While Yousef’s intellectual curiosity has been rewarded in the Netherlands, it got his entire family in trouble in Syria. In 2012, when Yousef was 11 and about a year had passed since the start of the protests against the regime, armed men from the Mukhabarat, the country’s notorious internal security force, burst into the family home. The problem? The child’s telescope, which he used to look at Mount Qasioun from the dining-room window, was visible from the street, and on that same street was a Mukhabarat office. They suspected that somebody might be spying on them. Inside Yousef’s home, the men shoved his mother aside, confiscated the offending telescope and took all the family’s laptops and mobile phones. Despite his shock and fear, Yousef, not quite understanding fully what was happening, asked one of the men innocently, “When are you giving it back?”
The violent intrusion reinforced what Syrians had been taught for generations under authoritarian rule: The country was not for them. They did not have meaningful rights as citizens of a state. Rather, “Syria is Assad,” as the indoctrination went, and Yousef had already had lessons to that effect in both his history and nationality classes — and in the schoolyard, where students had to line up in the mornings to salute Bashar al-Assad.
It’s a kind of education that he doesn’t miss in the Netherlands. But as different as his life experiences have been from those of his Dutch classmates, Yousef insists that he has more in common with them than not. “I’m an introverted, Syrian-born Gen Z nerd of above-average intelligence living in the Netherlands.” Beyond that, he says, he’s not actually sure who he is — but he’s quick to add that too is a typical Generation Z characteristic.
Though he says he’s not “super into” anything these days, Yousef is working his way through the discography of the Australian rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and reading a lot of Japanese comic books. He tries to ignore the news out of Syria and confine his fretting to things closer to home, like whether he’s genetically bound to lose his hair, which he wears long now, usually pulled back at the neck. He also jokes that it is a “great injustice” that he can’t grow an even beard — something he’s wanted to do for a long time. “If I let my beard grow out,” he says, “I’ll just look Amish.”
While he does acknowledge the gravity of what happened to him, he says knowing at the time that it wasn’t permanent and knowing now that he’ll soon acquire Dutch citizenship (and the opportunities and freedom of movement it offers) has mitigated any lingering bitterness. Nor does he think there’s anyone to blame for what happened to his family. “Blame the Man?” he asks rhetorically. “But no, the world is more complicated than that. You can’t blame anyone.”
His sister Souad, who lives a few hours away in Amsterdam, thinks that Yousef doesn’t want to give too much weight to his hardships because he doesn’t want to be seen as a refugee. “It is hard to accept it’s a part of who you are,” she says. “He can be uncomfortable, but he’s not ashamed of being from Syria.” Besides, as Yousef sees it, others have it much worse, and on balance, he thinks he got to be a kid, at least for a while. “What’s more important,” he says, “is that a lot don’t.”