About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of Refugee Waheeba Kaboud looking straight at the camera

Waheeba Kaboud

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Photo and interview by:

United Kingdom



Alaa Alsewid

We don’t want sympathy,” says Waheeba Kaboud (32) who fled war in Syria. Waheeba went to London, where she now lives, to receive a better education. The difficulty of her past weighed heavily when she arrived. “It was about the obstacles inside me… I’m still carrying Aleppo.” After majoring in telecommunications at the University College London she landed a job at The Economist, saying it “makes me feel amazing.” She says, however, that “sometimes I feel like I’m not from here… People judge you.” She says that Westerners should understand different perspectives. “Losing something really simple makes them cry. I’ve seen people in Syria cry for losing children, losing families, but I haven’t seen people crying for losing something worth fifty quid.” She says “what we need is empathy and understanding.” Waheeba has many dreams: to support women’s rights, to reunite with her family, and to further her career. “My dream is to be a leader, to develop in my job.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

So the first question. What kind of housing do you live in? 
House share. I’m sharing the house with other five people. I have my own room and I’m sharing the kitchen and the living area. Yeah.

And who do you live with? 
People. They’re not my friends. They’re like…guys and girls in my age. And, you know, it depends like…because some, most of the people come and go. So it’s not always the same people. So some of them were my friends. Some of them are not. They’re like people in my age almost.

And how do you spend your time here? Do you work? 
Yes, I do.

Can you tell us more about it? 
Oh yeah. Sorry. Yes, because I was expecting you to ask me what is it. So I work as a sales force administrator in The Economist. So I work in technology and I work for The Economist magazine and of course The Economist Intelligence Unit for journal for the Economist group and I…I started in 2019. I, I started as trainee and then they promoted me to be a salesforce administrator. 

So how does working in The Economist make you feel? 
It makes me feel like amazing. Make me and makes me feel like I contribute to people.

I’m sorry. Can you say like working in economists make me feel like a full sentence so..?
Ok. Working in The Economist makes me feel… contributor or/and it makes me feel amazing, like simply amazing. It makes me feel also that I’m a lovable person and whatever I do, it’s…it can be seen to the world. Like, I mean, for example, once of I was opening the 1418… sorry, 1843, which is one of the annual publishings.1834… Oh, OK. Sorry, 1843 or 1834? No I think 43. Anyway, I was checking one of our publishing, one of our magazines and I saw the name of the salespeople who I support technically. My name wasn’t mentioned there, but I felt so proud. I felt like I remembered every problem these people came to me to solve it for them and how solving these problems ended up publishing their work in a really nice, like with reputation magazine. So, and they’re really…and the environment there is really supportive. Sorry, I’m not making any promotion for them, but they’re, they’re like…The Economist is a new school; they have a new school mentality in The Economist, which they support you. So every time I have an issue with my mental health, with pressure or any of the things they like, they support to, they talk to you. So it makes me feel contributor and lovable.

And what are some of the things that bring you joy? 
What are the? Sorry.

Some of the sorts of things that bring you joy, make you happy? 
You mean at work or in general?

In general life here. 
Um, here are the socializing with my friends, whoever they are, like English people or Syrian friends. And yeah, the…I always go to, I also go to the Syrian church. They are like the people there. They really welcome. They, like, they make me feel like there’s another family here for me. And the fact that yes, it is like here you have to work hard, you have to give most of your time to the work. But at the end of the day, you can have some time to yourself. You feel you yourself, you’re productive. Whatever you do, it’s appreciated. Many things here, makes me feel appreciated. Like I like, um. Yeah. So I haven’t thought of it.

How has life been since you arrived in Europe? What have been good about being here and what was being difficult? 
Yeah. So, at the beginning it wasn’t easy for me because it wasn’t about the life of Europe, it was about the obstacles inside me. I remember I felt like for a year…I felt like I’m still carrying everything happened with me to here. I’m still carrying Aleppo and its problems and everything happened there. And they, they like the difficult life I had there and the bombings and all of these things. So that.

And how has that make you feel in that moment when you arrived and you still remember everything? 
I was feeling…that made me feel like I didn’t have…like I had zero confidence. I didn’t have any confidence in myself. Whatever I was asked to do, I was feeling that I can’t do it. Uh, that made me feel as a victim, you know, the victim feeling, like vulnerable all the time, weak all the time. So funny, like for the first of three months, I couldn’t bear to get out of the accommodation at like seven o’clock or five. I would feel like, oh my God, it’s too dark. Because, because in Aleppo I have to stay…I have to be at home like eight, nine maximum. And if I’m out, I have to be with someone. So for me, like someone going out at nine thirty here in London is really normal. But for me it was like, oh my God, what the hell they’re doing. This is a simple thing. But European people, Western people have to understand that this is not an easy thing to have to live like, you know, from, from a city, like I was. The difference was just one week for me, from a city where I have to be at home at eight o’clock to a city where getting out at nine thirty is totally normal. So, that was one of the difficulties. I overcame it with, you know, the Syrian friends really help me with that. And the other things that I liked is that everything is available. Every, whatever you want, you want, if you want to be successful, you have the tools here. You have the, you have people to support you. The, what also support, like, help me is the support of my professors in UCL and University College London at the telecommunications with the business. They were really supportive. They believed in me. I remember like they used to say to me “you’re smarter than you think. Just just believe in yourself. We believe in you. You don’t.” So this has really helped me. Um…

How do, like, how does being away from the rest of your family make you feel? How does that feeling or like, do you have the feeling of not belonging or stigma? Like, does that impact you and can you describe it? 
I would say for the…like, I’ve been feeling that. I’ve been feeling many. I’ve been feeling that, uh, yes. Sometimes I feel like I’m not from here and the same time I can’t go back because everything I’ve learned here. I really like so many good things here in the life of Europe. And, but, so I can’t go back at the same time I can’t stay. I can’t stay, but I can do everything I want here. So it does make me feel not belonging, not because I’m away from my family, is because most of the people here don’t understand your culture and how you think and don’t…I wouldn’t say don’t sympathize, they don’t even empathize. This is what, this is the, the, like, the things that made me feel not belonging, not the fact that I’m away from my family. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been strong. And before I came here, I told myself that nothing is easy, no country is perfect. So I understood the fact that I will be away from them. But what made me feel not belonging is more the facing culture from other people. 

OK, so you talked about many difficulties. Did you ever have imagined that you would have been able to handle this situation? And how have you been able to overcome or survive living with all these challenges that you talked about? 
No, I didn’t. I didn’t. No, I didn’t know that I would live, like, the life, I would get these difficulties. And they were really difficult. I mean, I had like, I had so many problems every time. I’ve like, I’ve never thought that I would have them of course. The difficulties that I faced is mainly, for example, the people who don’t accept your culture and they don’t have even understanding for the difference. And they just, they just judge you. And for example, I mean, for example, like losing something really simple makes them cry. Like, OK, I’ve seen people in Syria cry for losing children, losing families, but I haven’t seen people losing, crying for losing like something worth fifty quid, for example. Fifty pounds. It’s, I’ve seen it and it made me feel really like, OK. It made me, I didn’t, I didn’t, I don’t like to deal with these people. However, that doesn’t mean all people in Europe are like that. And as I said, like, people who…I’m not asking for sympathy from people; I just ask for empathy, for understanding. Like, you have to deal with this person. The thirty year old Syrian person is not similar to the thirty year old British person. They are, they are totally different. They have seen totally different things, totally different life. And, and this is what may made me feel good when I see other people who acknowledge that.

So do you think you develop the ability to deal with these challenges or do you think that you always have those skills or strains or like mechanism that you talked about? 
I mean, I, I don’t think. I didn’t. No. I didn’t have that much skills. I did develop them here. But of course, I had the seeds. The seeds of being, you know, bold, being like…to like have the strength to do things. But I mean, I used to be scared a lot and, yeah. And I wanted to answer about the previous question how I overcome them. As I said to you, like, the same way I’ve met people who don’t empathize with you, who don’t understand, again, I met people who do understand, who like they say to me, OK, “don’t compare yourself with other people because what you’ve been through, it’s different to what they had”. They also, there are some people who do understand; they still need to understand more how you feel, how, how you do that. And these people, they are the people who taught me to develop these skills. Because, no, I didn’t have it. Specially the culture difference made me like deal with so many situations. And like I take them personally. I react. But yeah, the nature of English people, that it’s like totally different from this. And thanks to the support of many people, they like, they told me, OK, not don’t like and like. That’s why I developed this skill, as I said, from people I’ve met, from things I’ve met and problem after problem after obstacle. It just made me feel, OK, this is not how we deal with this. Yes, I did develop my skills. I had some. I had maybe the strength. The boldness, but I did develop more to like, to be maybe, maybe to deal with, with, with things like more calmly. Like to be calm to face problems. Things like that.

So, let’s talk about COVID-19 situation. How has COVID-19 affected you in terms of daily life and mood feeling, emotional wellbeing?
Yeah, it made me…So in daily life, thanks God I still have my job, so I still work. I, I am a people person, so I love to go out and see people. So I didn’t, I couldn’t see any people, which is bad. 

And how that was make you feel in that time?
Um, kind of like lonely of course and isolated. I, I used Facebook but again it makes me feel more isolated. And it’s so funny. So, I look at the window, I see a man who, he has a child, he, he plays and I feel like, oh I’m lonely, I want the child. Then I remember it’s, it’s the hustle’s so I forget about it. Don’t mention that (laughing). Yeah, and of course the gym. I couldn’t go to the gym. It made me feel so lazy. So I started going out for walks or runs and especially in May and June it was really difficult. I felt so lonely. And the fact that, you know, the nature of the house here, the flatmates don’t interact with you a lot. And I mean, you would be so lucky to have a flatmate who shares exactly the same interests.

So, um, let’s talk about the past. Why did you leave your country? Can you describe what happened, like, personally with you just in a few sentences? 
Well, the reason I wanted to, to leave my country mainly is to seek better education, better than my country. So that’s why I got, I applied to scholarships and came. But there are so many reasons I would say why I didn’t go back to my country. And of course, the war. The, the, the war affected me. Just not, not just on me, on many people. Not just the fact that, I mean, yes, I didn’t lose so many. Yes, I didn’t lose so many. I mean, I didn’t lose any people from my direct family at least. I didn’t, I mean, like, I didn’t have like, you know, I know other people, they lost so many things more than me. I did lose. But still the war affected, I would say all of us in Syria. The, the chances in our life has totally changed. Like not just in studying and professionally, also marriage or love life. Yeah. So, I mean, so many problems happened in my life. But you can say that the root or the reason for all of them is the war. That’s why I decided OK, to look for something. 

So, when you decide not to come back, how did that make you feel at the time? 
It made me feel good. So I’m not going back because I would say…OK, let me answer you in a different way about this question. The idea of going back made me feel so… Sorry, the idea of going back, it made me feel so bad. Yeah. So the idea of going back and not having the, like, the, the so many things here are like, you deal with very easily with people, you, you develop your skills very easily here. No one, as I said, like some people, yes, judge you. But in general, like, no one judges you on how you appear, how you. There’s so many things in, in, in and, and the fact that you have to go to like spend half of your time on just securing water or electricity just kills me. And this is one of the biggest reason for me to came here. So the idea of going back made me feel so bad. Going back made me feel so bad. Here I felt, um, to be honest, at the beginning, because I didn’t have any, any plan. I didn’t have any idea what would ,what will happen. I mean, things so make me feel kind of like adventurous, not secure. But at the same time made me feel that there is something would be good at the end.  So, so yeah. It make me feel hopeful. 

So, before the event that led you to flee your home, what was your dream? Like, before anything. Like, before leaving your your home and before like going through everything that you’ve talked about? What was your dream? And can you start answering by: my dream was…
Yeah. My dream was, is to be a leader or a like a working, like a pioneer in technology, mainly in telecommunications. Is to be, to inspire other people to seek for their dreams, regardless of their gender. To break the image of that woman cannot be working in technology, especially in my country, in Syria. So that why I was looking for like a high quality job in technology, especially in telecommunication. So this is mainly this was my dream. 

So, and when you were leaving your home, like for your situation. I, I think it could be when you decide to stay in the UK after you finish your master, like not coming back. In that moment, what was your dream? And can you also answer like: my dream was…
OK, so the moment I left my country?

Yeah. What was your dream for the future?
Oh I don’t know. I can’t remember. So my dream was.

No, no. Like in that moment like, would, what do you dream about for the future?
Oh, I dreamed about that Syria will be safe again, it will be the perfect place for all of us here to go back and to deploy our skills without facing us with a refusal from here and judgment from there. And, you know, so this was yeah, this was my dream.

OK, and also, before leaving your home country, what would you describe as your strengths? And the other part of the question, have you maintained these? If so, how? And if not, why?
Strengths. So my strengths were… Is that called boldness? 

Boldness. And not too much though, I would say yes. Good like, good like building my relationship with people. And yeah, being friendly I would say is a strength. Being empathetic. What else I have strength?

So have you maintained these? 
I did, yes. Um, I…

So, as I said like part of my job is to deal with people and I use this strength. So, every time I hear The Economists, every time they… Like, we require in the team, we require someone who want to, who have to go and talk to people. I mean, of course, now we have other people who are more experienced than me, but at some time when we, like, needed so many things. So I’m a really good speaker with people. And yes, I’m so proud of that. And this is like, till now, especially in the team and The Economist this is strength, is like one of my best building relationships with people. 

So what you’ve been through seems really difficult. Do you feel like you have grown up in any way as a result of this experience or has anything at all positive come out of it? 
Absolutely. I’ve grown up and I feel myself I’m so lucky I had these difficulties because without these difficulties, I wouldn’t have discovered the actual value of life. I wouldn’t have discovered the like, the beauty of, of light. Like that, you know, I don’t know. You had like… Without darkness you don’t see light. And this is exactly what I’ve been through. So, yes, I feel like yes, I’m grown up. I feel like the, the, the thing. I mean, every, every, after, after I finished my master’s and, and even English people here, they keep saying to me like “think it this way, whatever difficulty happens to you, just think of it this way. Like, OK, what can, what it could be more difficult than what happened to before”. And, you know, in Arabic we say [something in arabic]. So exactly the same. [laughing]

So, we are reaching our final question. If I ask you now, what are your hopes and dreams for the future now? And can you please start answering the question by: my dream is… 
Hmm. I haven’t thought of that. Yeah. Oh, my dream is to be a leader, to develop in my job. As I like technology, to be a technology leader, as I like to be living in like women and technology. And to increase my experience, to increase my portfolio, to enhance it, of course. And to, to deliver this to Syrian people, especially Syrian women, Arab women. To support the women, to support them, to like to remove this obstacle, this voice inside every one of us saying that, no, you cannot do anything. This is my dream. Is to be able to impact Syrian people, especially Syrian women, to impact them and say, OK, you can take the lead. You can still be a woman, a female. You can still be a wife. You can still be a mother. However, you have to be you have to seek your dream. So, yeah. So, you asked me yesterday about my personal dream is to have a house, to be rich [laughing]. Because if you are rich you can do whatever you want. And you, if you are OK, you can support other people. So, my dream is to be happy and to have everything I want. And of course to be with my family. This is one of my biggest dreams. Yeah. Let me mention this, please. Yes, I want to be with my family, my mom and dad and sisters and the brothers. I wish I can be like in one home, warm home, with all of them. So, yes, this is one of my biggest dreams. And yeah, I mean, I agree with the idea that if you are OK, you can support other people. So when I am OK, hopefully I’ll support other people.

So, our final final question. We really appreciate you answering all these questions. Is there anything you would like to add that might help people in Europe better understand the life of refugee here? 
There’s something yesterday I forgot what it was. I should have written that. Yes, I want to say that what we need is empathy and understanding. We don’t want sympathy. Because you just have to understand that not just because of war, even just because of, like a difference of the facilities, what we had. We are totally different to people here. So if you want to hire someone, don’t hire them for sympathy. And the same time, if you hired them, you have to understand their abilities. So, when you come to hiring a refugee at your company or something, just understand this. And if you like, if you have a friend as a refugee or if you know a refugee in one way or something or from a different culture, just understanding that, there, that people are different is enough. And seriously, what, what they say it karma. Your charm?

Yeah, this is what they say. So, be kind because when… I mean you, yeah. I remember now what I wanted to say. Yes, I remember. Sorry. I mean, you are so much blessed when you have someone that helps you. But believe me, you are much, much more blessed when you have someone who needs your help. Because that time you will prove to you the universe that you can be kind to other people and the universe will be kind. Seriously, I really. Yeah. And the other thing I want to say is that, uh, there are so many people who supported me. And every time I get a promotion at work or get something good in my person, in my personal life or my professional life, mainly, I go and tell them because I feel…Like, I did, for example, I did send them, I do, I keep sending them gifts on Christmas and their personal like birthdays or something. But I, and I know that, I see it in their eyes and I know that the best gift for them is for me to be good, for me to be OK. So, yeah.

Thank you. Thank you very much.  

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.