28 years old
When we were discussing the work of Do Ho Suh1, I thought about how the artist has happy memories from his past and his childhood. On the contrary, we refugees have been through a lot and it’s not easy for us to forget our many problems.
But in life you have to stand on your own two feet and move forward, regardless of where you end up. If things were going well in our country and there was no war, we would have stayed there. We are now scattered all over the world, just like the ribbons in the work Heart in Heart by Yael Kanarek which hang from a point up high and open out as they fall.
Every work of art that we saw reminded me of our journey. The bundles by Kimsooja2 reminded me of how we packed our things in Afghanistan to come here. It’s in bundles like these that we keep our clothes back home as well. And the Koran, which is something sacred, is wrapped in a cloth and kept high on a shelf. During the trip I had put it close to my chest so it would protect me and we would arrive safely. We were travelling for forty to forty five days. One day we even had to walk thirteen hours non-stop. We have kept some photos from the journey on our mobile phones.
We came to Greece about three years ago, my husband, my five children and I. I have two girls and three boys. My eldest, Khalida, is thirteen years old, and my youngest is five. You know, in Afghanistan, we usually have many children. I got married at fifteen and had three kids, but my first husband was killed and so I remarried. With my second husband I have two children.
We stayed for two years in the camp at Lavrion and about a year ago we came to Thessaloniki. Here we are very happy because we have been given a place to stay. Although the money is not enough, it allows us to live decently and I can cook for my family. I’m thinking that my children will grow up in a peaceful environment, they will be able to study and build their future. This thought calms me.
Seeing the work by Mona Hatoum3, which she made from old, rusted objects, made me think that I too can fix my life. In Afghanistan, women cannot attend school, they cannot do anything. But now that I’m here I have the opportunity to go to school, to learn Greek. That’s life, one must work hard and always strive for the best.
The work by Bill Viola4 reminded me of how we travelled on a boat from Turkey. No refugee will ever forget their journey at sea. When I first boarded the boat, I was so scared I lost my voice. My children also had problems, they were afraid and I couldn’t help them. But the adults were also crying and shouting: one had lost his child, the other one had hurt his leg … My little daughter was crying from the moment we stepped on the boat until the moment we got off it.
When we approached Greece, the Coast Guard came to rescue us. The smuggler was thinking throwing us into the sea and leaving with his boat. But the Coast Guard stopped it so he wouldn’t leave and arrested him. Me and two of my children hadn’t managed to get off the boat and we were sucked into the sea along with the boat. If it wasn’t for the Coast Guard officers who pulled me up with a rope, the sea would have swallowed me along with the children and we would have drowned. I was really scared. When we arrived ashore I couldn’t see Khalida, and neither could she. Someone had picked her up to rescue her and she was crying: “My mom… where is my mom…?” Then the ambulance arrived and took me. I was put on oxygen, I couldn’t breathe from the shock.
My kids will never forget what we went through either. The three oldest ones often discuss what happened on the boat. Even when we were in Lavrio, whenever we approached the sea, they would get scared. Here in Thessaloniki, it was suggested that Khalida takes swimming lessons, but she doesn’t want to. She sees the water and she’s scared. But we tell her to go, to learn to swim so she won’t be scared any more.
The work with the Parthenon5 struck me as a very good idea for the artist to talk about the years of crisis in Greece. In our country the war has left similar scars. In Kabul, where I was born, there is a palace that was destroyed by the bombing and it has been left like that, abandoned for years. It’s scary to even pass by it. I often went by it on my way to visit an aunt.
I was little when we left Kabul to go to Herat. Like all girls there, I didn’t go to school. We were at risk of being caught on the street, raped and have very bad things happen to us. For boys life was completely different. My eldest brother had progressed with his studies. But they killed him. We weren’t safe there at all. Even our relatives belonged to hostile groups and that was a big problem. That’s why we fled to Iran, where we stayed for two years. Then my aunt asked me to marry her son and we got married in Kabul.
Although we were away for two years, they managed to find us and hunt us down again. The rest of the family went to Tajikistan to save themselves. Unfortunately, they found us and killed my husband. Now you understand why I made this whole journey with five children. If we had stayed there they would have killed my second husband as well, who is the brother of my first husband. In Afghanistan, this is the custom we follow when a woman loses her husband.
Here we’re safe. I’m happy with my husband who looks after all five children and doesn’t single them out. And he takes good care of me as well. He is aware of the pain I’ve suffered and wants me to be happy. Most men in Afghanistan are not like this. Women must get permission to go outside and always have to wear a headscarf. Otherwise they may be looked down upon and get caught by the Talibans and then … it’s the end. I think you’ve seen what happens.
In Greece, women are allowed to do everything that men do. Each religion is different, but we humans are all the same and we can learn from each other. Khalida doesn’t want to marry young like me. She wants to study, to become a lawyer. I’ve often been told by the school that my daughter is a very good student and learns easily.
I feel proud that I managed to bring my children here so they can live freely and build their future.
1 She is referring to the work Staircase ΙΙ, 2004.
2 She is referring to the work Bottari, 2005-2017.
3 She is referring to the work Fix it, 2004.
4 She is referring to the work The Raft, 2004.
5 She is referring to the work Athens, Parthenon, 2007-2008.
I enjoyed getting together and discussing various works of contemporary art. One of these works was made of wood and looked like Aladdin’s flying carpet1 and another depicted a loom used for weaving yarn to make carpets2, just like we do in Afghanistan.
One of the works that struck me was Fix it by artist Mona Hatoum, who had used different rusty metal objects for her project, breathing new life into them in the process.
Once, while in Athens for an asylum interview, we had been given a room to stay in a hotel overlooking the Acropolis. I have never been to the Acropolis but I was able to see it from the hotel window, which is why I was also able to recognise the Parthenon in the work of Alexandros Georgiou3. It was like it had been put on top of a pile of rocks and garbage.
In Bill Viola’s work4, I could see many people, tall and short, some of whom looked rich, while others looked poor. It’s a very beautiful work of art and you can tell that the artist has given a lot of thought to it.
But out of all of the pieces, the work by artist Do Ho Suh5, depicting a ladder made of fabric was the one that I loved the most. I really loved the pink fabric. It was very “girly”. I also find a nice symbolism to it because our life is indeed like a staircase which we have to climb slowly and watch our step. This is how my family and me were able to make it here, to safety, alive and well.
When I grow up I want to be a lawyer, because I like helping people and working for their benefit. I will try my hardest to become a lawyer. Slowly and carefully I am going to make it to the top of life’s staircase.
1 She is referring to Swedish flying carpet, 2001, a work by Kostis Velonis.
2 She is referring to Slumber, 1994, a work by Janine Antoni.
3 She is referring to the work Athens, Parthenon, 2007-2008.
4 She is referring to The raft, 2004.
5 She is referring to Staircase II, 2004.