Waiting in the Borderlands with Kurdish Refugees
Kapka Kassabova Journeys to the Edge of Europe
Alal was a broad woman who moved like a royal frigate in her free-flowing dress and bare feet. She carried her uncovered head high, her gaze hard and unflinching, her skin a bit pale after the long Balkan winter of waiting and smoking, cooking and hoping. When she walked into the room, something else entered with her: a sense that everyone would be looked after and everything would come right, even if things were desperate, utterly desperate now.
They had just received the official letter they’d been waiting for, for eight months, the letter that they hoped would finally green-stamp the family with a Yes. Yes you are released from the waiting corridor, yes we acknowledge that you fled your home in Iraqi Kurdistan because it was nearly overrun by Islamic State and your lives were at risk, yes you are legally allowed to travel onwards to Western Europe, settle down, work, begin to live again.
But the answer was No.
“Sit,” she said in Kurdish and pointed at the bare kitchen table. While she made me a Nescafé and lit a cigarette, she leaned on the kitchen sink and gave me a good hard look to work out where I sat on the spectrum of well-meaning but ineffectual do-gooders. I put my notebook away.
They were renting this flat in Silk Town because the refugee camp for families had been noisy and depressing. They had seen a young Syrian man die of grief for his wife who was stuck on the other side of the border, she said—it started as a migraine, but it was his heart that gave out in the end, and the doctor came too late. She sat beside him to the end, so he wouldn’t be completely alone.
For the time being, they could afford the rent, though the money from the sale of the family house was running out, Soran said, and sat down next to me with his nth cigarette of the day. He was a short, stocky man with an easy laugh and eyes that had seen too much.
“I know I smoke too much,” he said. “I can’t sleep at night, believe me. Thinking all the time. What to do, what to do. In the morning, I am tired but there is no answer.”
Alal was fourteen years old when she married Soran. They had eight children, aged between four and twenty-seven—and the twenty-seven-year-old was Erdem.
“I’d like two more,” she said, “but not now. Maybe when I’m happier.”
Soran had a second wife for a short time, because that’s the custom, he said—but it wasn’t working, he said. So I stopped after one child and divorced the other wife. Because Alal is perfect for me.
“Dead right I am,” she said and sat next to him at the kitchen table.
“Thirty years we’ve been married,” he said and put an arm around her. “I’m a lucky man.”
“You can say that again,” she said with the same deadpan expression.
It was their game. In reality, this was the first time they had all lived together for more than a few weeks. Soran had been absent from the family most of their lives. On his mobile, he showed me photographs from the 1980s and 90s, the kinds of scenes I had only seen in magazine articles and films.
Soran and two friends with 80s hair, moustaches, and Kalashnikovs, high in the bleached dusty northern mountains of Iraq.
Peshmerga, he said. Kurdish guerrilla fighters. We were fighting Saddam.
Soran and a friend—my best friend, he said—in a cave, grilling something over a fire, grinning, tired. He was already a father of five by then, but rarely went down into the village because it was dangerous, he said.
“It was dangerous to be Kurdish, under Saddam,” Alal said.
Soran and one of his brothers at a low table, under a pomegranate tree.
“All dead,” he said matter-of-factly, and clocking my appalled look he smiled, as if I was the one needing comfort.
“Yes, my friend, that’s what it was like. To be Peshmerga. Believe me, it was not a Hollywood movie. Many people died in the mountains and the birds ate them. My brother, my friends, killed by Saddam. I’m a lucky man.”
He got away with two bullets, one in his shin where a hole gaped the size of a plum, and another one in his stomach. I looked at Alal.
“Yes,” she said. “Every day, I wondered: Am I a widow? In Kurdistan, you’re never too young to be a widow.”
Alal means red rose in Kurdish. She said she never thought she would have to run without looking back. In her home village in the mountains, she had lived as if she would always have that life.
Don’t we all.
Their three teenaged daughters came out of their room, in jeans and T-shirts, completely different from their parents—tall and skinny with youth and despondency, fragile transplants that had been ripped out of their soil but could find no nourishment here. They understood English but were too timid to engage with a stranger beyond polite greetings. The two youngest boys were four and seven, and as far as they were concerned, this was an adventure. Dressed in camouflage outfits with “Peshmerga” badges on them, they played all day. Once in a while, as a special treat, Soran took the kids out for a lunch of fried calamari and chips at the Café Central, opposite the flashing promises of the Pasha Casino.
“If we’d stayed in Iraq, all my boys would have had to become Peshmerga too, like me when I was young,” said Soran. “But now they’d be fightning Islamic State.”
“The girls too,” said Alal. “I don’t want that for them.”
When I asked the girls about their friends back home, the friends they’d last seen eight months ago, the eldest girl simply began to cry, though she made no sound. Her tears fell on the kitchen table. I touched her hand and I was suddenly seventeen again.
I was back in our Sofia apartment, in our family’s deepest winter of the soul, the winter of waiting for emigration visas in 1991. Snow fell in the darkness outside. There was no fuel for cars, so people walked everywhere on the ice, and every night the power cut out. And because bad things always come in bunches, my mother had been hospitalised for an emergency operation for a tumour. Stunned with angst, the three of us sat in the dark apartment, waiting to find out what kind of tumour it was (benign), and to hear back from the British Home Office (the answer was No). My father, still working as a professor but with a salary made nonsensical by mega-inflation, sat in the cold kitchen filling in emigration papers. He hadn’t shaved for days, and his hair had gone grey overnight. While things unravelled in slow motion, my younger sister kept a low profile and quietly did her homework in candlelight, while I simply stopped eating in protest.
I looked at the skinny girls next to me and felt everything with them: the humiliation, the injustice, the mindfuck of having to hate where you come from but having nothing new to love, your parents desperate to give you a better life, struggling against impossible odds. The sensation of being invisible, unwanted, speechless, a disembodied soul waiting in one of history’s drafty corridors.
“The girls might never see their friends again,” Soran said.
Alal made no comment. She lit another cigarette and gazed out of the window from which you could see the many-arched bridge. It definitely looked cursed from here. What is a bridge for, if you still can’t cross the river?
During a winter expedition through the Caucasus, so cold “the sun rose in four places,” the travel writer Evliya Çelebi’s retinue came to a great river: “But it was not frozen over. Nor were there any boats. We were overcome with a grieving sensation difficult to describe.” They could neither turn back nor go forward.
The girls had planned to go to university.
“I don’t want my daughters to just get married, like us,” Soran said. “But in Kurdistan, that’s the culture. In Europe, maybe the girls have a chance.”
“This is not Europe,” Alal said with energy. “We can’t work, we can’t move. This is a prison.”
But what is Europe?
“Europe is where you are not afraid. That’s freedom. And that’s home,” Alal said, with the fury of a brave heart who had been forced to live in fear for too long.
In the garden of their home, on the proceeds of whose sale they were now surviving, Alal grew roses. Theirs was the land of pomegranates and citrons, honey and musk. When Evliya Çelebi travelled to Kurdistan with the retinue of Melek Ahmed Pasha in 1655, even his high Ottoman standards of decadence were jolted by how the people of the Tigris delta lived in the summer, in their river gardens. They “are the envy of the world for the delights they enjoy for seven or eight months of the year along the bank of the Tigris; thinking to snatch a bit of pleasure from this transitory world.” He marvelled at the giant basil that grew into a dense forest so that “the brains of the men and women living there are perfumed night and day with the fragrance of basil and the other flowers in these gardens, such as roses, judas trees and hyacinth… Here on the bank of the Tigris there is a merry tumult day and night, with music and song, for a full seven months. Everyone parties in his hut with his lovers and friends.”
Soran had lived and worked in London for many years, sending money home. During those years, he had missed home so much that sometimes, in a bout of nostalgia, he’d jump on a plane at Heathrow and fly to Erbil.
“Just to smell the air and kiss my wife. Then I’d y back on time for my next shift.”
“Iraq was okay for a few years,” Alal said. “After the fall of Saddam.”
What the world doesn’t realise, Soran went on, is that what threatens the Kurds also threatens Europe and America. But once again, like in the time of Saddam, the Kurds are alone. Fighting a global war on behalf of the world with home-made weapons. The girls get enlisted to be Peshmerga guerrillas too. Nobody is spared.
“Where is the justice in that, tell me, my friend,” he said.
“Kurdistan was doing well, for a while,” Alal said. “The future looked hopeful.”
Then Islamic State began to make incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan. Soran and Alal made a decision to flee while they still could, and sold the house. Crossing into Turkey wasn’t diffcult, and once in Turkey, buying British passports for the whole family was a doddle, he said, if you had money.
But at the Bulgarian border they were detained. Only one of the nine British passports was genuine.
Why hadn’t Soran got real British passports for his family earlier, while he still could?
“I applied, believe me. Many times. Many thousands of pounds. It was not possible.”
Our old friend the British Home Office required evidence of sufficient income to support the whole family in London, and Soran was on a kitchen hand’s wages.
“I had a car, a Lexus.”
When the Bulgarian border guards detained the family, they confiscated the car.
“It could be worse.” He grinned his painful grin. “It was just a car.”
Stressed people came and went from the apartment, scrolling down phones, scrutinising documents, discussing the next step, or sinking into anxious torpor and gazing into space. One of the visitors was their lawyer, a young local woman with dark circles under her eyes, who held a cigarette for an hour without lighting it. She was appealing the government’s decision.
“Actually, it’s a matter between three countries,” she said. “Bulgaria, Britain, and Iraq. It’s complicated but at least they have a chance. Many don’t.”
Her own great-grandparents were Aegean refugees from the Balkan Wars. They had arrived robbed of their possessions by road brigands, and moved with nothing into one of the big houses of this neighborhood. The big houses vacated by Muslims fleeing to Turkey.
“As the descendant of refugees, it’s my duty to help these people. Otherwise the story will never change. You know the legal definition of a refugee?”
A refugee is a person persecuted by their own government or living under a government unable to protect its own citizens, she said. If Soran and Alal don’t fit that, then nobody does and governments should go hang.
But no legal paper records the emotional definition of a refugee: someone with “a grieving sensation difficult to describe.”
Alal lit a portable gas wok on the floor of the kitchen and began cooking. When she and the girls had prepared a huge pile of spicy fried chicken, rice with raisins and nuts, and pickles, a roster of feeding began. There was a pecking order. First, it was Alal and Soran with the guest (me). Then Erdam came with a friend, an effete type with pomade in his hair and a midnight-blue velvet jacket who had the air of habitual privilege. He was angry, angry and aware that he had one last thing to hold on to: his style.
“Oh I see,” he said tartly when we were introduced. “Soran has got himself a second wife.”
Everybody laughed, even the girl who had been in tears just before.
“You’re writing a book?” the velvet jacket said. “That’s very nice for you, but not for me. I need a visa.”
“Be quiet,” Alal said, “or you’ll eat somewhere else.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, “that I can’t help you.”
“It’s okay, I can’t even help myself,” he said with a flourish, and everybody laughed. He had left Iraq four years ago, with a friend. At the Turkish-Bulgarian border, Bulgarian guards beat them up, took their mobile phones and their money, and sent them back into Turkey. From there, they crossed into Greece.
“I like Greece, but in Greece there’s only beach. No money, no work. Four years I didn’t see Mama and Papa. I talk to them every day. They cry.”
I asked him if he spoke Greek.
“I speak six languages. English, Kurdish, Arabic, Greek, Persian, and Italian. I want to go to Roma,” he said. His flamboyance contrasted with the family’s down-to-earth style.
“Six languages my foot,” Soran said. “He says he speaks English, and you see how good his English is. Can you imagine his Greek?”
Another round of laughter. I asked what his job had been in Athens.
“Job: gay,” Soran answered for him and the room went down in giggles.
“That’s not a job,” I said.
“It is for him,” Soran said, to another attack of mirth. Velvet jacket didn’t seem to mind, he liked being the centre of attention. Out of everyone gathered here, his situation was the most favourable—he was multilingual if not fluent, his parents sent him money, and he already had the precious “green card” which was actually blue and which was not far from the refugee status that would allow him to travel to his precious Roma.
A week later when I walked past Café Dream I saw Soran, his seated figure packed with stress, an empty espresso cup before him. He was scrolling down his phone.
Erdam was gone. He couldn’t take it any more, Soran said, and made a deal with a smuggler. Again. He boarded a truck in the night and made it across the Serbian border.
“Fifteen hundred euros,” Soran said. Then from Serbia into Hungary.
“One thousand euros,” Soran said. And from Hungary into Austria.
“Eight hundred euros. And yesterday he called me from a train in Austria or Germany. The signal was bad. I think he’s been arrested. The phone cut off. I couldn’t sleep last night.”
There was a chance he’d be sent back to Svilengrad.
“Believe me, my friend,” he said, “four thousand euros is a lot of money for me. But I pay it because Erdam has a future. And a wife. In Germany, he can work.”
Erdam was a car mechanic and had worked for a Mercedes garage in Erbil. Three months on from this conversation, he was working in Germany.
Soran’s eyes had filled up, but even so, he grinned because he had just opened the little luck scroll that came with the espresso. I opened mine too.
Mine said “Travel.” His said “You must break that wall with your head.”
“It’s true my friend,” he shrugged. “It’s true.”
Back in their flat that day, when the afternoon of taking turns to eat was turning into evening and it was time for me to go, Alal had spoken to me.
Soran translated, but somehow I already understood what she said.
The only things we had in common that could be put into words were that we shared a century and a generation, yet I could sit with Alal and Soran and drink endless glasses of tea, with or without sugar. Alal and Soran were like human radiators. You could sit beside them and warm yourself. I was sad to be with them, but even sadder to leave.
“Why don’t you just move in with us?”
That’s what Alal said when I was about to leave. Her three daughters hovered behind her, smiling with red eyes.
“We have room and we have food. Don’t pay for a hotel. Come and stay as long as you like,” she said.
“Yes, you are welcome.” Soran grinned sadly. “You are welcome indefinitely.”
From Border, by Kapka Kassabova, courtesy Gray Wolf. Copyright 2017, Kapka Kassabova.