About Refugees, By Refugees
Trigger Warning: Racism; talk of dysphoria; chronic illness
Okay, Ebbaba. Can you tell me where you live now?
Now, I live in Madrid. Uh… In Spain.
Tell me about your house. Who you live with.
Well, I live with my partner. Uh… The truth is that, well, I work, I’m a journalist. Uh, I love Madrid, it’s a… it’s… It’s my favorite city, I could say. It has opened many doors for me, it has helped me to understand that there is nothing impossible. It is a very cosmopolitan city, very open to foreigners, to the outsider. And the truth is that I have been here for almost ten years now and I am very happy.
And tell me a little bit about your daily life. What do you do?
Well, in my daily life… I’m studying. I am finishing a doctoral dissertation in journalism about women in Muslim countries. I also work. I work in the… media, on radio, public television and, well… Well, my daily life is… Well, I wake up, have breakfast, I also live with my cat, Frida. I must say [laughs], and then, well… I have breakfast, I go to work. Journalism is a profession like… Quite stressful. I also travel a lot lately. I do coverage abroad and, well, then I love to hang out with my friends, play sports. I don’t know.
What do you do to feel happy?
To feel happy? Well, for… What a question… I try to live to be happy. No, no, I’m not a person who seeks happiness so much, but I try… with whatever I live, to feel comfortable with what I do, with my work, with my friends, and above all, I try to really enjoy every moment. Well, in the end, life hasn’t been easy either. It’s like you can take advantage of it now, right? Enjoy. I don’t know.
And how did you get to Spain? Tell me a little bit about where you were born.
I was born in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. I got out when I was five years old because of celiac disease. Because, well, I was malnourished, I was very sick. I was out of there and… Well. And then I was living in Italy for nine years, with an Italian host family. Then I had a lot of problems with papers, with the hosting, and so on, and I returned to the Sahara. I returned to Spain again. I was brought by… Another association brought me to Spain and, well, in Spain, I lived with two foster families in Extremadura and then, when I turned eighteen, I came to Madrid and became independent. I worked, I tried to study at the university, with a lot of effort, also with a lot of support from supportive people, from foster families. Also from here, from Madrid, they were there supporting me and that’s it. I am an independent person.
And I see you’ve had a lot of difficulties, haven’t you? How did you deal with these difficulties?
Yes… Above all, I had a lot of difficulties at the level of… When living away from my family. Mine have not been material difficulties because I have had a lot of support from associations, from families. So I do feel privileged in this regard. I have been in the homes of Spaniards who have welcomed me and I have not had a lack of food. Mine has been a lot of emotional difficulties, especially when I separated from my mother since I was very young. It’s been this whole process of searching for identity… it’s been all this process of also wanting to be just like the rest. Because in the end I grew up in European families and it was also about understanding a little about who you are, where you come from. Fight too, right? Because, well, emotionally it’s about facing a career, the… To the different languages, to the cultural context. Well, it has been quite difficult for me, but as far as possible, I am fully aware that I am privileged.
But what are your qualities that helped you cope with these difficulties?
Well, maybe looking ahead, feeling like anybody else. I think that feeling like the rest, although inside of me I knew that I was different, that my context was different, that my family lives where they live. But I do know that I am a person that I have always seen as just like another and I think that has helped me a lot not to make a difference and to put a lot of effort into trying to be like anybody else. In other words… For me, language has been a fight against the tide. It is… Write, right? For example, now in Spanish, right? Or talk on the radio or be on TV. Well, for me it was like no, no, that I was capable and that I could and that I was just like the rest. And so I think the main quality is to believe it in the sense of believing that you are like anybody else and that you aren’t different.
I always like to ask the strategies that people who start their lives again in a new home, a new place, a new country, right? The strategies they use to endure and to take refuge and to endure the fact of starting from scratch, right? There are people who play sports, there are people who take refuge in literature, there are people who choose education, right? You?
Well look, I… Education. I… I remember the first year I had to… I arrived… that I arrived in Spain. I read a lot. I took refuge in my studies a lot. To learn. For me that was key. Then, also in Madrid, I took refuge in the university a lot, a lot. To also try to understand what world I live in, what world am I in, and why me, why… And then also my refuge was understanding or comparing myself to those who stay there, to all these young women who stay there. I see my cousins, my sisters, my, my people, people my age who haven’t had that opportunity that I had. So feeling like a… privileged person. Well, for me it’s been like a pressure too, of… you have to take advantage of that.
What makes you think…? How does it make you feel thinking about the women you left behind?
Freedom, when you see that you achieve your freedom as a woman, that you achieve your independence, your economic independence. When you see that… Well, you also break with cultural schemas, right? Religious, that you break a bit with established family norms, isn’t it? That it’s like you’re like the weirdo. But when you see that that is achieved, that your family begins to understand you, they begin to see you. I think a lot that as a woman, well, too… that has helped me a lot to see, to see myself free, to see myself independent, to see myself that, well, that I was not only born to get married, to have children, right? And I don’t do it from the offspring, right? Simply to see what I have achieved, well, it makes me think a lot about them and also about relying a lot on them. And in fact, I do a lot of projects with… with women in the camps. Not many, but some other project. And for me, that is a pillar.
And do you keep your entire relationship with your family, do you talk to them? Talk to me about this.
I miss them so much. In fact, I believe that everything can be recovered, except the family. I see that… how my nephews grow up. How my little brothers have grown up. How you’ve missed so many moments. I see how my mother is getting older. I am very united. My father was the driving force behind my studies. In other words, he was a man who worked hard, a lot, a lot, and who fought against me when I wanted to come back and I wanted to throw in the towel. He has always been there. If I’m doing a doctoral dissertation now, it’s because of my father. He’s a man who has always pushed me. Then I have my mother, with whom I also have a very nice, very close relationship, which I think responds a lot to tearing, right? From when we were separated from each other when I was 5 years old. It’s like a wound that’s still there. But hey, it’s sometimes even a pretty wound. I mean, it makes me excited to think that I feel deeply, isn’t it? And now with the pandemic, right? That I’ve missed them so much. That I didn’t understand anything… That taking a flight was banned, that the borders were closed. Now I haven’t seen them for more than two years and it’s like I’m going to try to go next week now. I’m very… Very… On the emotional side, despite the culture shock, despite our differences, in spite of, right? That they [phone ringing] can reproach me or I can reproach them too. Uh… Well, for me that has been so important to be able to say well, I arrive and I am a… right? And there’s love and that love… besides… um… There is no… Those ties that unfortunately are the only thing that cannot be recovered, because we can recover our economic stability in another country, we can recover our studies, we can recover, well, even the environment, you can make new friends, other teachers, other referents, right? But I think that family is the only thing that I don’t spare in my own life, right? To that… It’s just that there are a lot of things that you miss out on.
And tell me a little bit about your identity, right? You mentioned identity, how can you combine your European identities, Spanish or Italian identity, I don’t know… And your African, Sahrawi identity, how…?
Well, look at me, for my process I’ve always liked to define it as… As Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese writer, names his book “In the Name of Identity”, I think that was key for me, because for a long time, I kind of wanted to be a Sahrawi, but then I wanted to be from here. So it was like two identities that collided into one, that were not reconciled, that were very different. So when I “killed” them all, right? And I said okay, well, I’m going to be Ebbaba, period. And there are going to be things from the Sahara that will contribute things to me and there will be things from here that will contribute to me and they will try. I am going to try to bring them together and to live in me and to balance themselves within me, to be one and only one that will be called neither Sahara, nor Italy, nor Spain, nor Europe, nor Africa. No, it’s going to be Ebbaba… So destroy them, murder them, and try to be me. Well, I think it helped me a lot. Well, I actually recommend you that book if you haven’t read it.
Yes, yes, yes. I’m going to write it down. I made a mental note for myself.
I love it, I love it because it’s like murdering them all and building from there, right?
Interesting. And tell me about your most difficult time on your trip so far.
Well, look, my moment, perhaps the most complicated, was when I decided to leave Italy. And it was because I didn’t feel like I was from here, it was… I was 16 years old. I could see that I had a lot of problems at the level of roles, at the foster level. [Throw it there, the backpack.] Uh… And for me, it was a very hard time because it was the mid-teenage years. I was in a lyceum, I wasn’t well received at the lyceum. I suffered a lot of racism and they wrote to me every day that Italy was for Italians and not for shitty foreigners. When I had been living in that country for 9 years and I have always felt like anybody else. Well, then… For me, that change of lyceum, which was more like a social status, right?
By lyceum you mean school or institute.
Yes, it’s like the high school here. It’s called lyceum in Italy, well, it was like it was in a neighborhood, right? An upper-class neighborhood. The family chose this place. But it hurt me a lot and I experienced moments of great upheaval, of… of not quite understanding who I was and of wanting to go to the Sahara. And I couldn’t leave because not… The association kind of tried to send me to another, to another house in Naples. And then for me, it was like a moment of I don’t know who I am, I don’t know… Like this body doesn’t even belong to me. And that’s when I decided to break up and say, well, I’m going to the Sahara and that’s it. And I decided to leave, with my papers expired, with my residence expired because I knew it wouldn’t be possible to renew it. Well, anyway, I decided to, like, throw in the towel. But for me, it was a moment of absolute loneliness too, right? So I felt like. Well, I don’t know. Well, like a lost girl who doesn’t know very well. It was… It was… I think the most, most difficult moment. Or maybe when, at the age of five, I was taken to Italy alone. I remember having a lot of nightmares about my mother. But that… I wasn’t so aware of that pain.
And when you threw in the towel, who or what pulled you out of this pit of loneliness?
Well, my reality, because I returned to the Sahara. I wanted to give up everything, but then I found out that I was a sick person, that I was celiac, that I had a lot of difficulties and I also had a reality check with what it was like to live in a refugee camp, what it was like to live in that inhospitable desert where my family lived, where the women in my family lived. The reality also surrounding these refugee camps. And then I realized that it was really, well, I was privileged because I had at least obtained a passport, which wasn’t so easy. And with that passport, with an invitation or so, I could go out again and then I had the chance to go out again and I got out. I got out of there and I say, “That’s not it, it’s not for me”. But… But it’s not for anyone. Nobody would have to live in that place, in that inhospitable desert, in that place where you depend on humanitarian aid, where young people have no future, where there is no prospect of a future, where you can’t build, where there is no job, where you study and come back and face the desert one day, another day, another and another day. So I said no, it’s just that that’s not my place. But because… because our land is occupied, because that is a refugee camp, because the refugee camps are temporary, they are not permanent, and no, this cannot be my home, the home of my family, or my people. So, well, with that mentality I went back out of the camps and, well, that’s when I came back, I wanted… I came to Spain and focused a lot, a lot on my studies.
On a personal level, and firmly, I believe that what happened to the Sahrawis is one of the most unfair things that have happened. What makes you think this?
Well. Well… Well, journalism, it’s actually a career that I studied because it helped me… [Frida, the cat, appears] Let her smell you first. Put your hand. See? She smells you.
[laughs] So beautiful.
She is not going to bite you. She loves to play.
My boyfriend’s cat is very aggressive, yes, yes. [laughs].
Come, Frida. Well, when I did journalism until recently, I thought that what was happening to the Sahara was the most unfair thing. And it is. It is a very unfair reality against all international law, against… Well, it kind of all stays on wet paper, right? With the Sahrawis it is like a process of decolonization. International law is clear, but it is not applied. It’s an illegal occupation. It’s like, right?… There are many factors that tell you that it is an unfair reality, but then with journalism and also, with international reporting and watching, right? I’ve kind of placed myself in the world and realized that there are a lot of unfair realities. The war in Yemen is profoundly unjust. The situation in Egypt is unfair. Well, the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, right? That… Like, there are a lot of them, right? We see Palestine, right? We see like… Syria, don’t we? And so they kind of place you… I have been placed a lot and it has opened my mind a lot. I have realized that there are so many unfair realities, that there are so many realities that are not talked about, that so many forgotten realities, that so many hidden stories that we don’t know… That they don’t come to light, that I said, well, I’ve kind of learned a little to relativize injustice, right? That my people suffer.
Well, how do you describe your life in Spain?
Well, in Spain I’m fine, I’m fine. I feel at ease. Besides, I think that as a woman it has… It is a country with advantages, which respects other realities. I feel pretty free, right? As a woman, most of all. I think it cost me, it’s hard in the beginning, isn’t it? But then I felt very welcome. There’s a whole internal process, but there have been a lot of external factors that have helped me. There are a lot of people who have supported me. I think my life in Spain is a quiet, beautiful life. Without further ado… So it is with… With difficulties, for example, but those that any Spaniard can encounter, in other words, um, I think that in resolving the issue of papers, my life has been quite privileged as well. I immediately obtained Spanish nationality because my father was Spanish and, well, well, there is a personal effort, but… But there’s also a lot of solidarity and a lot of support and a lot, there’s a lot of hands reached out as well, right? I don’t think that happens in other countries. Look, I think that Spanish society welcomed me, welcomed me into the world of the profession, into the world of… Of the solidarity movement, within the NGOs, well, within the different jobs, the neighbors, even, right? I feel good. I think I have a life with a lot of privileges as well.
And which…? What was your dream before coming to Spain and what is your dream now?
Well, I promise you I don’t have a dream… I’ve always said that when they ask me about… Well, I would love to be able to live with my family one day and live in peace and quiet. I always say that maybe my dream is that childhood that I didn’t have, right?… That it’s to be that happy girl, surrounded by her people. I don’t aspire to be… I don’t know. Well, with my life I can, well, I can help myself and the people closest to me, even to, well, my people if it is in my power to help someone, but… But I don’t have a dream on a personal level of my own. No, well. That I can have all the facilities to be able to be with my family, you know? I don’t know, to be able to be with my mother and to be able to have this freedom to say okay, well. I don’t know, to get together… Of being together. I don’t know. No…
How do you feel when you go to visit your family in Sahara? Are they all in Algeria or are they in the Sahara?
They’re in refugee camps in Algeria and… It’s a really nice feeling. It’s a sense of reunion. It’s a feeling that you have to make the most of every day. It’s the place where I disappear the most. It’s a feeling of… It’s just that I love it. I love it because I love waking up with my mother with her tea. Well, in the end, me too. This tea, that breakfast, that incense, those smells. I love it. I love it, I love it. I remain very, very observant, well I also have my frustrations, my cultural shocks. Clearly, you’re not from there either, right? When you’ve been around for many days you say, “Oh! Uh, what am I doing here?” But no, but it’s nice. In fact, now I want to go and I want to be with them for two months.
Well, that’s all [close the notebook].
Is it useful?
It is useful.
And anything that comes up to you, well, you ask me and we’ll talk about it on WhatsApp.