Faten Helal

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Peaceful Coexistence in the Diaspora,
Original Interview Length:
Interview Location: Marseille, France
Production Team:
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Faten is a widow who lived in Damascus, where her husband died under torture in prison. She said she was told he had died but no one ever brought her his body. Her pain and emotion are very fresh.

After his death, she fled with her three children, applied for asylum in several countries, and was accepted in France. She flew to Paris with her children six years ago and they were granted an apartment. She did not know a word of French but she memorised a number of words and phrases that she frequently had to use to fill out forms and talk to officials in administration. Because of this, she was only granted 100 hours of free language study instead of the 400 hours normally given to those who know no French. She regrets not having the chance to study more and improve her French, which she says is still weak. However, she must work and cannot afford to pay for the language instruction that would allow her to go back to school.

In Syria, she stayed at home and raised her children; she lived with family members and support around her. She never had to work as her husband, who was a trader, made a decent living. The whole experience of arriving and living in Paris was daunting and entirely unmanageable. Someone accompanied her to an immigration building and once she had completed her tasks told her that she could return home. “But I did not know where home was or where I lived. I had only been in the apartment for a few days.”

After one year she and her children moved to Marseille but she says that during that initial period in France she was irritable and shouted at her kids and cried often; she felt desperate and lost and was grieving terribly for her husband. She thought about it and decided she had two choices: either she would spoil her children’s emotional health by continuing in that state or she must decide to make a positive life for herself and her children in France. She chose to adapt and seek work, and started to talk to Algerians and other store owners. She was offered a few catering jobs and when her cooking was appreciated she was hired as a cook to make Syrian food. She continues to work there. She hopes to open her own restaurant but is unable to due to the rent prices and the need for capital.

She says she has changed a lot. After the interview she mentioned that she had taken off her headscarf, which she wore out of social habit more than religious conviction. She said now she loves to work and that working outside the home is much better. She talks easily, jokes with people and makes friends with Syrians, Arabs, French and other international people. She often invites friends over for food and dancing, and she says one of her French friends now says she wants to hear the song “ouu ouu ouu”—mimicking the tune but forgetting the words, and Faten knows exactly which song she means.

Faten says she is open with her children, permitting them to lead normal French lives but making sure they do not lose their Arabic. She does not want them to be too different to their friends, leading double-lives and hiding teenage things they do.

She finds a way to communicate with French friends but wishes she could continue to study the language so she could communicate easily, and maybe continue with her studies. She misses her family and Syria but what happened to her husband and what could also happen to her 19-year old son if she returned has made her decide to make France her home.