I get up with the sun today, I’m going to film in Hamburg. I don’t know the city that much, and look forward to discover it. More so, I look forward to meeting Haiana, the young girl I will interview. She is a 16 year-old Syrian girl, and we film a documentary on teenagers. But she is no ordinary one, because her life is extraordinary. And she’s even more extraordinary. Meeting her is a once in a lifetime experience, this unique interview that changes you and how you see the world. Like any wise person, she has no idea she is so special. She will grow into an amazing human being. But her silver lining is tainted with too much pain and hardships. What she went through shouldn’t be experienced by anyone, let alone a child. She is a survivor. Tattooed on her arm, those words, “Stay strong”, remind her every day that she is.
She meets me at the train station. She’s half my age, yet we immediately feel good with each other. She has this confidence that only teenagers and stars have. She looks like a queen, and moves with inherent grace. She has seen everything, and her intense gaze penetrates you to the bones.
We walk around a little bit, time for us to get to know each other, before joining the cameraman. I explain to her what are the Stolpersteine on the ground. She tells me I know so many things. I don’t, I’m just twice her age, and been here longer. But this is not my country either, so I can guess what is strange to her. I tell her about how foreign I felt here one day. But this is nothing compared to what she is going through.We rech the Botanical Gardens, where we meet Till, the other journalist. In an instant, we all click. We had planned to spend an hour together, we will end up spending the whole afternoon talking. Till is on the same wavelength, I’m happy to work with him and I can see Haiana feels comfortable with our little setting. We begin by testing the sound, then we’re off into the flower paths. We find the perfect spot, a bench near a pond. Till gets everything ready, while Haiana gets nervous.
But soon, calmly, with words chosen in her very good English, which she learned on her own back in Syria, she tells her story. She begins by: “I drowned 6 times”. I knew her story from our preparatory video calls. I was expecting it. But Till wasn’t. She tells her story: she left Syria last winter. She left a country where she saw corpses, bombs, building falling within seconds, lives disappearing in dust, a country where she lost her loved ones and where it is normal to arrest and beat up a kid. She shows us pictures of her ordeal. Haiana, so pretty, bruised and battered by the Syrian police. Escape was her only option if she wanted to survive. So she left for Turkey. Alone. There, she was kidnapped, twice, and beaten up in captivity. Eventually, she managed to escape. Tried to reach Greece. Her rubber boat capsized on six different attempts to reach Europe. She faced death as many times. On the 7th attempt, she safely landed on Samos. She began to help her fellow countrymen by volunteering on the island, where she couldn’t understand why people were being treated like animals. But authorities found out she was underage, and she was locked into an underage shelter, where guards stood in front of the bathroom in order to prevent her to escape. Again, eventually, she did escape. She had a good reason: her mother was waiting for her in Germany. She walked her way through the Balkans. She almost froze to death there, faced bands of smugglers wanting to buy or steal her Syrian passport. Her mother had reached Europe within a week. It took three months for Haiana to come to safety. Here since February, she still haven’t found a school, she still doesn’t know what the future holds for her. She misses home, her friends, her favourite places in Damascus. Hearing the planes approaching Hamburg’s airport reminds her of airstrikes. Later, after the interview, we go walk along the shores of the Elbe. Till and I enjoy the water. She walks along, then tells us how much she hates it. The sound of waves only reminds her that she almost lost her life surrounded by this same sound. We want to leave. No, she has to stay, she explains, in order to fight her fear.
Till and I both have tears in our eyes, we are so moved by her story. Haiana is moved as well, but she’s stronger, so much stronger. She has to be strong not only for herself, but also for her mother, and for her siblings back in Syria. She’s a fighter, and she didn’t come all this way to give up now. One would think that any episode of that dreadful journey would be too much to deal with for one person. But Haiana lived through it all, and stayed strong. She doesn’t know what the future holds for her, she doesn’t have dreams anymore. She stopped dreaming when she left Syria. She doesn’t even know if she will be granted asylum. She is a child of this terrible war, she is what happens when mankind turn crazy. Later, she sees herself working with the Red Cross in Greece, to help other refugees.
She is 16 and she has endured what no one should ever have to go through.Yet she is a survivor, and just for that reason she is a hero, and doesn’t even know it.
Haiana is the exception: both because she survived and because she is a bright, educated, inspiring, beautiful young girl. But most Syrians witnessing the horror that became their daily life aren’t so lucky. They don’t escape the war unscathed, they don’t manage to leave their country, and when they do, they take the risk of pointlessly losing their lives at sea. For those who can’t realize that, just try to imagine what are a few kilometers of water. It’s not so much, if you’re a good swimmer. But if you’re someone who never learned to swim, who never traveled, and who finds himself on an overcrowded rubber boat, in a hostile night on a hostile sea, traveling towards a reluctant host, if you’re that someone, your chances to live are much reduced. Simply because of the selfishness of some rich countries. Simply because lives are only equal as long as it’s compatible with profits. Simply because those who have it all can’t find it in their hearts to share with those in despair for even a bit of that abundance. The Mediterranean Sea has become a cemetery of innocents who lost their lives on the altar of egoism, xenophobia and indifference. Haiana survived, she is standing here, fiercely alive, as a witness of these atrocities. She is here, strong, and she will be know happiness again, in spite of the hardships, because mankind, if it wants, has the ability to chose to let humanity prevail. It only takes freewill, and the will to do right, for us as well as for future generations. It only takes one human, to make all the difference. One conscience. And then another, until it prevails beyond evil. You get to chose in which world you want to live.
In 1947, Primo Levi wrote If This Is a Man:
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name,
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
Seventy years later, no lessons seem to have been learned. But as ever, history will judge us, and we can still make it right, if we so wish.