Last night, at 10PM, my boss called me. He had some new «Auftrag» for me. I turned in my head, at least hundred of possible scenarios , unable to fall asleep. And what was his late call all about it? I found out the morning after, that I have to make a research on women refugees during the Corona crisis. “For some unknown reason for us journalists”, said my boss, “the refugees, with special accent on women, came suddenly into the hot spot of the media, again.”
So, I got the task to pay a visit to a Refugee Centre, vis à vis the river, right next to the green area of the city, and to make ground research of the situation there, considering the Corona crisis. Well, I really liked the topic. First of all because I felt privileged to report about an area that´s almost absent from the media. To do research on a topic about refugees, here in Switzerland, is similar like to look for stars on a cloudy evening. Everyone knows that these stars exist, they are just quite invisible.
If I think better, to make a parable to this topic with invisible stars is completely wrong. Star constellations are associated with abundance of life unfamiliar to human mind. The topic of the women refugees in Switzerland is more like an abandoned corner of a dark cellar, full of undiscovered truths.
So I took this task and boldly went “where no one has gone before”. First of all, to enter a refugee centre during the Corona crisis it´s “mission impossible”. Normally strictly isolated, with the Corona crisis it became double that much. I have contacted some of “my” people and in a short, I was able to get the centre directly on the phone. I made an appointment at 14 PM the day after with Nardos.
The next day. Nardos answered to me via the watch phone at the very entrance. She came personally to open the electric gate and to greet me. She introduced me to another woman, with the name Faten, who supposed to be my guide through the centre. Nardos turned out to be busy with cooking a Somali dinner and left me with Faten alone. After the detailed disinfection of our hands, breath and putting the proper face-masks we stared our tour through the centre.
Unable to see my guide Faten completely behind the face mask, I had to hang on her warm and intelligent brown eyes. She comes “uhrschprünglich” from Iran, and lives here for already 6 months, Faten introduced her self. “Uhrsprünglich kommen” in German means “originally comes from” and it is something which no Swiss person will ever miss to ask you in a conversation. It is one of the first German words I ever learned, before I even started to learn German. Without an exception, this question, where do I come from “uhrsprünglich” pops up in every single conversation. “From Gorno Nerezi”, I always think for my self, but how could I explain the depth of the dimension of this place of origin, and will they ever be able to really understand my answer? But yes, that´s a minor thing now, we had a tour to do throughout the centre.
So we entered the building, like usual, from the unofficial back door, bumping directly into the washing room. The washing machine and the tumbler were moving in a synchronized rhythm, making an extraordinary noise that immediately interrupted our conversation. At the wall were hanging an infinite number of baby clothes, in all colours and sizes. We moved very fast to the next room, happy to leave the noise behind.
Carefully and without too much talking Faten was guiding me through the house. Each time she had something to say I felt a special kind of anxiety behind Fatens voice, like slight trembling in the tone. I couldn´t see her face, but I could feel her being indignant. We want shortly into the kitchen where we met Nardos again, hidden behind the vapouring clouds of exotic smells of her Somali dishes.
After the kitchen we took some incredibly steep stairs and went up on the first floor. In comparison with the ground floor, here was significantly more daylight. “These are the two offices of our bosses”, said Faten to me. “Please, help me understand”, I said, “what do you mean your bosses?” I asked surprised, because I wasn´t expecting a presence of any kind of leadership. “Well, this is the working space of our bosses”, repeated Faten, with her slight bitterness in the voice. “Two Swiss men are regularly coming to our house, to check how many of us are really coming back home”, she tried to explain to me their position. “Their task is actually, to constantly check our number, and nothing more then that. They are not here to deal with us or any of our problems.” My journalist eye noticed immediately, that their offices were taking the biggest and the central part from the first floor of the house. To enter these offices, of course, was not possible, because they are always locked.
“25 people live here in 3 rooms. Mostly small children, one newly born,” Faten continued to explain. Faten opened one door in which were too many beds, each on two floors, positioned just next to one another, with no other furniture in the room. This is “her” room, or at least, the room where she sleeps. I asked Faten why was the house almost empty at the moment. With an exception of one mother from Eritrea, who was sitting on the floor and playing with three small children, there was nobody else there. The women who live in this house are not employed, and they are not allowed to get employed. They get 10 Franks per day, each day and are not allowed to make any efforts for social integration. In these times of Corona, their limits were even more tight. “So, where are all the residents of the house?”, I couldn´t resist to ask Faten.
“To dwell in this house is almost impossible,” said Faten. I had a feeling like dark clouds started to spread on her forehead. Her voice got also slower and darker, although she was still trying to be gentle and kind to me. “All women here are constantly quarrelling, from the morning until the evening. Everyone is against everyone. They are quarrelling mostly because of the children, but there is no real need for a fight. They start their day like that, they end up their day like that,” said Faten. The only peaceful moment which Faten can experience here is somewhere after midnight, when everyone falls asleep. These are the exclusive intimate moments for Faten, since she lives in this house.
Soon we finished the tour around the house and Faten invited me for an Arabic coffee in the garden. I was looking forward to hear more about her own private story of a refugee woman. How did she get here and why? The coffee turned out to be as bitter as her story.
Faten used to study at he Academy for dramatic Arts in Iran and afterwards started to work as an actress for a local theatre. During this time her husband went into some delicate political activities, which were considered as suspicious, by their government. One day she got invited at the police station for an informative conversation. She got informed that they know everything about her. That they know everything about the suspicious political activities of her husband. Even more, that they know everything about her love affair. Then, she got informed that if she doesn´t want to end up in prison for infidelity, she has to start to work for them and provide information about her husband “They expected that I will accept to become a spy of my own family,” said Faten to me.
She found her self in a very difficult situation. On one side she could never spy her own husband, with whom she had one child. On the other side she got totally scared that the police will really turn her out about her love affair. They were right about it. She started a love affair with a colleague from another theatre, whom she met on a tour two years ago.
“I never felt anything like that for anyone before. I finally was able to feel love for the first time in my life. I got married when I was 14, in an arranged marriage. I got my son when I was 15. I had to do like my family requested from me, like my mother and my mother in law were teaching me, like my tradition was expecting from me. I never felt that I have a life on my own. Until I started to work for the theatre and until I met him, my lover. Only then I felt what does it mean to live a life of my own. Only then I could understand what does it mean to truly love a man. No one can ever take these feelings away from me. I became a loved woman. And I loved a man. A feeling which I will carry in my heart forever,” said Faten, and her warm brown eyes, started to sparkle.
“In Iran, if a woman gets caught up for an infidelity, she ends up in prison. The woman can be payed off by her family, she can be billed out, but her life is simply ruined forever,” said Faten after a short break. “I didn´t want to live a life of shame. And I didn´t want to destroy the lives of my husband, of my son and of my lover. There was no other way but to disappear from my country. Therefore, I decided to flee. One night, without saying a word to anyone, I took a flight to Iraq, to Baghdad, and with the help of my cuisine I flew to Zürich. I came alone with nobody and with nothing in my pocket. I am here and I can´t do anything anymore. My life as it was before is an ended story.»
“And where are your husband and your child?” I tried to ask as carefully as possible. “They are still in Iran,” said Faten calmly, and surprisingly for me, she considered this to be the best option for them. “But I don´t know where is he» she said and remained silent.
We kept silence for a while. Faten looked far in the distance, like she tried to look far back in those beautiful moments of her life. Then she said with an amazing calm in her voice, that I should drink my coffee or it will get cold. Slowly, I started to notice the surrounding of the garden where we were seating again. I started to remember the reason why I got here in a first place. I am on a mission and I have to write a report about the Corona situation in a women refugee centre! Unfortunatelly, I had to cut her sad story in the middle, and ask another kind of a question.
“Excuse me Faten, could you tell me something more about the Corona crisis now a days? How do you deal with it? Which difficulties are you facing. Are you able to follow the protocols?”
“You want to talk about Corona?!”said Faten full of a sudden energy. “Corona is a bliss for me!” she said. That was an answer that I was at least expecting. After her report about her own destiny, this sudden blow of positivity was like a thunder in the darkness.
“Of course, I got terribly scared when I first heard about the virus. I started to clean and to disinfect everything that I would see or touch. I got like crazy. The hygiene in this house is anyway a big problem, but with the Corona it became almost unbearable. I don´t want to die. I don´t want to die without seeing my beloved ones again, my son. Him..” said Faten with traces of tears in her eyes.
Fatens lover ended up in prison, right after she run away from the country. The authorities in Iran came to the conclusion that he was collaborating with her and she was recognized as a spy who illegally left Iran. He was under an investigation, until the moment the virus entered the prisons. The authorities decided to let some of these prisoners home, under house arrest. Only one month after, he managed to run away from home and flew out the country. But he disappeared. Now no one knows where is he.
Faten doesn´t know as well. But she hopes that one day he will call her. “I live for this day,” she said to me with a sad smile. “For what else should I live? I live for this day when I will hear his voice on the phone. I don´t have anything else to live for. Every night I pray for him. And deep in my heart I know that he is alive.”
Not only Faten, but each one of these women carried similar fate. They don´t share only similar fate, but love as well. Because, only love can give a woman such strength to fight against these merciless conditions. Expelled or deserted, they all live for the moment of reunion. They all live for this new momentum of fate. I left the house with the same hope.