Sept. 2, 2015
“Sameer, habibi, how are you? It’s me, Stefano, I am back in Iraq.”
“Stefano! Habibi! I am good now that I hear your voice. I missed you.
“I missed you too. Where are you?
“I am at home, now. Today at 4 p.m. from Sulaiymaniyah I will go to Duhok, then Zakho, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and then, inshallah, Sweden. It is a long journey.”
I meet Sameer at the Stockholm airport in October, where he greets me like an old friend. His son, Hassan, is with him: he’s taller than the last time I saw him, quickly becoming a man. We are going to spend the weekend with Sameer’s brothers, who also live in Sweden. At the bus station, he asks for tickets to Fagersta, where his brothers live, a few hours away. I reach for my wallet, but he stops me with a firm hand. “This is my country now and you will be my guest,” says Sameer, leaving no room for discussion.
Sameer sits next to me, quiet as usual, while Hassan plays with his phone. “The natural world was the first thing I noticed here,” he says in English. “It was so green, luscious, and beautiful. Later it becomes normal, and you wonder about the people: I wanted to meet Swedish people and I could not find them. Maybe sometimes an old person, walking their dog, appears in the streets. Otherwise Arabs, only Arabs,” Sameer says, his eyes fixed on the beauty of the Swedish landscape. He turns to me, suddenly serious. “I hear this word many times these days: refugee. But what is it? What does it really mean? Isn’t it just human? I lived my entire life as a refugee. It is even written on my passport. I am tired. How many times do I have to start from zero again?”
How many times can a person start over again is a question I can’t answer. But I believe that it is necessary to understand what happens to the heart of a person who has everything—happiness, wealth, security, health—and suddenly loses it all.
Sameer’s family in Arbat, Iraq.
I first met Sameer on March 21, 2015. It was Nawroz, the Kurdish New Year. I had met his wife, Fadya, and their children before, but Sameer was never around; he worked long hours most days. He and his family had been living in the Arbat refugee camp outside of Sulaiymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan for about a year. Finally, we both had a day off and could meet. We decided to cook together, to mix Italian and Syrian cuisines to get a sense of each others’ cultures.
Sameer is a handsome man in his late 40s: not very tall, but with a strong, trim figure; thick, carefully coiffed, dark hair; and a broad, friendly smile. We immediately liked each other. While cooking, he told me that a few days before, he was held at a checkpoint for an entire morning. The Asaysh—the Kurdish security forces—wouldn’t let him pass. “Every day they stop me, they make me get out of the bus, they ask me the same questions and they put my name in their computers. Usually they let me go, but sometimes they just send me back to the camp. They are racist and being Arab is a curse,” he told me with a bitter smile.
Meanwhile, Rama, Sameer’s youngest daughter, sat quietly in a corner making paper boats with her sisters. Sameer was preoccupied. “Maybe I won’t stay here for much longer,” he said suddenly, looking at the sky while smoking a cigarette in the patio. “I am worried for the children; there is no education here, they are being discriminated against, and every day they become more isolated. I want to give them a better future, so when I make enough money I will go to Libya. From there it is cheap to go to Italy by boat.” I tried to persuade him not to go, being aware of the extreme risks they would face.
“It is very dangerous, but what else can I do?” Sameer asked me. “Here we are less than nothing. Arabs, Palestinians, we have no future here. Kurdistan is not for us, it is not our country: Kurdistan is only for the Kurds.” I feared for him, but also understood his motivations. Wouldn’t I do the same in his position?