Tahajud Alghrabi (48) is from Baghdad, Iraq, where she used to work as a school principal. Following the US invasion in 2004, she migrated between Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. In the summer of 2015, along with her husband and their two sons (aged eighteen and twenty), she came to Austria. Today the family lives in a small town near Vienna. Tahajud, her husband, and the older son have all been granted asylum. She is currently working at a school, supporting teachers in the education of children with migration backgrounds.
Tahajud: My name is Tahajud Alghrabi, I am forty-eight years old, I came here to ask for asylum, because—well, everybody knows what happened in my country. I came here looking for safety and to begin a new life.
TBA21: You are here with your family, right? You grew up in Baghdad but you’ve also lived in Syria, is that correct?
Tahajud: Yes. I moved from Baghdad to Syria when the war started in 2004. I was going back and forth between Jordan and Baghdad. I needed to earn money and I had a job in Iraq, but at the same time I wanted my children to be somewhere safe. So I was moving between Iraq and Jordan. In 2007 there was so much suffering and we no longer saw any future for us in our country. We travelled to Syria, back when Syria was safe. In 2011, the same things started to happen in Syria, so we moved from Homs to Damascus but life wasn’t any better there so I travelled to Jordan. Then there were many legal changes in Jordan so I returned to Iraq for six or seven months. After that I moved to Turkey for over two years.
TBA21: So you have been on the road for quite a while.
Tahajud: Yeah, and this is the shortest possible version of my life as refugee.
TBA21: Why did you choose Vienna?
Tahajud: You know, we just searched online for the safest and most social countries.
TBA21: Do you mean social security?
Tahajud: No, a social country—like within a family.
In Vienna, I was very lucky, I found an Austrian family who took care of me and accompanied me to see houses. And I began a new life, here I started over, with a family. So, I lost many things but I lost many things in the camps as well. There are many bad things happening and many difficult situations. Sometimes two families would have to live together in one room. I was lucky that I found this family and that I was able to begin a new life. They pushed me in the right way, really.
TBA21: How did you get to Green light?
Tahajud: I read about it on the Internet.
Tahajud: Yes, on the Internet they announced that they would do something professional to help the refugees. I was with my Austrian family back then and they told me, “This is good. Maybe you can be part of it.” So I went to the appointment.
TBA21: The first meeting at TBA21 at Augarten?
Tahajud: The first and the second. I knew the about the appointments from the Internet, so I just wrote down the address and went there.
At the meeting, I also introduced myself to Francesca von Habsburg: “My name is Tahajud,” I said, “and I want to join this project. Please, this is important to me. I need this because I want to start anew and I was a school principal before. To me it would mean that I could begin again. I lost many, many years of my life and I am older now. It would mean a lot to me, really. It would be a chance and I need to press forward to begin again. I don't have time to stay at home and wait for somebody to help me. I want to help myself.” So I met everybody, and I also met Daniela Zyman and said, “Please, don't forget me. When I come to the project, please let me join.” And she said it’s okay. And she helped me, she really did. Because on the first day of the project, when the Red Cross were checking names they said I wasn’t on the list, and Daniela told them it was okay.
TBA21: I didn't know how you actually got to the project.
Tahajud: Yeah [laughs], it’s actually a funny story. Picture me running around, not knowing the address, and I was late because I didn't have the exact address. And my shoes were falling apart [laughs], and I was like “AHHHH!” And then I told Daniela “Pleeeeease, I know that I’m just dropping in and I am already late. But I must be part of the project!” It really was funny.
TBA21: Do you remember what your first impression of the project was? When you actually saw what we were going to build, what the rhythms that we wanted to apply and the structures were?
Tahajud: The first thing I thought was that Green light means “Go” for your life. I had all these problems and the color and light meant to me that I will begin again. So it’s a lovely name for the project. I also expected to communicate with many people and to be able to do something. It was important to me to do things for myself, and being part of this meant that maybe I could find a job in Austria after the project. Because if I wanted to get a job without a certificate, it’s difficult. But this will be a kind of certificate, like a CV or a reference letter. It would be an account that I can be on time, that I have a positive character, and that I do a good job. Also, that I like my job and that I respect it. In fact, I respect working, I like doing something. So, when I get a job I try to be my best, because I like it. I can begin again and that will also means that I could find myself again. And I could help the refugees inside the camp, because if I know more about life in this country, I could help other people who don't know as much. I would feel ashamed if I could help somebody and didn’t, because all the refugees that came here had suffered a lot. The Europeans—and in particular the Austrian people—really took good care of us. So, I must do something for others as well. Because we speak the same language, we come from the same countries, we share the same stories and cases. So I must, because if I can obtain power I could help, I could do the same things the Austrians are doing to help.
TBA21: Well, sometimes you can do it even better, because you speak the language and maybe have a better understanding of the people.
Tahajud: Particularly with the question of jobs and taking care of children, this is important. Because I am a teacher, I can understand what happened to the children. They have lost so much. I’ve been a refugee since 2000. That means that my children, too, have lost their friends, their country, their home. I have a lot experience with trouble. So I don't want all these people, all of these refugees to have to feel the same things I had to feel. I want to help them—help all of them, if I can. If I do something for myself, it means I can stand up and do something for others. Help myself, then help others. That is my plan. When I was part of the project I was there with people from all kinds of different places. I felt like a mother to them and I have communicated with all of them without language, just through the way we treated each other. I think this is part of the beauty of being human.
TBA21: You mentioned many times that it was so important to you to be productive, to go out, to do something.
Tahajud: You must have control of your life, so you must do something to control it. When I was part of the project I did something with my hands, I had energy, so I could do something and forget that I was at the camp. It’s like a delete button. Because we spent the day there, from noon to 5pm, which is a long time, and we had German classes and the team was really good, they knew they were dealing with people who had suffered a lot and they treated all of us very gently. Sometimes they didn’t understand everything because of the language barrier, but you could see in their eyes that they wanted to help. It’s important that they wanted to help, and it motivated us. They would always say, “Yeah, you are good, you can start over.” And this would help us to really begin again. We learned German with Marianne who was like one of us.
TBA21: You have gone through many years of travelling and lived at so many different places, and experienced war and fear and loss…
Tahajud: In my country, I had a job, a house, my family, but nothing scares me anymore. So it’s ok. I am here in a new country, I don't know the language and it’s so difficult. The first days that I was here, I couldn't read a single letter. Couldn’t understand one word. It was hard, it feels like being blind. I had so many questions I couldn’t easily answer. But I know all you need is contact to other people. With all this contact, people can calm down, and they begin anew and everything changes. Really, people change. Their aggressions wore off and they made plans for the future, and all of them thought this is a project, and it could become a factory. Really, they thought it would become a factory. And that yes, this would be a good way. We found a job, and we found a language. And if there is other work, it’s ok—we will learn! But it’s important to have a job. For everybody, because it means you are beginning.
TBA21: You do something, you have a rhythm and you can make plans—suddenly there is time. So while we were building lamps, we…
Tahajud: …were building ourselves, from the inside.
TBA21: In Green light, there is a close connection between art, art production, exhibition space, and public space and social space and production of communities. Considering your experience with education institutions, how do you see it?
Tahajud: I think what you mean is we mix art with doing something inside ourselves. The social aspect of the project is mixed with the art. And I think it’s kind of a new thing, because we do something similar at school with children. When they have a lot of aggression, I think this kind of art can help: if you have a lot of aggression, you must paint or do something with your hands. It takes out your aggression and it takes the bad ideas from your mind. So this, for me, as a teacher, means that when I build, I can also do something about my feelings. Because we’re like a family in this place. And we share this lamp together: one weaves in the threads, one person puts the lamp together—we act like a family. And we have contact with our hands, without talking, because we come from different places. But we respect each other. It means that human beings can do anything without talking.
TBA21: You say it in very beautiful words. I think that was the best way to put the idea to words: connecting through doing something together. When you look at the Green light lamp, what do you see?
Tahajud: I see my first dot to build myself again. This is it for me. This is important. And you know, it’s a very small light. So it means we are beginning from the small to become something huge.
TBA21: And the lamps could also be joined together.
Tahajud: When we arranged them to become a wall, it was amazing, really. To me, it means that all this work, all the nationalities can come together and you can be safe, without argument. Because we are of different nationalities and we made this lamp together and when all these lamps come together, it’s like a big globe made by hand.
TBA21: Like Shuddha Sengupta from Raqs Media Collective said: Here in this room, we have everything we need to build a new world. Whenever people come together you have poetry, you have dreams, you have a carpenter—you have everything within the people to build a new world.
This interview was conducted by Clemens Rettenbacher on December 18, 2016.