Ehab Ghanem from Syria is an international student studying computer science in Beijing. Photo: Li Ying/GT
Ehab Ghanem walked into the cafe with a briefcase in hand. He ordered a cup of espresso, then sat down beside the casement window facing towards the street and turned on his laptop.
He started reading the materials to get himself prepared for the final exams of the spring session. The young Arabic-looking man was not feeling anxious as he has been doing well in his academic studies.
Ghanem, 23, is among the growing number of international students in Beijing. However, there is something different about him. He comes from Damascus, the capital of Syria, a country that has been in the trauma of harrowing war, death and destruction over the last few years.
"Syria was once the fourth safest country in the world in 1998," said Ghanem, lamenting.
"Maybe Syrian people just have little luck. Now there are too many bad guys and too many bombings in the country."
But as Syrians, we have to try and move on, the man said in fluent Chinese. "I especially appreciate that China has given me an opportunity to live a normal life," he said.
It is estimated that there are approximately 100 Syrians in China. A search for Syrians in China on Facebook yields dozens of users, most of which are self-identified to be located in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities such as Taiyuan in Shanxi Province. There are also some Syrians doing business in Wuhan in Hubei Province and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, according to the Syrians approached by Global Times.
Coming to China
In a war-torn country where peace, safety and development become something that is unachievable, people began to leave.
Ghannem is among the young Syrians who decided to leave. He once wanted to go to Italy but was not given the visa even after he submitted all the documents required.
"I had the passport, education certificate, round-trip tickets and hotel bookings," he said. "I had all the papers, but I was still turned away. And they take in people coming in by small boats from the sea. I felt it was bizarre."
Some of Ghanem's friends managed to go to Germany, Sweden and other European countries. "They became refugees," he said.
Ghanme arrived in China in 2013 and after one year of learning Chinese, he became a college student majoring in Computer Science at the Beijing Institute of Technology. His Chinese name is Yi Ge, literally "brother E," and he has made a lot of friends from different countries. His Chinese friends have helped him a lot in settling down in Beijing.
"It was not easy for me to apply for a Chinese college," he said, adding that Beida and Tsinghua are excellent colleges, and although he liked Tsinghua the tuition fees were more expensive.
The years-long war and destruction have destroyed the economy, with Syrian people's income and living standards dropping dramatically. Thanks to a scholarship, Wael Kikhia is able to continue to study in Taiyuan in Shanxi Province.
Kikhia is earning a master's degree in architecture and urban planning in China. He came to Homs, Syria's third-largest city famous for its architecture - ancient mosques, churches and squares, most of which, however, are now decimated in the bombings.
"China has very beautiful architecture and very important urban constructions; Chinese cities will be very good for me to study," he said.
Syrian Ashraf Ghanem has been living in China for 11 years. He said no matter how long he lives in China, he will go back to Syria one day. Photo: Li Ying/GT
Contact with family members
Despite the war, the Syrian government has been making efforts to restore the social and economic operation. The Internet can work and the social networking sites and chatting apps such as Whatsapp and Facebook are the means Syrians in China use to keep in contact with their family members and friends back in Syria.
Ashraf Ghanem, who has been living in Beijing for 11 years, comes from AL Swida. The man, in his 40s, runs a small training center called AJ-Talent in Beijing, which provides tutorial services in English, piano, arts and makeup to local children in Haidian district. Before this job, he was a manager at an Arabic restaurant in Sanlitun in Chaoyang district.
He considers Beijing his second home. When he came a decade ago, rarely any locals knew about Syria. Now, Syria has been the focus of international affairs.
"The last time I went back to Syria was in August 2015. I stayed there for two months," he said, with his eyebrows furrowed and a frown. "Life there was normal," he said. "But there were a lot of check stops. They are from the Syrian army and many Syrian civilians to maintain the security of Syrian people and to ensure that terrorists do not enter with bombs."
In Ashraf Ghanem's WeChat name there are three little flag stickers - Syria, Russia and China. "We will never forget the countries and people who have helped us a lot," he explained.
In May, the Chinese ambassador to Syria Qi Qianjin and the head of Syrian Department of Planning and International Cooperation Imad Sabouni signed two documents in which China will provide food aid and other humanitarian assistance to Syria as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, according to a report by Xinhua News Agency on May 15.
In June 2016, China donated 1,100 boxes of crop seeds to help Syria restore agricultural production to ease the food crisis in the country, according to a report on people.cn.
For summer vacation, Kikhia plans to go back to Syria to see his family members and friends. As far as his long-term plan goes, he wants to apply for a Ph.D. program in China to further his studies. If the situation in Syria remains unchanged, he will try to find a job in China.
Ehab Ghanem hopes he can find a job in China after graduation. Meanwhile, he is also considering pursuing a master's degree in China or other international universities.
"An international degree may also make me more competitive in China's job market," he said.
"Please give common Syrians a chance. We don't need refugee camps. We are open-minded and diligent in learning and working."
While expats doing business in China can be difficult, Ashraf Ghanem has been trying his best to run his training center. He wants to make a good living in the country on his own.
"I wish that Syrians around the world will all have a good life and someday come back to Syria. I love Beijing and China. But no matter how long I stay in Beijing, one day I will be back," he said.