About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Rabbi against a plant background

Rabbi Allam

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Photo and interview by:




Belal Darder Mohamed

“My dream before coming to Spain was to stay here for a few years, getting rich and helping my family, and help poor people in my village,” says Rabbi Allam (20) from Bangladesh, a refugee in Madrid awaiting Spanish nationality. “My realistic dream now, which I see closest and more possible, is to study or be an economist and to be a professor of economics and to have a moderate, dignified life and to be able to help people within my capacities.” He adds, “I would like to influence economic policies. That’s what really changes people’s reality.” As a child, arriving in Spain with his parents, he suffered racism and bullying. “I didn’t understand that it was a structural issue and that it was not just against me.” But by studying hard and making friends with older people, “little by little, I became acquiring consciousness.” He now runs a bar, but says, “meritocracy is a farce.” He says, “It’s not a matter of effort, because if we talk about effort, Africa and African women and Asian women have to be the richest in the world. And they’re not.” He’s ambitious, but “not the ambition of me, me, me, more, more, more. It is the ambition of wanting to improve and wanting to have a better life for everyone. Right?”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

Rabbi, tell me, where do you live now?
In La Latina.

In the neighborhood of La Latina?
In the neighborhood of La Latina, yes.

And what is your house like?
How is my house?

It’s an old corral from about… from 200, 300 years ago. It has two bedrooms, a small living room, a small terrace. We have a little terrace and I live in a tiny room that has a small window.

And what are you doing in your day-to-day?
Uff! I wake up at seven in the morning, I go to study. I come back at two, I eat, I study again until half-past five and at six I go to work until twelve.

What are you working on?
I have a business.

What business?
I have a bar. I’m bartender.

And I work there and I run the bar.

And what do you do to feel happy? To have a good time?
To have a good time? I don’t do a lot of things. Almost nothing. I mean, I have fun studying. I mean, I like to study. At work, I have a good time, I talk to people, and I don’t need anything else. On Saturday mornings I study. And sometimes I meet a friend to eat. And Sundays the same thing. And then the usual routine. But well, this is going to be temporary. I hope that soon things… When the course ends I hope to have more free time for less productive things and more fun stuff.

So, at what age did you come to Europe? To Spain?
At 9 years old.

At 9? Do you have memories of your home country?
Yes. I mean, I grew up in a village, in a very small town, where everyone knew me. Everyone knows everyone. We had cows, we had goats, we had chickens that we looked after. We went fishing, we had mangoes, I mean, the land was very fertile. We had super good food. We only had a little bit of a harder time when there were monsoons, once a year, when the rain flooded everything.

The rain?
And there have been years that people died and everything.

You came here at the age of nine.
Nine years.

And went to school here in Spain, I imagine.
I went to school, I went to school.

And what was it like? How about this experience?
First, awful, awful, awful. I suffered bullying.

Because you were BengaliI interpret that because I was Bengali because I didn’t speak the language, because I was poor. Because I went with clothes, torn clothes because, because we were poor. My father earned 800 euros. There were 800 euros to eat four people and to pay rent and pay electricity. It wasn’t enough to buy clothes or to eat well. We had a very hard time the first three years. And later, I mean, a year after we arrived, we had to go back to Bangladesh.

Because my father only earned 800 euros and with that, we couldn’t live here. Then we started sharing a room with another family. We were eight people in a two-bedroom house.

And how’s living like that?
Bad, awful. But, since I was only nine years old, I didn’t notice a lot either, right? Then we left. I, my mother and my brother left until my father had found a job, but he only 1000 euros. We searched for a house for 450 euros. And my mother also started to work with my father. She was up at eight in the morning, she worked until three or four, and then she’d come home and cook for my brother and me. And she prepared the meal for the next day. And so for many years, until in 2013, my… 2013, 2014… My father opens his first business. Saving all this money. Little by little, every month.

A fruit shop, no?
A fruit shop, and then another, and another.

And we’re going to calm down a little bit. I mean, tell me about how you felt when you came, you suffered bullying? You didn’t… You didn’t speak the language, right?
No, I didn’t speak the language. No, no, no, I didn’t speak the language, of course not.

And what did it make you feel?
Bad. How will a child who does not speak the language feel? He doesn’t know anyone. Horrible, horrible… I don’t know… but I knew I had to do it. I had to accept it. And nothing, I stayed at home watching TV. I was home alone for a year only watching TV. Nothing else. For a year: go to school and watch TV.

And then how did you get over this?
Uff. This was, we used to live in Canillejas, then we moved to Lavapiés. When I arrived in Spain I started to meet kids from Bangladesh. And I started to hang out with them and I went to school, and I started to learn the language, little by little. And in a matter of years, that is, with time, it has been time.

With the passing of time, of course.
Right, but yes, I’ve suffered the issue of racism, the issue of bullying.

But that’s racism. You still suffer from it, right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course. But at the age of 9, I wasn’t aware of what racism was. I thought it was something only against me, just because, why not? I didn’t understand that it was a structural issue and that it was not just against me, but against all the people who are not white or who are not Spaniards. That’s the thing, I didn’t understand that. Later, when you get older and become aware, you start to understand. Yeah, but no, no. I mean, later I found out about these things. And I started to put signifiers to what was happening with me at that time. To put words to what’s happening with me. And the most… mmm, the issue is that the Spaniards bullied me, yes, but also the immigrants themselves. The immigrants themselves. It’s like the immigrants, given the bullying experience they have previously felt, wanted to reproduce on a weaker one. And I was the weakest at that time.

So you went at the end of the thing, no? At the end of…
At the, at the end of the ladder.

“Food chain”, I don’t know what it’s called in Spanish, but it’s like the end of the ladder.
The end of the ladder.

Yes, exactly. You, the lowest animal.
The last step. Yes. That’s it.

Tell me about your qualities.
My qualities?

Yes. How did you deal with this? How? How did you get over this? From what I hear, you have overcome it.
How I overcame it? I mean, first, I didn’t understand much. I mean…

And then, when you did find out, how you got through this? How you have gone through all these difficulties?
I, I mean, driving me away from that. I don’t have any friends my age right now. All my friends are much older than me because at the age of 15 I began to separate myself from them. I started reading, reading books, getting into political issues. I started in a political party where we learned in workshops. I started to meet a lot of older people who explained to me and told me things about life. And so, little by little, I became acquiring consciousness.

So, through learning…
Through education, but education that, with these young people my age I would never have learned. I mean, I would be talking about football and I would be talking about that I want to earn 1000 euros a month and I want to be a waiter. And that I would have no other goals in life other than to make money. I believe that hanging out with these socially liberal progressive people has kind of helped me learn new things and also to be able to identify past things.

And how do you describe your life in Europe? Your eleven years in Europe.
The first three or four years, hard. Very hard. And alienated, hard and alienated. The next four years less hard, but also alienated.

In what sense alienated?
Alienated, without being aware of what we were, what we are. Of how the world is going. But it’s also true that I was very young. I was too young to know these things. From the age of 16, 17, less hard, but with a lot of work and a lot of effort, because I’ve always worked from the age of 15. Every weekend I was working and studying. And since the age of 17, I work and study every day. I’ve been working and studying every day for four years. And this last stage has been the happiest, with more consciousness, more consciousness, more control over myself, over my body, my environment, and with the ability to choose, right? Because when you suffer bullying you feel alone and you feel like you’re not going to have anyone else. And one no longer is that when they know I, I, I’m worth and I know what I know, and I’ll be with the people who care about me. I’m not going to grant value to someone who doesn’t give it back to me. I mean, the process would be: hard, alienated, less hard, alienated, happy, with effort, and with consciousness.

And [when] you realize that these difficulties… I don’t know if, did they helped you or didn’t help you?
Did they help me? They helped me.

The experience, right? The experience.
Not the experience in itself, I mean, not the experience of being bullied, I do not know if…. Probably… I mean, of course, I am what I am today, due to the experiences I’ve lived before, but I changed… I would change some things, right? Of course, to be able to live a little better, to be able to do extracurricular activities, have some kind of music, some kind of these things. Having parents right? Because I’ve had physical parents, but I haven’t had parents, you know? Because they have always been absent. They’ve never been parents because they’ve always had to work, yeah? That’s the thing… Well, yes, I would change some things, but of course, everything has influenced who I am today. And also the culture of effort. I have seen my father working and he is a person who likes to work and enjoys working.

And I always ask everyone this, but in your case, it’s a little special. I always tell to the people I interview, to say: “my dream before I came from Spain was…” and “my dream now is…” I don’t know if you can identify your dream… My dream before coming to Spain…
My dream before coming to Spain? I mean, I do know what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do is stay in Spain for a few years, get rich, very rich and go back to Bangladesh with a lot of money and helping people in Bangladesh.

Say this: “my dream before coming to Spain…”
My dream before coming to Spain was to stay here for a few years, getting rich and helping my family, and help poor people in my village.

And my dream now is…
My dream now, more realistic. And… and yes, my dream, my realistic dream now, which I see closest and more possible is to study or be an economist and to be a professor of economics and to have a moderate, dignified life and to be able to help people within my capacities. And I think now, I believe my dream is this one. I think that if I were rich, I would be following the same logic of exploitation, because the exploitation that I generate here to help other people, I don’t think it would change anything. So I believe, by being an economics teacher, I could influence more because I would like to influence economic policies. That’s what really changes people’s reality. I don’t know if it’s because a parent doesn’t think of anything other than feeding his children and that’s the paramount thing. And that is done by changing economic policies and caring for people. And this is my dream, which I see more realistic from my point of view today, maybe tomorrow changes.

Maybe in a couple of years, it changes. You told me you work as a bartender, that that’s your business. How has the Coronavirus affected you?
Uff, very hard, very hard. It affected me very hard. We were closed for six months because in January the roof of the bar fell in, and they were fixing it, and we couldn’t open it until… until June.

Six months.
Six months locked up. Six months without earning any money. It was very hard. And now, well, nothing. We are… we are opening again and now it’s recovering, but we’re still in a hole, we are in a hole because of the losses.

I imagine, I imagine. And most people I also ask them about the reasons why they left their country of origin. But I don’t know if…
I have no reasons. I mean, I… My parents had a reason, they wanted a better life and they brought me with them. Of course, I have no reason.

The reason for your parents was economic, let’s say.
Economic reasons, merely economic. Nothing but the economic one. Because who wants to leave his country? Who wants to leave his family? Who wants to leave his wife and make a path where… Where he could have died, right? Yes, it was an economic issue. But… but the belly is more important than anything else.

Sure, of course. Understood. But do you have an idea why your father chose Spain? Not France, not Germany?
No, no, no, because this is what my father got, he wanted money and Spain was easier because there was a housing bubble and there was work for immigrants there, illegally, building houses, being a mason and at first he found work in that. And then he worked illegally on the streets, selling beer cans, selling belts, bags. Now, he is a person who has his business, he has spare time. His effort has been rewarded, which is very rare, very rare. My father has been very lucky because if we talk about effort and merit, all the immigrant people I know have worked a lot and they don’t see their lives changed. His life changed because he’s been very lucky. And then with everything that… You have to, you have to…

A lot of luck and a lot of work, a lot of luck right?
But a lot of work is done by all the immigrant people I know and they don’t have the standard of living that my father has. Meritocracy is a farce. I don’t know if I explain myself. Meritocracy is a farce. Look, I’m seeing a black woman there, surely a black woman from Bangladesh or from Africa, any African country, is trying much harder than my father tried, but she will not have the same results because their conditions do not allow her to.

But also making decisions, right?
But, but how could a woman from there who doesn’t even have to eat, be able to leave her country? Or be able to do anything? Is not the effort she puts, but the conditions she has around. Meritocracy is the biggest farce of capitalism and it’s sold really good because everyone believes it, everyone, even you too. And you’re a person that reads a lot. You’re a person that reads a lot. You are one of the smartest people I know. Well, it’s also effort, not only work. Yes, work counts. But Donald Trump is not president because he has worked hard, because if not, but because he has received a gigantic inheritance from his father and has been able to pay the best marketing, Steve Bannon and all these people. It’s not a matter of effort, because if we talk about effort, Africa and African women and Asian women have to be the richest in the world. And they’re not. Because, because it’s not a matter of effort, it’s not a matter of working hard. It’s not a matter of… But by this, I don’t mean there’s no need to. But I just want to break with the myth that… With the myth of ...

Of meritocracy. Of course, you have to work hard and strive. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to get the glory. How did my father get it? Because he’s been lucky.

Well, I’m going to comment on this later. The decision your father made to come to Spain, do you thank your father for this decision?
A lot, a lot. I, I say, if I hadn’t come to Spain, what would be of me? I would be a Bangladeshi alienated child, probably. And I just can’t imagine it, because I mean, I’m sure I’d be happy. But I’d be happy within horizons…

Within horizons.
Very, very limited but my knowledge would also be super limited. I know I’d be happy because I wouldn’t have acquired this knowledge that I have now, nor be aware of this consciousness that I have now. And that’s it. I would be like a child to whom you give candy and is happy, that happiness is, totally respectable and totally logical. I wish we all were like this, but the idea of wanting to live better, progress, sometimes leads you to have moments of less happiness.

Mhmm. Ambition.
Yes, but not the ambition of me, me, me, more, more, more. It is the ambition of wanting to improve and wanting to have a better life for everyone. Right? …Ambition has made the human get out of caves and build planes. The ambition of the human being that… Because if you have an infection, you die, and now you can have your whole body paralyzed and connected to a machine and just move the eyelids. That’s the ambition I’m talking about.

Do you think a lot about your and your father’s trip? From coming with nothing to having the dream of being an economics teacher? Do you think about this a lot?
The truth is, not much because I don’t have the time because now I’m very much involved in working and studying, that’s it,.

You don’t stop to think.
No, I don’t stop to think, it’s work, study, work, study, work, study, I don’t stop to think.

And if you stop for a moment, what would you say?.
Well, that is was good, and that I’m very happy, very happy.

Then the experience that was hard, is positive too.
Of course, of course. Of course, I’ll change certain things, but not, I wouldn’t change anymore, as I said before. I would change certain things, but I wouldn’t change everything.

You can’t say that “although the experience was…” To be able to quote you…

“Although the experience was very hard… “
Although the experience was very hard…

“It’s positive.”
It’s positive.

To be able to quote you.
Right, quote me.

Copyright (laughs). Well, I think, I think this is good.
And where is this going?

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.