About Refugees, By Refugees

Nana Burhan

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Photo and interview by:




Belal Darder Mohamed

“My dream is… that we can all live in a place of peace,” says Nana Burhan (27), who left her birth country of Algeria for Spain as a child to escape conflict. Her host family was welcoming, but she found the culture very different and encountered racism as she grew older. “You notice it and you see it and you feel that… That it’s not your place.” But Nana held on to her faith and cultural identity. Despite being away from home, she worked hard in school and earned scholarships. “I think everyone can get everything they can, no matter where they come from. If you work for it, you get it.” Strength and support from family keeps her going in facing everyday life. “The only thing that can raise my spirits during the day is to know that my family is okay and to be able to talk to them,” she says. Being a joyful and cheerful person also helps: I love joy and I love that everyone is happy and smiling. And I think when you have that, that is the greatest motivation… you can have.”

Trigger Warning: Racism, Death

full interview

You want [to speak] in English or in Spanish?
In Spanish is fine.

Okay. Ok, um… Well can you tell me where you live now?
I live in Madrid.

Describe your house to me… how is it…?
Well, my house try… I have always tried to make it like in the camps. Be… There we have a lot of light, because the houses are very open, everything… Lots of natural light comes in and that’s why I opted for large windows so the light can enter. I’ve also tried to bring objects, um, cultural things as you see in the closet that I have. I also like wood very much, because there we worked a lot with wood and whenever I go, well I try, I try to bring things from there that I can look at and feel like I’m with them. It has nothing to do with it, but somehow you feel consolation from these objects because it is the only thing you can bring from there. And here there are also beach stones that… I like to decorate with them because it reminds me of the Sahara Sea that I went to visit and it was… It was the nightmare of my life. I went to visit my, my two brothers, but with the Moroccan occupation, well, they made it quite impossible for me. And… and nothing, it also has very bright colors, because I’m a very happy person because even though I am here whenever I come back there, I find joy, I find peace. They also continue with that joy of continuing to live and of, of not giving up and that’s why I think I have such bright colors.

Uh, can you tell me what you do in your day-to-day life?
Yes. Well, I’m not working right now. I’m looking for a job, uh… Well, I go to the gym, I work a little bit on the computer. Right now I’m going to the Red Cross, which I’m volunteering. I also volunteer with other NGOs and several Sahara projects, with students from there.

What do you do to feel happy?
What do I do to feel happy? I think that there isn’t… It’s not… There isn’t a moment, there’s not one thing that you say I’m doing this to make me happy. But I think the only thing that can raise my spirits during the day is to know that my family is okay and to be able to talk to them.

And how would you describe your life in Spain?
My life in Spain, well… It is difficult because everyone says “You have everything here” uh “You can’t complain, you have a better life…”, but what is a better life? Well, my life in Spain, well I am very grateful to my host family, because they have done everything possible to make me have a better life. So thanks to them, I adapt to… To the life here, but always with, with half [of myself] in the camps.

Tell me a little bit about how you came here. You told me a little bit, but since I wasn’t…
Well, I came here with a program called “Vacations in Peace” and… And nothing, well we stay four summers, we came two months and it was my last summer. Two thousand and five. And it happens that my family, who always welcomed me, could not welcome me and they changed my family at the last minute. And I got the family, the family I am currently with, well it’s a family of doctors and… So they asked me what, what, what, why I was limping. So, for me it was normal because I had already lived two years with my foot, that I couldn’t, that I just dragged it. Well it was kind of the least of it, because they saw me running, playing football… In every plan that I went with the children I went first with them and nothing and, well, when they took me to the doctor they told me that it was quite complicated, that my hip was uneven and that I had to get surgery and such. Then nothing, I was going to stay six months of, for the operation and such and then leave and nothing, I stayed 16 years later. Like that.

So when you came did you speak Spanish or…?
Just a little bit! Very little, I spoke very little and besides, well, since I was going to stay six months, my foster mother well she said well, I’m going to sign you up with the… the Girls’ school, which was only in English. So of course, I didn’t understand that part, that it was only in English, that for me English did not exist, I mean, only Spanish existed because the family and the Hassania and the Arabic. So when I got to school everyone and everybody speaking English and I, well if I barely speak Spanish, how am I going to speak what these people are speaking? And I remember that the first day of school was horrible because she said “Well, I want you to take advantage of these six months, everything you can learn so you can take it with you.” And I went to her and told her “No, no, that this is horrible, that I don’t understand anything, that people talk to me and I don’t understand, people with eyes of different colors… Different skin colors… I told her no, no, there is too much diversity!” And… Then she, she told me that a woman was only free if she had education and that if I wanted to be free in this world that I should make the effort to have an education and learn everything I can at all times.

And from there you started to learn English as well..
And from there I started to learn English… I was taught Arabic by an Egyptian teacher because I didn’t want to lose it either, I remember perfectly, and… and nothing, since then, well after school, extra classes… Everything, everything I could and… And from the effort, every year they gave me a different scholarship. From, for, for learning English and for having learned so much so fast, so nothing. I think everyone can get everything they can, no matter where they come from. If you work for it, you get it.

And… and speaking a little bit about how your host family is… How were the first few years here in Spain? I don’t know, tell me a little bit about them.
Yes, well my host family, they are a wonderful family, that is super humble, super welcoming, that day to day not only helps me, but it also helps a lot more people. She’s half Basque, half Irish. It’s just that she has such a wonderful and cultural mix. And my sisters also welcomed me a lot. I’m like one more sister, which was also difficult for them, because going into this house, I was going to stay two months and in the end, I stayed for 16 years… So, pfff, I thank them very much for having put up with me, that they put up with me because I remember I used to cry so much, that I didn’t want to stay. And, you know they didn’t have to endure that either because you say hey, I’m hosting you, I mean, make my life a little easier, you know? So, the truth is… They are great. I have four siblings, two are boys, two are girls. I’ve lived more with the girls because the two [boys] are older than us. And the truth is that very good, very good.

And… um… I don’t know, talk to me a little bit about the difficulties you had to face.
Difficulties? Well, I don’t know, I think culture is a lot diff- it is very different. Having to… To understand the things they do or don’t do… Also, for example, my mother got nervous about schedules. I’d tell her I would be back at a certain time and then I’d come back at another one. But of course, she didn’t care what time I was coming but she needed to know more or less the time range, well, so she didn’t worry because we didn’t have cell phones back then and so on. And that was horrible because in the Sahara you say “I’ll be back in an hour” and you’d come back in three. So these are things that, since I saw them as normal, I thought they also saw them as normal. Also, well… I don’t know, the clothes, I was little, so they have always respected it. There they respect me, too. And yes, but it’s true, there’s a clash from being with my mother where everyone is wearing the Melfa, everybody is praying and such, to being with a family who is from another religion, who wears different clothes but at the same time respect you. I mean, there’s like mutual respect, that if you want to do this, good, if you want to eat pork, you can, if you don’t want to, it doesn’t matter. So, uh… It’s been easy for me, so to speak, I can’t find any difficulty because they’ve made it easy for me. They, all the time, well, if you do this, we respect you. If you have to pray five times a day, we respect you, so you go to your room, you pray, and such. So, the difficulty I think I have had more on the subject of racism and such now that I’m older.

Tell me more about this.
Now I’ve had more, uh… On the topic of racism, comments, like go to your country, uh… or directly speak to me in English. And when I speak Spanish it’s like “Oh, well you speak very well.” I, well “Yes, I don’t know why you’re going straight into English”, uh… Then it seems weird, but I am. I am liv- I am living it more now that it seems I have separated from them, from my family. I have separated myself from the bubble that they made, perfect, where racism does not exist, where we are all the same, and where if I pray nothing happens, and where if I wear the Melfa or I don’t wear it, absolutely nothing happens. And now that I’ve grown older, that I’ve gone out of that bubble, it seems that it’s harder.

Uh, talk to me a little bit about the racism that you face. How is it?
Well… I don’t know, typical things from, from the supermarket, that, that they are rude to you or push you. Whenever I go to the Basque Country to visit my family and my sister who lives there, I wear the Melfa, well, they’re like- everyone’s like very, not everyone, uh, well, some people like they’re very rude, they talk badly to you, uh, no… Like, in the… They talk to you badly in the sense that it’s like it doesn’t matter, it’s “Come on, faster, come on, get up, get up!” or… Or that they don’t give you a table when you’re waiting there… “Well wait a moment”, maybe because you don’t seem to have money, so you won’t be able to sit at the table they give. And… And I don’t know, pfff, I also once went into a bakery and told them “Can you give me 200 grams of turkey?” and I saw that it was little and I told them “Ahhh, well give me 200 more!” and she tells me “But let’s see what did your lady tell you?” So, that kind of comment, like, I come to buy my, I mean there is no lady, I mean I come here because I can buy 400 grams of turkey, you know? So those kinds of comments that not right now but, but you notice it and you see it and you feel that… That it’s not your place. That it’s not, it’s not your place.

And how do you deal with this… what do you do, what does this make you feel, that this isn’t your place?
How does it make me feel? Well… Well wanting to go back or not wanting to change, because it’s not, they are not children, they are older people because I don’t, I haven’t… I didn’t suffer this in school. Maybe because in my school there were international people and there was a lot of diversity and I wasn’t the only one from a country which was not Spain. But it’s just that, it’s just that, it’s that the saddest thing is that they’re older people. So there’s no remedy anymore, I think. I don’t know, there’s no… There’s nothing you can do, so sometimes I answer, sometimes I don’t answer… Because sometimes for what am I going to answer back? Because I don’t know if they were girls you say “Listen, little girl…” So she knows… You try to guide her towards the right path. But these are people that… Who, come on! who, who have had to live for a decade already.

And… How do you identify yourself? Well, as Saharawi or as Spanish?
I introduce myself as Saharawi, but then I say I’m from, I’m also Spanish. But I identify myself as Saharawi. Yes, yes. But that does not deny my host family either, because what I feel about them has no nationality or identity. So, that I present myself as Saharawi, well, it seems normal to me and them. But that doesn’t mean that I love them nor Spain less, nor anything. I just think that the love you feel for a city like Madrid or the love you have for a person does not identify any nationality, so I, I, I, but I introduce myself as Saharawi. Then, well, when they say “No, no, it’s an ex-Spanish colony…” Well, and now I’m also in Spain with Spanish nationality, because actually also part of my, my mother and my, my father were Spaniards too… They were on Spanish territory when the Sahara was a Spanish colony, so yes, in a way. I am also partly Algerian, I was born in the camps in Southern Algeria you know? It’s just that if we start looking, I have, we have such a mix, but I think the first nationality that comes to you is what it is but this doesn’t diminish the value of others.

And how could you combine Arabic culture and Islam with your life here in Spain?
Well, as I told you because those around me made it easy for me. Moreover, for example, when I went out partying, I didn’t drink and well, many were confused like: “But how can you endure such thing?” And I: “Well, since I really like music… Well, then when there’s good music, well I endure it, and if there’s no good music I don’t endure it.” But then well, or praying five times a day… Being like that all of us sitting and suddenly I go to my room to pray. Well, “And shit why do you do it?” I don’t know, or waking up at 5 in the morning; “Are you really going to wake up at 5 in the morning?” And it’s like, “Yes, yes, I like it very much. If not, I wouldn’t do it.” And then well, it’s about explaining yourself and creating your own space in, in, in Western culture. So you… I can go out with the Melfa, but I can also go out without the Melfa. It’s you and what you value and how you see the world. Because if you respect yourself and respect your culture and origins, people respect it because you explain it with dignity and strength, you know? Then it is more credible to people, I mean, people respect you and believe in what you’re saying.

And tell me a little bit about your qualities that have helped you face a new life in a new culture with two new languages and all of this. What do you have to be able to do this?
Well… well I think it is the… Knowing that, that, that everything can happen and that life- and that it’s okay, whatever you do, be it good or bad… It’s okay. As we say [speaks Arabic] that… That you’ll see if it’s good what you’re going to do or not, but don’t give up, do it, and… And if you fail then nothing happens, there are more opportunities. When I failed and failed and failed well, it’s okay, eventually, I’ll… Also having that, the idea. I’m a very joyful person. I’m a very cheerful person. And I love joy and I love that everyone is happy and smiling. And I think when you have that, that is the greatest motivation you can- you can have. And… and then also another thing is that my mother left me with a family that didn’t know, I didn’t know when I was ten years old and she trusted that I would follow in their footsteps. So that’s like for me, like, like a very strong trust, that your family trusts you, giving you that power to say: “Look, I’m leaving you, but I know you’re going to be something much more, much bigger, and I know you’re going to achieve everything you, you get.” In fact, my father’s last words were that. I called him and it was those and I told my foster mother, I said: “I think my father’s saying goodbye to me”, and a week later he died. So I think that also the strength of the family and the support of the family is what makes you face everyday life and that you live as a family.

How was your relationship with your family in Sahara?
Yeah, very good. Yes, yes, I just came back. I was there for three months and it’s like a life you get, it’s, it’s a… It’s like… Say you’re sad and your world is collapsing. Go there, spend a month, a week and you come back as new. It’s like you say “Wow, I have a family here, I have a family to support, that they are much worse, how can you break down from the things about the Western world or material things? No, no.” And you even… And you come back with more strength. So they give me the strength to keep going. So they are very important to me and… And seeing them and visiting them, it’s necessary.

Uh… Your family, that is in Algeria, right? Is it in the south of Algeria, right? Have you… Have you been to the Sahara?
Yes. Yes, that’s why I told you that when I went to visit my… My sister because my father had two children…

Let’s see. How many siblings do you have? Because you have Spanish sisters and Saharawi sisters…
Mashallah. I have… Look, well on behalf of my father I have two, and on behalf of my mother I have another two. This is my family of Sahara. And then the two of them. Five. How many do I have? We’re like nine.

Okay. And then here in… Here you have two Spanish brothers and two Spanish sisters as well. That’s good! right? Having two families isn’t bad! Right?
It’s not bad. I have siblings to give away! And so… My father, well… He had two children there in the… In the Sahara and due to the war he was called upon… And for- he could not return because they put the wall. So his family stayed there. And then I went to see her and besides that, she is an activist and I always go out to the demonstrations here in Madrid, in front of the embassy and so on… Well, I was denied a visa twice. Then, I went to Barcelona, got it there because they didn’t know me. And… So I got it there. And when I went… Well, already in the, in Casablanca they were already like “Why are you traveling? Why are you coming here? Why are you going to the Sahara?” all kinds of questions. And well, I didn’t answer and didn’t answer. If you ask me anything about my documents, I’d answer it, but something like that, no. And when I got there all cops waiting for me and I, well, and besides I didn’t know my sister, it was the first time I was seeing her and… And well because she saw every cop, uh… surrounding me she said: “That’s my sister. That must be her.” So I went to see her, but yes, I was there for a week and, and we had patrol cars downstairs, I couldn’t record, I couldn’t take pictures, I couldn’t do interviews, I couldn’t do absolutely anything because I wasn’t, they were at my doorstep and… And nothing. And I went to Ayun. It’s beautiful, uh… pff, we have beach, we have a road, we have flats, stairs. I mean, it’s like living here in Madrid, but with a beach. Then I returned like saying “Wow!” and, and half the population, in a refugee camp where some have not seen stairs in their lives.

What does that make you feel?
Well, a lot of anger, indignation and injustice. Because… Why, because some have distributed a cake that is Africa, we have, we have to pay for it, the… The people, the civilians and, and well it also gives me the strength to keep fighting and to know that, that the territory is ours and that we have our wealth and that we do not need humanitarian aid and that we do not need people who come to volunteer because already with what we have we could live and, and give to… Give and gift and we’d have to give to, to other people who need it because the Sahara’s at war for its wealth, if not, no one would want it.

Ok. And… talk a little bit… I always ask people, because… I ask people what is or what was your dream before you came to Spain? Did you have any dreams before coming to Spain to settle down?
Dream, I think, well I think that when you’re born there, your only dream is, is to see the Sahara. But of course, when I saw it, then that stopped being my dream because I saw it in conditions that I didn’t want to see it. So now my dream is that we all- we all get together and that, and that we can all live in a place of peace and, but together, together.

The Saharawi together?
Yes, my family, well my sister who is somewhere else, my nephews that, that thank God I have met, but my sisters haven’t, that, that, that I can go see them and that I can… That there is that freedom. Well, well having a life of.. well from here and that I can go to Bilbao to visit my sister and come back perfectly, without any fear, without a policeman waiting for me, or without- having that assurance of, of living together at, at peace in a free Sahara.

That’s good! Well, that’s it.
That’s all? Wow, look how fast it was!

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.