Mahmoud Al-Abdallah is 18 years old and from Damascus in Syria. He now lives in Vienna.
I'm from a big family. I have eight brothers and sisters so, growing up in Syria, I was always surrounded by family and friends. When war broke out in my home country, my family wanted me to quit school. They were scared, because the strongest boys at school were likely to be sent away to fight. I didn't want to stay at home doing nothing, so we made a compromise – I left Damascus and moved to a small town in southern Syria, where I lived with a friend for a few years and went to a new school.
In December 2015, I fled to Austria where my older brother had already been living for three years. Most of my friends either stayed back in Syria or fled to Lebanon. Before I got to Vienna, my brother did his best to prepare me for the cultural differences but still – that was the first time in my life that I felt truly alone. I didn't know anyone except my brother and I really missed home.
I was soon granted asylum, and was very motivated to learn German in order to integrate as quickly as possible. The teachers at my German course were all student volunteers. They were so friendly and we ended up spending a lot of time together – not just during our classes but in our spare time, too. Pretty quickly, my German group became my second family. It was such a heartwarming surprise to see that these people – who had only known me for a few weeks – were so keen to help me adapt to their society.
My two best friends are both Austrian. We met at the German course and I am very grateful for everything they taught me about Austrian culture. Last summer, we went to music festival Donauinselfest together – I'd never seen so many people in the same place, dancing and having fun together.
We also go to a lot of house parties together. To you that might not sound so special, but to me parties are an incredible thing – while back in Syria, I was too young to attend parties with just people my age. The only kind of party I had been to were family gatherings. These days, getting invited to an event where I can meet even more new people always gives me such a lovely feeling of acceptance, of being part of this world that is new to me.
By the way, I'm a practicing Muslim and don't drink alcohol – a fact that none of my Austrian friends have made an issue of. No one tried to force alcohol on me or made me feel less part of the group for not drinking. Quite the opposite – I think our differences strengthen our relationship. If we cook something together, we also make sure there's something with no pork on the table. And in return, I have been introducing my friends to Syrian specialities.
For Easter last year, one of my friends invited me to their parents' house. They gave me some lederhosen and a checked shirt and introduced me to Austrian folk dancing. Unsurprisingly, it was my first time in traditional Austrian dress, and I had the greatest time. We even hid eggs in the garden and went on an Easter egg hunt afterwards.
For my part, I have introduced them to my own cultural celebrations – Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, which are as important to Syrians as Christmas and Easter are to Austrians. We celebrated both together and it was exciting to see everyone join in – when you honour holidays from different cultures, there is basically no end to the party!
My life has changed so drastically since I fled to Austria. It definitely hasn't been easy, and I'm still constantly worried about my family and old friends. But my new friends have made staying in another country a lot nicer and a lot less strange. I can't thank them enough.
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