“What do you miss most about Syria?” We asked. “I miss swimming in the sea under the hot summer sun,” says Boodee. Reham misses the fragrance of the jasmine trees in Damascus but recognizes parts of her hometown in the cobblestones of Stockholm’s Old Town district.
The exhibition Aswat – Syriska roster – Syrian voices opened September 23, 2017 at The Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden. It partially builds upon the web-based project #Syrien200 launched by Swedish television (SVT) in October 2016. The project collected and presented the stories of 200 refugees who came to Sweden. In Aswat you can see and hear a selection of these stories alongside the work of five contemporary artists.
Below you can read an interview with Reham and Boodee, two of the people who share their stories in the exhibition. But first, Reham welcomes you to the exhibition:
What was your life in Syria like?
Reham: It was a very good life. I worked in Building Services at a British company. I lived with my family and in my spare time I did yoga, danced and taught guitar. Life was nice and normal. I was very happy before the war. I knew there were problems in Syria but as I wasn’t involved myself I didn’t think about it too much. Then the revolution came and people had problems. Some were jailed just because they said something about the regime. When the war began, it was difficult to go to work and live as before. Cars exploded; it was very dangerous. It was even dangerous to stay at home. Once a bomb exploded near our house. The windows shook but thankfully nothing worse happened. I really wanted to stay but found it difficult to live a normal life, I had to leave the country. Many had already left before me and many had spoken well about Sweden. So that was the goal, to get there.
Boodee: I used to live a double life due to my homosexuality. I had to hide my real personality and show it only to my homosexual friends. I had to be someone else in front of school friends, colleagues, neighbors and my whole family. But it was ok with me as long as I had a window of freedom from time to time with my other homo friends.
When did you realize that you had to leave the country?
Boodee: After the war started I was struggling with income. I was getting paid less and less and the price of food was going higher and higher. More work – less fun. I made no effort to go out any more. Then the owner of our house decided to raise the rent; after that we could not afford it anymore. We decided to leave Syria to look for a safe place where we can live and eat.
How did you picture life in Sweden, before you came here?
Reham: I have to say that human rights aspect was the thing that drew me to Sweden. Everyone has the same rights here; you take care of women and children. In my opinion, what separates our society from yours is that we have stronger family ties. But I like the individualism in Sweden. Everyone takes part in building society.
Was Sweden like you thought it would be?
Reham: Pretty much. In the beginning, I was upset at the long processing time of the Swedish Migration Board. Between the first and second meeting I waited eight months. I believe in human energy and there was so much energy lost by waiting. Engineers and doctors who lived in the asylum housing just waiting and sleeping, they could have helped Sweden! I felt crazy not having anything to do so I read success stories on the internet and contacted an engineer who lived here in Sweden. He helped me send my resume to his manager. He said, “you have a very good CV but you cannot work here without social security number.” I tried to learn Swedish online and did volunteer work while I was waiting.
After about a year, I got a residence permit. When I did, I already had a job interview lined up. The boss said I had to speak Swedish so I learned in record speed. It’s quite difficult with all the technical terms and I think it’s important to develop my language skills even more. I take a SAS (Swedish as a second language) course in the evenings; I’m already done with SFI (Swedish for immigrants). Since then I have worked at various companies and right now I have vacation. I’m really enjoying my life in Gothenburg.
Describe your journey to Sweden.
Boodee: I have a half-brother who lives in France with his uncle. I lived in Istanbul when we had a visit from him. He said that if I accompanied his other nephews to France he could pay my ticket to Sweden.
Reham: Two friends and I took a tourist boat to Turkey. The plan was to continue to Greece where we had heard that there were direct boats to Italy. We boarded that boat illegally from Turkey and the smugglers threw our bags in the water because they took us space and they wanted to sell all the spots. I traveled only with a small handbag with lots of dates and a big bottle of water. We swapped boats three times. On the first day, everyone was vomiting from the smells of the fishing boat, it was terrible. You did not think about food at all, you were not hungry. I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this to myself?” I dreamed of my home and of taking a bath. The smugglers wanted to throw us in the water but we managed to alert Italian security guards. A military boat came and picked us up. Everyone rushed to the harbor to shower. From Turkey to Italy it took 12 days.
We spent two nights in Italy before moving on. One of my friends had been fingerprinted in Italy so had to apply for a visa there. Italy cooperated with Germany so my friend went there to seek asylum. Both Greece and Italy are poor countries so we others felt we wanted to move somewhere else, now that the worst part of the journey was over. We were smuggled onto a plane from Milan to Stockholm. We thought it would be faster to get a visa in a smaller city so we continued onto Gothenburg.
I love that I ended up here! I have lived my entire life in the big city of Damascus with 6 million inhabitants. A lot of traffic and not so many green spaces. It is calm and green here. In the beginning, I lived in a small town outside Gothenburg with only 200 inhabitants. What a difference that was! It was such a beautiful commute into town on the train, with all the lakes.
What is your life like in Sweden, now?
Reham: I go to work and to school afterwards. I sing in an international choir and made a lot of friends there. Much of the time I’m doing volunteer work. I love to keep busy and do a lot of activities! A friend recommended that I join the board of an organization that works with community planning. I want to give back to Gothenburg, which I consider to be my new hometown. But in order to develop the city, I need to get even better at speaking Swedish.
Boodee: It is even better than anything I could’ve dreamt of. I meet a Swedish family who loves me as one of their own. They even gave me their last name (because my old family name means a bad word in Swedish language. Hehe.) Now I’m almost finished with my SFI course and have a job working with animals – something I have dreamt of since I was a child. My Swedish family is helping me to find a good car. So everything is perfect!
What do you miss the most from Syria?
Boodee: Swimming in the sea under the hot summer sun.
Reham: I was born in a house that had three large jasmine trees over the entrance. I miss that fragrance, I haven’t found this here in Sweden. When I walk through Stockholm’s Old Town district I recognize the old beautiful parts of Damascus, it is the same stone in the streets. Last night I dreamt that my sister and I were on my favorite beach – the golden beach. The sand is like gold and the water is so clear you can see your feet. I miss my sister and her children. I miss my family and friends, although most of them now live outside Syria and are spread all over the world.
What is the best thing about Sweden?
Boodee: Freedom and respect, and of course the nature and the food.
What is the biggest difference between Syria and Sweden?
Reham: In terms of geography, there is more greenery and more sea in Sweden. It is almost the opposite of Syria. The east side is drier and has desert. In terms of society, Sweden is freer. Women are strong, they have so many rights. Syrian society consists of many small groups. There are both free people and extreme religious communities. In Syria, you can find nude beaches and beaches where everyone is dressed head to toe. Another difference is that you cannot live as a boyfriend and girlfriend together; you must be registered as married. Cohabitating is not so common in Syria. I think it will become more open though. In Sweden, the focus is on individuality and in Syria, it’s about sticking together.
Boodee: The citizens and the government respect and support each other here. In Syria they are just fighting over the power.
What are the similarities between Sweden and Syria?
Boodee: The most similar thing is how people celebrate their holidays with family and close friends with lots of food.
Reham: I haven’t gotten to know so many people here yet, but I feel that the Swedish people have good intentions. Life is simple. It is almost the same as the community home in Syria. There is a sense of good humanity.
What is your favorite word in Arabic?
Reham: My niece is namned Hanin. You cannot translate this directly to Swedish or English but it’s like a blend of love, tenderness and missing someone or something.
Boodee: It is a sound we made when we say no (tch’ao). It’s not a word that you can write but everybody in Syria says it, it’s street language.
What is your favorite word in the Swedish language?
Reham: Haha. It must be “i-landsproblem” (translation: “first world problem”). My friends say everything is a first world problem.
Boodee: Sjuksköterska (translation: nurse)… it took me a while till I could pronounce it right.
What do you dream of in the future?
Boodee: To have my own career as an animal nurse and to start my own family with the love I can give.
Reham: I dream of being strong enough to help build Gothenburg and give back to my new Damascus. I am involved in many different projects, for example, an integration project that finds internships for newcomers. It is very successful. I want to help rebuild Syria when peace comes, soon I hope.
Many Swedes are afraid to have contact with foreigners. But it’s great to get to know the other side, we have many similarities. Do not focus on the differences – we are all people. I want to thank everyone who has helped me to where I am today!
Aswat – Syrian Voices is made with the permission from SVT.
Image above: Portrait of Boodee: author’s own; all rights reserved. Portrait of Reham: The National Museums of World Culture, Sweden; CC-BY.
Any views expressed in the text are the author’s own.