Interview Yasmine Merei – Founder of “Women for Common Spaces”
On July 1st the Berlin project “Women for Common Spaces” is inviting visitors to attend a community event at Radialsystem. Along with artists, women from the project, and other partners, the project founder Yasmine Merei will present the initiative’s work, transforming Sasha Waltz & Guests’ studio into a “common space” for listening. We spoke with Yasmine Merei who initiated the project about ideas and the future of it.
Photo: Firas Al Masri
The non-profit initiative, “Women for Common Spaces” aims to develop a network of well-informed and self-confident Arabic-speaking women in exile. What do these women need to be able to live up to that aim and how does and will the initiative fulfill those needs?
Mainly women in exile need not to be alone anymore, in terms of the state of daily life they have at the moment. Living in group accommodations or living isolated in neighborhoods where they don’t know any Arabic speaking women. Syrian women used to visit and talk to each each as neighbours and relatives daily. So we are trying to put them in contact again and make them share their stories. In our live in Syria, sharing personal things wasn not something we did. We didn’t talk about our problems. It’s a kind of, not shame, but it is not good to let the others know that you have this or that problem. But what happened with many women from Syria has nothing to do with normal life anymore. So we start with sharing, with meeting women from very different backgrounds that might have never been in touch in their homecountries before. If women like each other then a relationship develop, as friends and then they start meeting each other outside the workshops. This is the beginning of the work. But we also provide them with stories from other countries which help, not to heal from our stories, but to look at it from different angles and try to get out from the sadness of it.
When the audience enters the “common space” that you want to create in Sasha Waltz & Guests studio, what will they encounter and how can they participate?
The event is an informal gettogether and a step on the way of building this common space. We are building the common space on different levels: First of all between the refugee women themselves, than between the refugee women and their families than between the refugee women and the locals.
For the first of July it will be a meeting where hopefully many of the women we worked with during the past one and a half years will come together, meet each other and get to know the women who wrote these texts. Because they have all read the texts but some of them don’t know each other as they are in different groups. And then it is a common space between them and their families if the families will come and listen to them, to the wife or to the mother and then with the their partners. Many women see their texts also as messages to the local communities and we hope that many people will be able to listen to the way these women think and what kind of texts they wrote. There will be also a presentation about everything we have done in the last years and are planning to do this year and the next year. We will have a group of traditional Syrian musicians around Shadia Abu Hamdan, who has been living in Berlin for many years . So on a cultural level it will also be a common space listening to music together.
Will German-speakers be able to understand the texts that are going to be read?
The texts are translated into German. We will distribute the hard copies of the two booklets and we will also show the translation with a projector. Different women will read the texts, both in German and Arabic.
The initiative developed very closely to SWG. Where do you see the benefits for each other? And them being a dance company, how did you find each other?
We found each other 2015, both of us, Sasha and I were at the Villa Aurora, which is the former house of the German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger and Thomas Mann in Los Angeles, USA. It is a very warm place, you feel history there. Also as a person you feel what it means to be exiled and then start, not only a new adventure but start a life that affects a lot of people positively even after decades of being dead. Lion Feuchtwanger past away a long time ago and now you see journalists and artists, German writers going there and you see international journalists or human rights defenders who also go there for six to nine months. It was me in 2015. So I met Sasha there who was an “honorary fellow”.
When I think about working with Sasha Waltz & Guests – which is a dance compagnie – for me it is not only a dance compagnie. Of course I respect the great art they do, but for me as a journalist as an author, I feel that the first “common space” that was created was between Sasha and me. It was because of our discussion, our talks. We discovered each other because we exchanged a lot and this exchange was an initiative by Sasha. She was interested in asking. So you feel that someone has to start. This really inspired me and when I came here, invited by Sasha Waltz & Guests and being hosted by them for 5 months at the house of the compagnie.
We did “Zuhören” 2016 at Radialsystem together and this spirit of exchange was growing and excited me. You feel that, you can’t ask Germans to know Syrians but you can tell them about us and then they decide if they want to listen or not. I think we have the task to tell them about us. The other thing is, it is very clear that we have different cultures but on a human level we share a lot of things. So it is only about clarifying and saying – this is me.
With Sasha Waltz & Guests I feel strong because first of all they are very honest in terms of providing the person with a lot of emotions, a lot of love and support. There is something very good with Sasha as a person. She doesn’t help you to depend on her. She helps you under a condition, saying you have to stand on your own legs and then fly. This is great. Sometimes you have people who help you but keep leading you. Sasha is not this kind of person. This is what makes me respect her more and makes me feel grateful towards her and her compagnie members.
You are now in the founding phase of the initiative. So what are the next steps for it?
The next steps are built on what we have been doing. We keep on doing the workshops of course. And now the official registration of an e.V. as an independent Germany based association is in its final phase.
Moreover I was in Athens a few days ago. We want to widen the work to the Mediterranean area and think about the families of women who live in Berlin, I mean sisters or even neighbours – women – who lived together in Syria and are close to each other and now they are separated all over Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Europe. So I am trying to do the same work I am doing here, in Greece, Turkey and Beirut and also in Syria via Skype. Hopefully it will work. So we have this atmosphere of women connecting with each other through texts. In the coming years it will depend on how the team will grow and how much trust and funds we get to develop the work.
So if somebody is interested in the initiative and want to take part. How do they get to know about what you are doing?
First of all we have a WhatsApp-Group where we add all the women of the workshops. Second “Women for Common Spaces” has a facebook page. For the future website which is supposed to have an integrated online journal of the texts of “Female voices in exile” we are still looking for funds. Anyone who wants to support the initiative can donate to Sasha Waltz & Guests gGmbH with reference to our work and soon the e. V. will also be in operation. At the moment public events will be at Radialsystem, in connection with Sasha Waltz & Guests until the end of 2018. With German language skills of the workshop participants getting better each month the initiative wants to include more and more local women in the future. All texts of “Female voices in exile” are published online in Arabic and German and we are happy if as many people as possible read them.
Would you like to add anything?
I hope the first of July will be successful and hopefully next year we can bring locals to the program and keep working with refugees. I also want to thank the partners “Berlin Mondiale” who are a great support, Radialsystem who often provided space since 2017. We did amazing workshops here and all the women who took part loved the place and were asking if they would be able to come again. Allianz Kulturstiftung who has been supporting my work since April 2016. All the social workers in the accommodation centers, without them we couldn’t do anything and Sasha Waltz & Guests who are the base.