The girl with the 4-coloured hair
Selena sits in front of her device, wearing a pink T-shirt and shiny red hair. She wanted to dye her hair four colours: blue, green, pink and purple. The hairdresser let her pay a lot for it, and twenty-something hours later her hair turned out to be a deep shade of red. Her colourful coiffure matches her relaxed attitude and hints about her being an artist in the soul. She makes equally bright oil paintings, mostly inspired by her experiences as a refugee.
Selena escaped Iraq a few years ago. She was supposed to marry her cousin, H. The whole family thought this would be a wonderful idea, and Selena herself was not opposed to it. But later the cousin joined al-Qaeda. Selena’s family was working for the government and some were with the police, so marrying an al-Qaeda member would mean marrying the enemy. The family cancelled the plan to let the two get married. ‘I want my wife!’, yelled H., outraged. But Selena’s father refused. Then H. threatened to kill any man who would marry Selena, along with herself and her family. ‘You see, they don’t have any rules,’ she says. ‘And many countries just give them support. Al-Qaeda members think they can just kill people.’
Selena suffered these threats for a few years before she decided to get married to the man who is her husband today. On the day of their wedding, at 7 PM the wedding was official, and one minute later the new couple ran together to Iran along with Selena’s parents. They stayed with Selena’s family for a while. After a few days, they walked through the mountains for a whole day to get to Turkey, where they stayed for two years. They started to build up a life together, found a job, a house and Selena got pregnant. But after two years, Selena’s father said Turkey was not safe for the family anymore. The cousin was still after her, her husband and even the baby.
So they left everything again to flee to Europe. They settled for a while in a refugee camp Selena does not hesitate to refer to as hell. They arrived in the winter, when the camp was wet and cold. Selena was pregnant and had to climb a steep path uphill the mountain. She slept on the cold floor in a tent. Even though she asked for a container or a house, her condition did not grant her priority. An upgrade was not possible.
Shortly before her due date, Selena got in touch with a refugee lawyer who arranged a stay for them in another village. There she felt welcome, and gave birth to a beautiful and healthy daughter.
Yet, in the local hospital where the child was born, doctors ‘hate refugees’, Selena says. There was a separate room for refugee patients, forgotten by nurses and doctors. There, Selena was refused any painkiller. Another pregnant refugee Selena knows went through the same experience, she said. ‘They don’t see us as humans. They do not even see us as animals, no – they love animals! They hate us.’
Fortunately, Selena got in touch with Project Hope. She talks gratefully about this couple, Eric and Philippa Kempson, who started this project, a sort of Art Centre for refugees. They run a Distribution center for newly-arrived people. ‘They give them soap, make-up, shoes, clothes’, Selena explains.
It is something I never really thought about: how you must feel when you are so dirty and emotionally broken after you survived the long walks and/or the boat journey. When you have only brought the most essential things with you in the tiniest backpack. And when, with only ragged, dirty, wet clothes on, you are basically naked; salt and sweat, tears and blood covering your body, and you have literally no shower nor soap to wash yourself. These people at Project Hope let people come to their warehouse and help them feel better. They also have a barber shop, a taylor and a safe space for women. With the symbolic ‘warm bath’ they offer, Eric and Philippa offer refugees the feeling they are taken care of; the feeling they are welcome.
Selena found herself real hope in this project, because she discovered the art of oil painting. When she was young she had a talent for drawing, being stimulated by her father who noticed she was good. Selena never got a chance to go to school back in Iraq; she learned how to read and write thanks to friends of her father’s who taught her at home. Her own mother has only been learning to read and write for three years. It sounds like her father is quite progressive, because Selena tells us it was her father’s dream for Selena to go to university someday, just like he had done himself. It is also Selena’s wish to do so. Also, Selena sounds quite independent. The colours of her hair indicate she has a distinct taste. She tells us her husband stood by her side as she was choosing all four colors of her hair. Her father was more surprised: ‘What???’, he said. The way Selena smiles whilst telling us this attests of her liberty to make her own decisions. Her parents support their daughter and her husband the best way they can from a very far distance, in a relatively safe country. It seems to me that Selena would fit in perfectly within some artistic subculture somewhere in Europe. She will develop her art and sell her pieces there. She already sold one piece to one of the Walk of Shame EU team members present in the video call, Giulia. Proudly, she tells us she picked the one with a dog and a little girl, cause this painting reminds her of herself.
She might want to go to Berlin or Holland, since she knows people there. But any destination in Europe would be acceptable to her, as Selena still feels haunted by the al-Qaeda killers. At the moment, she lives somewhere in Greece, waiting for an interview by the authorities to ‘accept her case’. When this interview can take place is not clear. It might be in three more years. After the interview, the authorities can finally tell her whether she is a refugee, someone who could become a legal immigrant. Selena could explain in the interview how she and her family are still not entirely safe and that she would like to move on hiding somewhere in Europe where they could be lost in anonymity. Maybe then she could start a life and forget she was ever promised to an al-Qaeda murderer.
Selena reminds me of a beautiful young Kate Winslet, playing Rose in Titanic. In her eyes lies the same depth, even when she smiles. A depth no one could reach, even if we asked her a million questions. And right now she is drifting, like Rose in the movie, hoping she will ever reach the shore alive. I wonder what the sunken Titanic could symbolically stand for, looking back on her life. Would it be her happy childhood in Iraq that drowned in the dark ocean of political disorder? Or would the Titanic symbolize the more recent event: her being a survivor of the boat crossing from Turkey to Greece? In any case, Selena’s life has been a journey trying to escape danger. She is now clinging on to a piece of floating wreckage in the sea, after promising Jack to never let go. Let’s hope Selena will survive and live to be 100 years old as well.
Selena’s name, as well as some facts and places, have been changed for security purposes. Selena’s artworks are presented on her “Refugee Art” Facebook page, and are available for sale.
by Sabine Wassenberg, philosopher, the Netherlands
Share on: Facebook Twitter