Nour Kayali lives in Austria. This is a translation of the transcript of her recorded story:
Whenever she sent me a message, she would say: "Good morning, how are you doing? How is Asmar?" Or even when she came to visit us, the first question would be about Asmar!
Asmar is my cat. I remember coming to this building and seeing her walking her dogs. She doesn’t speak English and my German was not strong - it still is not strong but I can speak and communicate better. I have not been able to cope with this language since I arrived in Austria. I did not like it so I was not able to learn it. This never prevented me from saying: “Good morning. How are you? Can I pet the dog? What is its name?” Every time I would prolong the conversation when I saw her going to walk them and maybe ask about their gender etc.
The dogs had a share of the greeting and that was something that made her happy. One day, I saw her on the street and I was encouraged to tell her that I love animals and I would love to own a cat. I asked her if she could tell me how I could find a cat in this province, online or in a pet store. She told me that there are websites. She opened her mobile phone and taught me how to search using various apps.
I often invited her to visit me for coffee, and after several invites she accepted. Our entire conversation was about animals, how much she loved them and how we have both loved everything about pets since we were kids.
She then told me that she does not go on vacations because she has animals in the house, two big dogs, a cat and about 23 hamsters. This made my brother afraid because he has a phobia of dogs and hamsters but not cats.
When I got Asmar, she was the first person to visit me, and from time to time she would pet him and play with him. She showed huge love for him, and this made us closer. It made me feel that there is something common between us at least, our love for animals. We could connect with each other in a society where everything is different, but our love and the compassion we have for animals made these differences seem less.
Once in the veterinary clinic, everyone talked to me and my brother because our cat is very small and cute. They started to come forward and talk to us, talk about how cute he is and ask about his name and type. Even on the street on the way home, they started talking e to us and coming closer when they saw that we were carrying a cat in the basket.
My brother told me: “Since we came to Austria four years ago, I haven’t communicated with so many people! Next time I go for a walk I’ll take Asmar so I can meet and talk to people”. Indeed, animals here are the keys to building relationships, the key to real love among people in Austria, the true way of forging a friendship.
The lady sometimes comes to visit me to have coffee, eat food that she loves, and play with Asmar. Once I brought some dessert that she really loves. I sent her a message saying that I wanted to send her some and she told me that she was very sick and could not eat anything. I took her some soup as comfort food and went and knocked on her door. I did this for days. She sent me a message saying, "Thank you very much. You did something great".
It made me happy from within and I told her that she didn’t need to thank me because for us as Arabs it was not a big thing as we feel it is a duty toward our neighbours and they are like parents to us. We take care of our neighbours. When I stayed in a building which had four apartments, my brother and I wanted to get to know our neighbours so we brought them some cake and flowers to apologize for all the noise we made moving in and for blocking the road. I remember my shock when I went out the next day and found the cake and flowers in the trash. I don't know who did this. What bothered me was the message. What happened made us avoid people who live in this building because we felt that we were not accepted, which is a horrible feeling. My neighbour Petra was the only person who immediately thanked me and bought a bottle of wine as a gift when we gave her the flowers and cake. I found this very nice and different from the rest.
Of course, I kept in touch with Petra from time to time. Because of the discomfort I felt when I saw my stuff in the garbage, I became more formal with my neighbours in general, but Petra visited us from time to time and almost every weekend. This was quite different from the norm in Austria as their relationships here are basically limited and distant. What allowed me to break the barriers quickly with this neighbour was animals and our long monthly visits. We were able to communicate using mobile phones to translate some vocabulary that we did not know. She helped me to get to know more about the area and the people. Good people and bad people, bad neighbours and good neighbours, and of course I found out who had thrown the flowers and cake away.
Generally, people here within the district are very nice and they greet you even if they don't know you. Even if you don't say a word to them, they nod their heads with a nice smile. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the area, as beautiful as it is and although it is considered a tourist destination. I didn't have any feelings about it, perhaps because it is so sparsely populated and I am more of a big city girl.
The proportion of older people here is very big. This area is considered to be for people who are about to retire from work. Most of the young people from here are abroad. I have a small group of friends, maybe one or two, and they are much older than me.I see them every two or three months, for an hour or two.
I tried to move elsewhere but the circumstances, especially being on a budget, and being with my brother, made this difficult. He is still afraid of new people, unlike me. My brother feels that moving from one place to another is a difficult thing. He is more stable than me and was able to find a job. I tried but my health conditions prevented me. Also, a very old German dialect is spoken in our district and it is not like what is taught at school. Perhaps this prevented us from communicating much with people. Most of our communication is in English and old German.
My neighbour is young and works and she is able to correct my vocabulary and help me when we are together. She translates for me and says: “Don't say it like that, say it like this ....” Really, language is key to building your relationships in a community. You will remain a stranger if you do not know it because people feel more comfortable with you when you speak their language and use their accent.
But I have found another key, the shared love for animals. Perhaps animal love does not need a language or does not need specific vocabulary. It is something that makes you communicate, break the boundaries, create feelings and move your senses. I don't know how to describe it. But we, as Syrians, are different from the Austrians.
Four years ago, many things changed for me. I was annoyed if anyone called me Nour because in German it means "only" and I have to explain what my name means every time. Now when anyone calls me "only" I don't get annoyed, I laugh, maybe I've got used to it and started speaking this language that I didn’t know before I came to Europe and the circumstances meant that I ended up in a German speaking country.
The journey is difficult but I am on track to being able to speak and communicate more, so that I feel I can really live in this community. Since quarantine because of Covid19, I haven’t seen my neighbour but she keeps sending me messages from time to time asking: "How are you? How is Asmar?".
I am Nour from Austria and this is my story."