From Damascus to Old Town Square

A Syrian immigrant reflects on his war-torn home and new life among beer drinking strangers

By Valerio Farris

After violence erupted in Damascus in 2012, Syrian native Hashim Taji fled to Prague, where he had lived from 1997 to 2005. He owns a currency exchange storefront near Old Town Square. Photo by Valerio Farris.

After violence erupted in Damascus in 2012, Syrian native H.T. fled to Prague, where he had lived from 1997 to 2005. He owns a currency exchange storefront near Old Town Square. Photo by Valerio Farris.

From behind his glass curtain, H.T. travels the world. He encounters various tongues and cultures without ever leaving his seat. As a money changer with his own booth in Prague’s Old Town, he touches international currency and exchanges quick phrases with his customers. When I first exchanged dollars for crowns at his stand, we struck up a conversation about our respective origins. I was curious, how did he end up in Prague and how did he feel about it?

When H.T., referred to only by his initials to protect his privacy, needed to escape the civil war that is demolishing his home country of Syria, he chose the Czech Republic. He established Czech citizenship while he lived in Prague from 1997 until 2005, before returning to Syria to run his family’s textile business.

In 2012, the 42-year-old fled his home city of Damascus with his wife and two young children as violence began to spread to the capital city; they eventually returned to the Czech Republic in 2013.

The Czech Republic is a beacon of tolerance compared to many countries in the world, but its residents have been shielded from large scale immigration and not surprisingly, they can be suspicious of newcomers. A February poll by the European Commission reported that 74 percent of Czechs are against immigration from outside of the European Union, one of the highest percentages among the 28 countries surveyed. H.T. also notes that the Czech Republic is not a particularly appealing place to immigrate when compared to countries with stronger economies, like Germany or Sweden. These are two of the most popular places for the 150,000 Syrians who have sought political asylum in the European Union since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

As the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year with fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and those opposed to his rule, including a combination of freedom fighters and Islamic extremists, no region or person in the country has been left untouched. The country, which had a pre-war population of 23 million, has seen 200,000 deaths, 7.6 million people displaced internally and almost four million refugees, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

H.T. and his family spent one year in Egypt before eventually settling in Prague, where his currency exchange storefront near Old Town Square. He sat down with Prague Wandering to discuss life before and after Syria, living in the Czech Republic as an immigrant and the biggest differences between Czechs and Syrians.


How did you originally come to the Czech Republic?

I came in 1997 on a business trip. I liked it here, I went back to Syria for a month, and then I came back and stayed until 2005. I liked the ladies, of course. I was young, I was 23 or 24 and for me the most important thing for me was ladies. I was married to a Czech before, and then in 2005 we divorced.

*It was in the late 90s that he became a Czech citizen. Upon returning to Syria in 2005, he met his current wife, a Syrian woman from Damascus.

And then you went back to Syria in 2005. Did it feel good to go home?

I had to — my father started to get ill. That’s why I decided to go back, to take care of my family business. When the war started in 2011, I decided to move. First I went to Egypt for a year then in 2012, I came here.


What was it like when the war started? How did you decided you needed to leave?

It started in 2011 in a far area; we started to hear there were problems: demonstrations, that people were dying. We heard 5 people a day were being killed. Then, the demonstrations started to spread to all parts of Syria, even into Damascus. Every Friday, there were demonstrations somewhere. In Damascus, everywhere. They go to Friday prayer because there is prayer every Friday and after they would demonstrate.

And the government faced them with a strong hand, like in Baltimore today. I was thinking that it was going to get worse and worse, and it was. The currency value started to weaken. The business started to get slower. You couldn’t move freely in the city — there were controls everywhere. They controlled your identity.

In August 2012, we moved to Egypt and stayed there nine months and after that, my wife and children and I decided to come here. My wife couldn’t survive in Egypt, it was difficult for her. And we used to come here every year when we got married and she likes it here.

I refuse to go back to Syria. I have my own business. I have workers I am managing everyday, but I don’t want to go there. I have children, I have duties, I don’t want to have a problem — there is hijacking, there are a lot of problems in Syria and I don’t want to leave two kids alone. They need money, they need someone to take care of them. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have left Syria, if I didn’t have kids. I have responsibility.

If I was alone, if it was only me and my wife, we could survive, but for my children. They are the most important. They are kids, they don’t know anything — why should they have fears when I have the ability to bring them to a safe area where they can live a good life. Why?


Was there a day in Syria that made you decide to leave? A specific event?

Yes. They started to fight even in Damascus. Some rebels and opposition they started to attack Damascus and then I took my car. My mother, my family — because my wife and children they were already in Beirut — and I left.

For me, I didn’t face scary moments. But for example, when you arrive to the border with Lebanon you find 10,000 people waiting to stamp passports. Like a line, but it was very different.

But thank God I was fine. I heard rockets, I heard bombs beside me. Only one time I was going to work, and after I think one minute, or a half minute, after I passed, there was an explosion before me. This was the first time, and I didn’t feel it so much. But I knew a lot of people who died, and they were walking to work.

What are your thoughts on the Assad regime?

At the beginning, I was supporting him. Not because I am a killer like this but because we were living in a good system. Now I am not with him.


What made you switch?

A lot of dead people. For me, I think that he should protect his people. For me, I prefer him to the opposition, the radicals. Of course, if the radicals won the war, and they ruled in Syria I will not go to Syria anymore in my life. Never. If he won the war I might go.

But it will take time. Now we don’t see a horizon in front of us. It’s very bad. I am not now with him because there are a lot of mistakes, but I cannot be with the second party. Never. Even if they will say that we will make it paradise. Never. From my childhood, I know this, I will not change.

In an Arab country, they don’t believe there is democracy. It’s like a kingdom. Even if they say that it’s a presidential system or republican system, it’s not. As a people need to understand that it’s a kingdom, not a democracy. We must accept it. But some people they say “Why? Why his son? I don’t know.”

Americans, you have this democratic system. You have two parties, but sometimes you feel that it’s only a joke. That there is somebody who’s ruling, somebody else ruling. Maybe money, maybe companies. Maybe you feel like this.

 I don’t feel the difference. I don’t feel that I am different. For example, when I go to doctor, when I go in metro, of course they look at me like I am foreigner, yes. But when I speak, because I speak a little Czech, they are normal. They understand me. I don’t speak 100 percent Czech, I speak like 70 percent but they accept me. I don’t have any problem. Anywhere where I go, I don’t have any problem.


What about Czech beer, do you like it?

I don’t drink alcohol because I am Muslim.


Do you practice here?

Yes. Like if you are Christian you can go to church here and you can go in your country. It’s something personal.


How’s the Muslim community in the Czech Republic?

Small, very small. Very small community. It’s not united because, for example: Jews everywhere have a community. Arab people, they are not the same. Even if they speak the same language, even if they have the same religion, they are not united.  A Syrian is different than an Algerian, completely different. If I stay with an Algerian, in five minutes we don’t understand each other. They have a different mentality.

But if I see Arab woman or Arab man having problem in the street, I go immediately and help them. Without thinking. Only if I know that he is Arab or Muslim or like this. If see American family they need help, I will wait until they ask me because sometimes they think that I am interfering. You see? For Arabs it’s understood that if I see the problem, I will come to help. But for maybe with Americans or Czechs, I need to wait for the signal to help.

I want to tell you that we stick together in when it comes to problems.


Even away from home you still feel that connection here?

Yes. I feel this. For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s Muslim or Christian or Jewish or whatever. I am ready to help any people. But with Muslims, immediately I can interfere. In the metro, for example, I see people, Arabs, looking for where to go. Immediately I go to them to see if they need any help. But if I see an American or Czech, if they come to ask me, ok. But if not, I am not interfering. It’s better.


Do you worry ever about being Muslim in Europe with the recent Anti Muslim movements that have emerged?

For me, I go by metro to my home, and I see Czech people, and say “dobry den, dobry den, (good day, good day)” — nothing. For me, I am not dark. Maybe for some others who are darker than me, maybe they would face a problem in the Czech Republic, but for me, they think that I am Italian or Spanish.

When you speak about Czech extremists, or racists, they hate Gypsies. And when you look similar to Gypsies you can be exposed to the same problems which Gypsies sometimes face here. They say, “we hate Gypsies, we hate Jews, we hate Arabs.” But mainly I think it’s the Arabs who have problems, they are dark, they are similar to Gypsies. That’s why. Here in 1990s there were more problems than now with this racism. But now maybe it exists but I don’t feel it.


Do you ever worry that your children, growing up here, won’t feel Syrian?

I don’t mind if they feel Syrian or not. For me, I prefer if they keep their religion. To remember they are Muslims, what is allowed, what is prohibited. This exists in all religions. All religions are the same. But some people don’t practice. I am not asking them to practice but to remember. When they do anything, to remember.


Valerio Farris is in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development class of 2017. His hometown is Houston, Texas. 


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Categories: Spring 2015 Issue Number 3

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.


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