Raghdan Alhennawi, a teenager who lived his entire life in the south of Syria, knew of India through a small piece of pottery he kept by his bedside, a gift from a friend who had made a visit to Pune five years ago. As fate would have it, Raghdan went on to become the first Syrian national selected to attend MUWCI in Pune. As of August 2016, the hill became his new home away from Syria’s now five-year-long war.
“I couldn’t believe I was coming to India, and especially to Pune the very place my best friend had told me so much about. Now that I’m here it feels magical to wake up to the sounds of the temple nearby and enjoy the breeze on the top of Internet hill. I can’t believe I am living these moments I had dreamt endlessly about,” Raghdan tells me with a big smile.
Before coming to India, Raghdan lived in a village called Sahwat Balata, near the city of As Suwayda, which is a Druze-majority region and part of government-controlled Syria. “It is considered a safe Syrian city, but the idea of ‘safe’ is meaningless now with this war,” he says with a shrug. “Perhaps here you just have lower chances of being struck by a random rocket or a spiteful bullet”. Indeed, not even a few months ago, a car bomb near the national hospital killed more than a hundred people and sporadic rockets continue to fell villages at a distance from the city centre. “And even if you survive all that, sooner or later you will face food shortage and starvation because of the economic conditions,” Raghdan states matter-of-factly.
Having faced daily hardships of living in a conflict region, Raghdan believes peace is very much the essence of life. “Through these years I have grown to appreciate everything we have in this moment, because in less than a second everything could disappear. There was a time we, my family, would travel to Damascus without worrying about snipers or being kidnapped. In comparison, when I made the trip this time for my visa, I was always tensely listening for explosions or warplanes. It makes me incredibly sad.”
Explaining what being at MUWCI means to him, Raghdan says, “I was looking for a place where I can have the mental calm to figure out who I am, a place where I can understand the world more, where I can think about how my own life can be – must be – purposeful.”
UWC Syria selected just 9 students out of 428 applicants in 2016 – making their selection rate a little over 2% and possibly one of the most competitive in the movement. This was Raghdan’s second application to UWC, and he says last year’s rejection only deepened his understanding of the core UWC ideal. “I realised the UWC experience is not about already being a perfect candidate to be accepted. It is about aiming to be a better person, challenging myself to learn more, to improve myself and learn from every single experience of my life. This realization literally broke all the frameworks of my life. I am motivated to stay humble and ready to learn more, so one day I can be useful, be someone who has purpose.”
And what would a life of purpose look like?
“I think I want to change how women are treated in Syria.” he responds thoughtfully, “I believe women deserve to have their real role in building a new and great society and every single girl has the right to education, and live a life of dignity. Though I don’t know how we can do this yet. I have been thinking a lot about how to build this new consciousness in my country, especially given our current crisis.”
In our frank conversations about the challenges of raising money for his scholarship, Raghdan has convinced me of his resoluteness to make the most of his UWC opportunity. Beyond the impact this scholarship will make on his life path, he will shape the perspectives of UWC peers for whom the war in Syria has seemed troubling but distant.