My name is Afra Ismat and I am from Syria……no, from Germany…..in fact, I live in London. Today is the launch of my first book, Freedom is Sour. I always wondered what a book launch would be like. No, not as an observer or a fan. Rather, as the celebrity whose book is being launched. The emotion, I always thought, it evokes is not something that anyone elsecan feel. It is in thatextraordinary moment,being in it, that one experiences the thrill, the delight and the power of having been able to stand up with courage and speak to the world.
Today, for my book launch, there is an eclectic mix of journalists, writers, professors, social activists and reformists among others. But one thing is common among them - they are all my friends. It was very generous of Emily to have offered her terrace for this modest yet eminent gathering. Alice had ensured the guest list was pruned to include the finest and most influential people in their circle. Dave, had put a third of the employees of his marketing firm aside to help me with promotions of all kinds. Everyone who spoke today, had a contribution in some way to bringing my book to life. The last eight years of my life had converged here, in this moment, and it was difficult for me to tell if I was the same Afra I was back then, when I was in Syria – my country; my home.
Khaled and I were both journalists with private television channels. Even though the time we spent at work were stressful and involved political engagements, we were happy living a simple life at home with, Noha, our eight-year old daughter. The new millennium brought with it new promises but what it also brought was a rapid change in expectations. A desire for living better is a genuine human aspiration and there is nothing wrong or sinful about it. It is only when this desire is either exploited or nurtured unrestrained, that it can escalate to proportions beyond control. And that is what happened with us, the common citizens of Syria.
All that the ordinary citizens desired was better living and few more rights for ourselves which were at first denied and later met with resistance. Soon it soared into an armed conflict. Responding to a series of atrocities by the authorities on innocent citizens, like us, Khaled had taken a rather offensive stand against these as a journalist and his reports on incidents had turned extremely aggressive. Late one night, the doorbell of our apartment rang, alarming us out of our sleep. Someone had appeared at our door ditching our condominium security, perhaps. We were unsure if we should answer the door but the noises outside became aggressive and finally Khaled mustered his masculine courage and opened the door, while I stood at the edge of our room trying to peek outside, having properly tucked Noha under the cover. A tall, bearded guy with a hawk-like nose struck Khaled in the face so hard that he fell to the ground. A slightly shorter guy emerged from behind him and pressed his knee on Khaled’s chest, pinning him hard to the ground. The hawk burst out in anger, “Stay out of our way! We don’t like your frenzied reporting on tv! Those who have women and children at home should know better than that! Traitor!”. He glanced towards where I was standing, but I sprang back to avoid any eye contact, while he turned and left. Still shocked, I hurriedly bolted the door and buckled beside Khaled to lift him. As I helped him to sit up, his wide, muscular body was able to hold itself without my support and to my astonishment, his expression had a snigger conveying he would not relent, yet. I helped him back to the room.
After the initial shock, we took time but eventually our lives resumed its normal pace and so did Khaled’s revolution. Everyday hundreds of residents continued to escape the country out of fear for their lives. Then again, one day, two military officers came home asking me to accompany them to Main Square, quoting it was an order. Since it was common practice to have journalists and other notable people of the city gather for announcement of policies by the administration, I agreed to follow. Noha was dressed in a long dress that was decent enough for stepping out. I looked at myself in the mirror and found myself satisfactorily dressed in my black jeans and a long grey top. Putting on my jacket and clutching Noha, I covered our heads and started walking towards the door. But Noha wanted to carry her teddy along and I stopped to gently persuade her we would return soon to her teddy. At that moment, something within spoke to me and on my way out I lifted a large shawl and the wallet in which I normally kept money for household expenses. When we reached the Main Square, escorted by the two officers, I could see a large gathering of people. Something did not feel right. As I approached the gathering closer, I was horrified to see Khaled tied in chains, kneeled in the center. My mind was racing faster than the events that were being played out in front of my eyes. I knew I had to be out of here before anyone knew and stealthily I turned with Noha to slip out so she never would see her father in that condition. Behind us I heard three gunshots. By now I was running.
I had no time to grieve. I could not go back home. I had to protect my daughter and I was definitely their next target. Even if they would not shoot me, I would definitely be held captive, which would be worse than being shot. Covering our faces, I ran with Noha to a friend’s house who ensured I was “smuggled” across the border to enter Germany as a contingent refugee. But before I received the permit to enter Xanten in Germany, Noha and I were in a Lebanese refugee camp for about 2 months, waiting for the permit and it was here we used to have our German tutor come every day for language lessons. First part of the day would pass struggling for water and sanitation and the remainder would be spent in long queues waiting for the day’s meal. Exhausted, at night I would lie down holding Noha close to me, yearning for sleep, but Khaled usually chose that time to spend with me, with his dreadful end haunting me, keeping me awake most nights, tears ceaselessly rolling down my eyes. My Noha never ever asked about her father again, as though she had already received a training module for times to come in her school. Adaptability of children in adversity is remarkable, and where it involves a struggle for survival, they surpass grown-ups by leaps.
Xanten was a welcome change. We both received our residency permit for two years and where we found ourselves a house was a small neighbourhood with most families like us. A somewhat relieved Noha asked:
“Is this our new home, mamma?”
“Yes, my dear. We will live here now. Do you like it?”
“Yes…..baaba will be happy to see us here”, she replied with a faint, forced smile.
Initial days were spent learning to get around and knowing our neighbours. As a contingent refugee we were all allowed to apply for specific jobs we were informed about. Noha’s school registration along with other children was also under process. Citizens of our host country were very kind and supportive towards us, undoubtedly. However, I could imagine, despite their kindness, the stress of the influx of thousands of foreigners into their country would ultimately create a wall of “them” and “us” in between. Holding on to our Syrian identity and culture was a struggle for us. I realized, I had to stop covering my head after being rejected from two job openings. And in my next interview with a news agency I found a job of scanning pre-marked news items from German newspapers and archiving them, because though I had learnt to speak the language a little bit, I still could not read or write very much. And, while I could manage with little bit of speaking, reading and writing in English, yet I couldn’t operate as a journalist in either of the languages. Noha, along with other children, was struggling to settle down in school. While the kids were all fluent in speaking the language, much faster than us, they found it difficult to cope with the study material that was all in German. And so, they felt they were different from the rest of the children. For days together, she would refuse to go to school, when her teacher would patiently speak with me, educating me on ways to persuade her to attend school. As it is, she had lost one grade as a means to help her adapt to the new study environment.
It was in the midst of these that I met Emily, one day. She had been working for an organization helping displaced citizens settle in new inhabitation. She was from London and was visiting Germany to understand the socio-economic challenges people like me faced. That was when I met her for an interview. Initially I was very reluctant to open up. But at some point, she said I could consider her as a “friend”.
“A friend?”, I realized I had forgotten the meaning of that word. I had no friend. Nor was I a friend to anyone. At that moment I felt, all I had been doing since I left my country was to receive. I did not have anything to offer to anyone. Looking at Emily’s bright smiling face, I looked within me to see if I had anything to offer, and my lips automatically spread into a fleeting smile. I said, “Yes friend”. Emily, in that moment looked like an angel; the most beautiful person on earth, and my eyes responded to her friendship with a stream flowing from my eyes. She was surprised to learn about my talent as a journalist and immediately instructed me to begin my English language classes. This brief encounter changed my outlook from feeling like a victim to claiming my dignity as a human being. In the next couple of months, I was elevated to the English department of the agency where I worked. Noha had started to feel more settled too. I could now also become “friend” to the women in our neighbourhood, encouraging them to become confident and embrace the citizens, adapting to their way of life. Together we created many memories over the next three years. Professionally also, I had become strong and had established myself in the agency as a prominent employee. However, my heart still ached to go back to reporting.
Then, one day, Emily called me to say she had found me a job as a reporter with a news house in London and she would help me with the formalities of immigration. Finally, five years ago I moved to London, when Noha and I lived with Emily for few months before eventually moving into our own apartment. Having weathered a transition before, it seemed easier the second time, yet it was by no means simple for both Noha and me to recreate a new identity for ourselves. We were, by far, more fortunate than many others to have Emily holding us firmly. Through her, slowly I made new friends. And eventually, life moved on, settling well, our original identities remaining a hazy imprint in our minds.
Even though memories fade and you bury your sorrows in some unseen and unfrequented corner of your heart, it still remains within you. At some stage the desire to write about my journey turned stronger, becoming the genesis for the concept of my book that has got launched today. I haven’t written it as an account of incidents in my life. It is a compilation of the struggles of many of us who fled our country under severe threat and the account of rebuilding our lives in different countries. It is also a praise for those who come together to host refugees, owning them and helping them reconstruct lives. But more than anything else, it is about the transformation, adaptability and openness one needs to draw out from within to make the process of adjustment easier for everyone.
I see everyone leaving, congratulating me, feeling genuinely happy for my triumph. Noha comes and hugs me in delight, excited about all the pomp and fanfare associated with the event. I truly feel like a celebrity, when I finally close the evening in a big hug with Emily. Noha is full of snippets from the evening, on our way back. In some corner of my heart I remember Khaled, once again quashing the ache it threatens to trigger, as I park my car outside our house. After seeing Noha off to sleep, I sit down to check my emails when I see an unnerving message from an unknown sender which reads:
“Congratulations on your new book! We ultimately find you. Stop the release of your book. Women with children should know better than that!”