[r] So one time someone knocks on the door. That’s why I told you that this story isn’t finished. There are a lot of details. If you want to know what’s going on in me and why I left, … There are many details. And what I’m telling you now – not because I choose to do this – but because we don’t talk that long, … There are many more details. Even when someone knocks on the door, you’re afraid to open it. Especially when your wife, sister, mother are at home, you are afraid to open the door. Because you don’t know who’s outside.  Both are criminal: people from the government and people from IS. Both are dangerous.  But I opened the door anyway and someone was standing in front of me. He talked to me very formally.  In an islamic, religious way, …  I didn’t recognize him.  I thought: “Maybe he knows my father or something.” And he asked me about my name: Are you [name] ? He didn’t know my last name.  He just asked, are you [name] ? I said, yes.  He said: yes we hear about you and…  Yes, and I had heard many similar stories. When he said: we hear a lot about you, …. I wondered: who are we?  It’s not one person.  So I got a little uncomfortable. I wanted to make sure who I was talking to. I was in shock, but smiled, … I didn’t know what to say. He said: yes we hear about you and…  And I haven’t seen you here yet. How long have you lived here? And I told him how long I’ve lived here.  And he asked me all these questions to ask one important question. Why didn’t I see you praying in the mosque? I didn’t see you there.  Because as a muslim you have to pray five times a day. But every Friday there is a kind of holiday. All people come together to pray.  So he said: I didn’t see you in the mosque on Friday, … …near here. I was looking for an answer, a good answer, … I said: of course I was there. Do you count everyone who comes there? Sometimes more than 100 people come.  He said: yes, we all know each other there.  I told him: no, … Sometimes I was a bit late or I couldn’t find a place. I just gave him some answers, …  He told me: yes, okay, so…  And I started to understand the situation.  It wasn’t a good idea to ask: and who are you? They don’t like these kinds of questions.  Don’t act like an enemy.  You can’t compete with them.  So you’re calm, at ease, … like a snake and then he asks: what are you doing? What is your job?  I told him, … so here I became what….  I know it’s not good, but did I say something bad? Did I make a mistake?  Or talked to someone?  I told him: I work in design, decoration, garden design, … That kind of thing: painting, …  He said: are you sure?  I said: yes, that’s my job.  He said: yes, but we hear something else about you. I laughed and I started talking like he was my friend. I didn’t show him that I was scared and scared. I didn’t show him, … or I tried not to show him that. I tried to show him that I had nothing to hide. As I would talk to you, like friends. I told him: No, that’s my job. I even talked with his accent. This is my job. What are you talking about?  He said: yes, but we hear something else, that maybe you are a painter? He meant art.  I said: no, of course not. I use colours, but… I played it that way.  I don’t know if he believed me. I don’t actually think so. Because I heard it once from someone in Turkey. But that’s another story.  They believe too much.  They believe everything that is said between them. If someone were lying. If someone says: I’ve seen a dinosaur fly. They believe him. They don’t care.  He told me that once, … that’s another story. I don’t know if we have time. He said okay: but next time I want to see you come and pray. Let’s meet. Yes, of course. I tried to talk with his accent all the time, but I made mistakes. Between the Syrian and the Iraqi accent.  You can’t understand this. That’s something from here. And I told him: Yes, I lived in Syria for a while. Many Iraqis live there. So I lived there for a while and now back here. I just tried to escape from this conversation. I don’t think he totally believed me, … We’ll see each other again, he said.  In an indirect way he made it clear that they were watching me. He made it clear that this was not the end. I said: yes, we’ll see each other again.  At that moment I knew, yes, we have to leave. This is where it ends.  Next time I probably won’t get away with it. Or I make mistakes. Even if I can convince them again. This is not life. Always lying and having to be perfect.  Survival is not life.  That’s not me.  After this incident, … A week later or something more. Ten days, something like that, …  What happened to Daesh, that’s what we call them. I don’t want to call them Isis because, …  Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, … All the world knows him, … Al-Qaeda has not been translated. They say it in Arabic: al-Qaeda. But before Daesh they say ISIS.  But for me, because I have studied mythology and I paint, it means ISIS (refers to the god).  But so, … they came.  It was at night, …. 1 o’clock.  It was weird, the day they came.  Because, ….  Normally there is no life outside at night.  It started at five, six o’clock in the evening.  There’s nowhere to go then.  Close to home, with neighbours or friends. But further by car is very difficult.  You will certainly have problems with the army. Or not the army.  Because at that time it’s time for that kind of people (meant IS), … to come out for the dead, …  So it was dangerous.  And you always hear noise from army vehicles, … You know the army is there, you know?  But on that day everything was quiet, it was really quiet, you didn’t hear anything. It was strange.  You tried to hear some noise from the city, … But it was a zombie city, a city full of ghosts. Just silence.  You didn’t even hear the cars of the army. Very strange.  And we wondered: what is happening today? And we sat, …  It was a full moon.  And we were sitting outside. Outside means, … because the house had two floors. And a small garage for the car.  Some houses have a small garden with a wall around it. Like a villa. And we were sitting outside. It was summer.  There was no electricity. And we just talked. We just talked.  And there was the moon.  And we heard people leave on the street.  And some of them left by car, which is normally impossible. Even when there is an emergency and you want to go to the hospital, … It is very difficult to get there. We heard people outside in the street.  I remember my father going out and talking to his neighbour. He came back and said: pack everything, we’re leaving too. What? Imagine it yourself.  What is going on here? I asked him.  He said: yes Daesh is coming.  And they have already taken up half of the city. We’re talking about a big city. Not a small town.

[r] Which city?

[i] Mosul. It is a very big city.  And people went out and left.  They took the car and left.  I thought: seriously? I have a lot of things in the house. What do I take with me? By coincidence, I had prepared a small bag. Every day I stayed there, the idea grew that I had to leave. I trusted people with the feeling that one day I would leave. Something was going to happen or I was going to leave. One of them. So I had made a small bag.  Not much stuff: my passport and some important papers. So I had already made a small bag.  But it was never serious, …. to really leave. Like when my father came to tell us. “Yes, it’s serious.” He said. And at that moment we heard gunshots outside.  And I remember my sister, …  She had small children who were asleep.  And we got them out of their beds. They were still asleep and didn’t understand a thing. It was such a sad moment.  As an adult person, you can handle a lot.  I’m talking about my own system.  I don’t care. I can handle any situation. I am a fighter. I can fight. Both physically and with my mind. I am a survivor.  Even though I am in pain, I am tired, … I don’t give up. If I have to fight, then I will. But this moment, ….  has touched me, has really broken something inside me. When I saw my sister’s children, … When she got them out of their beds, …  their eyes, … like when you sleep, you really want to sleep. Mother, let me, I want to sleep.  He didn’t know when he said, “Mom, let me sleep,” that his whole life was going to change.  From that moment on.  Really a great moment.  We were confused at that moment, because we had to get ready to leave. And we didn’t know how.  But when I saw those children like that, I stopped for a moment. I felt bad, sad.  I went to my room and took my paintings. I couldn’t get the canvas off the frame.  So I took a knife and cut it loose.  I only took the painting, the canvas.  I took three, four big paintings like this one. [points to painting on the wall] . And I had some sculptures.  I had modelled a number of naked bodies. All I thought about was: if they really come and come in here, … And they see as these works: works of art, … They wouldn’t even look at me, …  They wouldn’t say: did you make that?  They wouldn’t ask me.  They would just kill me in a very cruel way. So at that moment I thought, … in a few seconds, …. That’s all in your head: when they come and they see this. Okay then they will kill me, but what will happen to my family? At that moment you also think about your family and make a scenario. At that moment I had to leave, …  I wanted to cut my paintings, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get it in my heart. I wanted to hide them somewhere.  But where? I had to decide quickly because we were leaving right away. I took my sculptures. I didn’t really think, but I felt a lot of emotion. And I broke them on the floor.  And I took my paintings.  The ceiling was made of pieces of wood.  So there was a corridor, …  And the ceiling there.  And with my hands and feet against the wall I climbed upstairs. I opened the piece of wood in the ceiling and hid my paintings and a few sketches. I put the piece of wood back in place. And at that moment I said goodbye to my work. Maybe we’ll see each other again. Maybe not. But I wanted them to just disappear there.  So that’s what I did. For me it was like saying goodbye to someone. And you don’t know if you will see each other again. And we left, but where?

Who did you leave with?

[r] I left with my father, my mother, my two sisters. I have a third sister, but she studies and lives in Canada. And two more children.  It was night and we had to leave, but where? Which way? Where were we supposed to go?  And we didn’t have a car at the time.  So we had to walk.  Our neighbors did have a car.  He had his own family.  But he said: you and your father can walk, … And the women can come with me in the car. And he took them a little further. And we saw each other much further back. Far out of town. Even this was dangerous.  Because we didn’t know where to find each other. And you start to think: in this chaos, where are we going to find each other? Will we find each other again? And when we left together with my father, … I put on a backpack, … And we walked in small streets up to a very large street.  And there we saw hundreds of people walking.  Hundreds of people were walking. During my flight to Europe, I only saw it there. Hundreds of people.  With all due respect, I don’t think anyone can understand what it means to see someone in their own country, … with a backpack on his back, children in the hand, … who has to flee. And he doesn’t know where to go.  There are no more difficult moments.  It was real, …  Normally you walk in this street every day. But when you walk there for the last time in your life, there are many details. And your memory only tells you about these details later, in the future.  At a time when you are relaxed, you are reminded of that street where you can never go again. And normally you would walk down this street every day. Hundreds of people with children, at night who walk and walk far.  And when we walked towards them, we asked them: what is going on? They said: Daesh comes and kills people. So leave!  Are you serious? Yes, at that moment we understood better what was going on. We asked: where is the army? They said: there aren’t any. Later we understood that the government had given away the city. The government, how do you say, … They left the door open. And they said to some people, …  When we fled, we helped people, … We took someone’s pocket, … just to help. We fled together and people started talking. We were all scared. We fled. We didn’t understand what was happening. But we spoke: Do you know what happened there? And some people, … How am I supposed to explain this? The army, …  all took people from the same city, …  and brought them to another city.  Like, … this is Antwerp, your city, … You are a soldier in this city. To defend your home, your city.  They didn’t let men from the same city become soldiers, … Because the government has a hidden agenda. Here we are talking about Shiites and Sunnis. So the soldiers in Mosul all came from the capital. They were not going to sacrifice their lives for me or anyone else. They were ordered to defend the city from the government, but many soldiers disappeared. Only a few soldiers were from the neighborhood or the city itself and they stayed, … And those people we talked to said: we were alone. They left us to our fate. We did not understand what was happening.  It was very sad and we fled further. We walked and bullets flew between our legs. I remember jumping over bullets.  Daesh came closer and they shot at the few soldiers who were still there. They were actually normal people. They had no heavy weapons. Just a rifle.  What do you start with a rifle against Daesh?  You don’t need any details. The whole world knows what kind of weapons Daesh has. It was like a movie.  We went on, … two, three hours, …  And in one place, almost outside the city, …  we were on the road to Kurdistan.  And we saw the vehicles of the army of Kurdistan. They were getting closer.  And we thought: vehicles with weapons, soldiers, … Maybe they can stop Daesh.  We dreamt about that. We were tired.  But they drove five, ten minutes further, … and then came back. And thousands of people fleeing to that place. And there I had to find my family, my mother and sisters, … And we called family and friends to take us by car, because it was impossible to find our way. It was chaos.  It was like a movie: children under your arm, your flight, your escape, … Yes, that’s how it was. And we went on.  Someone took us to Kurdistan. We stayed there for two weeks.

Together with your family?

Yes, but it was impossible to stay there. It is impossible to rent a house there. Everything is full.  Some people slept on the street.  They didn’t find a house.  And because some, …  of course not everyone, …. You can’t put everyone on the same level. But some people in Kurdistan were not happy at all. Because they have problems with Arabs.  Some Kurds, not everyone of course.  But some with such a “black soul” started to show this. They talked badly about us.  We could not stay there.  So we went on to Turkey.  Turkey was a new chapter, … to survive, … To find out everything, … to find work, impossible by the way. It is really impossible.  But in the end we ended up at a school. For Arabs living in Turkey.  Arab children offer them a small chance to develop themselves. The problem, … I don’t really want to talk about it. Not because it’s a secret, but because it hurts me. Nobody supports, …  In Iraq, the government has been bad until today.  So in Iraq there are two enemies.  IS and the government. Two problems, impossible to survive. Then we went to Kurdistan.  But half of the Kurds don’t want Arab people. And so they did bad things to them.  I don’t care if anyone agrees. This is my opinion. I respect everyone.  But when you hurt me, I’m not going to say: of course. No: stop now! It’s not because I’m in a bad situation that you have to treat me like this. In Kurdistan, not everyone supported us.  In Turkey they didn’t help us either. They did say: come, come, come, … But a lot of bad things happen there.  In the camps, … where children disappear, … between Turkey and Syria. Buying and selling children, …  For a few hundred you can buy a child. They buy children from all over the world. And that’s not to mention young girls, … About young children, … five, six years.  There were groups who, so to speak, distributed medicines. And they gave a child something, … The child was playing, it wasn’t sick, … They took him to the hospital, came back and said to the mother: oh, we’re sorry, … He died.  A lie, of course.  It’s about money, it’s business.  A business that I don’t really want to talk about.

[i] Where did you stay in Turkey?

[r] In Turkey we stayed in Adana, a city in the south. And I started working as a teacher in the school I told you about. And of course I wanted to be an art teacher. But there was already an art teacher.  So I had to give sports lessons.  Yes, I can give sports lessons, …  But it was winter, so I gave them painting lessons anyway.

[i] Instead of sports?

Yes, because it was cold, it was always raining and there were no good sports facilities. After Turkish children and students were finished, it was the turn of Arab children for several hours. It was almost night and there was actually no possibility to play sports. Occasionally when the weather was nice, I went outside with them to play sports. But most of the time I gave them painting lessons.  So yes, I lived there for one year.  One year and a half, about …  Afterwards I started thinking about my future. I hadn’t built anything up. Again it was very difficult. I didn’t do what I had to do, what I wanted to do. It was difficult again.  Yes you are freer, ….  But you don’t speak the language.  [not understood] Once, … In Syria we did the same, … we proposed a group of, … to school children, street children, young people, … Everyone was welcome and we gave them materials to paint. And we paint together.  We organized this a few times. We also did it in another city. It went well and it was fun. Many people came together. In Turkey I was in contact with a journalist. And I told him that I wanted to organize something similar here in Turkey. A meeting between Arab and Turkish children. Because they are very far away from each other.  Because of the language, but also because parents raise them: No, don’t deal with them. Not with Arabic children. They try to survive. They would be happy to have Turkish children as friends. Most Turkish children do not.  So I started talking about this idea and that we had already done this. And said to the journalist: help us to organize this. He thought it was a good idea.  A meeting between Arab and Turkish children. He started asking around, ….  And finally he said: there is a holiday, …. an important day when we can organize this activity.  I was very happy.  We went to buy the equipment. And I was really very happy to do it again. Just children coming to paint.  We made big paintings and hung them on the wall. It was really very important to me.  When we arrived, … we had brought all our material, … I was happy, there were a lot of people. But I noticed that he had handed over the leadership to a Turkish team, as if it were their project. As if it was their idea.  As if it was all theirs.  Suddenly I was completely out of it.  I thought: okay, I don’t like it, …  Not because it was my idea, …  But it’s nice to say: that someone who comes to Belgium, to Antwerp, … that there is an Arab man who wants to organise something like that, not because of my name. It’s because of what you tell people.  They’ll love the idea: a newcomer who organizes something so beautiful. But if you don’t say anything about it, … It’s like your own idea, …  You understand me, don’t you?  And the next point is: when they brought the children, … They brought Turkish children, …  But they didn’t invite Syrian children. They invited, …  Okay, I’m not talking about Syrian or Iraqi children. Because we are all from the Middle East and we are all in the same situation. When asked where do you come from today? I always answer: I come from the Middle East. Syrian, Iraqi, … It does not matter. I am an Arab and a newcomer. They released children, …  Turkmenistan, … Have you heard of them?  They are Turkish children.  They come from Turkey and live in Iraq.  There were no Arab children, you know? You invite Turkish children.  And children from another country, but actually they are Turkish too. There was not a single Arab child.  So everything I wanted to do, nothing came in the house. I couldn’t open my mouth myself, … They jumped around like monkeys, they were the boss. I didn’t say anything.  I felt bad.  And I read that they even wrote that they wanted to bring Turkish children together with Arab children. I was really surprised.  And all the attention went to them.  Again, it’s not about my name.  But it’s about the idea behind it: someone new who wants to organize something like that. Do you understand?  This made me feel bad again.  I tried to do something here.  And I trusted you.  So that trust was gone.  And another reason, ….  Tell me if I have to stop, hey…

[i] No, go on.

[r] There are so many details.  Another reason why I thought of leaving was, … my father taught at the same school.  And once there was someone, he went to school a lot, … an islamic man with a beard.  He always came to help.  He brought presents for the children.  After a while I understood that he more or less belonged to the islamic group [IS] . They were also in Syria and Iraq.  What is he doing here?  I thought: okay I keep my distance.  Once: my father, … he’s a good teacher, … all the children love him, love the way he teaches. They respect him.  Once, … I wasn’t there myself, I was somewhere else, … And that man, …. he came from outside. He didn’t talk to the management or other teachers, … He went straight to class.  He started talking to the children.  It was playtime at that moment.  He said about my father: this teacher is not a good person. He says bad things, he is not religious, … That’s not my father at all.  And who are you to say this? What do you want? And the children answered: no, he’s a good teacher. We love him. The children supported my father and asked the man: what are you talking about? He said: no, everything you hear is wrong, because we hear that he, … The problem became bigger. He left school. But you do understand who controls the school. There is a government, police, … but they don’t do anything. The importance of this story, why I tell it, is … I asked the children, I got information, … about who was spreading this misinformation about my father. And I came up with the names of four or five children, … Eight, nine, maximum ten years old.  I got this information from their friends.  Can you imagine: a ten-year-old, eleven-year-old child who is a soldier? A soldier of Islamic State?  Their friends had told me.  And they get support, …  And this is the thing I told you I wanted to tell you. They raise these children like this. Everything you tell them, … they believe. The man had come because there was a child, … that my father had punished. This made the child feel bad.  He spread bad, false news about my father. And then someone came.  It’s like in a movie.

[i] This kind of situation made you decide to leave Turkey?

Yes, because I was very angry.  And my father told me: if you stay with these angry thoughts for a long time, … … And I decided to do something wrong.  If I see this person again in the school, it’s going to be a big fight. Then I don’t think about anything anymore: just my family and my father. I said: I quit my job, I disappear, … but I’m going to look for this man, … I’m going to hunt him down. Because he told me shit. They are criminals who judge you.  And the children: you don’t know if you should be angry or if you should feel sorry for them. And child of ten, eleven years old that they have been brainwashed. And the government does nothing.  That’s why I thought: I can’t stay here again, … Again, I can’t stay here.  Or I do something very stupid. Through emotions.  I do something to myself or someone else, … What I mean: when you fight someone like that from one man to another, …. Then he can really hurt you. Maybe you will be taken by the police or by his group [IS] ? Even if you only fight with words.  But to keep your mouth shut all the time… That is difficult. And that for a long time.  I told you what I experienced in the different countries. I decided to leave. I didn’t know where to go. A voice in my head told me to leave. That I had to take this opportunity to leave. Otherwise, something bad would happen.  So by chance, …  I was talking to a friend.  He told me that he has a wife and two children. He already lived here in Europe, in France.  When you come to Europe, can you take my wife and children with you? And I wanted to help him, but I also thought: this is my chance to leave. I only had three days to get ready. Again, I wasn’t really ready.  We leave within three days. So be ready. I wasn’t ready.  I didn’t even have time to say goodbye to my family. I didn’t know when I would see them again next time. When we left Iraq we didn’t have time to say goodbye to the house or our belongings. When you are preparing to leave your country forever. Then you have an eye for every detail. When you breathe the air for the last time. Do you understand? You look at the sky and you know you are leaving. You say goodbye to everything around you. Even small details. You prepare yourself. You are ready to leave. You say goodbye to the last time you pick up the door handle and close the door. You say goodbye.  I couldn’t do this when we left Syria. Because I thought I would only be gone for a few months. And that I would return. But that was not the case. So I didn’t say goodbye to anyone or anything. For example, I had an appointment the next day. I called and said that I would come later. I didn’t say goodbye either in Syria or in Iraq. And the same thing happened in Turkey.  I only had a few days to get ready. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to family. And so we left, … a new chapter. I always thought about writing my story in a book. And that’s what I’m going to do, with a lot of details.  For me it was strange. I have fled from many countries. Iraq, Syria, Turkey, … from one country to another. And I decided to leave.  After three days a new chapter of this story began. We found a way to come here.  It is a film with many details and experiences, … Because it was, …  I had to use both my physical and my mind. The first part of my flight was not physical. Your mind was mainly put to the test.  That was also difficult.  But during this part you had to use your skills to survive and that wasn’t easy. We first travelled to a seaside town in Turkey. There were thousands of people who also wanted to leave. Thousands of people without a home.

[i] Which city in Turkey?

[r] I don’t remember the name.  I forgot the name, but almost everyone – I think – left from there. It is known for it.  Yes, and you hear, …  stories: yes a few days ago I tried, but …  in the middle of the sea, … our boat, … and someone died, … I still grabbed him, but I couldn’t help myself and he died. Wow: you’re trying to get ready for such a scenario. Yes, it was a difficult situation there. We slept everywhere, on the street, … Really on the street: families, children They covered themselves with pieces of paper.  I was really sorry that I didn’t have a camera, a small camera. To film everything.  It would be, … I won’t say that it would be totally perfect, … But it would put a finger on the wound.  Pressing: to show more pain.  I tried to film everything in my head.  To this day, I know exactly what I saw, how I looked, what I heard. How the light came in.  I studied a bit to be an actor.

[i] Did you paint anything?

[r] I drew.  Whenever I had time.  I had a backpack on my back. I was carrying things. Two children. And my cousin was there too.  He was visiting us. He couldn’t go back. He left his family in Mosul. I think he was the last person I would have thought would leave his country. But he had no choice.  He fled with us and we supported each other.  Every now and then there were moments when I could draw. I looked up these moments.  Or I tried to store things very precisely in my head and draw them later. So we went on from there.  When we left we were 70 or 80 people. And they said: there is a big yacht.  But this big yacht, …  You might think of a yacht with naked girls, where you can have a drink, … It was just a small boat.  Really a small boat.  Don’t put us in there, because then we’ll die. It wasn’t a boat where you could sit and look at the sky. That is also dangerous, … but you can still jump off the boat. And swimming for survival.  But this was a small yacht.  And we were inside.  And when we went down, … everything went very fast, … And we couldn’t choose our place.  And we sat at the very front of the point of the boat. A very small place. Maybe only two meters wide. And other half, two meters long. Very small. So in this place, …  There was a seat, one meter from the ground.  And we were sitting there with our arms crossed.  And I was with my cousin, two people, a girl with her brother. There were six or seven of us.  A small place like this. And we sat like this. And I know my cousin is no hero.  He’s normal.  And he has a phobia for small places.  Before we left, they turned off the lights. The boat had lights, but they didn’t want the police to see us. When we were a little further, he would turn the lights back on. But at the moment, … 70 to 80 people.  There were 10 children.  There were 10 children and a small baby.  He was only a few days old.  We left, without light. There was a small window in the ceiling. A small window that we opened for some fresh air. Really I saw all my life back at that moment. You don’t have a chance to survive if something happens. We were only a few metres at sea.  And some girls started crying. They were afraid because we couldn’t breathe. They started crying and some men started calling. We want to get out. Let us!  One of them tried to breathe, but it could not. And I started, …  I only thought of my cousin. I wanted to calm him down. Hey focus, listen to my voice, look at me. Forget everything around you.  Everything will be fine.  And in a few hours we’ll be in Greece. The situation was really difficult.  And when the boat was sailing, … because we were in the tip of the boat, the waves entered the boat through the small window. Lots of water inside.  The first time the water fell on us, … Can you imagine, … You sit in this little place and water falls on you. And a lot of water. The whole wave came in.  Dark, people screaming, people crying, … And you have to control yourself to survive. At that moment, you know, like in a movie, you hear nothing anymore and there is complete silence. But everything around you moves.  Voices, faces that move.  And everything happens in your head: your family, your parents, yourself, … the person you were when you were growing up.  I tried to calm them down. The light went back on a bit. But nothing changed: the waves came in and in and in. We were all wet, as if we were swimming.  There was a lot of water.  We had the opportunity to close the window, but then we couldn’t breathe. Then we really couldn’t breathe normally.  So we had to choose: breathe or swim.  With the waves coming in.  None of the men could think clearly anymore. But I decided to check that window. I took off my t-shirt. I got down on my knees, just below the window. And I put on the window. When I heard that the wave was rolling over the boat, … When I heard that, I would close the window. So that the water wouldn’t come in.  When I heard that the wave was leaving, I opened the window so that we could breathe. At the same time, I turn to, … I don’t know what it’s called. Piece of wood on the boat.

[i] Yes, I know what you mean. [mast]

[r] I don’t know the English word. But I looked at it. Sometimes the mast disappeared because we moved on waves. It didn’t take us two hours but nine hours. I want you to be able to imagine this.  So I concentrated on that piece of wood.  From the small window I looked at the piece of wood [mast] . When the mast disappears, you should actually jump off the boat. I know I don’t really stand a chance, because we were stuck at the bottom of the boat. When the water comes in from the wave, no one can survive. Nobody, … because the water, the waves are too strong. I understood that we only had a few seconds. When the mast disappears and tilts forwards, … that’s the end. Then we’re done. So then I would have to jump off the boat. But how? What about my cousin. He can’t swim.  He will drag me to my death when I jump with him. It was like a movie.  And for five hours, I’m not joking, …  For five hours I was on my knees and held the window above me. I never lowered my arms.  I opened the window all the time. But I got tired. I wanted to sleep. And because I pulled too hard, a handle broke off the window. This made it impossible for me to close the window completely. There was always a gap, even if it mattered to you. Closed or not closed, the wave came at me.  It was like this for five hours.  I remember having lemons with me.  I knew that a lemon can help against nausea at sea. So I took a lemon, opened it with my fingers and handed it out. To a girl, to my cousin.  I said: focus and drink the juice.  For five hours I opened the window every now and then. But after that I couldn’t do it anymore. I was up. Even when I opened the window, the water fell on me. In the meantime, we were also standing with our feet in the water. We were already heavy with 80 people in the boat.  This got worse with all the water in the boat. I said: if nobody wants to help, then we die. So with a piece of plastic they shovelled water. They gave it to me and I threw it out the window. But more and more water came in through the window through the waves. And so it was nine o’clock. After five hours I closed my eyes and said I was going to sleep. I let go of the window.  And I was lying on top of people. I was tired.  I did my eyes and I really fell asleep. Really. And I said to myself. Maybe I’ll open my eyes, maybe I won’t. Maybe I won’t wake up. I don’t care anymore. I really wanted to sleep.  So I fell asleep, but I don’t remember much of it. I didn’t sleep very long, because the water kept flowing on me. Little changed. After a while I opened my eyes. It was the same chaos. In the meantime no one had taken care of the window. So I did it again.  We were at sea at nine o’clock and it was morning. And there was a small island in Greece.  We got off the boat there.  One girl jumped off the boat and immediately broke her leg. The police followed us the whole time. Why did it take us nine hours? Normally it is only a few hours. The police were chasing us all the time and we sailed in circles to escape. We arrived on an island. It was very hot. Warm, we were hungry. We were really suffering.  And someone knew – about someone else – , …  that there was a small church down the road, where we would be safe. A place of worship. And found this church.  It was just a small room, half of this room. It was an old building, very beautiful. There was nothing around: desert, stones.  We were tired. There was a large tree under which we sat. And we saw an old man, with a big beard, long hair. And a very dark skin from the sun. He looked like a fisherman. He had a special view. He was almost naked, was wearing only shorts and was very skinny. You could tell from his body that he had worked a lot. He had two big bags of food and water with him. For the first time we were relaxed.  Afterwards we continued our journey: from one place to another. From one police station to another in Greece, … for documents to leave the country.  We had arrived illegally and were leaving. They already knew that we did not want to stay there. And they were holding us in a police station. I signed it. It was a really bad experience; we slept there everywhere.  It was a very bad place, because…  During our entire flight we could decide where we slept. In the woods or in a garden, …  You could decide for yourself.  But there at the police station we met a really bad policeman. There was a steep, long staircase. And very old houses on both sides. The police station was just a house.  He even had a small garden. He could actually put people to sleep at home. But he decided to put us on the stairs. We were not even allowed to go down to the street. We weren’t allowed to look for a hotel, pay for a hotel. Can we find a place? No, I want you to stay here on the stairs, he said. It was a very difficult moment.  The stairs were only two palms big. I measured them. We were lying on the stairs all night. It was very cold. It’s not just about yourself, it’s also about the people around you. I drew something then.

[i] What did you draw?

I drew someone lying on paper. He slept like a child. I drew someone, … He was fat. He didn’t fit on the stairs. Impossible. He was spread out over two steps.  He lay with his back against the wall and slept. There were people sitting back to back.  People who covered themselves with their coats, … a coat over their head. There were also children, mothers, women, old people, … The next day, ….  We got up in the morning.  And you know: the children suffered from all the salt water of the sea, … Me too, by the way. I wanted to take a shower, but of course I couldn’t. The salt ate my body. The weather was very hot. And the next we woke up on the stairs, … because an old bad woman threw water at us. And she said many bad things to us.  Go away! Why are you sleeping here?  You know what I mean. I’m not going to translate everything. They kept us in Greece for one or two nights. In a police station, another station.  And they held us like in a prison. And normally you get a piece of paper that you entered illegally and that you have three days to leave. But that policeman wanted money from us.  We didn’t have much money and we didn’t want to give it to him because we didn’t know what was in store for us. And he decided to hold us for two or three days. Two or three days, I’m not sure anymore. A very bad place.  Just on a terrace. We didn’t even have a room. I drew there too. I had a lot of time.  I drew what I saw: people, …  A yacht, a mountain, …  The things I could see with my eyes. I drew there. Then we went to Athens, the capital.  From there we went to Serbia.  On foot.  There are too many details to tell you everything, but from Serbia we went to Macedonia. Or was it Macedonia first? I don’t remember. And then to the border with Hungary? I don’t remember. I do not remember.  I do not remember the order of the countries. But we did not want to go through Bulgaria.  Because there they arrested people and put them in prison. They were suffering. At that moment we decided to pay so that they would take us by car. That way we didn’t have to walk through that country. So we were in a small van, …

[i] Who were you on the road with? Still with your friend’s wife?

Yes, she was with me, … It wasn’t easy. She had little children.

It was difficult with children. Do you understand? I was already carrying a bag on my back.  I was carrying a bag of hair in front of my body. I was carrying a child with one arm. With my other arm I was still carrying things. And sometimes we had to walk.  So we walked, but you’re already exhausted. You can’t move anymore. Your body wouldn’t listen to you anymore. But you had to flee further. The same for my cousin: he also carried a child, a bag and his own bag on his back. And we walked.  Yes, we walked a lot, … from Macedonia to Serbia. Yes, and I remember in Serbia, … because my English was only half as good as it is now, …. I really didn’t speak well.  And we didn’t have anyone to tell us the way And I asked some Arabic people on the street: do you know someone we can afford and who brings us? And they gave me a number.  I called him.  With two words, because he didn’t speak English very well either. In Belgrade. And we agreed at some point.  It was mafia. Follow me! I followed him somewhere. And he said: I have a hotel here. Come there at night. And at night we leave.  We almost had a deal.  But I didn’t know these people.  It went through my head: Serbia, mafia, you mean nothing there. You can disappear in a minute and no one will ask for anything. And I came back and said to the others: get ready, tonight we leave. “Do you know if it’s a good deal?” They asked. I didn’t know anything. But we have no choice.  Every night that we stayed in the same place, it meant that we were paying more money, money that we have to move on quickly to make good use of your money. All the food and drink you buy is from the money you can get further. So it is risky.  So at night we went to that hotel.  But it wasn’t really a hotel: old building, wooden door. You walked through the corridor: dark, … like in a movie. And we went to an apartment with red lights. A small apartment, … and in every room there was an old, naked woman, … You can imagine what a hotel it was. Before we went there I had taken my knife. I hid it under my T-shirt. I also told my cousin: take your knife with you. You can’t go there without it, … We had really ended up in a bad place.  And I said to him: if something happens, … it was funny and sad at the same time, … We thought about who we would help, …. …if anything should happen. The children or the wife of my friend, … so difficult to choose. But we had to choose, …. we talked about it. The wife or her children? We decided on the children. I told him: if something happens in there, … Take the two children, hug them and do nothing else. And flee outside.  Take the children and I’ll try to do what I can. But don’t try to defend her [wife] . Take the children, leave everything behind and flee outside. And I do what I can.  We agreed to this and went inside.  Very strange place.  There were two, three men, … Mafia.  Organised mafia, … no hobbyists.  And we sat down, ….  I told them: don’t drink or eat anything, …. That’s rule 1 and rule 2. When I look at you and say: run, sit or do something, … then listen to me. But we were very tired, she too.  And there was a man, I forgot his name, … He brought small biscuits, coca cola, …  And I looked at the woman: don’t let them eat or drink, … Then when you fall asleep, I leave you behind, … I would have told them. But she couldn’t stop the children … The children began to drink, …. and I joked: bye, bye, all of you, I’ll leave you here. That man there, … I think his name was Alex, … He understood and said: don’t be afraid, …. Don’t worry. We won’t hurt you. If we did something to you, we wouldn’t feed you, … Relax!  But I didn’t eat or drink anything. I wanted to be focused. And we made a deal. We paid to flee further. And a car took us to a forest, …  And in that forest we all met people, …. There were different groups of people and each group came through one person. But they all belonged to one person. He was the general. Big man, … 20, 30 people with walkie-talkies, weapons, … professional. Cars and vans arrived … and we had to move on. We continued by car, …. and then we switched to another car, … And we crossed the border with Hungary, Bulgaria? I don’t remember exactly. But in one of these countries, …  the wife of my friend, …  She had called friends or family to pick them up there, … so we left them behind. We changed cars, … and we saw almost nothing outside. One time we were in an ordinary car, … many hours, even days. We didn’t know where we were going. We only stopped at gas stations to go to the toilet and buy food. Then we got in a van. We saw nothing. We just sat down. Until we arrived in Brussels.

[i] Was Brussels your choice?

[r] No, we knew where we were going and how to flee. You can hear people say, …  They only think documents are important, not your story. Some countries won’t let you in. They extend the borders. The first thing you think about is: do they let you in, do they listen to your story? So it was a coincidence.  Yes, and my friend, … When we were in Brussels, he had a different plan. He wanted to go to another country.

Your cousin?

[r] Yes.  It was a bit, … when you are very tired, … At the end of our flight, …  We weren’t arguing, ….  But your mind is different, you react differently because you are so tired. So there were some misunderstandings.  Maybe that’s why he, uh… By the way, we still have good contact. We are like brothers. But at that moment there were misunderstandings, so he decided to go further. I said: listen, it’s better to be together, so we can help each other, … He said: no, I want to go.  It’s your choice. So he left and I stayed here. So it was a coincidence. We met people who brought us here. He asked where do you want to go? I said: I don’t know. Ask people what country you accept.  It was without a plan.

[i] What was your first feeling, impression when you arrived in Brussels? When you got out of the car?

[r] When I got out I had pain, terrible pain in my feet. We had walked for two weeks.  Two weeks walking in the same shoes. I couldn’t do it anymore. It was more than pain. This made it impossible for me to think of anything else.  So the first thing I did was enter a shop and buy new shoes. I put on my new shoes. Not a big difference, but a little more comfortable. So I asked for a police station.  Where I wanted to sign up.  But nobody helped me.  Because the French-speakers, … I spoke a little English, … but they didn’t understand. And certainly when you asked about police, … they ignored you. So I tried to find a police station, but it didn’t work out. I was in the centre of Brussels and I saw an Arab man. He was talking to his friends and I told him I was new. He had been living here for ten years or so.  He said: there is the commissariat. That’s how you go there. He explained it to me and gave me the address.  But you had to go in the morning. So I had one more night to bridge. So I went to the commissariat.  And there was a park nearby. And I met a few people there.  It was so cold, so cold.  I slept, but had nothing to cover me up. Far too cold. In the morning at 8 am they opened the doors.  Afterwards they sent us to the shelter.

[i] In what year did you arrive?

[r] In 2015. In 2015.

[i] And now you live in Belgium. What are your priorities? What are your goals?

[r] After all I’ve told you, … a job as an artist, of course. That comes first.  That’s more important than my life, … what I had to flee from. The first thing I thought of was, … I have to make something. I had an urge that I couldn’t ignore.  I wanted to start again, chase my dreams back. To continue as an artist. That’s what I live for. It’s not a hobby.  When I arrived at the shelter, I asked them … After a few days there was an activity, … You could ask something to do sports or to paint, … So I asked them some painting material.  And they thought of a few pencils and some paper. It was a joke to me.  I said: I would like colors, acrylic, oil paint, a canvas, … if possible. They said: yes of course we do.  They gave me a small canvas and some colours. And they were happy that they could help.  So I painted, … and after I finished my first work they said: You’re really serious.  Yes, I want more.  If you have material, you can help me. And they helped me. They brought me a canvas and they became my friends. After a while they gave me a room, a very small room. No light, no electricity, no heating, very cold. Snow outside to the knees.  This was what they could give me, so I was happy. I had my own studio. Even though it was small. There was a lot of snow outside. So one evening, … It was a combination of fun and art, … I asked my friends: can you collect snow to make something? To make an image. I think you saw it.

[i] Yes, is it on your phone?

Yes, I showed it to you.  Yes, there was a party in the evening. Lots of wind, lots of snow. We made a mountain and I made this image.  In the morning everyone woke up and…  Everyone took pictures. And they understood that I am an artist.

[i] Was it the first time you made a picture in snow?

Yes, it was the first time.  We also had snow, but not so much, not every day. Just a little bit to play with.  It was the first time I had made such an image. They understood that I am a real artist and … After a few days there was an interview and … A first interview for the newspaper and then for the Luxembourg TV. So it got more serious and I asked for an exhibition. They were really good people there.  The people who work there. So far, we’ve been good friends, more than friends. They are very beautiful people.  They didn’t do this because it was only their work, but also just as people. So they started to help me. We moved to Liège or somewhere in the neighborhood, n Colors, … all the materials I needed. And I used everything they had.  Then they decided to give me another room as well. And they told me, … in the whole history of this center, … It was Fedasil.

Which center?

[r] Fedasil.

[i] Fedasil?

Yes, in Gouvy, … ten minutes from Luxembourg. Near Vielsalm, French-speaking part.  So they gave me a big room and that became my apartment. I lived there and they told me that this had never happened before. Someone with his own room and his own key. They trusted me. They knew me.  Even the people who worked there became friends. After their work they came to visit, … Sometimes we just spent time together.

In the back there is a painting of you, too. Can you tell us anything about it?

[r] That’s what you mean?


[r] In general, I paint about ancient mythology. [not understood] magic, symbols, that sort of thing. I always work around that.  I always work with symbols.  I find that interesting not to work directly. Sometimes I also use knowledge about magic in my paintings.

[i] And this painting?

[r] To me, the owl is a symbol of wisdom. I painted this in a church nearby.  I worked there with various artists: from Poland, Belgium, … We worked there for one week. Some of them played music, others painted. That was my vision of that place when I worked there. In my paintings there are always symbols with a meaning. Nothing is by chance. From knowledge I make these kinds of paintings, no let’s call it an art type.

[i] Do you think it’s important to explain your paintings? Or do they stand alone?

[r] I don’t like the idea of explaining my paintings. Or like some artists give their paintings a name. Art is like music.  I mean art like painting, sculpture, … right now. Music is also art, but here I mean … Paintings and sculptures and certainly paintings, … Paintings are like music.  I can’t let you listen to music and then tell you: now you have to be sad. Sad music, be sad, don’t smile, … no, that’s impossible. You have to listen to it, you have to understand it and feel it. There are two reasons why I don’t want to explain my paintings. Not because I don’t respect the person who asks me, … First because I work with symbols.  It doesn’t work that I work with symbols with meaning that I want you to follow, … But at the same time I explain the symbols to you.  That is impossible.  And also because people wouldn’t be too lazy. That’s the thing: making contact with people.  Don’t give them everything.  Like when you have a child and you would give it everything in one second. Sometimes you have to let him work to get something. Do something.  Work with your mind.  The same goes for art.  I’m not going to explain it to you. You have to think. Even if you give it an opinion that I didn’t mean, … But at least you’ve tried.  Were you sad when you painted this? [refers to painting at the back] It is possible. You used a lot of red. Does this mean that you were angry? Yes, maybe.  Just think, let your mind work.  What is the point of explaining everything to you, … Because I’ve seen people and they come to a painting, …. And what is the meaning of this?  And the artist explains it. Ah okay.  He will have forgotten that painting in just a few seconds, after a second glass of wine. Or maybe he didn’t even listen.  If you really want to know, you have to think. So I don’t like to explain my paintings. But there is always a meaning, a puzzle, … You have to find a way to understand the mystery. I like to work that way.  Not only with emotion and colors.  Emotion, … For those who work this way, art is only pleasure. It is not your mission. You don’t have a mission.  There is no message, …  that you would like to say to the people. And I respect that, by the way. I respect it and I like it like him. But I also like the way I work. It’s a different song. I like to work in a puzzle-like way. Thinking games and real information.  Real things I think people should know about. Or it’s time to know.

[i] I’m going to ask you one last question. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

[r] 10 years, … What exactly do you mean by ‘where’?

I mean, how do you see your future?

[r] I am an artist. I will remain an artist until I die. As I told you. I focus, …  to make my dream come true when I was three years old, … to be an artist known throughout the world. And that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what I have to do. Even if I die before I am. Like a survivor, a soldier, … you have to fight. So I will be an artist until I die. This is me: painter, artist, …