1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Where persecuted writers find refuge

Rebecca Herber sh
March 21, 2019

Syrian writer Rabab Haidar had to flee her homeland because she resisted President Assad. She has now found refuge at the Heinrich Böll House in Germany. For World Poetry Day, we look into her story.

Rabab Haidar, Autorin
Image: Privat

Rabab Haidar is one of the countless people looking for a secure life in Germany. A writer, translator and journalist, she fled Damascus in October 2018. The Syrian civil war, which has been going on for eight years, expelled her from her homeland.

Haidar found refuge in Langenbroich in the region of North Rhine-Westphalia. For the past three decades, authors who can not freely write in their homelands have been given the opportunity to stay in the former home of German writer Heinrich Böll. As one of these authors, Haidar received a one-year scholarship that has allowed her to live in peace and work on her second novel. Her first novel Land of the Pomegranate was published in 2012 and she also translated a volume of poetry by the Bahraini poet Iman Aseeri, The Book of the Female, into English.

Angry at the Syrian regime

"It was not supposed to be like that. I should not have to hide in my country and I should not have had to live in fear for so long. I should not have to come here as a damn refugee." She can't stand the word refugee, which she finds too negative. "We start as refugees, but then we are immigrants, we try to understand the people around us and open ourselves so that we are understood. We had to leave our country; I fought to the last moment to not have to leave."

Haidar is happy to live in the Heinrich Böll House. "Authors who have lived and worked here have contributed to shaping my identity. They are my idols, and I am so proud to be here," she says. She lives rent-free and receives a monthly salary. At the moment, there are two other authors in the house besides her; one from Yemen and one from Saudi Arabia.

Read more: Hip Berlin district twins with war-torn Syrian city

Taking a break in the countryside

For Haidar, Germany has been a place of relaxation and recreation. In her first three months she rarely read or wrote. Instead, she often sat, slept and spent a lot of time worrying. "To be honest, I'm also here to take a break. Here in the middle of nowhere, I can find my way back to myself. In wartime, you don't have time to stop and think, you're always feeling adrenaline. It's stressful."

Her new book will also deal with the topic of war. Although the story takes place in Syria, Haidar wants to discuss things that can happen in every country. "These people are trying to survive. Some will come to Germany and some will survive in Syria." One character in the book is broken by the war, another becomes stronger and gains strength to get away from her abusive grandparents. Heroes do not exist. "They are just human beings who do everything to survive, some will kill; many will lie."

'Mental torture' by Syrian intelligence services

There's not much to say about her past in Syria, says Rabab Haidar before she starts revealing her story. As part of the resistance against Bashar al-Assad's regime, she was persecuted, not only by the government itself, but also by his supporters.

She was put under pressure for publishing critical content in newspapers under several pseudonyms. In one of her articles, which spoke out clearly against the regime, her real name was accidentally printed. Afterwards, she lived in paralyzing fear for two months and had to talk to the secret service again and again. "This happened in horrible places. They have many kinds of mental torture they use on their opponents," she says. "They call it 'leading a discussion.'"

Read more: Syria's cultural landscape lives on — in Berlin

Heinrich Böll house
The Heinrich Böll House Image: Heinrich-Böll-Haus/Otto Böhr

'Whoever believes in the regime cannot be my friend'

Haidar is Alawite and therefore part of the Shiite religious community. The fact that Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad is also Alawite is not an advantage for her, she explains. "He likes to believe that we are his people and he wants the other Syrians to believe that too, so he wants to make sure that the Alawites do not openly oppose him and his regime. We are tortured less but intimidated more.”

In Syria, she had to change her apartment several times. Long-standing friendships were broken. "Some people really believe in the regime, which makes them enemies for me. The regime is not just a ruler, it's a value system, and those who believe in those values ​​cannot be my friend. It hurts, but I cannot debate with them peacefully," she says.

Hoping for a better Syria

While still in Syria, she once received an invitation to Canada for a reading organized by the Goethe-Institut. She could not apply for a visa last-minute, so instead she put on Skype in an internet cafe. It was 3 a.m., and there were only a few teenagers still hanging around. When she began to read, everyone listened to her; both the people in Canada and the Syrians in the small internet cafe. "They could have betrayed me, I was lost, but they did not, and that's why I still believe in Syria."

Nevertheless, she can't return. At least not to the Syria she left.