Tuesday, November 29, 2022
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Damascus
Tuesday, November 29, 2022

A Syrian woman’s asylum journey to France

She greeted me, took a chair, and sat next to me; I asked her about the story of her exile from Aleppo to France. Here is what she told me:

I am Douha Ramadan from Aleppo. My grandfather’s house was the first stone building in the Assyrian area of ​​the city.

I mastered French from my father and learned from him that a human being is the most valuable thing in life.

I studied history at the University of Aleppo, but my knowledge of the Italian language qualified me to work as a tour guide for 20 years.

I was arrested in 2005 after commenting on a lecture at the Assad Library in Damascus. My eldest son was detained at the beginning of the 2011 Revolution for a whole year for refusing to participate in a singing party glorifying Bashar Assad! My second son was also arrested in 2012 for two months, to come out after losing half of his weight; so, I had to sell my house at a low price and flee with my children outside Syria at the end of 2012.

I chose Egypt as the beginning of my asylum journey because one of my sons had preceded me there. I rented a house and opened a café and restaurant called “Bab al-Ward” in Cairo. It was later known as the “Syrian Café,” but after Sisi’s coup, harassment began against Syrians and their shops. An off-record regime for forcing them to pay a certain amount of money was illegally applied. So, they imposed a monthly payment on our shop after it was broken into for the first time by the “neighborhood thugs.”

I left Egypt for Turkey for 15 days to see my mother and sister because Egypt had prevented Syrians from entering by that time, but I could not return to Egypt although I had two lease contracts, for the house and the restaurant for five years and an Egyptian residency permit. So I stayed in Turkey against my free will.

I found myself a stranger in Istanbul. I felt alienated away from my children, without a language, without a home, work, money, and no breadwinner. Alone without friends in a big city, I sold my jewelry and opened a restaurant and café in the Asian part of Istanbul.

I began to feel tiredness and permanent exhaustion in my body. I blamed it on my psychological state, but the pain spread all over my body.

Suddenly the doctor told me it was breast cancer and a surgery was needed to remove it.

I was shocked.

In the hospital, as I crossed the long corridor to the operating room, I heard again the echo of the chants of our youth against tyranny; I saw the roses in their hands strewn with blood until the anaesthetic robbed me of my repercussions.

After the operation, I continued the chemotherapy, and my hair fell out completely. When I stood in front of the mirror, I saw a woman who looked like me and said to me: “Hold on, Douha. We will resist together the cancer of the body and the cancer of tyranny.”

While visiting a friend of mine, she advised me to travel to Europe to continue my treatment there, so I made up my mind and decided to travel by sea.

I sold my last rings and went up with many people on a rubber boat on the first of September 2015. The waves were high and frightening; we spent 19 hours there.

We ran out of fuel and a Greek helicopter rescued us and took us to the island of Kos. I still remember that the drowning incident of the Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, found dead on a Turkish beach, was the day after my arrival in Greece.

I continued my journey from Athens to Milan, Italy, and then to the French capital, Paris, by train. I arrived in France on October 6, 2015; I was hosted by a French lady on October 13th and she was very happy with me.

In France, I began to suffer differently. When submitting my asylum papers, I used to stand since 5 am in a long queue to get my turn at 9 am, and as soon as my turn arrives at 12 noon, they used to announce the end of work. The same suffering would be repeated the next day. I stayed like this for two months in the bitter cold and under the snow. I was able to get a room to live in through a French civil association that helps unaccompanied women asylum seekers.

I received a sewing machine from the association and despite the chemotherapy doses, I began teaching sewing to refugee women who were waiting to be approved for asylum.

Then I was introduced to the fashion boutique of a French lady named Sylvie, and I still work for her today.

I served Syrian food on one occasion, and the boutique customers liked it. They took the initiative to order Syrian food for birthday parties and weddings. I was chosen to cook in a French festival held from August 1-5, 2020, in which I prepared 1,000 dishes of various Syrian cuisine.

Despite continuing treatment for my disease to return to my normal condition, all my sufferings have not affected my will. I have a Syrian memory to take refuge in, and a cultural and historical repertoire that I presented to the French as a voluntary ambassador; one who was not appointed to her position by anyone or anything other than my constant dream of a free and democratic Syria.

La Rebelle d’Alep (The Aleppo Rebel), the book that narrates the story of my life, was published in French in 2022.

Salam Abo Shala
Salam Abo Shala
Human rights activist; journalist; researcher in intangible folklore and folk traditions.

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