“I was once crossing the road in Damascus, and I went back for a sandwich when a car bomb exploded”
Danial Hasan had never seen his father cry, but now, as he prepared to cross the border from Syria to Lebanon the man he’d known all his life as being self-controlled and strong broke down in tears. He was leaving for a better life.
Danial is a Weekend Junior Operations Manager at Kiwi.com. He is softly spoken, with a wide smile and a great, booming laugh. Danial has a reputation as being one of the friendliest and hardest-working people in the company.
He grew up in Syria’s capital, Damascus and had known the country as a developing, but happy and safe place. The country was beautiful, the food was outstanding, and the people were friendly. He was an excellent student, perhaps the best, and dreamed of helping others.
Then, in December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in a market in Tunisia sparking a wave of protests across the Arab world. In Syria, 4,000 kilometres away, dissidents and those driven from their farms by drought took to the streets. By early 2011, Syria had fallen into deep, terribly violent crisis.
“I was once crossing the road in Damascus, and I went back for a sandwich when a car bomb exploded,” Danial says. “If I hadn’t changed my mind I would have been killed or injured. I went outside the shop, and there was all this dust, people screaming and running, fire and the bodies lying on the ground.”
On another occasion, two missiles struck the street in front of him. Danial was not hurt, but he had lost his future. “My family went through the same,” he says. “We got used to the blood. Every day we knew that we might go out and not come back. We knew that this may be the last time that we would see our parents or that they would see us. We had to live through this every day.”
In comparison to Aleppo or Homs, Damascus was relatively safe. Prices rocketed and life was hard, but surviving day-to-day quickly becomes normal. Danial threw himself into his studies. He sped up the rate he was working through his degree, he began an internship in a bank, and he attended English classes. As the conflict spiralled out of control, he started working 16 hours a day between all three.
Danial had spotted a way to escape the war.
He was already an excellent student; now he would make sure he was the very best. He forced himself to come top of the class in every module he took. He knew that his only way out was to receive a scholarship. And in 2014, three years into the conflict, he was accepted to read a Master’s in Finance at Masaryk University in Brno.
There are no scheduled flights from Syria to Europe, so Danial had to make the journey to Beirut in Lebanon. It was too dangerous for his mother and sister to travel the road, so he said his goodbyes in Damascus. Danial says: “At the border, I said goodbye to my brothers and my father. It was one of the moments that I will never forget. My father is a strong guy, he’s a very tough guy. I never saw him cry. He smiles but only when he decides to.”
“At that moment he cried and I just couldn’t help myself. I didn’t want him to see that I am sad, but my heart was crying. I saw his tears for the first time in my life.”
There was a crowd of refugees at the border. Millions have fled the country to the neighbouring nations of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Often, the borders are closed to them and anyone else who tries to get through. Danial knew he had to be smart.
He had dressed in a suit for the occasion and sat in the back seat of a family friend’s car. The friend inched the car through the crowds to the checkpoint, where he explained that “I had a very important meeting in Lebanon”. He said: “We have to go through now. It is critical for all of us and the country.”
Danial says: “When the guard looked at me, he saw the suit and thought I was someone important, and he let me through.”
There were more difficulties to come. Jordan had banned Syrians from entering the country without special permission, even for transit. The news did not reach Danial until he tried to check-in for his flight. He would not be able to board the plane.
Now Danial was stuck with no internet or phone. The friend had family living in Beirut, who provided him with a bed for a night and food. As soon as he could he called his father to discuss his options. Danial’s father thought it would be best to return to Damascus and work on a new plan. But Danial decided to keep going.
He visited a local travel agent the next day and spent most of his budget for the next few months on the first flight to Prague through Turkey. It was to be his first time flying.
Danial learnt a lot about himself on the journey, about how strong he is mentally. He says: “Now I can say, put me in the desert and I will find a way home. Whenever there’s a difficulty, I’m aware that I will get over it. There is always a way.”
“I know exactly what it’s like when I get a passenger stranded at the airport, angry, upset. I know precisely what the feeling is, I understand them completely.”
After arriving in Brno, Danial could not leave the house at night. For the first few months, loud noises and thunder terrified him. It reminded him of the war. It took him a long time for him to relax.
Danial started working at Kiwi.com as a Travel Consultant halfway through his second year at Masaryk. The company was still very young, and he worked from the basement of the old offices. He had been given two days training before he started taking phone calls.
“It was throw him in the water and see if he can swim, and I liked that,” Danial says. “It was the best way to learn. We picked up the skills quickly because we had to. There was no other way to manage the situation.”
Within three months he had been promoted to a Senior Travel Consultant. He was responsible for escalations and taking over the phones when needed. It was at this point that Kiwi.com went through one of its toughest tests. Soon enough, he was promoted again to Team Manager.
A volcano in Bali erupted, sending ash and smoke thousands of metres into the air. Every flight from the island was cancelled and thousands of holidaymakers were stranded. Danial says: “Everyone was calling us, everyone was contacting us whatever way they could, and we didn’t have enough cover.
“It turned into one of the most wonderful experiences we had. We got through it. It was tough, but we got through it. I think that was the moment we realised we could do this. After that anything happens, people got scared, guys, it’s nothing, we can do this. Even if we have five strikes in a day, we know we will find a way through, because we’ve done it before.“
He finishes: “Optimism helps – it’s one of the great secrets of life. If you have this nothing will stop you. It’s not easy to have, but there’s something that my parents raised me to think: tomorrow will be better. The harder you work, the luckier you get.“
“And now, to come to work and to know that I have one of the best jobs in the country doesn’t happen to everyone. Kiwi.com has completely changed the course of my life.”
Perhaps what Danial doesn’t realise that it is his own strength, determination and iron will that has changed the course of his life; that he is in the position he is in because he will never, ever give up trying.