This is the second dispatch from a project following a family of five who fled Syria in 2015 and are now rebuilding their lives spread across four European cities. Read more about the project here.
In late June, Souad, 27, was looking for a spot to watch from as she wove through the crowd that showed up for “The Cunnilingus Comedy Show (Vol. 1)” at Amsterdam’s famed Vrankrijk, a former squat turned cafe and event venue. Any proceeds were going to a collective run by and for queer refugees. First to the mic was the organizer Mikaela Burch, 28, a financial compliance officer who hoped to become a professional comedian. As Souad listened, Burch told the audience that because she was a “poor black lesbian from Detroit,” she was officially President Trump’s worst nightmare. “He’s not going to come grabbing on this [expletive]!” she said to laughter. Burch was followed by acts that included comedians from around the world; the sole Dutch performer used a wheelchair and introduced herself as a lesbian with Tourette’s.
This is the Amsterdam where Souad feels safe and a sense of belonging. (Out of concern for her security in a new country and the safety of her relatives in Syria, Souad asked to use only her first name.) “They’re fighting for things I believe in,” she said. “Because it still feels like a squat and it’s part of the alternative scene in Amsterdam, this means a ‘community feel,’ and for sure no racists.”
After leaving Syria seven years ago in a displacement that took her first to Jordan, then to Turkey, Greece and the Netherlands — where she bounced between five different refugee camps — Souad is looking to find herself much more than she is hoping to find a home, a concept that has become so unattainable that she has learned to live without it. While she begins to finally process what she has been through and how it has affected her and the decisions she has made, she is seeking out spaces defined by their commitment to principles whose values she has come to appreciate more with each country she has had to survive in. And even if the places through which she has already passed so readily defined her as only one thing — woman, Syrian, Arab, Muslim or refugee — she’s still not sure who she is and might yet be.
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From an early age, Souad always knew she would have to leave Syria. At home in Damascus, she had a controlling father who kept his wife and children socially isolated, including from his wife’s family, who were more progressive. Outside the house, Souad also found Syrian society stifling, invested in enforcing social mores around beauty, sex, sexuality, marriage and procreation, with the greater restrictions falling on women. Hovering above them all, she saw a regime that oppressed Syrians through fear and violence. She learned, uneasily, to swallow her thoughts, opinions and even questions. “You couldn’t be who you wanted to be,” Souad said. But she never imagined her departure would come on the heels of a civil war.
Her good grades won her a scholarship in 2010 to a private university, but by 2011, the violence consuming Syria had come to campus. The regime cracked down on a student demonstration. Students were attacked and beaten. In 2012, Islamist fighters moved into the region and captured the nearby town of Qusayr. Armed opposition fighters kidnapped the president of the university.
Students who could do so left. In 2012, Souad did too, moving to Jordan, where her father had begrudgingly agreed to pay for university. But when her parents’ marriage fell apart, her father disappeared, and Souad had to drop out, with just a year and half of classes left to finish. She remained in Jordan and looked for work, hoping to send money home to her mother. The Jordanian government, however, was barely issuing Syrians work permits, so Souad took under-the-table jobs, and her bosses admonished her to speak with a Jordanian accent instead of her Syrian one, in case any undercover raids occurred. She found work as a secretary, a receptionist and a promoter at the mall, hawking products like toothpaste, feminine pads, chocolate and juice.
She struggled to pay rent, moving to five apartments in about three years; university was not even a possibility. She kept up her adopted Jordanian accent even in taxis, fed up with male drivers who, upon hearing her Syrian pronunciations, assumed her to be vulnerable and potentially sexually available.
It made her think back to when she was a child and Iraqis, fleeing the American invasion of their country, had taken refuge in Syria. She tried to remember, had she or any of her classmates treated the new Iraqi students differently? What she could recall was hearing adults complain that Iraqis were driving the rents up in Damascus and that Iraqi women were selling their bodies — with the same judgment and stigma she now heard all over again in Jordan, only this time about Syrians. Souad’s sense of self-worth sank. She drank daily, until one day she had a moment of clarity.
“The feeling alone, the drinking — it wasn’t necessary; I could find other solutions,” she said. “I knew that if I stayed like that, I would just destroy myself.”
[To Stay or to Flee: A Syrian Mother’s Impossible Choice]
So Souad saved money to go to Istanbul, where some classmates had fled. But as soon as she arrived in July 2015, some of her friends told her they were leaving, frustrated by the limits placed on Syrians in Turkey. They would take a motorized raft across a stretch of the Aegean Sea to one of the Greek islands, and from there make their way to Northern Europe. Souad borrowed the funds to join them, left all her belongings behind and stashed in her fanny pack the only things she kept: identity papers, money and a toothbrush.
In Greece, the locals mistook the Syrians for a group of European friends just having a summer adventure. Where other refugees arriving on the island of Kos seemed to exist in a parallel plane that simply shared time and space with the tourists on holiday, Souad and her friends refused to stick to the shadows. As they waited nearly a week for the clearance to board the ferry to Athens, they swam in the sea, hiked in a forest with peacocks and ate in a cafe once in a while, allowing themselves some fun. They didn’t see why they shouldn’t feel equal to the vacationers in their humanity.
That they were assumed to be Italian, Spanish or Israeli — even as they spoke in Arabic — showed Souad how clueless people could be. This would work to her group’s advantage when it came time to make their way to Northern Europe (where conditions were said to be the best for asylum seekers). While most Syrians had to take the arduous land route from Athens to their final destinations north, Souad and her friends instead bought counterfeit European I.D.s that allowed them to simply board flights. Their looks allowed them to pass for citizens of countries whose travel documents are welcomed at borders, not refused.
For Souad, arguably the most “Western looking” of the group with her naturally red hair and fair complexion, her first experience in Europe left what would be a lasting impression. “It’s stupid and unfair how easy it was for me because of my skin color,” she said. “It taught me that even though I come from Syria, I don’t experience half the things experienced by other people who are not white enough.”
Though all the others were going to Sweden, Souad chose the Netherlands as her destination, a somewhat arbitrary decision that would set fate’s course for her mother and siblings back in Syria.
While her family made preparations to leave Damascus, Souad got bounced around to different “asylum seekers’ centers” in the Netherlands; as a single woman (which was rare), she was the target of much unwanted attention, and she felt vulnerable. Meanwhile, her family’s desire to be together was thwarted: Her two sisters were arrested in Germany and forced to ask for asylum there, and though her mother and brother made it to the Netherlands, they were placed in other faraway refugee camps.
Finally, in April 2016, Souad was assigned an apartment of her own in Maastricht, a city at the most southern tip of the Netherlands. But she turned it down. “I didn’t know how to do anything, how to live in a house again, how to get one ready,” she said. “I felt paralyzed after that year in the camps.” She moved in instead with a young Syrian man she had begun to date. Souad would later attribute her paralysis to a need for time to process the preceding four years. She felt that the Dutch people she came in contact with, whether state employees or individuals, wanted her to be excited for her new life and to have a clear plan. She believed they were well-intentioned, but to her, the normalization of what she had just been through and the expectation that she be ready to quickly launch into a new life made her feel like a failure when she couldn’t easily do it. She turned on herself, haunted by guilt that came from feeling that she didn’t have it as bad as other Syrians.
“I hated my skin, at some point, because it was associated with Europeans, and hated that in our Syrian culture, it is a compliment to say: ‘Oh, you don’t look like you’re Syrian. You look European,’” Souad said. “I didn’t want to be treated better than others because of my color. I didn’t want to fit in.”
Souad began to dress as if she didn’t care at all. She didn’t want to appear friendly, so she stopped smiling. She wouldn’t even look at her face in the mirror; when she brushed her teeth — the only time she would spend in front of her reflection — she averted her eyes. Despairing over how borders were closing and over the hateful discourse around migration, she actively sought out alternative lifestyles. She read about anarchists, punks and other subcultures. After she broke up with her Syrian boyfriend and moved out, she downloaded Tinder (for a day). Through the app, she met a Dutch man whose profile said he was interested in permaculture (a kind of holistic and sustainable approach to farming) — she was already looking into that too. He soon introduced her to his community of anticapitalist squatters. Thinking back to her days in Jordan as a low-level mall promoter of consumer goods, where she said she was encouraged to lie to make people buy, Souad realized she never again wanted to do jobs she didn’t believe in.
By 2018, university no longer seemed like such a clear next step — that level of commitment and pressure to know what to study was more than she could handle. Rather than wait for clarity to just come to her, she decided to “go through life and let life go through me.” That approach took her to Italy, where she worked as a volunteer for eight months with No Name Kitchen, preparing meals for migrants and refugees at an informal encampment in Rome. For her, it was an act of solidarity with people who she says were forced, like her, to make “a similar unjust migration journey.”
But absences from the Netherlands might have jeopardized her status there, so earlier this year she retreated to her mother’s house, in Vlissingen, where she and Souad’s younger brother, Yousef, had been settled. Now that her mother and siblings are out of Syria and building their lives, and she too is safe in the Netherlands and standing still after all those years of constant moving, Souad is examining herself. “I have some comfort and stability to see what is wrong — to process what I went through, including the journey to get here,” she said. “This all takes time.”
Rather than work through it with a therapist (she doesn’t think a Dutch person can understand her experience as a Syrian), Souad is trying to figure it out on her own. She has identified the thick wall she has built around herself and has begun to understand how it started in Syria and only become more impenetrable with her displacement. As for what is wrong and unjust in the world, that won’t be helped by punishing herself. She’s now taking care of herself, wearing dresses even, and smiling again.
“Now I just do me,” she said. That means seeking out spaces like the former squat where she saw the comedy show — places that are generally free of Islamophobia, xenophobia and homophobia and where the crowd is diverse and multicultural.
And it also means that when that evening, at another bar, two chic Dutch women were surprised to learn that she was Syrian and came as a refugee, and that she speaks both Dutch and English, Souad didn’t visibly wince but stayed gracious, even posing for a photo with them.
It’s that same commitment to “doing me” that brought her back to Amsterdam in August. Though Souad had considered staying in Vlissingen to provide some company for her mother and her brother, who are lonely in that small town, while she applied to universities, she realized that she couldn’t linger where she couldn’t find community. She’s managing her guilt at having left them by not calling every day.
But she barely has the extra time; she’s waiting on tables, trying to pick up more work and always looking for her next temporary sublet. “For me, home is not a place; it’s the feeling of warmth, safety and love — and that’s something I have found in many places,” Souad said. “I could feel at home in a lot of places that I still haven’t been to.” If she doesn’t get attached to places, she thinks it’s because she’s learned not to; after all, her departures were rarely on her terms. She wonders if the constant moving didn’t create a pattern that is now so familiar, it’s the closest thing to where she belongs.
“Something in the move,” she said, “now feels like home.”
Alia Malek is the author of “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria,” the editor of “EUROPA: An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees” and the director of the international reporting program at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. This dispatch is part of a reporting project intended to span 10 years.
Peter van Agtmael is a member of Magnum Photos and the author of “Buzzing at the Sill” and “Disco Night Sept 11.”
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