[r] My name is [name] . I am from Gaza, Palestine. I am a filmmaker and an actor. I am a married man and I have two children. Mohamed is nine years old and Lamar is seven years old. I now work as an audiovisual and communication assistant at Caritas Belgium in Brussels. And I’m busy with documentaries and theatre.

[i] You told me that you are from Palestine, can you tell me a little more about your youth?

[r] Growing up in Palestine, … That’s something else. It’s not like growing up in Belgium, Egypt or the EU. It’s very special, because… In Palestine you have to grow up very fast. When you are ten years old, … Especially in my day: the first intifada. We woke up during the occupation, the intifada, … so you don’t have time for your childhood.

[i] When were you born?

[r] I was born in 1981. When I was six, the first intifada was already there. You don’t have time for a normal childhood. You need to grow up fast and understand everything quickly. We talked about politics, … Like other children talked about toys. So yes, it was different. But it was very good for us. Because it gives as a man, … And my apologies, I don’t want to be disrespectful to women, because our women are stronger than us. Because the Palestinian woman, … I know how much I appreciate them, because she is our idol. But to grow up there, … I think it was very useful, because … After the war we saw something even worse. I am therefore convinced that we are prepared from an early age to deal with the first, second and third wars in Gaza. And now I live here. It is not easy to experience all this. So I thank Gaza that we are strong enough for this. Otherwise, we would have collapsed.

[i] What kind of home did you grow up in?

[r] I am in love with my childhood. We lived in a very remote neighborhood. Actually, it wasn’t a remote neighborhood. But… you know there are very busy neighborhoods, … That’s where I was born. When I was six, my father moved a bit to the edge. Not like here. By “to the edge” I mean 200 or 300 metres away. I worked as a bird hunter. Yes, I know that here in Belgium you have unique and expensive birds. I’ve seen it, but people don’t know what it is. I’ve played soccer since I was six, seven years old. I played in several well-known teams from Gaza. And I played on the national team until I was 18 years old. But when I went to Egypt to study, I stopped.

[i] The last time you told me that you were born a refugee. Can you tell me more about this?

[r] Yes, being a refugee, … This word [refugee] , … I hate it. It’s like my identity card. It’s as if I shouldn’t say my name is [name] . But I think I should say: my name is refugee. Because I was born a refugee. I lived as a refugee. I was raised as a refugee. And also here I am a refugee. And people who look at you, as if you were stealing. As if you have no rights, are illiterate or a gold digger. But we’re not.

[i] How come you were born a refugee?

[r] Palestine has been occupied for years. But somehow, built for the Prime Minister of Great Britain. He promised the Jews: we give you a land. And no people are allowed to live in this country. And they found a piece of land called Palestine. And they said: it is a country without people, for people without land. I don’t know how. If it is a country without people, … I have to ask my father and my grandfather: where do you come from? Because I believe that when we look back at our history, I see that my father, my grandfather, … all generations were born in this country called Palestine. But if you ask an Israeli: where was your father or grandfather born? Then he will say: Russia, Poland, … The second generation is not even there, so… And then after 1948, … there is the war and the declaration of Israel. And we became refugees. They took our villages, our land and we had to flee. We had to flee and the thing is, … When you flee through a crisis or a war, … you leave and then, … the international organizations build camps for you: shelters, like in Syria, Iraq and Iran. Not in the Palestinian cause. When the Palestinians had to leave and they fled from Palestine, they already found the camps there. It really is a theatre. It is a performance, a game. When you read our history, it is written there. They left and found the shelters waiting for them. Someone knew something was going to happen. For example, feed them, they might have forgotten. For example, give them something to warm themselves, they might have forgotten. So I became a refugee.

[i] And where did you originally come from?

[r] I am originally from a village called Al Kofakha. It is a small village. It belongs to the province of Gaza. It is not in Gaza itself, but it is very close by. And now it is a Sharon farm. Before he died he used it as his private domain. And he has, as my family told me, farms, animals and I don’t know what else. Gaza has a population of two million people. But 80% are refugees. I grew up, … Being a refugee in Gaza, especially in Gaza, … It is very bad. Because they teach you discrimination when you are a child. The United Nations and the occupiers, … these things… nobody notices them. But I grew up and realized this. Do you know how you see on the street whether someone is a refugee or not? Through the uniform. A refugee boy wears a different uniform than a boy born in Gaza. You are Palestinian, he is Palestinian and you live together in the same city. Door next door. But when you walk in the street, you know that he was born in Gaza and that I am a refugee. So you walk like this. For you are a refugee. Even the colloquium we are studying is different. We are studying something that comes from Jordan. And the people who originally come from Gaza, study something that comes from Egypt.

[i] Do I understand correctly that as a refugee in Gaza you were wearing different clothes? And what did those clothes look like?

[r] Yes, we even went to several hospitals. We went to different hospitals. This is a hospital for refugees. You carry this refugee world as a stamp, a brand. Everywhere you go. If you stepped off this place, don’t tell them you’re a refugee, because you came from a refugee camp. If you came out of school, you didn’t have to say anything. Your uniform told you everything. Our uniform was like the UN flag: white and striped. White and blue, white and blue, white and blue. Yes, because you are a refugee. And if I remember correctly, were the people originally from Gaza wearing blue? I’m sorry. Boys were wearing blue. A sky-blue shirt. And girls striped white and blue. Now I remember. And children originally from Gaza wore green. Something like that. Discrimination. They taught us this without telling us. Do you understand? It’s like the boys from the media. You advertise, … I’m not saying you should buy this. But you get addicted to it because you see it every day. From that point of view, … But now I’m grateful to our attentiveness that we understood. But at that time, when I was young… even if you come from Gaza, you don’t marry a refugee. And as a Palestinian refugee, you do not marry someone from Gaza. The situation was very bad, because people were not really educated. And it was very easy to manipulate their minds. You come from Gaza, you are rich. You are a refugee. This is what the Israelis did.

[i] Were refugees often discriminated against?

[r] Not by people from Gaza. But it was like a poison hanging in the air. Like someone who keeps whispering in your ear: this guy is bad. He is your brother, but at the same time he steals your shirt, why? That’s how it was. But when you sit next to each other, you think: he is Palestinian just like me. It was very difficult I was young, but I noticed this, why we were different. You know, … At school. I remember when we stood in line in front of a shirt, a new shirt. Waiting for a new bag. Sometimes you did two, three, four years with a bag, … and you needed a new one. But yes, we’re okay.

[i] Can you tell me a little more about your father and your mother?

[r] My mom and dad are illiterate. Both. But they think education is very important. My father did everything he could so that we could study. And he said: this is the last way to stay alive. Never give up. He punished us when we failed. He didn’t like that. He’s illiterate. My mother is illiterate. And there were nine boys and one girl. Seven of us have a bachelor’s degree. Seven. Sorry, six of us have a bachelor’s degree. He sent one of us to the United States to study. He sent one of us to Russia, one of us to Egypt and one of us to Jordan to study. And my sister is a poet. She writes poems. Yes, and he loves to see us grow up, well educated. And my mother’s goal was to raise us with respect. Yes, because she means everything to me. I don’t know anyone who taught her boys to respect women, like my mother. Does what you want, but never insult a woman. Not with a word, not with a look, never, … The day you insult a woman, you have to realize that you have lost your manhood. And she taught us through Islam. You are a Muslim? Yes. Read Mohammed and how he respected his wives. Even when one of them was dead, he respected her friends, out of respect for her. Never insult a woman. Yes, I feel really lucky. My father always supported me: when I played football, made movies. He came to watch and I was very happy.

[i] What was their profession?

[r] My profession or my father’s?

[i] Yes, from your parents?

[r] My father did everything. You know, … When you leave your country, like when I arrived in Belgium, … Do you have to prove yourself, … that you are not just a number, a document. I am a human being and I can do something. From the stories he told me, because I wasn’t born yet. He worked in a butcher’s shop, meat. He sold meat. He worked as a carpenter. He worked in construction. He did everything to make us strong and educated. And my mother helped him, … wedding dresses for women. And when I was little, I remember her asking me: [name] can you, … How do you say that? This little thing?

[i] The thread?

[r] The thread, how to stick it in, because she lost her sight. Can you stick it in this little hole? And even though she was illiterate, she sat next to us to teach us how to write. She didn’t know what we were writing. But you know, writing is like drawing. She followed the line of the letters and compared it to what it was supposed to be like. It doesn’t look the same. You have to do it again. Even though she didn’t know which letter it was: A, P, T, S, … She didn’t know. But the drawing is not the same. Put it away and make it again.

[i] Why did your parents think education was so important?

[r] In Palestine and in Gaza in particular, if you look at the degree of study, … Palestinians and people from Gaza have the highest level of education in the Arab world. The latest studies say that there are hardly any illiterate people left in Palestine. We have high school diplomas in the Arab world. Palestinians and people from Gaza. If you go to Jordan and the Persian Gulf you will see that the CEO’s, the altitude positions are filled in by Palestinians. When you are occupied and you have no power. In a way we followed the Japanese theory. Your last shield is to be educated. Otherwise you are a toy. Anyone can move you: left or right. I don’t know how we got there. But if you take a closer look at this, you’ll see the same thing. You are occupied, you are not allowed to do anything and nobody cares about you. Get out of the dust. And try to do something for yourself. The percentage of illiterate people in Palestine is almost zero. Not zero, but almost zero. It’s not just us, but the general situation in Palestine.

[i] How was the relationship with your brothers and sister when you were young?

[r] There are, still today, the five greats and the four small ones. The five greats, all the elderly and the four youngest, because my sister was in the middle. And she made a divorce. There are the four youngest. Allah, Mahmoud, Fahad, [name] , … I am the youngest. And then you have Fatena. And then Amir, Jihad, Ziyad, Riyadh, Imad. These big five are like the Commissioner General at the United States. They’re all like a father to me, because they’ve been working very hard since they were little. They did everything they could to help my father and to help us grow up. So they have the same recognition. And we are the four youngest. You know, we are the four youngest, we played a lot. [Laughs] We’re friends, we play cards together. And because we’re a soccer family. We all love football. Only one person doesn’t. We’re a soccer family, so we played together. When I was young, I was a really good player. But even when you’re older, you still have it in you. So sometimes we formed our own team and played. Because there is competition between the neighbours. Not professionally, because we are neighbours. Everyone put together their own team and we played. And my team was my family, my brothers, … and we played. That was fun. And we also hunted birds. It was a hobby, but sometimes also financially interesting. Some birds were really expensive.

[i] How did you hunt birds?

[r] It’s actually an industry. You need a net, you need to buy a net and you need to know, … the dimensions of the net. You work with a double or a single net. You have to know how far you have to go. And you have to learn one of the birds, … First you attach it in a very professional and special way. And then you connect it with a piece of wood. And this piece of wood is connected to the place where you are hiding. This takes about a week. You teach the bird to fly when you pull the piece of wood. And that he has to return to the piece of wood. So that the birds in the sky can see him. When the bird falls off the piece of wood, they run away. So you teach him to fly away, but to come back down. The other birds see him and will follow him. And then you have another bird in a cage. And we call him the Zaik. In our language he is called Zaik. Zaik: the one who calls to people: hey, I am here. This bird has a very special voice. Not every bird could do this. He is the maestro. And it takes a long time before you know: who is the Zaik? Who is the best? Who has mastered this unique language? Until you catch it. It’s very expensive. These birds are very expensive, because when you have eggs, … We keep them in a very dark room until they hatch. We keep these baby birds in the darkroom for three to six months. And we play, … Because these birds can learn another language. For example, if you have a Hasun, … The Hasun can take over the call of another bird: the Dwarie When the Hasun takes over the call … Then he loses a lot… … he loses a lot of his value. I forgot the word. We keep him in a very dark room and we play the unique, … You buy a CD. With songs, his language, the unique language, without mistakes. And you play this CD for six months. Until he takes over. And if the bird has adopted it completely correctly, … You think I’m lying, but some of these birds can sell you for six or five thousand euros.

[i] And did you sell there?

[r] A lot. But it is an industry. And these birds are originally from Norway. I’ve seen them a lot here in Belgium, on the way, … Because they leave in the winter, looking for a warm place. They arrive in Palestine, from September. But due to the changing weather, they arrive in February. No sorry, from November to February. And you have to get up very early: you have to leave at four in the morning. When it’s still dark, you prepare everything. Because they arrive with the first rays of sunshine. Three four hours and then you go home.

[i] What did your house look like, where you grew up as a boy?

[r] I was born in a neighborhood called Sabra. It is a very busy place. There were ten of us. My two eldest brothers were married there. My parents, of course. And that house had one, two, three, four bedrooms. One by one married man. A second for a married man. The third for my parents. And the other eight children slept together. Yes, and we liked it. Because in those days, before the first intifada, there was no fear. We called it the “open door” time. The neighbors only closed their doors when they went to sleep. And you know: bread, food, cooking, … And sometimes you found on your table, … Yes, we didn’t have a table, we ate on the floor, … ten to fifteen different dishes. It was from all the neighbors. And your food was everywhere and their food was everywhere. That’s how it was. I miss this time. I remember that at night, … We and another family had a television. At night, … there were two groups of men. One was watching TV here and another group was watching there. 50 men here and 60 men there were watching TV. At that time there was one Jordanian channel and two Egyptian channels. The women were also sitting together to chat.

[i] Your family had a TV?

[r] Yes, we were one of the two families from the whole neighborhood who had a TV. At that time. And we were the first family to have a telephone line. Yes, at the time. Yes, I remember it well. And we had a dog.

[i] How come you had the latest technology?

[r] As I told you, my father worked in different sectors. And at that time – unfortunately – he had to work in what we now call Israel. When he worked there, his salary was higher than in Gaza. He was gone for two months with my two big brothers. To work in Israel, or what we call Israel. I would prefer to talk about the occupied territories. In 1948, the wage was very high compared to the wage in Gaza. When he came back, he brought new things and we were happy. And then we moved to a new place. And that’s where I really experienced my childhood: hunting birds. I was outside all day. Playing soccer or hunting birds. And at school I was very good. I was always among the five best. I don’t know how, … But I love to study. I love to be educated. And now I work very hard, … Sometimes I feel like I’m pushing my children. Mohamed is nine and Lamar is seven. He [Mohamed] speaks three languages. And I don’t think it’s enough.

[i] What languages do they speak? Of course they speak Arabic. English and Dutch. Mohamed also speaks a bit of Spanish and a few words of French. As I told you, … When you are occupied, education is your last scapegoat [means salvation?] Your last shelter. For me it is impossible to be unskilled. You are never poor when you are educated. You are never weak when you are educated. It’s all here. And what you have there, you never lose. Unless you are dead. So I think it’s important that they know this. Put it in here. [points to head] Wealth, money, … We have a saying in Palestine: ‘The dirt on your hands’. ‘Money is the dirt on your hands.’ It comes from the dirt on your hands, because you work. So you can work again, when you lose money. But if you lose your knowledge, you lose confidence in yourself, your identity. And you lose your respect. That is the most important thing. This is non-negotiable.

[i] Can you tell me more about what you studied in Palestine?

[r] I did my high school in Palestine and went to Egypt to study mass media and communication.

[i] How could you study in Egypt?

[r] That was the political situation. After 1948, … And after the six-day war between Israel and the Arab world in 1967, … The West Bank became part of Jordan. Jordan controlled the whole situation in the West Bank. But militarily it was Israel. But it became a province of Jordan. If a guy from the West Bank wanted to go to Jordan, he just did. A guy from Gaza who wanted to go to Jordan, … It was easier to go to heaven. Yes, because you’re from Gaza, that’s not possible. And the same was true for people from Gaza and Egypt. Egypt controlled our education system and that sort of thing. And that was their solution, devised by the countries with a lot of power. Look at Egypt, take Gaza and somehow try to facilitate their lives. And Jordan, we’ll give you some money too, … and you are trying to shape the life of the Palestinians in the West Bank. And we are between the two. So it wasn’t difficult to go to Egypt. It was very easy. Not like this. Now it is very difficult. Yes, it is now easier to go to heaven than to Egypt. After the military coup everything became bad. Sometimes the borders only opened three, four or five days a year. Many people died, … waiting for medication or surgery. Many people lost their residence because, … They couldn’t leave. I, for example, when I brought my children here, … I’m going to tell you this, … After being recognized as a refugee and starting family reunion, I had to bring my family here. They had a visa for four months, but they couldn’t leave because the border was closed. And when the border opened, I had to pay 3000 euros in black money for 300 meters. So now it’s a different story, but at that time I went to Egypt to study. And I studied mass media and communication.

[i] In which city did you study?

[r] In Cairo, but there’s a city called October 6, it’s in the province. It is one of the churches of Cairo.

[i] In what year was it?

[r] 1999 Yes, 1999 – 2000 Yes, the school year 1999 – 2000. I am a bit old, oh my god. [laughs] We are getting old. I had not noticed this. [Laughs]

[i] And you lived in Egypt when you were studying there?

[r] Yes, I lived in Egypt. The first two years were easy, because the second intifada hadn’t started yet. It was easy. The borders were open for 24 hours. And by car from my home in Gaza it was only six o’clock. That’s nothing. So I always went back and forth, back and forth. It was very cheap. After the second intifada it was a different story: the borders were up and … The army was everywhere and it wasn’t really safe. And the thing was, when the Israelis controlled the border with Gaza, … then it was very exciting. In my last year, for example, I never went to Gaza. Because they let you in to visit your family. And in the last year, when you want to go back from Gaza to finish your studies, they stop you at the border and ask you, … Where are you going? I’m going to Egypt. Why? I want to finish my studies. Six months and I’m a graduate. Okay, here’s the deal. Work with us or go back home. So you become a spy. Yes, sometimes you had to get medication. This is what the occupiers did and do every day. Sometimes you want to cross the border for your study, surgery, medication, … And they stop you. And they know for example: this man has cancer and he really has to cross the border for medication. And they use this against him. By the way, they know everything about you. We know that you have reserved a room in this hospital and your operation will continue. But yes, we need your cooperation.

[i] And what does cooperation mean in concrete terms?

[r] Being a spy of the enemy. To be a traitor to your country.

[i] And what did you tell them?

[r] That is why I never returned. I went back and forth, the first two years. The first half of the third year and then no more. For my brothers were often trapped in Israeli prisons and they know this. And I remember my brother telling me, during my last visit to Gaza, … If I see your face back here before you graduate, you’re dead. Go and don’t come back. Unless you hold your diploma in your hand. And when they stop you, … pfff, …. You have your diploma. That’s literally what he said to me. This is the last year and a half. We’ve seen enough of you during the first two and a half years. Go! If I see your face before you graduate, you’re dead. You are dead, … that’s how we say it in Palestine, … not really dead of course. But it wouldn’t be nice. Because they worked hard so I could study and get a diploma. So don’t come back now. Stay there. If we can, we’ll visit you. It’s okay. Stay there. Because we know how they play this. I experienced it myself twice. One time I came across the Israelis at the border with Rafah. And they tried to manipulate me. A second time I went to the US for a, uh… for a seminar on ‘Art and living together’. And after the seminar we had to go to the American embassy in Israel. In Jerusalem. And to get there, you have to go along the Israeli border: Erez. And they said: no, you don’t have permission. When I had a visa, … and it’s a funny story. For your first American visa, go to the embassy or consulate. You do the interview. They give you the visa and you go home. So the Americans gave me permission to go through Erez. Erez checkpoint, between Gaza and Israel. And I was allowed to go to the American consulate for the interview. When I went there, … and yes, they search you all the way, … I saw an armed vehicle waiting for me on the other side of the border. Me and three other guests from Gaza went to the American embassy or consulate. An armed vehicle. They took us directly from the checkpoint to the consulate. We had the interview. The same military vehicle was waiting for us. And drove us from the consulate back to Gaza. An armed vehicle. Two or three weeks later I had to go to the US. The easiest way is from Erez to Jordan and from Jordan you fly. The Israelis said no. Why? They said: it’s about security measures. And the guy from the consulate said: but he was here three weeks ago. How do you come up with security measures after three weeks? They said: no, he wasn’t here. He said: no, he was here. Yes, no, yes, no, … They said: no, he doesn’t have permission. And I had to go through Egypt. Yes, that’s how it goes. To be occupied, … That is something else. But being educated, knowing what their goal is, what they want. It makes it easier. As I said, we didn’t have a childhood like other children. We grew up very quickly. I was 19 when I went to college. And everyone talked to me like I was 24, 25 years old. Literally. No one told me in Gaza his real age. Because we had seen too much. We grew up very quickly. I think we had to. We had no other choice. Yes, there is no grey. It is black or white in Gaza.

[i] And after your studies you went to work?

[r] After my studies I was very busy. You know Samuel: very busy. I did three, four jobs a day. I worked for the UN. I worked for UNRWA. United Nation, … United,… I forgot the name. I worked for UNRWA, United Nation Works for, … United Nation Relief and Works Agency of Palestian Refugees in the Near East. This is the largest organisation. They care about Palestinian refugees in the Near East. They work, …

[i] Near East?

[r] Yes.

[i] The Middle East?

[r] The Near East, so it is. They work in Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. I worked there for six years as a public information assistant.

[i] And what does that mean?

[r] Public information assistant? I ran a programme called ‘Summer Games’. And we tried to give 250,000 children from Gaza a good time. We had a plan and said: these children have seen enough. Let’s do something fun for them. So we set up the Summer Games. And this is something special in Gaza. And during the summer holidays, we changed all the UN schools. You see UN schools, as I told you, UN schools. We turned them into a play area. Because these schools were hiding places during the war. Then it was schools and then a playground. We made playgrounds out of the schools and we started building … 25 to 35 playgrounds on the beach. For a quarter of a million, 250,000 children. And we gave work to 7000 recent graduates. Only for three months. I led this project as a public information assistant. Of course I had to consult with the main department. And I was a filmmaker for all the documentaries that were made there. Because I used to work for the relief and social department. And then I worked for the public information department. I worked as a filmmaker during my time in the ‘public information’ department. I also worked as a theatre actor. Assistant director and drama teacher at the Pesma Institute.

[i] Pesma Institute?

[r] Yes.

[i] What kind of institute is it?

[r] It is an institute for art and theatre.

[i] In Gaza?

[r] In Gaza. And when I worked for Pesma, we made the first mobile theatre in Gaza. Our goal was to go to buffer zones. We really wanted to go to the deserted areas. We performed with this mobile theatre, … It was a van that we very quickly converted into a theatre. We provided shade, … We performed here and the tank of the Israelis was there. I mean it literally. We performed everywhere. And this project was a turning point for me. It changed my life. Because I have seen places, …. When I came to Belgium and during the interview with the commissariat, … They ask: do you know Gaza? They want to make sure that you come from Gaza. I said to the interviewer: if you want, I can draw every street of Gaza. Really: from east to west, from south to north, … I sign it. So that was my job. And I also worked for a protection company: Maydien. I’m sorry. Shaheen Media . As a filmmaker, cameraman and mechanic. We did everything. At the same time I started at B’Tselem. It is an Israeli information centre for human rights in the territories occupied by Israel. My life was all about work, work, work, … I didn’t have time. I really didn’t have time. You asked: Is [name] there? No, he is not here.

[i] How come you worked so hard?

[r] When I was 16, 17 years old, … I said, I will never be a number. That was my goal. I’m not making this up. I really said this when I was 16.17 years old. Then I knew I could make something out of my life and I said to everyone: I won’t be a number anymore. I have to do something. I don’t do what I really dreamed of. Because life doesn’t give you everything you desire. But so far I’m satisfied. I got married when I was 30. I had two children, my own apartment. I had an international job. I had my own job. I had a luxurious life. By the time I was 30, I had everything. I think I was blessed. I was really lucky. It’s a blessing. I didn’t achieve what I really dreamed of.

[i] What did you dream of? Then what is your dream?

[r] In Egypt, I worked in the cinema industry. Professional: with famous actors and directors. And I worked with a guy named Rami Imam. He is the son of Adel Imam. Adel Imam is the most famous actor in the whole Arab world. And he is the son of it. And I lived, … he even had his own theater. And Rami directed one of his plays. At two or three o’clock in the morning, … Cairo never sleeps, … It’s not like in Belgium, literally: Cairo never sleeps. You go out at two, three, four in the morning, you eat something, you find everything. I lived alone. I had to go to the shop. And I saw this big billboard: illuminated, with Adel Imam’s name and picture on it. And at the bottom was Rami-san’s name, in the big picture. That’s when I was working with Rami. I looked at the billboard and said: One day, … my picture is hanging like yours, or at least my name is like your son’s on a billboard. That was my dream. If I had stayed in Egypt, I think I could have achieved this. But I’m glad I didn’t do it. It’s not my lifestyle. No, it’s not my lifestyle, when I look back at it now. Yes, I wanted to achieve this, but it’s not my lifestyle. I wouldn’t like to be in the spotlights. It wouldn’t be my lifestyle. I returned to Gaza and started working, … I copied my documents: my CV, everything. I went from door to door with the production companies. Really from door to door. There are big buildings, … And it is known that in these buildings are price agencies, production companies. I copied my CV 50, 60 or 70 times and went from door to door. I went to the 15th floor and I put them all over the bus, one by one. And then I went to the second building. I never thought I wouldn’t stand a chance. I never had that feeling. I thought: okay not today, but maybe tomorrow. Not tomorrow, maybe the day after. And that’s how it happened. I worked the first time, not paid. Okay, it doesn’t matter. It’s okay, I’m gaining experience. A second time here, a third time there, a fourth time here and a fifth time I made a little money. I was very happy. Converted to here in Belgium I got 20 – 25 euros. For me? Wow. Even when I earned money as a child, because I started when I was seven, … I started working when I was seven years old. I worked for a farmer, with fruit and vegetables, … I did this and that. I worked for money. I know how to make money. It comes from here. It doesn’t fall from heaven. No, no, no. You earn money by making an effort. If you make an effort, you earn money. Are you asleep? Then nothing happens. Money doesn’t fall out of thin air. Because I earned this money, … After I graduated. It felt special. A theatre director saw me play and said: I find your character interesting. Would you like to try something new? I said: yes, I would love to. And it worked. Yes, the first time it was the same [makes hand gesture ‘small’] and then I became the protagonist in all his performances. He called me for every project.

[i] What kind of performances?

[r] It was also about education. Education and Palestine. We never spoke directly. I hate to read a script with a direct message in it. I hate it. Your audience isn’t stupid. They know, … I don’t think theatre should offer you solutions. No, theatre marks a problem. It gives you signs, hints. And then it’s up to you. And we started with this kind of thing. Sometimes we went to buffer zones. Because people there are less educated. And we talked about health, sexuality, education. But in a polite and funny way. You keep laughing. And one of the amazing things, Samuel, … I played a role in a performance, … Let’s say seven, eight years ago. After seven, eight years, I was at a school. A high school, secondary school. There is a girl and she says to me: Hey Zatah. That’s my name in the performance. I thought, … I thought, … What? [looks surprised] She said: yes, you. And you did: one, two, three. But I said, that’s seven, eight, nine years ago. I was glad she remembered the things we taught them at school. Because we also went to the schools. We studied the curriculum they followed. And we tried to tell it in a way other than a textbook. Through theatre. More fun for children. The same thing happened when the teacher wanted to go to class to teach, … Then we sat together with the teachers and people from the education department. This was and wasn’t. Would we do this? Yes, that helps your lesson. The same theme, but through theatre. And children remember it after eight years. That’s very nice. Sometimes we talked about health issues such as, … When people always marry within the same family, … then you get diseases. After a few generations. That’s also what Islam says. Mohamed, … Our prophet says, … I don’t translate this literally, but, … try when you get married, … then marry other families. People who live in the buffer zone and have no contact with others, … A man only has his frame or his cousin, … And they marry within the family and then you get diseases. It felt for me, …. not considered work. But as a duty. It felt like a soldier protecting his people and his country. That was theatre for me at the time. All we did was, … Education. Care. Underline important things. I was very happy when I worked for the theatre. I also made documentaries. And that was all very bloody. It was about Palestine. About war. There’s nothing nice about it. You don’t see any nice images. As a filmmaker it’s interesting. You make the film in an interesting way. But it’s all about blood, war.

[i] Can you give me an example?

[r] You don’t need that, because you know, … I don’t like to recall this kind of memories, … I’ve seen three wars. I apologize for the word war, because it’s not really a war. It is an attack. War. Attack. A war is between two countries. Two armies. But in the situation of Gaza there are no two countries. There are no two armies. It is not a war. How can you talk about war if you have tanks, fighters and nuclear weapons. And I have a kalashnikov. It is not a war. It is an attack. You attack me with an F16, F18 and F35. And I attack you with a small rocket. Boom. It only makes a hole in the sand. Come on, that’s not a war. They call us terrorists. And I have a lot of problems with Hamas, but… They’re not terrorists to me. They are freedom fighters. You have to go back to the fact, … that Hamas was created. Or they present themselves as a political party. After the first intifada. I think in 1970. And it wasn’t until years later that they started their military actions. Hamas was not there, but the occupiers were. So you are the main reason for Hamas. And for Fatah and the other parties. So don’t blame Hamas. Everyone makes mistakes. We are not angels. We do not come from heaven. Imagine if they would give the Palestinians all their rights, … Hamas would not exist. It is very easy. In the Oslo agreement between Palestine and Israel, … From 1996 to 2000, those four years, … Why? In those four years. Ask yourself this question. Were there no problems with the Palestinians. Why didn’t the Palestinians throw stones? Stones for the Israelis. Because the Palestinians felt there was hope. You stopped your attacks. You started to give us our rights. The borders were open. There was electricity so there was economy. We felt we could do something because… we got some rights back. These four years are a good example that Palestinians want to live in peace. Just give us our rights. It is not fair if you take my house, … No, I start from the beginning. It is not fair to see you on the street, … homeless, …. without food, … and it’s raining and you have nothing to warm you up, … And from my hospitality I take you in and give you everything. You wait for me to go to work, … You close the door and you say this is my house. And you don’t want me to say: no, it’s mine. I just want to tell you that it’s mine. And you don’t give me this right. That’s the whole story. Everyone knows that Palestine is for the Palestinians. And some people said: yes, that’s the mass media, because that’s my job. Like the Western media. This is a war between Palestinians and Jews. This is a war between Muslims and Jews. That is not true. That is a lie. We have no problem with Jews. As a Muslim I also have to believe in Judaism. As a Muslim I have to believe in Christianity. I have to believe in their books and their messengers. As a Muslim we cannot respect any messenger, book, religion. We are not allowed to do that. As a Muslim we have to believe everything. So don’t say: it’s about Jews. Because that would mean that I don’t follow islam. It’s about Palestinians and Zionists. If you are my brother, the same blood, the same parents and you take away my house, … and you won’t let me in, I’ll fight you. No discussion. It’s not about religion. Not about culture. It’s about this being my right, my home. I made documentaries so the world could see what happened to the Palestinians. We are under attack. We are firing rockets. It’s like this. [makes hand gesture small] and it makes small holes in the wall. And the Israelis attack us with F16, F19, F35. Bombs with two or three tons of explosives. That’s what I tried to show people. In the war in 2008, … there was an El Lafamine family in a Zaytoun neighborhood. So the Israelis invaded Gaza. In Zaytoun lived a family called El Lafamine. And all the men, … That’s what we do when they invade. All men try to leave, because we know, … that they wouldn’t hurt women or children. What did the Israelis do? They gathered all the women and children and put them in one shop. And an air raid shot this shop, … And with tanks and bulldozers they demolished the shop. How do I know? At the time, I was working for a human rights organisation. And I filmed an eyewitness with my camera. He lived far away. But he had seen everything. Because it was in the countryside. You live here or there. You can see everything there. And they didn’t allow any ambulance to recover the dead bodies. They left them there for 23 days. Maybe a little less. The number of days is not important. I went there. And I was the third or fourth cameraman who was there. Instead of filming, I helped dig up corpses. Not understood] We made a hole in the concrete. And I took dead bodies from under the rubble. I brought them upstairs. First a hand and then someone took over. And I took a child. He was three, four, five years maximum. I took him here [breast] . For he was lying like this. I grabbed him and I remember what he looked like. So I grabbed him here [chest] . And I lifted him up. And his head, … fell off. It’s not something you should show people, but at least they should know. That happens here in Gaza. 2012 the same, … 2014 wow. Gaza 2014, I worked for the UN and it was very difficult for me. Because I was a married man with two children. And 51 days I had to go to work. I worked for the UN and we were the only ones who could go to places no one could reach. Working for the UN does not mean that you are safe: no, no, no. I will tell you stories about what they did to UN shelters. When I tell you UN-shelter, … every UN-shelter has on the roof, … painted in very large letters UN. And there are UN flags everywhere on these shelters. And the Israelis know via the GPS every, … Because this is an agreement. When we built a UN shelter or something else, we passed on the exact GPS coordinates to the Israelis. This shelter is from the UN. Let us say that we are still building the shelter. But it is from the UN. And they know. And one day they were planning to invade [?] . No, … A neighborhood close to the border with Israel. I forgot the name. And they called the UN and the Red Cross. I remember it very well. They called the UN. Please open this school, … as a hiding place for this village, because we are going to invade the village. And call the Red Cross. And tell them to take the people from the school to a safer place by bus. And what did the Israelis do? They let us from the UN, people to the school. And when the people were in the school, they attacked the school. And at that moment everyone accused the UN. They thought we had worked with the Israelis. They thought we had brought the people there to be killed.

[i] So you were attacked by Palestinians?

[r] Yes, we were attacked by Palestinians. How can you believe this? I come to you and I tell you: where you live is dangerous. Come to my place and we will provide transport to take you to the city. And when I take you to my home, there is someone who kills you. That is what the Israelis did. That’s how it was. 2014. I was a father, a filmmaker, I worked for the UN. I couldn’t protect my family anymore, because I had to go to work every day. Every time I called my wife, I lied. I work, but I’m inside. I don’t go to the buffer zone or other dangerous places. Yes, yes. She actually knew. She knew, …. but there was nothing I could do. That’s life. When they invaded Al Shejaiya, … In Al Shejaiya, … you know when you make salad, … You don’t remember where the cucumber, tomato or lettuce is, … You cut into small pieces and you mix. That’s what they did in Al Shejaiya. That’s what they did in Al Shejaiya. The way you make lettuce. And when they leave, we as the UN have to be the first to go there. And I never forget the smell of death. From the first time in 2008. And the first step you took in Al Shejaiya you smelled that smell. And that’s still in my head. For three weeks, everything I ate came out again. I couldn’t. I’m a traumatized guy, until now. I tell something that happened in, …. 2014. And now it is 2018, so four years ago. And I’m still a traumatized guy. I believe that everyone from Gaza is traumatised. Whether they know it or not. Whether it is established or not. Because what we have experienced in those four years, … That is inconceivable. As a human being, … That’s what I told you in the beginning, …. I thank Gaza that we had to grow up fast. Otherwise, we could not handle this. But we have seen enough. And after the war I walked with Mohamed at night, outside, … Just on the street. I saw that he covered his eyes, that he didn’t want to see upstairs, to the sky. And I asked: what is it? He said: Father, don’t look at the sky. And he was shaking, his voice was shaking. And I asked: what is it? They’re filming us, they’re going to shoot us. Who? She, she, …[points up] You know, … he was afraid of the stars, … he thought they were fighters. Who would shoot at us. He was then four and a half years old. He was four and a half years old and he could distinguish the rockets by their sound. He could tell you if it was an F16 rocket or a rocket from Gaza to Israel. He could tell you if the rocket would strike near or far. Only by the sound. He was four and a half years old. And he got traumatized. And I noticed that he used to play everywhere, … But let’s just say he sits here and hits a rocket nearby, … then he’ll never play in that place again. Never again. Not even after the war. He will say: they will shoot there again. So he connected the place to what had happened. When I sat here, there was a rocket. So I’m not here anymore. So every place was dangerous for him. And I decided, … No, I don’t want to live here anymore. And besides, my life was in danger because of my work at the UN. But yes, … My children’s lives are worth more than mine. So I decided, … what I’ve been through, … I won’t let that happen to my children. If I had a chance, [not understood] Yes it is a sacrifice, … For I know when I leave, … then I lose a lot. I lose my house, …. and people sometimes think that this is something materialistic, but it is not. And certainly not when you have built this house yourself, brick by brick. Certainly not when you have built this house stone by stone. When my wife and I bought it, it wasn’t like this, … Just come and sleep. No, there was nothing. And we built it inch by inch. And in every inch there are memories. I knew I had to leave them behind. I had to leave behind my successful life. I had a luxurious life there. I worked for the UN. I worked for a human rights organization. I had my own job. I had my own home, my own car, … I had everything. And I had to leave it behind. I know, … This is a great sacrifice. And a great risk, …. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to get to Belgium. Maybe I would die on the way. But you have to make decisions. A life without risks, … You know, … a very safe zone, … That’s not real life. So yes I decided to flee. For my own safety, … but much more important for those of my children. I want them to be able to grow up in a healthy environment. No more and no less. And I noticed that the second day after we arrived here in Belgium. The second day, my son, … Not the first day, because they had traveled, they waited two, three nights at the border with Rafah. It was very cold. And a lot of misery. He didn’t notice, … But on the second day he asked: hey, Dad, … so the electricity never goes out here? I said no. [looks surprised] Because, you know, in Gaza there is only two, three hours of electricity a day. Or sometimes in two days only two or three hours. And you plan your life according to the electricity planning. And when he arrived here, he was five and a half, six and he noticed this. And whatever he noticed, …. two or three months after they had arrived, … My wife hadn’t seen her brother living in Sweden for eight years, so after three months I said: this is a good opportunity, let’s go to Sweden. And my son said: oh my God, now we have to cross all those borders again. I don’t want that. He thought he would see again what had happened at the border with Rafah. I said: no, no, no, here’s another story. Here you are treated like your human being. You have your passport, you have your ticket, you go to the airport and you fly. That is what I want. I want to see my children play outside. Without fear. That’s it.

[i] Can you describe how you fled to Belgium?

[r] Flights from Palestine are not like those from other countries, because you have to go through different stages. You have to, …

[i] Wait a minute. Can you tell first how you said goodbye to your family?

[r] I didn’t say goodbye. Yes, I didn’t say goodbye, not even to my children. The only person I said goodbye to was my wife. And it was the biggest mistake I made, … Don’t say goodbye to my children. Why? I wasn’t sure yet that I would cross the border with Rafah. I thought: I’m going back anyway. Why say goodbye and then come back? But I succeeded and I crossed the border. I never said goodbye, only to my wife. And she said: call a taxi to take you directly to the border with Rafah. I said: no no, why lose money? I’ll be back anyway. So I took a taxi. We have other taxis, taxis like buses here. You see a taxi, you wave. They take a lot of people along the road. It is not like in Belgium. They take you three, four, five hundred meters further. You give them something small and you move on.

[i] And did you say goodbye to your parents?

[r] No, I’ll tell you this. So I stop the taxi And to go to the border with Rafah, … Yes, I lived ten minutes from my parental home. So to get to the border with Rafah, I had to pass by my family. And when the car passed, I saw my father. He was sitting outside with a friend. And I did so. I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. The first time I contacted them was about two weeks later.

[i] Why did you decide not to tell them?

[r] For you never know. It is a journey of yes or no. It is a journey of life and death. I said to my wife, if anyone asks for me. Tell them that [name] is traveling to study. And he didn’t get a chance to buy a SIM card yet. He sent me an e-mail, but I couldn’t reach him yet. Keep lying. They’ll know you’re lying, but that’s okay. And when I’m safe, I’ll let them know. Because if you tell them you’re going to run away, … And they hear that refugees are dying in the Mediterranean, … Or people die on the way between Turkey and Athens. That wouldn’t be nice. Then they are constantly worried. If I had died, I would have asked my wife for forgiveness. Because she was the only one who knew where I was. That’s it.

[i] Can you tell me how you fled? What means of transport did you use?

[r] First from Palestine, Gaza to Egypt. And from Egypt you fly to Turkey. And from Turkey you have to find your way, … there are millions of them. I was lucky. I paid a lot. Because I was in contact with people who had already prepared everything and they said: come with us. And I arrived two days before they left. And we have a saying [Arabic] . A proverb from Gaza that says: put your heads together and when you die, you die, … Dying together is better than dying alone. We say it this way [Arabic] Dying together is better than alone. At least you can talk. And then we came here with a truck. That’s how it happened.

[i] And in Turkey you got in a truck?

[r] Yes, in a truck. No, first with a boat and then in a truck. The truck was four days old. I don’t know why four days. He stopped a lot.

[i] Don’t you want to talk about it?

[r] No, because it was very difficult. I’d like to keep it to myself. I’d like to keep it to myself. Even if you show this, I want to keep the journey to myself. Because it is very personal. This is the only thing I never tell. This is for me. Because, … really where Samuel, …. you are alone. And there are many things that life teaches you. And this flight showed me how life can mean nothing. We are worthless. We are very weak. And when you disappear, … I’m sorry to say this, … The person closest to you, may be sad for a few days. Maximum and then no more. I have seen enough. During this flight I have seen and heard enough. So yes, I like to keep it to myself. It’s a secret in my life. A very dark secret. But I love it, because I learned a lot from it.

[i] You arrived in the Left Bank?

[r] Yes, lucky that I was. [laughs and puts hands in the ai[r] When I went to the commissariat [means DVZ] , …I knew nothing. They said: you have to go there at four o’clock in the morning, because there are a lot of people. I went there then, but there was no one there. I was the only one. And because my sister [Fatena Alghorr[r] lived in Antwerp, I said: I want to go to Antwerp, close to my sister. And then they took me to a room, to a Red Cross woman. And she said: listen, there is room available in the left bank. All I asked her was: is it a good place? She said yes: you have your own room. Thanks, good enough. When I arrived in the left bank, I knew nothing. It was a shock. I was still tired. The first two weeks in Left Bank I slept and slept and I slept. Not because I wanted to sleep, but there was nothing else I could do. You know, … When I ate, I didn’t get a whole sandwich in the beginning. I was very hungry. I was starving to death. But I couldn’t eat. I just had to sleep. You feel useless and without powers. It was very difficult. But what made it good were the people who worked there, the people of the Red Cross. The first impression I had, … I got from the people who worked there. The smile with which they received you. The humanity, the dignity with which they try to help you. It was a high level, it was priceless. Because I am highly educated and speak English, my life there was easier to communicate. But for the other people who lived there, … They worked there with a lot of love. And with respect, … That’s the most important thing. The second thing is that you are in Linkeroever near the city. Fifteen minutes away you’re in the centre of Antwerp, which also made it easier. To learn the language. Looking back, I had a good time there.

[i] What were your first impressions of Belgium when you arrived?

[r] When you arrive in a new country, you first listen a lot. But I never listen from my experience. It was not the first time I travelled. I had travelled a lot. So it was not a shock to me. Because I had travelled a lot. Seeing a different culture, different people. No problem. But you keep hearing: hey, Belgians are cold. Flemings: oh my God, they are really cold. They don’t trust anyone, they hate everyone, they are racists, NVA, … And their language is shit. Sorry it’s not shit, but it’s very difficult And you hear these things. But for me it wasn’t. They are not cold, … Maybe they are cold because the weather is like that. Sometimes you take over from nature. But it is also their right. You are new. Don’t compare your culture with theirs. Yes, the Arab culture is open: Hey eat with me. That’s your culture and that’s their culture. You have to give them the chance, the time to understand you. To respect you, to see if you are a good person or not. Because all they know about you is war and IS. All they know about you is what they see on the news. And there they say one, two, three, four, five, … And everyone knows that this kind of mass media has a certain agenda.

[i] Have you experienced racism?

[r] To me? Um, … no. Once. My neighbour. [Laughs] She’s from the NVA.

[i] What did she do?

[r] You know, when I see people, I smile. Even when you don’t know them, you don’t like them. Then you still smile. Or when I say “Hey” to you, you say “Hey” back. That’s basic. She never says hello. She’s always like this [frown look] . A week or two later it’s the Flemish holiday. A week before the Belgian holiday. And she hangs a Flemish flag outside. The lion with the red claws. I notice this. I don’t like it. But racism, no. Maybe I know how to choose people. And I know how to negotiate. And when I deal with a racist, I know how to shut him up. But back about the Belgians, … They are not cold, …. They are afraid. They have seen enough. They have heard a lot of nonsense and lies. And it would be good if they saw something new. My best friends are Belgians. When they trust you, they are the most warm, welcoming, funny guys and girls. They are nice. You just have to open the door. You have to look. They don’t communicate. Yes, that’s because you don’t speak English, French or Dutch. How can they communicate with you? How can they communicate with you? It is also a barrier. The language barrier is very big here. Thank God, that many Belgians and certainly Flemish people speak English. Not like the Walloons, they only speak French. So here you can communicate in English and that’s good. So language is a barrier. And sometimes I feel sorry for people who only speak Arabic. It requires a lot of effort. But the first few months, … As a man, … I told you that I started working at seven. I know how to make money. I never borrowed money. My time in Left Bank, … The moment I hated most was at dinner. I hate to stand in line for food. Then I feel like I’m in prison. And that I am a criminal. Sometimes I came first, sometimes last, sometimes I didn’t come. Because I didn’t want to stand in line. There is a bus station right at the door of the centre. Sometimes there are Belgians on the bus and they look at you. It was the first time I saw them watching. Before that I hadn’t noticed. One time I got off the bus and someone was looking at me like that [frown look] . Refugee, gold digger, illiterate, … I read that in their eyes. Afterwards I always stepped one stop in front of or one stop after the centre. And then I walked. I could not accept this. I am not illiterate, I am not a gold digger, I am highly educated. I had a life that you yourself would have wished for. But these are the circumstances I never chose to live in. If there weren’t the circumstances that forced me to leave, … Then I would never have left. In 2010 I was in the US. I didn’t stay there because the circumstances were different. Before that, in 2005, I had a visa for Sweden. I wasn’t even married. I was a free man. But I didn’t even go. Because I had everything. I worked for the EU, I had a perfect life, I was single. I never stayed there. I worked in Egypt, in the film. I was going to be famous, but I never stayed there. But circumstances have changed. I had to flee. It’s not that I wanted to leave. I had to. That’s the difference. They need to know this. Nobody chooses to leave everything behind. Especially in my case. I had a good life. That’s it.

[i] And now you live in Lebbeke? How is your life in Lebbeke?

[r] Life in Lebbeke, well, … It was a very scary beginning because… I used to live in big cities. Antwerp. The glory of Antwerp was enough. You know: Antwerp the city. The capital.

[i] What is your favourite place in Antwerp?

[r] Uh, my favorite place is the Rivierenhof. In Deurne. The largest park ever: clean, green, quiet. Every time I go to Antwerp, I want to go to the Rivierenhof. It is fantastic. And maybe because it was the first place I walked with my wife, after she had arrived. Yes, it was the first time I walked with her after she had arrived in Belgium. That was in the Rivierenhof. It is an amazing place. I love the Rivierenhof. But I don’t like the transport there. But in Lebbeke it was very scary at first, because I didn’t know anything. What do I want to do, what should I say? But the school is close by: two minutes. In Antwerp, I spent three hours a day on the road, back and forth. In the morning, in the evening in traffic. Now the school is nearby. The mosque is also nearby, next to the school. What else do I need? Transportation. That is nearby. I work in Brussels: a direct line. Shops: Delhaize is here, Aldi is there, Lidl is there. Everything I need as a human being, as a family is here. For my children: there is an academy, a library, a sports centre. I am here, as I told you in the beginning, so that my children would have a good life. No more and no less. It’s not about me anymore. I’ve seen enough, I’ve travelled enough. I achieved what I wanted in a way. But when you’re married and you have children, it’s not about you anymore. Everything is focused on your children. Not understood] I’m doing well in Belgium. I work. I pay taxes. I work for Caritas, as I said. I have a good job. For an international organisation. I’m doing well.

[i] How do you see your future?

[r] I want to start my own business here. I want to have my own production company. That’s what I’m going for. My wife also has plans. She is very active in an educational process. She teaches Arabic and Islam voluntarily. And she works with Belgians on integration through education. How do you bring two cultures together through education? How do you exchange? It is a very unique project and we are also trying to start it up in Lebbeke. Yes, we try to give something back to the community, because Belgium has received us very respectfully. Belgium protects us and offers us a future. So now I’m trying to give something back. At first we were very weak. When we arrived, we knew nothing. We did not speak Dutch. We didn’t know the rules. And Belgium was patient with us: two, three years. I thought: Belgium is still okay for you? Do you know everything now? Can you stand on your own two feet? Yalla! Go for it. And that’s what we do. We give something back. It’s about respect. It’s about appreciation and a future for our children. Because we are here. We are Belgian. Palestinian, but also Belgian. My children will be Belgian. We live in Belgium. So they need to know how to return them to the country that receives them. Yes.

[i] Is there anything else you want to tell us? One last message?

[r] Yes, refugees have not chosen to do this. Most of them had to do this. They had to flee. Many are highly educated. Many have a lot of experience within their profession. They are not gold diggers. These are the circumstances. And they need time to deal with their new community and culture. Give them this time. And open more doors. Don’t be afraid. We are good people. [Laughs]

[i] Thanks [name] .

[r] You’re welcome.