Introducing our Phoenix Fellows:

Lama Sawas

Lama is a 26-year old middle-class girl born in Syria. She went to a public school, went to university, lived a regular life.

These are precisely the words Lama chose when asked to introduce herself. When the war broke loose in 2011, she faced very similar circumstances you must have heard about hundreds of times on the news: dead civilians, mass emigration from the country, abuse by the police. “Every time you went to the university, you had to say goodbye to your family as there was always a possibility you would not come back alive”.

While we can only vaguely picture such circumstances, for most people it was the reality. And still is. This reality meant that many had to leave Syria and eventually Lama was one of them. Having landed first in Qatar and then in Northern Cyprus, she decided her main goal was to continue her studies in Molecular Biology and Genetics that had been interrupted by the war. She graduated from the Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU) with a BSc.

She then came to (South) Cyprus an asylum seeker, which brought her to the Kofinou Reception and Accommodation Center, the refugee camp in Cyprus, for 1 year. “I was alone in the camp, since my family couldn’t come with me. I was surrounded by religious fanatics, drug users. I didn’t feel like I was fitting in there at all. Because I came without my family as a single woman, people thought I was a horrible person, someone who had been kicked out by the family. The accommodation they give you in the camp is substandard: no hygiene, the food was terrible and nobody cared about anything or anyone. I was constantly feeling lonely.  And when you leave the camp from time to time, you feel like you’re being watched. Rumors were circulating around me: a woman without a hijab – probably a slut, “easy to get”. Sometimes I didn’t want to leave my room because people were staring at me and talked about me. One good thing about my life in the camp was that I took part in a communication competition organized by the British Council and won 2nd place”.

While Lama didn’t expect the Cyprus government to simply take care of her with finance, housing and the rest, she just wanted to have a chance to get back on track: get a job, support herself and try to live a normal life any ordinary person lives. Then she found out that her degree she received from EMU wasn’t recognized in Cyprus because of the dispute between the North and the South, which meant she was unable to continue her studies.  “I didn’t want to depend on the government and beg them for money. I wasn’t allowed to leave Cyprus and couldn’t get any job except for cleaning or working on a farm. Yet I found a job in KFC, which helped me survive. I also started to sell my art – expressionistic painting. Later on I got a job at Future Worlds Center – Cyprus Neuroscience & Technology Institute. It’s an NGO, where I teach young children how to code. In addition, I’m working on a project to introduce more tech into education.” 

Eventually Lama came up with an idea of starting a YouTube project aimed to popularize science, mostly biology. Her main idea is to expound on topics of genetics “in a fun way in order to show people that genetics and science are not boring. I have knowledge and I want to transfer it to people, and get them excited about science”.

Lama’s story is already a success story of a woman who escaped war, who is rebuilding her life being independent as much as she can. Her message to people: “Please, try to imagine yourself in a refugee’s situation, when you have no control over your situation, your life. Being a refugee is not a choice. Everyone wants to be safe; everyone wants to be happy. I just want to continue my life, have a future.”

Project Phoenix is currently supporting Lama to produce her YouTube channel by connecting her to mentors with experience in film- and documentary making, social media marketing and other experts in the field. If you want to get involved, please get in touch!

Click here to see Lama’s profile.
Click here to see all our Project Phoenix Entrepreneurs.