From: San’aa, Yemen
After I finished high school, I went to the university. I began studying law and Sharia Islamiyyah. But I didn’t like it there. So I asked myself what can I do if I don’t study? I have to start working.
I searched the internet for ideas for any small project. I saw something about recycling. I thought it sounded like a good idea so I talked to my friend from Damar. We bought a machine and we started.
It wasn’t easy. We are the only women in this business. The men told us, “You’re just a girl, why are you doing this?” I wanted to buy one ton of plastic and they refused to sell it to me because I’m a woman. But I got some people to convince the men to sell to me.
Our factories were in Damar. My family said, you cannot go alone to another city alone. Damar is near Sana’a, about two hours away. In our culture it is considered ayb [shame], it is haram [forbidden]. You have to go with your brother, husband, or father.
But I told them, “I’m just going to work, I’m not a prostitute.”
They told me all the time, “You’re just a girl.” They said it so often that I actually wanted to be a boy. It’s so much easier for the men- they can go out, do whatever they want. But a girl– she has to sit in the house and they will marry her off to someone she doesn’t even know. Just serve this man- cook, clean. This is the life for a girl in Yemen.
In my family, we are three girls and three boys. My sisters are okay with staying in the house. But I can’t. I think God made a mistake somehow– putting me as a girl in Yemen with this mind. If he puts me in Yemen, he should give me a mind like them. But he gave me a different mind.
One time, I cut my hair off and announced: “I’m not a girl, I’m a boy!” I wore men’s clothing. I called myself Abdulrahman [men’s name]. They said it’s ayb [shame] and haram [forbidden]. I said, this is how I feel. I went out by myself. When I came back my brothers would hit me. Everyone who saw me walking around dressing like a boy got angry– they told me it’s haram. I would just tell people “I’m free. I’m free.”
I’m not a girl, I’m not a man. I’m a soul. When my heart loves, that’s when I will have a relationship. Maybe my heart will love a man, maybe it will love a woman. I don’t care.
My mother is the one who understands me the most. But she has no power. My father would yell at her: “You’re her mother you must teach her.” My brothers would tell her, “This is not your business, we will teach her.” She would tell me, “Please, calm down, act like your sisters.” But I couldn’t. When I lived with them I felt like I was choking.
When I was still in high school, they wanted to marry me off to a man—my father’s cousin. I didn’t know him at all. He was working in Saudi Arabia. They made me a party. I was just crying, crying.
I told them “No, I don’t want it.” I never even saw his face. They made a religious contract. And I never once said “yes.” Girls don’t say yes or no, it’s your family’s choice.
I asked my father why he did this to me– I didn’t want to get married. My older sister is not married, and they do not force her. But they were afraid about my honor- my hymen. But because I’m rebellious and independent and I do what I want to do, they were afraid. And if you lose your virginity they will kill you. So that’s why they forced me to get married.
For four years the man, my husband, kept saying, I want my wife. My family wanted me to go to his house. And my family is a well-known family in Yemen.
I kept telling them, no, not this year. After four years, my uncles said to my father and mother: “If you don’t give the girl to her husband we will take her through the “beit att’ah” (Islamic center). In Yemen, if your husband beats you and you run to your family, your husband can go to Beit atta’ah and they will go to your house and force you to go back to your husband. It’s a difficult thing. When my uncles said this I was afraid and I was crying.
Then I decided to run away. I took nothing, just got into my car and drove away. I had no clothes, I didn’t know where to go. I just had to leave. The first night, I had nowhere to sleep. So I just closed the windows and slept in my car. It was dangerous for me to be outside after 6 pm. Girls must stay in the house. I was very afraid.
After that I stayed with friends for short amounts of time- two days with one friends, two days with another. I went from friend to friend and city to city. None of them knew that I had run away from my family.
One day, during that time, a friend told me that a new hospital in San’a had just opened and asked me if I wanted to work there. I wanted to work, so I went to the new hospital for an interview. They offered me the job on the spot. I told them that if they wanted to hire me, I needed a room at the hospital. I told them I lived in another city– in Damar. I lied because if I told them I was from San’a it would be shameful because I should be living in my family’s house.
I spent all of my time in the hospital. I would just go out for a short time to buy some things and come back because I didn’t want anyone to see me. I put all of my time and energy into the hospital. After a month, they gave me a raise and I became a general manager.
It was difficult to see all of the sick people. In Yemen, you have to pay before they treat you. When people would come to the hospital for an emergency, the hospital would first say, give us the money. If I saw this I would say “Go, go! Take the money from my salary.” Every month, I spent almost all of my salary on letting people into the hospital. During those days I didn’t eat much, I had a place to stay, so I didn’t need the money. Just $50 a month was okay for me– for simple food and cigarettes. The rest went to the people.
I learned a lot at the hospital. I saw one man go to the reception to get a birth certificate for his son. At the same time, a boy went to pick up the death certificate for his father. I saw life and death at the same time. I would talk to people, and then write, and write.
One and half or two years after I started working at the hospital, my family’s neighbor came to the hospital and saw me there. I asked him not to tell my brother because my younger brother is a difficult man.
One day, from the window of one of the doctors’ offices, I saw my brother standing out front. My body froze. He had a gun. Everyone has a gun in Yemen. I didn’t want him to make trouble for me in front of my colleagues. And then I thought that he would take me back to the house, and then maybe he would kill me or I would kill him. Because I know how to use a gun.
I told the security guard, “There is a man out there, please don’t let him come in.” He listened to me. Then I stayed that night with my friend, the doctor, at her house. I was afraid to stay at the hospital.
The next day I decided that if Allah is in Mecca, I will go to Mecca. I wanted to ask Allah why he made me a girl. Why did he make me like this? I went to the office and I told them I want to go for Omrah (pilgrimage to Mecca).
They asked me, “Where is your brother?” Because even if you want to go to Allah, you have to go with your brother or a man from your family.
Another man from the office also was going so he pretended to be my mahram [male family member]. When we arrived to the airport in Jedda, we split up. I took a bus to Mecca. I stayed for a week. I went directly to the Kaaba and I cried “Allah, Allah,” I just cried and cried.
I never believed what they told me about religion. When I asked questions about Islam they would tell me it was forbidden to ask. I said if Allah didn’t want me to ask, why did he let me ask? I do believe in God but not in the Muslim God. The Muslim God just cares about small things– if one hair is uncovered you will go to hell. I hate this God. I believe in another God.
When I was in Saudi Arabia, I called my mother and told her “Don’t worry about me, I am in the house of Allah.” I took a picture of myself and sent it to her. She told me “Come back, your brother went to Saudi Arabia to find you.” I was afraid, so I went back.
When I returned to Yemen, nothing had changed. So I left to Turkey. There, I felt freedom. But in Turkey they are also Muslim. They always tried to convince me to be Muslim, to do what they do. I can live with anyone just as long as they don’t try to tell me what to do.
In Turkey, first I worked in a clothing factory. It was a small factory and the work was very difficult for me. We would iron the clothing, fold it, put tags on it and, prepare it to be sold. I worked for twelve hours a day.
Then my friend told me she had interviewed at an Arab company and wasn’t offered the job, but maybe she said, maybe they will hire you. So I went for an interview and they hired me on the spot. I started in an unimportant position. Then after that I was promoted to the position of deputy general manager. I worked with Yemenis, Syrians, Palestinians, Saudis. But the problem was, I had no papers in Turkey. I couldn’t travel to meetings in other places. My Yemeni passport is useless. And I had no visa to stay in Turkey. It had expired.
I thought about leaving to Europe, but I didn’t want to be what I am now. I don’t like to ask for money or for anything from people. I like to work. The money comes to me; I don’t go after the money. But then one day, after a meeting at work, I changed my mind and I left everything.
I went with the smugglers from Istanbul to Izmir- we drove for 12 hours. Then we were in a small boat, and the waves were high. The people were fighting in the boat and everyone was afraid. I said to Allah, “Allah if you are angry with me, let me die here and be done with me. If you are not angry with me, let me live and continue my life.” I told myself, this is not real, you are dreaming. This life is also not real, everything that happens will happen. Being afraid of something doesn’t change anything.
When we got to Greece, they gave me papers and told me to sleep in the camp. When I saw the camp, I was horrified. I couldn’t sleep there. It was very dirty. It smelled bad. I said please let me leave. They told me that I had to stay otherwise the police would catch me. I told them, “Okay, but first I will go guy a SIM card.” After I bought a SIM card I ran away. I hailed a taxi and told the driver, “Please, just take me to any hotel.” He took me to a big house and I paid 100 Euro and ordered two sandwiches. I ate just half a sandwich before I fell asleep. When I woke up I took a ferry to Athens.
In Athens, the people I met told me to go to Macedonia. I said okay. Now that I slept I had energy. I traveled to the Macedonian border. It was far away and I couldn’t sleep on the bus. But when I got there, the border was closed. There were no hotels. There was nothing. People were sleeping in the street. So I bought a tent. Then people asked me, “why did you pay? They will give it to you for free!” But I didn’t know. It was very cold. I stayed for three days in the street. There was no water, I couldn’t wash. So I decided to come back to Athens.
I went by bus because they told me it was free. I didn’t realize they were taking me to a camp. But they took me to a terrible place. It was a football stadium with many people living there. And it smelled terrible. I couldn’t live there. It was dangerous. Drunk people. I was afraid. I decided to run away.
A policewoman said, “Where are you going?”
I told her, “I am leaving, I cannot stay here.” She said “No, you have to stay here, the police will catch you.”
I went crazy, I said, “Let me go! If the police want to kill me, just kill me but don’t make me stay here.” and I ran away. The police saw me leave, and they just let me go.
I took a taxi I said again, “Just take me to any hotel.” When I got to the hotel, I couldn’t believe it. there was a bathroom! A bed! Clean sheets! I was so happy. I can’t describe how I felt that day, after I had been living in the street.
My friends from Yemen told me that the relocation program had opened for Yemenis. I went for an interview. They put me up in a hotel for free. I felt okay. I told my friends in Turkey to send my clothes and my guitar. But then I was just waiting for 5 months. Finally, they told me that Yemenis are not in the program anymore. They said “You have to stay in Greece.” I said, “why didn’t you tell me before? You just wasted my time. I could have started to study the language.
Now I am waiting to hear about my Asylum and I can start to study Greek. I will start to work. I will be a successful businesswoman. This is my last hope. If they don’t give me a paper, I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe I will go to the Mafia. But it’s difficult for me, because I just ran out of money two days ago.
Only my mother knows that I am in Greece. She tells me that she misses me. I love my mother and she loves me.
At some point, I would like to go back to Yemen and work in the government to make changes. All of the Yemeni people know me– I am a human rights activist. I write a lot. I started groups on Facebook. I talk about secular government, about separating government and religion. I believe that religion should just be between you and your God.
I was the first person in Yemen to talk about separating religion and government. But in Yemen, if you write about secular government, you are considered to be a non-believer, a kaafir. They think they have to kill you because you were in Islam and you left. But I write about it.
At first, people did not understand. I explained: If you are Muslim okay, but that’s between you and your God. And now there are more people who agree with me. We are a big group. But there are still people who hate me and think of me as a kaafira and want to kill me.
Here in Athens, I live in an apartment with Muslim women. They would always tell me, “Read the Koran, don’t drink.”
I already know everything they tell me about Islam. I studied Shariah Islamiyya. When I left Islam, I didn’t leave easily. I thought, read, felt, talked. I made three pilgrimages to Mecca.
The other day I sat them all down and I said “I am not Muslim. I don’t believe. I am a kaafira. I will go to hell. This is between me and my god. This is not your business. This is my choice.”
I said, “This is not your business. Just pay attention to how I behave with you.”
They responded, “We love you, you are a good person. This is all just your own business.”
I don’t believe in the religion anymore, but when I read the Koran, I still feel that it is holy. I still respect the Koran.
*Khadija is not her real name. Her name, photo, and voice were removed to protect her identity and safety.