Welcome to the start of a new series in the FrogBlog. Portraits of Resilience is a series celebrating triumph over adversity, perseverance of the human soul to overcome hurdles in order to achieve personal goals and make dreams come true.
Age is not always a measure of a life well lived or goals achieved, and Abdulsalam Salem Al-Mesbahi is proof of this. At 26, this young man’s journey has been long and full of hurdles that read like a suspense thriller. Born in Yemen amidst civil war, Abdul is the youngest of eight children. Shortly after the peace accord was signed in Jordan between North and South Yemen, Abdul’s father decided to add “Salem” to the name of his son, in the hope that peace would reign over Yemen again, never imagining that peace would take a while to take root in his son’s life as well as his beloved country.
Although neither one of Abdul’s parents ever received formal schooling, they made sure that all eight children did, thus sending all eight of them to private schools in Sanaa, where they all learned English. The language skills and their TOEFL scores were good enough for two older siblings to migrate to the USA, his brother having earned a scholarship for Computer Science at a university in Montana. After graduating High School in 2012, Abdul was eager to join his older siblings, but both of them discouraged him, pointing out that it would no longer be financially sustainable for their father to send and support a third child in the USA.
Faced with the prospect of remaining in Yemen for his university studies, Abdul was frustrated, felt out of place, and saw his opportunities diminishing by the day as the Arab Spring escalated and became more violent by the day. The death of his father curtailed all further plans to travel to the USA, but the siblings rallied together and promised Abdul that they would find a way to support his studies come what may. As the political situation in Yemen crumbled and civil war broke out, it was suggested that he try applying to Germany for university studies instead, which would be far easier to finance rather than the USA. Abdul applied for a student visa, which took 18 months to process and was one of the last visas issued by the German Embassy in Yemen before it closed down.
February 2014, a sobbing Abdul bid farewell to his mother at the airport, to board his very first flight. With only US$ 400 in his pocket, not a word of German, and not knowing a soul in Germany, Abdul questioned the wisdom of his decision and was suddenly overwhelmed by the mountain of uncertainty he faced. Lucky for him, he ran into an old friend at the airport who was studying in Russia at the time and had returned home to Yemen for a brief holiday. It was thanks to this friend that Abdul managed to navigate the airport security and check-in, and they mercifully travelled together to Istanbul, where they parted ways. Continuing onwards on his own to Berlin, Abdul contacted an internet friend whom he knew lived in Berlin, and asked whether he could possibly find it in his heart to meet him at the airport. He had never met this person before, knew nothing about him other than the fact that he was a fellow Yemini. Knowing the risk he was taking by contacting a total stranger, with no guarantees whatsoever, he decided that it might be better to try meet a stranger who knew the ropes of the city rather than stumble around in the dark without speaking German. He poured all his hope into the unknown airport friend, praying that he could probably point him in the right direction, starting with finding a place to stay.
Lo and behold, the kindness of strangers came shining through. Not only did this young man meet Abdul at the airport, he also brought him to his home and offered food and shelter to the inexperienced countryman. Abdul hit the ground running and immediately began looking for language schools to enrol in and learn German. As expected, he was completely overwhelmed by everything in Berlin, the language, culture, food, and worst of all, the horrible Berlin winter. Nevertheless, he ploughed through.
The agreement with the family was that they would support him only for the first year, then he was on his own. The first six months, however, Abdul landed with the wrong crowd, got led down exciting new paths and wanted to try everything, which derailed him from his concentration and pursuit of work and studies. The first applications to interim college were a disaster, as his German and Maths were not good enough, and re-application could only be done in another six months. This was the first of many wake-up calls for Abdul, as he realised that his money was quickly running out. So he became a working student, taking on any possible job that would give him the opportunity, given his lack of language skills. Abdul worked as a newspaper delivery boy, carried boxes and furniture for a relocation company and installed parquet for a flooring company, all back-breaking work that he was not used to. After six months, Abdul had saved up enough money to move into a place of his own, where he drastically cut down his social life, locked himself indoors and concentrated on his studies. By hook or by crook, Abdul had to pass this next entrance exam, because his initial student visa was running out, and unless he was enrolled in a proper university, he would be deported back to Yemen.
Abdul was passed the entrance exam for the University in Hamburg to study Physics, but as per German academic requirements, he first had to go back and complete the German Abitur within one year. After struggling with Physics and realising that this was not the field for him after all, he transferred to Esslingen to begin his studies in Business Informatics.
The first year in Esslingen was a lonely one, as he had no support network or friends there at the time. When his siblings sponsored a short holiday for him to join them in the USA, he grabbed the opportunity to be reunited with family, both of whom had left Yemen long before he did. After 25 days of being surrounded by laughter and the love of family, Abdul returned to Germany and fell into a deep depression, wondering how he was ever going to survive three more years in Esslingen. So it came to pass that transferred to Berlin and re-established contact with his old airport friend.
Berlin offered Abdul much needed stability and grounding, being able to work and study at the same time, self-financing his entire way. He has not seen his siblings in the USA since 2017, but did manage to briefly meet one of his sisters in Turkey whom he had not seen since 2013, and was amused to meet a niece in Paris, who is effectively four years older than him. It was heartbreaking to hear that Abdul has not seen his mother since that fateful day in 2014 when she brought him to the airport, and dreams of traveling back to Yemen in the near future to visit her before it is too late.
Discipline, perseverance and an uncanny resilience have transformed the scared young boy from Sanaa into a self-made man. It was a joy and an honour to celebrate with Abdul when he completed his BA in Business Informatics a couple of weeks ago, and he posed with great pride and joy for the photograph above to tell his story.