In researching the author of the book Syrian Women Refugees 2019, Ozlem Ezer, also the creator of UmAy home and work space, I was very interested in interviewing her in a more formal setting, beyond our conversations over breakfasts and cups of coffee. Ozlem describes herself as a writer, traveler, translator, activist, and academic. However, with my brief yet precious time spent in this house, I can attest that she is much more than that. Ozlem is a deeply thoughtful, caring, and strong woman who continually and tirelessly works to uplift the light in women around her that they may not even see in themselves. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to learn from her this month. What follows is a slightly edited version of an ‘interview’ we did over the breakfast table. A.H.
Adrienne: When did you come up with the idea for UmAy and was there anything in particular that prompted you?
Ozlem: It was formed in my mind without a location quite a while ago thanks to my own experiences as a writer-in-residence in North America, but it was only a dream. When it began shaping from a dream to a plan, it was April 2019. I was in a transition, kind of deciding between staying in the US and coming back to Turkey, especially because of my parents’ age and health-related issues. In April, I had a reunion with my Greek-Cypriot friend Maia in Nicosia after several years. She lost her mom recently and was telling me coming back for one’s parents was really worth it. The regret or the feeling you might have once they are gone is like – you cannot do anything about it. She gave me the idea, it was like, wow, I can actually do that, because there is a house for it near Istanbul.
A: I also wanted to quote you from your website: “Spirituality cannot and should not be a narcotic comfort in a broken world, but its healing effects might appear in surprising and awakening ways.” Can you say more about this and spirituality’s role in transition and spaces?
O: Yes, this actually also relates to my current project with Syrian women refugees where I got some funding from Sabancı University so I’m hoping that some of UmAy residents and guests will be offering their experiences about that. Spirituality helps resilience, it’s like a shelter by itself. Although it’s in your heart and in your mind, it can serve as a concrete shelter. Some studies show that if you are spiritual or believe in some kind of a higher power than yourself or what you perceive as the material world, it can provide more power, more resilience, psychologically. I’m actually curious about how it might work when I talk to women about this topic. After losing loved ones and experiencing war, you might actually become very rebellious and quit or reject religion or God. We are hoping that UmAy will welcome spiritual and religious women and we are definitely open to their practices or rituals that they have… to feel better about what they are going through. Such practices can trigger also creativity and inspiration. So we are not a very secular, anti-religious initiative.
A: As an experienced interviewer and listener, how do you approach listening to stories that are very different from your own? Or maybe traumas that are very difficult to understand?
I guess the concept of deep listening or conscious listening can summarize what I have been trying to do, to really pay attention to the person, her word choices, gestures, tone etc. People usually complain that they are not being listened to, especially when they are refugees.
[Ozlem then said this question was “very important and dear to my heart,” and requested to think about it to write a detailed and thoughtful response over email, which follows.]
Humility and respect are the key words, and I argue that these two concepts might be the magic keys to open anyone’s heart. I try not to intimidate my interviewees by referring to the academic achievement type of a list; and if the middle/bridge-person knows me already for years, I’d ask her to keep my profile very down (just ‘well, she’s a writer, a good friend of mine, an English teacher etcetera. I believe it affects both sides. Knock on wood, I’ve had a really good feedback so far and have become good friends with most of my interviewees, and they have asked me other things, shared many stories after all the interviews are completed.
My approach to trauma narratives is honestly, case-based! Everyone is so different and so unique that I live in a constant dilemma, which is… Well, I’ve lost trust to the social sciences already a while ago because of this uniqueness of human beings and how fast they or we change. At the same time, I do my best to keep up with the literature on trauma narratives and how to interview survivors. For example, last winter, I sat down in an Oral History class conducted by Prof. Selma Leydesdorff at the University of Amsterdam with graduate students who were much younger than I was, so that I can learn more about the latest strategies, trends, studies, academic debates, and Selma’s own experiences when it comes to interviewing people. She was very keen on self-care of the interviewer too, and she was very open about her burnout stories.
In short, I admit that I’m constantly learning, and I can never be sure of my experiences as an interviewer no matter how many people I talk to. That keeps me alert and concerned all the time.
The other more ‘professional’ and safer response is that I’m ready for the worst case scenarios, and I make sure to refer the person to a professional in case of an unexpected situation. However, I also encountered many women who told me that the therapy sessions or counseling didn’t help them at all and they felt alienation more than anything else. In Canada, I had NGO workers who confided in me that they failed in ‘healing’/treating the immigrants from Muslim countries especially from Syria since it is the latest group after Somalis, I guess.
I also want to believe that the trainings and workshops that I attended before interviewing (some were required like in San Diego University’s Institute for Peace and Justice) also prepared me for the process.
A: What role do personal narratives and stories play in changing negative and false stereotypes?
O: It has got to do with the questions and how you formulate questions. In terms of media journalists, they have an agenda that they keep reproducing stereotypes and certain images because they already have this agenda. It’s contributing to what’s already there. I think formulating questions in a different way, asking some completely different things is very important – though, it’s easy for me to say as a freelancer. However, I think journalists should challenge or at least criticize the imposed ideas or images in wherever they are working for.
A: So how did you come up with what questions to ask and what were you trying not to ask?
O: I was trying not to ask about the displacement experience. I intentionally spared those questions to the last, let’s say after maybe five hours of interviewing. Some women I noticed they skipped it actually, too. That’s up to the therapist to determine why they did, but some of them were happy to skip that part. They didn’t want to talk about how they became a refugee, how they packed and left home, and the journey itself. Because the journey itself and what happened after the journey was over when they arrived in Turkey or Greece are what the officials and NGO people focus on, and the displaced keep repeating the same narrative over and over whether they want to or not. So that part I wanted either to postpone until a good solidarity or friendship is formed or not ask it at all, or ask after 90 questions that are not about that episode in their lives. Then it becomes like, ‘oh okay, that’s part of my life.’
A: People, I think, try to go right there because that’s where the emotive part is, the strongest and deepest emotions are going to come out and they want that to then push on their readers.
O: Exactly right, but from their point of view? I mean, imagine how annoying or how traumatic it can be to continue to relive certain experiences. That can be confirmed easily by trauma studies, not just refugees’ but most trauma narratives will say ‘be careful, it can become part of your identity’ whereas it’s not. It’s not part of their identity. It’s an experience in one’s life, that’s how I treat becoming a refugee. Maybe the verb ‘become’ needs to be changed.
A: How did you deal with the emotions that came out of you and the interviewee during the questions? I know you are extremely aware of the performative aspect of trauma journalism and obviously trying to avoid that so how did you deal with trying to authentically put their emotions into this book, but also not making it a spectacle?
O: I’m not sure because as the writer of the book, I’m not sure if I managed to avoid agitative paragraphs or not. But that was one of my goals. So I didn’t want people to read and cry all the time. But of course you need to – the risk of doing this is – not to see it as something light, that’s not what I wanted to do either.
And how do I deal with emotions? I usually wait, I try to create a setting that’s not very public or go to a very quiet corner in a cafe because there are many times women actually cried at some stage. But only one out of nine women had several crying episodes where we had to stop and wait… I’m pretty calm actually, I wait. It really depends on the person, “should I hug her, should I tell her something?” It’s on the spot that I decide for such things. I would say it’s a gut feeling. And sometimes they just say ‘ah!’ And they wipe tears and continue. Their personalities were so different.
A: What are some universalities you’ve witnessed in the female experience?
O: Becoming a mother, when they talk about their children, they all light up. But if they are far away from them which was the case with some, they cry, they miss their kids a lot. So that’s a very universal, understandable thing for women specifically.
Food talk. At some point – even if I didn’t ask – food, cooking, food traditions, kitchen talk, that’s quite universal. I love it, I really love it. Actually that was a strategy, sometimes when a very sensitive topic comes up or when someone cries a lot, I would make a comment – ‘let’s have some dessert!’ There’s always food or drink, coffee especially, coffee comes into play and it’s healing. So it’s another commonality which I’m happy to share.
I think nurturing, sharing emotions are much easier for women. Or talking about their hair, small things. Women get bonded so quickly and I think it’s much harder if I were to interview men. In some of the interviews I was asked whether I considered interviewing Syrian men. I said no, I really didn’t. There are too many barriers, already this is a difficult task, so why should I make life more difficult? Men should interview men when it comes to difficult knowledge. That’s the gender aspect of my work and a choice too.
A: What does empowerment in women look like to you?
O: Empowerment is a concept I think a lot about. I’m afraid I’ll give a very postmodern response to that because empowerment can mean so many things in different contexts. One specific example is when one of my good friends in Canada migrated back to Nairobi in order to help her fellow women and young girls in Somalia. She actually covered fully, changed her clothing and the way she was talking and dressing. I give this example because I know that for so many women in Turkey or in North America, this might mean going backwards or becoming very conservative. But I don’t agree. I know my friend, and in her case, this was probably part of a strategy she had set up. In the context of working on the ground in Somalia, doing this was empowerment.
A: What do you treasure most about the female relationships in your life?
O: Oh, every aspect of it! The informal – knowing that you’ll be backed up, you’ll be supported, any time. That is so valuable. By the way, this is also empowerment. On the outside, you may look very poor, who knows how a woman in my mentality might look like to others, but I know from experience, as long as we have that women’s network – and I mean globally, by the way, that’s very important, a global women’s network – then we are actually very strong. Women know it in their hearts and in their minds. Regardless of where they are, they can act stronger, they can step stronger, they can walk with more steady steps. Oh, I can get very emotional about this.
This interview was conducted at UmAy in January 2020.
Syrian Women Refugees (2019)