[i] Can you introduce yourself briefly?

[r] Okay. I am [name] I come from Iraq from the capital Baghdad. I am 36 years old. I studied theatre for 9 years: 5 years as an actor and 4 years as a director. I have a bachelor’s degree. I have lived in Baghdad all my life. Baghdad is for me the most beautiful place in Iraq because I grew up there between my family and friends, with all the different situations there. I was born in 1983 and that was a really special date because we have had war between Iraq and Iran with the Iranians for 8 years. So I was born during the war. That’s where I grew up. After that we got another war, between Iraq and Kuwait. That was in the 1990s. That was really a different situation because then we also got problems with America about what happened in Kuwait. America came to our country and so we got another war. After that America came again and then again and again. Until now. So when I see my life there it’s really a situation that differs in time but it’s always war: in one situation it’s war and in another moment it’s also war. I was born between the wars, grew up between the wars and got my bachelor’s degree in the middle of the war. So, this is some more information about my life there.

[i] What is your earliest memory? What’s the longest time you’ve remembered in your life? What moment in relation to your family or…

[r] I have many memories about my life but I see them step by step. The first when I was a child. I remember that everything was easier for me. I didn’t have to think much about what to do. I just tried to play, that’s what I did. I used to play with my friends on the same street. That’s just the most beautiful memory I have right now. But then I have another one, from when I grew up a bit. Then I went to theatre school, that wasn’t my dream but it was really a different situation, a different story but the first time I went there and I remember this moment: I don’t know anything about theatre, I don’t have any information and then I had to do an interview and in that interview you really had to choose a certain scene from their work in a small piece for a certain theatre school, from a very famous (author) like Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett or Brecht, and you had to play that scene and also if possible a bit of Stanislawski or Sophocles or something, so for me that was really a bit weird because I know or don’t know anything about Stanislawski or Brecht, so I had to look and choose something from Macbeth It was a scene for him and that scene always stays with me, until now and I love Macbeth, until now, so this was the first meeting between me and Macbeth I was then, I think, 18 years. I always remember that scene. I played that scene a lot (recites a piece in Arabic) (recites a piece in Arabic) He said: ‘Put all the flags on the wall’ or: ‘Hang all the flags on the wall’. Yes they will come and they will come to fight with us’ ‘But we are ready. We are really ready for them. I don’t know why I found this scene so interesting but it always stays with me. It was my first theatre scene but I don’t know why. But I was 18 and then I took the exam. Two weeks later I got the answer: Yes, okay, you can come and study theatre and that was a bit of a shock for me. I don’t know anything, but they say okay, you have a bit of talent, you can do theatre. So I studied theatre and after that I kept working on theatre. When I think about other things in my life… I am divorced and have 2 children: 2 daughters, both with their mother in Iraq. That’s the hardest part, I think. When I see a child on the street here in Belgium, my thoughts go straight to my children and I think: maybe that’s the same with my child. they’re the same age, or something. I have no information about them. I have no contact with them. Since 3 years or 3.5 years it has been an emotional war But that is I think … the hardest memory in my life because I didn’t have enough time with them. One was 3 years old and the second was 1 year old. I didn’t have enough time with them to talk to each other or do something together that’s a bit unfortunate for me.

[i] Can you tell us something about Iraq and about Baghdad? Can you define that: what is Iraq, what is Baghdad?

[r] Yes. For me, Iraq used to be a big country. Then I grew up and saw that Iraq is really only a small country, not a big one. But Iraq is bigger than Belgium. Belgium is only an inch big or better: so small. What I remember about Iraq… for me… Yes, I really know that… It’s a difficult question but… I love Iraq but I’m also afraid of it. It’s hard to say that for some people. They say to you: You have to love your country, you have to be a sister and everything, but do you have problems… All my memories about Iraq are bad things, it’s war, bad situations, poverty, all those things in that period, I mean, from 1983 until now. But before, no, I studied a lot about Iraq, it was a really big country! They used to have real control over everything. All those Sumerians and Babylonians, all those people. They were the first people. During their lives they really made something. Hammurabi was the first person to make laws, the first person in life. Then I see all the histories about Iraq and how it was, in the past. It is really a bit difficult to… To see: what is Iraq now? The country that is so bad now because of all that war or the country as it used to be: the first country where they gave people information about: how to get by or how to do something like start a farm or something. If we go back to our history, you can see all those important things like it used to be in Iraq. It was very, very, very interesting for all people everywhere, here in Europe or in other countries. There in Iraq was the first place for all those who were smart and made the most beautiful things. That’s what I used to mean and how I see it. I have a mix of emotions within myself. I have mixed feelings about our history and how it used to be in our country and I have different emotions about what it is now. And then I see where the mistake comes from. Is it our fault, did we destroy the country or something? Or no, it’s not our fault but it’s the fault of people who came from outside the city, from outside the country and they destroyed everything, destroyed everything. Who did that? That was a big question for me about Iraq. And about Baghdad: that was the first city in islamic history where there was control over everything. Baghdad was the city of a caliph. Baghdad was the city of Haroen Ar-Rashid. Of all the people who have done a lot, not only for Islamic history but they have also done a lot for the whole of humanity: legislation, architecture, architecture, and everything you can find there. The first school in history, the very first university is the Al-Mustansiriyah and that’s in Baghdad. The Al-Mustansiriyah is older than the University of Vienna. That means that the first people to start writing and learning and all that, were there in that small town, in Baghdad. This small city has really spread a lot of information to other countries: to Persia, to Turkey, to Jordan and also to Europe and so on. All this information goes in all directions as you can see from Baghdad. Al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham was the first Islamic scholar who really did something in the field of chemistry and in the field of mathematics.

[i] Can you tell us anything about your family? About your family, what happened to your father and mother, brothers and sisters? With other family members?

[r] In Iraq the system is always: we live together in a big house and each has its own bedroom and there is also a toilet and so on. That means that we really always stay together, stay together as a family. It is a different system. I grew up there in my country with my mother, my sister and my father. My father died in 1995, a heart attack. He worked on buildings and stuff. My mother is a housewife. My little sister has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. She doesn’t have a job and that’s a pity but that’s the situation there. And I have a brother here in Belgium, who has been living here for 20 years. Uncles, aunts, we all live in one street and we walk in together all the time. We sit together and stay in our house for a week or so and we visit them and stay there for a week or so. That’s how life used to be, life was more social, more real living together and that’s so important for our tradition and for our way of life.

Do you miss that?

[r] Yes, I miss that because here there is another way of living. I understand everything about that system here but it is different here, people live here more individually, each person has his own life. Each person has its own structure. Each person really has his own problems and he doesn’t have time to be social together anymore. In this system here you just have to do a lot of things for the system, and for your work and for yourself and to build something up. And that’s great, but then you lose the connection or communication between the family or between the friends. Maybe you have Saturday time or Sunday, but some of them don’t have time even then. Because Saturday or Sunday is probably good for him to go a bit to the discotheque to dance, or go home to sleep because he really had a difficult week. So I miss that here when I see that many people really live in solitude, at least some of them, not everyone. I really regret that because we as humans, no matter what you believe in, no matter if you believe in God or in energy or something, but I mean that we as humans are made by that God or that energy to live together, that’s inside of us but then something has happened to the system or something that makes that we didn’t want to stay that way, that we felt: I have my life, my only life and I have to do that with it, but if you look really closely then the normal structure for people is past and present, that is all living together in one city, in one place, nobody living alone, in the mountains or something, some people do, but that’s really little.

[i] Were you raised religiously?

[r] Yes. I am Muslim. I am Shiite. I used to be in Iraq, and that’s a bit hard to say, but we didn’t have any problems with Sunnis and Shiites in the past. We are all muslims. About the period of Saddam Hussein I really don’t have any information about who was Sunni and who was Shiite. They just married together and did a lot of things together, but I don’t know much about that. We just lived. There was no difference between me or you or any other person. But… from then on we have information about: no, that’s a Sunni and that’s a Shiite, and you have to be afraid of a Sunni, and you have to be afraid of a Shiite. yes I’m a Muslim and Shiite, but my friend was a Sunni, I didn’t have any problems with him. He had a different way of praying, but that’s his problem. He will have to discuss this with God later, but now we are friends and we are together. But no, from then on I had to be afraid of him. They said to me, “They’re all bad.” and to them, “They’re all bad.” That’s how they put us at war between Sunnis and Shiites. In the year 2007 or between 2006 and 2007, oh my God, a lot of people died because of that stupid idea about Sunnis and Shiites. Many people died and they didn’t do anything. Their only mistake was to be born as Sunnis or in a family as Shiite. That was just your fault. They look at your identity card. Where do you come from? For example, if you go to a city like Brussels – and in Brussels everyone is not Sunni and in Antwerp everyone is Shiite – so if you go to Brussels to buy something, is there a check that you pick up and ask where you come from? If you’re from Antwerp, then you’re Shiite, okay, cup smaller. And that’s because of America’s beautiful democracy, but then they say: no, we didn’t do anything. It’s your fault, you fight among yourselves. I’ve worked in the media for 8 years as a director so I know all the small details about everything: what happened, who did it and how they did it and in any case there are always bad people and good people here in Belgium or in other countries but politics is always … They are really to blame.

Have you always felt free in Iraq? Didn’t all the violence eventually become dangerous for you?

[r] Truthfully, no. I remember that of the period with Saddam Hussein in the past. Then there was no freedom, there really was no freedom. With Saddam you couldn’t say anything, you couldn’t do anything. With Saddam you were afraid of your friend because if you said something about the government and your friend maybe told others about it then you could get really big problems. So with Saddam there was really no freedom. There was freedom to walk on the streets and so, yes, okay, but talking about the government or talking about the situation or talking about a difficult issue in life there, no, that was all forbidden. I remember something that happened to me. I was 20 years old and it was the second year that I studied theatre. In the evening after class, we used to go to a beautiful street there in Baghdad for a walk, and then back home. One evening we were on our way back to the bus stop, me and my friend, and then we saw someone who was really so scared, without shoes or anything and who ran really so fast. He ran right past us to another place. We thought what is that? Then we saw 2 men walking behind him. They were looking for him but didn’t find anything. Then my friend, who was a good guy, said to them: “Yes yes I saw him, he’s over there!” The two men stopped and looked at me and at him and then one said to me, “Ahaa!” You are the person who walked! I said to him: WHAT? I still had my clothes on from the school for theatre, that used to be a white shirt with blue pants and that other man, who had really bad clothes on So I said: “But look, I’m all clean.” but he said: “No no, it’s you! You’re the person who walked!” “What?” I said, I was really that scared. I was 20 years old, and we really had a lot of information about the (incomprehensible: prisons?) in the period of Saddam Hussein. What became of it, how bad it was I thought of that and, oh my God, what will happen to me there. I was almost crying and I said to him “Please, I didn’t do anything, that wasn’t me, look, this is my identity card I’m studying there.” But he said “No no no sh sh come come come.” Then he grabbed me and we started walking, but then he suddenly saw another man there and he was higher than she was. He was also a policeman, but higher up, an officer, and he said to him, “Sir, we found him!” But the officer was, thank God, a good man and he said to them, “What do you say? Is this the same person as the one who walked? You are so stupid, see: this one is so young and wears such beautiful clothes and the other one was so badly dressed and much older than this one, no no no, you are really so stupid!” And then he said to me, “Okay, go home.” Oh my God! I went back home and decided: this was the last time I stayed outside in the evening. And that was the last time I saw someone walking that I would try to say something. No: shut up, and move quickly to another place! That was freedom in Saddam Hussein’s time. Then came the freedom of the Americans. In 2003. That was a different kind of freedom. There was freedom to… talking about the situation, okay no problem. Or you could say: those and those people are bad, that minister is bad, the president is bad. Yes, we could, not a problem. But the Americans turned some groups into militias (a militia is an armed group of people). If you tried to talk about that group of people or you said: “That or that Sunni militia is bad.” Then you would quickly lose your head. And when you said that about another militia or religion, the same thing happened. Or if you tried to write on Facebook like a journalist about the government of: they’re so bad or you really have proof of what they all do, then you’d lose your head too. They did say that there was freedom and I worked in the media and on our channel they said: no, they do say that there is freedom and that we can really say what we want, but that’s not true. For example, if I wanted to write something for a programme or something like that, the information went to a minister and he had to call us and say: okay, you can do that or not. So we got information from the minister about what we should say or what programme we could make or not. That is the truth, but on the streets and in the media we would say yes, yes, there is freedom, nothing wrong, but that is not true!

[i] Can you tell us what caused you to leave?

[r] What do you mean?

[i] So you worked for television and something happened there that put your life in danger and forced you to flee in the end. Can you tell us what happened?

[r] Yes. It was in… 2015. I worked with the police to make a program and the program was about: the police picked up certain people and I tried to interview them about what they had done or what had happened to them or why they were terrorists. Those people were normally from Daesh, from Isis, from Al Qaeda or from another militia.

[i] And then nothing was changed?

[r] The intention of the program was to show people that the government really was so strong, that it controlled everything, that it had everything under control and that it picked up all the criminals. That was the idea of the program: show the people, the public, the spectator that the government is tackling everything. Even though there is a splinterbomb here and there, everything is still okay. We’ll get them all. It just takes some time, be patient, that’s all. So that was really the idea of the program. We, the director and the cameraman, had to go to the police. They always had a special place to do the interview. Someone else, a journalist, did the interview. For the cameraman, myself and someone who did the interview, there was always a special government car, always at a special time and it was always in a special place. Not in the ordinary prison because, as they said, those people are so dangerous, so they’re always in a special place. So we always went to another place: a special prison for terrorists So we did a lot of interviews with them about what they had done, about what they wanted, why they had done it. For example, one of them had shot a hundred people, how do you put it, dead. Someone else had shot 50 people. It was really always that way: dangerous, dangerous people. Once I was there to make an interview and I had found a friend there. He worked there as a police officer. We greeted each other and then he said: “Hussein, you work for the media. You have to show the truth to the people, to the public.” And I say, “Yes, that’s our job. We always work with the truth, we’re really strong enough to show people the right things.” But he replied, “No, that’s not true. For example, this program now that you’ve done it, there’s a lot… they’re really not criminals, they’re victims.” “What do you say, what do you mean?” I asked him. And he said, “Okay, come with me, I’ll prove it to you. Maybe you can see the evidence and pass it on to your boss or something. Really, it’s a big problem for some people.” And I said “Okay, just show me.” And then he gave me a lot of pictures and videos and stuff about people who got caught by the police, wrongly because they hadn’t done anything. But that person or person just didn’t have a family or came from a poor family. They couldn’t do anything, bring a lawyer or anything, and then the police picked him up and intimidated him. They beat him to make him say what they wanted, to make him say, “Yes, I am a terrorist and I did this and I did that.” but in reality that person hadn’t done anything at all. And then he gave me a story about a person, he was 20 I think or 21 or 23 or almost 20 or so and that person had done nothing. He just had the same name as another man, not exactly the same name, but only the same surname as a terrorist wanted by the police. Just his surname. The police picked him up in a place with a lot of war and trouble so the police thought: oh maybe this is the brother of that terrorist. The man said: no. We only have the same surname I don’t know that terrorist, I don’t have a relationship with him, he’s not my brother or anything. But the police said: no no no, he is your brother because the surname is the same. You are a liar! They hung him on his wrists against the wall, for 10 days, without food but with blows and electric shocks on his body to make him say: yes, I am the brother of that terrorist. But that wasn’t his brother, but there was nothing he could do. After a week or even 10 days his family came to that place, to the police station and said to them: this is his identity card, here are all the papers, this is all information, our son is really not who you think, he is not the brother of that terrorist. Then the police said: oh wow okay yeah, that’s true. Okay, let him go! Okay, let him go. They untied him from the wall he was hanging on, but what happened? Both hands (and I have the picture with me) Both hands were so red and blue that it gave him cancer. His hands were tied upstairs so that the blood was pinched off and after a week of being tied up like this he got cancer so they took him to the hospital and the hospital said to him: we really have to amputate both your hands now, we have to take both hands away, otherwise there is a chance that the cancer will go to your whole body, you choose. So they amputated both hands of a 20 year old boy, just because he didn’t have the right name. I gave all that information to my boss. The government saw that and what did they do? They made an interview with that person. I mean that person without hands and they said to him, the Ministry of Iraq: Sorry son, it’s really bad what happened to you, it’s so sad but we will see the policemen who did it to you, we will see who did it and we will fire them. As for you, you are free now and we say very sorry to you. Okay, thank you and that’s it. That’s how the interview went on television, on our channel. I saw that and I almost got angry and I almost laughed: what was that? Commedia del arte? A piece of Molière? It’s black, but it’s also laughable. It’s black and white. They make an interview on TV and say sorry for what happened to you but the man has lost his hands! He can’t do anything, he can’t work, nothing at all! And they don’t give him any money to do anything just sorry and that’s it. So easy! Sorry because we had to amputate your two hands. That’s it. For me this was really so bad. I brought other information to my boss and he said no to me. That’s not right. You are a bad person. You are an enemy, an enemy of the government. That’s how bad you are. You work for other countries, you work for Turkey or for Saudi Arabia or you are really that bad. And so they turned it into a completely different story and then the worst came. The TV channel intimidated me and then they gave me my resignation. Three days later the police picked me up. They isolated me for three days with many blows and a lot of intimidation and then a splinter bomb was placed under my car. The bomb exploded and there was a lot of damage at my house. My family was threatened and my family asked me to leave because they thought: now it is really too dangerous for you. You really have to leave! Then I left, in August 2013

How did you leave?

[r] With a false passport. I was afraid to leave with my own passport because the government might now have information about me and maybe they had sent my name to the airport and said: that person should really just stay here in Iraq. I was really scared and my friend told me that there was indeed such information about me and that my situation was very dangerous now, that my boss had really put certain information in my resignation file and forwarded it to the government, about you being so dangerous and causing so much trouble and that you worked for the government’s television channel. So that means that you really have done something bigger. So you really have to try to leave. So there was only one solution: I had to leave with a fake passport, a fake passport with a fake name, that’s how it had to be because it was dangerous, I could get into trouble with my name. Then I went with a false passport to Turkey and then from Turkey to Greece and then all those long trips from Greece to Serbia or no, from Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Hungary to Austria to Germany and then to Belgium.

[i] When you left, something happened to your family.

[r] Something else happened during that period, but that information might be a bit heavy for me and I just gave that information to certain people. After my departure the police came to my house to look for me there. Only my sister was there, my big sister. She got into a fight with them: why do you do that and all that? They broke the whole house all sorts of things, my computer and so on, one of the policemen hit her with his gun, on her head and afterwards, later in the house, she really had a problem with her head. My mother took her to the hospital and it turned out that she, how to put it in Dutch, had a brain haemorrhage and after three days she was dead. That was very intense for me but during that period my family didn’t say anything about it to me because I was on my way. But the family was really sad about me, and then the problems with my sister who died came and they were really afraid to say that to me because then I might come back, so they only said that after one or two months, I don’t know exactly anymore.

[i] And if something like that happens there, did you get angry or…

[r] I was angry with myself. I was angry with myself because I did that, I made those problems for my family. I was more angry with myself. I was really so in doubt about; was it really what I did? You try to help someone but then you get problems yourself. That’s right but I was always in doubt, I was always more angry with myself than with the government or something. Yes, I was angry with them, but I was always in doubt as to whether what I had done was right or wrong. Maybe that was the big question in my head: What happened to my family and to me, maybe that’s my fault, my fault? But then I see what I have to do, then I just have to look at another person. They really have more difficult situations than me and just chill: I have my salary from 2000, I have my car, I have my house but another person, they lose their lives for nothing. Is that what I want to do? So I was really in doubt between the two decisions. To just do what I want, I don’t care about the government, I have a good salary, a car, a good life and that’s it. Or no, I try to do something different for other people, to give other people another chance, but I don’t know, does that get me back into big trouble? I thought, I just do something like a human being, but I thought yes, it’s just that as a human being you just have to do something for another person, but I didn’t know that it would cause me real problems, I didn’t know that.

[i] Then you arrived in Belgium How was that for you, arriving here?

[r] Can I take off my coat because I’m warm? Okay

You have arrived in Belgium, you have gone to Brussels You have been here for 8 years now, what have you done in the meantime?

[r] I’ll let you know, but there’s a lot of information in my performance anyway. It contains a lot of information about what happened to me. I’m really trying to do something not to give the same information in the interview because people want to see the performance… But if you want… For example, my way. I’m on my way. When I’ve left, with a false pass to Turkey and then I’m there. It was really difficult there. In the evening we had to walk in the woods, it was really dark. We had to walk for a long time to find the place where the boat would come. A boat in which we all have to sit. We really were there with almost a hundred people and we walked together. It was a bit like in a place with forest and stones and small mountains. There was an old woman with us. It was really hard for her to follow us. Many of us were young people and we had to walk fast, walk fast because we were all afraid of the police. If the police caught us that would be a real problem. And then there is another situation. Bet was about an old woman again. She was 55 or 60 years old. She was always the last one, but the smuggler, no smuggler is waiting for the others. If you are young and have energy you can do that. If you are old, that is your problem. Yes, I receive your money, but for the rest, you are air. When we start walking or whatever, the interest is over. The woman always had a very hard time. Then I helped her to go to the boat that would otherwise leave without her. I helped her, I supported her, I tried to go with her as slowly as possible between the stones, over the mountains and then down to the boat. That was really hard for me, I was afraid that the police would pick me up and I was also in doubt: shall I help her or shall I just run to the boat like the others? But I helped her and we slept in the woods for one night and in the morning the boat, a big boat, came. We were in the boat with a hundred people or even more and went to Greece, and from there I walked to Macedonia with all those people. From Macedonia we took the train to Serbia and from there to Hungary and that was really the hardest place for me, oh my God. In the train station of Hungary there were 1000 or 2000 refugees, I think in the train station of Budapest, not in the centre but a bit outside. We were there in the train station. All the refugees were waiting there to take the train to Germany or something. But in that period something had happened, as you have heard. A truck came from Hungary to Germany and in that truck were 20 people, families with children. It was a closed truck and everyone, all 20 people were dead from lack of air. After that event, Hungary said: now we will really close the gate between Hungary and Austria, and Austria said the same thing so that no one could go to Europe. So we all had to stay there in the train station. That was the hardest part for me because in the train station there was no place to sleep, no place to eat or anything. I didn’t have much money and I just had to go to the McDonalds to buy a little sandwich or something. And so I stayed there for seven days. Seven days I really didn’t sleep there, seven days, because I only had a pair of trousers and a coat, the rest of my clothes I had thrown away and …

[i] Were you panicking?

[r] No. I had them with me but between Serbia and Hungary there was another difficult situation where the police came and picked up people, me and 3 others. I was walking or walking in that forest and I slept there until the police showed up and the whole group that was arrested with me. Except for me another woman and 2 men so I lost everything, all my suitcase I really only had my pants and my coat.

[i] Have you been arrested too?

[r] No, not arrested but I left everything there on the street or in the woods. I left all my things in the woods because I was so afraid that the police would arrest me in Hungary. And there the situation for the refugees was really so bad, and we all knew how bad it was. So I was very scared and left my whole suitcase behind. Then I went to that train station in Budapest. I had to wait there to take the chance to go to another country, for example Belgium or Finland or another country. But there was only one solution: if I wanted to go to Austria, I would have to mislead the police. I should try not to look like a refugee but like someone else. So I had to have nice clothes so that I could walk down the street in really nice clothes in Hungary or Austria. Because when the police there look at you and they see that you are wearing bad clothes, they quickly think: yes, you are a refugee and then they pick you up and maybe send you back to your country. I was really afraid of that so I only saw one solution: I have nice pants and a nice shirt, there is no hotel there or so, all the people are sleeping on the street or in the park but I thought: if I do like them and I try to sleep in a garage or something like that, then my clothes will get really dirty and that’s not good for me for my next trip. So I looked for and found a solution: I was with 2 friends that I had met there. They were sleeping but I kept sitting straight between them for 7 days. For seven days I never slept, really. If I remember that, I now think: is that normal? I haven’t slept for seven days. When I slept in for a while I woke up immediately and that just to stay clean, because I wanted to go to Austria with my beautiful clothes, not to look like a refugee, but really like another person, who gives a different impression to the police. So this was the most difficult situation of my trip through all these countries. After seven days I left for Austria after buying a train ticket.

[i] Was the border open again?

[r] Not really open but I used a bit of a different way. At the border there is always a stop but there are ways, along a small street or, so between Hungary and Austria it was…

[i] The border was open in the beginning, wasn’t it?

[r] It was just a small street, in the evening and it also depended on whether you were lucky or not. So it was just a matter of trying, you had to do something, try something, maybe the police will catch you, maybe not. That depends on whether you’re lucky or not. Then a train ticket from Austria to Germany. And then to Belgium. When I first arrived in Brussels-North I saw all those big buildings there. And then I went to my brother here and stayed with him. And then I went to the Commissariat in Brussels for my papers or my fingerprints or something.


[r] The first interview was difficult. The problem is that the Commissariat, but so is their right, they really want a lot of information about you. About what happened to you. Whether you really have a difficult situation or not. I understand that 100% and that is normal for their work, but sometimes they really want a small detail about what happened to you, on the road or in your country. And that’s a problem, if you have a difficult situation and you have a trauma or something. Then you can’t remember everything. Or you said something in the first interview and you forget it in the second interview, that’s a big problem for you because they give you a negative but that’s not normal. For example, you make your first interview in July 2017, for example, then you wait until the second interview maybe 6 months or 8 or 9 months or so. Then you really have to say exactly the same thing you said in the first interview after 6 months or 9 months. For nine months you may live in a shelter you get nothing and living in a shelter is so difficult with different people from different countries. That is really a difficult situation but you really have to remember everything, you are like a computer, not a human being, no all the small details what did you say, you said it like this, the number? the year, the sister and so on. For me it was really so difficult, when something so big happened to you you can’t remember everything, you remember certain things but not everything and maybe you say that or you try to say that now but later you forget everything, that’s normal. We are not a computer, we are people

And finally, after how long did you get papers?

[r] After one year and a half. I was waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for 1.5 years, that’s all. In those eighteen months I see my life as someone in the fridge: you load yourself in the fridge and you sit in the fridge in the ice, waiting, your life has stopped. There was nothing I could do for a year and a half. Some people told me: go to the Netherlands or learn the language or try to adapt to the system, but is that logical? I am waiting for my papers and I don’t know if they will tell me: you can stay here or you can stay here, or that they will say: no you can’t stay here you have to go back to your country or something and I have to go to the Dutch lesson and try to learn Dutch and all those things, is that normal? No! For me that was not normal, because you are between staying here or leaving, back to your country or another country. Then why am I going to the Dutch class or am I trying to do something else? And it was the same with life in the shelter. After staying with my brother for a while, I went to one of those shelters. But life in such a centre is also different.


[r] You know, it’s something in life for the refugees, for the newcomers. Life for the newcomers is always like a staircase: step by step, first step. First step: waiting for your papers, when will you get them? And you hope and wish to get your papers. Then, after that step you go to the next step. What is the next step: you have to learn the language, find a place to rent and that is so difficult. And trying to adapt to your new life. In which way that doesn’t matter, that’s not my problem, you have to adapt. Learning the language and adapting is your job now. Then you see that you have other problems, you have a paper now, but you have other problems now. How can I adapt, how can I do that? And the language, how can I do that during that period? And you’re always checked, always meeting there. What happened? What do you do? The problem for some people, I see when I go to Facebook and I see some racist reactions, but I understand them, the refugees come here to get our money or… They take our job, please! Go to the website of the VDAB, just one click and see how much work is offered by the VDAB! What are the job opportunities at the VDAB? If you want to work: there is work but some people don’t want to do everything, they want specific things. Oh, I have that diploma so I want to do that or I will chill. Also among the refugees there are people who really came here to work, they came here to build a new life, not just to get money, 800 euros you pay 600 for the house, and there is 200 left. 200 and of those 200 you have to eat and do everything! Nobody wants that, really nobody does. Maybe people have a psychological problem, we have to understand that, it is not about refugees or normal people. So I was happy to get my paper but, I know, there is another step for me: a new life here, how can I do that, that was really quite a step for me to, yes, to wait with life or something.


[r] So far it’s, for me, because for some people it’s different, I’ve always worked with artists and the artists, part of them, they don’t really have racist reactions, we work together in diversity, I’ve always worked with artists like directors and actors. I got the chance to do that and I do my best for that, to adapt, I do my best to learn the language, I do my best for everything. But when I see some, I think it’s a pity, when I see a lot of reactions from racists on Facebook or something like that, in certain places there or there by me I mean, I’m sorry but then I really get a bad feeling because when I see myself, I do my best to do everything, I really don’t want to make money for nothing, I don’t want to manipulate the system or anything like that, I just want to have a new life and go on with my new life and I try to really do something for not just for me. I now see myself as a part of the community, a part of Flanders or something, so I have to do really good things for that community, for the people here, I believe in that, if you live in a country then you really have to do something for that country, because now it is your country.

[i] Do you still have a lot of contact with your family?

Yes. I always try to make contact with the family. I try that because that is the link for me to survive. So I always try to call them, via internet or something, it’s hard via internet with the situation there, but yes, I’ve always kept in touch with them.

[i] Sometimes there are people who don’t have a family anymore.

[r] Yeah, yeah, that’s something else, that’s something else but, you know…

[i] Without family it’s not the same?

[r] No, no. It was… There was for me a workshop with young people in Bornem, about refugees and their situation, those young people only had information from the media and so, they have no contacts in Bornem with refugees I mean. Then I said something to them you know, if you try to walk on the street and in that street or that street you really don’t have anyone, you don’t have any family or anything, and you walk there in the period of Christmas or New Year and you look at the houses and see the people all sitting there with their family, to eat something or do something else with cold weather, it snows, you know what that makes you feel, you are alone and you look at them. With that image I wanted to convey those feelings to those young people. No one has chosen to flee. Fleeing is not a choice! Migration is a choice, but not fleeing. Migration means choosing a different life with a better economic situation or just fleeing is not a choice. You are obliged to flee, fleeing is something that comes into your life and says: you have to do that, there is no other solution! If I see my life earlier. I had my salary of 2000, a car, a house, I had everything Now I have nothing, I am like a child. I have to learn the language, I have to adapt, I have to find work. The work does not match my diploma, but I have no other solution. Is that easy? No, it is difficult! And then you have no contact with your family you are here alone. What if you get sick or something? It’s really something else! Some people don’t understand that, they say no, boawf… They came here to do this or that. Really, I see that with many people. But you just don’t have a choice.

[i] Is it difficult to make contact with Belgian people?

[r] I have Flemish friends and Arabic ones. Here in Belgium the system is different. In Belgium it is more closed, here it takes a little more time to trust you and to enter into a relationship with you. It’s not easy for them, that’s their system, I understand that for 100% but in our countries we are really more open, okay, hello, everything is fine with you and we’re going for a drink or something but the Belgians need a little time, they just have a different system, that’s it. It’s hard for some people but it’s also hard for me. But I understand their life system, it’s just different. That’s not bad or good but it’s just different. You really have to wait and be patient and then you get one or two friends or something but with Arab people it’s just: Hi, how are you, okay, hi…


[r] Here in Belgium?


[r] For a relationship but you mean which girls exactly? (screams)


[r] I have a girlfriend in Belgium now. She is with me, she lives with me and she comes from a western country. She doesn’t speak Dutch, she speaks West-Flemish, haha, no Dutch. I see that it is not difficult to make contact with a girl because I also see it with another friend or something. It’s just, if you are a really good person and you have a good mind or soul then you can make contact with different people like girls or men or something, it’s not that hard: you have to be social and just be yourself, open, talk to different people and then it comes anyway.

[i] Is it important to find a partner here?

[r] It’s really important to me. I used to live with my family, and with my ex we were together with my family. For me, the family is so important, so important that I can’t live alone. The first day was for me in my new studio, I was just I had everything ready, all the furniture and so on, that was really a difficult moment. it was in the evening. I have a large window and I looked and there was really such a silence, There was nothing. In the building where I live it is really so quiet. Then I saw myself so alone between four walls and I thought allez Hussein, what are we going to do here? All your life you are here between four walls with none of your family or something. Yes, my brother lives in another city, in Geraardsbergen but it’s so far, and he has a family and I can’t always be with him. It was really hard for me to think: I will be here alone without someone, without someone I can talk to or if so, I am happy now, I have my girlfriend with me and we are always together.

[i] Do you feel that what happened in Iraq is still bothering you a lot in your life now, or can you give it a place in the process of coping with the trauma? How do you look at that? Is it something that never goes away but always will?

[r] It will always be, both things anyway. The communication with your family, you lose it and you lose it to see them and so, even though there is internet or something like that or you can call or something, but that is not in the flesh and whatever happened to you is that you have lost everything, your job, your position there, you lose everything and then you have to rebuild everything from scratch once more. That’s always a bit difficult and it’s always stressful, I’m 36 years old, what should I do now, I’ve already done everything there, should I do it again here? Is that logical, is it? And that’s also about your person, because here many Flemish friends of mine say, “Okay, Hussein, what happened is leaving everything behind you, and just go forward in your life”. It’s really easy to say that, a nice feeling, but try to do that. Can I do that? Can you really do something so big, that has changed your life so much, can you just say, okay it’s over, I’m going to do something else. So that was always a bit, I don’t think it’s normal, I can’t just do that, it’s not luggage, it’s not a bag on my back that I can throw away and say: okay, I’m now without my bag. No, it all stays with you, inside you, all that information, all those things that happened to you, that stays with you. You know: in that period, 3.5 years in Belgium, always, every night when I went to my bed and tried to sleep, my dreams were always about my country and about my situation there. Every night. And that was a bit weird for me because I live here now and I’m busy with theatre and with different things and I mean: during the day from morning till evening I had no memories at all of my situation there because I was just busy with my life but when I went to bed to sleep I always dreamed about my country, about my situation there, about my work, about my family, every day. I don’t know why, but I do have some information about psychology because we studied it at university, those memories stay in your brain but during the day those memories are hidden between four walls or behind a door in your head and they have no other place to move, to walk around, they just stay in that room but when you go to sleep, the door of those memories opens and they come to your dream. That means they are really inside you, always, but they use their energy or they use them, how do you say that… I want to say it is like they really only, in the night they have the time or they have the right, the right to go out from your body and then really you go with them so they have really the strength, the strongest energy to come out only in the night.

What does theatre mean to you?

[r] Theatre is my life. Theatre is really my life, theatre, that’s the place where I feel: I’m really a person where I feel: I’m really a person who has a great power, who is a great builder and I can really do something. I believe that I can really do something else in theatre, I believe that I can do something good for people in theatre, I believe in it, I always work, I always work with the problems of the community, I always work to find solutions for a difficult situation, so theatre is really my life for me, that’s how I feel about myself on stage.

[i] Have you done a lot of autobiographical theatre so far?

[r] What do you mean?


[r] Yeah, sure, that’s always the case with theater. There are actually 2 types of theatre, there is a theatre…

[i] Wait a minute, I’m going to replace material

[r] Okay.

[i] So you said: there are two types of theatre?

[r] Yes. There are two types of theatre. The first is always inspired by your life or by what happened to you or another person and then you can make a play about it, about a situation, about something that happened to you and there is another theatre where you just choose a play by Shakespeare or Molière or Ibsen or something and then you choose that play, and you try to play that play and maybe you try to adapt different things to the situation or something. I believe more in theatre that really comes from your own experience, from your own inspiration, from what happened to you. For example, I made a piece, it’s called: Dreaming without Wings. I made the piece not only from my own experience but from the experience of newcomers who are in a difficult situation here. What happened to them after their flight, here in Belgium. They all have a dream, but what happened to their dream? I was always looking for my dream as well: what happened to me here and also to their dream, and what happened to their dream? Then I broke it to show the people here what our dream is, what we want and what happened to our dream. Theatre for me is more inspiring of your life and of the life of another person.

[i] Do you have a favorite…, you’ve already said something about other theatre makers.

Yes, Macbeth of Shakespeare.

[i] Do you have another favorite quote or poem? Does it mean anything to you…

[r] I’m the most fan of Macbeth of Shakespeare but I love Bertold Brecht’s theatre school a lot. Bertold Brecht worked in a way to show people what had happened in their community and he also tried to discuss that with them and to make them really do something for their community. I love that way, I love Bertold Brecht and his way of working. He had really different pieces, so far I haven’t really worked with pieces by Bertold Brecht but I like his way of working, his communication with the public to try to really not find a solution but try to get people to think a bit about a solution to their problems: political, economic, climate problems about what we can do. You really need to think a little bit about what happened, let’s go! That’s how I see Bertold Brecht. He is really the person who has given and still gives me a lot of inspiration.

[i] Do you have a sentence or something, a quote from your own piece?

[r] From me? I have so many different pieces… I have done different pieces at different organisations: at KunstZ, with Madame Fortuna with Arenberg and with other organisations. I now remember a piece from Dromen zonder Vleugels and I wrote it for another actor and I also make a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “It’s to be or not to be that’s the question anyway.” I thought… I thought so: Ah, I forgot, it was a text that I wrote in Arabic and then translated into English. To be or not to be, that’s the question. I thought that if I was a human being I could dream without the mountains, but I discovered that dreams do not exist without a high price. That is something of Dreaming without Wings and this is another: It is a text about… It was a text in English, and I wrote it.

[i] You can do it in English

[r] Ja It is in English: (quote:) ‘I escaped from a place where I was nothing. I was just a number, number was media transmit every day of numbers of people. They’re dying like numbers and my number was 1001. do you know what that means? That means I will be the next following the alphabet and the scheduler of the angel of death. The angel of death. The angel of death was working only in our city. In our city dreams burned but they are burned like autumn leaves. Do you know from where or from whom this is the question?’ (end of quote) This was a longer piece I tried to convey.

[i] A few days…

[r] The problem is I don’t have much time I have to meet Luc at 15h36 in the Central Station. It is now three o’clock, I think.

[i] Okay. Maybe a philosophical question?

[r] Okay, okay.

[i] What’s it like to be a refugee?

[r] Yes, that’s a big question. What’s it like to be a refugee?

[i] What is a refugee?

[r] I return to Hamlet who says: To be or not to be, that’s the question. But what does that mean, to be a refugee or to be a human being is the question, and what is the difference between a refugee and a human being? That’s another question as well, to be a refugee is for me really another level in my life. It is another level in my life to try to think: no, I am not a refugee. I am a person, a person with a dream, a person with a really good heart to do something for other people, then you get something else. A refugee that doesn’t exist, we created that word but no that doesn’t exist. You are a person with a difficult situation and you come to another place. The best word is: the newcomers; newcomers, new people in a different place and we are all newcomers in life, newcomers like a child born in a country, or newcomers like a child born in a different country, in life we are all newcomers. That’s how I see it, we’re all newcomers but in different situations. That’s it.

Very nice, I still have questions but…

[r] No no, it’s okay. If you have one or two more questions, it’s okay. I see it’s three o’clock but the Central Station is not that far from here.

[i] Is there anything important you haven’t said yet?

[r] About what? I am now, I think, happy with my new life here in Belgium. I’m involved in theatre as a director or actor, I have the opportunity to work with different organisations, I have the opportunity to rebuild myself. I really want to be thankful for all the people who helped me in that period, all those people who gave me something small like a word of support like okay do that Hussein, it’s going to be okay and I see it now, it’s really grown up. I mean: I’ve been living here for a year and a half now. It is to say: I live here 3.5 years but first I just tried to learn Dutch, but in that year and a half I really did a lot. I did 5 or 6 performances as a director and some as an actor. Now I have my performance ‘I’m Hussein, who are you?’. I will play that performance everywhere. I have another project with Pax Christi Vlaanderen as a refugee actor, I have played that piece everywhere in Flanders with them. Now I have another chance, a great chance, to work with The Theatre Maker, with that beautiful woman. She really gives me a good chance and that was for me… I am really very happy and very happy to get all that in that small period of eighteen months, to work together with all those different organisations. And now with that big project with RITCS with Theatre Antigone with Jos Verbist and all of them, that’s really something to be thankful for, thankful for God and all those people who trust me and believe in me and I will do my best to do that in a good way and hopefully, if possible, I will really find my place in the community and in the Flemish theatre landscape as an artist, I will do my best to do that and hopefully I can get it…