Watch Rahaf and Habari #TalkToMe and read the story of my family...
My mother was a Polish refugee, born in Palestine. She lived in a refugee camp in Germany awaiting a country to accept her, not knowing which that would be for two years.
My grandparents had been taken from their home in Poland during World War II on a cold freight train to a Siberian work camp. After three years they escaped and walked many miles through the snow, in below freezing weather, to join the Polish army and obtain passage out of the Gulag. They journeyed through Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and eventually to Palestine, where my mother, her brother, and sister were born. They then traveled through Syria, into Europe, and lived in a refugee camp in Germany.
A distant, unfamiliar relative in the U.S., sponsored them into the United States, with the help of the church. As he lived in Oregon, they thanked him profusely, but never met. My mother, at six years old, arrived by boat into the New York harbor on a freezing January day in 1951. My grandmother had experienced incredible trauma from the war and had left her own mother to die in Siberia, to save her child. Her father, had been beaten to death in a Polish prison, for hiding the maps of the church altars and art during the German invasion. My grandma's son, who was born in Siberia and survived the journey to Iran, died there at age three.
My grandmother was alone, as my Grandfather was out fighting in Italy, at the time of her child's death. It was the last proverbial straw and she checked out mentally. She had been a lovely, college educated woman from an old aristocratic family, and after everything was taken from her, found herself with no family left, alone in Iran. With no home, no mother or father, a dead child and a husband long gone all in the course of a year, she lost all of her memory and checked out. After recovering from Amnesia, yet never fully regaining her mental health, she had three more children in Palestine. My mother was the youngest. My "Babci" raised my mother, sister, and brother with great love and affection but remained introverted and reclusive, and never regained her full memory or total faculties.
As a child, I never knew her to be a participant of "our world", as we knew it. She asked for nothing, monetarily never bought new clothes, or participated in activities. I bathed her, listening to her speaking Polish, as I combed her hair. She was conversing with the other female soldiers in the Polish army. She would laugh and cry, but it was never in the present. Babci re-lived her traumatic past in a permanent state of PTSD. I photographed her beautiful blue eyes. They showed so much beauty, love, and pain.
In the spring of 2015, I traveled to the Turkish border of Syria with a small camera crew to make a documentary about the women in the Syrian refugee camps. I wanted to hear their stories and see what the women, who had left their homes, were going through. What I found was an incredible resilience, despite everything they had been through. Women in the World for The New York Times and Huffington Post published my short film. I met Rahaf in the art room of the refugee camp in southern Turkey. She was utilizing art, as a tool to ease her pain and suffering. Drawing, painting, and writing poetry, helped Rahaf express what she was feeling.
Rahaf's family fled their home in Deir ez-Zor in 2012 after her 14 year old brother was killed by the regime. Instead of fleeing to safety in Turkey with the rest of the family, Rahaf stayed behind in Syria to complete her education and study civil engineering at the university in Raqqa, until ISIS came and bombed her school. Although she survived, the bomb destroyed Rahaf's left eardrum. Her intention was to receive an education as she knew that Turkey would be too expensive for a Civil Engineering degree. Rahaf fled to Damascus and enrolled in another University. After three months, the regime occupied the city. A classmate overheard the guards searching for her because her family was on the "list". The "list" included anyone whose family members were killed by the regime. These people were deemed as "terrorists" solely because their relatives were murdered by Assad's regime, as had her younger brother.
Rahaf ran from the guards in Damascus and hid in the back of a truck transporting carpets. She begged the driver to allow her to hide inside the carpets from town to town, as she lay still from checkpoint to checkpoint. At a stop in Northern Syria, a guard found her in the back of the truck. She pleaded, "Please, don't kill me, I have nothing. Everyone in my family has been murdered. If you kill me, nothing will change." The guard spared Rahaf's life and she was able to make it to Turkey and re-join her family in the refugee camp.
When Rahaf saw the documentary that I made, featuring herself and other women in the camps, she realized just how trapped she had become. In the documentary, Rahaf said, "All people want is Freedom!" and "There is no life without work!". The camp offered her protection from the war, but she had no opportunity for the future. She wanted to do great things in the world. She wanted to be a civil engineer, doctor, psychologist, and to help people. Not possible there, from a camp, Rahaf wrote to me on Facebook and asked if I could help her get to Sweden. I said, "I will try but I'm not sure how". Rahaf convinced her frightened mother to allow her to go to Sweden to find a better life. She had read that it was a great place for independent women. Her mother said, "Okay you want to go... go, but you must take your sister Habari with you."
Habari and Rahaf left the camp and made their way to northern Turkey and Istanbul in August, 2015. There the sisters met with smugglers and spent weeks trying to get to Greece. Their third attempt to board the boat was successful and Rahaf wrote to me from Greece, "Aliya, I am now in Greece!". That began the long journey through Europe. I spoke with the girls every step of the way, each day, sometimes several times. They were teargassed by the Greek police as they made their way into Macedonia. Rahaf called me crying, "I thought Habari was dead". "Her eyes were so red and although we couldn't see, we had to continue running."
Before the girls arrived in Hungary, I read that Budapest just shut down trains for all refugees so they couldn't pass into Europe. I had to break the news to the girls (via Facebook messenger). I rented an apartment in Budapest on airbnb so they could rest safely when they arrived, but the hosts said that they had no reservation. I rented a Best Western Hotel in Budapest under Rahaf's name, but the front desk would not allow the girls to check in. The hotel worker said that she would call the police if the girls didn't leave. I called the hotel and begged them to allow the girls to stay. I had already paid for the room, but the hotel still denied them entrance because they were Syrian refugees. The girls slept in the train station in Budapest for six nights, too terrified to sleep, too tired to stay awake.
As things deteriorated, the police started arresting all the Syrian people at the train station. I convinced the girls to change their clothes and remove their hijabs so that they could blend in with the Hungarian people and be safe. I located a group of underground filmmakers who agreed to house the girls for a few nights until things cooled down. Simultaneously, the girls coordinated with a smuggler and got on a train to Austria. I received word from my local contacts that those trains were being re-routed to a holding pen where the police were rounding up all Syrian people and holding them in a barbed wire fenced-in area. I thought of Auschwitz as I fought with the girls to get them off the train. They wanted to depart Hungary so intensely, yet I had to convince them that the trains were a hoax and they needed to go to the safe house that I had pre-arranged for them. The Syrian refugees in Hungary finally joined together and marched to the border of Austria in a revolutionary manner.
I booked a flight to Budapest and told the girls to meet me at the safe house. As I was departing for JFk airport, I received word that Germany was sending, "safe busses" to carry the refugees out of Hungary and into Germany via Austria. The girls called me and told me not to come to Hungary. Rahaf said, "Meet us in Stockholm, we are on our way and we are now going to make it!". I re-routed my trip for Stockholm and rented an apartment on airbnb, where we could all stay.
When I arrived at the apartment in Stockholm and texted my host, A tall, handsome man next to me said, "I think you're looking for me!". I thought he was flirting with me so I said, "No I'm fine, thanks." He replied, "Yes, you rented my apartment." "Oh, sorry!", I said. The man asked why I was there, "Well, I will tell you the truth.... I've been helping these two girls who are Syrian refugees. They have all been through hell and will need a safe place to rest." He said, "I'm a psychologist and I work with children with trauma, specifically refugees," let's talk!". Deo and I went to lunch and we discussed everything the girls had been through. He helped me understand how they might be feeling when they arrived and what to expect. He had been a refugee from Uganda. His family fled after the Idi Amin era. Deo was adopted and raised by a lovely Swedish woman named Lottie. Then, I received a message from Rahaf that they were being held in a Danish jail. Deo decided to help me locate the girls, and assisted in getting them to safety in Sweden. I was grateful to meet someone so caring and willing to help.
Over the next couple days, Deo and I formed a special bond (a romance). Finally the girls made it to Sweden and Deo and I picked them up at the train station. I filmed the experience and you can see it here on Refinery29, in a very personal short film. I brought the girls safely back to the house and made them a fresh, home-cooked meal. The following day we went to immigration in Stockholm where they informed us that they would separate the girls and send Habari to a children's camp, because she was under 18 and Rahaf to another camp for adults. Another problem we encountered was that the girls' abusive, estranged father, lived in a camp in the South of Sweden, and wanted them to join him so he could receive money for them. Both of these options seemed bleak. I looked to my new romantic psychologist Deo for advice. He said, "There are no problems, only solutions!" We had two good choices... Hide Habari like Anne Frank for seven months until she turned 18. Or claim responsibility for Habari and "adopt" her. We chose the latter.
Now Rahaf and Habari are part of our family. I speak to them daily and visit every few months. The romance between Deo and I didn't last, but the family connection and friendship has. He helps us care for the girls, as does his very kind, adoptive mother, Lottie, a psychologist working with foster children in Sweden. I am aware that, as a documentary filmmaker, you aren't supposed to change the course of a story... however, I'm grateful that I did. Now I have two lovely girls who add so much joy and gratitude to my life and to that of my family. I now have a much clearer understanding of what my mother and grandparents went through to give me my freedom in America.