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Story Publication logo October 10, 2022

I Am Not Your Refugee: Activism, Art, Athens


Illustration of a girl holding a small wooden house, inside of which is a flame. Text reads, 'not your refugee.'

Podcast series created in collaboration with journalists, artists and activists with direct lived...

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Multiple Authors

We're joined by Wael Habbal and Kareem Al Kabbani as we discuss activism, creativity, active citizenship and the ways in which they intersect

Wael Habbal started the Syrian Greek Youth Forum (the SGYF) in 2018 to advocate for human rights, to connect people together, to break stereotypes around migration, and to create their own opportunities in Athens.

He sits down with another member of SGYF—Kareem Al Kabbani—and our reporter Bairbre Flood to talk about how activism, creativity and active citizenship intersect.

You can listen to some of their work on Movement Radio, part of Onassis Stegi.

Presented by Mahmoud Hassino and produced by Bairbre Flood.

Theme music by Omar Alkilani. Artwork by Haya Halaw.

With thanks to the Pulitzer Center for funding support.


Mahmoud Hassino: Hi, I'm Mahmoud Hassino and you're listening to 'I Am Not Your Refugee' podcast created by myself and Bairbre Flood in collaboration with some of the refugee community organisers, activists and artists working to challenge stereotypes around migration. With thanks to the Pulitzer Center for funding support.

Wael Habbal: We hope to see an equal society with equal opportunity for all and people to be recognised according to their social contribution, and not only according to how much they have, or what kind of paper they got,

Mahmoud Hassino: Wael started the Syrian Greek Youth Forum, the SGYF, in 2018.

Wael Habbal: Hello, my name is Wael Habbal.

Kareem Al Kabbani: And mine is Kareem Al Kabbani from Syria. And is amazing sitting here with you guys...

Bairbre Flood: Yeah, drinking tea.

Wael Habbal: Drinking tea...

Art is one, we would say, a basic channel for us - or a tool - that we started our journey with. So in 2018, in order to introduce our community and our team to the society, we started appearing in different festivals and events, and we initiated our own festivals. So people start seeing us from different aspects, you know, like when they see us in the stage or when they see us happy dancing, or singing, they start seeing different things than the stigma or the generalisation about refugee.

Kareem Al Kabbani: Art is really also the common language where we really meet with many different other background and other cultures. Art and music has a way of diplomatic and politics action. I remember how in Syria our revolutions and demonstrations are just songs.

Wael Habbal: The first event that the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum did was introduction to the Syrian culture, and that was an eight hour event in one neoclassical building. And so what we did that day, we we brought Syria, actually to that building, with the lifestyle of Syria, with the culture of Syria, with the smell of Syria, with the food of Syria, with the theatre, the music, the dance, eight hours Syrian was there.

It was a big chance for us also to understand more how we can use this art, you know, in our journey and how it become like a solid tool for us. Because we looked at people's faces, we saw their feedback, we saw how much they were happy when they were dancing the dabke dance. And you look at that video, we still have it until now you see everyone dancing equally together, and that what Kareem was mentioning, from a hundred years, you know, he was telling me stories about dabke and how people used to hold their hands across cities. And that was to transfer a message you know, that people are all in solidarity. We used also the other tradition that Kareem brought to the community as well. The art of Arada.

Kareem Al Kabbani: It's a social performance, let's say in Damascus, where somebody's from the community singing and all the rest they know the songs they repeat it. And it's used in celebratory and used in revolution time in history. Because we think now songs like have been written against the Ottoman Empire from Damascus.

I feel lucky I belong to a rich culture which also give us more than our individual things - like as a as a team. We are not just reaching out or expressing expressing our art - we are strongly building a platform so any artist can really practice his art. Where we can practice our own culture and give opportunity for other communities and other cultures.

Sound - just recording on the sound. This is something really I find on it, my, my freedom, let's say. My work, my creativity in the sound. We made the sound archive called 'active citizen sound archive', the sound of the city like what's what's the sound of the city sound like. So this is the sound archive.

Wael Habbal: And I share it with you now. What Kareem is mentioning is in a very big resource, it has a lot of material from different events. Different stuff that we made ourselves.

Kareem Al Kabbani: If you see here this recording is a recording in a social kitchen.

Bairbre Flood: Is that Khora?

Wael Habbal: We saw them back to heart, how people actually really forgot the political identity of ours as refugees. And they start seeing these people who are being part of the city. And as a result of that, we came also the idea of active citizenships. Like regardless of where you came from, or what is your background, if you take responsibility, and you take initiative to activate yourself, your community and your city, you will become an active citizen. So anyone is working on personal development, community development and local. This is an active citizen, regardless of what paper they have. Active citizenships, as a result of, gathering many active citizens acting towards the city and towards themselves, but without being stuck on the idea I have paper or not, I was allowed or not.

Kareem Al Kabbani: Refugees is just a political expression. Like the human being movement, or the movement of people. It's so long, so long ago, like 1000s and 1000s of years.

Bairbre Flood: Yeah people have always moved around.

Kareem Al Kabbani: Recently they start calling - they have this word called refugees. We just exclude the idea of being refugee and just exclude it and start act in the life not from this point of your life, not from the immigrated point.

Wael Habbal: In our case, we see a big motivation in here, because already because of the stigma, because of the stereotypes, and because of some reality, you know, we will expect from refugees to either do less or give less, because we are in a crisis. When we show the other way around, when we show that yes, we have been through all these difficulties, but now we are taking initiative and we are taking this on on this responsibility. When the locals see you in this situation, the locals - who are going through the same struggle in their city - they would say why not?

Why not me as well to be an active citizens, if those people who came from a different country and they lost almost everything and they are doing it. And we saw the results, you know, we saw it and the faces of our community members of the society around us. When they saw us start talking about something different than let me say that clothes and food and you are talking about something has to do with the mind. And with the soul. You see the hope getting back to them. And this I believe the solution in order to get people back again together. Because also you can relate to this, I believe, when you are working on something for so long. And after so long, you see yourself dealing with the same things again, you know, housing, clothes, food, medication, and you see yourself you almost get tired of this work and you almost want to go away from it because you have your own life as well and you have your own struggle. But I think when people sense creativity they would want to join back again and to take our hands together and activate the solidarity that we all speak about.

Kareem Al Kabbani: Like if we come to the point again, like the creativity. And being really active and use the art and this brings the hope to people. They want to meet each other. I may help you, you may help me, I may stand for you, you may stand with me. But okay for a time we want to talk about things - how you think, how you talk, how you speak. I had a lot of questions for Greek. I asked my friends. A lot of friends they start asking me different question not the typical one - like do you eat pork? {laughter}

Wael Habbal: Like you look European now!

Bairbre Flood: Oh God!

Wael Habbal: This moment you imagine yourself oh, what was before? Did I look like a banana?

Kareem Al Kabbani: A Watermelon?

I really also believe when I come back to Syria, when Assad will go, Inshallah, I don't want to come back to the Syrian Kareem. I really want to come back also active citizen. Not a Syrian. Because a lot of people and artists and from everywhere they will come and we all will have our own life, our daily life. And we will have the culture like how we wake up, how we meet, how we make music. So that's the culture and that's the identity that I believe we need to have.

And also, we don't want to forget Corona. We don't have the time to forget Corona yet. It's really showing how we are really equal. As much we have power - political people, or really basic, simple people - they all get affected. And we all need to do respond for climate change, and big cases like this. So I see as human being, to be really looking for a platform to really equalise and gather all of us. Yeah. So we see active citizens, like it's really in our experiences. And we will expand it more so we all can meet and discuss these issues, talk about them and involve the art as much as we can to empower the movement.

Bairbre Flood: Yeah, it's interesting what you were saying about how it influences Greeks when they see people. But it's also because like loneliness and disconnection and isolation is a big problem with a lot of people very lonely.

Wael Habbal: It's actually our experience in the loneliness, especially, it makes us more sympathised with, you know, to understand actually how people alone would feel, and you see a lot in the city, we know a lot of people who are tired of the reality, you know, the Greek reality at the moment, and they prefer to be isolated. But also we saw how the culture changed before Corona, when we had our events in public places in a park or in a square. And you are dancing, and we saw how also other people came. And after a while, you will discover that this individual was actually going really through hard time. And slowly, slowly, you know, they opened up because they saw another person who also is going through very hard time as it's trying to enjoy as well. It's not always the case, of course, but we got to close this such we will not understand that.

We questioned ourselves a lot at the beginning, like we saw all this support is going to facilitate the refugee crisis. But also when we saw some local cases, I asked myself how these people didn't get the support as well. Like why no one knows about them or why no one reached out. Like we know about Greek, their house from outside looks nice. If you enter the house, it's empty. There's nothing, and some of them, they are even very proud. You know, they don't tell anyone about it. They don't ask for help. It's difficult and it's not easy. And even for artists, it's very, very difficult in here we know so many artists, they are struggling to make a living or to be established as artists because the competition is crazy. There is only maybe Onassis and struggles in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation who actually support people who want to do something and another few small galleries and the museum and who need the big competition to get into it. But in general, in the Greek state they didn't support us that much. And people who are involved in the culture ministry or the art ministry they were not the one who's supposed to lead this.

Kareem Al Kabbani: Like we are talking about, like all the healthcare, we are not in the living, talking about art movement. But I would say, a lot of time the people they meet us, and they go whoa! we are not going to help them with food or clothes. We start discussing a big project, like few days ago, we visit a friend, he's an architect, and we have three property like three shops, like, closed shop from so long ago. So he heard about some people, they have plans to really make this shop active and make it work. So when we came, he looked at us and say, yeah, guys, you can do it. You know, when we talk, I'm going here about what we are doing and what we are planning to do he guys, you really impressed me like, new things we know about refugees now!

He's a friend we just met and we have a lot of times we go for example, and we buy a lot of cheese on the product from families, they they don't know how to sell it. So when we go on buy, we give opportunities, like we filmed some time we brought a lot of Greek artists to be actors. So also being an active inside the society and giving this picture to the society that this is really perfect time and will help soon. Everything will be like this, you know, because for example Syria and Greece as cultures traditionally are so long truly connected on many different levels. So we want to keep this keep this and that needs art, it needs activism.

Wael Habbal: The Yellow Days Festival also - we were invited to this festival. It's an international festival it happens once a year or twice a year in Athens. And we were at the beginning doing some dabke class, which teach people...

Kareem Al Kabbani: That was 2019. Yes, because at this time I went to the festival in Lesvos. We hold two festivals!

Wael Habbal: Ando in this festival, we practiced different artistic skills from dance, to music, to food, and we did our own you know, theatrical play. We call it 'the journey of empowerment'. And we made it together one day before the festival. We wrote the script. We tried to show the journey of a refugee.

Bairbre Flood: You said the day before you wrote the script?

Wael Habbal: Seriously! I did for the journey from Syria and Lebanon Turkey and Greece and everything...

Kareem Al Kabbani: We passed through a lot of countries and cities and somebody represent the city - like I don't know maybe it was he gets violent - he was he was representing Turkey!

Bairbre Flood: True life!

Wael Habbal: Ah you are here now, let us beat you! {laughter}

Kareem Al Kabbani: In Greece actually they used to do this kind of festival. But in the beginning, they make an open microphone of some people they can speak about social or political issue. This is very common in Athens. This is in the identity of Greece. The art and the politics.

Wael Habbal: Here it was a nice day we were rehearsing in communities on a building on the roof. You remember two years ago?

Illias is a Greek artist. I mean, he's a history. You know, he played music with Um Khartoum. He was in Egypt. He was back then. And he has his own band Ferqat Al Anwar. He's a member of SGYF and he's a great example of, you know, a Greek artist within our community.

This is a song we started we wrote together called Hurriya - 'freedom'. It's very simple song, but we wrote it about the situation in Greece, you know, we tried to describe the whole journey here.

Bairbre Flood: Do you want to ask each other anything on this? Is there anything that you want in this episode? About active citizenship, about art here or about the situation? Anything you want to ask?

Wael Habbal: Kareem, what is your view for artists who are struggling already in order to establish their career? And to develop themselves? What is your view through as you if you know, how you can imagine SGYF could be helpful in their life?

Kareem Al Kabbani: Wael, that's good question. So I believe we're gonna facilitate an art plan, where people, they could find their home or a physical place where they can really practice art. And we want to find the best collaboration and we could really try to make sure that their art will be funded or supported somehow. Where they can also keep going on.

If we couldn't really bring the right funding for them, I hope we can really submit an business idea or business project where the whole income of this project goes to the art field. And I am really expecting them to change, not just in the art field, but there's going to be a big change in the social field. And this is, for me, this is the enough, because from there, a lot of things will move on a lot of things that will be really brought from the community.

Wael Habbal: I really hope so.

Kareem Al Kabbani: I would ask you Wael also a question. Like we start involved together and building and community building in 2018. But when I met you from before, I see how strong you were, with really such big motivation and hopeful motivation. And I knew when we left Syria, deciding to be immigration in Europe, that was a hopeless moment. So I really want to see how it was really fully motivated and full strong, deciding to take action with really long term plans?

Wael Habbal: Oh, strong question Kareem Al Kabbani! Well, I always ask myself the same question as well. You know, when I feel really tired, or I feel it's becoming the situation hard. I feel like how I'm gonna keep up or how I am keeping up. I think, first time when I realized that I was given a second chance in my life.

We always say that maybe the bullet that killed our friend, maybe by mistake, it would kill us instead, and we wouldn't be alive. But the fact that I realized I was given a chance, a second chance in my life, it motivated me, you know, to give others chances, but also to give myself a chance to live this life - to experience it. The first time I started as translator when when I managed to make someone happy just because I translated for them. I find out myself useful. And I want to feel that again. I'm really useful to this life and I can achieve stuff. And then slowly, slowly when we started the community, I found myself as a person, how useful I am in the community as well. So I wanted to do more. And then I would say it became like an addiction - you will never want to stop doing it. You finish the things and then you look, but I want to do more and more and more.

Kareem Al Kabbani: I asked you this because bro like the way that you are an active citizen it's big motivation for me. The way that you are an active citizens and motivation for me - so I'm really proud bro.

Bairbre Flood: Listen lads, thank you so much. I'm gonna turn this off in a minute.

Kareem Al Kabbani: Thank you all for for this nice discussion and I hope we make things also again...

Mahmoud Hassino: That was a conversation recorded in Athens with our reporter Bairbre Flood, and two members of the Syrian Greek Youth Forum, Wael Habbal and Kareem Al Kabbani. You can listen to some of their work produced by another member of the SGYF, Tom Western, on Movement Radio part of Onassis Stegi.

Thanks to Omar Al Kilani, who wrote and performed our theme music. Next episode, we continue to hear from refugees in London and Greece who are working to break the false narratives around migration. You have been listening to 'I Am Not Your Refugee', produced by Bairbre Flood and myself, Mahmoud Hassino. Funded by the Pulitzer Center.






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