Wafa Mustafa: The Story Behind The Name
Getting to know yet another strong female narrative in this biographical interview. Wafa speaks about her fights, depression and resilience.
Wafa was arrested in 2011. The protests against the Assad regime had begun to heighten in frequency and intensity, with riots regularly breaking out in different Syrian cities. The Syrian authorities launched a nationwide crackdown on protesting in an effort to quell the rising dissent against the government, arresting many civilians. Amongst these were students who were dragged into prison for their activism, including Wafa Moustafa, now a BA1 student in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Thought program at Bard College Berlin (BCB). “It was hard,” she says to me. “At this point, they didn’t arrest girls very often, so they had no idea how to deal with us appropriately.” After being beaten many times for disobedience, she decided that she would go on a hunger strike. But that, combined with serious asthma and an undiagnosed stomach condition, didn’t end well. “They summoned a doctor who force-fed me with syringes. Doctors here don’t help you, they’re all a part of the regime.”
In 2011, the world was hearing little about the situation in Syria. Despite warnings from the UN that Syria was headed for a full-blown civil war, the international community turned a blind eye to the nation. Entrenched in political chaos, the Syrians began to lead a different life. Wafa recalls that she couldn’t even visit her home village after a while because it had been taken over by supporters of the regime. “I used to go home every week, but suddenly my visits were restricted. They were suppressing anybody that opposed the regime, using any means possible. Sometimes this meant killing, but arrests and harassment was not uncommon.” The riots had turned what was originally a simple difference in opinion into a budding civil war. So often, we feel pressured to be eternally tolerant, but have we ever stopped to wonder what we are truly being tolerant of? “It’s not about different points of view,” she says in frustration. “This is not a political thing! This is life. It’s a moral thing, and your decisions reflect on who you are and what you really stand for.”
The arrests escalated as the government brought the full force of the authorities on the protestors. After her father was arrested, Wafa was forced to flee to Aleppo. “I couldn’t tell anyone anything. I would Skype with my mom but not tell her my location because, if she knew, they’d torture it out of her.” The situation was worsening. Schools began rejecting students on the basis of their political affiliation.
“I couldn’t go back to school. They knew I had been arrested for being a part of the protests. My name was publicly on a black-list, so I had to quit my education. Wherever you went, someone was trying to set you up. It was like we were surrounded by spies.” She continued protesting in full force and started traveling to different cities in Syria to join their protests, too. The revolts began to break out more frequently, one rising and dying every couple of hours: Like that, time ebbed away. “2012 was pretty quiet,” Wafa recalls. “But my friends and family slowly started disappearing. One would be killed, one would be arrested. People I loved were slowly dying.”
By this time, Wafa had been diagnosed with severe health issues. What she originally thought was a stomach condition turned out to be chronic anxiety and depression. Reeling from the shock of the diagnosis, she turned to protesting more in order to cope. But in 2013 the tipping point came. News surfaced that her best friend had died. Wafa recalls that they spent a great deal of time together and were very close.
“I’d always considered myself very strong, especially through the deaths of my close ones, but this was it. I broke.” Then came the downward spiral. “I didn’t leave the house for three months,” she says with a sigh. She spent extensive periods of time locked in her room, only ever leaving to use the bathroom – and that with the physical support of her father, who had since been released. “I couldn’t even walk. I had lost 8 kilograms and weighed a meager 47 kilograms. I was so weak, and I thought that this was the worst thing that could happen to me… but then they came for my father again.”
“In the end, it was my father who made me see a doctor. He and I were always close and he knew that it was wrong for him to leave me like this. My family was in Damascus at the time and he promised me that I could see them if I got healthy again. But on July 2nd, they picked him up from our home. He was taken to some prison. I don’t know where he is, and I haven’t heard from him for three years.”
She says that her father once told her that if he was arrested, she had to flee immediately. “So we left. We fled to Turkey with nothing. No passports, no phones, no clothes in case we got stopped at the checkpoint. With the help of a connection, we found a place to stay, but now that I look back, it was the worst point of my life.”
More and more people were beginning to cross the border from Syria to Turkey in search of refuge. People were not only looking for shelter and safety, but for jobs: This rapid increase in demand did not match the supply of jobs in Turkey. “I had no experience, so I couldn’t just get any job. My migraines began increasing, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I was in severe depression, and I couldn’t admit it to anyone. It just didn’t stop, you know?” She even stopped taking her medication. “Who takes medication for two years?!” she asks incredulously.
Moving to a different country is hard enough, but completely relocating with nothing on hand but the will to survive is a tremendous challenge. You are forced to live a life that you never chose to lead in the first place. It took immense strength for Wafa to continue working, realizing that this was not the time to stop. So Wafa worked for three years, sometimes two or three jobs at a time, while battling severe depression. After two months of training, she secured a job at a radio station that supported the Syrian revolution. She worked non-stop, and was eventually promoted to the head of the news department. She even worked for an Arab newsletter, writing daily field reports of the situation in Syria. “The minute I stopped working, I would go crazy. I mean, I was working 17 to 18 hours a day; I would do anything else but go home, and at times I didn’t see my family for two days at a stretch. It got so bad that I thought about committing suicide. I thought about it a lot. And then I knew it was time for me to see a doctor.”
It took time to pass, but slowly it did. “I began working on a campaign against ISIS. That, however, didn’t last too long because a member of the campaign was found slaughtered in his own apartment.” This is when the German government reached out with an offer of asylum.
Wafa came to Germany at the end of March 2016. Her older sister had been offered a spot in Bard College in Annandale, so she decided to apply to BCB. “I was terrified. I didn’t want to leave my mother and younger sister alone, but I couldn’t go back because of the complications that ISIS was creating.” Compelled to leave, she decided to focus on her education. It wasn’t an easy start at all, though. After being an active participant in a huge revolution and living a good chunk of her life either protesting or on the run, suddenly being forced to settle down in a place wasn’t at all straightforward. “I hadn’t gone to college in six years and was much older than everyone else. I felt like a Pokémon!” she laughs. Her laughter slowly dies down and she says earnestly, “but it was very difficult. Some of the kids would laugh at me for pronouncing words differently.” She bites her lip, visibly embarrassed by this. “I would go back to my room and cry for hours. I wanted to be fighting in Syria, but instead I was here. I felt completely alienated. It still takes me thirty minutes to wake up every morning because I have to convince myself that I can get through the day.” She reaches up to touch her hair, and carefully studies the ends of it as though trying to distract herself.
“Studying seems like such a luxury compared to what is happening in Syria,” she whispers. “Everyone I know is either dead or arrested, and I’m supposed to be fighting there with them. But I can’t anymore. I’m supposed to be fighting, but I can’t. Everything seems really useless at this point.” Her posture has grown limp, and she fidgets with a napkin absentmindedly.
Suddenly, as though thinking of something new, she straightens up and looks me dead in the eye. “I’m proud of who I’ve become, though,” she announces. “I’m doing well here. I take great courses and I’ve made really close friends that I love spending time with.” Wafa’s letter grades are fantastic and she finds that she is gradually adjusting to life in Berlin. “I’m becoming more like I was in Syria, and I love that,” she smiles. “The Wafa in Syria was amazing. She was strong and active and nothing could stop her. I’m not proud of who I was in Turkey, but I am proud of how I overtook that life.”
The Syria we know today is in ruins. But, oh, how people have fought for it! Even today, Wafa wishes she were back in her country, fighting for it with every breath, but she knows that’s not where she needs to be right now. “Can I tell you something, Tanya?” She leans towards me. “The Revolution didn’t just change my life. It recreated it. I have lost my friends, my family, my life, and my country. But I have won myself.” And, just like that, Wafa Mustafa has conquered the world.