From Aleppo to Jerusalem

Syrian student Hiba Nagar says it’s hard to be a Muslim in Israel, but her experience at Hadassah College has been overwhelmingly positive.

Syrian student Hiba Nagar in Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Syrian student Hiba Nagar in Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Almost no one in Hiba (Hibtallah) Nagar’s class in Jerusalem had any idea that they had been attending classes with a young woman from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
I met with the 24-year-old Nagar at Hadassah Academic College, where she recently completed a degree in computer science; it has been her home away from home these last few years. Nagar moved to Israel with her entire family, but her mother is currently living in Aleppo with relatives. “I’m afraid that any day something might happen to my mother,” she says in perfect Hebrew.
We are meeting at noon on a particularly hot summer day. Nagar is fasting since it is Ramadan.
She is well-dressed, clad in a hijab.
From the first moment I met Nagar, I was surprised by her readiness to speak openly and without hesitation about her life. Her eyes are full of sorrow but her smile is wide when she speaks of her childhood in Aleppo.
“People there are so warm; relationships between people are much deeper there. When I lived there, we could do anything we wanted. The city pretty much never shut down at night. I could go to the market at 2 a.m., walk through the streets, go see friends.
‘It was simply a paradise for me,” she repeats.
But when we begin to talk about current events in Syria, Nagar’s expression suddenly changes and she withdraws into herself. “Every time I watch the news, I begin to cry,” she says. “It’s very hard for me to see these images.”
I ask Nagar, as someone who grew up in Syria, what she thinks about the Arab Spring. Again, she surprises me with her words. “This is not the way to solve the problems – Muslims should not be fighting against other Muslims. I don’t approve of this at all,” she says, explaining that the way to create a democracy is not by each side killing the other. “[Hosni] Mubarak was Egypt’s president for 30 years, and [Mohamed] Morsi for only one. Why didn’t they give Morsi a chance? They should have given him a chance to prove himself and then made a decision. When people in Israel disagree about something, they protest or speak out. They don’t take to the streets and start killing each other.”
If you haven’t realized by now, Nagar does not support the Syrian rebels. She’s a Sunni Muslim, which is common for someone who grew up in Aleppo. “I support [President] Bashar Assad. When he was ruling Syria [prior to the current civil war], life was much better. There were so many more opportunities,” Nagar says. When I say to her that the Assad family has been ruling Syria for many years, she immediately protests, saying, “The same family has been ruling in Jordan for a very time long too. And Qatar. And Morocco. This is how things are done in the Arab world.”
“My mother is living with her mother and sister in Aleppo,” Nagar says. Of the rebels, she asks, “What do they want? They claim they don’t have enough money and that it’s so hard to make a living, but how is this different from anywhere else around the world? I don’t think the rebels are actually Syrian.
They look more like people from Afghanistan or Pakistan.
“The situation there is terrible. The last time I spoke with my mother was two weeks ago. There’s no work and they don’t always have food to eat. I speak with my mother either on Skype or on Viber.
If the Internet’s up, we manage to talk to each other.
“I’m so worried about my mother,” she says, her voice breaking. “Not one day passes that I don’t worry about her. I have no idea if she’s even still alive.
No one is allowed to leave their home after 5 p.m. The rebels kill anyone on the street after that time.”
NAGAR CAME to Israel via Cyprus. Her first memory from the voyage was when they reached the beach.
She says that things Westerners take for granted are a very big deal from the point of view of a young Syrian.
Meeting Jews in Israel was not much of a surprise for Nagar, though. “A Jewish family lived one floor below us in Aleppo. They left in 2000. We treated them like regular Syrians and they also thought of themselves as Syrians. It’s not like here, where there is such a big difference between Jews and Muslims.
“Here, there is so much racism. It’s not easy to be Muslim in Israel. There are checkpoints and barriers.
I’ve experienced racism at checkpoints and in job interviews. I went to a job interview and I could feel how hesitant they were. It’s not easy for them to see me wearing a hijab.”
Nagar also has plenty of positive things to say about Israel. “I love the air in Jerusalem and in Haifa too. Those are my two favorite places in Israel. And I love that Israel is a democracy. And the Israeli welfare system is also wonderful, the way they take care of people who have nothing, or are sick. This does not exist everywhere, certainly not in the Arab world.”
Nagar says that the only reason she was able to go to college at all was due to government subsidies and the grant she received from Hadassah College.
When she mentions the college, her face lights up. And when she hears the name Yoram Biberman, her department head, she smiles from ear to ear. “He has stood by my side this entire time and helped me with even the smallest details,” she says proudly. This summer, Nagar participated in the commencement ceremony where she was presented with her diploma.
And what about peace? I ask her. “If Bashar steps down, and that’s what will probably happen in the end, there’s a good chance that we will have peace.
A new president, a new way. Maybe. Bashar wanted to make peace with Israel. He really did try. But external constraints always got in the way.”
When I ask her, apropos peace, what she thinks about the Palestinian issue, she squirms, trying to find the appropriate answer. “I don’t know,” she replies. “It’s impossible to go back to [pre-]1967 borders now. These demands are based on ideas that would never work. They say that once there’s peace, all the Arabs will be able to return to their homes, but I don’t think that this is practical. They need to agree to something that will actually work and then implement it. In the meantime, they haven’t succeeded in agreeing about anything.”
When I ask her about her dreams for the future, Nagar says, “I want to form my own computer science company. That’s the field I love.”
She worked on her final school project with another Arab student in her class, and often received assistance from Jewish classmates. “My Jewish classmates treat me like any other student and helped me with anything I needed. The project we developed is an interactive game geared towards five-year-old children with special needs.
The camera detects body movements, which the algorithm then translates into a 3D display.”
In the meantime, Nagar is looking for work. She is concerned about the future, but believes that in the end she will succeed.
Hadassah College president Prof. Bertold Fridlender says, “The Hadassah Academic College is extremely happy that Hiba chose to carry out her studies at our school, and that her integration into the general student population, where Jews, Muslims and Christians all treat each other as equals, has been a huge success. The college made it its goal to grant all students the opportunity to learn, become educated and succeed during and after their studies.
“We offer a large selection of departments, which are headed by top professors and experts in their fields. I am delighted to know that Hiba was guided professionally by department head Dr. Yoram Biberman, as is common in all of our departments.
It is my hope that one day we will be lucky enough to have Hiba join our faculty.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.