My name is Ala Al Bardeni. I am a 34-year old Syrian Palestinian and I have been residing in Cyprus for 9 and a half years now. I used to live in Damascus but was born in Tunisia and stayed there for a while. I grew up in Damascus and there continued my education in Arabic Literature though I didn’t complete the degree. I also studied English-Arabic translation, but couldn’t graduate as I travelled to Cyprus.
I worked as an Arabic Language teacher, translator and tutor while I studied. I also taught elementary school students in all subjects, and English and Arabic language for all levels because I had excellent skills in those languages. Additionally, I worked in marketing and advertising. I used to sell Chinese merchandise and worked as a secretary in a stock company.
In early 2011, I travelled to Cyprus. I was divorced at the time, still in college, and had a three year old daughter. I met an English man, who was a lawyer in Cyprus, and fate had it that we got married. He helped me travel to Cyprus with my daughter and little brother. I couldn’t finish my studies in translation and literature once I reached Cyprus, and since the first language was Greek and English was a second language, I registered in law school which had been an unrealised dream back in Damascus.
I was in law school for a year before my husband and I decided to part ways. I knew I would be in a tough position by myself and couldn’t go back to Damascus due to the war and harsh conditions. While I was married, I did not mix with any of the locals even though my husband was partially one of them. He was a lawyer working with Arabs in Cyprus so I only knew Arabs. When we separated, I left college because I couldn’t afford it. I wasn’t even registered as a refugee, so I didn’t have any outside or government aid. I was responsible for raising my daughter who had just turned 5 at that time, and since my brother was 8 years younger than me, I was responsible for him too. My ex-husband didn’t help us get the proper papers for him to work once he was of age.
I didn't know how to speak Greek then, and we found it very hard to adapt. I wouldn’t say that society either took me in or neglected me. My relationship with the community was quite shallow, with no deeper meaning. I looked for jobs and worked in house cleaning and people there were pretty neutral about me. I worked more than one job - I was a waiter at a restaurant and then a café. I loved dancing so I taught children belly dancing. I was always trying my best to survive but what was most important was to not depend on anyone or take money from anyone. I did what I could and had to do.
After that, I met a man from Cyprus who was years younger than me. I did not expect anything to happen between us. We first met at a club when I was with a friend of mine. She introduced us and we became friends. This guy had a completely different lifestyle to me, from traditions to language to religion. We had different belief systems and thought differently, we were complete opposites. The relationship was normal at first, then became more serious, and he proposed. I felt that he was committed so I told him all about my life, from my early years till we met. I did not hide anything and confessed the negatives before the positives. I told him I wanted to build a family and stay in a different country to my homeland because it was hard to go back to Syria in such circumstances. I assured him I was all alone in Cyprus, so he promised he would be there for me. And so, we got married and I gave birth to a child, and now I am pregnant with the second one. My daughter is still with me and he treats her like his own, regardless of the hardships we faced. His family was against the marriage. They were not from the city but hailed from the countryside. They fought with him because he married me, because of their traditions and strict rules, and it wasn’t the norm to go against the family. Even though they were from Cyprus, they had different traditions and lifestyles. They always told him that there were better girls out there. They looked at me as a divorced Arab woman and a single mother with one daughter, who had a different religion. But each time he proved to me how much he loved me and how strong our love was. All these things that bothered his family did not mean anything to him. He always told them that when they met me they would like me. They thought that I married him for a visa or residency but none of this had crossed my mind. What mattered was that I had found a man who accepted me as I was.
There came a difficult time in my marriage. When I married this man, I went to live with him in the countryside, and life there was different from what I had experienced before. I was raised in the city and had never been to the countryside in my life, and I certainly had not expected to live there. Even though some people like living there, I was a city person. When I reached the countryside, I was depressed and had no friends, and was far from the city. It would have cost a lot to go to the city and meet up with my friends. But I looked for people near the house to meet. I found my husband’s aunt, who made me feel like I belonged. She was the total opposite of my mother-in-law and her sons. This aunt always supported me and used to tell me that I was like a daughter, and every time I had a problem with my mother-in-law or even my husband, I used to go to her to talk. She would pat my shoulder and help me heal, and say things like “you are strong, kind, lovely”, and advise me to stay with my husband for my family. I am currently learning the ways of Christianity because of my husband and his aunt; they helped me love the religion.
My husband did not think well of his aunt, and his mother used to tell him that she was a bad person. But when I came to this family, I tried to clear her name in front of my husband to show what a good person she was, and how she helped me fix my issues with the family. Bit by bit, my husband started talking to his aunt and came to loved her. I also told my mother-in-law about how the aunt was a good person, but she did not believe me because of her bad manners. Eventually, after a lot of effort, we all met and got them to come to an agreement. It was a beautiful moment when they hugged, and I felt that I had done something good, and that I really belonged.