About Refugees, By Refugees
Trigger Warning: Death, violence/murder, discrimination.
So my name is Belal Darder and I am working on this project that’s called 1000 Dreams, and it’s basically documenting and highlighting the lives of the dreams and the ambitions of 1000 refugees. And the cool thing about the project is done by refugees themselves. So I am a refugee myself. I’m originally from Egypt and I’m a refugee in Spain, and I want you to know that if you are not comfortable sharing anything, uh, you’re more than welcome not to share it. Don’t feel pressured any way, shape or form. Uh, also, if, um, if a while during the interview you feel uncomfortable or you feel that you want to have a break or you feel that you want to stop just let me know. No, it’s no problem at all with regards to that. OK. OK, great. Good. And so we get to start filling some forms. And in this, I’m just going to say that we filled the form, the story forms and everything. You know, your name and so on.
And so why don’t you start by telling me what kind of housing you do, you do, you live in right now, like you’re alone? Where do you live and with which city and so on?
I live in an apartment in Paris. Um, so forty-three-square-meters apartment. So it’s not very big. OK.
And do you live alone?
With my girlfriend?
Oh, that’s such very nice. Lucky you, I would say. All right. And um. Um, so do you, do you, do you, do you work? Do you have any kind of hobbies? How is your day?
At the moment, I’m not working in a firm, in a company. I used to work and I quit my job. I mean, I finished my last contract in February 2019 to dedicate myself to artistic projects. So I shot a short documentary. I’ve been working on a feature-length version with a friend of mine ever since. We’re in touch with producers. So I’m mostly working on my film and cinema activities, let’s say, and writing. Photography is also something I discovered more recently. But I’m looking forward to… how do you say, to gain experience in that field. So that’s why I’m doing also this workshop.
Interesting. So. I would say that because my next question was going to be like things that makes you happy, things that brings you joy. I’d say anything that is artistic is something that, that makes you happy, no?
I’d say I’m happy when it’s done. But the process of making it, it’s very, very hard and tiring. And also, I mean, I feel like it’s something that needs to come out of me. So, yeah, this is very difficult. I wouldn’t say I’m very happy when I do it, but I’m happy when I finish, yeah.
When you see the product?
Sorry. For how long have you been living in France and where are you originally from?
So I’ve been living in France for 27 years now. But I was born in former Yugoslavia in 1989, and I came to Paris in 1993.
So you came very at a very young age, no? Four years?
Yes. I came with my mother. We, we came as refugees.
And so I would say that you speak perfect French, and you told me that you were interested in writing. So may I ask you, in what language do you write?
It depends on what I write. I’m writing an article, for example, right now in English about my hometown, which is now in Serbia. But most of the time, though, my projects, for example, the cinema ones or the writing, also, I’m working on a novel. It’s in French. And if you want to know also, I never write in my native language – in Bosnian or Serbo-Croatian, as they call it (I mean, it’s all the same language). Because I don’t master it. It’s the language that is quite hard to master grammatically. I mean, a bit harder than the French and, so, yeah, I don’t, I don’t use it as a writing language, but I speak it with my parents and I speak it with my family.
Hmm. How do you feel about that?
The fact that I can’t use that language to write? I think I like the fact that my parents taught that to me, even though I didn’t go to any school to learn it. I like the fact that they talked in Bosnian to me when I grew up, because I know I have friends who have parents of foreign origin and who don’t speak their language. So I just feel like it’s a bonus. It’s a plus, and I’m not frustrated that I can’t write it properly. And sometimes when I go there and I see family, I get frustrated because I feel like I’m maybe 80 percent intellectually as intelligent and as intelligible as I am in French. So I always feel a bit dumber, a bit less intelligent I’d say, when I speak in my own language. But it’s a different personality and I just listen more. I think, yeah, I think I listen more than I speak.
I am, I’m going to mention something here, but I actually have a friend who has the same situation. But the only difference between her and you is that she was born in Spain, but her parents also were from Bosnia, and they fled to Spain as refugees. But she was born here in Spain. And unlike you, she had no, like, her parents didn’t teach her Bosnian. And I remember her speaking to her about because she recently went to Bosnia for the first time. You know?
And it was such an emotional experience to her to go back there, you know? And she expressed regret that… she that she did and that her parents didn’t teach her, teach her the language, you know, because she, like, she knew that these people are her relatives. You know, but she speaks Spanish, she speaks English, and she’s not able to communicate with them because they don’t speak these languages.
Yeah, yeah. No, I feel for her because it’s like you’re dispossessed of something that you should have. It’s part of your identity, kind of, the language, so…
She also commented a lot about how beautiful the country is. I must go someday.
It’s very special to see mosques in forests.
Mmhmm. Yeah, you usually see them in the desert, no?
So, my next question would be how, how do you, how do you feel? Was it difficult for you to be uprooted, you know, to move from your home country when you were four years old, or you don’t really remember? Or was it really difficult?
I don’t remember particular scenes or, you know, I just remember the feelings, kind of, the things that I felt, so I just remembered. I mean, sometimes I tell it to friends, it’s like, it’s like I was a tree that was taken out of its roots, of its soil, you know, a tree which roots have been taken out of its soil. Yeah, that’s how I say it. Or a plant, or flower or whatever. So I was just starting to grow and, you know, starting to understand a bit my environment. And it was very peaceful because I don’t know, how is it in Egypt, but in Bosnia, it is usually in traditional kind of homes, the father marries a woman and the woman comes to the father’s house to live with the family. And everyone lived under the same roof. So I was with my father, my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather.
It’s like a big family.
Exactly. And my uncle. So everyone was in the same house, you know? And so I left with my mother only in January 1993. So I just remember that I was very disoriented when coming to France, to Paris. And actually, the first thing I did when I landed was to throw up. And this, I remember very vividly like the landing of the plane and me throwing up in an Air France bag. So, yeah, I felt both disoriented, but also very curious. And I think that’s when my curiosity kind of started, initiated or something because I was seeing, you know, from a small town in southwestern Serbia to Paris. It was a huge shock here. Yeah.
So I’m very interested about languages, so my next questions will be about that. You moved out to Paris when you were four years old. I’m sure that you didn’t speak any French.
How was that? How was that? You know, linguistic shock, I would say for you.
I, well, I don’t remember myself, but people told me that I used to point up things and ask for everything. So I wanted to know, you know, how you call the door, how you call the bus, how you call… And I just felt like it was something I knew I had to, I had to learn. And I learned the language very quickly. And actually, I skipped a class here. They call it “sauter une classe” in France. In France, it’s when you’re one year ahead of your time because you already know how to read and write. So I went further. And so after a year or two, I was ahead of young French kids who were born in France. So for me, it was like really an appetite, let’s say, a huge appetite for learning and understanding my environment. I think immediately I wanted to understand. I didn’t find it traumatic at all.
So you would say that one of your strength is that you are interested in learning languages, interested in learning, and you were able to use that to cope, though you were a very young age, at a very young age?
Yeah, I think every new situation is an occasion to learn, and so that’s how I think I started to view it, to see life and the way I could survive, kind of, in this environment. And my parents were always like my safe place where I could speak my native language, and this was like a small nest that I could go back to.
That’s very nice. And how is your, how is, again I’m very interested. What about languages? So I’m going to ask, how is your relation with your French like? I love Spanish, for example. I, yeah, I really love Spanish and I’m, my apartment is filled with literature like books for Spanish writers, authors and I go one book after another because I’m really, I love the language and I love how it has a certain rhythm. And it’s not as beautiful as French when you, when you pronounce it. But it’s full of bravery and it’s pronounced very hot, very loud. You know, Spanish people are very loud. I love Spanish. So I was just, and I ask you, how do you feel about French? Do you, do you like French? Do you like reading things in French? Do you like French as the language itself?
Yeah. You mean now, right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course, because I had those periods of times when I would read a bit less or read a bit more. It depends, but I went through a phase when I read a lot and it was during my final years of university and I, I’ve learned how to appreciate the language much more than in class. I think it’s after, when I was on my own at the university, know I started, kind of. Because I didn’t study literature. I studied mathematics, computer science and economics, so…
I wouldn’t have said that.
Yeah, no, because I wanted to have like this double… It’s also a refugee thing that you always need to have some technical knowledge. Because yeah, you came at a much later age, kind of, than me, so… But my parents taught me from when I was young, that… Because of their experience of coming, you know, without some diplomas or whatever or coming to a country where they weren’t recognized as they should have. They always taught me that I should have some technical knowledge. So anyway, on the side, I was reading a lot, yeah, and I learned how to appreciate the language. And yeah, it’s very flexible. I think it’s beautiful in a way, but it’s very flexible. And now it’s influenced by Arabic and African languages, and also by English. So it’s a language that’s trying to survive, you know, between those influences and it’s transforming. And I think it’s interesting. I like to use it. I mean, I’m writing a novel in French, so.
I would like to, I’d like to check the novel someday.
Oh yeah, hopefully when it’s done.
So I believe that your parents left Yugoslavia because the war, the civil war that happened there in the 90s, right?
Do you have any memories about the war?
No, I don’t have memories of the war because… To explain to you how I came. I’m from the Bosniak minority of Serbia. So back in the days, like when Yugoslavia was a unified country, all minorities were safe because they were under one big roof, which was Yugoslavia. And the Bosniak minorities is a Muslim one in Serbia. And it’s very small. It’s maybe one percent of the population. And during the war, what happened is that the Serbian central government had fears that there would be some separatism coming from the Muslims, the Bosniak minority. So they put pressure, they put political pressure on people. They raided some villages. I mean, not them, not the army, but, you know, paramilitaries and militias… So they would raid houses, they would raid villages, they would burn houses. So that’s what was happening. And it was not as hard, I’d say, as it was in Bosnia, in neighboring Bosnia, because in Bosnia there were, you know, people being raped and… I mean, huge massacres and the siege of Sarajevo. In Serbia, it was more of a political discrimination, with also some people being murdered. And actually, the situation was so tense that a month after we came to France with my mother, in February 1993, there was a train that was stopped, a train going from Belgrade to Bar, from Serbia to Montenegro, that was stopped in Bosnia just across the border. And all the Bosniak men in the train were taken out and killed, tortured and killed. And among these men there were nine, nine men from my hometown in Serbia. So this happened in February 1993. I was already in Paris, but my father was still in Serbia. So this was like the context of the situation there when my father came then, in March. Sorry, I don’t know if it’s everything is clear…
No, no, no. It was clear. It is clear and it is very, I imagine, I imagine that you didn’t, at four years old, you didn’t, you were not fully understanding the situation, but I imagine that if that happened to you and your father is still in the country and you’re away from him and you don’t know about him, what’s going on with you, I imagine that would have been very, very difficult. Till he comes with you, you know that he goes to Paris also.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think it’s anxiety that you can feel through your parents also… Through what others live. Because when you’re a small child, you know, you live through your parents. Whatever your parents feel, you feel that way. And so yeah, there was lots of confusion and anxiety. And then it kind of follows, you know, through your life.
Even if your father comes, you still have the grandparents. You still have relatives. You still care about the country or your parents still care about the country, no? So the anxiety continues and the preoccupation and anxiety continue, no?
Yeah, exactly. Especially since… I told you before that, I was living with my grandmother and grandfather. So, for example, I remember this when I was younger. I’d call. I mean, my father would call my grandmother – so his mother – and they would speak, blah blah blah. And then they would give the phone to me and I would speak to my grandfather. But at some point, my grandfather died very early, I think it was in 1995. So I was still small, and my father couldn’t go to his dad’s funeral because of his refugee situation. Anyway, so after they…
I can relate to that.
Yeah. Yeah, obviously… So they just told me that my grandfather was playing dominoes at the bar. And every time I remember when I would speak to my grandmother and just ask, “Where’s my grandfather?” She said, “Oh, he’s playing dominoes at the bar.” And it was something… Because they didn’t want to tell me that he was, you know, that he died.
I guess they ruined dominoes for you for the first time.
Yeah, I don’t want to play dominoes anymore. It’s just… It lasted for like years, I don’t remember. To me, my grandfather was just some guy playing dominoes, you know, every time I called him. But then I learned that actually, he was dead, you know.
So how did you feel growing up with such anxiety?
I feel it’s hard because usually, I mean, I’ve never been to a psychiatrist or whatever, but from what I read on childhood traumas and this stuff. It’s the stuff that follows you, kind of, all your life. So I feel sometimes I have some fears and anxieties that are not explainable, and I always blame them on this. I don’t know if it’s true, if I could do something about it, maybe I could. I don’t know, I just felt, yeah. When I was younger, I had like asthma and eczema. And you know, if you call it in English like this, but the plaques that you have to scratch, it itches, you know, so you have to scratch them. So, yeah, I was… I’ve always been a bit nervous as a person, so I worked on it to improve it. And to be a bit more chill. But still, it comes back.
Well, I’m going to ask you a question that I’m really interested about because my status as a refugee came at later, later part of my life. You know, I was twenty-two years old when I, when I applied for asylum. So when you grow up, you know you’re four, you’re five, you’re six or seven years old. Were you aware that you were a refugee? Were you aware that you were Bosniak? Were you aware that you’re different or were you totally assimilated into French society and like, “I’m French, vive la France”?
No, I wasn’t assimilated, I would say. I grew up in suburbs where there were lots of Arabs, Africans. I mean, I was assimilated to this because they had – not the same story, but, you know, there were also migrants and I just felt like I was one of many. And also… Growing up, I think. Your question was, “Did I know about my status?” Yeah, yeah. Because my parents, especially my father, he really explained to me, you know, from a very young age, what was going on and maybe not in like grown up words, you know? But he made me feel that I was part of something political that was happening there. And, you know, history was a big thing. It’s something that I had a big interest in before. A bit less now, but yeah, when I grew up. And so, yeah, I knew it. And also because the asylum process is quite long in France until you get the citizenship. I was granted the asylum status quite quickly. We went on appeal, by the way. We didn’t get it on the first, we went on appeal in Geneva and got it. But then I think we waited until 2000 to get the citizenship. Seven years from when we came. So I wasn’t French, basically for seven years and I knew it. And just to give you, for example, a small, funny anecdote, but when France was in the final of the World Cup in 1998, the game before I was rooting for Croatia. It was Croatia against France in the semifinals and…
Then the was France and Brazil right?
And France-Brazil in the final, and I didn’t give a shit. You know, I wasn’t, like, cheering for France or whatever, really.
I remember cheering because of Zidane.
Oh, Zidane was a huge star.
He was a big player in the Arab world.
But I was just so mad that the Croats didn’t win the game before, you know? So I just felt like I still was part of the Balkans and Yugoslavia back then.
What was the name of the Croatian striker, “Suker”? They had this striker. He was really good. He played for Real Madrid.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was Davor Suker. Yeah, he played in Madrid. Yeah.
So yes, I remember this, but that was my first World Cup.Thank you for reminding me.
I don’t know how Egypt did in the World Cup.
Now we do badly. Egypt just does very bad. But we usually root for other countries, you know?
So, so yeah, I’m… My next question is like how, how were you able to go through this, this process that… you know? Was it a difficult process applying for the nationality and even after getting the nationality, like accepting the idea that you’re French? Was it a challenge or was it? Do you have any kind of feelings about this process?
I think, you know, it’s hard for me to answer because it’s my parents who took care of this, you know. But I mean the fact, the fact that I got the citizenship, to me it just meant that I could travel to my home country without no visas and these kind of things.
And that’s a relief. No?
Yeah. On the one hand it was a relief. But on the other hand, when we traveled there, I mean, the war was not over in people’s heads. It’s not over. So when we traveled there, it was very tense and very hard and we went there just to see family. That’s all, you know. And even now, when I travel to Serbia, I don’t like it. I don’t like going to Belgrade. I don’t like how I feel there. Yeah, I just want to see my grandmother and some cousins and then go back home, as quick as I can. And Bosnia is different. Bosnia is a place where I could feel safer in some ways, even though it’s much more unsafe than Serbia. In some of cities, for example, Sarajevo could be unsafe. But in terms of nationality, I just feel closer to Bosnians, and Croatia… Also now that they entered the EU, you know, it’s a much more forward-looking country in some ways.
And, normal question that they would ask, that the situation is like, what was your dream before you leave, before you become a refugee? I don’t think it’s applicable in your situation.
I think you can.
I mean… I’m sure as a small child, my dream was to live with my family, you know, just to be with my cousins. Because my neighbor was my cousin and we used to play all the time.
And yeah, you know, just to be happy with my family. I think as a small child, that’s, that’s all you dream of, you know, just to be close to your beloved ones. Yeah.
So the dream was to be close to your loved ones.
Yeah, I think so.
And how, what is your dream right now?
My dream right now is to accomplish myself as an artist. Yeah. I think that would be my dream because I have this vision that’s like being an artist and tackling all kinds of subjects and being maybe not as good as you could be, you know, maybe being better in some subject, for example, writing. And then, you know, photography, making movies. But if I could accomplish myself through art and express myself… I mean, my dream would be to be able to express myself through my art.
Hmm. That’s a very beautiful dream.
Yeah, thanks, man. I have the right to have dreams, right? My mother told me when I interviewed her that she doesn’t have dreams because dreams are not true. She says, “When you dream, you just wake up and it’s not true.” She’s a very rational person.
Rational person can have ambitions, you know?
Yeah, right, right.
That’s very beautiful. And so, so you want to, you’re talking about art, and so I would, I would ask you a question. Who, can you give me an example of inspiring artists for you, writers, maybe, directors?
Yeah. Well, it’s quite broad. But for writers, let’s say Celine, the French writer Celine, you know, you’ve heard of him?
Yeah. Journey to the End of the Night, and Mort a Crédit. Celine is a big inspiration. Dostoyevsky, for sure. Great one. I love Baudelaire. Baudelaire is also a very big inspiration for me, especially one of his essays “Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne”. The Painter of Modern Life. This one. It’s very short, but I always come back to it. So, yeah, if I… I’d like to give three names to be Dostoyevsky, Baudelaire and Celine and then…
Ferdinand Celine, no?
Yeah, Louis-Ferdinand Celine.
I know I have two favorite books, like, my top two favorite books of the whole world. One of them is by Alexander Dumas. It’s
The Count of Monte Cristo. I love his work.
I haven’t read it, but I need to.
It’s very… I like classics. So the other book is also classic. It’s Wuthering Heights for Emily Bronte, the Victorian writer. But the other one, and I also have a lot of… I love a lot of French writers. The top of my head now is the J’accuse… What was his name? Who wrote J’accuse and Nana, Emile Zola?
Zola? Yes. Yeah. Yeah, L’Oeuvre from Zola is a very beautiful novel about an artist. Yeah, yeah. It’s sort of…
Victor Hugo. Also, he has a book. He wrote three books about man’s fight against, uh, against society, against church and against nature. The one against the society was Les Miserables and the one against church or a religion is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The other one is, these are very two famous, but the other ones, the other one against nature, men’s fight against nature is Les travailleurs de la mer. And it’s one of my favorites also, it’s extremely beautiful, very beautiful.
OK, I didn’t know about this one.
It’s very, very beautiful. I would recommend it to you.
Start, OK, I’m recording, you can go ahead.
OK. All right. I just wanted to add two things at the end of the interview. So first, on the topic of identity. So I don’t know if you asked me that question, but I just wanted to say that the fact that I came in Paris was very positive, I think. In the way that… Paris is a very international city and I’ve never felt, like, misplaced or… Because everyone was from somewhere else, kind of, you know, and in Paris and especially in the suburbs where I grew up. Lots of my friends were from different backgrounds. So that’s what I wanted to say. Like, for refugees who come to bigger cities, international cities such as London or Paris, sometimes it can be easier, I think, to integrate because, you know, everyone is from someplace else. And I felt very, very much at home in Paris growing up because I love football and I associated myself with the Paris Saint-Germain football club, which had one legendary player who was from Bosnia, Safet Susic. He is like one of the biggest players that had played there in the 80s, and also in 2003 they had a Bosnian football coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, a football manager that came to the club. So… And afterwards, obviously, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, when he signed to the club it was a huge event.
But Ibrahimovic is Swedish, no?
Yeah, I mean, he is Swedish, yeah, but his first and last name are not from Sweden. Actually, his first name means “the Golden One” in Bosnian.
Oh really? So Zlatan is Bosnian.
He has Bosnian citizenship also.
Oh, I didn’t do that.
Yeah, yeah. He has dual citizenship. And he wanted… I mean, his father wanted him to play for Bosnia when he was younger. But the Bosnian Federation was in such a bad shape that they didn’t see potential in him. But this was all just to say that, like, there are some Bosniak figures that are associated with the football club here, and I know this bond was very strong for me and it helped me to feel at home here.
So this was one of the first things I wanted to say. And the second thing is that growing up as a child, as a child refugee, you kind of live the refugee experience through your parents. And so obviously, you hear what’s happening. You listen to their conversations. So you hear about, you know, that cousin who got killed and you hear about people who lost an arm or, you know, lots of people were displaced. And there’s a very strong feeling of injustice. And there’s anger at the fact that you could not live with your family and grow up with your cousins and your friends who were there. And it’s like your childhood was replaced by something else. So I felt that as a child refugee, and I don’t know if it’s specific to children, to refugee children, but… I really felt something like this. Yeah. And being aware, you know, that all these things are happening, but not being able to do anything because you’re a child makes you really angry at times, like powerless. And you think to yourself, like, “Yeah, when I grow up, you know, I will do things for my country of origin and I will have to do things,” but, you know, then you go back and people don’t see you as someone who grew up there, and so you realize that the bond is sometimes not as strong as you thought. Yeah. So that was something I wanted to say.
And how does it make you feel, Mirza?
The fact that my childhood was not taking place there, but here in Paris?
Well, hmm… it makes you feel like… Because as a child, you know, you develop psychologically, right? Those are the years where you form yourself. And of course, later events can shape you with, like the main years that make you. How you cope with things and stuff. It’s usually the early childhood. And so it makes me feel like there’s something missing, kind of, I would say like… like a feeling of “what if”. Like “what if”, you know, “if I had stayed, and the country wasn’t at war and Serbia didn’t go crazy?” you know. What if I had spent my childhood there and my life after? It’s something missing, kind of, yeah. Like there’s a part of me that stayed there and there’s like a parallel reality where I grew up there and then all those things happened… And then, you know, it’s a bit sad sometimes.
Do you, just a quick question? I have two quick questions, right? Do you, do you feel or, I don’t know, I mean, I spoke to another Bosnian refugee, right? And she was aware that she had a better chance because she went out of Bosnia, right? Educationally, financially, economically and she came to Spain. So you went to France, which is even better. So do you admit that or do you negate that?
Oh, yeah, no, definitely, I know that my life here is much better than what my life would have been if I had stayed in those conditions, right? So with the war and everything. I realize that and, and I’m very… Especially when I see, you know, the economic situation and the consequences of the war over there, and my cousins, and how they struggle to find a job and everything. Everything is way, way better in terms of economics and stuff in France, right? But… Like there’s also the feeling of belonging, you know, to a culture, to a region, to a landscape and everything, which is also important for me. The food, the music… There’s lots of friendship in the Balkans, and people really value family, neighbors and friendship and stuff. Things that you find less, I’d say, in bigger cities such as Paris or in Western societies in general. What I said, like, “I’m missing a childhood”, I’m thinking more about like “what if the war didn’t happen?” You know what I mean? Like, like those, those events, you know, you go back to them often. Like, “why? Why did everything happen? Why was there such injustice?” and these kind of things. This is what I’m missing. What a regular life would have been, a regular childhood, like those people who grew up here and my friends who didn’t grow up in wartime or affected by a war.
Mmhmm. And the other thing is that you have a Serbian nationality, right?
No, I didn’t ask for it. So when we came, we had Yugoslav passports.
OK, which was?
Just Yugoslavia at the time, and then we asked for asylum. So we got refugee status. And then until 2000, when we got the French citizenship that we asked for. And we have never asked for Serbian citizenship. That’s all. Thanks.
No, man, thank you so much for sharing that.