Wael Qarssifi: "Everyone saying what they think, out of love, is an act of activism"
Q&A: A Syrian refugee journalist in Malaysia on piecing together a life for himself in exile in Kuala Lumpur, and reconciling his feelings for his homeland.
Hello, I’m Emily, and this is a newsletter about how we seek and tell stories to make sense of a rapidly changing world & our personal and collective place in it.
Friends and dear strangers,
I have a guest for you this month. I had read Wael’s journalism on refugees in Malaysia and thought, of course stories about them in Malaysia would greatly benefit from a refugee’s lens, and made a note to reach out for a chat. We spoke about life in Syria and Malaysia, and how he’s beginning to define for himself what being a journalist, who is also a refugee, means. He was candid about many things, some of which we’ve left out here, for privacy and safety reasons. I appreciated seeing Malaysia, my home country, through his eyes; and tried to imagine Syria through his stories, lightly filtered through whatever rolodex of headlines I could recall. It also made me think about the simplest things I take for granted. I had asked Wael to share a personal photograph of Damascus—where he’s from—in this letter, and he said, “Unfortunately, I lost all the photos that I had in Syria. I have to use my memory to remember things about home.”
Before you read on, I should probably add some context on how refugees are regarded in Malaysia. In the past, Malaysia has, for the most part, tacitly allowed refugees to remain in the country, though it refuses to recognise them as such; legally, they are considered “illegal immigrants”. Nearly 180,000 refugees—the vast majority of them Rohingya—hold identity cards from the UNHCR that allow them to stay in Malaysia, and many have managed to find piecemeal and irregular access to employment and education. But their lack of formal status means they are always insecure and subject to the whims of public and political sentiment; they have often been swept up and detained in raids for the undocumented and only released after their status as refugees or asylum seekers is verified—though that’s not something they can always count on. Moreover, the precariousness of their existence has grown a lot worse since the pandemic, along with rising xenophobia in a time of scarcity, as you can read in a piece I wrote before. Refugees of different nationalities also receive unequal treatment—Syrian refugees can ostensibly apply for temporary residence passes that let them to work legally—which does not mean, of course, that things are fair for any of them.
I hope this conversation helps expand the idea of who a “refugee” is: not a definition of a person, not part of a monolithic bloc of suffering, but simply a blunt legal category. And though Wael, who speaks fluent English, may be more relatable to some of us, a refugee need not in fact be anything like us (I’m thinking of an old video where a Syrian refugee girl was interviewed by an American journalist about how much she also loves Star Wars), nor unassailably “good”, to deserve the basic rights anyone requires to secure their own survival and wellbeing in this world.
Emily Ding: Wael, how long have you been in Malaysia?
Wael Qarssifi: I graduated in 2016 and left Syria in October 2017. Like a lot of Syrians, there was just no option for me to stay anymore. The violence was getting worse. I had only two choices in Syria: join the government forces, which was compulsory for every man in the country, or leave. If I stayed, I would be forced to hold up a weapon and fight for the government; or I would be in prison, and I would probably die in prison. I chose to leave.
ED: What was it like for you when you first arrived?
WQ: I still remember the day I made the decision to come here. With a Syrian passport, your travel options are very limited. You have five or six countries that allow you to get a social visit visa on arrival, and one of those countries was Malaysia. I was like, Wow, that’s so far away. All I knew of the country was the Malaysia Truly Asia travel advertisement—we used to see those years ago. They were everywhere on TV. Also, a lot of people had Proton cars; my uncle had a Proton car. It was a good car, especially in Syria where most people can’t buy expensive cars. And we knew of Mahathir: he was famous. I mean, he was a god in the Arab world. People were fed this propaganda that he was the person who built Malaysia into a modern Islamic country, whatever that means. And he stayed prime minister for a very long time. That’s also very Arab, you know, to stay in power for decades. [Laughs.]
So, I spoke to my cousin who had cousins in Malaysia, and they told me more about the country. But I didn’t really have a detailed idea of what the refugee situation is here. My idea was to come to Malaysia and find a job, get on with my life. It all happened in a week. When I arrived I met someone who has since become a very close friend. He helped me rent the room I used to stay in, and he sat down and explained to me the reality in Malaysia. I was like, You mean I can’t find a job here and get a visa? And he’s like, No, that’s not how it works. And he said, I think the best option for someone like you and me is to go to UNHCR and get a refugee card as some form of protection. It was traumatic.
There was this program they were running for Syrian refugees to give them a special permit to stay and work in Malaysia. I applied and they asked me to go for an interview with the immigration department. It was a bizarre experience. They asked me all sorts of questions. After asking some basic details, the officer started asking me, Are you Muslim? I said yes, though I’m agnostic—I mean, you’re not going to tell immigration that, right? Then he asked me what my sect is, Sunni or Shia? I said I’m Sunni. They asked me if anyone in my family is Shia. And I was like, My aunty married a Shia guy. And he was like, Are they planning to come to Malaysia? And I’m like, No, they are never coming here. Then he asked me, Do you pray? I said, I go to Friday prayer, but I don’t pray five times a day. And I remember I was wearing this bracelet my cousin made for me before I left Syria—that little boy, he really loved me. It was a colourful bracelet, and I never removed it. And the official was like, Is this LGBTQ bracelet? And I was like, No, it’s just a bracelet my cousin made.
Two months later, I found out they refused my application, and they didn’t provide any reasons. It was strange. I just didn’t know what the criteria was. I appealed and they rejected my application again. I was like, Can I know at least what the reasoning is? And they didn’t respond.
ED: Yes, that unbudging wall of bureaucracy seems to be a familiar story here. Let’s backtrack a little bit. What was your experience of the Syrian revolution?
WQ: In 2011, that was when the revolution started. I was detained in 2012 by the security forces without charge. I was eighteen. I didn’t know what I was being accused of, but I think it was the things I was writing on social media against the regime.
I was so lucky they detained me for only twelve days. They took me to court, and the judge brought out a twenty-page document, apparently with my signature on it. When I signed it, it was an empty document. When they first brought it to me in prison, I said, I’m not going to sign the papers. And the guard was like, Okay, then you can go back to your cell. And he kept doing the same thing over the next few days. He told me, You know, I can keep doing this, for two months, three months—I don’t mind. The faster you sign, the faster you’ll get out of here. So, I signed it.
In the end, there were all kinds of charges on it, like incitement against the president, promoting violence, and crowdfunding for terrorism. I remember the judge smiled at me and was like, You did all this? And I was like, I don’t even know what I signed on. And then he asked me to take my shirt off, because he wanted to see if there were any torture marks on my body. There were. Then he released me the same day. He dismissed all the charges. This was back in 2012, when people still had the chance to be brought to a court.
ED: And what happened after? Between then and 2017, when you left for Malaysia, what was life like in Syria?
WQ: I spent those years in anxiety. There’s a government body called the National Union of Syrian Students inside universities run by the national intelligence service. So, many students work with the intelligence, and they’re around you all the time. They monitor you. For years I was left without any freedom of speech. Whenever I wanted to write something, I had to write it very subtly. I couldn’t talk directly about what was happening. It was very complicated.
ED: And when they arrested you, it was at your home?
WQ: They arrested me in college. Because, I mean, they are there. They control the university. They arrested me and my friend and many others. In two days, they arrested around twenty-two people.
ED: You said you had to be indirect about how you wrote things. Were you talking about your journalism, or personal posts on social media?
WQ: It’s only lately that I’ve started thinking of myself as a journalist. All the time, I thought of myself as just an ordinary person, a concerned person, who comments on things that are happening. I mean, I studied journalism and worked in journalism, but I always thought that even if I hadn’t, I would still find the space and time to comment and write about what is happening around me. Because I just have this urge and feeling of responsibility that, when I see something that is unfair, I need to let other people know too, you know? Even if a restaurant is exploiting their workers and I know of it, others must know too, I can’t just ignore it and keep quiet and keep living my life. I’ve always felt this, even as a teenager.
ED: What changed? What made you start thinking of yourself as a journalist?
WQ: Maybe I never thought of myself as a journalist until lately because I didn’t want to box myself in. But then, I was looking at the refugee situation in Malaysia and I realised that I was privileged enough to get a good education and to speak English well. As a refugee myself, I have access to the refugee communities; at the same time, I have connections with journalists. And I thought I could be a connection between the two. Because of that, I realised there’s a huge responsibility there and I should stand up for them.
Basically, that’s what a journalist is, right? You’re seeing what’s happening in the society around you and taking it to a broader audience. And I realised that calling myself a journalist doesn’t mean boxing myself into anything. It just gives me more responsibility. I still do things many journalists don’t do, like being very opinionated about things. Your opinion is yours, and you can find out you’re wrong later and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m fine being wrong about some things. And I don’t think that has a negative effect on the quality of work that I do.
ED: The idea of “neutrality” or “objectivity” is also changing a little in journalism these days, with so much in the world that is wrong. Some journalists are more openly activists, for instance…
WQ: Yes, though I would never chase the classic definition of activism. I don’t believe in most of it. It falls into many traps of having a saviour complex. But again, I believe that everyone saying what they think, out of love, is an act of activism. If you see something unfair and you call it out, that’s activism for me. You don’t have to be an activist to do that. And as a journalist, when you speak out, it doesn’t mean you’re being an activist. I mean, journalists are just humans, right? We have opinions. We feel anger. Sometimes we say bad words. When someone says something racist and xenophobic, sometimes you get angry, you get frustrated. What’s wrong with expressing ourselves?
ED: Was there a specific event that made you embrace calling yourself a journalist more? I guess it was during the pandemic in Malaysia. Was there one thing that stood out to you?
WQ: I remember someone wrote a crazy racist opinion article about the Rohingya refugees. They were calling for the Malaysian government to send them all back, and they used the example of when Mahathir said he was going to shoot Indochinese refugees coming on boats in the seventies. I remember I was shocked that it was published. It’s not just an opinion anymore; it’s incitement of violence against a group of people. The moment I saw it my blood started boiling. I had to write something. I replied to that piece and they published it.
I remember a lot of people saw it and I received around twenty messages from Rohingya refugees here in Malaysia. One of them said, like, Seeing a fellow refugee stand up and say that for us, makes us feel like we are cared for. And just reading that message gave me a great feeling—that, you know, I can do a job, but at the same time I can defend valuable causes. That changed everything for me.
ED: Before that piece, were you already writing and reporting in Malaysia?
WQ: I was working as a freelancer for this Arabic website in Malaysia, writing about current affairs in Malaysia, but their direction is not very political. They mostly cover topics like business; they don’t cover refugee and human rights issues. I need to do work for them to pay my bills, but I’m glad to be able to write for different outlets to discuss human rights issues.
ED: Now that you’ve been in Malaysia for some five years, how has your impression of Malaysia changed from the impression you held before?
WQ: Oh, it has changed drastically. Because, again, in the Arab world, they have a very shallow image of what Malaysia is like. To them, it’s a modern, developed Islamic country. It has the magic mixture a lot of Arabs still dream of: being Islamic and everything that means in this complicated world, and being developed at the same time—you know, like having skyscrapers and trains, tourism and technology, and all that.
But then you come here, and you realise the world “Islamic” is not the way to describe Malaysia at all. Malaysia is a mixture of colours and cultures and races. And then I started reporting on issues in Malaysia and I realised there are some really messed-up things happening here, like racial discrimination. You realise you have to be very sceptical when you use the word democracy to describe Malaysia. The more I live in Malaysia, the more complicated I realise the political situation here is.
ED: So, you’ve been here for five years. How do you see your future? Resettlement to another country is a very difficult process and may never happen, and some refugees have lived here for over two decades. What options do you feel you have?
WQ: It’s interesting to talk about options, because as a refugee, you don’t have those, only uncertainty and limbo. Even simple things, like whenever I want to buy anything for my place, I think three times about it. Is it too heavy? Would it be hard to get rid of if I have to leave suddenly? At the same time, I don’t know if I will ever leave.
It’s just a continuous feeling that you can’t own things because you might leave at any moment. And this extends to your human interactions. Since I came here, I have been so scared of falling in love with someone. Because what if I do, and I have to leave? I can’t keep losing people. I came here and I lost my family. You’re living with this mentality all the time. You can’t build a strong connection to things or places or people. It’s torturous. Like, even with friendships, you’re very hesitant to get closer, to open up to people, because what if I get to know them and they become good friends and then suddenly I have to leave again? You become hesitant about everything.
I always say that I’m a rootless tree. I can’t move because my mobility rights are taken from me. But at the same time, I can’t plant my roots either.
ED: Hearing news from your family back home, how would you describe the situation in Syria now compared to when you left?
WQ: People are living day by day, not just in financial terms, but also mentally. They don’t see anything beyond tomorrow. My mum and dad are retired now, and they have no other option but to… You know, you wake up, spend your day, and eat what you eat today. They try to visit relatives sometimes—if they can, because moving around is really a headache; there’s a continuous fuel crisis and sometimes the whole transport network is paralysed for days. But that’s it. They don’t have the opportunity to dream about anything. You just feel like people are on autopilot mode all the time. It’s the only thing they can do to survive. You’ve just got to finish today and then tomorrow, you can deal with tomorrow.
It’s a dystopia. There are no more battles anymore in most parts of the country, but the inflation is mind-blowing. Like, it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s just comedic, right? When I left Syria, one American dollar was three hundred Syrian pounds. Now one USD is four thousand Syrian pounds. And I hear people here talking about chicken being expensive in Malaysia. I understand it’s a valid concern. I’m not comparing the two, it’s two different worlds. But Syria is now a world unto itself. It has its own laws and physics and when you talk to people there it’s so painful to see how it’s normalised. They have normalised the torture and humiliation they face because they don’t have any other choice.
ED: Do you write about Syria from here?
WQ: I would love to, but I can’t. Because of different family and personal concerns, it’s not safe to say too much when you have family in Syria. I comment sometimes and share things, but I wouldn’t write a piece on Syria, knowing what’s happening. I’m really happy there are a lot of brave journalists who are doing a great job writing about Syria.
When I left Syria, I remember saying things like, I hate this place and I don’t ever want to care about it anymore. The moment I get out, I will never look back. But after months in Malaysia, I was just, again, all over social media, reading the news and calling my family. And I realised that my anger wasn’t the anger of someone who hated their homeland. It was the anger of a child towards a neglectful mother. I was angry that my motherland didn’t care for me. But I love it still. I’m sad that it’s the way it is and I wish I could fix it. You live your life with that hope. But maybe there will come a time when you realise it will never be fixed, and you’ve got to find a way to live with that.
So that’s how I’ve always seen my relationship with Syria. I will always care, I can’t help but care. But, you know, it’s an abusive relationship.
ED: You said that when you logged onto social media after arriving here, everything just came flooding back. How does that feel, actually? You know, physically being away from a place, but still feeling so emotionally involved in it from far away, facilitated by the internet? Even I feel that in relation to Malaysia when I’m abroad, and of course my relationship to my home country is nowhere near as contentious as yours is.
WQ: It just takes a toll on your mental health. You want to work, you want to focus. But the scenes you saw keep playing in the back of your mind. I don’t know if you’re aware, but there was a massacre in Damascus where the Syrian army executed civilians and took videos of it, and they were laughing. When I was working on my story about refugees in the food industry here, those pictures kept playing in my head. I had so much difficulty doing the story at the time. I couldn’t eat well, I couldn’t sleep well.
It felt most painful when I was watching the news and reading things that were happening and I was this close to crying, and people around here were just discussing a TV show or the new iPhone 12 or, you know, wanting to go to town on the weekend. And I was like, there were children slaughtered in an airstrike yesterday. Like, we’re here sitting drinking tea, or a matcha latte [laughs], while some child is dying somewhere else. We don’t know about it, we might never know about it. And rightfully, you can’t blame people for not knowing. Even if they knew, but didn’t care, you can’t force them to care. It’s normal. You can’t care about everything or you would go crazy, you wouldn’t be able to live your life. You get desensitised to the news. That’s what humans do to survive.
But one thing, too, is that even your own people inside your country start depriving you of your right to comment on things happening there. Because you are outside and privileged. Of course, I am. I don’t see privilege as a stigma, and it should be acknowledged. But sometimes you just want to explain, I’m saying this because I care, because I’m one of you. Even family members, sometimes when you tell them things, they’re like, You’re not living with us, you don’t feel our pain. But I lived with that pain for seven years. I lost friends. So how can you claim that? I understand that now it’s way worse there, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the right.
ED: I think that’s something that many migrants will understand. There was also some talk on Malaysian social media recently about whether Malaysians who have migrated abroad have the right to criticise the country (my opinion: of course they do), as they’re seen as having defected in self-interest instead of staying to fight a common cause.
What has it been like for you to be a journalist in Malaysia?
WQ: It’s like walking in a field of landmines. First of all, just generally being a journalist in this time of authoritarianism is a big risk. In Malaysia, we’ve seen how the police and the government are calling up journalists and activists on the most ridiculous charges. I mean, it’s just a joke. Then, add to that another layer of being a refugee, a person who is supposed to have no eyes and who is supposed to be silent—they expect you to shut up and just nod your head and be thankful for even being able to have a coffee. You add all those layers and it gets really risky.
The question that I put in my head every time I approach a story is: Is this the one that’s going to get me deported from here? Is this the story that’s going to get me killed if they send me back to Syria? And every time, I think, No, maybe I have one more story before I get deported.
ED: Right. Because you would be in huge trouble if you were sent back to Syria.
WQ: To put it very clearly, I would be dead. In prison for years, or dead.
Some people think, how can you be a refugee and a journalist? It doesn’t make sense for a lot of people, because they have a stereotype of what a refugee is. But maybe because of this reason, I’m safer. That’s why I chose to be out in public about my journalism. I thought, if I tried to hide my identity, but then they found out, it would be a greater risk. I think the best approach for me is to face the authorities, and do it loud and in public.
ED: Actually, what was it like growing up in Syria before the war?
WQ: They were mellow, happy days. We had a very small home because my family was lower middle class. My parents hate to acknowledge that they were poor, but they were poor. [Laughs]. So I grew up in a very small house and maybe that’s the reason I was very close to my family. My relationship with them was always very cosy. I was rebellious all the time. I played with fire. I cut up clothes. I remember one time my uncle, who was studying in Russia, sent my mum this big rare plant from Russia, and I wanted to cut it up—she caught me at the last moment. I used to just mess things up, trying to make sense of the world around me.
Then I started going to school, and school in Syria is a very different story. It’s controlled by the regime, and the education system is full of propaganda. They will destroy your curiosity or any ability to think critically about things, and the teacher just sits and lectures you the whole time. We had a class that we studied from first grade until we graduated college called “National Education”, which is basically propaganda about the president and his son and his other son. It’s about his great words and why he’s a genius, and the party and our nation’s great victories, blah blah blah. It’s comedic. It’s dystopian.
So, you know, I had that lovely childhood, but also the horror of studying in such an education system. Even the schools look like prisons in Syria. They look so gloomy with high walls and uniforms, military salutations every morning.
ED: What were the years leading up to the revolution like for you?
WQ: Most families used to not talk about anything political in front of their children, because Syria was built on fear, you know, ever since the Baath regime came to power in 1963. But as a child I used to hear a lot of things from here and there. When I was a teenager, I had access to books about the modern history and the military and prison torture in Syria. And I realised, this is not what they teach us at school. This country has a big problem.
When the revolution happened, I was just finishing high school and joining college, and I saw the Arab Spring happen. It started in Libya, then Egypt, then Yemen. And I felt we were next. Something is going to happen, right? A lot of young people felt that. Then it happened, the first protest. And I remember watching it on TV, and I was so excited. I remember I told myself, It’s our turn. We have to bring down this regime.
And yeah, as you know, twelve years later it didn’t happen. [Laughs.] But I remember how I felt. I remember the first time I participated in the protests.
ED: When was that?
WQ: In 2011. A lot of protests used to happen in mosques for the reason that in Syria, if you have a gathering of people, you will be arrested. The police and the intelligence will suspect, why are fifty people gathering in one place? So, the only places you could gather were at football stadiums or at mosques.
And one Friday, after prayers, I was tying my shoelaces and suddenly, about fifty young men started protesting and chanting, like, Down with the regime! And I really believed in what they were saying, and I joined in. After half an hour, my dad finally found me—he had been looking for me—and he caught me and took me home. He was like, What, are you trying to kill all of us? Never, ever, do that again. I did that again, but without him knowing.
And yeah, there was huge excitement and hope when the protests started and it was really a civil movement by people of all religions and all races for freedom and democracy, but the regime destroyed it with violence and it changed into what it is today: a civil war. And, you know, violence will lead to other violence, and then it gets really complicated. Then political agendas from different countries came into it, and suddenly the whole world wanted to be involved. I don’t claim to be a political analyst, I don’t claim to have the full picture of what happened in Syria. But for me, the revolution was robbed from our people.
ED: For the sake of a future, you had to leave your parents in Syria. Have you ever had a conversation with them about—I mean, if there was a possibility of getting them out, is that something they would ever consider?
WQ: I would love to have the financial ability to take them somewhere else, but I wouldn’t bring them here. My dad is sixty-four. I’m not going to bring him here as a refugee to be humiliated, you know? As painful as it sounds, I would prefer for him to die in Syria than to go through what I went through in Malaysia. My dad is a very dignified person and he’s very sensitive when it comes to how human beings treat one another. He’s a person who is always respectful of other people, and I would never allow anyone to treat him with disrespect. So, bringing my parents here was never a conversation. I wish I could afford to bring them here for a visit for a month or two. But I would never think of trying to bring them into the life I have here as a refugee.
A note that views and experiences related in these conversations are the speakers’ own. Guest appearances in this newsletter hope to reflect the variety of life in this world.
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