I am Ruba Hammud from Homs, Syria. I am a lawyer, and I used to be a journalist who raised awareness of Syrian women's rights, violence against women, and the Syrian child. I was active from 2011 to 2017, then I left Syria in order to protect my children due to several security and psychological pressures that are mainly a result of the war. I came to France in 2017 and for the last two years and four months have been in the city of Le Bô. I am happy with this city but the start was a little tricky.
The beginning was difficult in general, not only for me. It is difficult for anyone who comes to a new country and a new language to start a new life. There was difficulty in everything, even buying things for two children. At first there was no one to help but then I contacted an association. The situation was not easy at all, especially because we can say that I am …
Of course, the first thing I had to do to start on the right path was to start learning French. The French in the south of the country have a different accent, which required additional lessons. I had to communicate with the French to improve myself in the language. Luckily, I became friends with my teacher from the French language class. We had a nice friendship that would take place after class, as we would sit together, have coffee and talk. What was so surprising to me is that my teacher had nothing but a negative view on Syria due to the stereotypes about the country, women’s rights there and the society. This disturbed me because we were not like this in Syria.
After several outings, I started talking to the friendly teacher about this, hoping to change her views about Syria without being sharp or attacking her because sometimes a newcomer might come across as offensive without meaning to and perhaps seem defensive. I was careful not to be sharp or aggressive. I used YouTube for videos and talked to her about the Book and civilization.
She was surprised that we have a large Christian community in Syria. I also told her about the town of Maaloula and the "Deir Al-Shirupim". I showed her pictures of the Sidnaya region, churches in Aleppo, and the Hamidiyah in Damascus. She was really surprised to see all this culture in Syria. Although she was a teacher who was knowledgeable and travelled a lot, she had a limited perspective on the Middle East based on Beirut, Turkey, Cairo or even Baghdad, and unfortunately had never heard of Damascus in that way before. Every time we met up, I showed her more videos and taught her about our culture.
One time I showed her a video of the Syrian writer, Lena Huayan Al-Hassan, and showed her a photo of her. She thought that Syria was a very radical and extremist country and had a preconceived idea that all of Syria is extremist with radical Islamic groups, and that women do not exist there. Again, I tried to correct these stereotypes at every opportunity.
I was invited to her home although generally the French here are a bit cautious about inviting you to their house. They may socialise with you and be happy to keep your company but it is not in their culture to invite you to their home. In return, I invited the teacher more than once to my home and introduced her to my kids. In fact, when I went to her house I wanted to show her something new, some Syrian foods called Taboule [a parsley salad] and Yalangi [made with stuffed vine leaves] and she was surprised by the flavour. I explained the Syrian cuisine to her, as it is rich with many different flavours. She came across a dish called Bamye (ocra) on the internet and she learned that it contained a type of vegetable and wanted to learn how to prepare it. I agreed to teach her the recipe. I took her to an Arabic market and I was surprised at the way she shopped as she bought “Rahat el Halqom” along with the bamye that I prepared for her later at home. She liked it very much. She also bought a sauce called dibs romman [pomegranate molasses] as she loved this natural sauce that we use plenty of. The French who are famous for their sauces do not know this one. She also bought many other things like oriental sweets, though they were very heavy, and I helped her to get them fresh either online or in shops.
Perhaps she got more comfortable with me through the Syrian cuisine because she saw something new in this civilization, and she was very pleased with that. After a while, she introduced me to a friend of hers. She introduced me to her as an open-minded easy going student, unlike the others in her French language lessons.
I did not know what their view was on Syrians, unfortunately, and I do not blame them or blame the Syrians because the circumstances the Syrians face are very tough.
After that, we had multiple visits with her three friends, one of whom was over 70 years old. During one of the meetings, they said to me, "We want you to ask you for something and maybe it is strange but we want it from you free of charge." I expected that they would ask for a certain dish or something they liked or to teach them something new. The demand was that they wanted to learn Arabic!
I said, “Do you mean the Arabic language?” They replied, “We want to learn Arabic and we want to try to read Arabic books.”
Reading for the French is something essential in their daily lives. They read a lot and care about culture but they only read translated books.
Before they asked me to teach them Arabic, my friends wanted to read books related to Syria. Unfortunately, they found only historical cultural books but wanted to read literature and so they asked me to teach them Arabic. "Maybe we can browse an Arabic website where we can read about Syria ..."
I was very pleased to do this. I felt that I gave something to Syria, something to myself, something to them.
We agreed on a weekly time for the lesson, and the lessons were not just based on texts, I also used YouTube videos. I introduced them to female Syrian writers and they were surprised when they heard about the writer Mary Agmiya. They had heard of the Bride magazine but they knew nothing else. I talked to them about many things, including Dr. Amani Belor, a doctor who worked in very difficult circumstances.
I talked to them about Syrian cinema, about the director Waad El-Khatib, and told them that we have very beautiful cinema but it is not screened abroad.
It can be said here that my friendship with them made me love France, love the way of life and learn French customs. At the same time, they started speaking of a very beautiful country, tired of war, called Syria. A country that has a special cuisine, lovely people, churches and monuments to visit. They have a very strong desire to come one day and visit Syria.
I am very happy now. After two years and four months, I started a new job. It is a simple job and I am trying to equalise my certificate. I reached the conclusion that we are Syrians who are familiar with French culture, and that they managed to make their culture known to us by translating French literature for us. So we know, for example Guillaume Musso and Michel Bossi and we know Mark Levy and a lot of other writers. But unfortunately, the French know nothing about us. I do not know if it is the responsibility of the media, of translators or of writers to penetrate western civilization. This is what makes Syria somewhat absent from its own continent, its heritage and its literature.
Syria is great and if circumstances were different for this country it could have reached Western civilizations. Unfortunately, everything is difficult in Syria, knowing that we have the ingredients of life, well-being and culture. I do not know exactly where the mistake lies that a country like Syria is not heard of abroad. It breaks my heart when they ask me, “where are you from? Beirut or Amman?” And when you tell them Damascus or Aleppo, they stare not knowing where that is, and then search for it on Google to find out. It is painful that as a country we are not known abroad, and if we are known, the image is very narrow and negative.
There will be a day when they visit Syria. This is my story with that family and my sense of belonging to them.