I always admire plants and trees – their cohesion, stability, flexibility and resilience in the face of change.
The plant with its roots, stem, leaves and its life cycle apparent in its leafy boughs or bare branches, has inspired for me the answers to many of the ‘countless existential questions’ I have always had during my forty-year journey through life.
However, before jumping to share my reflections of the plant world, it is sensible to introduce myself. I am a bilingual journalist and humanitarian professional, with over ten years of working in communications in my home country of Yemen. Though working as a female journalist in a conservative society was not without challenges, I could overcome them as I was motivated by the fact that it was my country, my people and it was my duty to convey their voices. I was demonstrating the positive change a woman could make in its society by empowering her to have access to education and jobs. For more than 10 years, I enjoyed the power of being a financially independent woman with a promising career in a challenging and stimulating context.
Unfortunately, this phase of my life has not lasted long, as the whole country went through critical political and economic crises that led to more deterioration of individuals’ rights, including women’s rights. The situation was getting worse and worse rapidly, and soon the war broke out. Though I was one of the few who got lucky and fled the country, just weeks before the war, my life was falling off a cliff edge in slow-motion and there was no way to prevent that. I could not recover easily from the trauma that I lost many valuable things in return for being safe. I lost the connection to my family, who all are in Yemen, my career, my feeling of being an effective citizen; all of these vanished as soon as I got a refugee status.
I have a permit to live and work in the UK for five years. During the first three years, I was struggling to resume my life, and gather my remaining courage and dignity, which were scattered every time I stood in queues for benefits for job seekers or at the food bank. Meanwhile, my thoughts were often in Yemen; fearing for the future of my family, grieving over the tragedy of my country, and the worst part was feeling hopeless, useless and angry. These feelings consumed a lot of my energy, and I was trying to get out of what I thought of at that time as ‘a dark deep hole’. To do that, I thought I should stop thinking about my country and consider it as in the past, and focus on surviving in this country and consider that as my present plan. However, I soon realised that wasn’t a realistic solution, simply because I didn’t have the magic wand to erase the bad memories, light the dark hole and heal the wounds resulting from the traumas I experienced.
In the middle of this inner conflict I attempted to resume my career. I applied for many positions and I received many rejections, which led me again to question my professional skills and suspect my ability to integrate with the my host community. It was a devastating time; I felt I was trapped inside endless cycles of emotional pain. Until, that is, the time I paid attention to a tree located outside the small flat in Oxford where I spent the first three years here. For a moment, I found myself envying its combination of solidness and flexibility. I realised this was a result of its wholeness – the connection between its roots, stem, branches and leaves. That was the moment when my thinking went in a different direction.
"My thoughts were often in Yemen; fearing for the future of my family, grieving over the tragedy of my country, and the worst part was feeling hopeless, useless and angry. These feelings consumed a lot of my energy, and I was trying to get out of what I thought of at that time as ‘a dark deep hole’." – Amel Alariqi
The past had its painful and pleasing memories. However, what I had gained and lost in that past has made me what I am today. And if I tried to deny the past, I would not feel solid to face the present, and look forward to the future. For some reason, maybe not clear to the reader, but crystal clear to me, as the thought I needed to take this tree as an example. My past, including the hardships, losses, achievements, and gains makes up the roots that form my identity, I should not try to get rid of them. On the contrary, I should embrace them to help me to evolve and build a bridge to my present and future. That was the thought, which lit up my darkness.
Soon after that, I managed to find two different jobs. Both were unrelated to my previous career in communications and journalism but I decided to embrace the idea that I was learning new skills and knowledge. I worked as a Bilingual Advice and Project Officer to support the resettlement of Syrian families in their first year in the UK, to help their longer-term integration in their local community. A year-and-a half later I started working as a researcher in the human resources sector, recruiting senior positions for international NGOs.
However, I had to leave these jobs and pay more attention to my physical and mental wellbeing that was still deteriorating. I underwent surgery with a three-month recovery period. I applied to join the coLAB project, which aims to support the integration of refugees in the academic environment by promoting opportunities for people like me to teach their own skills. This experience, which has been short but I hope will not end, has had a valuable impact on me, waking up the excitement, enthusiasm and passion I thought I had lost for good.
When I was talking to the students about my experience in Yemen, focusing on the importance of communications and media roles in a challenging humanitarian context, I hoped that would encourage and motivate them to consider working in the humanitarian sector. The positive reaction of the students and teachers to my lectures makes me appreciate the coLAB project which, much like the inspiration I had while staring at the tree, has helped me take another step along the road to reconciling with my hard past and towards a positive future.
Words by Amel Alariqi for Visible Justice.
Visible Justice takes place at London College of Communication from Wednesday 17 April to Friday 3 May 2019, and is free and open to all.