Timisoara’s multicultural party has a serious purpose

06 February 2017

Refugees socialise at a gathering in Timisoara. © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

They gather in a small house in the historical Iosefin neighbourhood. Refugees and residents mingle to the sound of live rock music. “Where are you all from?” asks the host. Hands shoot up. “Afghanistan, Romania, Iraq, Russia, Nigeria, Syria, Morocco.”

Welcome to Timisoara’s coolest multicultural party.

“Try this rice with raisins,” says Fareshta from Afghanistan. “My mother made it.” We chat. I want to meet her for coffee next day, but she will be tied up, taking an important exam as part of her university computer course.

The room is full of refugees, trying to make a success of their new lives in Romania, and residents like party host Flavius Ilioni-Loga of the ecumenical organization AIDRom that supports them with counselling, classes, accommodation and multicultural events.

An Iraqi called Zaher – “Zaher, like sugar” – says he loves the blog Humans of New York, featuring street portraits and interviews collected on the streets of New York City, and wants to do something similar in Timisoara. We arrange to meet near the opera house next morning.

When we meet in a café, he wants to avoid the feeling he is being interrogated, so we agree to play a game instead of conducting a regular interview. Rather, we take it in turn to ask each other a question. If either says “no comment”, the game is over.

In exchange for revealing that I went to Birmingham University in the UK, Zaher tells me his family left Iraq under Saddam Hussein and went to the United Arab Emirates.

“My father wanted a better life for us,” he said. For some years, they did have a good life. Zaher, now 26, graduated as a civil engineer in Abu Dhabi.

The family was in Romania, visiting a brother of Zaher’s who was studying medicine, when his father’s employers in the UAE terminated his contract. “That was it,” Zaher says. “We were supposed to leave the Emirates and go back to Iraq. But we couldn’t do that, so we stayed in Romania.”

Although he is qualified as a civil engineer, Zaher now dreams of doing “something social, something to help refugees here”. We talk about ideas for a website that will tell their stories. “Timisoara Tales” seems a good title. So, at that café table, Timisoara Tales is born, initially as a Facebook page.

Back at the AIDRom house, refugees with small children are enjoying a creative afternoon with Simona Ilioni-Loga, a psychologist and art therapist. Using toilet rolls and coloured paper, they are making animals such as rabbits, penguins and hedgehogs.

Fareshta’s mother Fahima, who made the rice and raisins for the party, is there with her younger daughter Farnat, 9, who is sticking a cotton wool tail on to a pink rabbit.

“We like coming here, it’s relaxing,” Fahima says. “Our family has had a stressful time.”

Fahima, who was a biochemist, and her husband Abdul, an engineer and journalist, decided to leave Afghanistan two years ago when their home city of Herat became too violent, and join relatives already in Romania. “My brother and sister were killed in a bomb there,” she says.

Life in Romania has not been easy. Abdul has been reduced to washing cars. Their elder son is working in a fast food restaurant. The two youngest children are at school. Fareshta, 19, while working part-time in a shoe shop, is studying at Timisoara’s Universitatea de Vest (West University).

The first-year final exam is over and she has passed. Smiling, she comes out of the library with her friend Laila, 25, also from Afghanistan. The two young women are in the same class, studying informatics and software engineering. Laila, who is married and has a six-year-old son, has passed, too.

“We chose IT because there are good job prospects,” says Laila. “But more than that, we wanted to do something fresh and modern, not connected with the past.”

The past is far from inspiring. Fareshta remembers “men with beards” (the Taliban) pushing her mother around. Laila, who is from the Hazara minority, has seen worse. “The Taliban used to stop the school bus, pick out the Hazaras among the students and shoot them,” she says.

The women could hardly have hoped for careers in Afghanistan. “It’s hard to get jobs there because women have to be accompanied to work by men,” says Fareshta. “And there’s nepotism and corruption in the labour market.”

“We were tired of all this,” says Laila. “We want to make a new life, a peaceful life, a normal life, to laugh and smile.” The men in their families support their aspirations.

“My husband is happy for me,” says Laila. “He wanted to study too but he says, ‘no, if I can’t, you try, maybe my turn will come in future’. He is a good man.”

Fareshta and Laila have hard work ahead of them to complete their degrees. They are aiming for jobs in big companies, or possibly to start a business of their own.

They could be just the kind of computer specialists Zaher will need to develop his story-telling website. For the refugees, it’s not just about partying but socialising and networking for a successful future in Romania.

 

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