Beverly Banks and Patty Nieberg, Medill News Service
PARIS – Eight years ago, Syrians took to the streets to protest President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. For Antoun Helal, who fled Syria five years ago at age 20, it is an anniversary he wishes he could forget.
Helal’s mother, father and sister are still in Syria and their attempts to join him in Paris have been blocked by the French government, he said.
Although he talks to them every day on Skype, he avoids news reports about Syria, although he does keep up with what’s going on in Damascus.
“I don’t want to know everything because I don’t have the capacity to do all of that and to live here in a new life in Paris,” he said.
Helal fled Damascus in 2014, arriving in Paris on a tourist visa. He then changed his status to refugee.
“In the beginning it was difficult to leave everything and to start from the zero. But I think it’s — C’est la vie. … When we are in hard situation — we should restart our life,” said Helal, now 25.
He left Syria at the height of the civil war between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rebel forces. It was the same year that the Islamic State declared its “caliphate” territory from Aleppo to the Iraqi province of Diyala. This prompted air strikes supported by the U.S., Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, leaving major cities decimated and unrecognizable.
Before the war, Helal’s father was a jeweler, but now he picks up any work he can find to support his family.
“It’s more calm than before but the life is a little bit difficult. There is no work,” Helal said. “It’s not so good to live there in this situation.”
Helal studied law in Syria for three years. In Paris, he attended the Pierre Claver School, a private nonprofit that offers French language classes as well as art, history, poetry and sports lessons to help students integrate into French society.
Pierre Claver helped Helal meet other refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt and Georgia
as well as create a new life for himself in Paris.
He has also taken a new career path: he is a certified personal trainer with six regular clients. Helal’s motivation to work in this field came from memories of being made fun of for his weight at a young age.
Now he wants to help others change their lifestyle in order to gain confidence like he did.
“I like to know how to help people to get fit — because they imagine that it’s impossible or they don’t know exactly how, what they want to do or they should to do,” he said.
Helal said he wants to engage others to help people feel their best physically to improve themselves mentally and emotionally: “When you have a strong body, you have a strong brain.”
Going forward, Helal wants to get more clients and move past the darkness of the war in his home country — so he can be more than just another “refugee.”
“The refugee is human,” he said. “It’s like for now in the world — (refugee is a) nationality. You say I’m refugee from Syria, (but) it’s not my nationality.”
He has embraced French culture and language, while retaining his Syrian citizenship. And despite the bad memories of living through part of the war, he has not abandoned his country.
“I love my country. I love the people.”