When Adrián Meléndez, a 35 year old Mexican humanitarian worker, first set foot in a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq in 2013, he thought he had arrived in hell’s mouth.
But this was not the worst he would see.
During the following 12 months, the outflow of men, women and children desperately trying to flee the bloodshed in Syria was so great that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan were filled to bursting point. With little choice, thousands began the perilous journey to Europe – risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean sea.
As the Mediterranean horror unfolded on Mexico’s rolling news channels, with images of hundreds of drowned bodies, Adrián knew he had to do more. It was then when he had his own Eureka moment.
“I was very impressed by the potential of many of the people I had met in the refugee camps. Very talented and educated young people were there, with nothing to do, no jobs, nothing. Just waiting as life passed them by,” Adrián said.
I was very impressed by the potential of many of the people I had met in the refugee camps. Very talented and educated young people were there, with nothing to do, no jobs, nothing. Just waiting as life passed them by.Adrián Meléndez, humanitarian worker
“I thought I had to do something. I thought that organizing student visas and scholarships for them was going to be relatively easy.”
Many of Adrián’s friends thought he was crazy. Despite his best intentions his idea seemed impossible.
But 18 months later, and against all odds, he pulled it off.
Essa Hassan, a 27 year old Syrian, sits at a table smiling generously in the vast green gardens of the Universidad Panamericana, a private university in Aguacalientes, a picturesque town six hours bus ride from Mexico City.
He is the first of 30 students to arrive – thanks to the efforts of Adrián and the organization he founded – Project Habesha. It takes its name from an ancient term of pride used in the Horn of Africa to eliminate the distinction between different tribes and celebrate unity.
“The idea is about giving a chance to young people to finish their studies. Experience shows that investing in education for people who had to flee conflict is a very important element of reconstruction of societies affected by war,” Adrián explains.
Investing in education for people who had to flee conflict is a very important element of reconstruction of societies affected by warAdrián Meléndez, humanitarian worker
Essa smiles as he describes how he will now spend a year in an intensive induction course and studying Spanish. After that, he will take courses on sociology and anthropology, amongst others.
Originally from the town of Marzaf, in north-east Syria, Essa fled the country in March 2012, to escape being forced into military service for the Assad regime.
“Leaving was the only option left for me. I tried to delay the military service by continuing with my University studies but I could not find a Masters in time. I did not have an exact plan. My first priority was to leave and then find a way to survive. It was a mess,” Essa tells me.
He left with just USD 450 and a handful of his favorite books for what he thought was going to be a relatively short trip. That was just over three and a half years ago. He crossed the Syrian border with Turkey and after a few months, moved on to Lebanon. As an educated young man he was able to find work with an international humanitarian organization.
“When I arrived there were around 2,000 refugees and less than two years later there were 100,000 just in the area I worked. It was absolute chaos. There was no education for children, no healthcare, not enough food,” Essa said.
When I arrived there were around 2,000 refugees and less than two years later there were 100,000 just in the area I worked. It was absolute chaos. There was no education for children, no healthcare, not enough food.Essa Hassan, Syrian student in Mexico
With the numbers of people arriving in Lebanon rapidly escalating, life for Syrians became increasingly difficult. Conditions in the refugee camp were harsh with not enough food for all and education was extremely limited. Essa was desperate to improve his studies – he saw no future in Lebanon. It was at this time that he met with Adrián – realizing the young man’s potential Adrián started working on Essa’s case – a student visa could provide an escape route to Mexico.
“At the beginning I thought that it was going to take six months to get all the papers. I thought the situation was all so clear that it was going to be easy but it ended up being a long process. At times, things got very difficult and we thought it was not going to be possible to bring Essa but I was really determined. I could not let him down, he was counting on me,” Adrián said.
Adrián was not willing to take no for an answer. Heading a relentless campaign on behalf of Essa, he knocked on every politician’s door, got celebrities on side and launched a campaign to gather public support for the project.
But time for Essa was quickly running out.
“I had nearly spent all my money and I was running out of options. By November I had lost all hope. All I knew was that going back to Syria was not an option for me,” Essa said.
And finally, there was a break through – all their efforts paid off. The Mexican authorities agreed to provide the Syrian student with a visa and a chance in life.
Latin America’s response to the refugee crisis
Essa is the only Syrian issued with a student visa by Mexico so far. Even though the country has not formally agreed to resettle any refugees yet, many see this as a positive first step.
The move follows initiatives by countries including Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, to provide a legal form of admission to some of the more than four million Syrian refugees currently living in harrowing conditions in overcrowded refugee camps, informal tented settlements and urban areas in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
Essa says he has been adjusting to Mexican life very well so far.
Even though he arrived in Mexico only a few months ago, he can speak enough Spanish to order food, move around the city and make new friends.
Essa does not yet know whether he wants to settle permanently in Mexico. But after three years of uncertainty he now at least has some respite.
“I want to continue with my studies, to continue preparing myself for the future.”
I want to continue with my studies, to continue preparing myself for the future.Essa Hassan
Bouyed by his success, Adrián is already working on trying to bring the other 29 students who have been carefully selected as part of the project.
“The most important thing about this project is to show that anybody can do something to help. Since Essa arrived in Mexico we have received messages from people on Ecuador and Costa Rica who want to do the same so there’s definitely hope.”
This story was originally published in Newsweek