed the water, the Turkish police didn’t have any authority to chase you, right?
Yes. By the time we crossed the territorial waters, the Greek coast guard came and helped us.

How did you feel during your journey from Iran to Turkey and from Turkey to Greece?
There was a feeling of joy that I was traveling, and there was a feeling of fear that you might be caught after the trouble we went through just to reach the borders. It is an awful feeling that they might catch you and all the effort was in vain.

Of everything you went through on your trip, is there something in particular that you overthink or remember like an incident of racism, an encounter with a smuggler, or a gun being pulled at you?
The person who accompanied us during the trip was Iranian, and he was very racist toward Syrians. He had a horse and we walked behind him but he insulted us and we had to hit him.

Did he have a horse?
Yes, and we were walking behind him. Two weeks passed and we were without food or water, and we saw a village near us, so we asked him to go there so we could eat anything, but he didn’t agree, so we hit him, took the horse, and went to the village. When we returned, we had a fight with his boss, and he threatened that if we didn’t reach Turkey on the same day, we would be kidnapped. I remember when I arrived in Iran, I was kidnapped by an Iranian group. We agreed with the person responsible for smuggling the immigrants that we would be picked up by a group at the airport to take us to Turkey, and they were supposed to have my photo with them. So a group of Iranians approached me pretending to be the group who would take me to Turkey, and they said they had my photo in their car and asked me to go with them, and I did. When we arrived at their car they took out a weapon and pointed it at my waist and forced me to get into the car. They only wanted to steal our money, and they held us in Tehran for three hours but they couldn’t take any money from us. When they stopped the car at a rest stop and went to buy food, I saw a police car and I got off the car and ran toward the police and told them I was a tourist and that group kidnapped me and stole my things. The police helped me and my friend, held the kidnappers, and they returned our things and got us to a hotel, then I spoke to the smuggler, he sent us a group and we left with them.

Did the police catch or punish them?
The police caught them, but it was a big group. I was not kidnapped by one car only, but there were four cars.

Did they hold you?
They were walking around telling me we could get you in Turkey for 3000 dollars, and threatening to kill me if I didn’t find the money by the evening. Of course, I found the right opportunity to escape when they went to buy food and the police car was close to me. If the police car was not close, I would still be in Iran either kidnapped or killed.

At the time you were locked in the car, did you imagine that you would survive this?
I certainly had hoped that I could fight for my life because I can’t easily hand my life over to them. I was thinking about the time when I could see the largest gathering of people so I could throw myself out of the car and run away. The opportunity to escape came because we were in a popular area and I and two other guys managed to survive.

Did you have a specific strategy or plan to follow when you left Syria for another country?
I had a plan that when I get to the country I want, I will learn the language of that country and look for a job. I also wanted to join a football club in Greece, but unfortunately, I had no luck with that. I stopped playing football and focused on my working life.

What was your dream before escaping Syria?
My dream was to be a soccer player.

We had many dreams in childhood. What was the dream that you had a passion for?
To be a football player.

Are you still playing football?
Yes, I do. But none of the people around me here play or care about football, but when I see a ball or someone playing I go and play with them just to pass the time. When a person sees something he is passionate about, he starts running toward it.

Can you tell your dream to the person who is going to translate the script?
My dream was to be a football player. I played football in Syria at Hatten Club and played in the junior league as a reserve. I have two medals, the first for Latakia governorate in the school’s championship, and we took a rule with Hatten Club in Syria.

What was your dream when you were leaving Syria?
My dream was to come to a country where I would have the opportunity to be a football player and develop my skills. This has been my dream since childhood. I grew up playing football since I was five years old. The feeling of being crowned in front of people as a football player gives me the motivation to be a successful one.

I hope you don’t give up on your dream because I know that you are a professional player.
I hope that too, but I didn’t find the support and I decided to join a football club but I was rejected because I don’t have a residency to be allowed to play.

The problem is that football is a team game, so you definitely have difficulty with this. What you went through is very difficult, but you learned a lot. Do you think what you went through made you mature?
Of course, I left Syria at a young age, left my country and family at the age of 17, and went abroad. So all that I went through made me much older than my real age and made me look at things from all aspects not from one aspect as I did when I was in Syria.

I think that you were forced to act older than your real age because you were at a time you needed to be older to feel strong.
Exactly, so that I can be strong and face the hardships I went through, because if I wasn’t strong enough I couldn’t go on with my life.

What are the positive aspects that were the result of what you went through?
A lot of positive things have happened in my life. I am different from the old Safi that was in Syria, I learned new things and managed to develop my skills, I learned new languages, and I got to know a new society, this motivates me to move forward more and more.

What are your dreams and hopes for the future?
I want my family’s situation in Syria to be more stable. This is my biggest dream, to meet with them again, to live with dignity like any other human being, and to have my own life and my own job.  

I hope you get what you want. We are very grateful for your answers to these questions, it is very important that you share your story with us, and we thank you very much for that. Do you have anything to say about the negative view of western society towards us?
You shouldn’t judge a person based on his appearance or clothing but rather you should judge by interacting with him because he is a human just like you, he believes in love, respect, and equality between genders. He has a life as you do but came from a country other than yours. you should believe that people must be equal and shouldn’t be judged by appearance, color, or the way they talk. We are the same and God created us this way.

Do you want to say something to the refugee community?
Refugee community?

My greetings to you guys.

Thank you on behalf of the Witness Change team.
My greetings to you.

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.