De Tystade Rösterna

Letters To Europe - Refugee Women Write

Claes JB Löfgren
Utrikesreporter. SVT Nyheter

Delvin Arsans bok ger det svenska majoritetssamhället en uppriktig och detlajerad insikt i de konflikter och dilemman en invandrarfamilj från Syrien kan hamna i. Temat är det omdiskuterade hedersvåldet och hederskulturen, fenomen många har åsikter om men färre erfarenheter av och insikter om.

Delvin Arsan ger röst åt tusentals tystade (...)

Martin Schori
Journalist, författar och Utrikesredaktör på Aftonbladet

Delvin har skrivit om ett lika aktuellt som känsligt ämne – och ingen kunde ha skrivit den som hon.

Med både personliga och professionella erfarenheter från hederskulturen skriver Delvin enkelt, tydligt och uppfriskande öppet om ett fenomen som trasar sönder enskilda människors liv och begränsar samhällens möjlighet att blomstra.

Hon (...)

Jesper Bengtsson
Journalist och Författare

Delvin Arsans bok ger en unik inblick i hederskulturens villkor och konsekvenser. Unik därför att berättelsen skrivs av en person som upplevt den från barndomen, både i Syrien och Sverige, och sedan frigjort sig från den. Unik också därför att denna erfarenhet får Arsan att resa tillbaks till Mellanöstern och arbeta med kvinnofrågor.

Det (...)

Jan Henrik Swahn

Kärleken och döden är de två dörrarna i huset vi bygger. När vi förlorar hoppet eller lusten att leva lägger vi oss i fosterställning och väntar på att någon äntligen ska bära oss igen.

Delvin Arsans gestaltning av sin familj och dess sargade livshus och hur ett mångtusenårigt kvinnoförtryck  påverkat i första hand henne själv, hennes (...)

Letters to Europe - Refugee Women Write

The refugee crisis in Europe has raised tempers and become a subject of debate in almost every country. Over the course of the process, a stereotype has evolved, painting the ‘young, male Syrian refugee’ as the typical asylum seeker. This narrative leaves little space to talk about the often widely divergent backgrounds and identities of refugees and makes it easier to ignore refugee women, children, the elderly and their needs and role in the future of Europe.

Against this background, the Letters to Europe – Female Refugees Telling Their Stories project has set out to draw refugee women into the public debate, making them the subjects and authors of their own stories, and not the object of somebody else’s narrative.

On this basis, a team from Berlin, Germany, Valencia, Spain and Groningen, Netherlands joined efforts and skills and set out to collect the stories of 15 female refugees in the book ‘Letters to Europe – refugee women write’.

In their role as Europe’s newcomers, refugee women expressed why they came to Europe and what they feel about their new homeland, thereby informing the debate on European identity. The book aimed to empower women’s voices,making their stories accessible in English to a broader European audience.

Here is my chapter from the book:


** Year 2006 **

The other day I was stopped for an unusual long time by the police, when crossing and moving between the gates at Arlanda airport in Stockholm. The police officer said, with an upset tone of voice while looking down at my passport: “It’s really confusing that most of you (us from Middle East, as I was traveling to the region that day) have the same date of birth: January 1st, 1980.”

He looked at me with a grumpy face and almost threw my passport back at me. I looked at him and quickly retorted, “Well I wasn’t as lucky as you when I was born” – then left to avoid getting arrested for lecturing him. When I was born, dates were not important. Some of my cousins were born and remained stateless for many years. My mum gave birth to me in our living room by herself, without even knowing she was carrying twins. My twin brother unfortunately died a few months later. When my mum went to register me, the governmental officer just put a date. January First. One day before or after New Year’s Eve wouldn’t matter, he told her.

I always asked my mum when I was really born and she always replied: “It was the time of celebrations, I think it was New Year’s Eve.” For many years, I really believed I was born on New Year’s Eve. Actually, I only really found out my date of birth last year when my mum found her notebook from Syria. She called me and very excitingly told me that she finally found the date when I was born. I got upset with her and said: “WHAT! So I wasn’t born on New Year’s Eve? Why would I believe you this time?”, I argued. She replied saying that she definitely thought that I took my date of birth too serious, and then both of us laughed.

That very same weekend I took the train to the Swedish town of Flen to “inspect” her notebook. It was a black little notebook in which she used to write dates of important events, such as when she gave birth to us. However, she never thought about those dates when my parents registered us. Nothing about our identity as Kurds, or as a minority, was ever significant. We had to obey whatever the Syrian government told us.

My mom dropped out of school at a very early age as she was forced into an early marriage with her cousin even before turning 18. Luckily, she had at least learned how to write by then and used her little notebook to document special events in her life. She had beautifully and gratefully written: “In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate. Today I gave birth to Twins, a boy and a girl. Delvin and Dolovan. December 28. 1979.”

So I said to my mum: “Mum, next time I renew my passport I will change it to the original dates of birth. After 36 years I finally know when I was born.” Well, better late than never I thought. When thinking about how children enter the world in Syria today, I was lucky to be born in a living room and not under ruins or on the streets of war, or for that sake as a stateless person. In the end, the Swedish police never accepted my mum’s notebook as a legal document to change my date of birth to the original dates.

** Year 1988  **

In 1988, Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurds with chemical weapons in the city of Halabja, in Northern Iraq. It was world news that upset many, not just Kurds. The event had a big effect on my father.

In Syria, my father wrote many texts he would never be able to publish. Kurds were not allowed to express their ethnic identity in Syria, it wasn’t allowed by the regime and it would cost any Kurd their life. My father loved reading books. His bookshelves in Syria were filled with books of geography and history, and he knew a lot about world politics and religions.

My father wrote a lot too, but buried his poems and texts. For him, it was like burying his identity. Even his dreams of becoming a writer were taken from him. But when he found freedom in Sweden he could no longer bear to keep his words in or bury them. All the oppression, hate, discrimination and the vulnerable memories of being a Kurd in Syria were for the first time expressed in words. In Sweden, he could now write without fearing for his life.

A prisoned soul was set free for the first time. His voice would no longer be silenced.

His writings became a collection of poems in Arabic about oppression against the Kurds, but he also wrote about the Jews who had been the only ones to show loyalty towards the Kurds.

With his words and poems now published, a new hell broke out for him and he started to get death threats.

With these death threats being made against him, he could now file for asylum. With a Swedish residence permit, he applied for family reunion with the help of the Red Cross.

** Year 1993 **

Back in Syria, we were a poor family. my mother, my siblings and me.. We lived frugally, under limited conditions. My mother was a self-taught tailor  and took care of her children with her small  salary. With her dowry, my mother bought some land on which she built a house made of clay-bricks.

Although my father was a violent man and battered his children at home, he was also an oppressed man in society. We grew up with various levels of oppression and violence. Opportunities for Kurds in Syria were minimal. We were marginalized, discriminated against. Some of us were even stateless and others couldn’t even have their Kurdish names registered.

My brothers were reaching adulthood, which meant they would soon be called to military service in the Syrian army. Because my father’s collection of poems were  published in Sweden, he was also receiving threats. My father used it to seek asylum in Sweden, so he could also save my brothers before they got in trouble.

In 1993 my mother, the youngest of my brothers and I reunited in Sweden, followed by my middle brother a few months later. My sister, however, had not received any and according to the Swedish Migration Agency there were no other reasons to be accepted in order to complete the family reunion. She had reached the legal age of maturity, which meant she didn’t fulfil the conditions to be united with her family in Sweden.

In Syria, my sister was not treated as an adult at all. Women never get authority in the Middle East, not until they’re married at least. Even though my mom married her husband when she reached legal age, she had been promised to him long before she was an adult. The Migration Agency had seemed to take for granted that my 18-year-old sister had the same rights and freedoms as a Swedish 18-year old. During the years we waited for each other, my sister and I exchanged letters. Between the lines of our letters, a desire, an emptiness and tears were hiding. The dream of the Northern Land had lost some of its beauty, and it would separate us anew.

Our hopes for a better life in Sweden became destroyed once more. The struggle for a reunited family turned out tto be a newa battle for the whole family. I realized how tough the laws in Europe were, especially towards women who are left behind in their home countries and who fought to be reunited with their families. Even here, I started to see patriarchy at work.

For us, the battle has never ended. The integration of shattered families and souls has become the new struggle. You don’t just choose to become a refugee. To flee or migrate based on oppression, discrimination and poverty is not a choice. It’s fate. It’s a consequence of dictatorships. No one leaves behind their home voluntarily.

Nevertheless, the struggle doesn’t start nor end when you have started your new journey as a refugee or a migrant, nor does a new happy beginning starts. New battles take shape. You live between the ruins of your memories with a truncated soul. The body might be in a new place, but the soul is left with those who you have left behind. After many years, you live in stillness of time, where in your mind there is no difference between morning and evening.

From 1993 to 1996, my parents tried to get my sister to Sweden, without any success, and my father gave up hope. The only way for her to be reunited with us would be through an arranged marriage. My father went to see people, mostly Kurds, with a picture of her. Who wants to marry this beautiful girl? After several years of constant rejection from the Migration Agency, my sister too had given up hope to be reunited with us.

Mom refused to agree with an arranged marriage. She didn’t want her daughter to experience the same situation she did. But my father didn’t take my mother’s concern into consideration. He threatened she would never meet her children again if she didn’t obey. This was how my mom was forced to go back to Syria to marry away my sister with the Iranian man, who was chosen as the only way out for her to be reunited with us.

It took four years for my sister and us to reunite in Sweden, but through an arranged marriage my sister was forced from one form of oppression to another. Her new husband was much older and very traditional and kept with the old clan-traditions from Iran. My sister’s residence permit would be renewed every six months, which meant she needed to stay out of trouble. One mistake would send her back to Syria. She chose to silently accept her destiny with the older man. One day, a year after they had become a couple in Sweden, he died in a car accident on the way home from work.

** Year 2000 **

I was thirteen years old when I came to Sweden. My childhood in Syria was filled with violence and oppression. And when we came to Sweden, a new broken chapter in my life began. During my teenage years, up until I was 26, we lived in a broken family, culture clashes and discriminating structures.

The honor killings of two young Swedish-Kurdic girls had received much media attention in the years I studied at university. They had led to a big debate about Middle Eastern honor culture, a debate that didn’t just concerned honor culture in Sweden. It also increased tensions between Christian and Muslim groups in Sweden, as well as within the Muslim and clan-based communities, and between conservative and liberal communities from the Middle East.

In the middle of these events, Al-Qaida carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center, on September 11th, 2001. This horrible crimecaused immigrants to be seen as evil, a threat against  national society. Almost nobody in the debates talked about internal disputes and conflicts within migrant communities, which led to further segregation in debates and society. For many migrants, this caused a reinforcement of the own cultural norms, especially due to the lack of a strong national identity in the alienated society they were living in. We felt the weight of the eyes on our communities, and tried to defend ourselves, many of us doing so by keeping our traditions even stronger.

In my family, we tried to integrate, against all odds. For men, this was even more difficult and tough as many were judged as stereotypical oppressors because of the honor killings, and as terrorists because of the September 11th attacks.

My four elder siblings had come to Sweden when they were much older than I was. This also meant that they were more traditional, especially in the beginning. They went through their own identity crises and culture shocks. Besides, I had lived some years in a Swedish foster home due to the family separation, and had integrated quicker into Swedish society.

We all lived in fear, both for losing and keeping each other. No one of us was free. We all made our own journey. As a consequence from our family separation, and because he was ignored by the Swedish authorities, the youngest of my brothers had started doing drugs, during a long period of time. Alienation and ignorance from the authorities caused his lonely struggle in a country which language he could hardly understand. They would treat him as a criminal instead of the refugee child he was.

All these conflicts and insecurity that surrounded us, made me take new decisions in my life.

I wanted to leave.

To constantly put together all the pieces of a so called life in Sweden had exhausted me and taken away my own identity.

** Year 2006 **

I had decided to go to Iraq. It was an escape in its own right, albeit a paradoxical one: an escape from peaceful Sweden to war torn Iraq. Only three years earlier, in 2003, Iraq had been invaded by the USA and ‘the coalition of the willing’ as former USA president George Bush had called it.

In the midst of failing to save our own family, and in our different attempts to create a new existence for ourselves, I had escaped in order to try and find something else to save. By doing so, I could perhaps find peace, a way to heal.

But instead I found the grim reality of what war, conflict and oppression do to human beings. For almost seven years I would be confronted with the cruelest faces of war and conflict. All the forgotten victims of war in refugee camps scattered around the Middle East and Northern Africa. People who had lost all their dignity. Women and men, but especially women, to whom justice had turned its back. During these years, I also witnessed the Arab Spring, the wars in Iraq, Yemen and Syria. All this had changed many countries to warzones and forced millions to take refuge, either within the country or abroad.

Among them there were my relatives and my childhood friends from Syria.


Iraq, which became the first country I visited to work in, became an incredibly sad chapter. Not just in my life, but for the whole region. Under the American invasion, most of Iraq’s fantastic infrastructure, which was built under Saddam’s time and made Iraq to one of the best functioning country in the whole Middle-East, had been left in ruins. Today, the country suffers from the massive brain drain of experts who fled the country in war, with all their much-needed competences to rebuild the country. What is more, there are many internal refugees due to the political vacuum that led to the growth of extremist organizations that persecute minorities.

Already before the war, the UN punished Iraq through economic sanctions during all of the 1990s, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Even then, they were convinced that Iraq produced weapons of mass destruction, and the UN put sanctions in place to ‘destroy’ the capacity of developing these. The sanctions left 1,6 million people dead. Consequently, it led to a social and economic catastrophe in the whole country, with starvation, lack of water, and disease.

On the same grounds and believes that Iraq still had weapons of mass destructions, the country was invaded by an American-led coalition. This time, five million people were forced to relocate within the country, or take refuge in neighboring countries and Europe.

Ten years later, in addition to the devastation of war, the country was overloaded by refugees from Syria, as well as Iraqi refugees from the Western provinces who were fleeing Al Qaida and Islamic State.

After I had worked in the region for seven years, of which four in Iraq, I returned to Iraq in 2014 for a short assignment. After seven years in the region, the most disturbing event was finding my relatives among the Syrian refugees in the country. My cousin that fled to Erbil with some other cousins told me he had been stopped by the police, who confiscated his passport and accused him of going to Iraq with a false passport.  The fact was, he told us later, legitimate passports were confiscated from Syrian refugees to be sold on the black market to Kurds and Iraqis, who could then come to Europe as if they were Syrian refugees.

It’s easier to get a residence permit in Europe as a Syrian than as a national from any other Arabic state, which meant a Syrian passport had become attractive to many in the region. My cousin had already paid a fortune for his own passport. The fee had been raised 150 times by the Syrian authorities to prevent people from leaving the country. With an earlier attempt to flee to Turkey, his passport was also taken by the Turkish police. The Turkish state had stopped 75.000 Syrians from going to Europe, and many had lost their passports due to the Turkish authorities.

My aunt had always been a working woman, proud and independent. When I met her in 2014, she told me: “It is difficult for the Kurds in Iraq to understand and accept that I’m looking for a job. To become a teacher again is impossible as they do not hire Syrians here, especially not women.” However, she managed to get some small jobs as a nanny and prepared Syrian food for Kurdish families. None of my relatives feels at home in Iraqi Kurdistan. One of my aunt’s sons is working to earn enough money to go to Germany. Europe is the destination for many young people with dreams and hope for a future without war and persecution, whilst many parents want to stay in Syria so they can die at home eventually. Parents also have the last wish to at least get their sons out of the country, so they won’t risk being forcibly recruited by the regime or rebel groups.

But for me, the biggest shock during this trip would be the hidden truth about how refugees are treated in refugee camps. My friends, who worked for local Kurdish-Iraqi organizations in Erbil, witnessed the massive sexual assault on Syrian girls in the camps.

“In the camps, we saw a lot of prostitution. It was so incredibly normalized. Families were forced to accept their daughters used for such things, as they couldn’t even afford the barest necessities. Women were forced into prostitution in order to rpvide for all their family members,” says Helin, a human rights activist working on revealing these practices for a Kurdic organization on request of the UN.

When I met her in an office in the center of Ervil, I asked her if the women did so voluntarily.

“No, of course not. Who wants to sell their body for food? But this isn’t the worst. The worst we saw, and something that became a scandal, was that even those who were responsible for handing out the food to the refugees, were exploiting the refugee girls sexually. Or at least they were involved in the organized prostitution in the camp,” Helin continues. She told me that both the police and Asayesh – the Kurdish Intelligence Agency – and the Kurdish security staff were involved in the ongoing prostitution.

“The extent of it was frighteningly big and we were shocked at what we witnessed,” she almost whispered.

“Did Asayesh know?” I asked

“They knew, but looked the other way when their own staff exploited these girls. They both knew of the situation, and exploited it. They helped transport girls from the camp to buyers. At least from the camps, they were case responsible. Even the security staff knew and were drawn into the network. It’s still continuing, but with more caution,” she answers, and continues:

“You know how conservative they are here. Then these Syrian girls come, educated and socially open. They have work experience and have lived a more free and independent life than the women in Kurdistan. Our men misinterpret these things, and exploit them in their vulnerable situation as if it were acceptable. Kurdish men aren’t used to seeing women in professional capacities – for them, they belong at home and above all in the kitchen. Here in Kurdish Iraq, a woman doesn’t interact with men before she’s married. If she wants freedom, she needs to marry. Marriage is the key to everything for women in this country,” she notes bitterly.

Helin says that many of the girls have committed suicide, and have even burnt themselves alive to escape from the sexual exploitation. The numbers in UN reports are low, while the real numbers are scary, she reports. When I ask what the girls do when these assaults happen, she tells me:

“They keep silent. This is why we named our report We Keep Silent. To be raped in this part of the world means that the worst part of the assault is not the experience itself. For women, the worst thing is that her honor has been tainted, dragged through the dirt. The shame is more harmful, which makes it almost impossible for her to report the crime.”

Similar cases have affected thousands of Syrian women in refugee centers where UNHCR containers are used as ’hotel rooms’ for ’sex tourism’ for men from the Gulf states. Everything in coordination with security staff, with international organizations that look the other way. There, a UN chef also confronted me, but because the international organizations are scared to be thrown out of the country, they choose silence to save their own programs and organizations.

Thousands of Iraqi women were also sexually exploited under the American-led war against Iraq.  But because even then silence prevailed, the sexual violence against women and refugees has found new open borders. There is a sexual war against women going on today in the region, but it is a war that happens in the silence of justice. In the same way the arms industry profits from the war, the international organizations profit from the humanitarian crises in the region, in the same colonial spirit.

It was only a couple of years ago that the world witnessed how Yazidi women and girls were sold as sex slaves. On Christmas day 2014, I visited Lalesh, the holy city of the Yazidi. There, I met tens of young girls that were kidnapped by IS in Ninewa, in Iraq’s Western province. They had been raped and sold as sex slaves. With the help of their own activists, many of them could be ’bought back’. Unfortunately, today more than three thousand Yazidi girls are missing, and one fears that they’re still in the hands of IS.

The Yazidi priests I met in their holy city in Northern Iraq complain about how the media had exposed them as an unforgiving people and religion and had accused them of not welcoming back those girls who were raped and taken by IS.

“There are many around us who want to spoil our reputation. They say our religion is unforgiving, that we worship the devil and that we kill our girls. This has been ongoing since 2007, when a girl escaped from her family to marry a Muslim boy, only to be stoned to death. Because of this, people think our religion and culture support these acts,” the Yazidi priests tell me.

“The only humanitarian help for Yazidi comes from the Yazidi themselves,” say the activists I meet. “Especially by taking home the kidnapped girls. The Kurds and Iraqi are more interested in controlling the disputed areas where Yazidi live, mostly out of their own political interests and to shape demographic changes in the country,” several activists tell me.

Everywhere I worked with refugees in the Middle East, they were always quiet about the sexual assault cases. In Yemen alone, thousands of women and girls – mostly internal refugees – have been subjected to sexual assault, because of recent conflicts and the extreme poverty in the country. It’s happening without any attention by media and politicians in the rest of the world.

During the Arab Spring, we also witnessed the biggest feminist movement in the Middle East and Northern Africa – a movement unlike any other, but even this happened without any recognition and support to these feminist movements. They fought in darkness and on their own in the silence and ignorance of the world.

** Year 2016 **

During my thirteen years in my work in local assistance and within several international organizations, I worked from my own experiences and tried to push for answers on human rights for women and young people. The bureaucratic and hierarchical organizations for which I worked lacked knowledge and understanding for the root of the problems in our Middle-Eastern and Northern-African cultures. People like me, with that knowledge and experience, were denied the possibilities to lead and affect the work.

Instead, we found ourselves stuck in the middle between the patriarchic regimes in recipient countries and the international organizations who would sometimes function in an old, colonial spirit. The local grassroots movements complained that the international organizations failed through their short projects which generally lacked a long-term strategy. The projects would often create competition between local organizations. They were implemented rather for their own purposes than to help local organizations and, above all, those who were vulnerable.

When I returned to Sweden after seven intense years with the UN in the MENA region, media reports on the Middle East focused on the war, ‘terrorism’ and how Europe had been invaded by refugees, even if Europe hadn’t even taken in half of the total number of refugees that were taken in by some Middle-Eastern countries.

There were no headlines about injustices and assaults against refugees in camps. No articles on child soldiers who were forced to use weapons in a world that had ignored their right to be children. No stories about the Iraqi and Syrian refugee women who were sexually exploited in front of the eyes of international aid organizations in refugee camps all around the Middle Eastern region.

There were no headlines about minorities that fought for their children to be able to go to school, or to express themselves in their own language. No articles about women, children and men that paid the prize for the greed of international superpowers. No stories about the West’s weapon trade with dictators and Western-made weapons that ended up in the hands of rebel groups.

The Refugees Welcome campaigns became a little band-aid on a gaping, bleeding wound. That little bit of human solidarity that was left in Europe while its coasts and harbors were transformed to cemeteries. Not even the images of dead children on European beaches changed the minds of politicians, except those of Germany and Sweden.

It was then, when I witness all these tough questions, that I decided to write a book about our silenced voices, and return to the region once more to collect stories and eye witnesses about the silent war against women in refugee camps, in women’s jails, on the streets of the Arab Spring and in my childhood region.

I traveled back to Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia to gather their stories, to listen, to document. Through my voice, my pen and my freedom of expression in Sweden, I could tell the world about the injustices and crimes against all these victims.

I became a voice for the ’Silenced Voices’, for those who were never allowed to express their political opinions, men who were silenced and tortured in the absolute worst prisons. I also became a voice for my own father. I became a voice for my mother and our family and how our escape broke down our family in ruins, and about the authorities who let us down when we fought to reunite and integrate in the new Northern Land.

I wanted to write this for you too, so you can’t say: “we didn’t know”.

Because now you know.

But don’t choose silence.

                                                                                    Delvin Arsan. Stockholm. May 2017.



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