Muhammad Ali Sammuneh at the Paris Observatory. Photo by Charif Bibi
Muhammad Ali Sammuneh at the Paris Observatory. Photo by Charif Bibi

Muhammad Ali Sammuneh, 45, is an astronomer from Syria who has restarted his life in France. Although he and his family were able to flee the regime of Bashar al-Assad, his future remains uncertain.

We met Muhammad Ali (“like the boxer”, he says) Sammuneh at the Paris Observatory where he now works. He’s of average height, with a soft voice and a kind face. He took us to a small room next to his office. He was able to talk about his difficult past and uncertain future with surprising calm and clarity.

I had no choice: it was escape or die.

When the Syrian civil war  broke out in 2011, Sammuneh had a comfortable life. He was a senior lecturer at an engineering college in Aleppo and also worked at a private surveying firm. He was part of the Syrian middle class. Sammuneh, his wife and their four kids lived comfortably in a 360 square-metre apartment in the western part of the city. “It was so big that the kids could ride their bikes on the balcony,” he told InfoMigrants, looking nostalgic.

Aleppo, in the north of Syria, remained relatively free of violence until July 2012. But then the city was essentially cut in half, with the east falling to rebels and the west, where Sammuneh lived, staying under the regime’s control. Things became increasingly unsafe for them: They were stuck between the regime's bombings, which they could hear from their apartment, and rockets launched by the rebels.

One morning in 2015, Sammuneh’s boss at the college called him into his office. The college had received a letter from the Syrian regime: Sammuneh was being fired because of a “judicial proceeding”. Sammuneh didn’t understand. He had never had any confrontation with the police, and he had never said anything publicly against the Syrian government. But now he was being considered an enemy of the regime.

“I didn’t get mad … I needed to stay calm and keep my self-control because I knew I was being watched by the authorities,” he said. “It was hard to live through that kind of situation because there’s a physical and emotional threat against you.”

After the letter from the government Sammuneh also began threatening phone calls. He had trouble sleeping at night out of fear of being arrested. Finally, he decided he would leave Syria. Only his wife and his parents knew his plan.

“I didn’t have a choice. It was escape or die,” he said.

 I never thought things could happen that way

He left Aleppo and at first fled to Turkey where he got a job as a researcher in Corum, near Ankara. His wife and children were able to follow him there, and Sammuneh got in touch with the French ambassador in Turkey.

“I had an appointment in August 2015 and I received humanitarian protection from the state three months later,” he said.

He was awarded a grant, and managed to get a post at the Paris Observatory. A future seemed open to him.

France was a deliberate choice. Sammuneh knew the country. He had lived there for five years, starting in 1998, while he earned a masters degree from the Paris Observatory and wrote a thesis. His oldest son was born in France in 2002.

“If I was going to leave Syria and move to France it was for my children above all, so that they would be safe,” he says. “Plus, I had ties to the country. I speak the language and I have friends in France.”

In December 2015, the whole family landed at Charles de Gaulle airport. But they didn’t get the warm welcome they were expecting.

“I never thought things would happen the way they did,” Sammuneh says with a sigh. Sammuneh  and his family had barely gotten off the plane when they were stopped by five police officers and taken to an interrogation room.

“It was a very intense half hour. It’s a shame because it gave my kids a bad image of France right after they had arrived.” Sammuneh wasn’t expecting much: “Just a smile. Not for me –  for my kids.”

One of his old French classmates, Florent Deleflie, also an astronomer, was waiting for them at the airport with a box of chocolates. After the interrogation, he was finally able to meet with Sammuneh, whom he hadn’t seen in more than 10 years.

For Sammuneh, it was a difficult moment.

“It was like seeing a shadow fall over my future – for a second time,” he says.

I feel like I’ve abandoned my family

Sammuneh was given refugee status, which allows to live in France for 10 years. But he had to start all over again. And the challenges came quickly. First, he and his family had nowhere to live. They got an apartment thanks to a Franco-Syrian aid group, but it was tiny: 18 square metres for all six of them.

“It wasn’t easy,” Sammuneh said.

Luckily, the Observatory helped them find a bigger place in Bagneux, a suburb of Paris. Sammuneh got some financial support from PAUSE, a government program for exiled scientists.

“Luckily I have a job,” Sammuneh said. But he is not sure what will happen to him at the end of 2017. “My grant will run out and I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says. “I already have to start looking now for work for next year.” Sammuneh is getting used to the idea that he might have to give up being an astronomer in order to find a way to support his family.

But he has things to be happy about. His children are all going to school in France and seem to be adjusting well.

“They’re doing well because they feel like their parents are happy,” Sammuneh says, smiling. He puts on a brave face in front of his kids. But the situation in Syria causes him a lot of pain.

“Syria is like my mother,” he says. “Unfortunately, I think we lost the country that we used to know. Even if the war ends, everything will have to be rebuilt. We can’t go back anytime soon.”

He compares the Syria to Iraq or Afghanistan, and doesn’t see a lot of hope.

“I feel like I’ve abandoned my family.”

By Leslie Carretero

Translated by Avi Davis