Tamer, Hazem and Zain watch a holiday fireworks display and a parade of catrinas during a Día de muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. They walk calmly among the crowd of people in Aguascalientes historic downtown. With a big smile on their faces, they greet friends they've made over the months with the little Spanish they've picked up along the way. It's not until they start speaking a mix of broken Spanish, English with a heavy accent and Levantine Arabic that you notice that they're not actually locals.
Hazem, the 24 year old who's known for always carrying a camera with him didn't make an exception that night and never put it down during the parade. 28-year-old Tamer has a similar story, but he prefers video photography to stills. And lastly, 23-year-old Zain spent all night whispering things to Tamer as if instructing him when the exact moment was to snap the perfect picture.
These three young men are Syrians who arrived in Mexico between May and June of 2016 from three different cities. They waited for months as the Habesha Project (Proyecto Habesha) helped grant them student visas in Mexico so they could continue their university studies, which had been put on hold in their home country due to the bloody and violent civil war that's ravaged the vast majority of Syria over the past 5 years.
These three men are a group of five Syrians currently studying at the Autonomous University of Aguascalientes where, in addition to learning Spanish, are studying in different fields such as Latin American Modern Art and Literature, a program designed to immerse them in the country's culture and language before continuing with their majors at one of two universities: the Ibero-American University or the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, two of Mexico's most prestigious private universities.
In EL UNIVERSAL's interview with Adrián Meléndez, the project's founder, he shared with us that they want “them to arrive in Aguascalientes where they can create a sort of base, or a team if you will, that can get to know each other and find common ground before sending them to different locations throughout the country. When we started the project, we always felt that arriving in Mexico City directly from Syria would be too chaotic for these young men and Aguascalientes is a very safe, relaxed, easy, clean and conservative city that will help make their transition a lot easier. Once they've completed this process of adapting, they can travel to Mexico City or another state, and once there, they can learn more about Mexico, as well as how to use public transportation, create a routine among many other things.”
But these young people aren't the only ones learning about a culture that's new to them. The Habesha Project holds a weekly event at their main offices in Aguascalientes where they invite people from the community to enjoy films in Arabic. In addition, they've created a series of Arabic courses for locals.
The acceptance of these men by Mexican locals has been overwhelmingly positive. For example, Claudia Mora, an Aguascalientes local, built two apartments on a plot of land that she owns nearby the university where they study and charges them only 500 pesos per month (around 25 dollars). She plans on building more apartments to house future Syrian exchange students.
Zain and Hazem currently live in the apartments. However, Tamer lived in these apartments for a short period of time, and has since decided to find a room in the city's downtown area after Adrián told them they were free to move wherever they wanted. They've since learned how to get around on their own, use public transportation, and despite the civil war raging on in their home countries, they're able to call Mexico their home away from home for the time being.
The Habesha Project initiative aims to bring 30 young Syrians to Mexico on student visas and not as refugees. All candidates are outstanding students who simply want to continue their education. However, progress has been slow not because there aren't people willing to help the young men, but because the students need around 160,000 pesos (8,000 dollars) to be able to make the long journey to Mexico and the Habesha Project has been slow to receive the aid it needs to bring more people.