Photographer:Fotograaf: archive Dorina Baltag
What is it like to live and work in the European Union, in freedom and democracy, when you have been used to something different? An interview with the student Ahmed Rifai who fled Syria and lecturer Dorina Baltag from Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, which was weighed down by Soviet repression for years and is still struggling with its own identity. According to both, freedom has become ‘ordinary’. But it isn't.
"It strikes me how strong people are"
Until the beginning of 2012, Ahmad Rifai, second-year student of Arts and Culture, lived with his family in a beautiful neighbourhood in Aleppo, in the north-west of Syria. “My father was an engineer and my mother did administrative work in a private school. We had a good life until 2011, when the revolution against Bashar al-Assad's dictatorial regime started.” Rifai, twelve years old, was the only one in his family to have attended a number of demonstrations. “After eight months of peaceful protests, the atmosphere became more gruesome. We took up arms for our protection. From that moment on, they opened fire on the growing number of protestors. The bombardments followed later, mainly with a Sukhoi Su-22 fighter aircraft. For example on bakeries, so people would know to keep quiet. I will never forget the sound of that aircraft. I still look up into the sky whenever an aeroplane flies over.”
His family fled to relatives in the United Arab Emirates. Rifai lived there for three years. At the age of seventeen, he completed secondary school there. “After that I wanted to go to Europe, to democracy and good education. The plan was to fly to Turkey and travel on from there to the Netherlands on a tourist visa to apply for asylum. The Netherlands has good universities with studies in English and I didn't know anyone there: I wanted to build something for myself. Getting a tourist visa for Europe as a Syrian is impossible, so I had to do it illegally.”
“I got to know a people trafficker through other people in Istanbul. For 1,300 dollar he would get me to Europe. I was able to pay that with money from my three sisters, they really helped me financially. With 37 others, I travelled in a small truck - two by three metres - to Izmir. The journey took 18 hours. We took turns sitting; it wasn't possible to do that all together. There was also the constant fear of being caught.” In Izmir they all get onto a small inflatable boot. “We put our money and our telephones into condoms in our pockets. The journey took three hours.”
“When we arrived on the Greek island of Kos, we immediately punctured the boat. So at least we couldn't be sent back on that. The police were there within five minutes. During the whole journey, I had the advantage that I could speak good English: my sister lives in London and has been married to an Englishman for years. We were all given a number and after a long wait, the bus arrived to take us to a shelter, where I had to wait for one night before I was allowed to go to Athens. We had to have our tickets stamped before we were allowed to travel further into Europe.”
“I was stupid and went to the Macedonian border instead of Athens; I wanted to get to the Netherlands as quickly as possible. I was picked up by the police and sent to jail. There were twenty people in a cell of eight by four, with a toilet and a shower in the centre of the cell. Again, my English was an advantage. I was able to communicate with the policemen and was frequently allowed to make telephone calls. After eleven days, I had to come with them and they gave me my shoelaces back. That is when I knew I could leave.”
Having lived in a Greek camp for a while, he decided to travel on. It was tricky at the Hungarian border. “Police cars were driving around and we lay waiting in the bushes for the right moment to make a run for it. It is just like in the movies: running as fast as you can. Hurrying, I cut my backpack with food loose in order to be faster. A large group of women and children who were slower, got caught.”
“Once I got to Hungary, I met a Syrian guy by chance who had lived there for years and who ran a restaurant with his father. The father gave us food and called a taxi that would take us to the Austrian border. We took the bus to the centre of Vienna and I checked into a four-star hotel. Finally I was able to have a proper shower, eat decent food and have a good sleep. From Vienna, I took a train to Germany and for the last part of the journey I took a taxi to Amsterdam. Big mistake, the bill was over 540 euro. I reported in at the police station.”
That is when the asylum circus started. It is the end of September and I have been on the road for a month and a half. I went to Ter Apel first to register and apply for asylum. The following year I spent in Rotterdam, Haarlem, Hellendoorn, Wageningen, Doetinchem, Grave, and finally Maastricht. In a lot of the asylum centres, you don't have anything to do so you sit for 14 hours a day doing nothing, the rest of the time you sleep or eat bad food. Time passes slowly; there is constant lack of clarity. You want to get on, learn Dutch, get a job, but you can't do anything. I bought a laptop and started to write a lot, listen to Dutch music, read and look for a place to live. I found a room in Maastricht, I was admitted to a business programme at Hogeschool Zuyd and the only thing I needed in order to leave the AZC was a signature. That took weeks.”
A life-changing moment during his travels was a discussion with a student in Rotterdam, a Marxist. “The literature that he gave me was so interesting.” His interest in philosophy, ideology and politics was awakened. After various discussions with his housemates in Maastricht, many of whom studied Arts and Culture at the UM, he was certain that he had to do the same. He himself is now in his second year. “After this I want to do a master's programme and then a PhD.”
“When I look back over the past few years, it strikes me how strong people are and how well they can adapt to war. People go to the bakery like it's ‘normal’ even though just a kilometre further on there is fighting and bombs are being dropped. It is scary to protest against a violent government, but they are fighting to be able to live in peace, for democracy. That is why Syrians look up so much to Europe, but since I have been here, I have noticed that many don't realise that people died for the freedom in which they live, that there are countries where you can lose your life if you speak out against the government. Europeans are able to take part in decision-making, but politics don't interest most of them. I also miss solidarity here, people mostly look after themselves. Fortunately not everyone; during my journey through Europe I had a lot of help from such nice people. Most people are good, I am convinced of that. Often it is lack of power: I met policemen who felt terrible about how they had to deal with refugees, but rules are often rules.
“I found peace of mind here”
“Sometimes I think that I must have been born Dutch in a previous life, as I found peace of mind here,” says Dr. Dorina Baltag (1983), lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Yet it is not Dutch, but Moldovan-Romanian blood that flows through her veins. Born and raised in a Soviet Republic, she was the girl who questioned everything and pushed the boundaries. “Everyone had to think the same. That was the idea of the Soviets; they wanted to keep a check on the masses. But that thinking in the box often frustrated me.”
Moldova declared independence in 1991. Nevertheless, criticism was still not accepted in the years after that. Baltag remembers a meeting in the capital city of Chisinau in 2009, only 10 years ago, where she lived. There had just been elections and once again the Moldovan Communist Party was in power. “We protested: we went to the streets to mourn with candles in our hands, very peacefully, as a symbol for the death of democracy. Suddenly, we were there with about one thousand people on the streets! Word had spread. The government rejected the march and took action. Shots were even fired.”
Moldova is suffering from an enormous migration problem; especially young people leave the country. Still, that doesn't mean that they have completely turned their backs on the country, says Baltag. “We try and give something back.” She mentions Mai Dulce - once started as a small culinary festival, an initiative by a Moldavan who had moved abroad - which has now grown to be one of the biggest festivals in Eastern Europe. Baltag herself contributes to the Run Pink Moldova community to support women who have or have survived cancer. Like she has. “A Moldavian woman living in Belgium set up the organisation; once a year, I help with a three-day retreat to help them overcome their fears. I do journaling which helped me a lot when I was sick.”
She had only just become a master's student at European Studies at Maastricht University, some ten years ago; she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. She was treated intensively with chemotherapy in MUMC for six months. Returning to Moldova for treatment was not an option. “My country is not as advanced when it comes to cancer therapy,” she says. “I chose to live not to die.” The first thing she asked the doctor in the Netherlands was how much she had to pay. “He said: ‘That will be alright, first you have to look after yourself.’ I wasn't used to that. If you want to have any chance of survival in Moldova, you have to pay a lot.” The fact that here in the hospital they listened to her, that doctors informed her: it had a “healing” effect on her personally.
Moldova and the neighbouring country of Romania belonged together until 1940; a large section of the Moldavans are therefore also of Romanian origin, as is Baltag. In addition, there is a smaller group that has Russian or Ukrainian roots. “I think that the country is suffering from an identity crisis. Political parties build their campaigns on this sensitive issue, creating a feeling of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. There is little sense of unity. In the Netherlands, I have come to realise how much I like the fact that everyone is accepted for who they are, it is okay to be authentic while at the same time you are all ‘Dutch’.”
Baltag got her Romanian citizenship seven years ago (she is entitled to this due to her Romanian ancestors), so she can travel freely around the EU. It took ten years for her dossier to be closed. “This is so nice! I can go wherever I want. For people who have always lived in the EU, freedom has become ‘ordinary’, and I understand that, but they should appreciate it more.”
“What I think about Moldava's future? I have mixed feelings about it. I find it difficult to remain positive. At the same time, I am hopeful. When Observant asked me the question what war does to you, I didn't think about the actual fighting. For me it means a struggle, an attempt by Moldavans to lead a decent life in freedom and democracy.”
Run Pink Moldova community: https://www.facebook.com/runpinkmoldova/
This article is part of a special about Europe with Martin Paul, President of Maastricht University as guest editor-in-chief.