My name is Anna Hannah Ibrahim. I’m from Damascus, Syria. I graduated from the Media Faculty at Damascus University in 2005. I was full of great ambition, just like so many young people. And despite all the challenges I had to deal with, I managed to start my own dubbing studio in Syria in 2010. After two years of hard work and effort, my name and the name of my company became well-known, and I started working on a much higher level.
At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, I was so enthusiastic at the prospect of freedom. I was dreaming of a dignified life, free from anxiety and the fear of the walls having ears. I remember the first time I marched in a protest, calling out: the people demand the fall of the regime! I felt that I’d been living without a voice, and with that first shout I truly felt my real voice lifting and rising up into the Damascus sky. It was only at that moment that I really understood the taste freedom.
In 2013, I went to Beirut so I could continue with my work. I would spend about two weeks in Beirut and then two weeks in Damascus. During this period I studied documentary filmmaking in Beirut. Of course, as a Syrian during those difficult times when the whole world had its doors shut in our faces, I used to wonder what I would do if my passport expired. How would I be able to renew it? And how could I protect myself from losing my identity? Despite the fact that I’d invested in Beirut and had lucrative work there, that I brought substantial sums of money into the country every month since I had my own company and employees to pay, they still wouldn’t give me a residence permit to stay there.
Compelled by anxiety, after tying up all my obligations I packed up and left without a single backward glance, because I’d lost my country, and I was terrified I’d lose my identity as well. Just as for so many other people, the sea was the only available path toward finding a new nation and identity, and the concepts of nation and identity, as far as I define them, are really just a sense of belonging.
I left Beirut and began my quest for a country and identity and a sense of belonging. I traveled from Turkey to Greece, and that’s when I knew I’d lost everything and had been reborn. This happened at the precise moment when the Greek government destroyed my identity papers; they considered them forged since I didn’t look like a Syrian. I bought an airline ticket and left Greece using a Spanish ID. No one said anything to me. I don’t know if it’s because the plane being delayed for two hours worked in my favor: everyone was getting fed up with the wait and so they began waving people onto the plane without any extra scrutiny. They just passed the tickets through the little machine and let people through; they did the same for me after seeing my airline ticket. The plane took off for Milan—because I’d bought a ticket from Athens to Milan and then to the Netherlands. When the plane took off, I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe that a forged identity could just take me to the Netherlands like that so easily, while my actual identity papers had been destroyed on a Greek island.
When you arrive in a European country, there’s nothing to do but sit around and wait for your life to begin anew, the life you came in search of. At this particular moment of waiting—this stage of waiting that is so difficult for those of us estranged from home—the memory begins playing all kinds of tricks, opening up all the wounds you’ve put off having to deal with. After four months of waiting, I was granted the right to remain in the Netherlands as a political refugee, and two weeks after receiving asylum I got a call from the company in charge of housing to sign a lease and move into my new house, to begin the life I’d come here to find.
Because of my health condition, the house was totally unsuitable. But of course, you’re in no position to object. So while I arranged the house I stayed with one of my friends. I’d go do some work in the house for a little bit and then come back to my friend’s place. As I was arranging the house, I met this older woman, who worked in an organization that supported refugees, helping us solve any problems that might arise with our housing, such as the issues I was having then with the electricity, gas, and water facilities. I was introduced to this woman by a young Syrian man who worked as a translator in the same organization. I still remember it to this day, it’s impossible to forget, because on that day the young man said to me, “I’m going to introduce you to Dory, the ‘bearer of burdens!’” I had no idea what he meant at the time; it only became clear after I’d met this incredible creature named Dory.
Dory was 65 years old, with two daughters about my age. She stood beside me, so powerful and strong, providing me with all the support I needed until I moved into that house.
And so my friend and I moved in together, and we began arranging our stuff. At night we were trying to put the bedroom furniture together, and it was all chaos and mess in the house. Of course, we didn’t manage with the furniture ourselves, so we decided that the next day we’d ask someone to help us. We left everything as it was and went to bed. The next morning the doorbell rang at 8am. I opened the door to find a municipal employee and my intake officer standing there. They’d come to inspect all the receipts I’d submitted, to make sure they matched up with the actual items I’d purchased. The municipality offered loans to help furnish your house, and some of them would send people over to inspect all the details, asking for proofs of purchase and detailed receipts for all the items. I permitted them to enter and explained all the different things to them, pointing things out, like this is the washing machine, here’s the stove, here’s the dryer, here’s the fridge, but they were looking at other things and not listening to a word I said.
I got mad and irritably asked them to please leave my house. In the end I kicked them out. They handed me an envelope and left. When they were gone, I started blacking out and was having trouble breathing. I called my friend Mama Dory and told her what was happening to me. Mama Dory showed up with an ambulance, and I will never forget how she cried as the paramedics put an oxygen mask over my face, trying to revive me. I’d lost consciousness because I wasn’t breathing right and I wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
The night passed peacefully, and I was able to get myself under control again. After I’d calmed down, I fell asleep as though drifting off into a different world. I felt as though I was dreaming, or actually daydreaming. I woke up the next morning and had to be at the county municipality office at 8am. The first thing they did was show me a video I was in. Of course in my capacity as a journalist and correspondent I’d appeared in many videos. This one was a report I’d produced for Orient TV about the Dutch elections. Naturally, I told Mama Dory all the details of the things I was working on in order to protect myself, since she was offering me aid on behalf of the organization she worked for. So, I didn’t want to hurt either of us. I’d told her that I was doing something for this channel, hoping to get a job opportunity, a contract. And of course they surprised me by questioning me about some Facebook posts I’d made dating all the way back to 2014 up until the current moment of their investigation.
They cut off my financial aid and told me I owed them 10,000 Euro in fines. I had no idea why, and I didn’t understand anything save for the fact that I wasn’t committed to living in the housing they’d provided. To this day I remember all the details of this story I’m about to tell you, of how Mama Dory stood up and told the employees, “This girl here is my daughter from this moment onward and if anything bad should happen to her I’m the one you have to answer to”. She took me by the hand and we left the place at once. I was in shock; I couldn’t believe the words I’d heard come out of her mouth. Honestly, I felt that I belonged to this family, her family. I felt a great responsibility toward her and her daughters and even her grandchildren. A huge sense of familiarity and love was forged between us on that day. I’d found a family to embrace me after I’d felt so lost and unable to belong anywhere. But that day I felt there were people I cared and feared for and who cared and feared for me.
At last, I have a country, and a sense of belonging to a family who embraced me and supported me and stood by me in a way that truly defies description. Honestly, I feel I belong to the Netherlands because I feel like a citizen here, a citizen who has rights as well as duties, and that the law here is applicable to all. Everyone is equal, there is no rich or poor, old or young. I wish that one day the same can be true of my homeland, Syria, which I can never forget or abandon, even if I have a new country and identity now.
This was the story of my Dutch mother, and she is a big part of the story of my journey to the Netherlands and how I came to belong to this country.