Illustration by Alia Wilhelm.

My life in Syria was pretty normal. I lived between my big extended family and a lot of friends. I wanted to go to university to study political science. I had it all planned, until war broke and changed everything.

My dad had to leave us in 2014 as the situation worsened in Damascus, where we lived. It wasn’t safe for my brothers and me to go to school. I had to change schools three times because every school I went to either got surrounded by the army, or the area around it got too involved in the war. The last school was the closest but that doesn’t mean it was the safest. My dad ended up in the UK, and we were so happy to know that he was safe and that eventually we would reunite.

Arriving in the UK, I had great expectations, big hopes and dreams. I thought life would get easier, happier, then gradually go back to normal, but it didn’t. I expected our new neighbors to welcome us with a basket filled with chocolate and their phone numbers in case we ever needed help. I expected to start school immediately, meet people, and make friends, but nothing went that way. I was rejected from three schools and a college as they had no idea how to treat my Syrian GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education). Sometimes the rejection came with a nicely written letter; sometimes it was just mean and harsh. I told them to test me, to test my knowledge, but they weren’t willing. I was given no reason for my rejection, and the only explanation I could find was that I was being stereotyped. People have conscious or unconscious biases against refugees. Maybe because they only know what they have seen in the media, they think that displaced people from Syria are uneducated, but that wasn’t true for me, and I wasn’t even given a chance to prove myself.

After about three months of not interacting with people in my new community, I had the chance to give a speech at an Eid al-Fitr event held by a charity called the Children’s Society. Although my English was only starting to sound normal, I wanted to embrace the opportunity to speak up about my situation and to interact with others. After my speech, one staff member from TCS, Roseann, told me that I sounded amazing and that she would love if I could help them to help other young people. I felt like life had finally opened its doors to me. Roseann was like a light in my darkness. Her words made me believe in myself again, and she made me feel that my work on my language had been effective. I wanted to be helpful, and so I proudly accepted her offer.

I know that it is not always easy to change how you think, but I trust that when people listen to my story, they will understand. Whether through volunteering, speaking with TCS, or even studying, I want to show that refugees want to live normal lives; I want to give back to the country that welcomed me and to the people who helped me. I believe that when people listen to what we have to say with enough compassion, real change becomes possible.

I used to be very nervous and shy about sharing my story—I wasn’t sure how people would react—but so far, I have only been met with care, support, and compassion. Public speaking has helped me build confidence and believe in myself, in my message, and in its effectiveness. It’s made me better at English, and it’s made it easier for me to connect with others—in fact, I am now the one my friends call on to talk to our teachers to ask for extensions. As soon as I get into a discussion with anyone about anything, I start talking with my hands, and then the other person asks, “Are you a public speaker? I could figure it out from the way you move your hands when you talk.” Whoever knows Maya as a friend—in uni, at work, or from a group event—also knows Maya the speaker. But Speaker Maya and Normal Maya are just me.

I can’t represent all refugees, but I can try my best to share my story—as a refugee, yes, but also as a Syrian, a female, a dreamer, a student, an engineer-to-be. Maybe the combination of my identities can even help change someone’s stereotype of a refugee. Gaining a place in university was only my first step, and I feel the pressure to ace my exams not only for myself but to prove that refugees are capable of success. That a refugee can start over from zero, learn a new language, and excel in their education. That you can be anyone in this world and still be a refugee, as it is a living status and not a referendum on whether you’re a good or bad person. I want audiences to recognize what refugees are facing, and learn how to help. I want refugees to be allowed to dream, to think outside the box, and to define our own futures.

In my interviews at potential schools, the admissions officials asked what I wanted to study in university. I always said political science, and that I wanted to work in politics. As soon as I said the word “politics,” the officials would interrupt and say it wasn’t a good fit for me, it would be too hard for me, or that a lot of people struggle with it.

To them, our meetings were insignificant, but I remember them because it made me change my course—for the better. I became enchanted with the view of airplanes departing and landing at Heathrow Airport. I wanted to be in the middle of it. I remember looking at my mom and saying, “That is what I want to do now!” I submitted my application to different universities to study aviation engineering because people call it a “masculine field,” and I think everyone should do what they love regardless of any labels. I enjoyed math and physics, and I knew how few female pilots there are—plus, I’d never heard of a female pilot who was also a refugee.

The idea of becoming a pilot is still new to me. I know I will face a lot of challenges to become one. I know I will face people who stereotype Arab people as unsafe. But hopefully after I put in the work, I will have the ability to access any country. The same respected person just doing her job of flying an airplane will be the same person who was once turned away and underestimated; who was once called an outsider; who was once looked at as a burden by some countries. I am just at the beginning of my journey, and I will do whatever I can to achieve what I want and prove that everything is possible—and, hopefully, inspire other people along the way. ♦

Maya Ghazal is a recipient of the Diana Legacy Award, and an Ambassador for the Children’s Society and supporter of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.