About Refugees, By Refugees

Djenk Ejup

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North Macedonia


Shanthuru Premkumar

My dream since before coming in Belgium was to become a parent,” says Djenk Ejup (26), who left his home country of North Macedonia due to homophobia, violence and a marriage his parents tried to arrange. “I was very depressed because I didn’t have anything to look forward to. I didn’t have any vision where my life would go,” he says. “I was forced to live a life full of lies. And I did not want that for myself.” Coming to a new country alone at 20 years of age was a real struggle for Djenk, but he says the experience has made him grow. “I think I’ve developed a lot as a person, but I still have a long way to go.” Today, Djenk is a student and LGBT activist. He rents a house with four others in Brussels. He still struggles with loneliness but sports, working hard and supporting other asylum seekers help him cope. His current dream is to get his degree and buy a house. “I was given this life and I’m trying to make the best out of it, so I’m glad that I’m very resilient.”

Trigger Warning: Homophobia

full interview

Recording one, Djenk, and we start now. Hi.

So we’re going to ask some questions about the current living situation. And first question is, what kind of house do you live in?
I live in a cohousing in a house with four other people at the moment. So it’s a house that we have rent and we are living in collocation (French), collocation. 

And can you describe a little bit more the conditions?
The conditions are normal. I have a room that I rent in the house. We have a common area like kitchen. We have common toilets, we have common shower, so. I’m pretty I’m pretty satisfied with it. 

And who do you live with?
With people that I met a year ago. So I share space with other people who are also alternative, maybe vegan. So, yeah. 

And how do you spend your time here? Do you work?
Yeah, well, so I’m a student. I’m graduating. Well, I’m almost a graduate teacher in the Flemish educational system and I’m also an activist at the moment. I’m opening a career refugee committee, which is meant to be the voice of the refugees with the media and the public bodies. So basically, we want to because the refugees at the moment in Belgium, they can’t hold. So we want to be a sort of an entity for LGBT refugees that will go in public debates and fight for the needs of the of the community. 

Thank you and what are some of the things that bring you joy?
Sport, knitting, crocheting and cycling. 

Ok. And how has life been since you arrived in Europe? What’s been good about being here? What’s been difficult?
So the good thing about being in Europe is that of course, I can really express my sexual orientation. I can express myself the way that I want to, and I can live a gay life in a free way because that’s why I’m a refugee. So those are the good aspects of it. And also, of course, I’m studying. So I’m getting also chances. The maybe challenging things I would say is that you have to push lots of doors which are open for other people that are non refugees, which are closed for you. So you need to pass a lot of tests in the society in order to be able to achieve your goals. So that’s a bit I think I think we still need to work on making this society more accessible to refugees in lots of ways, like systematic discrimination is very present at the moment in this society. And we need to address it and we need to fight against it so that we can achieve the equality between Belgians and non Belgians or the new Belgians, as I would say. 

Thank you. And can you describe how living here has made you feel?
Of course, I’m very happy with the place that I live right now in comparison to where I come from, it’s it’s it’s really better. It has taught me how to be autonomous and how to rely on myself. And sometimes, of course, it is challenging when you’re not with a family or some support system. But I think at one point we all get there. We all kind of become independent on ourselves. Yeah. 

Like also when I’m asking a question, maybe to use the words of the question, little bit the answer, so it’s easier so that they can list my voice, but it’s ok. It’s good for now. The future is going to get better. So how does being away from the rest of your family home make you feel? How does the feeling of not belonging, discrimination, stigma impact you? Can you describe?
So being away from the family in a place with lots of discrimination and stigma for me is.. So this is a very sensitive topic. I will explain why now, because so I’ve been away from my country for five years, out of which I’ve seen my sister only twice. I haven’t seen my mother and father which recently passed away. So it means that the last time that I saw them, would be five years ago. And of course, as a refugee, you cannot go back to your country even if somebody passes away. So basically it was and it still is a bit of a challenge to process all of those things. Meaning you were not able to attend the funeral of your parents, you haven’t seen them and you will never see them again. So last time I saw them was when I was 20. And it means that I have to spend the rest of my life kind of. Yeah. Dealing with that. But I think it’s a choice that I’ve made in the past and I’ve made peace with that. And now these are the consequences. So unfortunately, I mean, soon I’m becoming a Belgian. I hope so. It would have been nice to go and see them, but life is very unexpected. So it’s a bit sometimes I struggle actually with the loneliness part. I and I know what I mean by a struggle sometimes because you want to belong somewhere, you develop relationships which might be toxic for you, but you hold on them because you want to have a place of belonging. Of course, I have lots of friends. I try to go out a lot because I don’t want to stay at home. I’m a very outgoing person, but I’ve learned that people come and go. So. So the most important relationship that you have is the one with yourself. And yeah, you try to. I think what I was reflected upon lately is that pursuing a career has kind of made me to forget about the loneliness part of my life. But in times when I have vacation or I have nothing else to do, you really crush that moment of like, OK, what have I besides a career that I’m pursuing, education studies and a job in Belgium, nothing too much so. But I hope in the future that is going to change, of course, because I plan to build my own family. So let’s see how that goes. 

So, could you ever have imagined that you would have been able to handle the situation? How have you been able to overcome, survive or live with it?
Well, if you would have told me before I came here that I was going to go through some of the things that I went through alone, like overcoming hepatitis C and like lots of other challenges, I wouldn’t have trusted you. But I think all of those things make you who you are because now luckily I’m cured  from that and my health is in a great condition, but still, it makes you stronger. It makes you more aware of how to take care of yourself, I think. Yeah, I think you learn a lot. A lot. You learn way more than other peers from your age because they have their support system, they have their families, they have their parents. They move into their new apartments, which are paid by their parents. And you have to luckily I have the support of my social assistant But still, you are most of the time left on your own to figure out what you want from life. So far it goes good. I would say. 

Thank you. We have two more questions about the current situation, do you think that you developed the ability to deal with these challenges or do you think you had those skills, strengths, mechanisms or resilience?
So I think that I have developed lots of survival skills in the last five years. I think way more. I think the the advantage of facing difficulties at a younger age is that as you grow older, you already know how tough life can be, because for some people, they start facing difficulties later on, which results in depression and they cannot deal with it. But for you, you have been through so much depression that the only way is to just go away for work and just take life as it comes one day and not think a lot about it. Basically, that’s what I’ve learned, not to think a lot, because basically when you work, when you’re not living in the present, it’s most of the times when you have anxiety about what you’ve been through, about what is going to happen, the uncertainty of it all. But I think the best advice is just simply to be present at the moment and take life as it comes and not try to fight a lot with the balls that life throws at you, because that’s when you will struggle the most. 

This is not a question, but I want I’m hearing a lot of you the word you a lot, and instead of saying I am curious to know why do you choose to use the word you, because you’re talking about yourself.
Yes, yes. I that. Well, I think I use the word you in this sense as like maybe I’m talking to some audience to talk to the people who are going to read the story. So instead of addressing myself, maybe somebody is struggling like me. Maybe there is a new refugee who is alone in this country and wants some words of consolidation. So that’s why I use the word you. But of course, I’m talking from my own personal experience. But I don’t want to put too much light on me because by sharing my story, I hope that I’m going to help someone else. Maybe. 

Thank you. And the last question about the current one is how has COVID-19 affected you in terms of daily life and your mood feeling emotional loving?
This is a very good question. So the way that covid-19 impacted on everything was that it has removed the distractions that I used to have in my daily life, which were contributing positively to my mental health. So the sense of being isolated again in your own space, not being able to go out or see friends or do activities which you like, it has it has put me right back at the start of where I was when dealing with my own inner demons, of course. But I think after a couple of months of of of of of confinement, I came to terms with it. And I sometimes still struggle because this has also affected all of my studies, my internships and everything. So also the ability, not like not being able to travel. I have a long distance relationship. So it has taken away a lot of things from me. So sometimes it’s difficult, but I think it’s difficult for everyone, not only for myself. So I just try to look forward to the end of it all. 

Thank you so much. Now we go more the section of your past, a little bit.

And so the first question is, why did you leave your country? Can you describe what happened?
So why did I leave my country? I left most of my country because of my sexual orientation. I’m a gay man and being a gay man in North Macedonia is not something that you can express in public, at least not at the time, when I was living there. I was an activist. So I came out in public in 2013, which then led  to upcoming two years until 2015, which was a phase where I faced a lot of physical violence on the street, a lot of discrimination from the government or from the police, domestic violence as well, which I tried to battle against and report in the Center for Domestic Violence. But basically, being a gay man in Macedonia meant that you did not have an anti-discrimination law. So nobody can do anything to help you because you don’t exist in the law. They don’t recognize you, which then led to me just simply reporting violence. But while as they know that you’re gay, dealing the violence with your sexual orientation and it’s like you don’t exist in the system. So you are very invisible, very vulnerable and left without any protection. So also, I didn’t have any future. My parents tried to marry me with a woman. So to build a life for me, which I wouldn’t have been happy with, like most of the gay men from Macedonia. So all of those things and also like I was working back then, I stopped my studies. So I stopped developing my my own academic skills because of poverty, because of chances taken away from me as a gay man. My family no longer wanted to support my studies because I came up. So basically I was forced to live a life full of lies. And I did not want that for myself because I did not want to be a victim of life, if that makes any sense. I did not want to to live a life where other people have chosen for me. I wanted to be able to make my own, my own choices. And that’s why I came to Belgium, because if I wouldn’t have been here, I might have been either dead or or married with a woman and having kids, but being a gay man and then meeting men behind her back. And I wouldn’t like to also ruin the life of a woman that because I think women deserve to be loved. But I also do deserve love. So, yeah. 

How does it make you feel at the time?
Oh, it was it was terrible. Now, looking back from this perspective, because I’ve done a lot of healing, I speak with it with a very calm voice. But when I was during that moment, I was very serious. I was very depressed because I didn’t have anything to look forward to. I didn’t have any vision where my life would go. All I had was just simply everything being taken away from me because I was gay and nothing left. I mean, also living with my parents was a living hell because basically any single moment, moment of the day, you are like with your own torturers who whatever you do, it’s never enough because you are simply not good enough. You have let down. So I come from a Muslim family, very strictly religious. So basically, in their eyes, you are a sinner and living day to day feeling that feeling of like I’m a sinner. I’ve done something bad, which is totally not true, was difficult. And I also like all the violence. I mean, I don’t think somebody who is 19, 20 is supposed to face as much violence as I did, because it leaves a lot of trauma, lots of PTSD. But I think you cannot choose your past and you cannot choose the circumstances that you brought in, brought up in but you can choose, what to do with your future. So I chose my own future by coming to Belgium as a refugee. 

Thank you. Thank you for sharing and I hear a lot of despair and pain in those times.
Yes, yes, those times were very painful for my life story. 

How was the journey to Europe? Is there an experience that was particularly difficult that you could tell us about?
So travelling to Europe from North Macedonia was easy because I only had to take a plane. But other less fortunate people have to go through worse cases like taking a boat in order to be able to come to Europe. But then when I came here for me, one very difficult moment was when I went to the Center for Asylum Seekers. Basically, in those centers, you have to go back to your closet because you are put in a place with lots of different nationalities who are homophobic, just like people in your own country. And they tell you in order to survive in those circumstances is not to say who you are, which is contradicting why you came to Belgium. And you are you are fighting it. I could not cope with that. I was like, I’m not going to go back to the past because I came here to go out of it. But it is difficult. It is difficult for lots of LGBT refugees and also especially trans people, especially trans people early in their transition because they feel they face a lot of sexual violence in those cases, physical violence. And Belgium hasn’t built up any coping strategies, how to protect these people. So they are left on their own. But for me, the way that I coped with it was I had a friend who could have offered me a shelter. So I left that center to be able to go in his private space. But of course, not everybody is that lucky. So leaving people in such circumstances is not OK. And the excuse for this is that they don’t want to separate people and make specific LGBT camps. But I think that’s a bad thing because by not trying to discriminate and separate people, you just put people in dangerous situations where they could be raped, where they could be beaten up, their rooms would be open, their stuff would be stolen. And nothing comes in terms of protection. And the worst thing about that is, I know, because I worked with refugees now, when somebody attacks you instead of removing the aggressor, they remove you. So so you are the one as a victim to change places and not the aggressor. So they give the aggressor the right to occupy a certain center. But you are the one who is going to have to go through another change of a physical place only because you were you were attacked because somebody has very conservative views. And now I’m working on a project with the with the Rainbow House and FedAsil on bringing awareness to these asylum seekers and also to the workers in this asylum seeking centers. It is my second year that we do this. So we give formations to centers. But unfortunately, I don’t know. Sometimes we don’t have lost of collaboration or attendance from people who should be super interested in this. So it’s a lot of it. It’s challenging. It’s challenging. So I hope it’s going to change in the future. But at the moment, it’s not very ideal. 

Thank you. And how did it make you feel that time?
Well, I mean, at one I mean and from one side, you are used to it because you you come from a place of struggles. But another from another point of view, you’re frustrated because you hope it’s going to be better. But in the beginning it’s not better. And it affects a lot your mental health because you are waiting for your documentations. It’s a long process. For some people it takes up to years. It’s you cannot do anything so you cannot study, you cannot work. You only have to wait. And then being left in those circumstances basically challenges your luck mentally. And I don’t think it’s supposed to be that way. I don’t think people who are asylum seekers should be put on mental challenges of surviving because they already escaped that feeling of having to cope with difficulties and coming to Belgium and still having having to cope with homophobia, violence and aggression is just not the way that they would hope it would be. Of course, it becomes all better once you become independent on your own, once you get your papers. But for some people, this is not the case for up to two or three years, and having spent up to two or three years in those circumstances, it just adds to your trauma. And I don’t think it’s ideal. So I hope he’s going to change. 

Thank you, Hmm. The hard question, do you think about these events often and when is there something in particular you think about often?
Well, I think about the most is not having a family, not like. So the thing about being a gay refugee is that you have to choose yourself or your family if your family is not supportive of you. And also, even though you you want a place of belonging, you are kind of like forced in on, leaving everything behind on being on your own at a very early age, sometimes for some people. But in my case, I was 20 when I came to Belgium, being trained in Europe on your own, doing lots of mistakes as I am 20 years old is is is is stuff. I used to drink a lot, take drugs as a coping mechanism, which which only leads to more destruction for your own inner peace. And now, of course, I’m sober for three years. But life, I think the most about that, about the. So when you’ve been  for like let down from your own family, you don’t trust a lot of people. And it’s not easy to let people in because you don’t want to go back to where you were. So for one side, you want to have a family, but from another side you are afraid of people contributing more to your pain. So you basically just end up isolating yourself all the time, which is not a healthy thing to do. So it’s a it’s a challenge. 

Hmm. And do those situations you faced affect you today and how?
Yeah, I mean, in in interpersonal relationships, like the mistrust in people doesn’t let you enjoy their presence as much as you should or would. And the feeling of not belonging doesn’t change, so just remains so. But I don’t know you you just hope that, you know, by achieving more stability in your life, that maybe things are going to change. But it’s very difficult. I personally I don’t know. Sometimes I think how it would have been if I was born as a straight person in Macedonia and not having to go through all of all the things that I went through because of my orientation. But I think I think and I’m happy with who I am because. I was given this life and I’m trying to make the best out of it, so I’m glad that I’m very resilient, I think so. 

Oh, and could you ever have imagined that you would have been able to handle this situation?
No, no, I don’t think so, because I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been through through a lot of challenges and I’ve. 

Do you mind replacing it with the question?.
So I don’t think that I would I never thought that I was going to be able to endure what I went through in my life. Because starting a new life somewhere else from scratch, especially as me, I came here with only underwear, nothing else, no possessions, no languages, no contacts, no friends, no nothing. Starting a new year is very difficult. And I don’t think that I would have that I would ever do it again, because it’s just having all of your stability shaken, all of your friends taken away from you and being left on developing all those relationships again is exhausting, is mentally exhausting. It’s challenging because you have to put yourself out there while you are healing. But of course, people don’t want to listen to sad stories because they also deal with their own issues. So you have to internalize a lot of struggles and not share with anyone anything because you want to be accepted. But then nobody knows. Nobody is there to listen to you, so. You. I made a lot of mistakes in that process. I think so. So I have lost the respect in the eyes of many people because of not being emotionally stable mostly. And sometimes I still have impulsivity when I feel I’m not in a good place. But as long as it doesn’t have any big consequences, I think it’s OK to fall. As long as it doesn’t take away lots of things from you. 

How were you able to survive, get through it and have you created any kind of strategy or particular coping mechanism that worked within hard times or difficult memory? And where do you find strength and support?
So, the coping mechanisms that I have developed to deal with it all was. At one point I became a workaholic, where basically you just work a lot in order to forget about what’s going on in your life. And in the beginning, it was nice because I didn’t do anything for the first two years. But I think after three years of working hard and forgetting your issues, you kind of you cannot run away from your problems all the time is unhealthy. So now I’m trying to kind of feel all the emotions that come with it. And I think most of the times, like for me, doing sport changed a lot of things because it’s like a natural antidepressive where it just gives you stimulations and it pushes you to go for you in life. So I think that’s how I cope a lot with what is going on in my life. So lots and lots of sport, lots of work and trying to just simply achieve your goals, which make you feel better about yourself. 

Ok. Thank you.
And also maybe helping other people. I think I think helping other people puts you in the position of being able to share your experience and your learned lessons, and it helps you protect other refugees. So that’s also what I doing at the moment. I’m helping a lot. I’m doing it all voluntarily.It’s a lot of work, but I translate for lots of asylum seekers. I find lawyers. I put them in contact with with people who can help them. I try to make appeals if they get a negative decision. So I try to give out a lot to my community and. 

Thank you.So before the event that led you to flee home occurred, what was your dream?
Well, it’s really not actually the same- becoming a parent. Why? Because I think being. 

So your dream was to become a parent?
Yeah, because the thing is, many people, they are weird when I say this, but they’re not aware that not being a straight person means that you are not privileged to have a child. 

So would you be able to say that with the sentence “my dream was”?
So my dream since since before coming in Belgium was to become a parent. Why? For the simple reason that not being heterosexual or maybe even in some cases cis-gender, but mostly heterosexual, in my case means that you do not have the privilege to be able to bring a child into this world. So you are put up in other systems, which still is still discriminate you a lot, like when you adopt. If you’re a gay man, you would have less chances than straight men or straight couples. So but it is still something that I’m pursuing and let’s see how the future is going to be or look like. But I think that’s one of my biggest dreams in life because anything else is achievable. But I think that part for many gay men is still difficult. You either need to have a lot of money because nowadays surro, surrogacy is just a business or you need to pay up to one thousand hundred dollars to get a child or you need to wait years and years to adopt her. So it’s really challenging. It’s it’s something that is also discouraging demotivational. But, yeah. 

We’re actually going to the final piece of the interview. So. Before leaving your home country, what would you describe as your strengths? Have you maintained these? If so, how?If not, why not?
Just so before leaving? So before leaving my country, my biggest strength was that I was very positive, bright and looking forward to life. Have I maintain that? I think I did, but not as strong as it used to be, maybe because of age, when you’re when you are younger, you are more resilient. When you grow older, I think you deal with things differently, but it’s still present. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been as far as I am right now in life. And also just being someone that accepts losses. I mean, I’ve lost lots of people in my life. I’ve lost lots of chances with any single obstacle. You just have to stand up and say, OK, we keep going. So basically, I think that is also most enormous strength just keeping what what walking in life and hoping for the best. 

Thank you. I’m just wanting to check if the recording is still happening because, yes, it is. Good to know. Happy. We’ve got three more questions. Yeah. Mm hmm. Yeah, how to say, it feel like you’ve been through has been very difficult and I’m very happy to be in the States with you, to honor you and to also get to know you a bit more from a different angle and. And I want to know more about have you grown in any way as a result of all that experience, has anything at all positive come out of this? If.
So, I think I’ve grown a lot as a person, I’ve learned how to cook, clean. It sounds funny, but I mean, when you start living on your own without having a good upbringing, it’s like you really need to figure out everything by yourself. I think when I started, I was a very messy person. I was a very disorganized, chaotic youth who was just not willing to take life, life responsible. And I think being left on your own makes you like paying all of your bills and trying to survive, not to be poor, trying to find ways to obtain what you want when you are in the world with people who are working because they’ve been granted with different chances and opportunities and opportunities in life. So I think, yes, I’ve grown a lot. I found lots of alternative ways to to get what I want to not starve, to have enough money until the end of the month to save some money. But so so I, I think I’ve developed a lot as a person, but I still have a long way to go. So. 

Thank you. You’ve always said that one of your hopes is to become a parent. I would like to hear more or so any particular dreams for the future now, like immediate future.

And if you could answer with my dream is.
So. My dream at the moment is obtaining my degree, which is starting to become a teacher for secondary education. Why? Because so I’m doing this in Flemish. So in Dutch, first of all, because I really believe in proving to this society that the refugees are equally smart, intelligent and able to pursue academic studies in a language which is not their own mother tongue. Because I think at the moment in the society that in which we live, we are being represented a bit as stupid as people who are less educated, people who but also the way that the system is being is being built. So basically, the system discriminates you if if based on your socialeconomic status and based on your language. So if you’re not a native, a native speaker, they will tell you many times everything is good, your dream is good, but sorry because of your language, some doors are not being able to open up to you as soon as you want. But I think obtaining my degree would mean that it’s not only a win for myself, but it’s mostly also like a win for my community, for the refugees, because you show that everything is possible. Well, of course, it’s not ideal because some people are not as strong as I was. So I’m not saying that the way that things work now are ideal because I don’t think there should be a distinction. I think if you are motivated and if you put in the work, you should be granted with whatever you go for. But of course, that’s ideal. But now we are not living in an ideal situation. So that’s one of my biggest dreams. And then also another dream is to simply buy a house, because it would mean that I will have a stability, because I sometimes feel in the past, especially when I used to live in a student dorm, I would fear that I would lose my stability and become homeless, which of course, it’s very easy for some people in my situation, but luckily so far so good. So mostly those are my dreams. I think they’re pretty low. I don’t think I dream for something like super huge. I don’t dream to become a president or something, but I think I have very low dreams, which people need to realize that when you are a refugee, that’s all you want, you know, and because you’re not granted granted with them by start. So you have to kind of fight for it. So, yeah. 

Thank you. And there are no low dreams and I think that every dream is a dream. So,. 
Yeah, but you know, people who already have stability, house,parents, I mean, for them, getting a degree is just like part of life. But for me, getting getting a degree, especially in a language which is not your mother tongue was and we’re going to be able to do it or not. And it still is until today, because sometimes you fail an exam or a project and and it just brings you backwards instead of forward. So it’s all a big question. And of course, getting my nationality. Why? Because it gives you stability at the moment as a refugee, you have to apply for lots of visa to travel. And sometimes they refuse because they think you would be an illegal immigrant. So you face all of xenophobia and obtaining a nationality means that you were someone. So I think that’s what people don’t realize, that being a refugee is like being I wouldn’t say no one. But you are definitely at the bottom of the society. But obtaining a nationality would mean that you are part of the society, which is actually quite silly to say, because you should be now already part of the same society in which you contribute. Like, for example, we have a shortage of teachers. So by studying to become a teacher, I help the host country where I live. But yeah, so I just can’t wait to be able to get a bit there. 

Thank you. Yeah, I mean, I really appreciate you answering all these questions, is there anything you’d like to add that might help people in Europe better understand the life of refugees here?
So I think people need to understand that when they meet a refugee, they meet a person who is struggling to survive and not somebody who is because there are a lot of misconceptions. They think, OK, refugees come here, they they receive everything. They receive help. They receive money. They receive housing. First of all, it’s not true that they receive housing because when you look for an apartment with CPAS nobody wants to accept you. So that’s a misconception. Social apartments, basically, you have to wait for years and years and years to even get one. So that’s just on theory. In practice, it’s not really easy at all. So you kind of have to rely on people trusting you that you are going to pay the rent in order to be able to live somewhere. I mean, I used to live for two years in a student dorm in one room, so I don’t think it’s an ideal situation. So what I want them to remember is that they meet somebody who is surviving and they need somebody who is building a life somewhere where they don’t know how life functions. So for them, what they already know, for them, for the refugee is the unknown. And when you live with the unknown, I mean I mean, they should always imagine how would they behave or react if they will have to just be placed in a new country in a language that they don’t speak and they have to be forced to wait for a year maybe to get the documents and then to start with your life, anew from scratch. So, once they’re going to be able to empathize with their point of view, then they could approach and talk to refugees, because I think just assuming that we receive everything is not helping anyone. 

I think we are complete. Thank you so much for your time.
You’re welcome.

I hope it worked. 

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.