The last Muslim kingdom of Spain is undergoing a revival as a tolerant haven for refugees, as Stephen Starr discovers
Syrians find a home in the land of the Moors
When Ahmad Youssef visited Granada in 2008, he was intrigued. “The Andalusian way of living was something that attracted me,” says Youssef, from Damascus. “Historically, the mix between religions here happened at the most glorious period of Islamic civilisation [more than a millennia ago]. And we share a history going back to the Phoenicians.”
Four years afterwards, the trained dentist found himself starting a new life in southern Spain. Like millions of others, war drove him away from his homeland. When the unrest in Syria gathered steam in late 2012 and rockets started falling on the Damascus district in which he lived, Youssef and his wife Nawal left.
“I was newly married; it was hard to make a living in Damascus, so we decided to move to Granada because I already studied here, and it is the closest to our culture, our way of living,” says Youssef.
Germany and Sweden have long been the most appealing destinations for Syrians and other refugees. But now, despite its troubled economy, a surge of migrants is entering Spain. According to the Mixed Migration Platform, an NGO group, more than 21,000 migrants entered the country “irregularly” in the 10 months to October 31 last year – double that of 2016.
“With this increase, the profile of arrivals has changed, as increasingly people from the Middle East – the majority of whom are Syrians – travel to Spain,” its report found.
As the site of Europe’s last Muslim kingdom under Boabdil, the sultan of Granada, the city has a sense of familiarity for Syrians. And situated at opposite ends of the Mediterranean, Andalusia and Syria have much in common, with their dry, hot summers and cool winters, vast expanses of olive groves and karst topography.
The streets of Granada’s Moorish Albaic neighbourhood, a Unesco World Heritage Site, could easily stand in for the pre-war alleyways of central Aleppo or Damascus. This, along with its modern vibe, made the city of 475,000 people an ideal place to settle after the prospect of returning to Syria diminished with the arrival of ISIS.
Although the local economy may not be at its best, people say Syrians are keen to interact. “It’s a unique place in Europe where it’s a plus to be an Arab,” says Youssef, whose two children were born here. “When locals see that you’ve come from a place with a similar history and culture, they want to know and hear from you.”
Much of Spain’s Syrian community arrived before the 2015 exodus of more than a million people in search of refuge across Europe. Nada Rahwan, who once ran a kindergarten in Aleppo, was among them. “I took two of my sons to Lebanon to escape military service and to get out of a climate where their friends were getting killed and detained,” she says.
As life in Aleppo disintegrated and ISIS closed in, a nephew in Granada secured a tourist visa for Nada to visit. “Granada saved me in several ways: I had heart complications from the stress and the doctors here took very good care of me. I find the security and respect are the best aspects about life here,” she says.
In 2013, Youssef rolled the dice and bought the lease of a city centre pension, despite having no previous experience as a hotelier. “I used to stay at the pension when I first came here to study. One day, the people running it, who were getting on in years, asked why I wouldn’t take over the lease,” he says. “I had no idea how to run a hotel and it was a difficult two years for us and for Spain economically, but it’s working well now,” he says.
In January, he also opened the doors of his Syrian-Spanish Cultural Space, 300 metres from Granada’s old city. Named after his mother, who is buried in a cemetery overlooking the Alhambra, it hosts language exchanges, culinary workshops and is a place for locals and Syrians to interact.
"The space provides locals with an alternative image of Syria, one so often associated with suffering and death. We have to try to give the world a sign that we are still here, still shining, that we are not dead as a culture. We cannot surrender to darkness,” says Youssef. “What I have gained personally is that I made the phone number of the space my mother’s number, so now whenever I get a call from there, her name appears. In this way, she’s always with me.”
For Syrians who have made Granada home, the future looks positive. When the city’s Mezquita Mayor or Grand Mosque opened in 2003, it was the first to be built in Spain for more than 500 years, with the support from the UAE and other Arab states. It represents much more than a house of prayer – with pride of place in the Albaicin neighbourhood, it has panoramic views of the Alhambra to the south and is a popular draw for visitors seeking out Granada’s cultural gems.