[i] Good day [name] !  My name is [name] and I will interview you today for the Red Star Line museum and the project “Specially Unknown”. Could you please tell me a little about yourself first? Which country are you from? How old are you?

[r] Yes. I am [name] . I am from Iraq. I am 26 years old.  I have only lived in Belgium for 2.5 years. I speak Arabic, English, Dutch and a bit of Turkish.

[i] And what city in Iraq are you from?

[r] I am from Mosul.  Er…

[i] And what did you do in Iraq? Have you studied yet?

[r] I graduated in high school. And then 1 year at the University.  Actually at the university.  But I didn’t graduate from the war. Because IS entered the exams the period of exams and I did not take the exams. Then in Iraq.  Er…I studied computer management. But I didn’t graduate from the war. I did a lot of sports.  I was a member of the Iraq team.  Really high-level. From World Championship. A lot of matches and so on. Since 2011 it was actually my job because in Iraq I got a salary and so on for your sport.  It’s actually a support for your sport. So that was actually my job.

[i] And can you tell me a bit about your family? Do you have brothers or sisters?

[r] I have 5 sisters.

[i] Wow!

[r] And 1 brother.  My father already died in 2015. I haven’t seen him in a long time.  For I was in Mosul before he died.  I was on…  I left vauitn Mosul on November 2014 and he had died in December 2014. So I hadn’t seen him 1 month before and hadn’t seen him all this time.

[i] And what was the reason?

Just a heart attack.  Yes. That was just nothing…nothing special. He ate a lot. He loved to eat.  [Laughs] Really…  He ate too much that day so… So his bowels were a bit swollen by the food and they had pressed too much on his heart and…. and his heart had stopped.

[i] Ok. And are your family your brothers and sisters still in Iraq?

Yes, they’re all still in Mosul.

[i] And what do they do?

[r] Eh…  I have 2 small ones. My brother is 20 years old. And my sister is 19 years old. They are studying at the University.  The rest of the sisters are married. And they have children and live separately with their husbands. So…  But there are still my mother, my brother and my two sisters. Two little sisters.  Yes.

[i] And do you have good contacts with each other so far?

[r] Yes, we have good contacts via Facebook. Luckily we have Facebook and a camera… But I haven’t seen them in a long time. Since 2014. Because I didn’t have a chance to go back to Iraq. Because it was dangerous to go from… I was first in Baghdad.  So from Baghdad to Mosul it was really dangerous to go back. So my mother said, “Stay there and don’t come back. Because that was a really dangerous road from Mosul to Baghdad.

[i] Can you tell a bit more about your childhood? What kind of child have you been? What was it like for you in your childhood?

[r] I was an active child who always wanted to do sports. I always wanted to walk, jump, and stuff. So I played soccer all my life. Like a goalkeeper with one arm. [laughs] So that was really…people said, “That’s terrible. “How can you hold the ball with one arm? But I was really good at that. I was really one of the best on our team.

[i] Did you have that specific technique?

[r] Yes. I had special gloves. I made and cut it myself and so on. So that was a bit ridiculous for the people. How can you hold the ball?” And I also spelled with older people. With the best of our neighborhood. So that was really great. And yes, I’ve always done a lot of sports. And since 2011 I started with athletics. I’m actually with real sports … of people with disabilities started in 2009. But I was first busy with swimming and then …  and then volleyball and basketball and then back to athletics. And since the moment I started with athletics I decided to keep doing that. Because the coaches said to me: “You’re really good. You’ve got real talent to participate in athletics. So I started from there.  On the 1st year … I started in 2010 at the end of 2010 started with athletics and in 2011 I was a member of the national team in Iraq. For young people.  Under 23 years. I was almost 17. So I really started directly with the team. And my first match was in Dubai. In 2011.  That was in IWAS (The International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports) a world championship for athletes under the age of 23.  So I was just at the age limit. There were 2 different levels. 1 level from 18 to 23. And the other level from 15 to 17 years. So I had just turned 17…18.  So they put me with the elderly. So I have walked with older people than me. I have…  for the first time in my life in competitions. I’ve never entered a competition before. I was first…second in the world in the 100m. And also second in the long jump.  And third in the triple jumping. But this race was actually… the worst.  That first race was the best but also the worst race of my life.

[i] Why?

[r] In this race, I received a penalty of 1 year. That was my first game with the team and I got a penalty of 1 year. And that happened because I said something. Something related to the old government from before 2003.  And I didn’t know that, I was young. I thought it was normal. Because then with us…we always said something about the name of Saddam Hussein. When we got up, we would always say, “Live for Saddam Hussein. We didn’t know what that meant. I was very young. I didn’t know what that meant. Who is Saddam Hussein? I didn’t know that either. And we always said that in school when we get up and we also sit: “Life for Saddam Hussein!”  That was mandatory so…  We didn’t think that we shouldn’t say that. That it was from the old government. So I thought it was just normal. I was very young.  I was 17. And I didn’t know anything.  I was still growing.  I went straight to the game. I didn’t know what the new system and the new government was. What does that mean…nothing. So I said: “Yes….  but within our team. So nobody heard me about other countries or other teams or anything. Teams…  Nobody heard me. Only within our team. They told the manager of our team: “[name] said so.  What exactly did you say?  “Life for Saddam Hussein!  Just, that was normal at our school then. That was then obliged to say that. So I didn’t know that. Everyone says something different about the new government. From the older…but not from the government. Because there was a bit of racism in our country between two cultures. And I don’t want to say their names. So yes…  The manager said, “Who said that?”  And he cursed those people. And everyone said: ”name”! [Name] ! [Name] ! [Name] ! [Name] ”’. I was very scared because that was the first time and I knew nothing. Who is this manager? I don’t know him. I’ve never seen him before. What will he do? Because with us, anything is allowed. So we went back to the hotel. He said: ”name”, if you… No, that was the last day.  So two days later, he said, “If you win tomorrow, you’ll get a mild punishment. So on the second day I was really scared. He was on the line.  And he looked at me.  And I knew very well that I had a punishment. But a reporting sentence if I’m going to win. So I was very scared.  And the game I was doing it was a hopscotch-jumping.  And I wasn’t good at hopscotch jumping because it’s a bit… complex…  complex?


[r] More difficult…  More difficult…[laughs] Eh…  How do you say that in athletics? Such a difficult task?

[i] Task yes.

[r] Yes, that was a difficult task. Because there were 3 different steps. So it was hop-jumping.  And I had never done anything of hop-step. So I tried very hard to win but I didn’t succeed.  I was the third.  And he wanted the first one.  And yes… so I was really scared and I didn’t do my best but I didn’t know anything about limp and step. So we came back to Iraq.  And I went to Baghdad to see. There was a little game inside Iraq. And he said to me, “You’re not allowed to enter the competition. You get a one-year sentence.  You won’t get any more support from our team. You’re not allowed to compete.  You’re just outside. [Laughs]

And what feeling did you get?

[r] Too bad. Too bad I got such a punishment. And the chief manager of the Paralympic Commission in Iraq said: ”You won’t get a punishment because you’re still young. You’re less than 18 and you don’t know what you’re saying. So yes.  I thought it was okay. I’m not going to get a punishment. But the manager who was with us, he was the head of…  The parliament of the committee.  There is a parliament. A small parliament in the Paralympic committee.  And he was the chief manager of the parliament. So he said: ”name” gets a punishment. So he has to get the punishment. And I got it.  So I didn’t do anything for 1 year.  And that year, 2011, was really the hardest year in my life. In this year I got the punishment. And I also fell on my back. I fell on my back.  And then I also got two herniated discs.

[i] Two what?

Two what? [r] Two hernias.  Double herniated disc.  So in the back. So the vertebrae.  The cartilage between the vertebrae comes out. So I have two. Double herniated disc. Then in 2011.  Really only 1 month or so after the match. And then I also have…  Then I also drove the car and the car was burned. [laughs] So this year the worst was really true.

[i] What was the reason?

[r] From the fire? There was a petrol leak. It came out.  On the bike or something. And that was burned. And yes…I have my…  best friend…  lost that year. He died.

[i] By?

Nothing.  He was not ill. Nothing…  He was okay.  I called him at 2 o’clock.  At night.  I was in Baghdad. I said to him. His name is Muhamed.  “Muhamed, I am not going to come back. I am a bit angry with the punishment. I want to stay in Baghdad.  To have a bit of other emotions and so on. He said: ”Yes. Stay there. There it is more beautiful. Go to the parties. Make yourself happy. At 2 o’clock.  And his brother comes at 8 a.m. to wake him up to go to school. And he is dead.  And they opened his cell phone and the last person to call him was me. So yes…

[i] Too bad…

[r] And he really wasn’t sick.  I was in Baghdad but I was sick, I had the flu. But he didn’t have any disease.  Nothing, nothing at all.  He was dead.  And he was 6 months older than me.

[i] And was there no examination? Why did that happen?

[r] That was just a heart attack.

[i] And can you describe your life in Iraq a bit before the war?

[r] My life before the war.

[i] Yes, life in general, the situation in your city.

[r] That was comfortable.  That was okay. It’s not that bad.  There was ISIS and bombs…  rockets and stuff…  People ‘kidnap’?  I learned it but I don’t remember the word. So…  Yes, a lot of stress, a lot of tension…  A lot of people died every day….

[i] So that was always the case?

[r] That was dangerous, but you could still live. That was okay. I had a lot of friends. I finished high school. So that was normal.

[i] And when did the war start?

[r] 2014. End of 2014. Since June 2014.

[i] And how did your life change after the war?

[r] Everything had stopped.  No more sports.  It was dangerous to go outside. It was dangerous to talk to your neighbour. If you say something, they will kill you. Just like that right away.

[i] And what was the reason? Why couldn’t you talk to your neighbors?

[r] Because if your neighbour has contact with ISIS or so he is going to say, “Yes. [Name] says something about you. We have to kill him.  Immediately, without reason.

[i] So ordinary citizens were also from ISIS?

[r] A lot did.  Or they weren’t from ISIS but they had contacts or friends from ISIS or someone from the family.  So…people talk when those people from ISIS come to your house and they say, “Yes, [name] said this. ”Aha. I’m going to kill him.  That’s really dangerous to say something within… And I was really…  I was really crazy.

What do you mean?

[r] What do I mean…  I don’t agree with what they want. They want a beard, a long beard. I didn’t want to do that then.  I had such a small beard.  They always say, “You have to shave it off. You have to grow a long beard.

[i] They come out on the street and say that?

[r] On the street, yes. And say, “You can’t do that! Jeans are not allowed.  You have to wear those big pants.

[i] Traditional clothes?

[r] Put on traditional clothes.  I said, “No. I’m not going to do that. I’ve had a bit of trouble with them. With statements.  But I wasn’t afraid, but I have to because they were the government back then… So I was a little crazy to talk to them: “You can’t do that. You have to do this. But…  In the end I did what they wanted. Otherwise I would be dead.

[i] And do you remember the moment when you decided to flee?

[r] That was a real surprise.  I decided…I was…  I went to Baghdad but I wanted to go back to Mosul. The first time. That was in…  August…2014.  So 1 month after they (ISIS) became government. And I went back to Baghdad to follow my sport and so on but I had an injury in my back. Really a tear in my shoulder.  So because of this tear I couldn’t do anything about sports. Why was I in Baghdad?  Then I had to go back to Mosul.  And when I came back my shoulder was okay, all right again. And my friend has a sister.  And her husband is a member of the government and he is not allowed to come to Mosul. And he said: “Do you want to come with us to Baghdad as a guard? Because I know the way. I went back and forth to Baghdad a lot. And I said, “Yes, I will go with you.

[i] And was it a dangerous road?

[r] Very dangerous road.  So I went back to Baghdad and then I didn’t come back to Mosul. I thought I would first go with them to Baghdad and then after 1 week or so I would come back to Mosul. But when I came to Baghdad I said: ”No. I don’t go back to Mosul anymore. I’m going to stay here.”

[i] And was it safer in Baghdad?

Yes. It was a bit safer, but not quite. Because people in Baghdad say to people from Mosul: “You are all ISIS.  So that was dangerous too.  I couldn’t walk everywhere in the street. I have to…  choose the neighbourhoods. [Laughs] So I had limited neighborhoods to walk.

[i] So the people in Baghdad thought you were someone from ISIS?

[r] Yes. They thought that of all the people of Mosul. They thought that all the people from Mosul were immediately from ISIS. And that was the reason why I fled from Baghdad to Turkey.

[i] And is the government in Baghdad and in Mosul different? Why was the situation so different?

[r] Mosul was under control of ISIS. So there was no government there. That was completely under ISIS. Everything was decided by ISIS.  And the government has nothing more to do with us. So yes…  That was really dangerous just to stay that way. But my family stayed there but that was also a risk. They couldn’t come out because that was a really dangerous road. Because the road was between the Iraqi army and ISIS. So if you want to flee, the army will think that you are someone from ISIS. So how can you continue? That was a really difficult situation.

[i] And do you remember the moment when you really realized: ”Ok. I’m going to run away.”? What did you think?

[r] From Mosul or from Baghdad?

[i] Of Baghdad. From Iraq.

[r] From Iraq…  Because in Baghdad…  I was alone.  I had no friends because I was afraid to make friends because that is a bit dangerous. I can’t go everywhere.  And I thought I could go to Turkey because in Baghdad it’s very expensive…  It is very expensive to rent a house… or something to do…  And I couldn’t just rent a house because it was dangerous. When I rent a house, they come in and… They kill me.  So I thought yes….

[i] From the government or from ISIS?

[r] Not from ISIS no. In Baghdad they are not from ISIS. But also not the government. Someone else. [Laughs] Another culture. Let’s call them that. So yes, that was also dangerous.  So I decided to…  Then I lived in…  in a club, in an army club. That was through someone who…  the manager of the club asked, “Can Ahmad come and live with you? But the last few days they wanted to take me out.  So when I was outside…  It was safe there, okay…  because there was an army in the club. So no one can come in.  But if I want to rent a house it’s expensive but not safe either. So I decided to go to Turkey. And I asked the Iraqi Paralympics: “Can I play for Iraq from Turkey?” And they said: ”Yes, you can play for us. We’re going to make a contract for you. That you are going to play with Turkey for Iraq. So all the matches that come to Iraq you’re going with us to the game.”’ They have said so.  So they said, “You have to make a report that you are going to stop the Iraqi team and that you are going to go to Turkey and that you are going to play in Turkey for Iraq”. Like a quit?  They make me write: dismissal report. So I wrote that and I thought it was okay. They’re actually my friends.  Not just my boss or something. They’ve also become friends. Because of all the competitions we’ve taken part in and stuff. So yes they let me do that.  And when I went to Turkey nobody contacted me anymore. I tried to call: ”When are we going to make a contract that I play in Turkey? In Turkey, playing for Iraq.”  And they say: ”Oh, that’s not possible anymore. Sorry. That’s not allowed. It can’t be.”’ And so on…

They were hurt?

[r] They lied.

[i] But was that because of the feeling that they were hurt?

[r] No. No.

[i] What was the reason for the lie?

[r] They just wanted me out because I am from Mosul. [Laughs] So honestly yes…

[i] So that wasn’t really a plan to go on? But you were planning to keep playing?

[r] To keep playing yes.  But then they said, “We can’t do that anymore. We’re gonna quit your contract. It’s a bit difficult to work in Turkey. To find a job.  A little hard to live there. So I thought I would come to Europe.

[i] But how was your flight from Iraq to Turkey?

Just by plane.  Not the flight. That was a journey.

[i] That was official?

[r] Yes. Officially.

[i] And the borders are open?

[r] Yes. Yes with the passport.

[i] So no problem?

[r] No problem to go from Turkey to Iraq.

[i] And so far?

[r] Yes yes.  You get a visa.

[i] And how long did you live in Turkey?

[r] 6 months. Just 6 months.  To collect money to come here.

[i] Did you work there too?

[r] I didn’t. But my wife did. I did some sports there, too.  So I thought yes…  That I was going to do sports there as well.  With the Turkish team and all that.  They promised me that they would support me to give money, to pay, to rent an apartment… but that wasn’t the case either.

[i] So you fled together with your wife?

[r] With my wife here to Greece. By boat.

[i] So can you tell us a bit more about the flight? How was it? What means of transport did you use?

[r] That was just a black plastic little boat. That was yes…  People say it was very dangerous and I also see the dangerous, but that was a bit…  I thought it was such a nice [laughs] trip… Really!  Because yes…  To get from Turkey to Greece by boat… It was pretty fast.  That was 2 hours or 1.5 hours or so 1 hour and 45 minutes. But…  That was not really dangerous because our driver was really good. He was a really good mate.  He was really a fisherman.  So he was really good with the boat.

[i] And how many people were in the boat?

[r] 39.  Normally there are 50 of them in it.  Or 55 something like that in a small boat. But we were lucky.  So there were 39 of us.

[i] And there was enough room for everyone?

[r] Yes yes. That’s a big boat. They normally sit there with 50 people. So we were happy with 40 or 39.

[i] And how long did it take with the boat?

[r] Yes…1.5 hours. About 2 hours.  Not that long.  And I think it was a nice trip after all. [laughs] It was dangerous, I know.  The boat was…yes each time so folded in 2 pieces and then back in 2 pieces and then also all the way up and then closed again….  So that was really dangerous.  And that was also the end of the winter. The end of…  the beginning of February….  So that was really cold and….  and still raining.  So the sea was really with high waves and so on… Yes…

[i] And then you arrived in Greece?

[r] In Greece.  We went to the border between Greece and Bulgaria. But that was completely closed.  We thought we would go back to Athens and there is the organization that sends people to different countries. We asked them to send us to another country and they did everything right. They sent us to Belgium because my wife has a sister and two brothers here. So they collected the family.

[i] What is the name of the organization?

Er…I don’t remember.

[i] Red Cross?

[r] Yes something with the Red Cross and Proxis. Braxis or something…  That is a Greek name…

[i] And how long did your flight from Greece to Belgium last?

[r] That was by plane.

[i] Ah also by plane.

[r] Yes also by plane. That was official.

[i] So you already had a special paper or?

[r] Yes from that organization.  They actually gave us a visa. From Greece to several countries.

[i] So you were happy? You didn’t have to walk?

[r] No. We should not walk.

[i] That was really fast?

[r] Really fast, yes.  That was official from Greece to come here.

[i] So how long did the whole trip in general last?

Ah…we stayed in Greece for 8 months or so.

Ah ok…so you had to stay in Greece first.

[r] A lot of waiting.  We waited a lot.

[i] In Athens?

[r] In Athens yes. But in an apartment. And they also pay for the food and stuff.

[i] So the organization has taken care of everything?

[r] Yes they have taken care of everything. Yes, we were really happy.  Not many people were so happy.

[i] And what were you doing this time? Those 8 months.

[r] I was also involved in sports. Really. I once saw a coach from Greece in Dubai. And then he came to me in Dubai and he said to me, “You have a good body, a good physical condition. There’s a lot you can do. You’re doing really good and all that.  That was when I was in the Iraqi team. And when I came to Greece, I thought, “I’m going to the Olympic Stadium to see who’s there. And then I saw him.


[r] Really!  And he thought we had come on a journey. On holiday or something.  And I said to him, “No. We came by boat and stuff. We came through the sea like ordinary refugees. And he was, ”What?! Why? What happened?! You were the hero of Iraq! The member of the team! Why did you come that way?” So yes. He helped me a lot. So that was…  He helped me a lot.  He sent me to the Paralympic community in Greece. And the Paralympic community in Greece contacted the Paralympic community of the world. And with the team of refugees. So they also contacted the Belgian Paralympic community. When the decision came that I will come to Belgium. So they contacted the Belgian community. And the Belgian community contacted the commissariat. And they said: “[name] goes to Rio.” I had the chance to go to Rio to the Paralympic Games in Brazil. In Rio.  Yes I had the chance and the qualification. And they said, “name, you can go there. And everything is paid for by the Paralympic Commission. But they asked for a passport. I had an Iraqi passport. But they said, “No. You can’t go with the Iraqi passport. You have to have a Belgian passport. When I came to Belgium it was really fast. To have all the papers. That was within 1 month. So within 1 month and 5 days I had all my papers in Belgium. That was the fastest I think.

[i] You were really happy!

[r] Yes really fast!  And…but the Belgian passport was too late. 1 week late.  So that was the red line…the deadline they say was 1 week for the passport.  So that was…

[i] So you couldn’t go anymore?

[r] Yes I didn’t go to Rio because of the passport. It was 1 week late.  But that was actually pretty quick to get papers. And everything was fast.

[i] And did you come to Antwerp immediately?

Yes to Mortsel.  In Mortsel we lived for 2 months in a social house and then we rented an apartment here in Antwerp center. And…  Because I didn’t go to Rio I had a chance to go to London for the World Championship in 2017 in London. In Rio it was in 2016 so…  So the world championship in London was in 2017 so… so I got an invitation for the world championship in London. And in the meantime I had also found work. After 6 months.  Yes after 6 months.  I came to Belgium…  on the 5th of June.  And on February 1st I started working.

[i] And what work?

[r] Fitness supervisor at the Schilde Fitness Centre. So I was really happy with my work. With fitness guidance. That was my dream job actually.

[i] Is it like a personal fitness instructor?

[r] Yes fitness coach.  So personal coaching.  I did that too.  So that was really nice for me. That was my dream job. I did everything for them. But they were a bit… Not really honest with me.

[i] Why?

[r] I’m going to tell you that too.  I got my job through VDAB. That was…  pretty soon after 3 months.  I also did an interview with Kanaal Z. This is the government’s channel.  It’s the government’s channel. It’s also on the Youtube and on the channel’s website. And then I didn’t speak Dutch. Really little. That was second or third level Dutch then. So I couldn’t tell you anything.  Now I tell a lot. Now I can speak a lot. But then I couldn’t tell or say anything. When I see the video I always laugh with my Dutch. [laughs] But my Dutch really improved a lot through my work. So at work I had a language coach through VDAB. That was really focused on Dutch. To all the words I had to use.

[i] For your work?

[r] Yes. For my work.

[i] Such special fitness words?

[r] Yes, fitness words, all device names, all exercise names and so on.

[i] That’s important.

[r] Yes. That’s very important.  So I’ve improved my Dutch a lot in a small period of time. That’s why I’m speaking now…not super but okay. Understandable. [Laughs]

Yeah, sure.

[r] Eh…  I quit the gym in December 2017. Because they have me…  They really weren’t honest with me. They said, “We’re going to give you a permanent contract with 12 euros an hour net.  But I had a contract with VDAB for 6 months. That’s a bio contract.  And then another 6 months of an ordinary contract with the gym. And then they said: “After 6 months you get the permanent contract with 12 euros per hour net. And I thought: ”That’s okay. That’s great! Nobody can find that. I’ve done everything for them. I also worked in the garden. I’ve done all kinds of things for this gym. But the 6 months have changed everything. They said, “Yes, we’re going to give you 3 months. I ask: ”Why?  What did I do wrong?  Why don’t you give us a permanent contract like you promised? No one is answering. No one says anything. I did a meeting with them. But nobody says why.  I say, “Did I do something bad? The customers are very satisfied with me. They also bring me presents. Real gifts.  There was a woman who comes from Italy and when she goes to Italy she always brings something special from Italy to Belgium for me to give especially to me. And another Belgian gentleman has also given me twenty books.  That’s a gift.  The other one also gave me other gifts. So the customers were really satisfied with me. And when I stopped working out, all the customers sent me a message: “Why?! Why did you stop?! We’re really not happy that you quit. But that wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything. And they gave me a 3 month contract. But I thought I was going to stop.  Because you promised a permanent contract, but now it’s this contract. That means that after these 3 months you are going to expel me. Because they have someone who has worked in fitness for 20 years and they put him outside.

For no reason?

[r] For no reason. Just because his pay was a little too high. So they took him out.  And someone who has also been working with them for 2 years. That was my friend. He was a really good coach. And…  And when he stopped working out, customers came to the boss and said: “We want Martin back. Martin is a good coach! He is our coach. We want Martin back” and there were about 10 or 20 customers who asked for it. And…  The two bosses decided to bring Martin back. But after 2 weeks they also put him outside. So I thought…  I’m going to stop myself. Nobody puts me outside. Nobody fires me. [Laughs] So that was the reason.

[i] And do you remember the first few days when you came to Belgium? What was your first impression about Belgium and Antwerp?

It was cold. [laughs] Yes…I have…  In Greece it was very hot. So I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Without a coat without nothing.  And I arrived in Brussels on the 5th of June and it was really cold! And I thought, “Oh! What is that?! Is it so cold in all of Belgium?” So yes, that was the first impression. [laughs] And I had to stay on the street for 1 hour or 1.5 hours. Because we were waiting for someone to come and get us. We had the papers and they said, “You can take the train. But we have a friend here.  He called us and he said he is coming to get us. So we had to wait 1.5 hours in the cold. [Laughs] So that was exciting.  So that was a bit fast in Belgium. I’ve done everything quickly from the start. From Dutch and…  I came to Belgium on the 5th of June and in August I already started with Dutch. So after 1 month I started immediately.

[i] Yes. Your situation is a bit different compared to other refugees because normally they also live in the shelter for about 1 year.

[r] Yes!

[i] But you didn’t do that?

[r] No. No.

[i] That was immediately in Dutch?

[r] Yes, yes. And I didn’t stay in the shelter either, because I have my sister-in-law here.  And we were always there.  So yes. I may have stayed in the shelter for 3 or 4 days.

[i] And she is also from your city?

[r] Also in Antwerp.

[i] I mean is she also from Mosul? Ah she is your sister-in-law?

Yes, she is my sister-in-law. The sister of my wife. So that was really fast…yes.  Learning the language…it was fast too. The work was also fast.  When I came to Belgium, I was really like this… Ah, come on! Give it all! Come on, wake up in the morning and go to work! I was really happy…  but because of the problems with my work I regretted it a bit.

[i] And what was your first impression about Belgian people?

[r] Er…in the beginning I was very happy with the Belgian people because I saw them as people who are open… who always want to make new friends, who are always calm, who always want to do something, who always want to talk, who want to go to TV.  But in the period when I met a lot of Belgian people and really got along with them, it changed a bit.  I see that Belgian people… they say that they are closed themselves…  And they always don’t want to…  If you have a Belgian neighbour and you say to him: ”Hello!” And then you get such a cold answer: You say, “Hello!” And he says, “Hello…” Without a really warm welcome. But in the Netherlands, for example, I also have a family there and sometimes I go on a trip to the Netherlands. If you say “Hello!” to someone there, you immediately get: “Hello! Hello! Have a good evening! Good day” or something but not here…here you get little answer… Some people don’t even answer… Maybe just with his hands or sometimes they look like that…  aside to you and then they don’t say anything to you. So I find that annoying.  Because I’m open and I always want to get to know people. I always want to hang out with people.  I always want to laugh with people and get to know people. But I have a feeling that Belgian people don’t want us within their communities.  So a little bit yes…  I’m a little sorry.  That’s a different culture and mentality. With us, you can always enter your friend’s house. Just without an invitation. You can just go in and say, “Hello! I want to have dinner with you!” And that’s very welcome with us.  But not here. Here you must have an invitation. You have to make an appointment in advance. You have to arrange everything.  So I think the relationships are getting a little more difficult. Having more relationships becomes more difficult in Belgium. With us it’s quite easy.  When you see someone on the street, you say: ”Hello!”. You sit with him and you talk for an hour. Then you get an invitation to his house. You go to his house. You get to know his family. And you sit with them…  You get an invitation to eat. And that all happens within 1 or 2 hours. Here…  I have a colleague.  I’ve been working with him for 8 months. And I invite them to come to me but nobody wants to come. They don’t want to have contact with other people… They always want to keep in touch at work. Like colleagues.  Not anything else.  Yes, so…  I find that annoying, but so… But there’s nothing I can do about it.

[i] And what relationship do you have with the Iraqi community in Antwerp?

[r] I don’t have many Iraqi friends either. That’s a bit difficult because here people want to … They’re not like we were then.  Because here people have already changed. They always wanted to get money…  They always wanted money…  They always want to sell something to you at a double price. They always want to do something wrong with you. So I don’t have many Iraqi friends. Neither do Syrians.  To be honest, I don’t have that many friends. Only colleagues at school or at work. Older colleagues from the older schools. When I was in level 1 and 2. But really not much contact.

[i] And who are your friends?

[r] But I do have 2 or 3 friends. Since I was in Iraq.  They were my colleagues in athletics when I was in Mosul. They are also in Antwerp so we are always together. I also have another friend from team Iraq. But he is of a different category. He does powerlifting.  So he was also from team Iraq. So I knew him when I was in Iraq. He’s also here in Antwerp so we’re always together. But no new friends.

[i] But do you also have a bond with the others? You said that you have a bond with the family members.

[r] Yes, with family it is. I have my parents-in-law here. They also live here in Antwerp. My sister-in-law also lives here. My wife actually has a lot of family members here in Belgium. And also in the Netherlands. So we are always together. We always have parties.  We are always together.  I have very good relationships with my wife’s family. I don’t have a family here, but she does have her family here.

[i] And how long have you been married?

[r] I have known her since 2011.  So really yes…

[i] So 8 years?

[r] Yes for 8 years. But we have been married since 2015. But yes. Our relationship was a bit difficult. So the only advantage of 2011 is that I got to know my wife.

[i] And how did you get to know each other?

[r] She is my neighbor. So we lived on the same street.

[i] But you didn’t know her before?

[r] No.

[i] In what city was that?

[r] Mosul.  And we both moved to that neighborhood in 2011. And in 2011, 1 month after our move, she also moved to our neighbourhood.  So we really came together to that neighborhood. And after 4 or 5 months we got to know each other. She was a friend of my sister.

Nice and beautiful.

[r] Yes.

[i] And what is she doing in Antwerp now?

[r] She is studying Dutch but for her it is a bit difficult with her pregnancy. And she has stopped using Dutch. Because she became pregnant.  And now we have a baby… she takes care of him and she can’t go to work. But she can go to school.

[i] And how old is your child?

[r] 1 year and a half approximately.

[i] So you already have a real family.

[r] Yes, a real family.

[i] Nice.  Maybe we can talk a little about the impact of the flight on your life? Is there anything that has changed in your character or in your mentality? What exactly is the impact of the flight on your life?

[r] Yes. Actually, a lot has changed. Yes, because I came from one country to another that is really far away, socially and culturally. Especially my…  My food has changed completely.  It’s time to eat so…  No. But my food has changed completely. In Iraq I ate a lot and very greasy. But now it has changed completely.

[i] Even when you were a sportsman, did you eat a lot?

[r] A lot! A lot.  For sports with us I had to eat 5 or 6 times a day. But the large portions.  But here I eat much less. That has also changed. My mentality has changed a lot. I didn’t get to know many new people in the past, but now I do. I’ve actually become more open. So…  Yes, that has a lot of impact on my career. How do you say that?  I’m actually…  My mentality has grown a lot. Because I have learned another language. Actually I learned two languages. Turkish when I was in Turkey and Dutch from the moment I came here. So if you’ve learned two languages, you’ll learn more about those cultures and you’ll also learn a lot about those people. And your mentality is becoming more and more open. And you get more people in your life. And yes…  You become real…  more conscious?

[i] Conscious.

[r] Yes, more conscious about your life, your future. If you become more open then you really make a good plan. You no longer concentrate on the materialistic things of life like cars, cell phones, accessories and so on. No, because you really become aware that these things are just not for you. You really have to concentrate on your life and on your future. You have to build a good future for your children. So yes…I really became…  wiser.

[i] Is there anything that changes your values? What may not have been so important to you but has now become really important?

[r] Yes. So studying.  When I was in Iraq, I always thought about not studying.  I thought I would always go to the gym. Sport is more important than anything.  I didn’t want to study anymore when I was there. That’s where I used to go from school to the streets to play. To the stadium or to the club to do some sports. But now no. Now I really want to study. Now I find studying very important. That’s a big change in my life.

[i] And what are you going to study?

[r] I’m thinking about three different things. The first is to do my dream study. That’s sports and exercise.  Because I didn’t have a chance to do that in Iraq. Because with us in Iraq, people with rehabilitation, people with disabilities, they are not allowed to study sports at the University. Because they…  They have to do a few different moves. So with one arm they won’t do that. I said: “I can do anything. I’m one of the best. I was one of the best candidates. I was the third. On the entrance exams then in Iraq. But they say, “No.  The medical exam says, “You can’t go to the sport. So that was my dream.  It’s still my dream.  But I find it a bit difficult here in Belgium. Because there aren’t many places to become a sports coach.


[r] So jobs, vacancies.  So it’s a bit difficult here. But I might go to sports and exercise anyway. Or to something with ICT.  Because when I was in Iraq, I also studied something with ICT. And I might want to study it here as well. Or maybe I’m going to go even higher to a pharmacy assistant.

[i] So 3 different things?

[r] 3 different things.  That depends on my work.  I’m looking for work.  I’m looking for a job. I might start a job soon. So if that works, it will probably be sports.  So if that job says, “Okay, yeah. Sport and exercise is a good choice. You can go there and you come back to work with us. That’s neighbourly sports.  When they say, “Yeah, okay.  Then I’ll study sports.  Otherwise I will discuss the other choice.

[i] And yes…  If there was a possibility to go back and not run away, would you change something or not? If you had a chance to do that again?

[r] If… yes I wouldn’t actually… I didn’t really want to go outside Iraq. But I was obliged. It was like a ”destiny”.  It was all arranged for me to go to Turkey. And then to Greece. So I didn’t decide anything. That was just…  I don’t know by whom but my life is so marked. That’s how you have to do things.  I didn’t decide to do anything myself. That was real… The events came so one after the other. So I have to go from Mosul to Baghdad. Stay in Baghdad for 6 or 8 months and then go from Baghdad to Turkey. Also without reason or without making a decision. Just go. To Turkey. Stay there for 6 months and then to Greece. In Greece 8 months stay without choice and without making your own decision. And then to Bulgaria.  So that was really ”destination”. So that was really not a choice.  But if I had the choice I would do it too. Because yes I see it now.  Now I really feel better. I feel more open. I now realize something more about my life. What was I supposed to do? What should I do? What are the chances? What are the possibilities? How can I work?  I have learned a lot.  When I was in Iraq, I was always a member of the Iraq team. So I was always one of the best. Yes, I got support. I don’t like… I didn’t work anything. No, I didn’t work. I did work.  But I didn’t need any money. I did need it… If I were there, I would just keep on playing sports. And I don’t think that’s good for the future. Because for the athletics you continue to play sports for 10-12 years. But what about after that? What are you going to do?  So when I came to Belgium I realized that I did well to come to Belgium. Now I realize that I have to work and build my future. Not just sports, sports, sports. Sport is not everything. There are still many things we have to do. In the past, my life was always sport. I went to sports, I went to sports, I eat for sports, I rest from sports. I do everything for sport. That was my life. That was a bit of a difficult life because everything was for sports. I had to have some rest before the sport. I had to sleep at 10 a.m. for the sport. I had to…  I had to rest from the sport.  If you do sport, you need to have rest. You have to eat well before the sport.  Everything revolves around the sport.  So everything was real for the sport. I was happy with it but I was actually… my vision was a bit closed. It was only focused on sports. But now it’s a bit open. I see a lot more. I don’t even have any…  How do you say that?  I didn’t even have time to go out with my friends. Or something to do with my family. Do whatever you want.  I always wanted to focus on sports.

[i] And if you are going to raise your child with what values and stories are you going to raise your child? Only with Iraqi or maybe you are going to take something of European values? What are the most important values with which you are going to raise your child?

Eh I have to teach him two things from Iraq: that he is caring and hospitable. Those are two things.  And open. Hospitality also means openness. So these two things I have to teach him from Iraq. He has to learn a lot from Belgium. That he can speak many languages.  A lot of studying, a lot of…  He has to read a lot of books. That’s not the case with us. With us you just have to watch TV. But not here. Here you have to read a lot.  Learn a lot. Concentrate on the studies. And build new hobbies.  Hobbies are also important to me. Belgians also concentrate on their hobbies. I think that’s an advantage as well.  So I want my son to learn these things from Belgium and from Iraq.

[i] Okay [name] . Thank you very much for the interview. That was very interesting. I wish you good luck with your future. Maybe with your studies and with your work in the future. And good luck raising your child.

Thank you very much. Good luck to you! And thank you to you!

Thank you very much!