[i] Good afternoon [name]. Today I will interview you for the project “Unprecedented Special” for the “European Refugee Oral History project”. Could you introduce yourself before I start with my questions? Where are you from? What do you do in your life?

[r] Good afternoon [name], thank you for the interview. My name is [name]. I am a Syrian artist, a singer and a filmmaker. I arrived in Belgium 3 years ago with my family. At the moment I am making performances for the theatres: singing or acting. And I make short films.

[i] Could you tell me a bit about your life in Syria? About your family, about your childhood. What was it like for you?

[r] That is a very sensitive subject. But it’s nice to remember that. To go back to these nice memories. Actually, I grew up in a Christian Orthodox family. My father was an engineer. He was a Christian Arab. And my mother was an Armenian. She was a painter and a fashion designer. I grew up in a very artistic family so music was actually better than church for us. In the morning when I woke up, the first thing my father did was set up music for us by a very famous Lebanese singer, Fairuz. He was actually more in love with her than with my mother. Then I played the piano when I was 5 years old. Everything I heard I played. I loved theatre, opera. Sometimes also some comic films. “Tom and Jerry”…I feel that “Tom and Jerry” has really had a big impact on me. Not only with the music but also with drama and also tricks . It was like math. It reminded you of how to escape from problems. And to come up with something new. And yes, my school years…for our culture in Syria it is very important that you study at the University and then you have to become a doctor or lawyer or engineer. That was something you had to do. So I studied law, but it didn’t fit my character. I’ve always wanted to be an artist. Luckily I met my husband. He is an engineer and also a poet. So we have the combination: “Okay, we don’t like what we study but we love art”. So we supported each other with that. Then we got married and went to Dubai and we lived there for almost 8-9 years. I taught music and drama at the British school. I directed a lot of musicals for children. I love children very much. Although I love children, I only have one son. It’s funny, I know. Even my son asks me, “Why didn’t you think about giving me a brother?” Because all my students were like my children. And for me, a child is so much responsibility. You have to take care of it. And then I was so young and passionate. I wanted to follow my dreams. I was dragging my son everywhere… to work. It was so much fun. It was full of energy. And then… we had a business in Dubai. My husband had his business. And then the economic crisis happened in 2008. We lost everything. And we thought, “Okay, maybe now is the time to go back to Syria and start all over again”. And that year, when we decided to go back in 2009, I lost my mother. Suddenly. She was young. That was really heartbreaking for me. It was a great shock for me. It took me several years to get over it. And we went back to Syria with all its consequences. After 1 or 2 years the war has started. During those years I really had to do my best not to collapse or give up. But you know at the end of the day we are all people. And sometimes you just know that you are too tired to be strong. You just have to go with the flow. If you want to cry or be depressed it’s okay. So that period was very, very bad for me. And then the war with all its consequences… You see people dying and killing each other. It was difficult, not only for me but for all Syrians. So of course we had to leave Aleppo and then we went to live in Mashta Al Helou, my husband’s hometown. There I started teaching music to children. I had my own choir. We performed a few times. And I did a “talent show” for the children. I found someone who is very good at music, a genius or someone who is very good at poetry. I’ve organised many talent concerts. But because of the consequences of the war and the fact that my parents suffered so much as a result, I asked myself: “Okay, what’s going to happen now?” And I’m actually a very ambitious woman. I want to do more. So for me, teaching was… It’s fun and I love it. But I had a feeling that I wanted to do something new. But that just wasn’t possible in Syria. Because when you’re awake you have to wait until they give you electricity and water. It is not safe to go outside. You know what? It’s all confused. It’s a big mess.

[i] Would you tell a bit more about life before the war? How was it?

[r] Actually for us…because I’ve been living abroad for a while…I can say it was safe but it wasn’t so good. Because there was corruption. There is no respect for humanity. And that is something we deserve as Syrians.

[i] Why do you think that?

[r] By the system, by politics, by government.

[i] Do you mean Syrians as people? Or as a nation?

[r] Actually, Syrians who deserve to be respected as people. Because we have smart people. We have intellectual people, we have hard-working people, we have great businessmen. We have almost everything. But it is by the media and the way we are shown to the West or to the other countries. I was surprised when I came here and I heard that some people didn’t know we existed before the war. And that is sad. And that does not just apply to Syria. That is the problem for the whole of the Middle East. That is religion, that is politics. That is what limits you. We are free souls. We are free thinkers. We have to think. We have to give freedom to our thoughts, to our emotions. Because we are human beings. We have the right to live. And that was gone before the war. People were oppressed for 40 years. And I’ll say it was positive anyway. Because now when I look at the consequences of the 40 years of oppression it’s a big mess. But we didn’t want… With the revolution we didn’t want… We just wanted a change. We wanted respect. We wanted a few simple things. As a human being it is your right to live. But it became a big mess. Both ruined everything. And we became victims. Unhappy. And as long as some people get millions of dollars…the war industry people have millions of dollars. It’s not going to stop. So yes… I can’t say it was very good before the war. And I can’t say it was good because there was so much poverty; so many problems. You couldn’t ask for your rights. But if you had money and if you knew people from the government you could get what you wanted. But if you didn’t, then yes… We didn’t have a hard time because we weren’t so direct… I can’t remember being in direct contact with the government because it was something I really hated. And that was one of the reasons why I didn’t want to study law because how could I work with them? It’s always lying lying…I know it’s true everywhere but it was then my point of view.

[i] And were you interested in politics?

[r] Yes, I did. Yes. Unfortunately, it’s not such a clean game. I think to be a politician you have to…mmm…I really don’t know how to describe that. You really need to know how to play this game and you need to adapt. And that’s something I can’t do. Maybe I want… I also have ambitions to be in a political position but to help mankind. That’s what I want to do. Something about human rights, something about caring for the children. But more than that no. I’m not interested in that. Because I’m sure I won’t succeed if I’m too direct. My goal is to help humanity. To support humanity. To support my country. And I think I can do that through art. I can do that through my films, through singing my voice and through my emotions. And I think it’s closer to people’s hearts. Then I don’t have any special goals. I just pronounce myself. I just want to be myself. And I want to show love and art. And that is what I want to do.

[i] Do you have any brothers or sisters?

[r] Yes, I only have one brother. He lives in Australia. He is married now. He has been married for 3 years now. There are two of us. He also has a beautiful voice. I haven’t seen him in 5 years. He also had some problems in 2012. He… The war started in Aleppo in he was then in his car and he saw people dying before his eyes…so he lost his mind and he went on Facebook and he wrote: “Stop killing the people!” and so on…And then he was arrested and it was very bad for a few months. But luckily he was released and now he’s in Australia. It is good now. He is doing well. But I miss him very much. Because he is my soul mate. And I hope that one day we can meet and perform together on the same stage. And yes… my father died just before I came to Belgium. So for me it was okay… no one was left there. No, I have my cousins and my uncles but they were too old. But you know, if they are your father and your mother, it is very difficult for you to leave them behind and leave. Especially because I didn’t…you know my brother wasn’t there and I was there. So when my father died I thought, “Okay, I really have to leave now.” That’s like…you reach that point when there’s no reason to stay there in Syria anymore. Because nothing is going to improve. It gets worse and dangerous for your children, for the future of your children. And then we came here.

[i] So your brother left for Australia for you?

[r] Yes. Then I tried to go back to Dubai to start my studies in film. And I thought, “Okay, maybe I can get a visa and then I can bring my family…” But for political reasons, my visa had been refused a few times. 2 or 3 times, I don’t remember. And then… I also studied film in Murdoch at an Australian university. And then I thought, “Okay, maybe I’ll take a break,” and then in the summer I went to Syria with my family. And we were happy that my brother was getting married in Melbourne. And my father was there too. My father decided to go to Aleppo to celebrate my brother’s wedding with his brothers… And then… And then he died. He had a heart attack. And I couldn’t…from Mashta Al Helou to Aleppo is 12 hours travelling through the borders…many borders. And it was dangerous for me to go there. So I couldn’t go to my father’s funeral. So it was very hard…very hard for me. And my visa was also denied. So I was so…so yes. So the decision to leave and to come here was just made in one week. And yes, we packed everything and we arrived.

[i] And I know that in Syria there are many different nationalities and many different religions. What were the relationships between all these nationalities?

[r] Yes, normally we had no problems before the war. Maybe there were some hidden things, but that’s normal. It happens. My parents they didn’t want to be super happy if I had friends from other nationalities or other religions. But we always had freedom and we always respected each other. We never had these problems before the war. But after the war…and of course when these problems started to happen between the sides and stuff…. It was of course politically planned to make these problems between the Syrians to make them hate each other. And then there were real problems, yes… It was actually disgusting. It hurt. So much. We had forgotten that we had lived together for so long. We had forgotten that. And that we think of: “God says that and God says this” but God does not say to kill. Yes, it’s lack of attention, it’s fear, it’s denial that people live with. They are very afraid to admit that what they do is wrong. That their religion says it’s wrong. Or that what the leaders say is wrong. It is a lack of attention. But maybe it is my opinion to say that it is a lack of attention. Maybe the other people say it’s right. So actually the truth is lost after a few years of war. That’s why I want to stop listening to the news…of course politically. I always wanted to try to analyze whether what I hear is right or wrong. But the truth is lost. We don’t know what the truth is. We don’t know who is robbing whom. Who kills whom. All we know is that it’s a mess. But for me, my country remains my country. I love it. I am proud to be a Syrian. I am proud until the last day of my life. Because we have a good culture, we have good hearts. And I am also proud of the many Syrians who are in Europe and who change things and do great things. Because it’s actually a great sign that the war didn’t kill you. The war can take away your country, your house, but the war can’t take away from you. And that is important. If we survive, if we are strong then Syria is strong. Then Syria will survive. It is not a geographical Syria. We are Syria.

[i] Okay, let’s talk about your trip and your departure. Do you remember when you made the decision to leave? Could you describe this moment, please?

[r] Yes…yes…. I don’t really remember what I was feeling at that moment. I was so stunned. I was so stunned. You know, if you’re hurt or you broke up because of very bad relationships and you have this reaction…an overreaction. That’s how it was. It was like that for all of us, I think. So I lost my father and my visa was denied and my dreams faded. And I felt, “Okay, what are we doing here?” And then my husband said, “Okay, I’m leaving. Alone.” And I said, “No. If you go, we’ll go with you. Me and my son. We’re going along. If you die, we die with you. If you survive, then we survive with you.” I don’t want to lose more people.

[i] And his plan was to go alone first and then bring you?

[r] Yes yes. And I didn’t want him to do that. And he asked, “So what now?” And I said, “Yes, we’re going together.” So we packed and I didn’t… I didn’t tell anyone. Because I’m very attached to my students. I’m very attached to people. Not things or objects, no… Of course I miss my house and I miss the beautiful morning and my balcony. I miss all these things. But for me, the hardest part was being separated from my students. Of the people I love.

[i] And at that moment you were giving lessons?

[r] Yes yes. There was actually a festival that I had to present. And I was wearing black because I lost my father 1 week ago. And I promised that I would do it. So I was on stage. And I was talking to my students. And I thought ok maybe I’ll stay in Syria. At that moment I didn’t know I was coming. I didn’t know I was coming to Europe. That was the last thing in my head I would do. And then later I came home. And I talked to my husband. And he asked, “Do you really want to live like this? Always waiting for the electricity on the water? And no future… no future for our son. Nothing for us”. And you know we were at the age when you’re not too young and not too old. So we might still have a chance to start a new life.

[i] And how old were you at that time?

[r] Yes, I was 35. Yes 36-35…yes. So yes then we called our friends who live in Germany and in Switzerland. They gave us a mobile phone number of a smuggler. We did this in a normal way. So we first went to Beirut.

[i] And what is “the normal way”?

[r] Yes, I’ll tell you now. So we went to Beirut. And of course we were still in contact with that man. Via Whatsapp. And then we went to Turkey. And then we took a boat from Turkey. It was very…that moment it was so…I’m not going to say it was funny or scary. But it was just weird. It was just weird for us. So we were in the boat. 40 people. But for some reason I was just laughing and joking. Because yes… I know how to swim. I thought it would be okay. I used to swim very well when I was young. But my son couldn’t do that. And my husband couldn’t either. So I was a bit worried about it. But I thought, “No. We’re going to do that!” I had the feeling that we were going to do it. So I was very positive. And then we arrived at an island. And then we took another big boat. It took a few hours. So 10 or 11 hours. To Greece. And then in Greece we made false passports. And we went to the airport. We speak very good English, me and my son. So I said to my husband: “You stay there. And then we decide where to go first.” Because I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t want to go to Germany and I didn’t want to go to Switzerland. So where should I go? Because there are so many people. I heard: “So many Syrians here and so many Syrians there.” I was thinking: “Okay. Where to?” And I really wanted to go to a place where people can be a bit warmer and cozy. And then a few people were talking about Belgium: “Yes, there aren’t that many people there”. And I didn’t think about the 3 languages I would have to learn or… I didn’t think. And my husband was: “So okay, where to?” And I said, “Belgium”. Okay, good. And then me and my son crossed the airport and the next day we went to the police station. And that’s where I realized… Amai the number of people there… And they didn’t even know how to ask for a glass of water or something like that. Nothing. They were completely lost. Because for us it wasn’t weird to go to an airport and travel. Because we have already done so…But for some people it was really a big change. It was like…especially for the people who are very attached to the country. The farmers. And you just pull them loose from their roots and you throw them somewhere. And that is crazy! So I was so hurt that day… I wasn’t sad about myself maybe because at that moment I didn’t realize what I had done. Then I arrived. And I did this and that. All these crazy things during a few days. And my son kept asking, “Is it going to be okay? Am I going to be okay?” And I said, “You speak English. People understand you. They respect us. That must be okay”. And it was.

[i] How old was your son then?

[r] My son then…he was 13.

[i] Did he learn English in school?

[r] Yes, he learned English in Dubai. And when we went to Syria we also lived in Syria for 6 years. So yes. I kept talking English with him in case he wanted to go abroad to study in the future. I didn’t want him to forget. So we kept talking English all the time. English and Arabic at home. I used to talk English to him because I didn’t want him to forget it. So that was a good thing. That was positive. And yes…then my husband followed us after 2 days. I said that everything is fine. And we had an assistant from the PCSW and she said: “Yes, sure. He can come.” And I said: “Okay. He might be here in a few days”.

[i] So first you left with your son?

[r] Yes, I left first because my English is better than that of my husband. And I just… I don’t know, I think I’m just being brave. I can do that. So… I didn’t think about whether he was there or not. I just wanted to make sure we were safe. What’s the situation… Because… You know, he had back problems, too. He had very bad problems with his back before we left. I had to be sure that we had a good place to sleep. That he wouldn’t arrive and would be in shock.

[i] And weren’t you worried that you might end up in different countries? And that the road would be too difficult?

[r] No. No. No. Because I love people. It doesn’t matter who you are… It doesn’t matter where you come from. I always had a feeling that I’m not only a Syrian, but that I’m also an international person. I haven’t been afraid to be here. Not at all. I have also lived with many Westerners. I had western friends when I lived in Dubai. Yes, of course the culture is a bit different but in the end we are all people. So the moment people see that you are positive and that you are pleasant and nice and there is peace then everyone will be good for you. You start with a smile. That’s all. [Smiles]

[i] So how long did your journey from Aleppo to…?

[r] Actually, we left Mashta Al Helou. Mashta Al Helou is only 1.5 hours drive from the border with Lebanon. And yes, then at the border…it took a long time, 4-5 hours. Normally it only took 1 hour to get to Beirut. But because of the many investigations and so on. Luckily my husband is a poet and he had given many concerts in Beirut and for him it was normal to go back and forth. And they knew us. Because he was on TV or he had to sign for his book…so it was normal. And they didn’t hesitate. Because if they doubted they wouldn’t let us go. So 4-5 hours and then we stayed 2-3 days in Beirut because you also have to wait until the smuggler says that it is okay and safe. That you can do it now.

[i] And you stayed in a hotel?

[r] Yes, we stayed in a hotel. And then we booked another hotel in Istanbul. And then we went to another city…which is near the beach. To take the boat. But the attempt was not good and the smuggler called us and said: “No, that’s not safe. Go the other time. Or the next day.” So we did and we were on the sea for about 4 hours. And then the other boat…that was a big ship for 10-11 hours. Just about. And then we had to stay in Greece for 2 days because I did not know where to go. [laughs] I was thinking about which country to choose. And then after 2 days I went to the airport…and that was a few hours…but I was afraid…I was really afraid…to fly from Greece to Belgium. I was very scared…I felt like, “Wow I don’t want anything bad to happen to us. I didn’t want people to think that we… I just felt bad. I felt that we are thieves. That we’re doing something wrong.” But then again, the moment we landed it was good. The people were pleasant. We were smiling. People were smiling. That was the first thing I noticed. People smile and say “hello”. And for us it was a bit strange. But yes…So almost…in general 8 to 10 days, something like that.

[i] And that included sleeping in the hotel?

[r] Yes yes.

[i] And what was the hardest part for you on this trip?

[r] See Syrians sleeping in the streets.

[i] The street of…?

[r] The street of…that was in Greece. At the hotel. Just opposite me. And people in the tents. Or people were just sleeping in the park. And that was very…that was very hard for me to see. But yes…we had a chance. We had some money. We could fly. But some people have walked. Some people were killed on the way. You know what? So all these things…I was thinking about it but I don’t want to think about it too much because that would definitely stop me. And say, “No, you’re risking your family’s life. No.” There was no choice for me. And there was no second thought that I would think negatively…I wanted to think positively that I’m going to arrive and that everything would be okay. And that I will start the new life. But that part was the hardest part. The fear of people…their pale faces. The children…There was something very, very painful. When I drove by car from Mashta Al Helou to the borders of Lebanon and it was during a religious festival or something. And I saw the little children…on the way. They carried weapons as toys. All children! And I thought okay, maybe one or two. But all children! I mean, what do we teach our children? And I thought, “Okay, now I don’t regret leaving.” At the time, that was what I thought. I’m not sorry. Because when our children of 4 and 5 years old carry weapons as toys and they really like to play with them…that’s dangerous. War is difficult. But after the war it gets harder. So…That was…I remember. I remember that scene…That kid was just barefoot…he was playing on the street…and he had that big gun that was even bigger than his head…and he was just playing with that gun and his friends….

[i] And those procedures of crossing the borders…was it difficult for you?

[r] No…not really. If they don’t doubt you, don’t. And I think…fortunately, we had that first impression that when people see us that they’re comfortable, they’re comfortable, so…I was just talking. The way I always flew from one country to another… So… It wasn’t difficult. But I was afraid, yes…

[i] So during every procedure of crossing borders you said you were fleeing the war?

[r] Yes yes…of course. You say that. But… We… Not in Greece. At the airport in Greece, we said we were going to visit… But nobody… Nobody asks a lot. Because we… We just … we were just talking in English. Me and my son. And we were laughing and… Yes [laughs] we had a really happy moment where everything seemed fine. And my son was small, too. He wasn’t big. Maybe if he was taller or taller than me…as he is now. Maybe then they would doubt… but not at that time. No… Yes so I was happy. I was happy.

[i] And do you remember the moment you said goodbye to your friends? Or didn’t you tell anyone?

[r] No. I called someone… I called 1 student… She was very close to my heart. And I was very scared…because she is very sensitive…I was very scared that she would be very angry with me…And then I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself. So…I just told her: “I could leave…I’m not sure yet. But I could leave. And I don’t want you to cry because I’m sure I’ll be back. And I’ll definitely see you.” It was… it was difficult. I didn’t want to say goodbye…Because I knew… The moment I see them…I see them crying…I couldn’t leave. I would go back.

[i] So that was the plan? In order not to say goodbye…

[r] No…Yes. I know most of them were shocked. That…that I left. And… I talked to them. And I took some time for myself to apologise to them. But everyone understood me… Everyone told me: “We know that you are very ambitious. And you certainly have to take care of your family…” And I have a son. Otherwise, if I didn’t have a son, I might be able to stay… I could fight. It doesn’t matter… But because of my son… Because of the worries about my son being out of school… Without education… To be a part of that insanity, we can say… It really scared me. I had to be really quiet. I had to be really careful of what I said and what I thought… Because… Nobody would like that. And…for my son. That was the first priority for me why we came here. Otherwise I think that me and my husband…we would stay there. And would fight… Yes, fighting with the art, yes. I would never carry a weapon…I would never be able to do that. I can’t even kill a cockroach. [laughs] So… But just to be free. Free in thought…Just to be free.

[i] And your husband…did he have a job when you left?

[r] No…because all the jobs back then…they were…and he was also…very sick. He had a back problem. But he was writing a lot… He published 2 books. Of course he did it in UNESCO Palace…in Beirut. He couldn’t publish his books in Syria. Although there was nothing about politics…but I think the media in our country is really…the media is really privileged. The media is not fair to… to appreciate good artists. Let’s say. So…he was engaged in poetry. To keep him alive… as we say. He’s also an engineer, but of course… he likes poetry more. So yes… he was just… he was busy with his poetry. He was also a member of the church in Mashta Al Helou. And of course because he wasn’t corrupted. He didn’t play a big role there. They didn’t want him in a high position. He was elected to become a mayor. But because he wasn’t in one of the political parties…that’s why they…they stopped him. But it was okay for us. It didn’t matter to us. Yes like that.

[i] And did you have to leave your own house?

[r] Yes. Yes, we left everything behind. Everything… We sold a few things. To just be able…We also borrowed some money because…at that moment…it’s hard you know…to arrange money. You don’t have a job. You have no income. You have nothing. So…it was hard to…leave beautiful things…beautiful memories…but yes…it wasn’t all that important…but what was important…was…us. Because we wanted to get on with our lives…to get on with what we started. And there was no more way to do that in Syria.

[i] So…at the time of leaving you were already sure you wouldn’t come back? Did you have a lot?

[r] No…no…no. Yes, it’s sad…

[i] And when you lived in Syria, what was your idea, your image of Europe in general?

[r] Yes…we always knew that Europe is a very civilised place. Especially…if religion is separated from politics, then civilisation comes. My grandfather…my aunts…they all studied abroad. My husband’s brothers…they all studied abroad. They are all doctors…and they studied abroad. So…we have a good idea of…let’s say…not a good idea to live there but…we have a good idea of life in Europe. It is civilized. Yes…social life is not well developed…the way we have it in Syria.

[i] How is it different?

[r] I think people here are more concerned about themselves…about their lives. In a very closed circle. It’s not the case with us… It’s different. And I think that people there might have more time… Although… Some Syrians had 2 jobs on the same day and they were very productive and they have achieved a lot, you know… But they also had a good social life. I remember… we finished our work and then we went to party… On a Monday or on a Wednesday. And Saturday and Sunday we party of course until morning you know… But here it’s not like that. Here it is different. Here I think the procedure of life is a little slower… more organized and you may be able to achieve 1 or 2 goals in the long run. But it was faster there…And so when we got to it I thought: “Ok guys, I’m gonna have a heart attack…” It takes so long, so long…and they said: “Yes…quietly!” [laughs] That was the first word… [Laughs]

[i] The most important word… [Laughs]

[r] Yes… everything takes time. And you just have to… “Sally calm down… Everything will be fine. It will just take time.” And I actually realized…a few months ago. Because it takes time…to adapt to the atmosphere. Not the culture or the people no… That was good for us. We had no problems with the people. It’s just the life procedure, the life routine. Before it goes into your system… It’s still… Sometimes my system still rejects it…I go crazy. But yes…it’s a fact. And I live here now…so I have to…I have to adapt. I adapt the good things…I still try to stay myself. And I still try to do things fast… and I’m working on different things at the same time… But I just do it with less stress because I know it takes time. But at least you achieve what you want. And a good thing here is that if you have a right then you won’t lose it. That’s a good thing.

[i] Do you remember the first day when you arrived in Antwerp? And why Antwerp?

[r] Yes. The first day when I arrived was in Brussels. And then they sent us to Boom. Boom is a beautiful place. But very boring. So at 5 a.m. nobody was on the street. I’m just not used to that. I like silence but not dead quiet, you know? And what I did was…after 1 week…I was checking online…because I wanted to finish my film studies. I checked it online and I was like, “Ok. I’m going to go to a film school. And it has to be in English. [laughs] I want to go on. Because I… didn’t really want to get depressed. And feel weak and feel depressed…I didn’t want to get that…because I knew that at the time I give up then I will just collapse. So…I did it. I found a movie school. I sent a nice motivation letter to a very pleasant director of that film school… AFT in Antwerp. She was an American woman. And I asked her for an interview. So after I sent her a motivation letter, I told her that I am also a teacher and that I might be interested in teaching and studying at the same time. And I didn’t have any papers back then. Nothing. So she sent me an email and said, “Yes, why don’t you come by and get to know each other?” And where was the school? It was in Antwerp. I didn’t know Antwerp. I didn’t know how to go to Antwerp. And for me it was also very strange that we had to use public transport. I never had to use public transport in my life in my country. I’ve always had my own car. So…I took public transport…it took me 3 hours to get to Antwerp. I was really lost…

[i] From Boom to Antwerp 3 hours?

[r] Yes…that was the first time. And I was: “Goddamn it! I don’t know the way…and the GPS was crazy… because I think there was some reconstruction on the street…so it gives you “to the right” and if you go to the right then “no you have to go to the left”…so it was the root mess. By the time I arrived I was very happy…but happy by the fact that my husband is punctual…he told me: “You have to leave 3 hours earlier”. Because you never know…what if you don’t know the way? And he was right. So I was on time. I arrived at the school. And I had a conversation with Diane. Really a pleasant woman. So I talked to her for 2 hours. And I explained it to her… “Look, I have no papers and I have no money. And I really wanted to continue my studies in film. All I can do is show my points to you from Merdoch University. I had very good points. It was in the nineties. I have worked very hard. I really wanted to graduate.” And she said: “Okay, maybe you can take 1 year minus. I don’t have a problem with it. But it’s a really expensive school.” And I said, “Yes, but I don’t have any money. All I can say is if you give me a chance to be a part of this school I’m going to make this school really proud of me. I can do a lot of things.” And she was like, “Ok. I will talk about it with the owner of the school. And I will let you know.” And then when I left her I already knew: “Ok that’s not going to happen. Okay. She is very nice. But if the school is very expensive and that is a private school…so how can they accept me?” And the other schools are all in Dutch or French. I can’t do that. And so for a week I felt weak… And that day I was so angry and sad and then I got a call. And it was about 10 o’clock. I remember. And she said: “Hey Sally, it’s Diane. And yes… You got the scholarship to study at the school and you don’t have to lose a semester or 1 year. Just show your points from Murdoch and everything will be fine. And you can start in October. And that was in September. And you know I came to Belgium in August and then I got the approval in September and in October…. 2 October I already started at the school. And I thought: “Amai! That was so fantastic!” And I had a great time in that school. I graduated. I have made very good friends that I have had so far. So it was kind of a cure. Really…I was busy all the time…I was busy with movies and studying and so many things. It was also a completely different vision of art… and in that school there was also a mix of students… not only Belgians but also from other countries so… It was so nice to be with such a great group of people…I always told them who I was, that I’m from Syria and so on. That was a story… that I came by boat…[laughs] And I’ve always told it with a smile…and they asked, “You came by boat?” It was really shocking for them. But…you know…as long as we weren’t killed…we’re still alive. We can smile. We can laugh. So it really was the best time of my life.

[i] How long did you study there in this school?

[r] Mmm…I started in October and I graduated in April…so let’s say 1 full year. It was great. Really a great experience. I filmed my own music video in Antwerp. It was my second music video. And it was about home… It was in Arabic. And my friends helped me with the movie, with everything…it was really great. You know… we had to choose an artist… to make a music video. It was the project. And I thought, “God damn it! I don’t know anyone. What am I going to do?” And then a friend of mine said, “You’re a singer, aren’t you? You’re singing.” And I said, “Yes…” “Then make yourself a music video!” And I thought, “Uh…” [laughs] It was a relief. And then yes…my friends weren’t sure if I could sing well or you know…because a lot of people say, “Okay I sing!” you know…and then it’s not good. And I said, “Okay, guys. Before you decide that you want to work with me, I’ll send you a link to my work, and then if you like it, we’ll do it.” So yes, they liked it. And we made a music video. It was a great success. And then we made some short films… I made my short film. And I got a chance for the graduation ceremony to show my graduation project, coincidentally to Rudi Vranckx from VRT. I met Rudi Vranckx. I didn’t know who Rudi Vranckx was. I received an email from VRT Canvas, saying they want to have an appointment with you. And then I went and I showed that email to my teacher at school and she asked, “Who sent that to you?” And I said, “I don’t know. It looks like TV. What is that?” And she said, “Are you crazy? He’s one of the best channels and that’s Rudi Vranckx!” And I was so upside down… And so of course I went and I met them. And they said, “Okay, we’re making documentaries. And if you can make a documentary…” And I actually wanted to make a documentary about my life and about my brother’s life in Syria. But at that moment I had just gotten my residence so…we had to move…we had a lot of financial problems. And a lot of stress…So I apologized for the project and I had to stop everything…because my family is the most important thing and we had to settle down…looking for the jobs and…. starting with the Dutch lessons…. because I was already late for school. And yes… so I had to stop for a while. And then we decided… My husband decided to open a small Syrian restaurant. And that only occurred to him when I was in the film school…we made short films and we did catering…And my husband said: “Okay. I cook for you.” And he started cooking 3 or 4 years ago… But my friends liked his food very much. And they said, “Oh, that’s so good. You have to think about it!” And my husband said, “Yes, by the time I learn the language and I will be able to work as an engineer, I may be 50 years old. Why not do something now?” And I said, “Go for it!” And then we went to a small restaurant. And then… That was also a very difficult situation. It took us 5 months to get a license for the…you know, the license to open a restaurant. And we had no money… We had to borrow some money from friends to make it fun and cozy. We did the decoration ourselves. Everything. Almost everything. And then we started with falafel. Because we heard that people here appreciate vegetarian food. And there was already falafel… “Falafel Cool” and “Benny Falafel”. And we went there and we tasted falafel … and we think that our falafel was a little different … it is delicious. But it’s a little different. So we started it. And people loved the food. And after a while there was an article about us. So we were working on it. And there was nothing more we could do with art. Or…we just transferred our art to the food. We shared our culture by eating. We could imagine our artistic skills through the food. The way we represented the food…. and the way we talked to the customers… Our restaurant was very small. It was called “Dilbi Falafel”. It was very small. But it was so much fun…  and people came to us … and we had a feeling that they were just our guests. That they came to our house. And you just talked to them and… asked them, “How about the food?” And then…some small stories shared…I like talking to people. Sharing stories, sharing experience with them. It was…it was very nice. A very nice experience with them. But it was hectic…lots of taxes, lots of procedures. No break. Monday was our only day off and we had to do our paperwork and…lots of things, lots of stress.

[i] And then you had to stop?

[r] Yes, we had to stop because my husband was…we stopped in June because it was Ramadan. And in that month, the people in our neighborhood were fasting. So we thought okay. Let’s take a break. Because we worked for 1.5 years and we need a break. So we stopped for 15 days and during those 15 days, my husband…I think because he was too tired… he worked 14-15 hours a day so…he felt very sick. And then we thought, “Okay. Let’s wait the other 15 days too. So it was 1 month. And when the fasting is done we open it again.” But then he couldn’t…he couldn’t get up. He was… also mentally very tired. And then we felt that everything we went through touched us. Just because we got a little rest. It touched us. Can you imagine how bad it was? And then I said to him, “Okay. I think we really need to see a doctor.” And then we went to a doctor and he said: “Yes. You really need surgery.” So we had to stop with the restaurant. Because yes, I’m not a cook like him. Yes, I cook but I’m not professional like him. And he said, “Yes, what are we going to do?” And I said, “We’re going to stop! We’re just going to stop. Because…for me…I’m sorry but I’m not going to risk my life to come here from Syria to die of stress! To die of what? Paying the bills and getting stress from it? Everything will be fine! We have crossed that dangerous part and we can do this now!” So for him it was a very difficult decision to stop. That we had to stop now. And I told him: “We are going to reopen again. Nus, your health is just our priority. We need you!” So yes… I made the decision. Yes, we’re going… we’re going to do that. And yes… he was at home. And of course he underwent tests… And we went to the hospital… It took us 3 months to do an analysis for him… tests and many things… to make sure he really wants to do that… this operation. And then I also had a project with the theatre. I was working on the theatre. So it was kind of… Mentally I was not able to play… To do something with art because everything in me was so weak… But anyway, the people around me… I had good people… They supported me: “No! Go for it! Do that!” And so yes… But my husband had his operation a few days ago… Now it’s okay. Of course it hurts a bit. But he needs some time to heal. And hopefully we will look for another location because all this time… Even before I came here today, the customers keep calling us: “When are you going to reopen? Are you already open? We would like to make a reservation!” So…that feels really good that people remember us. So that means it was a success. That we have to go on. So we just wait until he’s better. And then we go on.

[i] And how do you plan to combine your career with work in the restaurant?

[r] Yes. Actually… it’s not easy to work in the hospitality industry. [laughs] I was…so…working hours…for me…I’m a hardworking woman. I’m not tired of work. Especially since my work there was used to communicating with people and serving the food and calling and emails…so it was okay. And also…for us…in our culture we have hospitality. And really, our customers were our guests. So…if I have friends or if I have guests who want to come to dinner… I would just invite them to the restaurant. That’s my home. And also… I believe that… to make good food with the experience I have…. a very short experience…. is that you have to be generous and that it has to have good taste. And if you are an artist, you already have good taste. So if you transfer that to your food… to a beautiful image… and then you share your feelings and your culture with the food…. because everyone likes to eat. Then that’s… I think it’s closer to people’s hearts. By the way… the projects… The project in the theatre I got was through my restaurant. Because I got the first offer from the Toneelhuis to work in “The mother song” with Mokhallad Rasem, an Iraqi director. He was one of our clients. And there we shared: “Okay. He’s an Iraqi director… he’s a theatre maker and we talked and discussed. And then I got an opportunity from him to work in the theatre. And a lot of other people… I got through the restaurant. So for a while I was a bit afraid that this job could take me away from what I love. But no… that wasn’t the case.

[i] And how was the time?

[r] No time to be there…[laughs] Yes…it was…there was no time to breathe. First I had the project “Mother song” and I had to be outside Belgium. In Austria for a month. So my husband had to hire someone to help him. And it was very hard for him because there were a lot of customers then and he was tired… And yes, I had to play in that theatre. It was no ordinary piece… It was emotional… playing and singing. I wasn’t directing…so it was different anyway. And I had… I really needed my full concentration for this project because I felt that it was my opportunity now… to take a step in the art world in Belgium. A lot of sacrifice, but I have a great family who support me. Even when they are so tired…he or my son. They were so tired. That was a very stressful time for them. But every time I called them from Austria they said: “You’re going to be okay. We’re okay! We are doing well. Do that! Go for it!” So… that was a great support for me. They are very, very understanding family I have behind me. And then, of course, I’d come back and work again. And yes… very hectic. Very hard. Very difficult job. [Laughs]

[i] So you said your first performance was at the Toneelhuis? And how did it go after that?

[r] Yes. Yes. It went great, actually. During the rehearsals and the performances, I went back to my childhood. To those nights when I was 8 years old…or 9..when I woke up at 3 in the morning and I asked my grandfather to set up some opera for me. Or a specific film I loved or the sound of music or whatever… behind my grandmother’s back… Because she was strict so I have to sleep at 8 o’clock. But I woke up at 3 o’clock to look at all these things… so that time really brought me back to my home… to my childhood. And I think I brought back the knowledge I had then. I think… the knowledge you have in your childhood is like a stone. That’s how we say it in Syria. So…it’s like a sculpture. And that’s within you. And that’s unconscious. It just comes out. Because it’s really well stored in you… if you’ve grown up with it. And…that was also a very emotional time for me. Because I had a lot of rest. And I’m not used to that. Because that director Mokhallad… He’s really a relaxed director… he… he doesn’t put any pressure on us. He wants to stimulate us completely. To be happy. To express ourselves. There was a lot of improvisation. And that was very nice. Because you can express yourself in the way you feel. He just says something and then you do it the way you feel it. And how great is that! And I made really great friends with beautiful 3 actresses I worked with. Two of them were Austrian and the other one came from Germany. German-Italian. And then a beautiful dancer… the British-Turkish Tijan. Also a very good friend of mine. And the audience…fantastic! It was a great experience for me that I was only singing in Arabic…difficult songs…traditional songs…without translation and 99% of the audience were Westerners. And the reactions I got were… really so warm and…. It touched me. So…it was…it was very, very great. And it took a while after I finished the premiere in Antwerp…to get “Mother song” out of my system. Because it was… It was very deep inside. And after the performance I just lay in my bed for 10 days. I was sick and tired. Because I think I used all the emotions I had in my whole life for that project. And the success and love of the people…and that gave me the opportunity to meet a director of the Arenberg. And she gave me a chance to make a very nice concert…just last week that was called “Absence”. Arenberg also wanted to support me with my future theatre project… a musical project that I would like to direct and play. Hopefully next year. And this concert was a great happiness for me and for my husband too. My husband had health problems and of course mental problems because he didn’t work for a long time. But it made us so happy. Me and him…and my son. So we all woke up with a smile. Because we felt we were still alive. You know what? And… I’m very happy that it was a very successful evening. And I’m currently working on the other projects…on my short film and…always busy! [Laughs]

[i] And was it the first time you were singing in Belgium?

[r] Yes! That was the first time I was singing in Belgium. But…last September…in September 2017 I had a musical concert in Germany. In Assen? I can’t remember the name. Essen or something. Yes, I had a concert there. In the church. In the Catholic Church. With a… band… and it was also a very nice concert. But I thought yes… it was just something cozy… My best friend arranged that. And she said: “Please come. We just want to feel at home again.” And I thought, “Okay. Maybe it’s everything.” But I didn’t expect to be on stage singing and playing. And this play has given me so much. So much power so much energy. That’s right… I want to do more and more.

[i] And do you always sing in Arabic?

[r] I also sing in English. I also sing in the other languages. Even if I don’t understand…for me…for me singing is just the way you feel. The way you express yourself. But here in Belgium or in Europe in general I would like to sing in Arabic. I would like to sing Syrian songs. I would like to touch people’s hearts in a different way. Not with the words they know but with the words I know. With the feelings we can share together.

[i] And do you think it’s important to show the translation at a concert?

[r] Yes. I’ve done it now. In my last concert. Because it was not playing. It was just singing. So I felt it’s important that people understand a bit of what I’m saying… because it is closer to them. Because what I’ve noticed here in Europe, in Belgium it’s very important…because people ask questions…they want to know…they’re curious. So if they are curious and if they are interested why not? It’s good to respect their curiosity… their interest in your language. And to enjoy more. And they did… they enjoyed it more. With the traditional songs I didn’t do a lot of translation because you really can’t translate them…otherwise you would lose the meaning… You really can’t translate it literally. But with something like modern songs it was better possible to translate them in a poetic way. To make people understand them. It was very important to me that people understand what I say.

[i] Is there a specific genre that you like?

[r] Mmm…as long as it’s not cheap with lyrics and music…then I would sing it. I always strive for high quality. Always. Not quantity. I could sing for 2 hours…but that didn’t happen. I want 1 hour. A good concert. 8 songs, so to speak. Very good songs. People ask for more. Instead of 2 hours of doing and people are bored and say: “Amai. When will it be ready?” So for me, 5 minutes that are very, very productive are more important than hours. That’s the way I…yes.

[i] And did you work in Opera before?

[r] No. No. Never! [Laughs] No.

[i] Did you just learn it yourself?

[r] Yes…I took private lessons. Piano lessons when I was little. I caused so much stress to my teacher. Because yes…I would never…it’s not that I would never listen…but I was…I was stubborn. And the thing is… I always thought it wasn’t about notes. It’s not just about teaching… you have to give me more… you have to give me a feeling and you know. And then I heard something on TV and I came to play that and she was: “No. Don’t follow that. Do that and do this.” And I didn’t like that. It took me some time to have the courage to tell her that I wanted to stop. I told her that I wanted to stop the lessons. And then I started to learn it myself. And because I wanted to teach… in the school… in Dubai… Of course I had to get a diploma. So I went to a private institute in Aleppo and I took an exam and got a diploma in music. So I was allowed to teach. And yes, those people… who gave me a diploma…they saw me perform at my piano concerts when I was 7 years old…that was the first time I performed. And singing concerts too. But I had to take an exam so it’s official that I can teach. You know… music or… Yes. That’s how it was. [laughs]

[i] And can you play some musical instruments too?

[r] Yes, I play the piano. I play the piano.

[i] And have you given any concerts to play and sing together?

[r] No. Not yet actually. I intend to do that because I love the piano. And when I sing, I like having the piano against me. With an instrument or two…I don’t want to anymore. Even with one instrument I am very happy. Yes maybe in the future I will do that because I like it. Yes.

[i] And is your son also a musical person like you?

[r] He has a good musical ear. He used to play the violin for 1 year and then he stopped. I think he’s at a difficult age now. He is now 17. He is also a bit lazy. So he’s not sure if he wants to go through with it or not. He also likes to take pictures…to make videos. So he has it somewhere in him. But he doesn’t have to be like me. He is free. He can do what he wants to do. What he likes.

[i] And he’s in high school now?

[r] Yes. He is now in high school.

[i] In Dutch?

[r] Yes. In Dutch. He speaks Dutch very well. I… I’m still busy. [laughs]. I hope I can learn it as soon as possible. Learning a language just takes time… That’s something I know. And I had to stop in between… because of my project or because of my restaurant. 1.5 years I couldn’t go to class so…but now I’m back and I really want to learn and speak Dutch very well… In the same way that I speak my mother tongue. That is very important to me. And I love languages too.

[i] And do you also speak other languages?

[r] Yes. I speak Arabic, English and Armenian. I’m half Armenian. I used to speak French. I understand very well. But I can’t speak it. I also spoke a bit of Turkish, but not anymore. Because if you don’t use the language… And now… a little bit of Dutch. [Laughs]

[i] And in which school do you learn Dutch?

[r] I learn it in CVO in Antwerp. Nice school with fantastic teachers. Yes.

[i] And is Dutch difficult for you?

[r] In the beginning…when I first arrived in Belgium and I heard people talking, I thought, “Yes. What is that? I didn’t know it. And then later…because I started my Dutch lessons after 1 year. Because I studied film studies. So…when people talked after that it was already known to me. Okay, that’s a sentence. That’s a word. That’s how they say, “G…g…no “h”…no “r”…you know? So…it took me some time…and I had to hear it a lot… I had to listen a lot. And when I started the lessons I didn’t find it difficult. Just…the most important thing to learn a language from my experience is of course to listen a lot but also to think as the people who speak this language think. Don’t think in English and translate. Then it won’t work. That’s what I do. So it’s just going to take some time. But I’m very interested in the language. And I do my best.

[i] And what was it like for your son in the beginning when you came here? Did he go to school right away?

[r] Yes. He went straight to school. I am very grateful to the school. The teachers here are so pleasant. The headmaster… and you actually feel the politeness of the people…. of the European people…. It comes from the schools. Because the teachers are so polite… so cute… so pleasant. It has never happened that I or my son had a problem with the school. Never. And that’s why… I’m sometimes surprised when I see people who were born here… in Belgium or in Europe. They go and blow themselves up. You were born here. You grew up here. And you go to these nice schools. Teachers are…the first thing they learn is to respect love…to care…to share. And then you behave that way. For my son it was very difficult because he was far from his friends. And he was 13. It was hard…it was hard. But when he went to school he could also speak English so people could understand him. It wasn’t like his other friends who only spoke Arabic or… other languages like African or Russian or… They can’t communicate. Not at all. So it was a bit easier for him.

[i] So he communicated in English?

[r] Yes yes yes yes. He communicated in English. And the teachers were so pleasant and they had a lot of patience with him. They took care of him. And so were the other children. And after a few months he started talking. And when I hear him speak now I feel proud. Because he speaks like Belgians. Yes, I think it’s a bit easier for children. But yes, it’s good. When I ask him to teach me, he mocks me. I think I have to do it myself. [Laughs]

[i] But in terms of relationships with friends…did you feel that it was difficult for him?

[r] Yes. Yes. It wasn’t difficult because of the nature of the people. I think it was difficult because he had to start a few years lower than his age. And you know, if they’re teenagers and they’re in a lower class and they feel hurt… then they talk to their friends from home and they ask, “What year are you in now?” And yes… but the children didn’t understand. So it took him some time to adapt and to understand them. But now he is doing well. And he is also a very quiet child. Not like me. [Laughs] I’m not quiet. So he’s a very quiet child. It was hard for me at first to pull it out of his mouth: “Are you okay?” “Yes, yes, everything is okay.” But I didn’t know what was happening. And yes then after a while I realized that he was just having some stress because he had to study with children younger than him. And then he had to make a choice about which direction to go. And it took him 2 years because yes…this age. It is very confusing to decide. But then I told him: “It’s okay. You don’t have to be stressed. You have the time of your life. Of course not to be lazy. But you have time to think. And you try it and if you don’t like it, you can do something else. We’re not going to make the same mistake our parents made. To force you to do something you don’t like in the end. But I think… I think he’s doing really well now.

[i] So now he wants to study photography?

[r]  He’s not really sure. Because if he wants to do cinematography, he has to finish high school first and then he has to start his studies. So now he is working on something related to architecture. So it is a mix of science and art. And then we’ll see later. I’d love it if he did cinematography, so I wouldn’t have to hire anyone…[laughs] Of course I’d pay him anyway… But I wouldn’t hire others to work with me. Then it’s my son. Then it’s okay. Then I’m proud of him. You know. But we’ll see. I won’t force him. Whatever he likes. Whatever he wants to do, I will support him 100% with it.

[i] And do you already feel that you are integrated into Belgian society?

[r] Yes. A long time ago.

[i] And do you remember that moment when you felt you belonged?

[r] Yes. Yes. I will tell you when. When I went to Austria…for 1.5 months to prepare for the rehearsal for the “Mother Song”…I felt that I really missed Antwerp. I wanted to go back. It was weird. Of course I have my family and friends here. But no… I just missed the streets… I missed the smell of Antwerp. I missed home. I missed my restaurant. I just missed the atmosphere here. And on the day of my premiere in Antwerp… Normally I’m not nervous… and I was nervous then… at the premiere… here in Antwerp. Although I had performed so many times in Austria and so many in Italy…and the last two performances were in Antwerp. And I was so nervous because I thought my friends were there…my family, everyone knows? And that’s Antwerp! It’s like at home, you know? And then you have to be good! You have to prove yourself! And all these things…so I was a little nervous that day. But then…it went really great…I got really positive reviews. Positive reactions from the friends and the family as well. And from the audience.

[i] And then you felt that you belong here?

[r] Yes, that’s when I felt that it was home. Yes.

[i] And what are your career plans?

[r] Yes. At the moment I have a few projects to do. I’m going to direct a short film. Hopefully with “Famos” and then I will work on my future musical concert with the Arenberg. And a few concerts here and there and a few projects here and there. At the moment I have so much to do. And yes, very important…my Dutch lessons. I follow that too.

[i] In what level are you now?

[r] Now I’m in 2.3-2.4. Yes. I do my best. I am doing 2 levels at the same time.

[i] Wow. Very fast!

[r] Yes. I want to do that. I really want to talk. Because I want to be closer to people. I want… I want to be closer to my friends and the audience. I think that when I speak Dutch, I’m closer…

[i] And are you already trying to speak Dutch?

[r] Yes yes. I try it sometimes. I try because I have to practice. Then I can speak. But with me…[laughs] because I’m difficult and I’m really a perfectionist and I want to do everything very well. And if I don’t have a word to say, I’ll switch to English. Yes, that’s wrong, I know. But I hope that one day I will be able to speak it very well. And…it’s my plan and I want to do that, hopefully during this year and next. Because it takes time. It really takes time.

[i] And do you have many friends between Belgians?

[r] Yes yes. I have. I have very good friends. People with very warm hearts. Hearts of gold, so to speak. And at my last concert I was so happy that most of them were there. And I just felt that they were my family. And they are there to support me. And whatever I do and wherever I go, they are there. So I think I’m happy.

[i] And how and where did you get to know these friends?

[r] Yes. I met them either through the refugee organisations at the beginning or through the film school or by filming…by singing… many of them through the restaurant. Yes, that’s how it was. Yes.

[i] And do you have good contact with the Syrian community here in Antwerp?

[r] Yes yes. No…no very big contact. A few people. Because…and that was also because of our restaurant. They came and we talked…so I don’t have that many Syrian friends. I have a few. Most of my friends are Belgians. I think Syrians are still hiding. So I hope they can come out…and be more positive. And what I know is that Syrians normally want to work… they want to be productive. And most of the people I’ve met here…they want to do something. And that makes me proud. No matter what. They don’t just want to take money from the government… and stay at home, no. They really want to work and be productive and just become something.

[i] And could you perhaps tell me something about what was very different for you in Belgium? Compared to Syria or Dubai? The way people behave or communicate? Maybe in culture?

[r] In culture I think I liked it… that people are calm anyway when they deal with their problems. They don’t overreact to the way we overreact. For example, crying here is different from crying in Syria. When you lose someone. We tend to overreact and cry and cry loudly… Yes, they do that kind of thing. Of course in a part of Syria. Not…not everyone. But in Syria we are more emotional. And in pain…in sorrow…in happiness we are always together. With big families…Everyone together. Friends…family. Maybe at a wedding party there will be 300, 400, 500 people…at your wedding party. And you invite everyone. But…here…in Belgium it’s different, you know? People are more closed. And they have small circles of friends. And if you want to visit your best friend in Syria, for example, you can just come by and say: “Okay, put your clothes on! I’ll wait for you downstairs.” You can’t do that here. It takes me time to meet up with my best friend to steer something and say, “Okay. Let’s meet!” “Okay. Sally. Maybe in 2 weeks or 3 weeks.” And I think, “God damn it! I’m your best friend!” And she said, “Yes, Sally. You’re not in Syria.” You know…So things like that. Of course, my friends are already used to me. And I say, “Don’t do that! Just come! Let’s do this or that!” But yes it is difficult. Because it’s the way of life… It’s the system. The way they were born and raised. You know what? It’s not like us. And also what was shocking you know…at 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening all the shops are closed. We don’t have that in Syria. People are open…the restaurants are open…the shops are open until morning. And even now…during the war…a bomb comes…and after half an hour people party. So life is … action action all the time! But here no…it’s not like that. And that’s what I really miss in my country. I don’t know if the lack of activities is or what…I don’t know. Also with the cultural festivals…maybe I don’t know all the cultural festivals here in Belgium. Now, fortunately, I’m starting to get to know them through the theatre…I’m glad I got to know some people in the theatre…and now I know some activities…but let’s just say our cultural festivals are very rich in poetry, dance… ballet… our traditional dancers… our singers… Yes, it is so much. But here I have seen … not the real festivals but something like a few performances or something … and the frying and… Okay at the fryer the food might be okay, I understand that. But you name it… you can do more, you know? And I’ve seen some friends who are real artists… they can make so many different activities. But maybe I need to find out more to understand why…why it’s so quiet at that time. And why it’s so busy at this time. And why do people do this and that? That’s why it’s very important that I learn the language…then maybe I’ll be more aware of some things I can’t approach at the moment. So…social life is different here. Certainly different. I miss the social life in Syria a lot. But at the same time I also like the social life here. Because sometimes I also need time for myself. And here as my friends…my Belgian friends call me and say: “Ok. Sally. We’re going to do that or this…” And I say, “No, I’m sorry, but I wanted to be alone.” And they understand… but there, amai… “What’s wrong with her?!” You know…So…I think that…I think that…I think that I just…I think that…I think that…they came from Syria to Belgium to make a balance. You take what you like…where you feel comfortable…because here nobody forces you to live the way they want…nobody tells you what to do. Except that you follow the rules…that’s normal. But nobody tells you how to live. So you seek the balance: good things from the East and good things from the West and you make a combination. And then you get a great example. And I think… I think we can do that. Because I follow that…my husband does that too. Some friends do that too. So does my son. So I think it’s possible. You just have to find the balance between the East and the West. Don’t be 100% eastern or 100% western because it doesn’t work. Life is not like that. You have to be flexible.

[i] And what exactly do you mean by the East?

[r] Middle East. Arabs. Arab mentality. That’s what I mean. I even remember having many friends in Syria in Aleppo with whom I did not agree. With their opinion. The family members, so to speak… they are completely different. I’m also completely different… from the way they think. And also friends and my neighbors… Yes, but… but with me I think… When I was a little child I had no problem dealing with anyone. Because I see you as a human being. If you’re a nice person… if you’re good… why should I worry about… How much money do you have? Or something like that…it never mattered to me. And I think it helped me to integrate… to absorb all kinds of mentalities. And yes…I think…I think it’s a gift. Yes.

[i] So do you feel comfortable in Belgian society?

[r] Yes yes. I feel at ease. I have no problems. I’m also happy to have friends…the Belgian friends. And they share their problems about their country with me…which I saw when I started my own business. And I understood why, for example, these people can become aggressive…or can become depressed. Because I used to think, “Why are you so depressed?! You don’t have a war. You get government support if you don’t have a job…” But now I have understood why. If you work yourself… if you are productive here, if you have your own business… and then you get taxes… and sometimes bureaucracy that sometimes drives you crazy. The miscommunication between the organizations and the government…many things. So…then I understand. So if you want them to understand you then you have to understand them.

[i] And have you ever had a difficult situation with Belgians? Or what conflicts or something?

[r] Not really. No. I don’t remember really having had…except from a feeling. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. But I don’t think I’m wrong about these things. When I first arrived here…and I’m very motivated to do things. I want to do that quickly. Me and the other Syrians have the same problem. We discussed that in our community. So you arrive and you say: “I have experience with that… I have experience with this. And you feel like…you know…once I met a woman and she was also a social worker and I had a feeling…her face was like I laughed at her or something. Like I was showing off or something. But it wasn’t the case. I’m just trying to say I can work. And that I am a productive person. I’m not saying that I’m not grateful that the government is helping. But I also want to thank in my own way. I want to work. You know what? So she didn’t like it…or maybe she didn’t expect that from a Syrian woman coming from Syria. And she saw on TV that people are ignorant…that they know nothing…and that they are nothing or nobody…and she was surprised when she saw a woman who speaks good English and who has a university degree. She is highly educated and her husband is highly educated…you know? She saw my background and maybe she didn’t like it. I don’t know… what vision she had. Yes, you are shocked to see Syrians who have a good background…who have a good culture…who are intellectual. But we were also shocked to see Belgians or Europeans who can’t think “out of the box”. For us it was a great shock! For us, Europe was like civilisation…the open…open mentality…the freedom…yes. So you’re not the only ones who are shocked…we’re shocked too. But again. I come back to the same point. Balance sheet. Balance is very important. To balance life. We had to come here. Through the war. But. We want to be productive. We want to live here and prove ourselves. We want to have this beautiful life between you and us. Give us a chance. Not everyone is bad. And I think that some are very positive. Some don’t. They are very afraid to approach. It’s somehow understandable. But after a while…after a few years, when they see how Syrians are… You know… how they show themselves here…I think something will change. So everything just takes time. Calm down! [Laughs]

[i] And can you tell me a little about the organizations that helped you integrate? Like for example Atlas or OCMW or others? What was your experience with it?

[r] Yes. Actually, I don’t have much experience with Atlas. PCSW is just normal… an assistant. They help you. There is a kind of bureaucracy that you have to follow. But of course there were some nice people who helped me. Who were very understanding. But in the integration class we had a great teacher. He was a Moroccan teacher. Abd al Salam al Ghamri. A very nice man. We had the integration classes with him for 1.5 months. And he helped us to find the restaurant. He also helped us with many things. To bring people to the restaurant… to get to know people. He also wanted to show that not everyone is bad…that people can be productive. That people can be positive. It has been a really great experience to be with that man. And he also fights with his own culture and with his own people to show that: “Guys. We live here. This country is good to us. Be good too.” Nobody forces you to…I don’t see Belgians coming and saying: “No no you have to do this and do that.” And why do you have to do that to Belgians? Or to the other nationalities? Why do you have to do that? So he is one of the people who fights to set a good example…to set a good example. And it really has been a great experience to be his student for 1.5 months. We were there with my husband. And because of him I got to know “Green”. So now I’m a member of “The Green” party. Because we used to have a nice project in Syria before I came to Belgium. During almost 10 years. To save the environment. And they were really surprised with the story about our organization in Syria. And there was a Ubuntu Festival in Boom. It was in September. And we had a stand…a special stand about my story and the story of our organization in Mashta Al Helou in the Ubuntu festival. Also great people…very nice. They have so much respect. Despite where you come from or who you are…very beautiful people too. So I am happy. Now you make me think about all these beautiful things and I… I consider myself happy. Really.

[i] Do you think you get enough opportunities to develop professionally here?

[r] Mmm…I think you should have your chance. You should always follow. And working very hard to prove yourself. And I think happiness also plays a role. But I hope I can do that. But the thing is… after what we’ve been through as Syrians. Now… At my age I can say that I can’t predict the future. And I don’t want to think about the future. That’s what I’ve learned here. In my previous experience here in Belgium during the last 3 years. Because if you think about it too much, you get sick… you’re going to get too much stress. So what you have to do… Just do your best. Do what you can. Work hard. And after that… I’m sure… You will be rewarded. You will get your chance. That’s something I believe. And that comes from my own experience. I don’t know… Maybe others are less lucky. Or maybe they work hard but they don’t know how…or how to approach it…but I always say, “Try it!” Always. Always do your best.

[i] And do you ever look back at your own life and think about what you would do now if there was no war and if you hadn’t left your country? Where would you be now? And what would you do now?

[r] Yes…yes…hmmm…that’s actually a good question. But I never thought about it. I never thought it would happen. But maybe if I was there… and if I wanted to be in movies… or singing… That could be a bit difficult. Yes…

[i] By…?

[r] By the way our media show art. Something I don’t like. Or…they…our media isn’t honest enough…to the artists. You know… you see many artists, many writers, many poets, many singers… many professional dancers… I’m really surprised to see them here… to see all this talent. You see them now on YouTube. But we never got a chance…unless you have family members on TV or family members, I know a lot…to approach. Or to make some compromises…. which I could never do. Not at all. Then you won’t be able to approach them. You wouldn’t be able to achieve what you want to achieve. So I think I have more chances here to achieve what I want to achieve…to be international…to be a Syrian and also international at the same time. Because I don’t want to lose my identity either. I can combine both visions.

[i] And what do you think is the influence of the whole situation of the flight and the war on your personality?

[r] Yes…It opened my eyes to how people can change. And the way people can turn into monsters through money. And that’s very scary. That’s something very scary. I think that… the movie they made about that virus…the zombies…that someone bites another one and then the virus spreads. This is the same thing. That’s crazy. That’s how I visualize what happened in Syria. And it has opened my eyes…about a few things my parents used to say to me. “Be careful with that person…where does he come from? What is his background? His mother? His father? His grandfather?” They said to me, “Watch who you’re talking to!” And what they said what actually just after a few years of the war. Because that’s how you were raised. If you were raised with love then you have love…if you were raised with forgiveness then you forgive…but if you were raised with hate then you will hate. And now when you teach a child who is just 8 or 9 or 11 years old…that you have to protect your own country and that you have to protect your home and that you have to protect your sister…this child…remember…he is a child and you want him a job…or a job to do…and he feels responsible…very aggressive with his feelings and emotions. Because you give something to him and he wants to prove that he is good. So he doesn’t think about it. And we have destroyed the whole generation in this way. That hurts. So much. And really… It hurts me so much every time I read on Facebook about our children… the way they behave. The lifestyle they have. Their vision…some people don’t even think about going to school. Some don’t even think about going to college. They want to do anything to eat. To have a hiding place… I have a girlfriend…she’s a journalist and a writer. She always writes beautiful stories. And she lives in Syria. And one day I told her that I wanted to write a script. And I want something very real. And she said something…that she met a little girl on the street who was just 8 years old…And she asked her: “What do you want me to give you? Do you want to eat something? Shoarma?” Because everyone likes shoarma. And she said, “No. I don’t want shoarma. I want a boiled egg.” And she was, “Are you crazy? Why do you want a boiled egg?” Yes…that little girl…she wants a home. She wants a kitchen. She wants her mother to go… to take water… put some water in a jar and cook for her. She wants electricity. She wants a roof. She wants safety. And when I hear these things… you know… you know… Go to hell with your war! Go to hell with your money! Go to hell with everything! When our children suffer so much… I don’t know. So I decided that as long as I live… I want to show the world… by real art, by real music, by my films and by my musicals…no matter how…but I will try…I want them to see the suffering of our children. But also… I want our children to have hope. I don’t want them to think only of food and water… No. That’s not who we are. We have to think about the future. We need to think about how we can be strong… because Syria lives longer with them. Without our children we have no Syria. Yes…

[i] What influence do you think the whole situation has…the flight will have on the way your son will be raised?

[r] I think that my son and many other children have experienced enough grief and pain. And they are afraid. They are very scared. They were confused. They were afraid. They want to go back to their homes. They miss their friends. They miss their life there. But at the same time they are afraid to make choices. A simple example? Making a choice of friends. A choice of what to study. They are afraid. For example, my son wants to study cinematography or music… he is afraid. He thinks okay. Maybe an artist can’t have a good life or a photographer can’t have a good life…and maybe I should become an engineer or lawyer or doctor, even if he doesn’t like it…Or no matter how good I am, people start to think I’m a refugee…But that’s something I don’t accept…I never thought I was a refugee here. Never. That’s the way you see yourself. So I think this fear is…there. But we, their parents…or the family, we have to make them strong. We have to behave positively towards them. We have to show them that no… You have a chance. This country respects you and your rights. This country respects your humanity. And you have to do what you like. So that is a generation of consciousness that we have to create. We have to protect our children in a safe environment like this…and we have to keep them…and talk to them and involve them in the activities. And with Belgians it will also help.

[i] And what kind of values are you going to give to your son? Syrian or Belgian values?

[r] A mix. That’s the balance I’ve been talking about. The balance is what is important. For us…humanity, love, knowledge, forgiveness. I think these are international and universal concepts. Everyone…every normal person must have these values. And we use them…. If you have these values you are never jealous. You don’t fail. No. Because you do your best. You love people. You forgive and you forget. You go on. That’s something everyone should have.

[i] And do you hope someday you can go back?

[r] Yes yes…of course. I want that. Every year I say…I want to visit…I just want to… I want to smell the ground after the first rain. That smell is different…I hope that one day… that I can go back. And touch everything I miss. And there are… on those places…and walking around. Yes, definitely. I would like to do that. At least visit the graves of my parents. I never had the chance to do that. That’s something I want to do. Yes, I do.

[i] Is there anything specific you are missing at home? Maybe something in your house or in your village?

[r] I miss…maybe I miss myself. My own self there. Yes, I was different there. I was somehow different. I’m not so different now. But you know…when you’re with your family…when you’re around…your blood…the atmosphere…the weather…is different. I miss it. I miss the feeling I had every time I was there with the family and friends with my students… Especially my students. Especially my students. I miss being with them very much. So much so. Laughing, joking, being crazy… All these things, yes.

[i] I know you have a special object with you. Can you tell me a bit about the object?

[r] Yes…normally I don’t have favourite subjects or objects…normally I’m not attached to things…but yes I have a perfume. But yes…this perfume is a symbol for me. There is a very famous Lebanese poet who once said…and I always follow this saying… “The most beautiful woman says before you leave this world…leave a perfume…leave your perfume…that means leave an influence…leave your effect. And that’s something I want to do. I want to stay, even if I leave this world. I want people to say, “She left something nice behind. She left behind something we can remember. And it’s like a good perfume. That’s what I see. And yes I love perfume. But this is what I follow in my life. I want to leave a good name…I want to leave good memories…for the people. Just like the smell of this perfume. Yes.

[i] Ok. Thank you so much for this fantastic interview. I think it was very interesting. And good luck with your performances and your career.

[r] Thank you very much [name]. It was a very pleasant and touching tour with you and this interview. I really enjoyed it. And thank you for everything.

[i] Thank you very much.