Yasmine Atassi is from Syria and currently living in The Netherlands. Here, she talks to us about her Syrian identity:
Because of family circumstances, I always wondered about my sense of belonging: was it to the country or to cities? I didn’t really know a sense of belonging to the nation, the homeland. When I grew up a little, I began understand what Syria is. It’s the place that formed my thoughts, where I formed some of the principles I adhere to. Now I say, of course I’m Syrian, I belong to this land no matter who is in power. I’ve read the history of Syria, I’ve read about its civilizations and cultures and believed in its future, and I was just waiting for the day when the people would rise up as one in revolution.
On how the last years of conflict have affected her sense of identity:
The revolution divided the Syrians along many different lines. There were those who wanted to be part of the revolution and to be citizens but who didn’t really understand the meaning of citizenship. In the years previous, these kinds of people had been taught that they weren’t in fact citizens but slaves belonging to the deified person of the president. This destroys a sense of belonging to the homeland. This group of people found themselves lost after forty years of oppression and injustice and tyranny from the regime. Another group was the opposite: they knew they were against the country, and they made no distinction between the ruling regime and the country itself. And another group said, great, here’s an opportunity to go to Europe; I don’t belong here to this country. This group forgot their history, forgot themselves. There’s yet another group, the one I belong to, who grabbed hold of the moment of revolution, seeing it as an opportunity to assert their belonging. Those first two years of the revolution were the most beautiful years of my whole life. We completely broke through the barrier of fear; we were able to express ourselves, and I came to better understand my attachment to Syria.
On how immigration has affected her sense of identity:
I was certain of my identity as a Syrian, of my belonging to Syria and my Syrian nationality. This wasn’t affected in the least, because the further away you get from something you love, the more attached you feel to it. We didn’t want to leave; we were forced to. I was forcibly displaced from my home, but despite that I still wasn’t affected. For the last six years here at our house in Holland, we’ve been displaying the flag of the revolution on our door, the flag of independence.
On the rituals, habits, and daily traditions she practices and their relationship to her identity:
In Syria, I wasn’t a fan of most of the traditions and customs, especially the extravagance with which certain occasions were celebrated, the excessive importance ascribed to things that, to me, aren’t tangible. I love any joyous celebration that delights people, whether it’s a Muslim or Christian holiday, or anything that requires decorations. I love any gathering, even just around the dinner table, and Syrians love gathering around food. Even though I never really attended any weddings in Syria, I began missing them here. I love simple things that bring joy, and these things didn’t change for me when I immigrated. None of that changed—I’m still the same as I was in Syria. But I have a longing for social warmth. I miss having neighbors, gathering with neighbors. Here we don’t have a Syrian community; we miss the presence of a Syrian community to embrace our joys and heal our wounds. I made an initiative in the town where I live, I proposed that they give us a space in the town hall, a room where we might have awareness-raising meetings, a space in which to hold celebrations or maybe even to grieve. Communal joy and communal grief unites us, and this certainly might mitigate the effect of immigration on our Syrian identity. When I went to cast my vote for the Dutch Parliamentary elections, I told them: I’m Syrian and this is the first time in my entire life that I’m voting. I told them, I’m from Syria, which means I’m proud that I’m able to vote and even more proud that I’m Syrian. I exercised my right in the Netherlands, the rights I wasn’t able to exercise in Syria.
If she had to define her identity briefly:
I belong to the land of greater Syria, to its history and to its future, without any rules or limits. This is my identity. I was born in Syria and God willing I will get to die in Syria.