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Balancing the old with the new

As we celebrate Refugee Week, Houda Fansa Jawadi shares her thoughts on what is lost, and what is gained in transitioning to a “safe” life.

We are not just migrants in this country. We are people who were forcibly uprooted from our original communities, left holding loose ties with our families and friends; whether those ties were with traditions, religious practices or local customs. We are people who looked for refuge.

After finding it, we tried to thrive here, balancing our previous routines and habits with new ones.

One of the essential challenges I face here is the language. I am very good at English, and I can read and write well. Nonetheless, I have problems saying what I really want to say. Especially since I am very expressive in Arabic, where there is a phrase for every situation.

We say Naeman when you get a haircut. Mabrouk when you succeed in an exam or buy a new thing. We say dakhil haldehkeh, haltoul, yeslamli elrayea, Eiyonak El heloweh when we compliment someone. We say Allah yra7mo, elba2ia b7iatek when someone dies. And when we love someone or something we say bmot fik.

If any of these previous situations happen, we try to express our sincerest feelings. Still, we don’t find enough words to describe our excitements or grievances. Sorry, and congratulations are not enough.

Then we try to translate Arabic expressions into English, which sometimes sounds weird and awkward. It has been embarrassing several times for me. Using American English doesn’t help either. Pants and trousers, bathrooms and loos, are definitive embarrassments.

On the other hand, most phrases have a religious context. They involve duaa/prayers for the dead, or keeping you and your loved ones safe, which doesn’t make much sense for a secular society when you translate them.

The thing is, Allah is a general source for responses. Even if you are not a believer, you keep using these phrases because they are part of the local daily discourse. Allah Akbar, which is a scary sentence for people here, can be used in different situations. I say it when I am surprised; but imagine the fear if I said that here!

We try to translate Arabic expressions into English, which sometimes sounds weird and awkward.

Many of us also come from a Muslim background, so being around alcohol is a huge red flag for us. Setting up meetings in bars is a big deal. I felt weird the first time my peers from university gathered in a bar. We were 20, so I couldn’t ask them to change the place just for me, so I stayed for a while but then left.

Even at work, all gatherings took place in bars, since according to friends, alcohol makes things easier for everybody. I went along as I didn’t want to sound backwards or create too much trouble. Later on, I understood that it is a cultural thing.

People’s daily socialising happens in bars. I sometimes go to bars with friends, even though I don’t like them. They are very noisy. I usually can’t figure out what other people are saying and end up losing my voice. And as a voice artist, this is a huge problem.

Another thing is that I am never sure if I am ready to see people I work with and respect saying or doing something they shouldn’t, after drinking.

Ramadan is the month that Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Fasting back home used to be a collective activity, a family reunification where we eat with each other, go to mosques for collective prayers or walk at night in the markets that never sleep.

But fasting here is more complicated, maybe even sad, since we fast alone. There are no celebrations that come with Ramadan. The day is much longer due to our geographical location, so we sometimes fast for more than 17 hours.

The temptation is more significant, especially since we don’t have any support system or families here. We also need to keep it together at work, otherwise, people might demand to know why we do this to ourselves.

In my previous job, the management agreed that I could leave at 16.30 instead of 18:00 due to fasting, which was encouraging. Everyone was respectful but didn’t understand why I fasted. However, it is sad that you have to break your fast alone, in front of a laptop screen. Food becomes tasteless.

Ramadan and then Eid go unnoticed as nobody understands or even cares that it is festive. No one would wish you Eid Mubarak. No one would send you sweets or invite you over. We also don’t get paid leave at our jobs since the government doesn’t recognise it as a public holiday.

The Mayor of London is doing a good job with the annual Eid gathering in the capital, but it is still different and insufficient for me. At my previous job, I used to take the day as annual leave to celebrate Eid.

Each Eid, I try to do three things to feel and celebrate Eid. I buy new clothes, a sunna of the profit Mohammed (PBUH). I bake Maamoul Eid Sweets, which are made of semolina and stuffed with dates, pistachio or nuts. And finally, I go to Eid gatherings to see other fellow Syrians, where we have lunch together, or go to a park to sit if the weather allows it.

People generally try to be as polite and accepting as possible as they respect personal freedoms. But I don’t have many British, non-Muslim friends, nor friends outside my Syrian circles.

Perhaps, the worst form of discrimination I have ever faced came from refugees like me, people from the same background who didn’t respect my choices. They shamed me for sticking to my identity, belittled my beliefs, and demanded that I embrace the change.

That suggested that I should be more “open-minded”. They see religious people as inferior and ask why such outdated beliefs in ridiculous myths exist!

I learn every day, and my experiences differ with time. Life isn’t smooth, and it is getting scarier by the minute. News from around the world shows ugly realities, where many people (Muslims included) are attacked, oppressed and killed for being different.

The refuge we sought is changing. I just hope that different cultures become more normalised soon. That being Muslim is celebrated. I also wish to become more comfortable expressing myself in English and that I can balance my previous and current traditions in the best way possible. And that my choices are respected by all.

Houda Fansa Jawadi is a Syrian Urban Storyteller living in the UK, and part of The Refugee Journalism Project.

Main Image by Houda Fansa Jawadi