Do Not Pity Me: Beginning Life as a Refugee

At best, the current media coverage of the horrors of the Syrian civil war and the hundreds of thousands of people forced to become refugees in response shows us only victims. At worst, we are presented with Nigel Farage evidencing the ‘threat’ to the ‘decent’ British citizen with billboard posters of queues of refugees awaiting basic humanitarian support. At best, fleeting celebrity facebook posts encourage us to see passive figures, whose story is not their own but one focussed on the opinions, policies and decisions of the governments and citizenries unwilling to receive them. Each is a dangerous narrative. Among much else, such a narrow visions miss the resolute strength of these individuals. What begins in words –  newspapers, television broadcasts, video reports – becomes reflected in reality, and people presented as non-autonomous, passive, unwilling and burdensome are left to struggle against an identity constructed and forced upon them.

This strength does not show itself in huge and miraculous acts. It is not a strength we find easy to recognise because it is not championed, emblazoned on news articles, awarded applause nor congratulations. It is a strength just in survival, and a resolve to continue.  Sitting across from me, in a small café on a warm summer evening in Sofia, Bulgaria, Dima Ismail is a paradigm example of this strength. She speaks in stilted but commanding English, full of imperatives. What she has had to do, what she must, in order to make a place for herself in this new and alien world that is struggling to make sense of the Syrian war.

Celebrities flock to dilapidated refugee camps and take photos beside the weakest and most wretched. “They’re just like us,” they chant, “They need our help”. Such flash-pan humanitarianism comes from a good place, but it is misguided. There are unspoken words that appeal to our sense of pity for those weaker than ourselves, that paint a picture of people unable to help themselves, in need of our salvation. These individuals do not need our pity – how rich of us to offer it in the first place, when we are complicit in a system that has been integral in perpetuating the instability and turmoil in their homeland. What we need to offer is solidarity, to recognise the strengths, skills and determination of individuals eager to rebuild their lives, and fundamentally, to provide access to the tools to do so.

In this struggle for integration, refugees are not like us. They face a system of discrimination, prejudice, and inequality that seems intent on keeping such opportunities from them. This is a system against which Dima Ismail has consistently found herself at odds with. How to rebuild your life, when not only your home, possessions and past are destroyed, but the skills and passions you have nurtured in yourself are rendered meaningless?

Born in Syria, by the age of 21 Dima had graduated from law school and was training in the most important central law offices in Damascus. The work was intense and demanding, even more so for a young woman in a traditionally male dominated career. She recalls reading everything she could in order to survive, and succeed.  Court decisions, judicial precedents – each one  devoured, each one  catalogued, until she had built herself a private office, with two trainees of her own.

We are told by the media that our military and governmental involvement in the Middle East is premised on bringing justice to the downtrodden who are denied representation in their own countries.  But Dima’s experiences offer a more nuanced picture of autonomous and passionate individuals fighting for justice on their own terms. Within the independence of her own practice, she committed herself to supporting everyone who came to her with a case – clients who were weak, lacking education, money or opportunity –  all were defended where possible. She worked in rural communities educating against the tradition of child marriages of young girls.  This was more than just a job, this was a life built around talent, passion and determination. Yes, the media is right to say that the system was, and remains, corrupt, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t people fighting against it.

Of course, every refugee has experienced the helplessness of being forced to flee their homes. When war came to Damascus, it was violent, indiscriminate, and tireless. Dima speaks of trying to remain in the city, continuing her work, as long as she could. Her husband left first with her son, but she refused to follow. But when tanks began to stalk the high streets and facing the corrupt regime was a better alternative than facing the extreme misogyny and violence of the ISIS rebels, there was no longer any option but to leave.  But let’s not mistake this as a free choice, taken lightly just because the asylum benefits in Europe looked enticing when the future prospects seemed unhopeful in Syria. “It was a kind of suicide”, Dima describes leaving her homeland.

At first, she reunited with her family in Egypt, where she attempted to retrain in Egyptian law. But before she could take the exam, the instability in Syria was already overspilling and they were forced to flee again, this time to Bulgaria. But Sofia was no European paradise. On the one hand, Dima admits to having been lucky – though she had left all she owned beyond the far shore of the Mediterranean, she and her husband retained enough finances and education to move quickly through the Bulgarian asylum system in which some less fortunate are left cramped in dilapidated schools, with no privacy, for months on end waiting to receive their official refugee status. But this was a small boon. It soon became clear that Dima would struggle to practice law in Bulgaria. First, there was the language barrier. Then, the fact that the Bulgarian state refused to recognise any of Dima’s previous qualifications or experience. Far from letting her retrain in Bulgarian law, they demanded she begin law school from scratch, shouldering all the connected fees and costs. It soon became clear that Dima had left more than just a job and a home behind in Syria.

I left my life there and I left my heart”.

And yet, despite all of these trials, Dima has not been overcome. She has not let herself be defined as the helpless victim. From nothing she has begun to rebuild her life again. First, she started studying Bulgarian whilst working as a volunteer in asylum accommodation centres in the city, teaching English to other asylum seekers retained there. As she turned 37, she enrolled in University reading Languages and Administration, graduating 20 years after she first began studying, in that other time and other life, in Syria. 2016 has seen her begin her first job with a UK company.

She writes to me with a strength and a willpower that refuses to be constrained; I remember her presence, her intellect, her passion and openness when we met in that café in Sofia. The beauty I saw there was her strength – not the stuff of a Hollywood movie, a celebrity anecdote or a tired news piece, but a deep, complex, indomitable strength to survive and to begin again, in spite of everything.

I am starting to live again with a broken heart and the hope that one day we will return”.

The refugees we see on the news, in charity appeals and on celebrity instagrams – we need to be careful before we accept the simple narratives we are fed by mainstream media. Dima’s story is one of hundreds of thousands. We need to stop hearing only one half of the history, stop casting ourselves as saviours of the helpless and begin bringing to these formidable individuals the tools and opportunities to allow them to survive and succeed. They have travelled across a continent because they are determined to survive. Not because they are merely passive victims in a game of foreign policy gone wrong. Long term, structured integration support is what is needed. Access to language training, the recognition of transferable skills and the opportunity to develop previous qualifications or retrain. Dima Ismail does not need your pity.