Story of Baraa
Nationality United Arab Emirates
March 2016. Somewhere between Calais and London.
“His heart was racing… He shivered with fear and his stomach was rumbling like thunder as they didn’t eat for hours. Baraa gently moved his head and pushed aside a few pieces of garlic coves. This way he could closely follow the flashlights that were dancing in the night between the convoy of trucks in an uncontrolled manner. They walked for six hours to get here. Would this – finally – be the gateway to London? The flashlights stopped. Baraa kept silent. He bit his bottom lip and noticed his heart pounding even faster.”
In times where media broadcasting shows a stereotype of refugees, these two days with Baraa Halabieh in London worked as insightful as refreshing to a – mostly – single narrative mind of our western society. As we live our lives in the ‘West’, we noticed a perspective of the refugee theme that felt incomplete and unjust. Therefore we felt the urge to go in depth and see through the eyes of a man who has lived the experience. Our most significant motivation was to challenge our perspective and refresh our state of mind in search of more humanity and unfold a different angle to the entire story of migration, politics and humanity. Consequently, we visited Baraa Halabieh at his home residence in London, where he enjoyed his first year anniversary as a UK resident. A remarkable and grateful experience unfolded as we documented the story of his journey from Syria to London through video, photography and audio.
One year later. April 21st, 2017. London.
The walls were painted white. The windows were big, which gave room for daylight to enter. The sun was painted low on the horizon, which shaped nice silhouettes on the floor of the living room. It softly lightened our faces. In the early morning, before Baraa arrived, we drank coffee and analyzed the interior of our Airbnb accommodation with care. The idea was to build a set in which we could document our starring character: Baraa Halabieh. I was excited. This was our first documentary interview. Besides, Tim, Florian and I didn’t work together anytime before. We were complete newbies and we were learning on the job. I comforted myself with the thought that we all voluntarily decided to follow up on this project. I mean, in the end, what matters most is that it started with a genuine interest in the story of Baraa Halabieh.
I shook his hand. A warm and gentle touch. Baraa looked at me with a certain determination in his eyes. His facial hair was groomed neatly and he wore an ironed white shirt. He’s here for a cause, I thought. In the meantime, we re-decorated the room in such an order that it would fit our needs. We positioned the camera’s in two different angles, we studied the lighting and worked on our audio. We drank some more coffee, while we shared some small talk about the weather. Quickly I had a final look through my questions and topics that I wanted to discuss. We were ready. And if not, we’ll get there.
Baraa Halabieh is now thirty-four and was born in Dubai into a Syrian family. Not the typical Syrian refugee, when comparing it to the stereotype. In 2002, Baraa and his family moved back to Syria. Baraa studied English Literature in Aleppo. Eventually, he started working as a translator. The sense of freedom was limited at the time, as the regime would perceive your political opinion as a crime. As a child, Baraa found his own ways to express his freedom. Simple decisions like choosing what he wanted to wear or which game he wanted to play would do the trick. He describes: “It looks like our way to express our freedom grows with us. The older we are the more ways to express our freedom we have.”
Central to our conversation with Baraa Halabieh was his migration from Syria to London. He touched base in the following countries before he arrived in London. Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, France and finally the UK, London. Not all countries were labeled as a destination, as some of them could be used as a transit. However, the political climate in Europe wasn’t so stable regarding the migration of refugees, so there was always a certain degree of insecurity to keep in mind.
We offered him a nice chair as if we invited Baraa into our own house. I expected more small talk, but Baraa jumped into it quite quickly. He started talking mostly before I finished my question. “This man has a story to share, I realized.”
2011 – 2014. Limitations of freedom in Syria
In 2014, Baraa Halabieh experienced the limits of his personal freedom in Syria. He was kidnapped and detained by the military secret services. He was lucky to get out, thanks to a payoff:
“I will never forget that day. The moment they released me. It was like being born again. At that time my family started to persuade me to leave the country”. Source: The Odyssee Project.
As the civil war between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and opposition groups raged on, Syria remained one of the deadliest places in the world for journalists in 2013. While the government’s loss of control in large parts of the country has resulted in the emergence of new media outlets and a de facto reduction in censorship, the rise in the influence of extremist groups during the year affected the ability of the press to report freely. Source: Freedomhouse.org, 2014.
October 2014. Arrival and time in Turkey.
In the autumn of 2014, Baraa decided to leave Syria and ground himself in Turkey, Istanbul. Eventually, he lived and worked in Turkey for one year. He volunteered as a translator for a charity, called The Syrians Association In Turkey, founded by a Syrian compatriot. The charity provided various courses to mostly Syrian refugees, between the age of 18 – 45 years old. English, Turkish and Photoshop, for example. These courses empowered refugees with skills that could increase access to potential job vacancies. Due to a poor financial situation of many Syrian families, children are pushed to go work and generate family income. In order to prevent stolen childhoods, they founded an additional project: the Spirit Project. They decided to teach children, between the age of eight and thirteen, English, Turkish, Theatre, Arts, etc. They would occasionally guide the children around town and visit cultural places and monuments in Istanbul. It gave the children the chance to play and be joyful.
September 2015. The Crossing to Greece
I found myself in an overcrowded dinghy that would take us to Greece. The engine was smoking and the number of migrants on board was approximately fifty-five. The men were sitting on the edges of the dinghy to make place for the women and children, whom where sitting in the centre of the dingy. The pain in my legs was increasing ever since we departed the Turkish beach. We exceeded the maximum amount of people that the dinghy could handle. Thus, we were sitting on top of each other. Halfway across, I looked around myself and could see that the boat was leaking. This should have been a relatively safe crossing, I thought, as it was ‘only’ ten kilometer across the water. The womem and children on board started crying and I forced myself to calm them down. I lied and told them it would just take another ten minutes. In the meantime, I couldn’t feel my legs anymore as I was carrying a woman on them. Eventually we spent one and a half hour on the water and by the time we arrived the boat was deflated and my legs felt blue. All said and done, we made it to Greece!
October 2015. From Croatia to Hungary and arrival in Austria.
After their departure from the Croation refugee camp, where they stayed for about six hours, Baraa decided to take a train from Croatia to Hungary. During these times, the political situation between Hungary and Croatia was tense and migration was a problematic issue. Croatia was explicitly moving refugees towards the Hungarian border, whereas Hungary was building more wired-fences to keep refugees out. Hungary was afraid of becoming a refugee hotspot and thought about the idea of sending trains to Slovenia. Baraa explains the tense situation in the train, where migrants were constantly checking their smartphones to follow the news:
“Suddenly the train stopped. When we looked outside of the windows, we realized that we were in the middle of nowhere. People jumped out of the train to go to the toilet. In the midst of our group one of the guys needed to go to the toilet. We noticed that he wasn’t that tall and we got nervous he wouldn’t be able to find his way back on the train. Eventually his brother and I decided to give it a go. We helped him to get out, as half of our bodies were hanging outside of the train to offer a soft landing. And then, while he was standing behind a tree, we heard the train whistle and the train started moving again. It was like a movie setting. He came running from behind the tree and tried to grab our hands, while we were moving. We grabbed his arms tight and tried to pull him inside. At that moment, when we achieved to drag him inside entirely, we passed by a metal pillar. If that had been two seconds later, we would have been smashed all together against that pillar.”
October 2015. From Vienna to Frankfurt
Chasing your own freedom means being ahead of the game. At least that is how Baraa Halabieh and his friends approached that game during their migration from Vienna to Frankfurt. As tensions were rising in Europe, borders became more frequently regulated. This time their pitfall could be the German Border Force. As invisible cloaks weren’t an option, they had to be dressed as inconspicuous as possible. They prepared and got dressed as civilized English gentlemen. They were groomed neatly and were accompanied by fancy suitcases. Determined and ready to set off to Frankfurt, Germany. At the first village in Germany, the train stopped. Baraa remembered he felt his nerves tingle slightly. The train wasn’t supposed to stop here, or was it? The noise in the background revealed the worst-case scenario, confirmed by two English speaking men sitting across from Baraa. The one said to the other: “Why did we stop? And what is that noise about?” The other responded with: “It must be the German Border Force, looking for migrants who seek asylum in Germany”. And: “Ah, they are everywhere nowadays”, is what they concluded. Their eyes met Baraa in front of them. They looked at each other, unconsciously, with a smile, pretending he was just a civilized European citizen. It makes you realize that perspectives matter.
Nov 2015 – March 2016. The Jungle in Calais and first attempts to London
As said, in 2015, Baraa touched base in Europe through places like Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and then France. He was shocked when he arrived at the refugee camp in Calais, the Jungle. How could such a place exist in modern day Europe? Was this the face of Europe? Then, what exemplifies the European philosophy of freedom nowadays? As he felt comfortable translating, Baraa quickly volunteered as a translator and together with a Spanish photographer, Severine Sajous, and twelve other refugees – they started a project called: Jungle Eye. The idea was to see through the eyes of the refugees. They were given camera’s in order to document their daily lives. The project became a well-known success. They participated in multiple exhibits, such as Lille, Brussels, Barcelona and even Melbourne. An eye-opening ideabecame reality and touched the hearts of many. It painted a face of the people stuck in the Jungle, a horrible place. Baraa Halabieh exemplified – through his entire journey – that he constantly found and still finds the strength to reach out, while obviously keeping himself in one piece as well.
“We do not want charity. We only need a chance to prove to you that we are educated, talented and productive. Refugees don’t need your pity ( TED, April 17th, 2017 ). Why would you feel pity towards me? I am stronger than you. I am standing on my feet. I am helping people. I am the one who should feel pity for you!” – Baraa Halabieh.
At Southbank, we walked along the Thames, towards the Big Ben, before our flight took off back to the Netherlands. We asked Baraa tons of questions. We spoke about his sense of freedom and his favorite places in London. We discussed the refugee stereotype and how he felt about that. We had dinner at his house. We spoke about the role of the media. We were amazed by the number charities he is involved with, in London. To name a few: Women’s Action Against Violent Extremism, Hopetowns, Peaceful Borders and Karavan. And what about the theatre comedy he just starred in: Borderline and Tea and Good Intentions. We joined him to one of the political gatherings of the Green Party in London. A very humble man, that is obviously an example to many, including Europeans. What struck me most, were his genuine and thoughtful answers. In retrospect, it felt like we could speak for days to come about these topics.
That said. Stay tuned at Local Characters, as we will publish a second article about integrating into London society next week.
Thank you, Baraa, for taking the time to speak with us and give us a glimpse into how you experienced your journey and how you approach freedom.
Are you curious for more information on Baraa?
Please follow his Twitter account or his Instagram feed to see his full body of work.