August 23-29, 2018 | Berlin
Hi Wafa, thank you for accepting to share your story with us.
First, we will start talking about the current situation. What kind of housing do you live in here?
I live in a shared apartment with two German girls, very nice ones. And yeah, it’s nice. I’ve been there for a year now after I lived for three years in a like like a student home with like 25 people. So now two people is fantastic.
And how do you spend your time here?
Well, I mean, after COVID, things changed a little bit. But mostly I do work related to my political activism. I was studying and I graduated last May. And after that I decided that I will just dedicate my time to this political activism, which is not paid, but I’m surviving. And so mostly, I mean, I do things I do many different things related to to different topics in Syria. But mainly I focus on the detention and enforced disappearance and also on the now I’m focusing on the deportation to Syria through this campaign called “Syria Not Safe”.
What are some of the things that bring joy?
Oh, this is a tough question. I don’t know what is I mean, joy is. I don’t know. I don’t really. I was discussing when my sister would like a while ago that I don’t even use, like, the word happiness or joy anymore. I think my life is more about, uh, this might sound dark, but it’s more about pain and less pain. Oh, but I’m I’m I’m totally fine with that. When I have days with less pain, then it’s it’s good. But yeah, sometimes are easier, some days are easier. But I know I chose this. I mean, I mean, I didn’t expect the results but I knew they want to be that easy. So I’m living the results of what I chose.
How how has life been since you arrived Europe. And what’s been good about being here? What’s been difficult for you?
Oh, well, I mean, first and foremost, I started studying for a month after I moved to Germany and I already studied in Syria media and journalism for three years. And then I was arrested and I was kicked out of my school and I wasn’t allowed to continue my studies. So when I came to Germany, I studied I did my bachelor’s again from the beginning, and I spent four years doing that and I just finished. So that was good. I also worked in many different fields in research as I fix the journalism. But to be honest, I mean, what is the most important thing to me is that in Berlin I found a space for doing what I want to do. I mean, in Turkey situation was a bit difficult. My my personal situation was more complex. I had to work for like 18 hours a day because I had to support my family financially. And in Syria it was completely different. But for the first time since I fled Syria in Berlin, I had the time and the space to to do political activism and to focus on things that I’ve always wanted to focus on without distraction of, I don’t know, being scared of getting killed or getting arrested or even without I mean, with less pressure when it comes to, like, having to support the family and everything. So and also because I came to Germany alone, so my family, my mom and my sister did not come with me. So that had like that was a difficult situation. I mean, having to to live far from each other is a bit difficult after living together again. And but it also, I guess it gave me a chance to rethink myself and to maybe focus a little bit more on. My loneliness and and thinking about how to deal with it and. Yeah, I mean, yeah, I think there are many good things, I mean, but to be honest, I think that the negative things are not exclusive to Germany, it’s just how things are anywhere outside Syria and far from your family and your loved ones.
Can you describe how living here has made you feel?
To be honest, I think I always say that I was the best version of myself in 2011, 2012 till 2013, which are the years when the revolution took place in Syria. And after in early 2013, I lost one of my best friends who got killed by a shell. And that was pretty hard for me to deal with. And three months after that, my dad got arrested and and we had to flee Syria. And and since that, I guess I felt that I lost myself. And I was I was very depressed. I was in bed for like seven months in Turkey. I, I spent like seven these seven months moving between my bed and the hospital. And I didn’t even I mean I mean, I didn’t even have the luxury to to grieve because after seven months, obviously, we fled Syria with nothing beside our passports. So someone had to go to work. And yeah, it was pretty tough period in Turkey I, I I mean, I reached the point where I felt that, OK, so that’s it, I think I cannot resist anymore. And I thought of like, of course I, I, I thought of killing myself and everything, but it didn’t work. So I thought, OK, since I tried this extreme choice, obviously I the only choice I have left is to fight. But in Germany I found I started to feel that I’m I accepted the fact that I would never be the same version of myself in 2011. But I might be I might create another version that is not not not very sad and not very devastated as the one in Turkey. And I think I’m still working on that. But I, I think I’m there is I can see progress and things doesn’t really get easier with time, but I think I’m getting tougher.
You already mentioned about being far away from your family, but can you describe a bit more? How does being away from the rest of your family/home make you feel? How does the feeling of not belonging/discrimination/stigma impact you? Can you describe?
Well, I mean I mean, usually in Syria, I mean, not only in Syria, but let me talk just about Syria. In Syria, you live with your family and then you you want to go to university to study. So usually many people leave their family house to go to another city to study. And this is what I did. And I was very happy about that, like just being by myself and everything. And and I did. But then the revolution started and then my father got arrested. And when my father got arrested, I was home. So I left my family house in 2008 and my father got arrested in 2013. So these are like seven years more or less that where I lived. I lived by myself and my sister in Damascus, like far from my family house. And then my family house become only like a place that I visit on vacations and stuff. And then my father got arrested and then we lived together again, me and my mom and my sister, my youngest sister, who was 13 when my father got arrested. Oh, and also I have another sister, one year younger, and but she was at the U.S. back back then and she’s still there ,but I mean, the experience of reuniting, under this circumstances of losing our dad and fleeing the country changed our relationship a lot. To be honest, I mean, one of the most one of the things that I feel most guilty about is that period because I collapsed and my mom and my sister, who was only 13, had to deal with my depression and my I don’t know, my devastation. And it was it was it was pretty tough. It was it was tough for them. It was tough for me and. Yeah, I mean, I remember these days and they used that where I just didn’t want to leave the bed, I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. And I think I remember that the only thing that I kept telling my mom and my sister is that. I don’t I don’t I don’t have any reason to live for it, and I remember my mom and this is one, I guess, of the most painful scenes that I have in my memory where I’m in bed and my mom and my sister are sitting next to me and crying and just begging me to just resist and to get up. And I remember once I told my mom that, oh, that somewhere in inside my mind, something of my consciousness is telling me that I should feel guilty and feel bad for her because she’s my mom and she’s crying. But I don’t I feel nothing. And she told me that your father will be released soon and he would not want to see you this way and stuff, and I remember telling her that I don’t. I just I don’t care. I feel nothing. And to be honest, that that that is one of my biggest fears today it’s just to lose this, um, to lose, I don’t know the reasons too stay alive. Um, but I mean, eventually. I got better and then I left my mom and my sister. We stayed three years together and then I had to leave to Germany and yeah, it’s pretty difficult because we are scattered, I mean, at some point I was in Germany, my mom was in Canada, my sister was in Jordan and I had another sister in the US. And I mean, all all Syrian families are scattered all over the world and many, many families from different nationality, from different places. But having to deal with losing a family member in detention without even knowing if he’s alive or not is makes everything even more difficult. Oh. Um, I don’t know, I mean, it’s it’s pretty it’s it’s it’s I don’t I don’t even know how to how to explain that. Sometimes I feel it’s good that we’re not together because each of us are dealing with the situation very differently. I’m more of I mean, in this family, I’m the one who they think that I’m the one who’s struggling more with pain on a daily basis, and I I mean, I dedicated myself to write about my dad every day and to do that. My sisters have different like approaches. Like I have this youngest sister who’s now like 21. And she doesn’t she doesn’t accept talking about my dad at all. Yeah, even if she’s asked about him, she doesn’t say that he’s detent. Yeah, so I think I think sometimes that it’s good that we are far, so we don’t really get to like, you know, like I mean, even when I write something on social media or I think of her and I think that maybe I’m maybe I’m putting so much pressure on her by, like, reminding her that maybe she does, that she just doesn’t want to think about it. And I’ve tried to talk to her about it and stuff. And and I also told her that this is my way. I cannot just I mean, I just thought that I will fight this pain with my memory. So it’s quite difficult. I mean, I miss them and and and sometimes I just feel that I don’t even know what family is anymore and how it feels like. And this is one of the worst things that that that that happened to all Syrians. I guess that, um. Yeah, I mean, I’ve said this before. I mean, with losing my dad mainly, this is the main reason we we are not family anymore. And this might be easy to say and easy to hear, but it’s not easy to live.
Could you ever have imagined that you would have been able to handle this situation?
I mean, I’m not to be honest, I’m not I’m not certain about anything in my life. I think that I’m trying to handle this, but. I don’t know if if there is I mean. What what what detention is about, why why I believe that dictatorships use detention as a tool. Because it breaks people, because it leaves people not only the one they detained, but their family members and their loved ones, they leave them in unsaid uncertainty and that. That is not easy to handle, but I think that still my dad is. As long as my daddy is not here. I will never be sure of anything, I’m just fighting to get some certainty and but I don’t know.
How have you been able to overcome live with it?
I don’t even know if I did overcome anything. I’m just trying. I mean, I’m there is the one the one fixed thing about our stories is that there’s nothing fixed. Nothing is nothing is stable and nothing is fixed. Everything is changing all the time. Sometimes sometimes I’m stronger. Sometimes I’m more like able to resist and to work and to to do things. And sometimes I just. I mean, I just want to stay in bed and cry and, yeah, I mean, last month it was very it was too much for me where I just I just deactivated my accounts and, and just stayed in bed for like three weeks, and I just felt at that point that. Nothing is worth losing my dad and just having to live with this uncertainty and this pain and yeah, and in these days I question everything I did and my dad did. And I just yes. I mean, to some to some extent I even say like. What is anything, even freedom or democracy worth this pain. And, and then the next day I wake up and I believe that it is worth it, and if my dad was here, he wouldn’t want me to say that. So he would have definitely wanted me to fight and to continue. So I do. But it’s not it’s not that easy. And it’s not it’s not like I’m not I’m not I’m not optimistic and I’m not strong all the time. There are ups and downs, but till now I’m managing to continue, I don’t know, till now.
Do you think that you developed the ability to to deal with these challenges, or do you think you always have had those skills, strengths, and mechanism?
Um, well, I mean. I think I’m still. I mean, in some in some in some respect, I am developing mechanisms, coing mechanisms and existing mechanisms, but some things are very difficult to to resist and to deal with. Uhm, but I think that. This is something I will I will be learning till I die. This is not like these are not things that you learn and then you just use even things sometimes. Sometimes mechanisms I learned do not just do not work. I mean, because the triggers are a lot. And with time, the pain is just is growing and things are becoming harder, but I don’t know. I’m trying, I guess, I mean, the only thing that I’m sure of is that I am trying. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but there is no other option. I mean, now after after, after after collapsing and after thinking of committing suicide, then everything, I know that the only option I have left is to fight.
How has COVID-19 affect your life in terms of the life?
Well, I mean I mean, it it it affected my life a lot because I used to I used to do many things outside and the the one the one thing the most. Thing that made me feel better usually is being in the streets and doing some work protests, events and campaigns and stuff and obviously COVID deprived and deprived of us that. So it’s you are now having to do everything online is just making me going crazy. This is on this on on like my activism level. But on a personal level, it’s also, oh, I mean, I couldn’t usually every year I my family and my also my family from Syria, we go to Lebanon to meet up and we got there and stuff. But this year we couldn’t obviously because of COVID and the and it’s it’s very difficult. I mean, now I haven’t seen my mom and my sister for like two years. And it’s it’s a lot. I mean, but. But also on even on a psychological level, it’s it’s pretty difficult to handle, I mean, usually I distract myself by being outside, by working a lot by and now I’m at home and I have to face my thoughts and concerns and fears. And it’s it’s very difficult. I mean, you.
Why did you leave your country? Can you describe what happened?
Yeah, I mean, I think that. Well, yes, what happened is that on the 2nd of July 2013, my father got arrested, not even arrested, but rather forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime in Syria. And one week later, my mom and my younger sister, who was 13 and I myself had to flee the country illegally to Turkey, fearing for our own safety, but also for my dad’s safety. Because in Syria, usually when they arrest someone, especially men, they they usually tend to arrest other family members, especially women, to put pressure on detainees to admit things and to do to say things. And we had this discussion with my dad before he got arrested many times. And he he told me many times that the only thing he wants from me is to flee the country the minute he gets arrested. And also because I was me and my sister were also arrested before in 2011. So we had a record. So it was quite dangerous for us to stay there. And so we had to flee and to be honest. Sometimes I say that even if my dad gets arrested, but I stayed in Syria, I think that things would have been easier. But fleeing Syria, to be honest, broke me very badly because. I just I didn’t want to and I just I felt that I lost everything. And also leaving the country and leaving my dad there wasn’t very easy and still I mean, now I know that I cannot come back, I cannot go back to Syria, but I still after now eight years, I still say that the minute. The minute that is not in power and the minute the situation is better in Syria, I will definitely go back for my dad, but also for myself.
How did that make you feel that they fled the country?
Yeah, I mean, as I said earlier. I felt that I became like like a ghost, I just, the main feeling that I had for three years was that I was empty inside, I was I was nothing. I just I felt nothing. I saw nothing. For three years, I kept just fighting every day just to find one thing. To that makes me that would make me hold on to a life. And and I thought that if I was in Syria, things would have been easier, but still today I still feel that. I still feel that the only place that I belong to is is Syria. I mean, now we talk about global citizenship and we say that home is not about geography. And it might be. But for me, I mean, I don’t belong elsewhere besides Syria. And and and to me, home is about geography because geography is memory in my mind. My memory is there. People I love. Many of them got killed, many of them are detained, but they are there and the best version of myself lived there and the best memories I had, the best the best things I’ve done in my life. We’re in Syria and for Syria, so I defend definitely everything now I do is is about Syria and is about what I had in my heart for this country soil.
How was the journey to Europe? Is there an experience that was particularly difficult that you could tell us about?
Well, I mean, I came by a plane, but I came because I was working in Turkey with a group, a media group like campaigning against ISIS in the city of Raqqa. And and then two members of the group were slaughtered in Turkey in the city of Urfa by ISIS. So the German embassy offered the whole group to come to Germany. I mean, we came by plane, but it wasn’t easy. I mean, I wasn’t I wasn’t very known. I mean, I wasn’t I worked as a reporter as an editor for them. But the situation was was quite crazy. And and in like in two months, we had to to to leave to leave Turkey and come to Germany. And unfortunately, I couldn’t bring my mom and my sister with me. So even the decision to leave them there, and with all consequences, I was the one who’s working, so leaving means that my mom needs to work and my mom, my mom, I mean, it was it was a huge discussion and a huge decision to me to make, but yeah, I mean, it was it was quite difficult, but I think I think we made it.
Do you think about these events often and then is there something in particular you think about it?
Yeah, I mean, obviously, I mean, these events are not something I think about. They shape my life and they they are still shaping my life. And obviously my dad’s disappearance is is something, uh, my whole life is about. Now everything I do and everything I feel and everything I say is is about my dad and his disappearance an. d um, and, you know, I mean, I decided to dedicate my whole life to, to talk about him and I always say that it’s what I’m doing is not I’m not I’m not keeping my father’s memory, but rather his existence because I don’t even I don’t even think that he’s I, I believe that he’s alive and I believe that he will be back. But til then, I’m just trying to introduce him to the world, although I know any introduction of my dad will reduce his significance. But this is the only the only option I have. And I just want people to know my dad and to feel that they they’ve met him before. And I want them to recognize his face, to know what he loves, what music, what TV shows, what politics, what is what I didn’t really like about him. What’s funny incidents happen to us, which is not easy because some people think that I’m that I am somehow that I’m not that I’m adopting my dad’s like existence that that I’m I’m not there anymore and I don’t I don’t really agree with that. I see where does it come from, but even if it’s that, then I’m fine with it. This is what I want to do and. I’ll be I’ll just I’ll keep doing that till he’s back, and then he can talk for himself.
How do you feel when you think about all this?
It’s painful. I mean, every day. Uh I always say that also that I’m now 30 and one day I’ll be 50 or 60. But. I still want my dad back. I mean, every day by the end of the day, when I go to my bed, I’m not 30 anymore. I’m like, I’m six years old. A child who just who cannot understand anything about politics and whatever, who just wants her dad back. And this is this is what I oh … This is the last thing I think about before I go to bed. This is what I dream about. And this is what this is the first thing I mean, I think about when I wake up and every day when I wake up, I, I first say, OK, so today what am I going to say about my dad? What am I get? What what I’m going to tell the world about my dad. And it’s painful. I mean, whatever words I write, whatever photos I post, I post with tears every day, but it, I know that this is what I chose and I know that. But but this all like pain disappears when someone tells me that people that never met me or my dad tells me that, oh, I dreamt about your dad last night. Oh, I know. I feel like some people like say I feel like I know him. I’ve met him before because of everything you say and and this is I mean, this is this is this is this is the only thing I want. I just. I just don’t want people who knew my dad to forget about him, and I know I want just maybe this is crazy, but I just want somehow him to be here. So I take his photo with me wherever I go and yeah, I mean, I talked to him and I, I tell him that, um, yeah, this is Berlin, blah, blah, blah. No, no, no. This is what we went to Copelands together and, um, we visited many places together, and I just, you know, I wish that one day that we can I can visit the same places but with him, not with his photo.
How does the situation you faced affect you today?
Yeah, I mean, on even on a physical level, on. It was very difficult, I mean, as I said, I spent like almost seven months going to the hospital on like weekly basis and till now, my body is not that strong on a psychological level. I don’t know, I’m I think the psychological aspect is the most difficult one, because this trauma is not something from the past, it is still happening, which makes dealing with it very difficult. You know, I don’t know. I will never I guess I feel that I will never know for a year how my dad how my dad’s disappearance affected my life. Because I’m very drown in the pain and the uncertainty and I think the only time I will be able to see that objectively is when my dad is back.
Could you ever have imagined that you would have been able to handle this situation?
No, I still am not sure that till now, many times I felt that I should just, I should just leave this life because I cannot. Because this is too much and yeah, but as you can see, I’m still here. So it seems like I’m still resisting, but I don’t know for the future, to be honest.
How were you able to survive/get through it? Have you created any kind of strategy / coping mechanisms to get through the hard times/difficult memories? Where do you find strength and support?
Did I survive? I don’t know. I’m not sure.
Well, let me say that first survival is one thing that questioned every day. I don’t even know if I survived, and I I think I would never know if I survived. I made this short film about the Holocaust. It was it was by coincidence, but I made this short film about the Holocaust and it, it is about me, my dad, and a little girl who got killed during the Holocaust and in the end of the video, I mean, I just I said that, you know, Primo Levi, who said that it happened, therefore it can happen again. This is the core of what we have to say, but. but Primo Levi survived the Holocaust, and years later, his biographer says that he committed suicide. So, I mean, this is this is this is one thing I think about every day. Did I survive by leaving Syria and not getting killed there? Did I survive? Survival is not something you can be sure of, I guess. But I don’t know.
Before the event that led you to flee home occurred, what was your dream?
To free Syria? Well, I yeah, I, I, I mean, before that, for two years, I, I wasn’t allowed to, I was kicked out of my university. I couldn’t go back to my family home because I was wanted there by security forces and stuff. But I didn’t care. I just, I was, I was twenty four, I’m twenty four. I was just protesting and participating in peaceful activities, thinking with other people how to I don’t know how to change the situation in Syria. And to be honest, this is still obviously my dream. I just I, I’ve always dreamed of a free democratic country where are where citizens have their dignity and where law is there, because obviously in Syria, it’s not and yeah, I mean, obviously now now I definitely. One of the things that I dream about every day is my dad’s release and all detainees release, but this is also part of Syria’s freedom, so.
When you were leaving your home what was your dream for the future?
I don’t think about the future. I mean. This is one of the consequences of everything that happened. I cannot think of the future. I only think on a daily basis. Oh. I don’t have any plans for the future. I only the only thing that I think about is that. How what can I do on a daily basis to. Get my dad back and to change the situation in Syria. So, the only dream I have for a future is for this situation to change, and this is something I might not live, might not witness, but I’m totally fine with that. I mean, I remember that when the revolution started in Syria, it was, I guess, the first time I saw my dad almost crying and I asked him why. And then he said, because this is like happiness, tears, because he did not even think that he will witness the beginning of the end of the revolution in Syria. And he’s satisfied enough that he witnessed that. And he will be always satisfied, even if he did it, if he didn’t witness or live the victory of the revolution. It’s enough for him that he witnessed the beginning of it. And it goes the same for me. I’m I’m I’m satisfied enough that I witnessed this attempt to change. And even if I don’t see the results, I know someone will. And this is enough for me.
And before leaving your home country, what would you describe as your strength and how you maintain this?
My family, I would say, I mean, I come from a very like, quite political family and maybe my dad, the first protest I attended was when I was 10 years old. And and it was in solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada and my dad for like for years, six years, I guess. My dad took me every Thursday from my hometown Masyaf to Damascus, which is like a three hour trip to participate in protests, in solidarity with Palestine, with Iraq and and. And I had exams, I had schools, I would I was sick or whatever, but I still did that trip with him for almost six or five years and um, so I was raised on that, you know, I mean I mean, even even even now, if I think that, OK, I won’t just give up,. I cannot. This this is how I this is how I was raised. This is what shaped my identity, what shaped my personality. And this, to be honest, this past that my dad shaped in a huge part is was and still is the the the the I guess the the the thing that gives me this strength to continue.
Do you feel like you have grown in any way as a result of this experience or has anything at all positive come out of it?
Yeah, I mean, I definitely grow but I don’t know if that is positive, because pain makes you grow and um and I don’t I don’t I’m not even sure if growing in any sense is a positive thing, but I definitely changed. And this this what matters to me. Yes, it was it is difficult. It is painful. It is maybe the change wasn’t what I wanted or what I imagined. But at least I changed and and this is this is this is good enough because if I didn’t change, then that would be problematic. But yeah, to be honest, sometimes I feel that I’m like I’m 60 with all the like the pain and the and the and the things we’ve been through. But at the same time, also, pain makes you, not pain, but but loss also makes you, oh, I guess brings takes you back to you were to the child inside yourself and and and and I think sometimes I feel that I have this like two to two persons inside myself. I have the the six year old child who’s who cries before before sleeping and who just wants her dad back. But I also have this 30 year old woman who fights on a daily basis for her dad to come back. So, yeah. I don’t know.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future now?
Yeah, I mean, to be honest, it’s not now. My dreams are not only about Syria, I, I also I care about injustice and everywhere. And I think that what I do, I don’t I don’t anymore, like, yes. For some years I thought that I’m only fighting for Syria, but now I’m fighting for justice and for freedom and for democracy everywhere. Because what’s going on in Syria is not separated from what’s going on in Turkey, in Lebanon, in the U.S., everywhere. So I think my hopes are, uh, to be honest, for for the for the time being, I just hope that the people’s will is not broken and that we can all still fight for our dreams because I’m not sure if these dreams are achievable any time soon, but at least I hope that we can still continue because this this what matters.
Is there anything you would like to add that might help people in Europe better understand the life of the refugees here?
You know, I mean, yeah, I just I always say that I know it’s satisfying for those who do not who did not live, this is the same situation to see others as victims and to treat them as victims. I know it feels good, but it doesn’t feel good to me at least. And this is very subjective. This is very personal. This applies only to me. I fight every day. I fight myself every day to not act and to not feel and to not see myself as the victim. Although it’s easier for me because when you are a victim, when you are seen and treated as a victim, you can you can you can just do the least, the least you can do. And it is accepted from you and it is welcomed and celebrated. But I do not want to do the least I can do. I want to do the best I can do and and I won’t to be able to do that if I am seen from others and from myself as the victim um, and yeah, I just I think that, yes, we have double lives, obviously, are we I mean, I live here, but but on a daily basis, there is part of me that lives in Syria and that lives with my dad, wherever he is, and this makes things more difficult and but I just know this sounds cheesy, but I think I mean, recently I’ve been thinking that the only thing that I want is not only for Europeans or whatever even I was tell my Syrian friends that the only thing I wish for is some mercy because I think this is what we lack most. I mean, I on a daily basis, I deal with people on social media and and and in the Ubahn at the shops and people seem to be very harsh and I try to analyze that and to understand where it comes from. Where does this hate come from? But analyzing that and understanding where it comes from doesn’t make it easier to accept and to deal with. So, I mean, there are many situations where I feel that I also want to be harsh on people, but I’m just trying to prevent myself because I don’t want others to be harsh on me. So I think we on this planet need some mercy, you know.