Yesterday, I celebrated 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence with a post on Bilbao’s No Means No Campaign. Today, I’m celebrate Human Rights Day by sharing my experiences of encountering refugees while traveling, and how this changes my perspective on movement.
“Marhaba,” I told my two new Iraqi friends in Arabic. Hello. A simple enough phrase to break the ice.
“Ana assafir al sharq alaousat,” I said with a smile. The two Iraqis giggled. In my formal Arabic I had learned at college, I tried to say that I traveled to the Middle East. I actually haven’t, but I couldn’t remember any other words. Darn you, Al-Kitaab!
I was on a metro, accompanied by my sister and Kimberly. We had just come from Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, a regional Turkish cuisine restaurant in Istanbul’s Aksaray District. “They are so conservative there,” our Couchsurfing host had told us when we passed it in the car on our first day. “They are all immigrants, many from Syria.” The people in hijabs and long, white tunics could have very well been. Turkey currently has an estimated 1.5 million refugees, most of them Syrian.
At the restaurant, we were the only women not fully covered. We were also the only women without screaming, crying children. The young, male waiters had taken a special liking to us. We even took a selfie with them. One patron saw us struggling and offered his selfie stick, which, in the end, caused us even more technical difficulties. This meant more time causing a scene in front of the presumably conservative families present.
The two Iraqis on the metro had struck up a conversation with Kimberly. I was sitting in a seat nearby when I overheard. Never missing a moment to embarrass myself and speak Modern Standard Arabic, I stood up and joined in.
“I’ve been here a few months,” Mohammad, the more vocal of the two, told us. “I don’t really like it.” I explained how much I loved Istanbul. I thought it was a beautiful, dynamic city with so much to offer. Mohammad shrugged.
We were traveling several metro stops-around 45 minutes-to get back to our Couchsurfing host’s apartment. As people rushed on and off, families disassembled and assembled strollers and my bored looking sister sat nearby, the four of us-Mohammad, his friend, Kimberly and I- continued to talk.
Life isn’t easy in Iraq right now. It hasn’t been for a long time. His story seemed to mirror so many others I had heard. Either on the news or in person, people fleeing violence all say the same thing. They are happy to be safe. But they just wish they could go home.
This is something often overlooked when I hear others talking about immigration. Many migrants (fleeing violence) aren’t thrilled about having relocated. It’s not something they would have chosen, but living with violence wasn’t an option anymore.
Like Mohammad, I am a migrant. Both he and I had left our home countries. The difference is that I left mine by choice. I had an easy, comfortable life at home. When I leave, it is to experience new things, people and places. He leaves to escape imminent death. I was standing in front of man who escaped violence that my tax dollars could very well have contributed to.
It was a moment (like so many I continue to have) of recognizing my privilege. I can easily flow in and out of borders. When I travel to new countries, the authorities at customs aren’t afraid I’m going to stay illegally and I am never stopped for random security checks. After landing in the airport in Stockholm, the officer at customs asked what I was doing and let me through without further inquiry. The Thai man next to me didn’t gain entry so easily. He was asked to present bank statements. When he couldn’t get wifi to access his accounts online, he was put in a holding room. I don’t know how long he was in there, or if he ever got through.
A few months after meeting Mohammad in Istanbul, Jennifer and I were in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We werecraving Middle Eastern food, and we were in luck. A quick search on Trip Advisor pointed us to Taste of the Middle East, an Iraqi family-owned restaurant. The owners are one of three Arabic families living in the city.
We were seated by Ali, a sassy preteen who skateboards and played American rap music from his phone. There were six tables with four chairs each. Although the restaurant has become very popular, we were the only two eating that night.
Mohammad, the eldest son, was our waiter. The mother of the family, Muna, cooked our meal. We devoured a cucumber and tomato salad, baba ganouj, and shawarma. We were stuffed, but couldn’t miss a chance to have dessert. We had homemade baklava and mint tea.
As we ate, Muna, Mohammad, and Ali sat near us. Ali had a plate of food of his own he was scarfing down. Curious as to how an Iraqi family ended up in Cambodia, a country known for its brutal genocide, we began asking questions.
Turns out, many people have asked them before. After eating at the restaurant, I did some googling. Taste of the Middle East and the family have received significant media attention for their unique situation (and the light their case sheds on a recent Australian-Cambodian refugee deal). Phnom Penh Post, Reuters, SBS and even Munchies,VICE’s food website reported on the family’s story.
Mohammad told Munchies,“I’m from Fallujah…The worst place on Earth.” In our conversation, he wasn’t as direct, but he did express a deep sadness for his home. He explained that Fallujah was devastated. It was dangerous, violent, and opportunities were limited. After reading the news articles, I wondered how many times that Mohammad had told that story.
The family lived in Malaysia before relocating to Cambodia. They came on business visas and opened the restaurant. This opens a multitude of complications, and even more stressful, uncertainty about their future. While we were in the restaurant, a man visited. He sat at the table across from us and spoke to the family. Speaking in Arabic, I couldn’t understand the conversation, but I understood a few words: “visa,” “travel,” and “Iraq.” I used my incredible investigative skills and deduced they were discussing visa issues.
It wasn’t all serious, however. Ali grinned every time he saw Jennifer. “What do you like to do?” she asked. “Not much,” he said. “I am just here, in the restaurant.” The events of life turned our conversation somber yet again.
Ali doesn’t go to school. He already speaks near perfect English, among other languages. Unfortunately, the family can’t afford the tuition of the private international schools. They told us that Khmer schools were of very low quality. That leaves them with educational options.
Although he doesn’t go to school, he has managed to make friends in the neighborhood. Mohammad told us Ali has already picked up Khmer. “We’re worried he’s going to convert to Buddhism!” Mohammad joked.
Jennifer and I walked 45 minutes from the restaurant back to our hostel. On the way home, I thought more about my ability to move about the world. Mostly, I thought about what the family said about missing friends and family back in Iraq. I leave my country, but I can come back at a minute’s notice. I know with certainty that I will be able to see my family when I want. I thought about when I lived in Argentina and I missed home the most. Knowing my return home would come soon, I was able to continue studying, working, and enjoying Buenos Aires without an issue.
I was stuck on the idea that we both travel, but our reasons are so drastically different. Therefore, our outcomes become drastically different, too. Most migrants in new cities don’t spend time visiting the cultural exhibits or trying all of the restaurants in the city. Often, they don’t even have free time to learn the local language. Many leave without hope of ever seeing friends and family again.
For Human Rights Day, December 10, I want to remember Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
Mohammad, the Iraqi I met in Istanbul, and the owners of Taste of the Middle East in Cambodia have the right to return home. Technically, they could go home now. But what life would it be? Would they have the space and the freedom to express themselves as they wish? Could they leave the house free from fear of being assaulted?
Discussing refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants of any motive is a complicated topic, much more complicated than I am able to explain in this post. While traveling, we meet all types of people. In my travels I’ve come into contact with Burmese in Thailand, Vietnamese in Laos, Iraqis in Istanbul, Syrians in Greece, Moroccans in Spain, Senegalese in Paris, Indians in Rome, Swedish in Portugal. Europeans, North Americans, Australians and Kiwis can be found in plentiful numbers all over the world.
All of those mentioned are in a way migrants. But all are for different reasons. While traveling, coming into contact with migrants made me reflect on the circumstances in which I embark on the world. We all have the right to leave and return to our countries, but can we?
Small side rant: Many fellow travelers judged us on craving Middle Eastern style food in Cambodia. That’s not “authentic”! What’s more authentic than seeing how a country truly is? If that country involves an Iraqi family, I am getting a real sense of the city by visiting their restaurant and speaking with them. They belong to the city now, too.
Featured Photo: Arabic language globe at the Istanbul Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam.