In the ice
"Between your experiences of living both in your homeland and your host country, you experience psychological and existential difficulties, so when do you have the peace of mind to conform?"
Afrah Nasser is an unaffiliated Yemeni journalist who lives in exile in Gothenburg, Sweden. Her reporting on Yemen’s political affairs has been published in several publications, such as the Huffington Post, CNN, Al Jazeera English, and The National. In 2017 she won the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. She was also the recipient of the Pennskaftpriset in 2016 and the Dawit Isaak prize in 2014.
I am from the generation of the famous 1990s TV show “We sort the tickets, you sort the visa”—shitty! Isn’t sorting out the visa the single hardest part of any trip? I am the result of a culture that challenges every Arabic citizen to emigrate to the West.
I remember that there have been only two times when I actually wanted to emigrate from Yemen. One time was when I was nine years old, visiting some of our relatives to say goodbye before they moved to America. I remember coming home in tears, wondering: Why aren’t we going, too? Why can’t we flee poverty and my terrible father?
The second time was when I was an adult. I was in a relation with a guy and we were to betroth ourselves to each other. He said: “We must emigrate together,” and I agreed. He said: “You’re good at writing.” So, he encouraged me to write a letter to some foreign embassy to win their sympathy—who knows, maybe they might feel sorry for us. He would be responsible for sending the letter to the embassy. I didn’t bother following up on the matter. One month later, it had become sour between us and we were forced to call it quits. He abused me verbally and had attempted to hit me. I stood fast and hard against his violence and saw that I was forced to refuse to let myself be a victim of the circumstances. I also needed to remind myself that our rights are something that can be taken, but not given. I turned the page, and together with that disappeared my thoughts about emigrating.
So how has it come to be that today I live in exile? In the ice?
One question falls like a waterfall into my e-mail inbox and Facebook. I don’t mean you here, and neither you and nor you who have all sent in questions to me about what the simplest ways are to migrate to and receive asylum in Sweden. I understand how our homeland became cramped for all of us and the only way to get away from it is to emigrate. How can I emigrate to Sweden? Tough question. The next question is even tougher: do you like it in Sweden? I think for a long time before I answer—how could I give an answer without destroying the hopes of whoever asked the question, or give them an unjustified hope for a new life? How could I describe Sweden as either heaven or hell? How could I answer and summarise my tiny experience, a time frame in which I feel I’ve aged 20 years?
This is my seventh year in Sweden. Needless to say, the first year was the worst.
In the winter of 2011 I became acquainted with a Kurdish woman who spoke Arabic in a shaky Iraqi accent. Let us call this lady Oras. Oras is a woman nearing on 30, mother to a four-year-old girl. After she invited me over for lunch and serving me everything from filled zucchini, buryani, and picked vegetables—she is a remarkable cook—during a moment of rest she told about how she had come to Sweden via a smuggling operation operating from Iraqi Kurdistan to Sweden. During that cursed trip she had been raped by several people. She interrupted her story for a moment to remind herself that she didn’t mind so much the gang rape, because she had already suffered through the violence of being married off as a child. Her husband was the first man to rape her.
Oras thanks her second partner, who she met at a refugee camp in Sweden, because it was he who saved her from the hell of being raped again and again. Oras had to wait four years before receiving a positive response from the migration board in Sweden, which hadn’t accepted her as a “legal” person in the country. It was this last partner who gave Oras her legal papers. In return, Oras lived with him like a slave. She said: “He hit me during the day and raped me at night” … “anyway, it’s over, I am strong now.” Thank the Lord that Oras later separated from him, and she now lives happily with her daughter.
The same winter I met a fantastic young Iranian woman, passionate about art and film making, let’s call her Nasrin. During a break between Swedish lessons, we went into town together. Nasrin sunk into her thoughts while she played with her cigarette and told me: “I paid fifty thousand dollars to the smugglers, so they would take me to Sweden. The situation in Iran was unbearable. The authorities in Iran arrested me several times because of my films. What can I say about the prisons of Iran! They killed my morale. Since I was smuggled into the country, the Swedish authorities captured me at the border and put me in jail. But I must say, the Swedish prisons are like five-star hotels compared to the Iranian prisons.” Nasrin smiled and fell silent. “My problems today are more about how I should conform myself here—do you like the idea of conforming, Afrah?” she asks me.
Between your experiences of living both in your homeland and your host country, you experience psychological and existential difficulties, so when do you have the peace of mind to conform?
That which keeps you connected to your homeland is solely your attempts to keep contact with those who you consider your friends. Meetings over Skype, or contact via Viber or WhatsApp, or “likes” on Facebook. Some of them ignore your attempts, totally not bothered about you, and sometimes you even notice their sarcastic comments about those who migrate from Yemen. But the worst are those who have completely removed you from their contact list. You have fooled them, made a joke of them, you don’t honour them, you don’t represent them. You try to explain and clarify to no avail. Your wish is to not die a stranger to your homeland. You read “They Die Strangers” by the Yemeni author Muhammad Abd al Wali and understand that this is a daily reality for the lucky Yemenis.
Your new icy land chose you very carefully, so if you are useful for the system you are welcome, but if you are a burden, you’ll only hear a goodbye. I had the prerequisites for being useful so I got to stay. Useful? How is it possible to value a person’s right to exist through their usefulness? How can a person live in the open while the others live hidden, simply because earlier they arrived illegally? Do you also intend to say that the poverty, repression, dictatorship, and bloodbath in our Arabic lands are legal?
The debt over being useful hunts you like a shadow. Your weapon here is to use your privileges by serving the weak and those who don’t have any voice in this classist, racist regime.
Emigrate but choose your usefulness. This system sees you as an illegal, you don’t deserve to live in dignity if you’re not useful. If you say that we live in our homelands without dignity, I congratulate you on choosing your battle. Choose your battle for a good life. To live here is not simple—not here and not there, either. Don’t forget that you will be both the betrayer and the betrayed, when you betray your homeland and when your homeland betrays you.
By the way, I got an e-mail from that young man who ordered me to write a letter to the embassy. He wrote that he had removed my name from the application before he would send it in. Apparently he wanted to emigrate alone, so he apologized. Today he is still in Yemen, and I am in the ice.