October 23, 2017

Wafaa Abu Elula journeys from refugee camp in Syria to Webster Groves

Webster University International Studies major Wafaa Abu Elula is a Palestinian Syrian. Her home a refugee camp in Damascus. While there, she felt the shaking of bombs being dropped around her home as civil war was breaking out.

She would laugh when she got nervous. It was not until one morning when she was making breakfast that she dropped an egg. The egg broke, and she broke with it.

“Just a simple thing wrong happened, I just exploded and couldn’t handle it anymore,” Abu Elula said.

Abu Elula faced hardships trying to get away from the war. Today, she is forwarding her education at Webster.

Beginnings in Syria

Abu Elula, 22, was born in Uganda in 1994. She is the second oldest of four sisters. She lived there for a couple of years before moving to Yarmouk Camp, a district located in the city of Damascus, the capital of Syria.

SARA BANNOURA / The Journal

SARA BANNOURA / The Journal

Yarmouk Camp was first established in 1957 as an unofficial camp for refugees affected by the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948-49. What started out as tents expanded as the populations did, becoming a full-fledged cities with hospitals and schools.

Abu Elula described Yarmouk Camp as a safe and diverse area, whose population included not only Syrians, but other people living in different countries.

“For me, it’s where I consider home,” Abu Elula said.

During their time in Syria, Abu Elula and her family moved around a lot to different suburbs and remote areas due to her father a doctor. They would still visit Yarmouk Camp, where other family still lived. Her father eventually opened a medical clinic at Yarmouk, and they once again took up personal residence at the camp in 2009.

Around March 2011, news spread of unrest in Syria. There were peaceful protests in Damascus, but the violence did not escalate initially. Abu Elula said she was not involved with the protests because she was Palestinian.

“I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t protest with them,” Abu Elula said. “When it gets that tense, people start saying, ‘You’re Palestinian, you’re not from here. You don’t have the right.’”

What started out as peaceful protests eventually became a concern of safety in 2012. Violence escalated in Syria and civil war broke out as rebel units fought governmental forces for control of different areas. That violence reached Damascus in 2012.

Abu Elula said the apartment she lived in was in a shorter building that was safer than others. She even had family members come to live at their apartment, with at least 35 in one small area.

Her mother would have to accompany her to school for fears of kidnapping. The home would shake from the force of bombs and the sounds of gunfire were heard. The situation unfolding around Abu Elula was one of high stress and there were times where she said she would break down at different times.

From Lebanon to Istanbul

Abu Elula said her father decided it was time for the family to leave, but he had to stay behind for work. The family planned to move to Istanbul in Turkey with a friend from Australia who was living in Syria. To do that, they needed a visa, which would take a long time.

The family moved to a refugee camp for Palestinians in Sadya, Lebanon called Ayn al-Hilweh, which translates to “Eye of the Beauty.” However, Abu Elula said the camp was far from beautiful.

The camp was surrounded by the Lebanese army, living conditions were difficult (small houses, lack of resources, fights breaking out) and no one was allowed to work outside the camp. One of her cousins was killed in that camp because of a fight.

The family moved to Istanbul after four months. Abu Elula, who went to high school in Syria, decided to go straight to work to help out her family. She worked as a make-up artist in a couple of beauty salons. There was a language barrier she had to conquer because she did not speak Turkish. The family eventually moved to their own place.

But life at Istanbul was not easy in other respects. Abu Elula said she was treated like a lesser person because she was Arab. While she was working in the salons, she had to work illegally because she could not get a work permit, despite applying many times. Because of this, she was working 12-hour days 6-days-a-week and was paid less than everyone else.

“To know that you’re being used by everyone and you have no right to speak up, it was frustrating,” Abu Elula said.

Coming to Webster

Abu Elula wanted out of Istanbul. There were two people who were willing to help her accomplish that: Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck.

XUBAYR MAYO PHOTOGRAPHY / Contributed Photo

XUBAYR MAYO PHOTOGRAPHY / Contributed Photo

The couple, who are from the United States, traveled to Syria and have worked in social activism. They founded the Iraqi Student Project, which helped bring war-displaced Iraqi students to the United States to get an education.

Abu Elula first met them while she lived in Damascus. Abu Elula and Kubasak met up once again in Istanbul over coffee to discuss getting out of the city. Getting an education was an ideal option. That’s when she heard of Webster.

Abu Elula worked with Kubasak and Huck to get the student visa, prepared for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and was able to get a scholarship to study at Webster.

Different churches in the Webster Groves stepped up to help pay for Abu Elula’s expenses. One of those churches is Emmanuel Episcopal. Reverend Martha Metzler, the assistant priest, said Abu Elula is a very strong, positive and brave person.

“I think anyone who has had to uproot and find their way under circumstances with the war has to be strong to make it,” Metzler said. “I just respect that a lot.”

Other people within the church are helping Abu Elula out in other ways. Penny Allen, along with her husband Davis, picked up Abu Elula from the airport in Chicago and will be hosting her at their Thanksgiving.

“We tend to have a lot of people from other countries join us for our Thanksgiving meal,” Penny said.

Abu Elula started at Webster this semester. She said coming to Webster was difficult initially. She was learning new things. But the help she has got from the churches and people who helped her get there have made her grateful.

“I would never be here without being helped,” Abu Elula said. “I consider myself lucky to have this opportunity.”

Kubasak said having Abu Elula in the U.S. will open a dialogue about Syrians and will show people coming from Syria are bringing their talents, gifts and education.

“She’s going to enrich our community with her presence and she’ll enrich every American’s life who meets her,” Kubasak said.

Abu Elula has a sister who is currently attending Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. Another sister still lives in Istanbul, getting ready to graduate from school. The rest of her family lives in Sweden. Her father applied for a visa renewal, but Abu Elula was above 18 and considered independent, so she could not join the family.

Abu Elula is always thinking of her home country. She hopes to go back to Yarmouk Camp to help out those feeling the effects of the war. She wants anyone in Syria to know that, if they ever need help, they will get it.

“We’re friendly, we’re welcoming, we help and we have the same hopes and wishes for life,” Abu Elula said.

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