Aya: a name that, in Arabic, means “miracle.” For 23-year-old Aya Abdullah, her name is a parallel for her life story. Going through unimaginable traumas as a young child and only later getting the chance to live her dreams, Abdullah has endured more in her life than people twice her age, yet her optimism and compassion emerges unscathed.
In 2015, Brandon Stanton, the creator of the popular photojournalism site Humans of New York (HONY), was travelling in the Middle East spotlighting the stories of Syrian refugees. Abdullah’s and Stanton’s paths crossed when she became an interpreter for Stanton, who, in his free time, asked about her story. The extraordinary nature of her story touched him, and he turned it into an 11-part feature about her on HONY.
The hardships she endured started in her infancy.
“When I was a baby I came very close to dying [from a condition where her body’s water was drying up],” she starts when telling her story to HONY.
The hospital in Iraq that her mother took her to was unable to treat her condition and the staff there told her mother they were going to euthanize Abdullah. Her mother refused to accept this fate and she was brought to Jordan where an American doctor saved her life.
Although Abdullah survived this danger, several years later, after she moved back to Baghdad, war arrived at her doorstep.
“It was like there was blood in the sky,” she recalled.
Her parents tried to comfort her by telling her that while the noises were loud, nothing bad would happen. “In the cartoon shows, the good always wins, so I thought that we were good and nothing would happen to us,” she said, recalling her childhood naivete.
But that naivete was shattered too when her best friend’s home was destroyed in an explosion. “I saw [my best friend] on the ground. She didn’t have any legs and she was screaming and I can still hear that sound now. . .I don’t think it was good for a child to see this,” she told HONY.
The last straw before escaping Iraq came with the death threats from local soldiers who were mad that Abdullah’s father wouldn’t let them use the family home. “I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave my bedroom or my school or my friends. I wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye to anyone,” she remembered. The family left Iraq in the middle of the night—for Syria.
Abdullah called the two years she lived in pre-war Syria the “best two years of [her] life”. She excelled in school, and teachers saw a bright future for her. But then Syria erupted into a brutal civil war, forcing Abdullah and her family to become refugees—again.
As documented on HONY, for years in Turkey she lived in limbo, working as an interpreter for UNHCR and its partner organizations because she couldn’t work any other job or get a degree without citizenship. Some people started being unkind to them as more refugees poured in from the wars in the Middle East and started blaming refugees for all of Turkey’s problems.
Despite her limited opportunities in Turkey and the discrimination she faced, Abdullah made it clear in the interview that she was still able to see the bright sides of her life there.
“In Turkey, I can say that a [big percentage] of people are lovely,. . .helpful, [and] kind,” she insisted. She made many friends in Turkey and was able to go from speaking zero percent of the language to speaking Turkish fluently. She blames the discrimination she faced in Turkey on a tendency of a few people to over-generalize: they see the bad behavior of a few refugees, so they start treating all refugees as if the bad refugees were representative of the entire group.
Meanwhile, the family continued applying for asylum in various countries after their initial bid to resettle in the US was rejected due to unknown security reasons. Abdullah’s lawyers worked tirelessly for zero cost for years to get the family out of their limbo—and last year, their advocacy finally proved fruitful.
Abdullah remembers that she was checking her application status online, and saw that Switzerland was going to be her new home.
“It was shocking, very amazing, and I didn’t believe it when I [saw] it on the website,” she said, as she had previously thought she was going to come to the US only to be rejected later. But then the embassy confirmed the good news.
“I was at work [when I found out]. . .[I was] running around, jumping. . .in place like crazy,” she recalled. Thus, last autumn, Abdullah and her family resettled in Geneva, Switzerland.
Switzerland was more than just an opportunity to pursue the dreams that Abdullah could only imagine in Turkey. In the last post of the HONY series on her, she had described the anguish at the uncertainty surrounding her father’s disappearance and her sisters’ persistent questions about his whereabouts.
“How could he leave all of this on my shoulders?” she had asked in despair. “I can’t handle all of this by myself. I don’t need him to work, or make money, but I need him. I need my Daddy,” she said. Switzerland gave her a happy ending on this front too: she reunited with her father, who had come to Switzerland before the family. And just this past January, her “refugee dog” George joined her there too, after several months living with a different family while the family went through the process of moving the dog to Switzerland.
There was more good news in store for her in her new home. In January, Abdullah was accepted into Webster University in Geneva with a full-ride scholarship. She has since started her first semester there, majoring in international relations.
As a former refugee, she is grateful for her new home, but she has not forgotten the rest of the refugee community. Besides being a full-time undergraduate student, Abdullah is also a youth delegate in the United Nations. While it is a lot of responsibility, she is proud that it “gives [her] a chance to be the voice for the voiceless.”
“I’m a lucky one; I was resettled, but I know there [are many who are not as lucky], and they have no voice. And now I have the chance to be their voice as much as I can,” she asserts.
She and her team of youth delegates—all refugees—want the world’s nations and NGOs to know that they can help make a difference. She wants people to know that refugees are dreamers too just like everyone else, dreamers who yearn to make a difference in the world.
“We don’t want to be only the victims,” she states. “We want to be the game changers. We can do this. . .We are thinking about the answers [to mitigate the refugee crisis]. . .[the situations for refugees] could be better than what’s happening now.”
Being a youth delegate is also a position that requires a lot of empathy, and she is learning to see the larger issue of the refugee crisis from many different lenses—women at risk, children in danger, etc.
“I need to understand and put myself in every situation and try to [understand] what challenges they might face and how they could be solved,” she said of her responsibilities.
Among the results of these youths’ activism was the New York Declaration, which incorporated many of the youth delegates’ recommendations. According to the Refugees and Migrants section of the UN website, the declaration specifies a concrete plan to implement principles around migration, create guidelines for helping vulnerable populations such as unaccompanied minors, and distribute the responsibilities for caring for refugees more equally between various nations’ governments as well as NGOs. They represent commitments by the world to address the myriad of issues that make refugees vulnerable, from gender and sexual violence to the loss of education due to wars and other circumstances. And as a result of her work with the UN, she had the opportunity to attend the World Economic Forum at Davos and speak on a Facebook live session with actress and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett and writer and former refugee JJ Bola, about the issues facing refugees.
Going from war to peace, going from a life put on hold to a life filled with flying colors, Abdullah wants people to know that “after night, there is morning; after darkness, [there is] the light”. “I [have] suffer[ed] a lot,” she says, “but the whole time, I [believed] that after this, it will be better.”
She wants other refugees to know that no matter what happens, “just taking a breath is a hope.” “You are alive. . .that means you can work. . .you can fight for what you want,” she states. Abdullah has a message for those who fear or discriminate against refugees as well: “there is no difference between a refugee and another human being. We are [all] the same.”
“After all [that’s] happened,” she reflects, “[I now] have something very powerful”—the ability to give others hope and to make a difference.