Leaving your country to start a new life

Ahmed Jundi is a poet who, one night, crossed the Aegean Sea with one of those boats, a Syrian citizen who has asked for asylum in the Netherlands but the process is now uncertain due to the pandemic. He is a father who is waiting for months to be united with his family who are still in İzmir.

I was trying to reach a Syrian writer to be able to discuss these issues and listen to his/her story. We crossed paths with Admed Jundi through a couple of news stories that had been written about him. Why would we be surprised that he named his poetry book, “Uncertainty.” He would later tell me that there was nothing that was certain in his life. This poet, who lives in the Aegean city of İzmir, wrote sentences that he would begin in Aleppo. But they did not end in İzmir. I later learned that those sentences would reach the Netherlands, Emmeloord. Ahmed Jundi is a poet who, one night, crossed the Aegean Sea with one of those boats, a Syrian citizen who has asked for asylum but the process is now uncertain due to the pandemic. He is a father who is waiting for months to be united with his family who are still in İzmir. He spoke with that specific knowledge about uncertainty.

Distorted truth

The life of the 37-year-old Ahmed Jundi first changed in 2004. At that time, he was a third-year student in his 20s, wishing to be a prosecutor, at Aleppo University’s School of Law. On March 12, 2004, the match he went to see at the Qamishli (Kamışlı) Stadium would go down in history as a conspiracy plotted by the regime trying to provoke the Kurdish and Arab peoples against each other. The disorder that started in the stands before the match turned into a massacre when security forces opened fire. Eight people including children died at the stadium. The death toll increased to 52 with incidents during and after funerals. The Qamishli Massacre became a date never to be forgotten by the Syrian Kurds seeking their rights. He remained under arrest for 48 days.

“Those 48 days I was imprisoned cannot be explained. I spent every moment of it thinking and questioning every detail of my life. My memories, my feelings, every word I remembered from my mother and my father flashed through my mind. When that recurring film stopped, I started thinking what they were going to do to me. I felt the uncertainty in life there at the most. My friends, who were arrested together with me, actually risked everything but I could not think, imagine what they would do to me. It is that feeling that exhausted me the most, made me feel the worst.”

He was expelled from school. His plan to be a prosecutor became a nightmare. “My answer may sound romantic to you,” he warned, but said he owed it to poetry that he was able to overcome that nightmare. “It was as if the shape and appearance of realities had been distorted. Reality was now twisted because of the dictator and the gangs. Poetry has also shown me that distorted version of the facts.” 

Ahmed Jundi lived with his wife and daughter in Aleppo, working as a graphic designer before the start of the war in Syria in 2011. He defined that period as a huge uncertainty from a political point of view, especially with regards to the future of the Kurds who demanded to speak their own language and their cultural rights. He remembers that the economic crisis had started making life harder. With the war, their lives changed from top to bottom.

‘Let this be a dream’

After their house was bombed, they left Aleppo in 2013, leaving everything behind. Even within a couple of sentences, their story is full of difficulties but it is easy to read on, pass from one paragraph to the other. They dug in their heels and were able to restart that new life of theirs in İzmir. Ahmed was able to find a graphic design job in a small textile firm. His family made up of his wife Nesrin, an artist, and his daughter grew and they had a son.

Ahmed said he did not encounter the physical violence of racism but he always felt that unseen aspect, the pity in the looks. They did not get a new citizenship; they were never insured in any of the jobs they took. It was not easy to live. Their salary was just enough to survive; there was an economic crisis and the future was uncertain: “You always felt as if you were an excess, a burden.”

Jundi and family

“Today, uncertainty dominates the entire world. Circumstances in Turkey make every issue deeper; life was not livable anymore because of economic difficulties. Imagine working for 12 hours every day, but you are still not able to meet the basic needs of your family. On top of this, there was a widespread anti-Syrian refugee stance… Turkey’s economic situation was worsening. I hope I am wrong in my guess but I am expecting even worse conditions. As most of us have experienced, it is always the poor and the oppressed who pay for the stupidity of rulers. The basic reason why I have left my country to arrive in Turkey and why I want to leave Turkey is the future of my children. My wife and I made this decision together. I was never concerned for my own life. Would anyone who only thinks for his own life take to those illegal, tough roads where death is the biggest possibility? I am against killing, whatever the reason, taking the life of anyone. I want my children to grow up in a place where they will not see death and killing.”

They first considered crossing the Aegean by taking a boat to Greece all together. After they asked around and investigated, they decided not to put the children at risk, but to let Ahmed go alone first and take up the challenges of a new life. It was a very difficult decision. Ahmed contacted smugglers and he made a deal with one of them. He was told to go to the Aegean town of Marmaris.

“I stayed in a hotel where people like me who wanted to go to Greece were staying. There were 18 of us. For almost a month, we stayed there waiting for the smugglers to pick us up. We started thinking they were deceiving us. Every day, we heard of refugee boats sinking or that refugee boats were caught. Our mood was down. Oddly enough, none of us were afraid of drowning in the sea or being caught. During that entire month, no one gave up. Then one night, the smugglers called and told us to get ready.”
They left the hotel one by one and took the taxis waiting for them further down the road. The taxies took them to a vehicle for 11-people, where they, 18 people, jammed. The journey that was told to take half an hour took two hours. The driver stopped at a place, told them to walk to the boat. He drove away in fear. On a rough, wired road they walked almost one hour and a half. Meanwhile, one person in the group of 18 was a young woman suffering from cancer. She had difficulty walking. All of them took turns to carry the woman and reached the boat in bruises and injuries. There, another shock was waiting for them. This was a much smaller boat than they had agreed on.

“We did not have the energy to argue with the smugglers. We could not possibly walk that road back; we could never ever lose the opportunity to go that was waiting in front of us. We got on board. As soon as we left, we were all surrounded by fear. The cancer patient woman and two other women started crying. That was the moment when the engine stopped. We were stranded in the middle of the sea. I wished that this was a dream while the staff was trying to fix the engine. This is the sentiment I remember most clearly about that night. Fortunately, the engine started and we were able to continue. The journey of two hours was like two days for us. When we reached the island, we did not know whether to celebrate or cry at our situation. Interestingly, we felt like we had won the biggest victory of our lives. I gave it a lot of thought afterwards. We were reborn that night. What a tremendous thing it was to be able to survive no matter what. The way I am now, my mindset, my view of life were most probably reshaped that night.”      

Passport after death

Quoting Dostoevsky, Ahmed said, “Man is so simple in the face of complications… He believed that a person who has changed, who has been transformed by unhappiness and dilemmas become a unique force against complications. He has learnt this, as much from his own experiences, but also from other refugees who have stepped into his life since he left his country. “Man is capable of everything,” he said, “You just cannot find a solution to death. If he gives up his life, it would not be enough for what he has lost.”

In all these years, poetry was always in Ahmed’s life. What he has written, though, has changed in time. He was writing about love while he was in Syria, after he was “without a country” then his verses were about what he was experiencing.

“Why have I called my book, ‘Uncertainty’? It is because there is not one thing in my life that is not uncertain. Everything is hazy, foggy. So much so that I cannot even be sure now of what I am seeing with my own eyes. Moreover, we are being cheated on everything continuously. Even history, that has been past and gone, is being altered before our eyes. We can only deal with this entire hypocrisy with our emotions. We should be doing that. I believe poetry, music and art will achieve this.”

Ahmed is currently in Emmeloord in the Netherlands. He is staying in a dorm-like facility with about 100 Syrian refugees as well as other asylum seekers from other countries, waiting for a response to his official application. He is learning a foreign language on one hand, and writing poetry on the other hand. When he arrived there at the end of 2019, he had more hope. Then, as if what he lived so far was not enough, something unexpected happened and a pandemic rocked the whole world. They took huge risks for a new life they wanted to build. The day his wife and two children staying in İzmir joins him will be the day they will all be born again. He is waiting for this, hoping and believing, leaving us with admiration for his determination.

Where are you going/ With the white shroud in your bag/ Where?
Always thinking that it is the last stop.
Knowing that the place he will arrive
Will be able to provide, at least, a grave to him.
(...) And he's thinking about life again/ Wondering if the journey will be difficult.
From one place to another/ From one city to another/ From one neighborhood to another.
And he asks himself/ Do you need a passport after death?
Notes: Though we spoke in Turkish, this interview was also carried out thanks to the Kurdish translations of Erselan Aktan. Many thanks to him. Ahmed Jundi’s book entitled “Uncertainty”, which include 26 poems in Arabic, was published the Izmir-based Kil Publishing House. The poem from which the excerpts are shared at the end of this article is named “Getting Used To.” A video that was shot by Kazım Kızıl and Kardelen Uysal while Jundi was living in İzmir can be watched here: https://vimeo.com/330849004