words and photos by Stefano Carini DARSTprojects. Some photos by Sameer and his family.
“Sameer, Habibi, how are you? It’s me, Stefano, I am back to Iraq”
“Stefano! Habibi! I am good now that I hear your voice. I missed you.
“I missed you too. Where are you?
“I am at home, now. Today at 4:00 pm from Sulaiymaniyah I will go to Duhok, then Zakho, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and then, inshallah Sweden. It is a long journey.”
 Habibi, Arabic for lover, dear, darling, is often used among friends too.
I met Sameer on the 21st of March 2015, Nawroz, the Kurdish New Year. I had met his wife, Fadya, and their children before along with an NGO working with Syrian children but Sameer was never there, for he worked long hours almost every day. He and his family had been living in Arbat refugee camp, 20km south of Sulaiymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since February 2014. Finally we both had a day off and we could meet. We decided to cook together, to mix Italian cuisine with Syrian food, perhaps the best way to meet each other’s culture.
Sameer is a good looking man in his late forties, not very tall but with a strong and fine figure, thick dark hair carefully coned back, a witty gaze in his deep eyes and a broad, friendly smile. We immediately jumped into confidence and opened to each other. While cooking, he told me that a few days before he was held at a checkpoint for the whole morning. He had to call the team of builders he managed and send them home because the Asaysh would not let him pass. “Every day they stop me, they make me get out of the bus, they ask me the same questions and they put my name in their computers. Usually they let me go but sometimes they just send me back to the camp. They are racist and being Arab is a curse,” he told me with a bitter smile. Meanwhile, Rama, Sameer’s youngest daughter sat quietly in a corner making paper boats with her sisters.
Sameer seemed to be thinking of something far away, “Maybe I shan’t stay here for much longer,” he said suddenly, looking at the sky while smoking a cigarette in the patio: “I am worried for the children; there is no education here, they are being discriminated against, and every day they become more isolated. I want to give them a better future, so when I make enough money I will go to Libya. From there it is cheap to go to Italy by boat. It is very dangerous, but what else can I do? Here we are less than nothing. Arabs, Palestinians, we have no future here. Kurdistan is not for us, it is not our country: Kurdistan is only for the Kurds”.
I tried to persuade him from going to Libya, as I was well aware of the enormous risks; but I also understood his motivations, and I was left with a doubt: wouldn’t I have done the same in his position?
 Asayish (Kurdish for security) is the security Kurdish organization and the primary intelligence agency operating in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.
Sameer’s father, Mahmood, was born in Palestine in a city called Safad from where he fled in 1948 in the Palestinian exodus, the Nakba when more than 700.000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes. He was twelve-years-old and with his family he walked to Lebanon and then Syria to escape the war between the newly born state of Israel and a coalition of Arab states. Like all the other Palestinians Mahmood first lived in Yarmouk camp, the biggest unofficial refugee camp in the city of Damascus, but when he fell in love with a Syrian woman he moved away from the camp and found a house in the Old City of Damascus where Sameer was born in 1969.
Sameer sighed nostalgically, “Ah the Old City, with the smell of jasmine and coffee, and tapes of Fairouz playing at every corner of every street. Not many people know the real nature of Old Damascus, of the neighbourhood where I grew up, the Jewish Neighbourhood. Soon, nobody will remember. Its narrow alleys surrounded by those ancient walls: you could almost hear them whispering when you walked in the evening hours, ” he told me while Fadya prepared the room for lunch.
 Fairouz is a Lebanese singer who is one of the most widely admired and deeply respected living singers in the Arab world
Sameer remembered a very simple life as a child; he told me how on the Saturdays, because his Jewish neighbours could not use the gas, he used to get up early and go to light the fire for them, so that they could have tea. The Jewish families used to pay for this, and all the children of the neighbourhood would fight to be the first to go to the families that paid most. Life was simple, but not empty of tragedies, for war often disrupted normality: Sameer remembered very well the events of the 80’s, the Hama massacre, the invasion of Beirut during the Lebanon war of 1982 and how during the October war in 1973 his mother used to take him running down to the basement when the Israeli aircrafts flew over Damascus and dropped their bombs.
Sameer was twenty-seven-years-old when he met Fadya: she had come from out of town for a wedding and she entered the shop where he worked. She was tall, young and pretty. He proposed to her in the shop the same moment they met: they were engaged a few days later and married within a couple of months. At the beginning it was not easy, as Fadya was only fifteen-years-old and perhaps too young to be married to a man almost twice her age: but the two of them learned how to respect each other.
Their family grew rapidly with the arrival of a boy and four daughters. Life in Damascus was good for them: Sameer worked as a decorator and he was very successful; he owned two cars, three houses — their own and two more that he rented out — a taxi that he also rented out and he had so much work that he often had to turn clients down. Life was good even though he was still a Palestinian refugee and was never granted a Syrian nationality: his children inherited that from him and were denied a nationality despite being born in Syria. But except for this deficiency they never felt discriminated against, rather they were very happy until the arrival of the ‘glorious revolution’, when the Syrian people took to the streets demandig for democratic reforms.
 The Hama massacre occurred in February 1982, when the Syrian Arab Army and the Defence Companies, under the orders of the country’s president Hafez al-Assad, besieged the town of Hama for 27 days in order to quell an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood against al-Assad’s government. Between 10.000 and 20.000 Syrians were killed during the operation. The attack has been described as one of “the single deadliest acts by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East”
Sameer doesn’t like to talk about the revolution: he never believed in it and even refuses to call it a revolution. Like many other Syrians, in the beginning he didn’t think that the protests would last long. He continued his life as he could, but the crisis only got worse. When I asked him why they left Syria he told me, “One day, in November 2012, I was with my son in the car when I saw a dead person in the street: I immediately changed my route, and in the next street again there were corpses. I don’t know if he saw them: but what difference does it make? By then my children could recognize all the different weapons only from their sound. You cannot understand if you have never heard the sound of the shelling when the bombs hit the ground. It throws you out of bed, and you feel that it is all over, and all it is left for you to do is to pray,” said Sameer with a heavy voice on the edge of breaking.
Over the following twelve months things deteriorated quickly and life in Damascus became too dangerous. Sameer’s work became occasional and later it stopped completely: at a time of war who cares about painting and decorating their houses? He didn’t know how to take care of his family anymore so he sold his car, he packed a few bags with Fadya and they left with their children.
They crossed Syria by bus and then, when they reached the border with Iraq, they continued by foot with the bags on the back of a donkey and they entered the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as refugees. For a short period of time they lived with Sameer’s brother and his family in Sulaiymaniyah, but money ran out once more, and they had no other choice but to move to the refugee camp of Arbat. In the beginning, despite the fact that they were the only Arab family, life in the camp was good and entering a tent felt very comfortable. It was warm inside, despite the freezing temperature outside. “For a moment we were happy”, he told me, looking at the concrete walls that he has built in the autumn of 2014, when they were moved to a new camp where they could build a house.
Then the discrimination began: the Iraqi Kurds, became very suspicious of Arabs, especially after June 2014, when ISIS took Mosul and millions of Iraqi Arabs entered the Kurdish region. “Everyday on my way to work, at the checkpoint before entering the city of Sulaiymaniyah, the Asayish ask me the same questions: what are you doing here? Why are you here? How did you get here? They are intimidating. Sometimes they hold me there for hours. They take me out of the bus and send me to their office, where every time I have to be registered: how many times do they need to put my name inside their computers? To do this they stop the whole bus, with fifteen or more people on it. The passengers start to get annoyed when they see me getting on the bus, because they know that they will be stopped and they will waste a lot of time,” he told me again, looking at his hands with a mix of anger and shame in his eyes; “For the first time in my whole life I am starting to hate going to work, and it is all because of the checkpoints: I feel humiliated every time that they stop me and take me, only me, out of the bus.”
In another occasion, when Fadya had to renew her residency card she was harassed by the officer in charge: “I could not go with her, for I was at work. When I came home that evening, I found her in tears: she told me that the officer of the Asayish refused to talk to her in Arabic, and only addressed her using the words ‘animal’ or ‘dirty Arab’. He also tried to touch her and she had to run out of the office to avoid his dirty hands,” he told me while I saw Fadya’s face suddenly becoming darker, remembering the insults and the shame she felt.
Sameer kept focusing on his family and his job trying to ignore the racism that persecuted them. But the children could not ignore the taunts that made school unbearable for them. One day Lama, Sameer’s oldest daughter, described to her mother how the Arabic teacher in her class told them that he hated Arabs, and even more he hated the Arabic language. “What can you do with people like that when they have the education of your children in their hands? There is no future without education.”
By the end of our lunch, Rama had created a collection of small boats with which she played in a dish full of water. One of the boats fell on its side, and was water logged. Going to Libya was cheaper than going through Turkey. I suggested Sameer delayed his plan of going to Libya to embark on a boat and cross the Mediterranean Sea, as it was still early in the year, and way too cold to be in the water anyway. He replied with a smile, and promised to cook pizza together soon, while I hoped that the summer would bring down the prices of the smugglers in Turkey.
I met Sameer at Stockholm airport at the end of October, almost two months after his great journey through Europe. He greeted me like an old friend. His son, Hassan, was with him: he was taller, becoming a man quickly. We were going to spend the weekend with Sameer’s brothers, who also live in Sweden. At the bus station, he asked for tickets to Fagersta, the city where his brothers live, a few hours away. I reached for my wallet as I couldn’t let him pay for my ticket, but he stopped me with a firm hand. “This is my country now and you will be my guest,” said Sameer, leaving no room for further discussions.
Sameer sat next to me, silent as usual, while Hassan played with his phone. “The natural world was the first thing I noticed here. It was so green, luscious and beautiful. Later it becomes normal, and you wonder about the people: I wanted to meet Swedish people and I could not find them. Maybe sometimes an old person, walking their dog, appears in the streets. Otherwise Arabs, only Arabs” Sameer told me, his eyes fixed on the beauty of the Swedish landscape. He turned to me, his face suddenly serious, “I hear this word many times these days: refugee. But what is it? What does it really mean? Isn’t it just human? I lived my entire life as a refugee. It is even written on my passport. I am tired. How many times do I have to start from zero again?”
How many times can a person start over again I didn’t know: but I saw a man whose struggle I felt and my only desire was to hear his story, as I believe that it is necessary to understand what happens in the heart of a person who has everything, freedom, happiness and wealth and suddenly loses it all.
On the 2nd of September 2015 Sameer left his home in the refugee camp of Arbat in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: he kissed Fadya and the girls, hugged them one by one, looked them in the eyes and he left with Hassan, his eldest son. He took Hassan because he was scared that if he turned eighteen it might endanger a future reunification. Fadya stayed behind with the girls, for Sameer did not have enough money to bring them all.
As soon as they left, they were stopped at a checkpoint, they were taken off the car and they were held there because they had Palestinian refugees’ passports, which made the guards suspicious. It was late at night so they put their heads down on the street and tried to catch some sleep among scorpions and snakes while waiting for a friend to come and pick them up. The next day, a Syrian friend living in Duhok arrived early in the morning, he spoke at length with the guards, convincing them to let them go and with his car brought Sameer and Hassan to the border with Turkey.
The journey through Turkey by bus was very fast, and they easily arrived in Izmir, the place from where the boats sail to Europe. Sameer had the telephone numbers of several smugglers: he called them one by one and found out that their boats were all full. Finding another smuggler wouldn’t have been difficult, Sameer thought, as this was at that time the best business in town.
However, being late in the day, they had to book a hotel where to spend the night. While having breakfast the next morning, Hassan recognized a young guy that he used to know in Damascus: he was traveling with his whole family and they had found a smuggler. He called the smuggler and got confirmation from him that there was still space on the boat.
When Sameer met the smuggler, a skinny and emaciated drunk, he did not trust him: however, he being their only choice, he could do nothing else but pay him 2400 dollars for both him and Hassan, before going to buy life jackets.
Then, in the middle of the night, the smuggler took them to the boat, a small rubber dinghy. There were other people waiting, other smugglers bringing more people and when everybody had arrived the smugglers announced that they would teach one of the passengers how to steer the boat: Sameer was shocked, as he could not imagine how one of the passengers was going to be capable of navigating to Europe. There was nothing they could do at that point, so they all got on board with their bags, packed tight as sardines and sailed off. For hours they drifted aimlessly because nobody knew how to steer the boat. They were cold, wet, tired and scared for most of the people did not know how to swim.
At last, after eight and half hours, the shore of Samos island, usually only one hour away, was there in front of their eyes: they had almost died, but they had made it, and they could no longer hold tears of joy from streaming down their cheeks.
That night, along with hundreds of other people, Sameer and Hassan slept outside. It was cold that night, very cold and they didn’t have blankets. The first thing they did the next morning was to buy tickets for the ferry to Athens. Then they had nothing to do the whole day but waiting for their papers to be registered by local authorities. When also this was done, in the evening Sameer went to a café to charge the battery of his phone and call Fadya. There he met Giorgos, a man who was born on the island and was trying to help the people arriving from the sea. They sat, they drunk coffee and they spoke at length mainly about Syria. Giorgos listened carefully to Sameer’s story and then explained it speaking in Greek to all the other people in the bar: they all listened, without a word, and Sameer felt a warmth and an empathy he had not felt yet since him and Hassan had departed from Kurdistan.
They left the island on a ferry the next day at noon and when they arrived in Athens in the evening it became clear that from there on the trip could not be difficult: everywhere there were Arab people shouting “Macedonia, Macedonia,” and inviting the newly arrived refugees to enter the buses that they were driving to the border with Macedonia. Sameer and Hassan jumped on one of these and went on with their long journey.
It was mid September and the heat in Sulaiymaniyah had not yet ceased to torment people, making life bearable only in the evening hours. The hills outside the city rolled dry, as they did not see a drop of water since the spring. In Arbat refugee camp, where three thousands families lived in rows of houses built with concrete blocks, the afternoon was still, the air motionless and life on hold. Rana, Sameer’s eight-year-old daughter greeted me at the door of their house with her usual shy smile.
The house was simple: a toilet, a patio, a kitchen and two rooms, one for sleeping one for eating, built by Sameer a year before. There was an iron swing for the children, wild mint, tomatoes and a palm tree grew alongside the patio. At the back there was still space for extra rooms, but they did not have time to extend it. Fadya was in the kitchen. When she saw me she smiled; her eyes were tired, she had a sleepless face: “I am holding my self together, for the sake of the girls, but I am afraid during the nights. I have never slept without my husband or my son before,” she said to me, while her daughters prepared the room for dinner. Fadya was by local security forces several times when Sameer was still there: I could only try to imagine her fear now, that she was alone with the girls.
On the floor, the feast had been laid. There was hummus with tahini, baba ganoush, salads, pizza, chips and mulukhiyah, jute leaves cooked in a soup with chicken: a staple dish in every Syrian or Palestinian household. I asked Fadya if she could tell me more about their life in Damascus, something we avoided until then, for it was attached to hurtful memories: “Ah … Damascus … forgive me if I will cry. We were very happy there. My parents were nearby, we had our own house, the children were going to school: it was very different, we were free. Here we have been humiliated and I never felt welcome. There is nothing after Damascus. But Syria is gone and it will never come back: everybody is dead”. Tears streamed down her cheeks while memories brought her back to a life that she missed deeply.
Then her phone rang. Fadya wiped her eyes and answered anxiously as she had been waiting for this call for some time: it was Sameer. He had lost his phone on a taxi in Serbia: he was charging the battery with the car cigarette lighter and he left the phone attached to it when they suddenly had to get off. This was the first time he had called in a couple of days. “He said only a few words. He is on his way to Hungary. He sounded very tired: he has not slept for four days. May God protect them, and guide them for the rest of their journey” she said, while she walked me to the door where the girls were lined up. They waved, chattering and smiling. The four of them with their mother looked so happy, yet so vulnerable.
I thought of them while Mahmood, the oldest of Sameer’s brother Walid, drove us from the bus station of Västerås to their house in Fagersta, a little over an hour away. Walid was the first one of Sameer’s family members to arrive to Sweden, almost six years ago, well before the war in Syria started. Since then, one by one, all of Sameer’s relatives have left Syria: nobody is left there.
It was a fresh evening when we arrived in Fagersta, and I was told that we were going to have a large barbecue to celebrate the arrival of Isham, Sameer’s youngest brother. Isham arrived a little over a week before, with his family. He was in Damascus taking care of his dying father: afterwards he had nothing left, nothing that would keep him there. It took him a week and cost 3500 dollars only to leave Syria with his wife and three children, for his Palestinian passport didn’t allow him to cross the border. They had to be smuggled out. They crossed ISIS controlled territories, where at the checkpoints people get their fingers chopped if cigarettes are found in their cars. In Turkey it cost another 3500 dollars to cross the sea. The rest of the journey to Sweden cost less than 700 dollars. While the discussion about the Syrian revolution inevitably heated up, between those who supported it and those who blamed it for the destructions of their lives, Sameer and I withdrew from the gathering and found a quiet place where he could tell me about the last part of the journey that brought him here.
Sameer and Hassan became very scared when they were approaching Hungary: they had heard that the police were violent and that they would take their fingerprints, which would make it impossible for them to travel any further. They recognized the border when they saw fences, barbed wire and police everywhere. Then they saw the railway and a line of people, the refugees, who like ants were crossing over. When their time to cross came, nobody bothered asking for anything; instead, they were welcomed by NGOs in a small camp, where they rested for a while. Two hundred metres away was where the police, purportedly, took fingerprints. Sameer and Hassan turned the other way and silently made it through the thick orchards. At the other end of the fields taxis were waiting: the drivers’ prices were outrageous, but at least they would take them to the station in Budapest and would not ask any question.
When they reached the last train station in Hungary, before the border the Hungarian police walked with them until they entered Austria, which for Sameer really meant Europe. Things were different there, better organized. In a garage there were about two thousand beds; there was food and drinks. Sameer described it as something extraordinary, and unexpected. For the first time there he really felt welcome.
Then they entered Germany by train. At the border, in a small village of which Sameer did not remember the name, the Germans took all the refugees off the train to register them and then they put them on another train to Stuttgart. Sameer remembered being extremely tired, and his memories were confused: he remembered only being in a camp, where everything was provided, free of charge. Even the showers were ready to be used by the refugees, and this made him very happy, as the last shower he took had been in Turkey over a week before.
From there on, in the heart of Europe, they were free to go anywhere they wanted without anybody checking their papers or stopping them: something rather unique for them, as they were used to Iraq, where they could not even leave their neighbourhood without difficulty. However they didn’t have any idea of where they were, or how they could continue: but their fears were unfounded for each time that they felt lost, the German people helped them. For example when they arrived in Hamburg and didn’t know how to continue, a woman just went to them and explained in English how they could reach Lubek, where they could take a boat to Sweden. Then she bought tickets for them, she put them on the right train, and she made sure they knew where to get off. “In Lubek a couple of young German volunteers took us in their car and first drove us to a house where we could eat, drink and rest, before driving us to the pier, where they gave us warm clothes, shampoo, toothbrushes and they did not leave us until the boat sailed off: may God protect them always ”, he told me, remembering with great pleasure the people who made him and Hassan feel welcome to this far away, foreign land.
When they arrived to Malmo Sameer finally managed to buy a new phone and call his family to let them know that he was in Sweden. His brothers picked him and Hassan up in Stockholm and they went home. Nobody stopped them. They were free, at last. “It took us seventeen days to travel more than six thousand kilometres across nine countries. The most difficult part of the whole trip was to get out of Kurdistan. And that is because we are Arabs and maybe for them we are animals,” he teld me, finishing his incredible account on a bitter note as memories of how badly they were treated in Kurdistan surfaced again and worries for his wife and daughters who were still there appeared almost visible, in sudden deep lines across his forehead.
It was a mild autumn in Sweden and in the whole of Europe: perhaps nature’s act of mercy, for those who were late in crossing the sea. Everyday refugees arrived in Greece; everyday they crossed half of Europe. On our screens and newspapers there was an endless march, north, as if more than simply escaping they wanted to go as far as possible from their destroyed houses, from their gone lives.
Like every good Syrian, Sameer had a cup of coffee in his hands before being fully awake. Fairouz played on the laptop, as if we were in Damascus. Outside the leaves were yellow, and the fog concealed the landscape. This was not Syria. Two Iraqi men strolled in front of the window: they waved. Sameer laughed, wondering where the Swedes were. Inside, he smoked and stared in the distance. Fadya called, punctually like every morning. She asked about Hassan, she was worried about him: he had never been away from his mother. The girls giggled in the background, the little one, Rama, called her father ‘an animal’ because he was not there to take care of her. “She is very honest, the little one” he said: he laughed, but he hid a profound sadness behind his dark eyes.
Sameer had been in Sweden for forty days: he was very sick when he arrived and he needed to rest. Now he looked at things one by one. He preferred to remain in the present, for he couldn’t see clearly too far ahead. Firstly he needed to take care of Fadya and the girls in Iraq: he was not allowed to work until he got his residency permit, yet he needed to send them money soon, for they didn’t have enough for the whole year. The second thing was Hassan and his studies. They were able to register him in school and he would have started soon. Sameer was also waiting to go to school, to learn his new language. He had started alone at home, with a book, the newspapers, the television. Then there was the residency permit, which unfortunately was not in his hands; only after he got his papers could he ask for the family reunification.
“Sometimes I get worried and I think of how I am going to live and how I am going to feed my family” he told me over a breakfast of hummus, olives, bread, eggs and tea: “Other times, I see us in a big house where the girls will share two rooms, Hassan will have a room all for himself, while Fadya and I will have our own. I see a large living room, with a television and a kitchen, comfortable and fully equipped. I hope I will be able to get it, but more than this, I hope for the children to integrate into this society. That is the most important thing and it is also my main concern. It is for this reason that I am thinking to move to the north. Yes, because there are no Swedish people here. They are all Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, Somalis. You can go to the Arab café, to the Arab shop: everybody is Arab. But I left Syria and Iraq, and I want to be out of that society now. I don’t want to be part of the same community because I cannot trust my own people anymore: they say one thing but in their heart they mean something else.
You know, I miss Damascus tremendously. I miss my entire life in Damascus: my memories, my childhood, even the walls of my school. But all of it now is gone, forever, destroyed by people who cannot think with their own heads. Those are nations that ride the waves, nations that change skin colours like chameleons: do you think you can trust them? I came to Sweden to give a future to my children, to give them a nationality, a proper education and certain values. These are the values of Europe now, not the values of the Middle East.
Therefore we will go to the north and we will start all over again this time, maybe, for the last time.”
By December 2015, Fadya could no longer live in Arbat and she could no longer wait: she decided to leave with her daughters. They made the same exact journey her husband and Hassan did in September and arrived in Sweden before Christmas. They celebrated their first Christmas reunited with Sameer and Hassan and they now live all together in three rooms house in Fagersta, Sweden. All the children go to school and are rapidly learning the Swedish language.