About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Rana wearing a prop that looks like chains bound to her hands and neck

Rana Ahmad

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:


Saudi Arabia


Nooshin Sanjabi

“I want to have a completely normal life, without fear, without control, without anyone deciding for you,” says Rana Ahmad (35), a refugee in Germany. Rana fled Saudi Arabia in 2015 where she couldn’t live freely as a woman or an atheist: “I couldn’t have my apartment or make a simple, ordinary decision about anything on my own, like going out or having a boyfriend.” After she took a photo supporting atheism at Mecca, it was risky to stay: “I would be dead.” She planned an escape on a workday after her father dropped her off. “I waited till my father left and then I took a taxi to the airport and then went to Turkey,” she says. “I still miss my family, especially my father.” Life in Germany was hard at first… “the panic attacks I had in the first two to three years.” With dreams of a PhD in physics, she coped by studying. “I got a maths book and I studied algebra on my own.” Rana now sees herself as strong. “Not everyone has the courage and the strength to walk this path, to be free.”

Trigger Warning: Sexism, Violence/Murder

full interview

So, Rana, what’s your housing situation now? Where do you live? What do you do during the day? What is your routine?
I’ve been living in Cologne since the beginning of 2016. I volunteer with secular refugee aid. And I am also active on social media on the subject of women’s rights and religious freedom, atheism and ex-Muslims. Yeah.

What’s your routine like? What do you do?
Volunteer work. And I want to study physics at university soon. Yeah.

Can you explain a little about your situation?
Why I…

When did you come to Germany? How?
First I took a flight from Saudi Arabia to Turkey and then in Turkey I tried for 4 or 5 months to get a visa to Germany or some other European country. It didn’t work. And then I came to Germany illegally, from Turkey to Greece, and then Macedonia, Serbia, that way to Germany.

What was that like for you?
It was very painful. Everything, all the people back home, all work, family and country, and then suddenly you have nothing and you have to struggle again to take this path because you want to live as a normal free person. Yeah.

Hm, why did you flee?
Atheism and women’s rights. These two things. I was an atheist there. I have been an atheist since 2011 and first tried to stay there as an atheist, but it’s not possible because I live with a Muslim family and it is a capital offence there if someone leaves Islam, this religion, and also because of what I did in 2014. That photo in Mecca. It was very dangerous to stay there if anyone can, anyone who took such a picture. I would be dead. And also because of atheism and also because of my women’s rights issues. I couldn’t be an independent woman there. I couldn’t have my apartment or make a simple, ordinary decision about anything on my own, like going out or having a boyfriend or doing something on my own.

How was that for you, how did you feel?
Injustice and also inhumanity.
It was a very, very painful feeling. You’re lying the whole time to your family and society. Outwardly I’m a totally normal Muslim woman. Inside I am an atheist with my thoughts, where I am so very, very lonely, even with thoughts very lonely. And you lie all the time. And that made my life like hell because I want to be normal and I don’t want to lie anymore, and I want to have my rights. And I want to be an independent woman.

You took a picture in Mecca. It said on it “Atheist Republic.” Why did you do that?
My mother forced me to go to Mecca and for me as an atheist next to about 2-3 million Muslims. I asked myself, “What am I doing here? Why am I here?” I don’t belong there. I was very angry. I was very sad. I was very depressed. I felt it was very unfair. And I took the step to say I’m not a Muslim anymore,
I’m an atheist, and also when other atheists see my photo they know they’re not alone, because I’m not the only person being forced to go to Mecca.

Why were you angry?
The general atmosphere if you are a former Muslim and atheist and alongside you only two or three million Muslims. That’s–it was very painful. You, I’m forced to go there. I’m forced to make this commitment there. Whether I believe it or not, I felt it is like a big mental illness and they’re all sick and I must be as sick as them.

Did you feel alone?
Yes, loneliness was my intimate friend in Saudi Arabia with my thoughts and my view of this world, the way I see this world, my perception. I was all alone.

And do you often think about your past?
I think the post-traumatic stress disorder reminds me about my past. But in general, without my past I wouldn’t be here. Without this, this weak, sad woman of my past, I wouldn’t be Rana Ahmad right now. I wished I had a normal past. But I can’t change the past.

You said you have PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder, yes. Since I’ve been in Germany, because of this big difference between these two worlds in Saudi Arabia and Germany, sometimes my brain can’t understand reality and see and perceive what reality this is because I was a completely different person there. And I’m different here too. Sometimes this post-traumatic stress disorder comes. It arrives like a black spot in your head, and you can’t control it. You, you lose your understanding of your reality and that’s very painful because you want to be and remain normal, but you cannot control it. Yeah.

Okay. And what do you do about it?
Go for a walk, paint, write. Anchor knowledge in reality. I study a lot too. I also read a lot. But to cope I have to see a psychotherapist. But at the moment I’m not doing that because all the appointments are taken and so forth. But that’s why I’ve looked into psychotherapy, health, what you can do on your own, and also about post-traumatic stress disorder I read a lot. Yeah.

Did you ever imagine having to go through everything you’ve been through?
I only dreamed and thought about freedom and considered, “I want to be free whatever the cost and whatever comes after.” That was my major goal–to be free. Without fear. And without always lying all the time and without this, this unjust law and constitution where it’s really bad as a woman in Saudi Arabia . I knew it might be very, very painful and hard, also to lose family.
But I was prepared to pay this price.

How do you feel to be far from your family?
I don’t think anyone can willingly make this decision to leave the family–willingly but also unwillingly, because I am forced to leave there.

What is specific for women who come from this, from this state, Arab state, or this place there, Middle East–we are raised always to be with the family and we always want to stay with our family. And we can never imagine having a single room or apartment alone.
And that was very hard the first two or three years, because I always missed my family. Especially the Arab culture. We eat together every Friday. We go out and do things together. We have this family activity together and it is very strong in our culture. But did I know that? And did I see this as well and did I imagine the future? In the future you will be without family. And I told myself, “You will accept this and live with this decision and can’t change anything after that.”
I still miss my family, especially my father. He was very kind and just had so much love. He was the reason I made this decision late because I don’t want to leave him.
So many times he gave me support and love.

And you said you told your family that you were going to work, and then you just suddenly left everything behind.
Yes, I planned it. And then it was like a completely normal working day. My father took me to work, and then I waited till my father left and then I took a taxi to the airport and then went to Turkey. I bought my plane tickets during working hours so I could be away during that time. My family found out afterwards when they went to pick me up from work. They were there and didn’t find me and I think then they knew I’d gone.

And at that time, when you wanted to leave, how did you feel? Weren’t you scared?
I was panicking. I was almost in a panic. I have, because I have a brother who once attempted an honour killing. He tried to murder me in Saudi Arabia. That was in 2013. And when I left in 2015 I saw him next to me or running somewhere because I’m very afraid that someone knows my plan and maybe my brother is in the airport, and this time really would kill me and not just pretend. I was panicking, I was flustered because I took the step to be alone at the airport. And this was the first flight in my life, the first time I was flying anywhere. My goal was clear in my eyes, but I was still panicking at the time until I got away from this country.

And what was always your dream in Saudi Arabia?
To be free, to be an independent woman, to have my own apartment.
To study physics, maybe also do something for atheism internationally, because as an atheist there I always wonder why we are like this, why is no one talking about our rights? Why is our voice not so big on social media or something, but fortunately there are now enough of us that we’ve made this topic very big and we have very well-known atheists in the Arab countries.
The big, big goal is I want to have a completely normal life, without fear, without control, without anyone deciding for you. You are 30 or 35 years old and you can’t decide anything on your own. The family always has to do this for you. No matter what the decision–to go to a cafe, meet a woman outside, or any decision at all.

As a woman. And what, what was it like for you to fight this whole fight all the time every day?
The further I go with my reading and further study, I knew that I must not have any kind of crazy reaction now. I have to stay very calm because I knew if they know I am an atheist then it’s all over and my plan wouldn’t work. That’s why I forced myself to laugh sometimes, but on the inside I was sad and I cry.
Sometimes I prayed and on the inside I was crying. I don’t want this. No one can force me. But how to reason in this time? Better to stay here or move away from this situation?
It was nice with my family, nice to eat with my mother, nice to see my father, all this was nice, but with religion and with my rights it was so, so bad and so painful.

And you came to Germany. How was it for you in the beginning?
In the refugee home I thought there was, I thought we would have someone from the atheist refugees. I asked about atheistic, atheistic organisations. And the social worker laughed and said we don’t have an atheist organisation. And I was very sad because I was also under pressure from other Muslim refugees in the refugee home, because I see others, I support others, I speak with others, and they notice that I am not a Muslim. And that caused a lot of problems for me until I got out of this refugee home. Thanks to Mina Ahadi and Miriam Namasi and Stefan Weidner I got away from this refugee home. I have problems, but at the same time I was sad because I’m in Germany. And in the refugee home the time was not, not especially good but I got a maths book and I studied algebra on my own, and I got my mentality and thoughts a little away from that atmosphere.

How do you feel now? What do you still struggle with constantly and what, what do you have to do now?
My concerns are still women’s rights and religious freedom. I always fight on social media and I always try to encourage other women–not to leave the country, but to be strong. That’s enough for me. Strong enough to know that no one has the right to put you in danger or hit you or make sexual advances or anything.
The problem in our country is that is the law, that is the law there, that is the big problem.
I’m trying with my activists to help atheism in our country and also to help women. Many topics, but especially women, because it was so bad for me when I was in Saudi Arabia. I hoped someone on social media would speak openly and freely about this topic and I can contact this person and be perceived on social media as I am now on social media. That’s why I feel responsibility to give time to other women. Perhaps you can say a word or phrase to someone, and this can mean a lot and be very important for that person.

Where do you get all your strength from?
Atomic energy? (laughs)
No. If someone is in an apartment or a room for a long time and has a lot of energy and the person knows how much energy but you do not have the chance or the opportunity to do anything, because you can’t do anything. But now in Germany, I feel all the force that I didn’t use there and now the energy here in Germany of being free, and it makes me like this person, like Rana now.

And what were the problems? What are the difficulties in Germany that you have to deal with?
To be with Muslim refugees in a refugee home as an atheist and ex-Muslim was very painful for me, but I had to keep going. Some bureaucratic issues in Germany. Difficulty, I believe when you want to master the language quickly, and also integrate with the Germans, contact with the Germans cannot be so difficult for any person here in Germany. For me, it was just that I didn’t know from the beginning that I’m getting depressed there and this post-traumatic stress disorder might come. Yeah, the panic attacks I had in the first 2 to 3 years. I didn’t know it’s panic attacks. Ah yeah, now I read more information about psychology, health and these things. And I also knew about this topic in Arabic, because I want others to know that, yes.

What is your dream now?

Can you say it like this, “My dream is…”?
My dream is the Bachelor’s, and Master’s and Doctorate of Physics, and a job at United Nations and a large international women’s rights organisation.
I know you said one, but…

You have many dreams. (Both laugh) What makes you happy?
Waking up, realising I’m not there anymore. That I have my apartment, that it’s easier to open the door and go out. These little things that no one sees or notices, that is for me a very happy feeling.

That means you achieved your dream of what you dreamed in Saudi Arabia?
Yes, I accomplished my dream and now I have other dreams.

And how do you feel about fulfilling your old dream?
Strong and I also see myself as strong, because not everyone has the courage and the strength to walk this path, to be free. I sometimes feel sad, why I did not make this decision when I was 18 years old or 19 years old, but at this time I do not have the knowledge and have no information and because I was not an atheist. Atheism also helped me to really get away from thoughts and emotions and society and have your own thoughts.
Yeah. What was your question?

What makes you happy?
Yeah, being in Germany.

And what makes you sad?
Violation of human rights in Germany and all over the world.

But you’re fighting for human rights.
Yeah, I’m fighting for human rights. But it saddens me because some situations, especially in Arab or Muslim countries, I feel very sad because I don’t have the power to maybe help this woman, or I don’t have the power to do something for that person. And I feel very sad, because having a normal life, to have a happy people is not difficult. But I don’t like these political games. Why are these countries like this and other countries like that and so on.

I forgot my question. Now if you want to tell Europeans anything to understand you better, what do you want to say? Have you experienced injustice here too?
Toward me, myself? No. And I think if that happened to me in the future I wouldn’t stay quiet and do nothing. I’d do something about it because I know the German constitution and I’ve read it several times and I know what rights I have here as an individual. It makes me sad when I see that there are other people here whose human rights are not respected, and I see that. That makes me sad because Germany in my eyes and my head is a very strong and beautiful country. It is a country of human rights. People are respected here. This is my image of Germany. When I see something else, that makes me sad.

You’ve been through a lot. Do you think it somehow helped you to have this character that you now have?
Books. Always books. Reading, reading is like magic. Reading is something you can’t achieve with money, with people, or with anything else. Only books can further develop your mind, your brain. And can you see the world and the people and everything from a different perspective. Your problems too, you see your problems from a different perspective, because you have, you have furthered your education, you read a lot and you know a lot about the subject.

Anything else you want to say? .
Thank you.

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.