AGUASCALIENTES, Mexico — Essa Hassan is not only the first Syrian refugee to land in Mexico, his status makes him a bit of a celebrity at the Panamerican University, where students wave at him in greeting as he walks across campus.
Proudly, Hassan noted, his official designation in Mexico is listed on his visa not as refugee, but as student.
“That’s all I am. That’s all I want to be,” Hassan, 26, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation recently. “In Mexico, I can be anyone. I wear no label.”
Hassan’s arrival in northern Mexico last fall was sponsored by the Habesha Project, a Mexican non-profit group that offers scholarships to Syrian students whose academic careers have been interrupted by the five-year-old civil war in their homeland.
Hassan was the first Syrian refugee to arrive in Mexico, according to Habesha.
“STAIRS COVERED IN BLOOD”
At university in Syria, Hassan was taking his final exams in 2011 when the tests were interrupted by violent clashes on campus between pro- and anti-government protestors.
Police herded terrified students into their dormitories, where the electricity was cut, and those from regions supportive of anti-government rebels were taken from their rooms and beaten.
“The stairs were covered in blood,” Hassan said. “I have no idea how many died or disappeared that night.”
Under pressure to join the military, the native of Masyaf in northwestern Syria made plans to flee the country.
“Your refusal means you’re a rebel or you’re in ISIS. I had three options — kill people, go to jail or escape,” he said.
Hassan sold off his belongings and dodged military checkpoints seeking out deserters as he made his way to Turkey in early 2012, carrying the equivalent of US$450, two jackets and four books, including “1984,” by George Orwell — one copy in English, the other in Arabic.
His small library is battered after four years on the road.
From Istanbul he moved to Beirut, where he taught Arabic and landed a job with Action Against Hunger, tracking human traffickers and supervising camps for Syrian refugees, and then to Italy.
“Rome was the only place I was depressed,” he recalled. “It was limbo – poor, fear, an expired visa, a tiny apartment by the airport.
“To make friends, I had to say I was Israeli. Nobody wants to date a Syrian, they think we’re all in ISIS,” he said.
“YOU DISCOVER HOW MUCH YOU CAN LEAVE BEHIND”
Hassan was raised as an Alawite, a member of the same sect of Shi’a Islam as Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and his brother belongs to the government air force. Hassan himself feels no loyalty to the government.
“My ideas had no place in my family … They think Assad’s going to win any day now.”
As to whether Mexico is now his home, Hassan said: “There is no home any more.
“Home is not a place or a language or objects. When you move around, you discover how much you can leave behind,” he said.
That said, Hassan keeps in close touch by Skype and WhatsApp with those he left behind.
When he was on the move, he said, he opted only for short-term relationships.
“I had no idea when I might have to leave the country again, so having expectations was painful,” he said.
He is now dating the woman who helped get his Mexican visa.
“Now that I’m able to make plans, we’ll see where it goes.”