Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: A journey to freedom, part 2

logo_transparentThis is part 2 of the interview which was done by Andrea Šmider, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. Click here to read part 1.

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We continue our conversation with talking about S.’s new life here, in Croatia, but this time in a different setting. This time we are sitting in a coffee shop, in a local shopping centre. It is quite crowded, and S. is sitting across from me, watching all the people pass by. The first question comes naturally: I ask her about her impression on Croatians.

Her experience with Croatian people, thus far, has been mostly positive, as most of them she met seemed open and friendly.

“Croatian values correlate with my own, and that’s why I like it here. Family, friends and hospitality seem to be as important as they are to me. People that worked with us in Porin I like especially; they are good people.”

She says she enjoys having the freedom to invite her new friends to her apartment, as that’s something she wasn’t allowed to do in Iraq. Most of her time these days, however, is spent on cooking classes, which she attends daily. Apart from working on getting a qualification as a chef, it is also an opportunity for her to bond with people, making new connections and friends .

“I like it there. Everybody is really nice and people seem to really like the food we are making. It really is a chance for me to connect with some like-minded people.”

When she finishes the course she will get a cooking license, after which she hopes to open up a Kurdish restaurant.

“Maybe after working as a chef for couple of years, I can open up my own restaurant serving Kurdish meals. I’m thinking it would be a good idea, as that would be something new for Croatia.”

But of course, there is that dream to be a teacher here in Croatia, something that, for now she says, seems to be only a mere possibility. She seems discouraged by the language barrier. In fact, that is one of the hardest things she finds about her new life in Croatia.

“One of the hardest things here for me is the language. Having a proper Croatian course would really help me learn it faster, which would help my independence as you need to know the language to be able to get any kind of job.”

Interested to know what could improve life for asylum seekers here in Croatia, I ask her to tell me one thing that she feels would help the quality of her own life.

“Well, apart from a language course, I find myself confused with some Croatian traditions and holidays. So what I think would help asylum seekers here is some sort of course where they will be able to learn more about Croatian tradition and customs.”

When asked how else she spends her days here, she mentions one of her hobbies: making traditional Iraqi dresses. She showed me the dresses back in her apartment, when we were doing the first part of the interview. Rather than just describing them to me, she got up and started getting the dresses out of her closet. I was amazed at their beauty – they were all rich in texture and equally vibrant in colour.

“Those dresses are some of the last things I decided to take with me. I left so many of my things in Iraq, because you really have to choose what you are going to bring with you … but I just couldn’t leave them behind.”

S. seems to be a person of many interests, devoting her time and energy to a lot of different things. And so naturally, I’m interested to know how she pictures her life 5 years from now.

“I imagine myself in a nice house, with a good stable job, surrounded by good friends and, of course by that time, I have already learned Croatian. There are too many problems in my country, especially as a woman… I didn’t come here to live a crazy life; I’m not in my twenties anymore and I have no interest in that. I just want my own place and space, where I will be able to recharge my mind, body and soul. I just want my peace.”

I am truly thankful to S. for sharing her story with me, but mostly for making me realize that freedom and equality are the needs of all of us, and whether you have them or not should not depend on where you were born.

I believe that positions of power come with the responsibility to use that power for the betterment of those who don’t. Even though most of us don’t hold powerful political positions, we still can and should use the power that we do have, freedom and equality, to fight for those who need it.

So let us all dare to believe that we CAN make a difference, because, as the famous quote goes, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

As a final question, I asked S. if there was a message she could share with the people of the world, what would it be? And so with that message I am ending this interview.

“When any person is unhappy they want to change their life for the better. And so, my urge to change mine has brought me here to Croatia – I can say my new country that I love and respect. And to every other asylum seeker out there: love and respect the country that opened its doors for you. Even though there are still a lot of things in my life I wish to improve, I can finally say I am happy. Wishing good for everybody.”

 

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.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: A journey to freedom

logo_transparentThe following interview was done by Andrea Šmider, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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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.