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From Iraq to Switzerland – Meet Aya

My name is Aya. I’m 27 years old. I left my home country, Iraq, in 2009 for Syria. Then, we fled Syria for Turkey. We are now settled in Switzerland.

Portrait of Iraqi refugee Aya Abdullah smiling, wearing gold earrings against a black background.
When I was in Iraq, I had a normal childhood. I remember people loving each other and living in peace. I have good memories of where I came from. But when war came to my country, everything changed.

AyaUNHCR supporter

My dad decided to flee because of many events happening at the same time. One of them was when a bomb alert went off at my school. That’s when my dad said, ‘This is enough. We cannot stay here anymore.’

When we left Iraq for Syria, we hoped it would be our final destination and second home. Everything was going well. My siblings and I enrolled in school and, thanks to our language, were able to communicate with the locals.

But unfortunately, the war chased us again, so we had to leave Syria. After first fleeing to Turkey, we finally settled in Switzerland.

Home is where I feel I belong, am welcomed, feel safe and where my family is.

AyaUNHCR supporter

Giving back

Because of everything I’ve been through, I grew up very quickly. I had a responsibility to help my family and my community. In Syria, I was only 14 years old. I became a volunteer to help refugees like me who didn’t know how to integrate. I continued volunteering when I was in Turkey.

Iraqi refugee Aya Abdullah speaking at the Global Refugee Forum.

Credit: © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Then, destiny took me to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, office. When they heard me speaking different languages, they offered me the opportunity to join their team.

I’m grateful for all this, because that’s how I became today’s Aya. If I didn’t go through all of these struggles, I don’t think that I would be the same person I am today. 

When I started working in Turkey, I had this goal to show people that refugees are normal human beings with skills, energy and power — and that they can change the world for the better.

AyaUNHCR supporter

Rebuilding in Switzerland

I was depressed when I first came to Switzerland. I had a lot of psychological things going on because of my past experiences. I thought, ‘no — I cannot make it here. I’m not going to stay in Switzerland.’

Portrait of Iraqi refugee Aya Abdullah speaking at a podium.

Credit: © UNHCR/Jean Marc Ferré

Then suddenly, someone on social media wrote to me saying, ‘Hello, this is Emily. I live in Geneva and want to help. Can we meet?’ We had a cup of coffee — and that gave me the chance to change my life. 

Emily helped me find out what I needed to apply for university. I was accepted, and this year, I will graduate with a double major. This gave me hope that I can stay in Switzerland and have a future here. 

There is this mistaken idea that refugees are looking for a better life and financial situation. But the main reason we flee our countries is to find safety and stay alive — which are essential human rights.

AyaUNHCR supporter

Refugees are like everyone else

I would like people to know that everyone has potential — no matter their status or the identities they didn’t choose. 

I would like people to see me as a young woman trying to create a better future, despite everything I’ve lived through. I want them to see me as someone who is leading a community — not only as a victim.

I’m so proud. Now, I am proving to the world that we do have voices. And thanks to UNHCR and all the organisations working with the refugees: they helped elevate our voices so that we can speak for ourselves.

I feel a responsibility to become a voice for the voiceless and for the millions of refugees around the world who wish to talk about their experiences.

AyaUNHCR supporter

Credit of photos of this story, in order:

© UNHCR/Antoine Tardy

© UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

© UNHCR/Jean Marc Ferré