By Opinno Editor de MIT Technology Review en español. Marta Sotres.

Wafaa Almala, an engineer, was one of the young refugees granted a scholarship by Camilo José Cela University and Banco Santander to help her settle in Spain. This helping hand has allowed her to rewrite her future and build a new life far from war.

Photo: Wafaa Almala, from Damascus, during her interview in Madrid. Credit: Opinno.


Wafaa Almala arrived from Syria in 2013 without knowing even a word of Spanish. Six years later, aged 29, she has a good enough command of the language to brighten up her waits at bus stops by chatting to older people. “The old people here in Spain talk a lot” she says, laughing. She prefers to look at life optimistically, but admits that it was hard at the start. She lived with her family in various refugee centres barely scraping by, without permission to work and in poor, unsanitary conditions.

But as time goes by, things are getting sorted out little by little: with a combination of her efforts and the support she has received, she’s now rebuilding her present. The young woman is now in the second year of a nursing degree, and she can now only imagine her future being in Spain.

Wafaa is just one of the six million people who have had to flee from Syria, and seven million internally displaced people have been forced to abandon their homes. This war – which has gone on since 2011 – has become the biggest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.

How did you arrive in Spain?

I came as a tourist with my family: my parents, brother and sister, and their partners. It wasn’t the first time my parents had come to visit the country. Spain has a great reputation in Syria thanks to its culture and people. Everything was going well until we got a phone-call from my uncle and aunt over there. They told us that the situation was getting worse by the day, and that we shouldn’t go back.

There had been a chemical attack, and going home would have put our lives at risk. And there was another important reason that made us stay. My brother was at the age that he’d have to do military service – if he went back, he’d have had to join the army ranks. All this together made us start a new life in Madrid.

How did you go about rebuilding your life?

Our first step was to ask for asylum at the Interior Ministry’s Asylum and Refugee Office. They interviewed us, and from there we had to spend a month at the Welcome hostel in Vallecas district. The atmosphere there was bad, and as both my sister and sister-in-law were pregnant we were advised to leave.

We were assigned new destinations: my sister went with her husband to the CAR (Refugee Reception Centre) at Alcobendas. My parents, my brother, his wife, and me, went to the Getafe refugee centre with CEAR (Spanish Refugee Aid Commission) where there were more people in the same situation and – for the most part – immigrants from Africa.

Our stay at the centre was horrendous. It was a cold place to live, it was far away from everything, and the food and sanitary conditions weren’t good. Added to that, the system at the centre was disorganised, the staff seemed lost. They gave the impression of there still not being a plan for how to manage our arrival. My parents lasted eight months and then returned to Syria. My brother and I lasted the full year that we were allowed to be there.

Photo: Before the war broke out in 2011 more than 20 million people lived in Syria. Credit: Pixabay.

Why did your parents leave?

They couldn’t take it anymore. It was worse for them than it was for us – they didn’t speak the language and they couldn’t do anything during the day either. My brother and I used to go out, talk to other people. We went to language classes, but they didn’t, so it was harder for them to adapt.

Then, when I received my resident’s permit (one year and eight months after our arrival) I invited them to come back, and sometime later they got residency. We were together again. But this was later – when we left the centre, things got complicated.

What did you do when you left the refugee centre?

This was the hardest phase of all. For the first six months, CEAR covered all our rent and subsistence costs (it would have been three months if there hadn’t been any pregnant women) for living in an independent flat, but the main issue was that we had to find it ourselves and pay in advance.

I could hardly speak Spanish then, and the whole time I’d been in Spain I hadn’t been allowed to work, the provisional card didn’t allow it. Money was the biggest difficulty, but in the end we managed. When this period was over, life began again for us. My brother and I started work in a factory making Arabic sweets. We were finally independent, and supporting ourselves.

How did you manage to get into university?

In 2016 along with nine other refugees, I was granted a scholarship at Camilo José Cela University to study a four-year degree course. Banco Santander also plays a role in the collaboration agreement, and we could do work placements at their offices. I chose to study nursing, and am now in the second year.

In Syria I’d finished my civil engineering degree, but when I arrived the people I knew here from my country told me there were no jobs, and that I should study something else. A lot of refugees need medical attention – we saw it for ourselves over those early years. I want my studies to help me make a contribution in border regions, either in my country, or wherever there’s a need.

How was the process of adapting?

I still have a lot of difficulties with the language on my degree course, because there are a lot of technical terms, but adapting has been great, the teachers are lovely and so are the students.

Although with the students something surprised me at the start – in Arabic countries when a foreign person arrives we put them in the school and we’re all ready to receive them and guide them through the process. But that hasn’t happened to me here. Yes, they help you, but then they go on their way.

Photo: Wafaa Almala during her nursing work placement at Banco Santander. Credit: LinkedIn.

What did you think of your first experience as a nurse?

Last summer I did my three-month placement at the medical centre at one of the Banco Santander offices. Employees and people who’ve taken out medical insurance with them attended the clinic. I did medical check-ups and it was a great experience as I could apply all the theory I’d been studying. I liked the contact with people.

What do you imagine your future will be like?

My plan changes every day. Sometimes I think I’d like to work in A&E, another day I think I’d like to work with children in paediatrics. I still don’t know exactly what I’ll specialise in. But yes, I’m convinced I’d like to go into the profession in Spain. A lot of my memories of Syria have stayed in Syria. I miss a lot of things but the last two times I’ve travelled there it felt like I was going back to a strange country.

My childhood friends have also had to flee. I don’t recognise anyone there anymore. The atmosphere is different, it’s not the same as the country I left. Now it’s not safe. Crime has increased and there’s organ trafficking. This would’ve been unthinkable a few years ago. Syria used to be a safe country, but now you can’t even walk its streets.