JOSHUA BROLLIER: This is JOSHUA BROLLIER with Voices for Creative Nonviolence. I’m here in Syria with Firas Majeed, the founder of the Native Without A Nation project. Firas is a 34-year-old Iraqi refugee living in the Jaramana neighborhood of Damascus. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me, Firas.
Firas: You are welcome.
Joshua: First off, tell us a little bit of your story.
Where are you from in Iraq and how did you end up in Syria?
Firas: I’m from Baghdad. I was living quiet life. Which is, like always, I was going to work. From eight o’clock to eleven o’clock. Sometimes it takes a long time, but I’m happy with my job, and I cannot stop my job, because it’s just like continual life. And when I stop and one day I feel something is different. I missed something. So I was just like my job and the regular thing I am doing everyday. And one time my sister was working as a journalist, in translation and as a fixer and stuff like that. And she asked me to go with her to Jordan because that was the first time for her to go to Jordan. On that time, I have never been outside of Iraq. I have never been outside of my country, and she asked me to be with her just for like five days. And, just do her job. You know, in Iraq if the girls want to travel, you have to get someone from her family…
Joshua: To take a male with her…
Firas: Yeah, that’s it. We call it “mahram.” Yeah, and it’s not just that. She is afraid to be alone. Yeah, and I did. I went with her, and I have never think before that “I am going to leave my country. I am going to travel outside of my country.” I was just focused on my job, on caring for my family and my parents and just that. And when I went to Jordan for the first time, I saw the security there. That was in 2005, in the end of 2005. I saw that life is different… the security and the walking in the street over nights. We did not been in the streets in Iraq since 2003. Until now, people did not be in the streets after one o’clock, after one a.m.
Joshua: People are afraid to be outside…
Firas: Yes. And I saw all of that. I am walking the streets after two o’clock with safe place. No explosions, no shootings, no fear. And I went back to Iraq after five days, after eight days. And I keep thinking that there is something different. I keep interest in the life in Jordan. And I think I start to make balance between life in Iraq and Jordan. I tried to look at the difference between Iraq and Jordan. For everything; for the food, for the life, for the streets, for the families, people and children… all of that. I was looking for the difference between here and here. And then after two months, I was just like thinking “should I leave my country or not?” I do the looking for the difference, and in that time, it was very dangerous. I was have shop in a area, which is a very dangerous area.
Joshua: You were working in a shop?
Firas: It’s my shop. It’s mini-market and I am working on it. It’s mine. And on that time, I was going to my shop at like eight a.m. and I saw bodies behind my shop; bodies of people who was killed. And there became danger day by day. Then someone, the militias, killed the shop near my shop… 50 meters… and they killed the owner while he working on it and the militias just kill her. And then I start to think more by reality and forced to think about myself. And it was like terrible and I felt terrible that, to decide to leave my country because I’m thinking of my parents. I’m caring for them. How can I leave them? And they’re thinking about myself. And the danger became more of the people who is my age. Because in my neighborhood and in my area is a different area than my shop. Also they start to make sectarians there. Like the people who is Shias try to collect together. They did not ask people to come with them, but they did not ask directly for people to come with them. But if you don’t be with them…
Joshua: They will intimidate you…
Firas: Yeah, they will just ask you, “Why you did not like us?” or “Why you did not come with us to have fun, to walking, to play dominoes…” or something like that. So by that way the threaten people who are not with us, then you are…
Joshua: Then you are against us.
Firas: Yeah, and then my friends who are Sunnis in the area they killed already by militias, by people we don’t know. My mother advised me to just leave the home. You know the way, in our culture, the family is very close from each other. The mothers, they want the sons being with them even if it’s danger. But on that time, it were really danger and she advised me to leave.
Joshua: So this was in 2005 and you decided to leave. Did you go to Jordan or did you go straight to Syria?
Firas: Yeah, I did go to Jordan because I have been there and I like the life there. It’s the first time for me to travel and I did not see any other country, just Jordan. And I did like it because I did not stay for a long time. I stayed for eight days. And then I went to Jordan to stay. I sell my shop and give it to someone and sell it to someone. And then collect some money to live in Jordan while the situation… At that time, I was thinking the situation will be better. Like in six months… I don’t know… maybe it will be okay. Then I went to Jordan to stay there. I did stay for six months in the beginning. And then my visa become expired. Then I need to go back to Iraq. I was think it’s okay to visit my family and stay with them and visit them for like five or ten days and then come back to Jordan. And I did. I went to my family and stayed about ten days with them and then I went back to Jordan. But, on that time, I did not register as a refugee. It were… they were open. The UNHCR were open for the Iraqis to register as a refugees, and my friends did register, but I did not do that because I did not feel that I am a refugee here. I mean… I mean I was think that my country will be better after six months. I don’t need to be a refugee.
Joshua: So how long did you end up staying in Jordan and, from there, how did you make it to Damascus or Syria?
Firas: Yeah. After I spent six months, then they said after every three months the visa will be expired. It’s a new decision. And after three months, I went back to Iraq and to visit my family. And I went back to Jordan. And on the fourth one, the Jordan… the Jordanian border stopped allowing Iraqis to enter because a lot of people was enter Jordan.
Joshua: Hundreds of thousands of refugees…
Firas: It’s just a small country and they care for their jobs… and I don’t know… And anyway, on the fourth one, they did not let me enter. I tried many times. When they reject me, I just spend one hour and then come back to ask to enter again. And they stamped my passport by a red stamp. And they just wrote “Karama” on the red stamp, which is nothing. Just “Karama” with the name of the border, but they did not put “Karama border,” the name of the border or any official stamp. It’s not official.
Joshua: It wasn’t an entry stamp, basically. So form there, after they rejected you at the border, is that when you left and came to Syria?
Firas: Yeah, then I made a decision on that time to not go back to Iraq because it become very danger. And on the way the car was broken, and on the way we stopped to fix it. And while we stopped to fix it, the terrorists came to us and asked each one; “Your are from where, you are from where, you are from where?” I was just think about how they are going to kill us. Because everyone they talk to them, they will kill them. But the good thing was that one of the people who was with us in the car was from the Fallujah area. Which is on the neighborhood that the car stopped in, broken. And he was just looking on their eyes like he know them, or they know him. And they leave us, but it was very danger and I felt really they are going to kill us.
Joshua: Yeah, that’s very fortunate.
Firas: Yeah, and after some time, after a half hour, a car come to take our car to a safe area. And we did fix it, and we continued to go to Jordan. And that story happened to us when the Jordanians did not allow Iraqis and they sent us back. And I take a cab from Jordanian border to Syrian border, which is close, one hour or one hour and a half, not very far away. And then I entered Syria. When I just met with the first one who was at they Syrian borders, they were just smile to us and welcomed us. And we don’t need to pay visa. We don’t need to pay anything. They just welcome us, and they give us to enter Syria.
Joshua: So after you entered Syria, how long did it take you to receive the official refugee status… after you entered Syria?
Firas: I entered Syria in 2006 and it’s around the ninth month, tenth month, 2006. And… what’s you question?
Joshua: My question is once you entered the country, how long did it take you to receive the official refugee status from the United Nations.
Firas: On the 2006, the ninth month, I made the decision to be a refugee, to not going back to my country. On that time, I really feel that I’m going to be a refugee.
Joshua: This is different than the first time going to Jordan.
Firas: Yes, yes. This is different than when I went to Jordan. And, I just asked in the beginning how to get the protection letter… in the UNHCR… and how to get the refugee certificate. And then, in 2007, in the beginning of 2007, in February, I registered as a refugee in the UNHCR. I was really happy to do that; that I have protection letter. They wrote that you have our protection. And I felt, “I’m safe. I am okay here.” In the beginning, that’s inn the beginning. The on the time that I… every three months… in the beginning it was every six months that I had to go to the Iraqi border and take around and then come back to Syria to renew the visa. And they did write that it’s tourist visa. Then I start to think why the UNHCR says that you’re a refugee and the Syrians say that you’re a tourist visa. I was think a lot about that. Why? Why was that? There ws a problem between the UNHCR and the Syrian government. I did went to the UNHCR after six months or something like that to ask the UNHCR, “What’s my situation here?” … to be clear. They said, “What’s your question?” And I said, “What’s my situation here? Am I a refugee or a tourist?” They said, “You are a refugee.” And I said “but, my visa says, when I take a round the border, that I’m a tourist.”
Joshua: And this is the situation that a lot of people are in right? Because there are approximately 150,000 Iraqi refugees that are registered with the UN. So this is a 150,000 registered with the UN that are living here in Syria. And some have estimated the total number of refugees, including those not registered, may be as high as 500,000 to 800,000. So, this many Iraqis living in Syria… and from what I’ve heard from you and what I’ve heard from others, that even when you get the actual refugee status, that you’re not able to actually work. You’re not able to travel freely. Is this true? And what is some of the difficulties you’ve faced and that the other refugees have faced? And how have you managed to survive here in Syria being kind of in between the status of a refugee and a tourist here in Syria.
Firas: And that’s also… I did not ask the UNHCR just about my situation on that time. I asked them to have a tent. I went to them and I think it’s the first Iraqi that asked them about a tent. Because, people know that the UNHCR did not give Iraqis tents. But I wanted to ask that question just to be clear. I wanted to ask that question so I can talk about it. I did went into the reception at the UNHCR, and I told the women who was under the counter to have a tent. “I have no home. I have no money. My money is finished. And I have red big stamp in passport that says ‘don’t allow to work.’ And I can not be illegal.” I like legal ways. I don’t like to be illegal.
Joshua: It’s a scary situation to be in-working illegally.
Firas: It is because I am afraid to them that maybe one time they will put me on the border. Then I have no country. I have no way, no place to go. Jordanians don’t allow me and Iraq very danger. And I will be killed if I go back to Iraq. And I stayed under that situation. I asked them about a tent. And she said’ “we did not give a tents.” And there is a picture behind her with refugees and they have a tent. And they put the flag of the UNHCR on that tent. And I told her, “I want a tent like the one that is in that picture which is behind you.” And then she looked into it and she said, “if we give you a tent, then Damascus will be full of tents.”
Joshua: Well then so what were you able to do to survive then. You weren’t able to work. The UNHCR wasn’t giving you shelter. What did you do to look after yourself?
Firas: Yeah, when I finished, when I have been really out of the money, when I have just one dollar, I went to the pizza place to ask him to work by hidden place; to work inside the place and not outside the place. So then people did not see me. Then I’ll be okay. And he allowed me. He’s Iraqi, originally Iraqi. Or his mother is Syrian and his father is Iraqi…
Joshua: He has family in Iraq.
Firas: He has a lot of connections in Iraq. And he allowed me. He’s a good person. But, he was giving me four dollars a day, like 200 Syrian pounds, which is nothing. But I want to survive. I need to survive. And I did work at pizza place. It was good.
Joshua: This picture that you’re painting, what you’re talking about… the difficulties that you faced and I’m sure that others are facing… I mean, I’ve visited other families with you that are facing difficulties because they are not allowed to work. I mean… is something different that what we here form the media in the US. This is something different than what we hear in the Western media.
For instance, at home in the United States, the government line is often repeated that the Iraq war was a victory and that this victory was won through the United States troop surge that put an end to all the sectarian violence of 2006/2007- and it’s said as if all the violence was on the part of Iraqis. But in reality, we see that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were forced to leave their homes and still can’t go back. Even the UN is maintaining that the situation in Iraq is too dangerous for Iraqis to return and does not advise voluntary resettlement or repatriation back to Iraq.
What do you think? Do you see the Iraq war as over?
Firas: What I want to say is that if the freedom make that violence, than we do not need that freedom. We do not want it. You can not give the freedom by… now, the freedom give us the violence; give us a lot of people killed under the name of the freedom. We don’t need that freedom. It make our country terrible. It destroyed the country. So we don’t need that freedom, that shit freedom. Sorry.
Joshua: No, that’s okay. Well, switching gears, I’ve heard from others and I’ve seen personally from the families we’ve visited how you’ve become involved in helping the Iraqi refugee community here in Syria. Now, what prompted you to begin this work? And what have been some of the biggest successes and failures since you started working with Iraqis here?
Firas: In the beginning, I tried to find a cheap place to live in, which is Jaramana area in Damascus. Most of the Iraqi community stay in it because it’s cheap place. And they can find our food, our community, the Iraqis. So I find a room in that place and everyday I was just sitting outside and writing something, open my computer outside the house, and just sitting. And I saw the children just come to me and looking for my computer. They did not see it before. Most of them don’t have any idea about the computer. And they are Iraqis. Most of them did not register at the schools. They just playing outside the house and the apartments. Which is very little apartments and the children cannot play in it. And they just going outside the apartments. And then, I was think, “what if I teach the children and I help them while I am sitting and I am free to do nothing.
Joshua: So lets talk about your project then.
Firas: Yeah, that’s how my project became. This is the first thing; to think about being with the children and teaching the children.
Joshua: And you named your project Native Without a Nation. It seems to be a very fitting title. What is your idea behind the name, or what is the meaning behind the name?
Firas: The meaning of the name Native without a Nation is: We are natives and we are out of our country. And we can not go back. And here we are not stable. And we don’t have a country. We don’t have a country. We lost our country.
Joshua: As far as the project then; give us an overview of the project. How does it work, and what do the participants do?
Firas: On that project, we do many different things with the children. I do, the fist thing is teaching them about the computer, giving them basic lessons about the computers. Many children don’t have any idea about it. And the first thing is teaching them some English language. There are volunteers working with me and helping, wanting to help the Iraqi children. And we did teaching them English. Which they are happy to learn it. And the other thing is finding their gifts. Some of the children are artists. They can paint. Some of them can do sculpture. We can, we can find their gifts. Some of them have music. We can help them. If we don’t have volunteers to work with us, we can put them with other people who is doing projects for the Iraqi children. Then, my friend in the US, she’s a teacher for Ross school. She asked me, “What about if we do the web conference between Iraqis and Americans?” In the beginning, I was afraid to do that. I don’t know what’s that thing going to bring because it’s… we are in the Middle East. And the relations between Americans and the Middle East are not good. And in the beginning I was afraid to do that. But I did because we did not do wrong things. I believe we do the right- how the children was just talking to each other. It’s okay.
Joshua: So the children are able to connect with each other. Refugees from Iraq are able to connect with students in the United States and able to talk about their different situations.
Firas: They’re able to talk about their different situations, their different cultures. They’re able to talk about their different lives, different schools, their different teachers. Which in the first time our students was amazed that no teacher is hitting the students. And the students was surprised to know that the teachers forced the students to study and sometimes hit them. And children, many times, always they don’t like their teachers. Their afraid of them.
Joshua: It was this way not too long ago in the United States as well. So, what are some of the positive results you have seen from this kind of intercultural and interfaith dialogue between Iraqi youth and youth in other places? What are some of the positive results that you’ve seen?
Firas: What do you mean?
Joshua: What are some of the good things that have come from the exchange between youth here and in other places?
Firas: The good thing is… I was looking for myself when I was young, when I was sixteen seventeen years old, and I was saw the foreign people on the streets in Baghdad. And we can not talk to them. Not just because of the language. We cannot talk to them. And I have never talked to foreign people before 2003. I have never. And when the internet came, I started to talk by chatting, by room chats, and chatting with foreign people. And I was spent all the nights to talk to them. And it was good, to know their culture, to their different people. And the good thing is the many of the Iraqi children can talk about themselves. The can introduce themselves to others. And they can talk about their self, about their lives. In the beginning, I asked the students to write a biography to put it in the blog. And they was just confused to write. “What should I write?” And they don’t know how to explain their self, how to introduce their self. In the beginning, the children was confused and shy themselves to talk. And I was tell that the first time, second time, they became friends. And we need to make the world smaller than it is. We don’t need to separate the people. We need to make all the people together.
Joshua: It sounds like this idea, it opens up a door that wasn’t there before-a door for people to be able to connect, to actually even see each other. You know, I know when I was a kid in elementary school, may anywhere from 8,9,10 years old, I had never seen an Iraqi. I couldn’t even tell you much or anything about Iraq. But now we have kids that are this age connecting with Iraqis. Do you see this kind of idea being maybe even able to prevent future wars? Because, I think, one of the problems is that we don’t know each other. And if we are able to know each other we realize that there is no reason to fight.
Firas: Yeah, you’re right. That’s what exactly happen. And people, the children, they are not children. They are going to lead the world after us. And we need to prepare all our children, your children and our children, prepare them to lead the world better than now. Because now it’s terrible.
Joshua: So, the project has been going on for a couple of years now. How many schools are involved here in Syria, and in the United States or anywhere else? Most of our followers are likely from the United States. So if they are listening to this and they want to get involved with Native Without a Nation, if they want to bring Native Without a Nation to their classroom, how can they get connected? And what would be expected of them?
Firas: Yeah, the way is, there is a blog. And we did write on the blog the biographies. The blog is open for everyone you can see, you can read and they contact us to prepare for the conference between the children. And the way is by my friends now. My friends, I just told them about the project. The do read the blog and address. And then we contact each other and plan, prepare for the conference.
Joshua: So if there are people out there that want to get involved, they can just go to the blog, send you an email from the blog, and setup a web conference. What is the address for the blog?
Firas: Yeah, the address foe the blog is www.nativewithoutanation.blogspot.com.
Joshua: Very good. Shifting gears, you were recently accepted for resettlement to the United States. And I want to congratulate you!
Firas: Thank you very much, yeah.
Joshua: And I know you will be missed greatly here in Syria. Will Native Without Nation be able to continue without you?
Firas: Yeah, there are volunteers that are going to continue instead of me here. And I’ll try to work from United States to also finding students from the US to continue to do the web conference. I think the project will be more active because I’ll try t do the best to find more students in the US. And I’ll try to talk about the Iraqi children in Syria in exile.
Joshua: Well, it’s an exciting project, and I’m sure there would be many people in the US who would want to be a part of it. Especially, after they meet you. So I could see it definitely picking up.
Firas: Yeah, yeah… I hope that.
Joshua: I mean, this is a big deal to be accepted for resettlement. According to the UN, only 17% of the registered Iraqi refugees in Syria have been actually resettled since 2007. That’s somewhere around 20,000 Iraqis, which is quite a small number..
But, as you’re thinking about moving, do you have any thoughts about the upcoming move? Where will you be living and what are some of your expectations, your hopes and even maybe some of your fears about moving to the US?
Firas: Yeah, I have mixed feelings now. I have many different feelings; happy, worried, sad. It’s mixed, it’s mixed. And also excited to go there. But, in general, I am happy because I have been waiting for the resettlement for four years and two months. And just now I get it.
Joshua: and where will you be living when you go the United States.
Firas: I am going to be in New York City. It’s a big difference, the Middle East and New York City.
Joshua: It’ll be quite a change.
Firas: It’s a big change.
Joshua: Well, Firas, best of luck with the move and new life in New York. I know we have friends of Voices and friends in Voices that are excited to receive you there in New York.
Firas: Yeah, thank you.
Joshua: And thanks again for doing the interview. Again, this is Firas Majeed of the Native Without a Nation project that aims to connect the lives and stories of Iraqi refugees with people living in the United States and other places as well. Just as a reminder, the website for Native Without a Nation is www.nativewithoutanation.blogspot.com.