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EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian crisis

The Little Chess Master from Yarmouk


"In the future, I want to become a doctor. I would like to go back to Damascus. When I do, I want everything to be as it used to be. I’d like to go back home, where there is no bombing nor shooting."

Huthayfa, 14*, is a Palestine refugee from Syria. Like many Palestine refugees, Huthayfa and his family fled the war when the camp they lived in, in Yarmouk, was bombed. “Before the war, we were living in Yarmouk camp with our family, our friends and neighbours and everyone was close. We would go out and play with the other kids. We were all like a family,” he explains. “When the war broke out we stayed at the camp in the beginning (because it was still safe)... until a bomb fell right in front of our house. We got really scared so we decided to leave in a hurry and we didn’t even take anything with us. That was in 2012.”

Huthayfa and his family settled in Shatila, Lebanon. At first, they really struggled, living in poor conditions and in an overcrowded camp. “When we first got to Lebanon, we were strangers. We didn't know anybody. We barely had anything. The room we were renting was empty but slowly things got better and we bought things for the house”. Luckily Huthayfa was able to enrol in an UNRWA school, supported by the EU via the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syria Crisis, and after a rocky start, he proved to be a brilliant student: “When we got there, UNRWA facilitated our entry to schools. I had some difficulties at the beginning but I worked hard and became top of my class.”

Huthayfa narrates his difficult beginnings: “Here, in this camp, it was the first time we washed with salty water. The electricity also goes off a lot. Life in Syria was much more beautiful.”

But Huthayfa is a determined teenager. Even though he lost valuable years of schooling as a consequence of the war, the bright and studious child is now back to school, thanks to Trust Fund-supported UNRWA schools in Lebanon.

Huthayfa is determined and focused on making a change: “I took up third grade mid-way. It was a bit difficult in the beginning, but then I quickly coped. Everything went well. And now I’m in the seventh grade and I’m top of my class.”

Huthayfa is now a popular teenager, with a wide horizon of future opportunities opening up before him. He shares his time between his two passions: studying to become a doctor and playing chess.

Playing chess was a way for him to cope and adapt to his new reality and it became a passion he shared with his father. “When we first came to Lebanon, we were beginners. We didn’t have friends; we only went from home to school and back. So, I started playing chess with my father a lot. After a while, I improved. Then I won prizes and medals.”

We reached out to Huthayfa in March 2021 once again, to check on his progress, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Syria war.

Huthayfa’s dream is to become a doctor. However, it is complicated for him to get accepted in a Lebanese university unless he gets a grant: “I would like to study medicine hopefully. I would like to study abroad because it's not easy to get into universities here in Lebanon [...]. But if I get the chance to study abroad, I would definitely seize it.”

His father is currently unemployed and, while he holds out hope to someday return to Syria, he knows that it is impossible for the moment. Despite the difficult situation in Lebanon, it is safer for them to remain there. “It’s hard to settle down properly in Lebanon, especially because of the situation now and the living conditions are hard for everyone, including Lebanese people. If we get a chance to go back to Syria in the future, we would. [...] For the moment, it's better for us to stay here,” says Huthayfa’s father.

He concludes by speaking about his son and how he evolved to become the bright young man he is today. “When we first got here, Huthayfa was really young... he was 8 years old. He pretty much grew up in Lebanon.  He adapted really well, has friends and is doing great in school. It was difficult for him in the beginning but he worked really hard. His personality changed, we can see the difference. The most important thing is for him to keep studying so he can have a good future.”

*at the time of the first interview, in March 2018.