Jouman Mohammad

Produced by: Reem Maghribi
Part of the Curated Collection: Stories of Belonging,
Original Interview Length:
Interview Location: London, United Kingdom
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My name is Jouman Mohammad. I’m 50 years old, originally from Iraq and now a UK citizen. I live in London, and previously in my country I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Computing from the University of Baghdad. After I graduated, I taught there as a postgraduate student. Today, I have a Master’s in Pharmacy that I received from the University of London in 2015.

I left Baghdad because of the difficult political and economic conditions that Iraq has been mired in since the 1980s. I actually left right after the fall of Baghdad in August 2003. I immigrated to the UK in the hopes of finding a safe country in which to live, and so that I could have some measure of material and moral stability.

I come from an educated family, of a good social class; many of my family members hold higher degrees. My father, god rest his soul, was a writer and poet.

I’ll tell you my story: since coming to Britain, I had hopes that life would become all rosy, but the minute I stepped out of the airport my heart constricted and I felt like my soul had been sucked out of me. I started sobbing so hard it felt like blood, not tears, was gushing out of my eyes. What was wrong? I had no explanation for this feeling that took hold of me the minute I left the airport. It was as if I was choking, like I was gasping to breathe but there was no air. That’s exactly how it felt.

Later, I would discover that this is what they call estrangement, what it feels like to leave one’s country. It’ll become easier, I told myself. I was trying to lighten the load. Many days passed and the feeling only grew bigger every day. It became a state of depression; I felt like there was a knife constantly tearing at my guts. Of course, I tried to ignore it. “I came here of my own accord,” I told myself. “I didn’t come to mourn my own fate. And so I have to be better tomorrow, life needs to be better here,” and I convinced myself that I was both the source of the disease and the cure.

Then I thought, ok, I need to find a way to adapt, to coexist properly with this society. Everything is strange here, everything: the weather, the food, the religions, rituals, traditions, customs. And I am a Muslim woman, somewhat conservative, and so how will I be able to coexist with them? I felt… not that they rejected me, but that I couldn’t really find an entry point.

 

After a great effort, and because I’m academically inclined and I prize education above all else, I told myself decisively: “This is the only weapon you hold, the only key you know of. You have to learn the language well, so that you can study in it, and then, through language and education, you’ll have the keys you need to enter this society, to be able to understand its ins and outs.” I just didn’t know how to begin; I had no one to help or advise me. I asked some of the people I met but they either didn't know or weren’t interested or inclined to help me.

Anyway, so I said to myself: “I have to depend on myself. I came here alone and I need to rely on myself for every detail.” And so one day while out walking I found a library near where I was living. Full of fear and terror, I entered. I was so lacking in confidence; I had no idea how to ask for what I wanted. In my stammering language I spoke to the kind young woman in charge and told her that I love to read, and that I wish to learn the language so I can become a member of this library, to come during my spare time to read and spend some hours. She was very happy to hear this, and she was more than willing to help. She gave me a small book about learning language for someone like me, a beginner who needs to use a dictionary sometimes but who knows how to read English. Then I went to a language learning institute, the one closest to my home, and after some effort they accepted me and I began attending courses.

That institute was really the spark that lit the way. It was the first and most important step in my peaceful, effective, and proper coexistence with the British society I’d come to. Credit is due to two teachers at that institute, Ms. Andrea and Mr. Dominic, who were really instrumental in my education, teaching me not only the language, but things about the society itself such as habits and customs and laws, what’s considered right and wrong, about the religions practiced here, how to respect other religions and about coexisting peacefully with people whose beliefs or religion or ideas you don’t agree with. They taught me about manners here. They really taught me everything, they became like friends, not just teachers who deliver their lesson and then go. And in turn, we shared with them our own customs and traditions when Ramadan came around.

The blessed month of Ramadan arrived a little while after the semester had begun, and I would always ask permission to leave the class and pray, which surprised them. “Why are you leaving in the middle of the lesson?” Then I returned and explained everything to them. I would bring my iftar meal with me, and it always looked so clean and neat and beautiful, and I’d offer food to everyone so we could share, especially some sweet dates and Arabic coffee. I explained the special Ramadan traditions, and how it’s a part of our religion and how I have to pray at certain particular times and break my fast at a particular time. I explained all our traditions and customs, how we eat and told them about some delicious Iraqi dishes. They were surprised that Arabs eat so cleanly! That our coffee was so sweet, and our Ramadan traditions were so beautiful. And they were so astonished, they said: “Now we know the destructiveness of the media’s role in distorting the truth, and presenting as the truth something that doesn’t even exist.” And so we began sharing with one another, everything from our religions to our habits and customs, and we’d even share if we’d bought something new, we’d get into the smallest details of our lives.

I began feeling less strange, and I began adapting to the society little by little. But there was still the sense of being a child in an adult’s body, a feeling that had overcome me the minute I entered the UK. I was a thirty-year-old child, because everything was strange and new. I wasn’t a child in the sense of being little, just that everything was strange. One day I was sitting with Ms. Andrea during one of our breaks, drinking some coffee together, and I told her: “Andrea, I know I’m better than I was before, but I still feel a little estranged. I feel childish, a bit primitive, I have no work in this place, I have no home, I don’t own a car, I don’t have an ID, or citizenship, or passport, or even a bank card.”

And she said: “Jouman, you need to have more confidence. You will acquire all of these things bit by bit, don’t get ahead of yourself.”

At the end of her speech, she said: “Look Jouman, I wouldn’t be at all surprised, and in fact I have confidence that you will be someone to contend with, that one day we’ll be colleagues and you’ll be an excellent and successful teacher in the same faculty as me, teaching whatever subject you like.”

“You think?” I asked.

And she said: “No, no, no I don’t think. I’m sure.”

Of course, her words… you can’t imagine what a huge boost of confidence they gave me. They made me love myself more, decide to work on myself with every ounce of effort I had. I vowed I’d fight this battle down to its last detail. I need to be an active member of this society, and I need to integrate fully, and I need to attain all of those things I said I wanted. I started my journey from point zero, and that teacher’s words were the spark that lit my fuse. I began and insisted upon and threw myself into the experience in every way, from learning the language, to becoming intermediate, to secondary school, to other degrees, to university level, until I was accepted into the best and most prestigious school, University College London, and I graduated among the top of my class, achieving a Master’s degree, with honors, in 2015.

This was my story, and I am Jouman from Britain.