Munich. February 15th, 2017.
Salma* is what the media calls ‘A Refugee’. In reality she is a 28 years old woman, she has a story, a life, dreams, a lot of humour … She is a complex human-being, with probably a few dark sides and secrets. She is also a trained mechanical engineer.
Salma is Syrian. Her life was, as she puts it, “normal”. She had a job, friends, neighbours, a husband …
She did not seem to want to talk about him. I did not ask.
She moved to Germany 7 months ago with her two children and cannot wait to leave the refugee center and have her own house, cook her own food, make her own decisions…
As scared as she is of her new life, she is impatient to get on with her own journey.
Salma and I have connected very quickly. I am a true believer in women’s ability to connect and engage with each other on a very deep level and with Salma it happened naturally. She spotted me first. To be honest, you do not need much effort to spot the “foreigner” when I am with a German crowd.
“I am Salma! You are Moroccan, no?” She was happy to speak Arabic again! She was also a bit concerned about our chat! Four times she asked whether my “colleagues” were ok with me speaking Arabic to her!
She has two children: a boy and a girl. Her boy did not leave her side that day. She told me later that he has panic attacks if she is not next to him.
“He is not ready to go to school yet!” she laughs and adds: “OK! I am not ready to send him to school yet!”
When they left Syria, he was four and she was heavily pregnant. This little boy has seen and went through a lot.
“Being a refugee is hard but it is harder when you are a woman and especially if you are a mother. You must make sure your children are fine. You need to reassure them and keep them safe. When you are scared yourself, it is not easy! It is also hard when you travel as a family. Many things go wrong. There is a lot of tension all the time!!”
She looked at her daughter and said: “I had her in Turkey.”
She asked about my background and I told her that I am a political science major. She said that she doesn’t understand much about politics and called it a scary topic!
Many people in that part of the world are raised to think that politics is a ‘dangerous’ topic. They do not even think it is worth studying, because “all politicians are the same”. I believe that this is the case in most dictatorships. Children grow up hearing horrible stories of kidnapped men and women and shattered lives… Parents tell their children about all those people who have died, disappeared or sacrificed their lives “for nothing”. These stories have been enough to deter an entire generation from getting involved in anything political.
Don’t be fooled, Salma’s political awareness and eloquence are impressive.
“I am a Sunni Muslim. Syria is diverse and we have lived in peace together but in reality, each group’s identity was fashioned in opposition to the other! At least for my generation. We tolerated each other’s existence but never felt united. Identifying as Sunni meant that I was not a Alawi, not a Christian … The regime used those differences to control us! Kind of divide and rule! The regime has maintained those differences for years but when they attacked us they did not differentiate!”
… I know nothing about politics she said! Salma’s reading of the Middle East’s political context is deeper and better structured than a lot of people who are given airtime.
“Of course the situation in Syria now is deplorable. Of course it was better before. We were not bombed in our sleep! But was it good before? No it was not! It is easy to say that it was better before when all you have now is total chaos. We have been afraid for years. Years before the war I mean! As far as I remember, I have always feared something or someone. We are proud people. Syrian women are brave! Our patience and strength can shake mountains. I have never taken part in a demonstration in my life! I regret it now you know! What have I gained from always “walking next to the wall”*? I will always tell my children how beautiful Syria is!”
Talking about the future to someone who must start from scratch is an extremely complicated exercise. We did not even talk about dreams just everyday life.
“I cannot plan anything. I had plans in Syria but they’re all gone! I am in Germany now! I had never left Syria before. I need to learn so many things. They say we are lucky to be here but where to start! I am not even sure I can walk on the street the way I used to! I have no idea how things work here! Where to go and who to ask if I need help. I hear people at the center talking about the importance of integrating and understanding the local culture! But is there a manual for that? I hope things get better in Syria very soon so I can move back with the children before it is too late …”
“What do you mean by too late?”
“What if in a few years they refuse to go back to Syria?”