Cybersecurity expert and comedian Elian Habra is pictured next to the reconstructed Palmyra arch at neimënster. The original Arch of Septimius Severus in Homs was destroyed by Isis in 2015.
Photo: Mike Zenari
Meet the people who add zest to life in Luxembourg in our community spotlight. For this edition, Delano shines the light on Syrians.
Elian Habra likes to see the funny side of things. A cybersecurity expert by day, by night he can often be found doing standup comedy in Luxembourg City. The opening gambit of his set, “I come from Syria, I didn’t have a choice. I’m not sure about you,” is always met with nervous laughter. You can almost hear the audience ask themselves, “is it OK to laugh at the plight of refugees?”.
For Habra, this kind of humour is empowering. “When I make this joke, I’m not saying that we [Syrians] are not good. I’m saying we’re funny, we talk about it and we fix it,” he tells me over lunch. Habra came to Luxembourg from Damascus in 2015 by plane to start a new job and join his wife, who was living in Germany at the time. The easygoing telecommunications graduate had worked two jobs back in Damascus: teaching English and working at a bank.
Finding common ground
While the work in Luxembourg gave him more financial security, he said he struggled to find common ground with his new colleagues. Besides the missed cultural references like movies that never made it to Syria, he received questions that suggested a lack of empathy.
“An interesting question I received from my Luxembourgish teacher, which shocked me, was when we talked about recycling. She asked ‘do you sort or recycle in Syria?’”. Habra explained that there had been a recycling project but after war broke out in 2011 other priorities took over, like finding fuel and food.
Before then, however, Habra’s childhood sounds in many ways similar to that of a Luxembourger. As a boy, he took piano lessons, learned French and was a scout. It was while MCing for a scout talent show that Habra tried out his first jokes, before going on to perform in local bars in 2008.
Outside of the comedy context, Habra was also on Syrian TV, as a talking head on a show about hackers. The exposure earned him the unexpected attention of his uncles who, after seeing the show, dropped off their laptops at Habra’s home uninvited for a free security check. “They didn’t know what I studied until I went on TV. Really?” he laughs.
Five years on, Habra’s life is more stable. He now has a daughter, in his free time he enjoys eating out with friends and he is learning Luxembourgish for the passport. But there are still moments he forgets where he is. “One day, I woke up from a nap [in Luxembourg] and I thought I must iron my shirts! […] It was a habit in Damascus to wake up [in the night] and iron clothes for the next day because the electricity would go down.”
Cycling in Syria
Habra doesn’t miss the power outages, but he does miss the familiarity of Syria and his parents, with whom he speaks twice daily on Skype. He says that Syria has changed in the past five years--the high cost of fuel has given rise to a new cycling movement. It’s also more common to see joggers in the street. “In 10 to 15 years’ time, all of these Syrians who moved to Germany, the US, Canada will bring the values they learned from Europe to their homeland. I believe Syria will have a brighter future,” he says.
Radio presenter Lama Alogli came to Luxembourg to study a master’s in economics. She has since founded a radio show in Arabic, French and English. Photo: Mike Zenari
A brighter future is something that Lama Alogli was striving for when she created the “Salam Show” on Radio Ara in 2016. Alogli arrived in Luxembourg from Syria in 2013 to study a master’s in economics and finance. The transition was challenging. Like Habra, she faced questions. “I met some students who asked ‘do you have university in Syria? Do you have theatre and cinema?’ Oh my God!” As exasperating as it was, Alogli remained patient and, “when the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis happened, I decided to help”.
Having herself experienced and overcome the language barriers, she set out to create an Arabic-language radio programme that would help others. “I decided to provide information. I thought radio was the best way because then you can hear it at home, at work, in the street,” she said. In addition to interviews and features, each show has a five-minute news segment in Arabic.
Alogli also writes up breaking news on the show’s Facebook page. But that is not all. Part of the show explaining the key things to know about her country and culture is conducted in English and French. “I believe that integration should be from both sides. […] That’s why I decided to speak about our country, culture and history so the European people can have something to discuss with refugees.”
The project has been well received, and this year Alogli, who now has dual Syrian-Luxembourg nationality, will extend the show. “My plan is to integrate more people from the Farsi-speaking community and different refugee communities, who really need this information.”
This article was originally published in the March 2020 edition of Delano Magazine.