About Refugees, By Refugees
Pictures taken in:
Photo and interview by:
ElSayed Mahmoud ElSehamy
“I dream of changing the way we treat people,” says Abdalla Yahia (27), who wants to make films that document and raise awareness about his fellow refugees’ lives. Now living in the Netherlands, Abdalla left his birth country of Egypt after he was arrested and imprisoned for two years for his human rights work. While this shaped him as a person, Abdalla is traumatized by the experience. He has nightmares about prison, and misses his family. “I feel that my life isn’t complete,” he says. “You had things and lacked others, now you got what you lacked but also lost what you had.” Leaving home and applying for asylum was “hard and heavy on the heart” for Abdalla. “There was a storm of feelings inside me and I cried without even realizing it… It hits you, that there is no going back in this step,” he recounts. To cope, he looks forward to recreating what is lost: “If I’m not with my family now, I’ll be eventually,” he says, “I will make a new family to feel this sense of closeness.”
I’m from the 1000 Dream project. The goal of the project, as I told you, is to present stories of people from the whole world. If there is any question that you don’t like to answer feel free not to. And if there’s something you would like to add it’s okay. Tell me about yourself.
I am Abdullah Yahya. I’m twenty-seven years old. I was born in Cairo, Egypt. I studied trade in Egypt. Now I will start studying at the Film School. I live in the Netherlands right now.
Why do you live in the Netherlands?
I live in the Netherlands because I can’t live in Egypt anymore. Holland became like a second homeland for me, because the country that makes you feel like a human and feel safe, you can only call it your homeland. Those are the basic needs for anyone. I live in Holland because it’s a beautiful country.
Let’s start with why can’t you live in Egypt?
Because if I live in Egypt, I will be locked up. I had political and security problems that started with my student activity in the university and in my political activity at the time of the revolution and after. I was arrested on my first day in university, but then the events followed. For me, Egypt is dangerous, it’s hard to settle there.
Why were you arrested?
Due to my student activity.
I mean, in short what was the nature of your student activity? What were the goals of this activity?
I was responsible for the student activity in the April 6 revolution, and other human rights activities on which I was more focused. I mean, authorities did not like this kind of thing in one way or another especially after 2013 which was the period of flops and conflict between the military, the Islamic forces and other movements. On the other hand, I don’t like to name them, we all are civilians after all. It was very important for the authorities that people remain silent. No one was supposed to talk and oppose but I did anyway, therefore got arrested for that. The nature of my activity was that I worked with many organizations that had many files, among them the file of detainees after I got out of prison, there was the file of enforced disappearance. And that got me arrested for the second time.
So your work is mainly human rights activities?
Yes. And there was an integration between student work and human rights work, the student work in that specific period was not classified as a political action because its central point was based on human rights issues, one of them was the detainees issues by the way, I mean, us students after 2013 most of our work was about detained students so it was already not political. Also, defending issues such as the Tiran and Sanafir case, which is not a political work. For me, it’s more of defending violated rights, defending the right to preserve the land. Most of the work started from civil rights. During the period, there was not any political work. You just start defending your personal right to be state, to live normally and not be arrested. The right to protest and say what you want. All those rights were gradually taken away until they made a protest law and the terrorism law. Then mass incarceration of students and of random people. All this was a waste of rights that would increase day by day. That was the problem.
When did you decide to leave Egypt?
I decided to leave in October 2018 and traveled in January 2019 after finishing the procedures such as the passport and some official papers and left in 2019.
How was the journey?
A very difficult journey. I am traveling from Egypt to Kenya. It was a difficult journey for me on a personal level, especially since it was sudden, I did not plan to travel and it was a risk for me. I did not know whether I was able to do it or not. But I had no other solution other than taking this risk. I successfully left Cairo and went to Kenya, my journey started from there. I traveled to many countries until I settled in Holland in 2020.
Do you remember how you felt when you left Cairo ?
Yes, I cried on the plane because I realized that once I leave, there is no going back. All I was thinking of is the last hug I got, the last meal I ate, the last friend I met, the last cigarette I smoked, every last thing I did before I got on the plane. I was thinking of those things and wondering when will it all happen again? When will I see the face of my friend again? When will I hug my family again? There was a storm of feelings inside me and I cried without even realizing it. I only realized I was crying when someone asked me if I was okay because I was zoned out. Once you realize there is no going back your feelings start to dominate the moment you sit on the plane chair and it hits you, that there is no going back in this step.
And you talked about the last meal and last hug, are you thinking of them now?
Of course I think about it, but the feelings are not as strong as they were in that moment. Sure I get some waves of emotions sometimes and I want to see my parents or eat some Egyptian food. But the feelings at the moment of making a particular decision attacks you and reminds you of everything important and valuable in your life. And the fact that it would be very difficult to experience the same feeling, emotions in such situations are stronger because one feels helpless. It reminds you of every valuable thing such as family, friends and places. Was it hard? Yes, very hard. It was almost the strongest emotions. It was difficult to resist them, even the idea of resisting these feelings was hard so I surrendered because some feelings deserve to acquire your heart. Because those things had value and still they do but life goes on.
Do you feel that your experience in Egypt is close or far from you now? I mean did it shape you as a person?
My experience in Egypt shaped me as a person whether in a good or bad way. The tragic events that I went through made me who I am.
And you’re in a different place.
Certainly. Egypt made me who I am today, I can’t just throw away everything that happened to me and start again. Or at least that’s my opinion. It’s part of me, my youth and time. I spent time there and tried some things that gave me results that shaped the person I am right now who will necessarily change after being in new experiences. It is the experience that shaped me.
For you, what were the most challenging experiences in Egypt ?
The prison, its biggest challenge for me, was sudden, incomprehensible and something I had never expected in my life.
How old were you when you got arrested and how long was it?
I was 18 and I spent two years in prison. It was a very surprising challenge for me. I suddenly found myself in the police car, I didn’t even know how it all happened.
They took you from the university?
Yes. It was my first day at the university. I had feelings of fascination with the place, buildings and fascination with entering a new phase in life, a rebellion phase because you won’t be treated like a child anymore, it’s the last stage of education before becoming a responsible man. As our society calls it, I was so happy that I finished the most difficult stage that everyone considers a challenge which is high school and entered a new stage in which I can have some sense of comfort and comfort. So I wanted to discover the university, the college and colleagues. I was so happy, I took a large amount of money from my father, a new mobile phone and new clothes then suddenly I’m leaving in a police car. I entered the university at 10 o’clock in the morning smiling and feeling happy then all of a sudden I’m filled with blood in a police car. All this happened within five hours literally. The whole thing was so dramatic for me. I felt that it was not real. I kept repeating “This is not true, I’m gonna wake up.”
In your opinion, how did those two years pass?
I have no idea. They passed but it was not because of me, what happened made me realize that I can deal with it. Everything that happened in the two years, I was discovering new things for the first time in myself that I can deal with. Being only 18 and being locked up with different people in which you’re the youngest, you become responsible for yourself and your safety. You’re responsible for protecting yourself from drifting to bad things, prison is a very fertile place for forming specific ideas. So being able to leave such a place and maintain yourself and your basic morals, build on it and develop it. This is a challenge for me. Many people lost themselves in prison and left as completely different people with destructive ideas. This is the most difficult challenge for me, to not drift into revenge motives caused by injustice and abuse. By the way, it’s a very strong justification for attracting anyone to take this path. This is the most difficult challenge, especially the age factor, when you’re 18 there are many basics you want to adopt, I mean, you are not standing on a solid ground in terms of ideas. It’s hard to say that you’re fully convinced in something. Prison makes you doubt, there are many bad people and it’s easy for them to talk to you. The challenge is to know the purpose of everything like why do you read that book? Why did you attend that discussion? Why do you talk that way?
What was the influence of prison? What did you learn from that experience?
I learned that I should not be a dependent person. I learned to be prepared for any surprises and have quick thinking to deal with it according to the circumstances. But the truth is that tragic experiences do not only teach, they also destroy and they might destroy you more than teach you. So if we’re talking about what I learned, I learned to be ready because you can make a plan and get the opposite of what you expected. You have to know how to deal with the element of surprise, it is important to understand and realize that it’s not necessary for your plan to be right. This is an important point that prison taught me. Just as I got arrested suddenly, I also came out suddenly. I was sitting as the door opened and they told me to leave without any heads up, I had a year left of my sentence.
I was sentenced to three years in prison, but I walked out of prison on presidential pardon.
What was the charge?.
Protesting. So the idea is, being always ready for surprises, it also makes you realize that you are an ordinary person. Which is very important.
What do you mean?.
No matter what you do or where you go, there’s always someone stronger than you who gets to decide. The idea of realizing that is important. By the way, I realized it during the protests through experience.
That you are normal or not?
The idea of being aware during the revolution or after, as a whole generation, opened up our eyes and made us understand politics, our rights, what you have to do and get. I started understanding life because of the revolution, it made us feel that we’re able to do anything to tip the scales. For us human beings, it is important to be part of the dominated part but we discovered, even if we have the power sometime, there will always be a stronger power such as the power of weapons, the power of army and the power of authority, etc. All that makes you realize no matter how big [powerful] you are, you’ll always be small [weak] somehow. But there was an awareness of the idea that you can decide anything. You are a rigid man who’s able to stir the mass and then reality hits, you realize that you’re nothing. You are a human being who has nothing but your voice and ideas and there’s always someone stronger who would antagonize them. That’s the truth, that person does not acknowledge your rules and principles or anything related to you. And you can’t be equal, the other party is always stronger. So I realized the harsh truth which is important because it’s the only way to accept it and deal with it. I realized that the power of prison is stronger and bigger than I, prison changed and destroyed me. I was an energetic person. I was the one who was up to do anything and open to try any idea. I had a passion to do anything without thinking of consequences which was one of the problems of the revolution for me, on a personal level I mean. Prison changed all that, it gave me the chance to see reality, to see it more deeply.
Are you happy in the Netherlands?
I am so happy, so happy. I feel safe for the first time, I sleep feeling safe which is enough for me. There are some things missing, but you can’t have everything you know. You had things and lacked others, now you got what you lacked but also lost what you had.
What do you mean by saying that you sleep feeling safe? Can you describe that?
I sleep without thinking that someone is gonna break in and kidnap me hard, which is enough for me. I feel safe because I don’t have to think of someone killing or kidnapping me in the street, I know I won’t be locked up, forcibly disappeared or make my family run to get me out of prison. I feel relieved because I’m not giving them a burden they have nothing to do with. This makes me feel better now because the fact that someone would pay for my mistakes worries me. I was the one who decided to protest in the street or mess with politics which had very serious consequences that I didn’t pay for alone. My family visiting me in prison was like paying the price for something they had nothing to do with. Now I pay for any decision I make in my life alone as a person which I think is fair.
You said that there are things missing, what are they?
My family, the presence of family is important, the fact that you’d stay for four to five years without being with your family. Let us be honest, although feelings towards the family exist within you, distance creates barriers over time whether you like it or not. Because you’re far, you can’t witness their change or see their development. As you change in your place they also do but they can’t witness your change and you can’t witness theirs. Your friends that you grew up with, they owe you and you owe them, you invested your time in your friendship and now it’s nothing.
How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel that life is not fair. When you talk with someone here about the importance of family, you know that family is important to them, not because you’re feeling it. When you visit your friend and the family sit together and eat, you realize how precious that is. You feel tired and only realize how precious it is when your mother or your friend is worried about you. The truth is those simple things are very important because we were not created to live alone. We don’t get to choose families but we love them so much. I feel that my life isn’t complete, that’s my problem. Life is unfair but I have to move forward.
Do you have any coping mechanisms? Or how do you deal with the fact that life isn’t fair?
Making something new, if I’m not with my family now, I’ll be eventually. I’ll also be able to make a new family in a new place eventually. Your vision of the things that you lost, it does not mean that you lost them forever. There will be other chances, when? I don’t know but I also don’t have to know, what’s important is to move forward now. I try to always think like this and adapt this mentality. Yes, I feel hurt and nostalgic sometimes, but I always focus on reality and withdraw to my basic idea. I will make a new family to feel this sense of closeness.
Is that one of your concerns or goals here? I mean to recreate the family wish you lost?
I don’t want to call it a goal on which I’m working, it’s more of a thing that’s gonna happen eventually, I just have to let myself go with the flow. It’s part of my feelings here, I didn’t want to leave all my feelings behind in my homeland with my family. I wanted a part of them here with me so I can make new things. I don’t replace old things with new ones, old things will always exist because it’s part of me, but I can give it my all. I have to give the bigger part to the present and my reality so I can work on things because at the end, it’s your own story.
You said that you had applied for asylum here and it was accepted, how would you describe the journey of applying for asylum?
My feelings were very similar to how I felt when I left Egypt. Taking this step was so hard and heavy on the heart, because you enter a process and there’s no going back after one way or another. When I applied for asylum, I realized that I’ll be a citizen of another country within five years. That feeling was so heavy on my heart but it also put me at ease because I’ll be able to see my family and homeland again, I’ll get many opportunities.
You mean when you get your citizenship? .
Yes, exactly. What’s ironic is that I used to work on files in order to help some people and I’m one of those people now. I used to work in NGOs and similar places in order to help people.
Helping them with what?
Things related to immigration and people who migrate by sea. I used to support those people and now I am part of that, I am one of them.
How does that make you feel?.
It’s not exactly a feeling. I witnessed things on a deeper level, unlike seeing them from the outside. It was tragic, living inside that situation made me discover that it’s very complicated and no matter how much you sympathize or try to support and help, it’s so different when you actually live it. It turns you into another person, sometimes you ask yourself why? Why am I not a normal man who buys groceries and goes home to his family everyday? I don’t want too much, I want the most normal things. Now when I see the stories of refugees, I see them as heroes. Regardless of the fact that I’m one, those people are heroes with great stories.
Do you mean refugees by ‘people’ ?
Certainly. I’m not talking about myself only, some people came from very dangerous places, a man came from a country in which there’s bombing, do you know hard it is when there’s active bombing in your country and your place and all you want is to survive, you travel from one continent to another in order to live, and by living I don’t mean to live a life of luxury, but to live a life in which you don’t hear gunshots, you don’t hear new about killing, you don’t count how many of your friends died. You go out to the coffee rather than going to the morgue or prison. To live like a normal human being. The fact that those people take this very difficult path in order to survive is heroism. For me, those people are heroes. To do all that work successfully in it despite all you go through proves that humans are capable of doing everything once they make a decision and they discover this ability by chance.
As you’re describing them as heroes. How do you feel about racism against refugees and the decision to deport and kick them out? Do you get mixed feelings about it?
Yes, I get many feelings. The idea of duality in standards and feelings I mean for me, just like I have feelings of solidarity towards Syrians, I also have them towards Ukraine also, as I have rules I follow in such humanitarian crises, for they’re called “humanitarian crises,” not the crises of a white man and a non-white man. There are problems with this, people have false prejudices. It seems that white people are more valuable.
Yes honestly that’s how I feel, during the Ukraine crisis, I met someone waiting in the camp for five years. There’s a Ukrainian refugee who got an apartment, a house, a job within two weeks, whereas the other sudanese refugee was left out for five years. Both were seeking survival and only wanted to live. Some might say that Ukraine is under bombing whereas those other countries have gunshots only, but that’s not how it works.
What other things that affected you in your experience in the camp. How was the process? For how long did you stay there? Where are you living now?
I stayed in the camp for five months. I came from the airport. I did all my interviews there, then I waited for their decision which I got a month later, then I waited to get a place to live so I could move out of the camp and start an academic and professional career. I finished all those things within five months and during that time I met many people with many stories, Syrians, Afghans, Sudaneses, Egyptians etc and each person has a different story. One came here on foot for four months just to get to safety, one borrowed lots of money just to be somewhere safe, one who’s fighting to be reunited with his wife and children. And in many other stories, there are people who are struggling everyday but no one sees it. I was so touched by this part by the way.
The part related to the camp, in it. People who fight to live, they fight because their families are waiting to be reunited with them. They fight to get their wives and children to safety. I was so indulged in the details of their stories, I tried to put myself in their shoes and to imagine myself in such a situation as such a warrior. One time I bought a small statue. It was a person with a heavy bag on his shoulder and an arrow in his hand. Those people reminded me of that statue.
Do you have a picture of that statue with you?
I think so, I’ll check it for you. When I saw that statue, I saw myself and all the people whom I met on my journey. We carry heavy bags on our shoulders and weapons in our hands to survive.
What’s in the bags?
Clothes, food or any supplies that are necessary for your journey, the arrow is like a symbol for protecting ourselves. I think although I had bad luck in my life, but I feel lucky to see this side and be able to express and talk about it.
You said that there are many people fighting on a daily basis but no one sees it, what do you mean?
I mean, in the end, there are rules you follow in a country, the other person wants nothing but to survive, you have no idea about the place he came from. It is important to know the circumstances of the other people so you can treat them with a humanitarian manner. Those people shouldn’t suffer or stay in the camp for five years or die or get enough that they go back to their misery. You know what they say, a tragedy that you know is better than a tragedy that you don’t. At least if I know it I’ll know how to deal with it. There are many people who did that because of the pressure on them, it made them lose hope. They came to build a new life only to know that this new life isn’t waiting for them. There are some fortunate people who got the life they sought. There’s no fixed rule about it but I believe that all people deserve a second chance in another place as long as they decide to, it’s important that you welcome them because we all live only once. they don’t want much, all they want is to live a normal basic life, to have access to education if they want, work, earn according to their efforts and generally be in a fair place.
You said your life and experience in the camp affects you until now.
What are the lessons that you learned? Did you go through difficult experiences like being imprisoned in Egypt? Do you have something new to add?
It’s important that those people be heard and discovered. I learned that we all can help each other. I mean, I am part of the refugee experience, just because I got my residence and my life has stabilized, it doesn’t mean that my experience has been concluded and I overlook what happened, what is still happening and to focus on myself only. Yes, it’s important to focus on myself and the future but what’s more important is not to forget where I came from, that experience made me who I am and proved to me that unity is strength. We can help each other without saying it. For example, your project is helping people they don’t know. At least if someone does not have any idea of the suffering of people, once he knows, he’ll treat them with more kindness which makes those people who are suffering feel that others actually care, and there’s good in them. It’s important for people to feel that there are nice people out there, that they came to a place in order to sense some change, to sense a real thing.
What are your dreams in the Netherlands? Your hopes? What do you want to do and achieve?
My dream is to make films that document those people’s journey in life, I don’t just want to make normal films, I want to make films that would document critical stages of those people’s lives and critical stages in different countries, for example for me, it’s important to document my life in Egypt, my journey in prison, my journey with people here in the Netherlands. Films that document the truth, a thing that would raise awareness for many years. I dream of changing the way we treat people.
What do you mean?
Don’t treat me according to my color or where I came from. don’t treat me according to which class i am or my scientific degree. treat me like a human being, I deserve to be treated like a human. It is important for people to act according to that. I am just a human and so are you, that’s all what matters in how we treat each other. That’s all, enough is enough, we just want some justice. Just because you are a lucky white man who was born in this powerful peaceful country and I have the bad luck to be born in my country. That’s the only difference between us, nothing more. If I had the chance to be born in a different country I would be just like you. I would excel in school, live a quiet life, be a calm decent man and if you were born in my country you’d be different too, just like the people you didn’t like.
What are your dreams of the future in the Netherlands?
I just want to live a quiet, stable life without conflicts. To live a life where I don’t have to run constantly again. To have my home, I want to start all over again with new concepts, new ideas and new change, that’s all what I consider important.
What’s your dream for your family?
I dream of seeing my family again, it’s one of the most important things that I’m waiting for. I dream of eating Mahshi [Egyptian dish] cooked by my mother again.
When was the last time you ate Mahshi?
The night I left Egypt.
You made it?
My mother cooked many things in reverse and ate different things and then left for the airport. I am waiting to be reunited with my family, my siblings, my friends, and I am waiting to see the streets of Egypt again and their details. Those things will always be valuable even if you feel that you have started to belong somewhere else. In the end I have never felt that I don’t belong there in my life. I belong there but i also belong here.
Your dreams for Egypt?
People deserve to live. Whoever rules must be aware that those people want to live. All people were born to live. I wish I could see people living normally.
Yes in Egypt, I wish I can see people in Egypt living truly, Egyptian people don’t live, they suffer. They suffer in line to live. I wish they can have the basics of living and have their rights, develop themselves and be free. I wish the whole country would develop, that would make me so happy.
Do you have any other hopes or dreams?
I wish I can visit Egypt again. I wish I’d stop having nightmares about prison. It’s haunting me. Enough of the prison nightmares.
What would you do if you visited Egypt again
I’d visit Egypt and get back to the Netherlands.
Just a visit or is there something else?.
I want to visit Egypt and come back on my own will. That I choose to go there then get back. To see my family, walk in the streets of Egypt and hug everyone I have missed. To do the things I have been deprived of.
What do you mean when you say nightmares about prison?.
I always dream of prison, I see myself get arrested again. I don’t want this memory to haunt me anymore, I’ve had enough. I want my life to be more calm, it already is but the trauma is still here but you know there’s nothing I can do about it, I just need some time. I think if I’m patient with myself and work on healing the trauma it might get better but it’s never easy. The thing is whenever I hear the siren of a police car I remember, whenever I see a nightmare I remember no matter how much you heal and move on those things bring you back, I wish those things end but all I need is time.
Do you have something to add?.
Yes, the issue of refugees is very important and people must pay more attention to it. There are millions of immigrants or refugees because of the inhuman conditions that occur in their countries. Those people aren’t just numbers, those people are stories, painful real stories and it shows the strength of humans, we should look at their situations in a humanitarian manner. Those people are not numbers, they’re not number one or two. Those people have stories everyone should know because that’s his story. It is also important for you as a listener or reader that you know the truth because you might experience the same thing one day. Nobody is excluded from experiencing tragic events. The world is not guaranteed, I’m here today but you might be in my place tomorrow. It is very possible. All of us would benefit from humanity if it remains there.
Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.