Life in Exile by Halaleh Taheri – Director and Founder of MEWSo
It is said that displacement is about belonging nowhere. And I ask myself where I belong to. I’ve lived 18 years in Iranian Kurdistan, 11 years in Iraq, one year in Turkey, 14 years in Sweden and 12 years in the UK. Well, it might be different for other people but for me I feel that I belong to all these places that I’ve lived in. I respect that displacement and resettlement is different for every person. Therefore, for my part I am going to focus on barriers, bridges of trust and rebuilding lives.
In 1979 I was a young Kurdish girl drawn to the ongoing popular struggle and revolution in Iran. I was fighting for freedom, for Iran to be released from the Islamic Republic and for an independent Kurdistan. This fight, over 3 years, made me mature quickly. I was a politically active student and joined one of the biggest left wing armed Kurdish Communist parties, ‘Komala’ in one of the darkest periods in the history of Iran lasting 8 years and resulted in the death of more than 60,000 people, mostly young, who perished at the hand of the Islamic Republic. I lost 9 loved ones; my young boyfriend (executed and his grave never found), my two older brothers, a nephew, 3 cousins and my uncle. I also lost dozens of friends. Many young, educated and dissatisfied people fled from the country to find a safe place to live. I was one of them.
When our town, the city of Baneh on the Iran-Iraq border, was occupied by the Islamic troops the whole population of the city left. There was a lot of bombing and many innocent people were killed. No one had the courage to return to the town for 3 months. However when the people couldn’t fight anymore, they went back to the town and the pressure from military control got harder on people. In the first round of arrests over 1000 people were taken to prison in an attempt scare people into submission. We, as armed party members, stayed in the mountains for 3 years hoping to be able to get back to liberate the occupied towns and villages. However it was impossible so we moved to the border regions with Iraq. It wasn’t easy and it took 6 months, mile by mile, to go through a heavily militarised zone covered with barbed wire and planted with land mines. It was another bloody war and more lives lost. We were forced to move by the Iraqi troops to an isolated area close to the border with Iran. We stayed there for 11 years.
During this time we were warned not to exceed the limits of the wired area and not to communicate with the Kurdish people. We had very limited hospital access, food and all other essentials. Life was harder than I can describe. However there was only a few miles between us and our beloved neighbours who spoke Kurdish. We didn’t wait for Iraqi state permission and we managed to build communication bridges to our neighbours undercover. We were fighters of Iran’s revolution and we were experts in living and working undercover. We found intellectuals and met with them, organised seminars and exchanged our political views. We started to make friends who would help us with their armed fighters if we got into trouble. I was one of the party activists delegated with engaging with people, especially student and human rights activists.
Communication between us went well and I used to invite them for meetings and give them our political literature to go back and distribute among their own young generation. During this period I also witnessed the fall of Sadam Hossain in Kurdistan and was proudly part of that. But remember, we Kurds from Iran were still foreigners and we felt we were in exile. We still hoped that there would be another revolution in Iran that would allow us to return to our ‘home’.
In 1992, during the Gulf War between America and Iraq, rain turned to ash for days (because of explosions from oil platforms bombarded by the Americans) and we had no choice but to move again. It was too dangerous to stay but where to go? We fled to neighbouring Turkey. We passed the border on a very stormy night where the river was at its highest. Every night hundreds of people went through this river and every day we heard that someone had been washed up by the river or had been stopped and arrested by Turkish soldiers. There were Kurdish people on the other side, who could hardly understand our accents, but they wanted to help and did everything they could. This was the bridge of trust we had between us. When we landed on the other side of the river, people came with clothes and shoes as we had lost ours and we were wet. They fed us and got us prepared to catch the only minibus in Ghamishli to Ankara. It was a huge stage in our future. ‘UN in Ankara and ask for asylum’.
When we arrived in Ankara bus terminal, a Turkish man came to us and said: “Yabanjii” which means ‘refugee’ and it was a code that we should trust him. He brought a few taxis’ and took us to different Turkish-Kurdish families to stay with until we were settled. While we waited for the taxis’, we saw a group of uniformed men. We wondered who they could be and we all became very anxious trying to hide. We thought they must be policemen and that we were in danger of being arrested and then deport back to Iran. We started running away but one of the members of our group turned back and looked closer. He shouted to us: “It’s OK, they’re cleaners, workers, and they clean the station, look!” We all stopped in surprise and looked. They were looking for rubbish and had plastic bags in their hands. Our faces changed to pink and everybody laughed.
Then after one year in Turkey I moved to Sweden. Where, for the first time, I landed as a refugee in Europe. I remember the first day of my life in Sweden. It was a nice sunny autumn. The sensation of the huge sun through the detention room which was nicely furnished was so calming. It was a moment of happiness and vulnerability. I was happy that I had escaped but I longed for the place that I came from.
I educated myself, made a career and became politically active again. I had the opportunity to change my lifestyle, to learn and gain new skills, to express myself freely and to re-build my life. I had enough self-confidence and the ability to adapt myself to modern society. However my rebellious character came back to me. I was a fighter for women and children’s rights and I built an organisation to support Kurdish women in Stockholm. One of the topics I was campaigning for with other activists was honour killing and one law for all. When we were in Sweden a young Palestinian girl was killed by her father and the Swedish court announced the crime as a matter of culture and that the Swedish court had nothing to do with. We, as women activists, refugees and resilient women who had survived the civil war and backward religious and cultural suppression in our countries, such as Iran and Iraq, stood up and protested openly in the streets, made it an open debate on TV, newspapers and conferences that is wasn’t acceptable and the crime of murdering a person should be recognised like any other murder in the country. I remember when we started to be seen on TV and other public places talking about honour killing, many Swedish called us brave women but they never supported us directly. They were scared to be named a ‘racist’. Years later the High Court in Sweden and the Swedish law admitted the crime as a murder no matter the cultural or religious background.
Life in Sweden wasn’t paradise, but it was one of the best times of my life. However the gap between cultures and ethnicities was deeper than I realised. The more I tried to understand, the wider the gap became. I was a women of resilience and a fighter against all backwards attitude in certain communities. My expectation of life and society was as higher as my Swedish activist colleagues. I hoped that I might be welcomed, but I wasn’t. I tried hard to adapt myself to the rules and regulation in Swedish modern society. But the harder I worked to brake the ‘glass ceiling’, the more I was rejected. As a refugee, the State and the Swedish people accepted me. As an equal educated and modern person they did not. They couldn’t see me for the person that I am. I was a member of this foreign group, in a corner for 14 years.
Nevertheless I didn’t give up to look for a place where I would be welcomed and where I could assimilate into the whole society, a place that they could see me as a person and not the one ‘they’ WANT ME TO BE. So I moved to London in 2006. After three months I left collage and I found a job. I had several jobs here in London until I set up MEWSo in 2010. Somehow things are different from Sweden. I must say I am much happier here. The revolution in Iran and the collective life in Iraq made me a good fighter for freedom and equality. I also learned from Swedish society how to adjust myself to the rules and regulations of European countries. And here, in London, I was ready enough and skilled enough to integrate, work and live as a modern woman.
But again here I faced the same issues. The word ‘community’ here is an ID for everyday life. By definition you belong to your community whether you want to or not. I am aware that many people in the community might be happy to stay in that community. They feel safe and looked after. They follow the role of their leaders no matter whether they’re right or wrong.
But what if, I am different from my community? What if I want to leave the community and come to your territory? What if I wanted more but I don’t fit into the community and they are not happy with me and probably I am not welcome anymore? Then where to go? What if my experience made me fit enough to be in a bigger place, the one you are in? Would it be possible to accept me?
It’s here that I am in the gap between the ‘community’ and the society. Neither in the ‘community’ nor in the wider society am I welcomed. And it’s not just about me. It’s about others too.
However, I accept the situation and I have tried to adopt myself as much as I can, and I have really coped well. I can see that today. I even help others to cope and find a way to make their home here too. Because many of us are not going to go back to the same place with the same expectation like before.
I feel more comfortable now than from the beginning when I first came. People are more open to new faces. They talk, they listen, they have similar stories and you don’t feel like a stranger. You can easily make friends and find a network around you.
I help women through different stages in their lives. Some of them have a huge issues to deal with and need to be looked after more. The most important thing is that I understand them and they trust me. The bridges between us are our stories, our experiences, the horror of war we witnessed and the family and cultural issues we share so we all understand each other.
For instance, one day a women came to me and shared the oldest and longest story of her life with me and asked for help. She had lived for 25 years in the UK and still couldn’t speak English. Her children had left home and had their own families and she was facing a miserable unhappy life with her violent husband. She had never complained or shared this with anyone. This chronic pain and sorrow should be healed.
Everyday there are cases like this to deal with and as much as you work you will see it’s just a beginning. My empathy for women is not just because they are women. They are women of resilience like me.
The last thought that I want to share it with you is this. I didn’t give up on integration even though I can see the deep dark gap between the different communities and with the wider society, that’s why I named the charity ‘Women and Society’. I believe that women from all nations living in the UK beneath one sky and under one law belong to the big society and the big society has to look after all of us equally.
5th October 2017