I interviewed S., a 38 year old woman who left Kurdistan, Iraq back in February 2016. It’s been years since she decided she wanted to leave Iraq, but only 10 months since she finally proceeded with that decision.
Her journey was long and troublesome, lasting 23 days. Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and finally Croatia, where she decided to ask for asylum — a decision she made on the spot, partially because she just wanted her journey to be over. But it’s a decision she says she doesn’t regret. She was first placed in Porin, a former hotel where all asylum seekers are placed, in the capital of Croatia, Zagreb. She spent 6 months in Porin, before moving into an apartment, as her asylum application was approved.
The first part of this interview was done in her apartment.
S. has a passion for cooking, which was obvious from the minute I stepped into her new place. She welcomed me graciously with a traditionally cooked Iraqi dinner. Eating this delicious food opened up a conversation – not only of her past and present but also her future – something that, in her words, back in Iraq didn’t seem likely. When I asked her what exactly was her breaking point, she said that it came down to either death or fleeing.
“I have never known happiness. Constant fear of getting killed and no freedom, especially as a woman. It is no life for anybody. It came down to either dying or leaving, so, in a way, it’s as if I had nothing to lose.”
But still, it was very hard to leave.
“I remember all the people who were traveling with me being very sad. You are leaving everything you have ever known, every tradition behind. Even when you want to leave, you are still leaving everything you know. Your job, friends, family, and instead you are heading into the unknown. Even if you end up really liking your new place, some things will never feel the same… For example, every Friday I would go to my parents’ grave, and now I am unable to do that anymore, and that is very hard for me.
S. is a very open, warm person and it’s hard to believe she went through so much. Her journey started back in February, when she finally decided to leave Iraq, a decision that she says she planned for years.
“For years I’ve been telling my family I will leave for Europe, and they would always laugh at me. Yeah, it felt discouraging, but I knew deep within me my determination was too big not to win.”
Being an open person, she was willing to share everything about her past life in Iraq.
S. was very detailed in her answers, painting vivid pictures with her stories in English, a language she only learned on her journey to Europe. But when asked to describe her life in Iraq, she did so in only one sentence: “It was no life at all.”
Her childhood is dominated by memories of war, as early as age 3, she recalls. I was amazed at how positive and light she seemed. But as soon as we got deeper into the conversation, talking about her life in Iraq, the heaviness of her past was obvious. It was clear that it has left a mark on her.
This is when the conversation got emotionally heavy. She tells me about jeopardy in every area of her hometown in Kurdistan, describing different wars she experienced throughout her earlier life. She tells me about teachers hiding kids in the school basements for the fear of bombs landing on schools.
She knows that part too well because S. herself was an elementary school teacher for 13 years. Talking about her job, she says it’s the only part of her old life she misses. She loves kids, she loved teaching them and she misses them dearly. But she shows no interest in returning to Iraq.
“The only thing I enjoyed about my life in Iraq was my job as a teacher. I love kids and so it brought me great joy to teach them. Sometimes, when I see a school, I remember my job and I just start crying … But I have no interest in ever going back there … That country for me is finished; I am never going back.”
And from what she proceeds to tell me next, it is clear just why.
“It is a war on land, but even more so, a war on women. I had very little control over my own life, simply because I am a woman. Even small decisions, like what I was going to wear, I had no say in.”
She continues talking about freedom. Freedom to wear what she wants, to spend time with people she genuinely wants to spend it with, doing what she wants.
Freedom to not get married to somebody already decided for her by her family.
Not to be defined as less than, solely by being a woman. Something for which she has a constant reminder of as S., when she was a little girl, was forced to undergo female genital mutilation, a practice rooted in gender inequality.
“It is something that before the nineties almost every girl had to go through. I remember joking about it with my elementary school friends, because we had no idea it was a bad thing. In the eyes of people that supported this, every woman was kept as pure as possible, because it prevents you from feeling anything towards a man. And if you hadn’t gone through that process, they believed you were dirty, impure. It was typically done by old ladies, but now the government banned it. I still don’t understand how, my dad being an educated teacher, let his wife take their daughters to these old women to do that to us. It is crazy…”
She doesn’t plan on moving to any other country. When she decided to leave Iraq she had no particular place in mind.
“What attracted me about Europe was freedom. I didn’t really know where exactly I wanted to go, but I remember seeing this different culture on TV, and I wanted to experience it for myself. I wanted to go where women were free to express themselves.”
It is already clear to see that S. is a strong woman with a unique personality…
This is the end of part one of this interview. Part two will be published in the coming days.
Andrea Šmider (22) currently lives in Zagreb, where she studies Social Work at Faculty of Law. After volunteering in a refugee camp, she stayed active in the field of refugee rights through attending different conferences and seminars. The urge to learn more in that field has led her to take part in the project Young Peace Journalists. She hopes to continue in that direction in the upcoming years. Her other interests include reading, spirituality and music.