“and when the river's foreignness ends in the sea cemetery, it will have left behind grassy banks, pastures, and fields overflowing with goodness and peace”
– Khalifa Alfakhri, River's Foreignnee
“The fear of barbarians is what risks making us barbarian.”
– Тsvetan Todoroff, The Fear of Barbarians
Arrivals and departures are the beginning of every story. Leaving home, a certain feeling or language. We seek safer living and working conditions, we flee from poverty, hunger, all forms of exploitation, and the unjust division of the Earth's resources, from suffering and war. At A Sea of Words 2021 literary competition, young people across the Euro-Mediterranean region wrote short stories about migration.
Ahmed O. Benomran from Libya and Kristina Stankova from Bulgaria are finalists in last year’s competition, and we spoke to them about the diverse relocation experiences that have shaped their author’s worldview.
Ahmed, please tell us something about yourself.
Ahmed O. Benomran is a Libyan Arab male who is interested in football, just like what the stereotypes say. Full-time mental health and psychosocial support worker, a self-employed writer, started reading around the age of 5, and tried to write at the age of 7. Constantly writing since 2015 in my own blog, in constant need of a good sense of humour and deep talks. I started discussing the global problems with an imaginary cockroach 5 years ago.
How would you describe your experience at A Sea of Words competition?
Such programs are a good approach to bringing young people together. The first time I heard about the competition was in 2016. I applied, but I wasn’t good enough to win and I totally forgot about it after that. Until last year, and I believe my experience in studying abroad and working in a migration context helped with this year’s theme. I had to experience different aspects of migration as I had to travel to Tunis with a lot of documents to apply for a visa (which as a person who loves dark humour, part of me wanted my application to be rejected to have a joke about it). All the tiring trip was worth it as soon as I arrived in Barcelona. The workshops were great. The program, in general, was good, but most importantly, the people and minds I met there were the highlight of the visit. Although I appreciate those initiatives, I believe the direct change won’t be from them. It will be from the participants in their societies.
Your story is called ‘A Conversation at the Airport'. Can you tell us more about it?
Between 2020 and 2021 I was questioning myself and doubting everything I do. I can say that I’ve lost faith in everything. After part of that faith was restored, with some help from a close person, I decided to participate in the competition for the second time to prove myself. I had different ideas about the theme. Some of them were about immigration, mainly because I work with migrants every day, with people who risked everything to secure better lives, but I decided to go with what I know the most, staying in airports and talking with strangers. Two young males meet in the airport coming from different countries, going to the same destination. They share cigarettes and talk. Later they find out they share dreams as well. I was extremely happy when it was shortlisted, even happier when it was translated to English so that people from different cultures can read it. But partially sad because the translation cropped part of the story. It felt like someone else wrote it.
What can you say about migrant literature in Libya?
I can say that the literary movement in Libya is weak, compared to other movements in the same region. At the same time, my Libyan readings are very limited. Unfortunately, Libyan authors weren’t mainstreamed and supported so the majority of Libyans don’t know much about them and they are known only in very limited circles here. The ones who settled down abroad were able to be successful in writing, mentioning Alsadiq Alnaihoum, Ibrahim Alkouni, and Najwa Ben Shatwan. Hisham Matar was not only born and raised in exile, but he had lived with a fake identity as a child, which may be helped him to write in English. He had to live, act and think like an American so he can definitely write as an American. Personally, I don’t see myself doing that because I only think like an Arab.
There are millions of people all over the world who currently hold refugee or displaced person status, living in inhuman conditions. How have your experiences affected your views on policies and laws relating to the refugee crisis and the treatment of refugees in general?
Of course, Libya is not the best country when it comes to laws and policies in general. My work nature requires me to work closely with migrants and authorities, so I guess it would be unethical to speak about that here. The conditions are not the best, but many Libyans are trying their best. In Libya you will find an Egyptian builder, a cleaner from Bangladesh, a Syrian technician, a nurse from Ukraine or the Philippines, but yet, the majority holds the beliefs that Libyans are superior to them all, and at the same, some of them are kind to the migrants. Of course, it’s not always the case as there are a lot of Libyans who are actually using and selling migrants, while the authority can’t stop them as we live in a failed state.
That sounds awful. What do you think, what can young writers do to improve the refugee lives? Do you believe literature can make a change in society?
We should simply start with our close ones; one can be surprised about the number of racist beliefs in their families, for example. I like to be realistic. I don’t think any change in society will happen during my lifetime. Change in society needs a long time and a lot of effort. What we can do now as writers or citizens is to raise awareness so maybe we will take one step closer and help the following generations achieve the change.
Kristina, now is your turn to answer some questions. Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I am currently in that beautiful and stressful economic period of change. Just recently I quit my job as technical support for a big American company and I am taking the first steps on the path to my dream: to become an independent researcher and writer. I was invited by the IEMed to write an article for their annual summary and to tell the stories of people who came to Europe from the Southern Mediterranean without documents. I am really enjoying working on it. Since I live in Neverland (Barcelona), I have many opportunities to practice my other big passion as well, which is sports. I like longboarding and biking a lot and I work out at the beach sports equipment as often as I can. I meet amazing people from all over the world, who help me improve my skills for a smile.
How would you describe your experience at the competition?
I find the initiative an amazing opportunity for everyone. In the end, no matter how much we read, those personal experiences of exchange between cultures are the ones that really change our perceptions of one another. For me, it was an absolute privilege just to spend time with all the other participants and share moments with them. I found the workshop that was organized for us inspiring and very motivating. If I have to suggest an improvement to the programme, I would organize more creative activities for the participants in the future.
Can you briefly describe your story ‘Their Voices I Hear'?
My story was a confession. I had a violent past and it is not leaving me in the present. I was going through some really difficult times mentally and I confronted a lot of skeletons from my closet this past year. So, when I saw an information about the competition, I don’t remember what I thought, but I sat down and wrote my story in a day or two. It just felt really good. I was reflecting on all the opportunities I was presented in my life, which probably saved me from a very sad end. Bulgaria, my home country, might be worse than some African countries in terms of economy, human rights protection, freedom of speech and etc. But because of our location on the map, we are a member of the European Union and I could take advantage of the beautiful freedom of movement.
What can you say about migrant literature in Bulgaria?
First thing that comes to my mind is a book that was published by student journalists from Sofia University. It is a summary of the stories of immigrants in Bulgaria, who came from Syria, Iran, and Iraq, and stories of the people who work in the field of immigration. The full PDF of the book is available for free online, but it was published only in Bulgarian. In general, I don’t think that people start working/writing in this field with the objective of making a lot of money. The entire sector is shamefully underpaid, but still, even in the least developed countries, there are people who find meaning in telling those stories and reaching out to immigrants that need help. It gives me hope to interact with those people and see that money is not the only purpose for some.
Since you came to Barcelona to study about migration, you have already had an idea about the refugee crisis and the treatment of refugees in general.
I came to Barcelona to study a Master in Migration Studies at the University of Pompeu Fabra. We studied the legislative framework, mostly in Europe, then policymaking in the field, sociology, and a brief history of human migration. There was a huge migration flow towards Bulgaria after the start of the civil war in Syria. But it gave me a very interesting insight into legislation. More specifically, the regional level of management. El Ajunamento de Barcelona is one of the most tolerant and accepting institutions for immigrants. What I found very interesting is that often the regional level is much more open to immigrants than the national. Mainly because in the end, the cities suffer the consequences of badly managed immigration (like higher levels of crime, more requests for urgent medical help, homelessness).
My Master Thesis was based on a case study of the so-called Bulgarian immigrant hunters. A bunch of guys were patrolling our southern border with Turkey, catching and beating up people who were trying to enter illegally. Including women and children. In an interview for the news, the comment of our Prime Minister at that time was that he absolutely supports the hunters. It is painful to talk about that. As Einstein said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity.” I know that in general people don’t enjoy talking about topics that cause them discomfort, so I think that the few voices who can reach out and resits this ridiculous reality we are living in, should be as loud as they can be!
Do you believe literature can make a change in society?
Some days I don’t see light at the end of the tunnel at all. I feel like this world is so corrupted and full of stupidity, which results in human suffering, that any effort is absolutely pointless. And then I read something inspiring or I meet someone, like young Mohamed who came from Morocco to Spain on the bottom of a truck, after spending one year in Ceuta, trying to figure out how to hide and getting beat up by the police every week. He came here just to face discrimination on almost every step he takes. And still, he doesn’t take the smile off his face. He told me “I know that I am a good person and good people attract other good people. The other ones can’t affect me. I don’t care, I am not afraid.” There should be some point in telling his story. I don’t know about society, but on an individual level, I don’t believe, I know that literature can make a change. It can inspire and motivate. It can bring hope and help.