Yaman Islim: ‘Just a normal person from Syria’

By Olivia Morrison

In his own words, Yaman Islim is ‘just a normal person from Syria who loves living abroad.’

A lover of small cities and nature, Durham was the perfect place for Yaman to commit to his studies. Having completed his undergraduate degree in Economics in Aleppo, Yaman also studied for an MBA in Istanbul. Although comparing the differences between the education systems is difficult, Yaman notes that he was one of about 900 students studying Economics in his first year in Aleppo – that’s three times the amount of students in a first year Economics class at Durham. He also comments that in his lectures in Aleppo and Istanbul, students were expected to receive information but were not expected to discuss ideas and likes the fact that students in Durham are able to debate and discuss what they learn.

Although born to Muslim parents, Yaman does not personally believe in God and says that the events in Syria only confirmed his non-belief. Expanding on this, he tells Palatinate that ‘people have lost their family members and so, it depends on who committed the crime… If you imagine a person that is neutral, and an Islamist kills their family, that person will rebel against the religion. If someone who does not believe in God kills your family, you rebel against them and become an Islamist. People are just rebelling against the other side, no matter the cost.’

He tells us that Islam advocates peace, like all world religions. Does the Qur’an advocate violence? No. Does the Qur’an contain violence? Yes, just like the Bible. Just like all world religions, there will always be a minority that will interpret the scriptures to support their own ideologies.

Yaman describes the beginning of the troubles in Syria simply: After years of oppression, the Syrian people took to the streets to protest against Assad’s regime. Assad responded with violence against peaceful demonstrators. In July 2011, some of the protestors started using shooting back and some of Syrian troops started to defect from the regime’s army to join them. They called themselves the Free Syrian Army and the uprising became a civil war. He says, ‘the peaceful protesters that went into the streets, without arms, asking for a change… I’m with these people, I’ll always be with these people.’

March 2017 will mark the sixth year of the Syrian crisis, and Yaman tells Palatinate that it is hugely important that organisations continue to provide aid to the suffering people of Syria. Delivering aid by ground has proved to be difficult. 80% of UN convoys in Syria are blocked by the Syrian government or delayed. Yet, Yaman questions why the West is not putting more pressure on the Syrian government to allow organisations such as the UN to airlift aid.

On a more local level, the UK government has pledged to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. Charities and aid agencies have argued that the UK is not doing enough for refugees. Indeed, considering that there are around 17,000 students studying at Durham University alone, it could certainly be said that 20,000 is not enough. However, Yaman is very aware of the pressure that welcoming more than 20,000 refugees could put on the UK government and simply states that ‘if the emphasis on welcoming 20,000 refugees will allow the government to spend more money on this 20,000 so that they can integrate them better within the community… that would be great. Having 20,000 that are well integrated is better than having 30,000 or 50,000 that are not integrated at all.’

Expanding on this idea of integration, Yaman is optimistic that successful integration is possible but acknowledges that it will take time. He takes the example of the European Jews that immigrated to the United States following the Holocaust, and notes the anti-Semitism that they experienced when they arrived there. Over 70 years later, Jews are well integrated into American society and particularly in New York. They have held onto their religion and onto their European Jewish traditions and are nevertheless integrated into American society. Moreover, they started businesses, attracted capital and created jobs. He says, ‘if you take the Jews out of New York, New York is no longer New York.’

Yaman hopes that the same will one day be said for the refugees arriving in the UK from countries like Syria. He believes that integration depends on a give and take scenario – that in order for refugees to become integrated into society, there has to be a sense that refugees and natives alike are contributing to society. Personally, he believes that refugees arriving in the UK, for example, should make a conscious effort to adapt to British culture and society yet still hold onto their cultural identity.

With regards to Yaman’s own cultural identity, he tells Palatinate that what it means to be Syrian in his eyes is to be ‘sharing, caring, dedicated and loyal,’ and he believes that he will always carry these qualities with him.

Yaman will graduate with an MSc in Finance and Investment on the 13th January 2017. He tells Palatinate that his year at Durham was ‘amazing,’ and says to the students of Durham: ‘accept the other, as you always did. Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

An inspiring, optimistic and reflected man, Palatinate has no doubt that Yaman Islim is far more than ‘just a normal person from Syria.’


Photograph: Yaman Islim

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