How does motherhood change the lives of women in exile?

To mark the end of Heike Steinweg’s "I never said goodbye | WOMEN IN EXILE" exhibition, on January 15 the author Dilek Güngör spoke to Dima Al-Bitar Kalaji, Doha El Jaduh, and Nivin Maksour about their experiences as young mothers in exile, about raising children and about life in different languages.

von Dilek Güngör

Nivin Maksour, Doha El Jaduh, Dilek Güngör, Lama Al Haddad, Dima. Foto: Hans Glave, Berlin
Nivin Maksour, Doha El Jaduh, Dilek Güngör, Lama Al Haddad, Dima Al-Bitar Kalaji. Foto: Hans Glave, Berlin

What do you tell a child about the war? How do you talk about your experiences of escape? Dima Al-Bitar Kalaji’s and Nivin Maksour’s children are still too young to ask questions. Dima’s daughter is eight months old while Nivin has a two-year-old daughter and another little girl who was born in Berlin just two months ago. Only Doha El Jaduh’s seven-year-old son would be old enough to ask his mother questions. “But he doesn’t ask any,” she says. Her son was two when the family left Syria and she doesn’t know what he remembers. The family first went to Lebanon with their son and his eight-month-old sister. From there, they went to Turkey, then Greece, then Hungary, where they were picked up by police and imprisoned. They fled to Austria but their fingerprints were in Hungary so they had to return to Debrecen, to a home where Doha’s youngest child was born. They arrived in Berlin in February 2015. Doha says she’s sometimes happy that her son doesn’t ask any questions. She and her husband don’t want to have to talk about this terrible time. “It’s enough that we had to go through it once,” she says. “We don’t want to go through it again by talking about it to our son.”

Doha, Nivin and Dima are three of the women portrayed by the photographer Heike Steinweg in her exhibition “I never said goodbye | Women in Exile”. We’re sat in the gallery at Tempelhof Museum surrounded by Steinweg’s large-format photos and use the last day of the exhibition to talk about how being a mother has changed the women’s lives and continues to do so. Lama Al Haddad, who fled Syria in 2013 and is also portrayed in the exhibition, is the language mediator for our discussion.

How do you talk about it? That’s really not a question you can discuss in detail in such company, but I asked it anyway, as in the text accompanying Dima’s photo the journalist laments the fact that her parents always painted a sugar-coated image of Syria. “I don’t want that for my daughter,” she says. “I will tell her that the war didn’t hit us from one day to the next, that it was a long time coming, because of the economic, political and social policies.” Nivin also says that she would be happy to answer her children’s questions later. “If they want to know, I will tell them what happened to their uncle.” Nivin believes that her brother was killed in a Syrian jail. “We looked for him in jail but we were sent away and told that we should forget about him.” She doesn’t know exactly what happened to him and she has never seen him since.

We move from how to the question of the language these mothers use with their children. Dima talks to her baby in Arabic but Nivin has opted for English. She studied English literature in Syria and after fleeing Hama lived in Turkey where she worked for the French NGO Handicap International. Her husband speaks Arabic with their daughters. “And our eldest daughter is learning German in the Kita,” she says. Language learning seems to be something that comes easily to Nivin. Her German is already good and she regrets not having learned Turkish when she was in Hatay. Doha speaks German with her children. “That wasn’t a conscious decision,” she says. “It just turned out that way.” That it could just turn out that way lies in the fact that German is Doha’s second mother tongue. She came to Germany from Lebanon when she was four and lived in Munster for 16 years. During all that time the family’s residency status remained uncertain. Their ‘temporary leave to remain’ kept being extended until Doha, her parents and her siblings were finally deported to Lebanon in 2006. “I didn’t know that my parents had to report all the time,” she says. “At the end it was every week.” Doha has since started training to become a social worker, but it’s uncertain how long she can stay in Berlin as the threat of deportation to Hungary is currently hanging over her family.

Many guests came to the gallery to listen to the women. Photo: Hans Glave
Many guests came to the gallery to listen to the women. Photo: Hans Glave

“It was after the birth of my daughter that I felt particularly alone and missed my mother,” says Dima. Both Dima and Nivin attempted to bring their mothers to Germany. “It didn’t work,” says Nivin. “My husband helped me as best he could but his head injury has limited his ability to move.” He often spends several hours a day having physiotherapy. When I ask Doha whether not having relatives around all the time didn’t also have its benefits, she laughs. “Of course,” she says. “There were many things I wasn’t allowed to do as a child. I was never allowed to go on school trips, for example. My children will be allowed to go everywhere with all the others. If my parents were here with us, they would definitely be interfering, telling me what to do.” Even the audience laughs and Dima says that although the distance is painful she also enjoys the high level of freedom that her small family enjoys. “The closeness in Syrian families is wonderful in one sense but it leaves you little freedom to make your own decisions. This was in the context of difference between Germany in Syria. I mentioned the high individual freedom and space in Germany which helps the person concentrate on his goals but leaves a little bit in distance from others around him, while in Syria, the person is surrounded and supported socially, but also have more duties toward others which effects personal accomplishments.“

Someone from the audience asks, ”Is there anything you’d want to take with you to Syria if you returned.” Doha doesn’t want to return, neither to Syria nor Lebanon, but Nivin and Dima would like to live in Syria again. “The country needs us,” says Dima. “We can learn a lot from Germany, which has also been through a war and subsequently become a powerful country.” Nivin nods.

Translation: Nickolas Woods