A lot can change in two years. The last time the Brandeis community spoke to Ibrahim Shkhess, he had just begun his life in Germany after leaving Syria. Shkhess was one of over 1 million refugees that entered Germany under Angela Merkel’s open-door policy. At the time, he was living in a refugee home and knew almost no German. 

 On Thursday Nov. 1, two years later, he proudly told a filled room at the Faculty Club over video chat that much had changed.

Shkhess is now in the last year of his educational internship, is learning German and lives in an apartment alone in the city of Augsburg, Germany.

The event on Thursday, co-sponsored by the Center for German and European Studies, was part of the German Embassy Campus weeks Program, “Shaping Germany.”  Not only did the event feature Shkhess, but also Hassan Almohammed, a Syrian and a Madeleine Haas Russell Visiting Professor in the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Program at Brandeis.

Sabine von Mering (GER) led the event and started the conversation before opening up the floor to audience questions. Many of the students in attendance were enrolled in classes in the Brandeis German Studies Program, and some even asked their questions in German.

Shkhess stressed that parts of his transition have been made easier as a result of his German language skills. He said that while Augsburg hosts many events, it is a lot easier to partake in the fun if you know the local language. The same can be said of making friends. Though most of Shkhess’ friends are other refugees, he said he has made German friends both at school and at work.

In July, Shkhess’ three-year permit to live in Germany will officially expire, but he is hopeful that he will be able to stay. He expects that during his permit renewal interview he will be asked about his integration into German culture and the current climate back in Syria.       When asked if he was worried about Chancellor Merkel’s announcement that she will step down from power and how that might affect refugees’ status in Germany, Shkhess simply said, “Getting worried won’t change anything.”

As for the next two years, if he remains in Germany? Shkhess dreams that he will one day work for a larger company located outside of Augsburg. In his current internship, Shkhess works as a programmer. He said his educational training from Syria is a little out of date, but the skills he learned on his own have served him well. “Programming is international,” Shkhess said. “It does not depend on your country.”

Shkhess said he speaks with his parents over the phone every day. Even though Bashar al-Assad is still in power in Syria, Shkhess’ parents say that things are getting quieter at home, which leads him to wonder if he will ever be able to return. Shkhess said he would go back to Syria if he could be sure that he would be safe there. For now, that is not something that can be guaranteed. Shkhess does not see any peaceful future for Syria as long as Assad remains president. “No one would be okay with him still being in power,” he said. 

Almohammed agreed that peace would be difficult if Assad were to remain. He wondered if anything could change as long as Russia continued to support al-Assad. However, he remains hopeful that change will come one day, although he is not sure when that may be. Almohammed left Syria in 2012 after he chose to defect from the army when he was conscripted. Up until that point, he had taught French at Aleppo University. He fled to Turkey for four months, where the severity of the crisis at times forced 40 to 50 Syrians to live together at some points. Almohammed described his stay in Turkey as very “hard times.” He applied for asylum in many countries across Europe, but ended up moving to France.

Almohammed does not consider himself to have been a refugee at this time because he had previously spent time studying in France. “I know the country, I know the language, I have friends there,” he said. From France, he moved to the United States, where he continued to work as a professor at Wesleyan University and the University of California, Santa Barbara before coming to Brandeis.

Almohammed overall was critical of how politicized the refugee crisis has become. “It is not a human way of dealing with it,” he said. Similarly, when asked what people do not understand about the crisis, Shkhess said that many people seem to forget that refugees left an entire life behind. While everyone seems to have differing views on the political status of refugees in their country and in the world, many forget the human element.

Shkhess reminded the audience that he had left everyone he knew behind, and that even his Syrian friends in Germany he has only known for two years. Assimilation is something that gets easier over time, Shkhess admitted. But “missing friends and family never gets easier,” he continued. “That gets harder.”