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Podcast Vluchtnummers: ‘I stopped living and started to survive’

NETHERLANDS, February 15 - News item | 15-02-2022 | 10:16

‘Dance or die’. Those words are tattooed on the neck of dancer and choreographer Ahmad Joudeh. Ahmad grew up as a third-generation stateless refugee in a Syrian refugee camp. His love of dance caused problems, but also gained him a new life in the Netherlands.

Worldwide there are now 26 million refugees – more than ever registered before – who, just like Ahmad, have had to flee their countries. War, conflict and persecution have made it unsafe for them to stay. In a podcast series called Vluchtnummers (Flight numbers) refugees use music to tell their personal stories, which are both gripping and moving. The podcast is a joint project by UNHCR Netherlands, Stichting Vluchteling and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Dance or die

Ahmad first came into contact with ballet when he was eight. In the years that followed, he danced in secret ‑ only his mother knew. It wasn’t until he joined Syria’s largest ballet company at the age of 16 that more people found out about his hidden passion. ‘The first time my father saw me dance was on television. The camera showed a close-up of my face, and you could see that I was wearing make-up.’ Ahmad’s father wasn’t happy. ‘He tried to stop me in every possible way you can imagine.’

It wasn’t just his father who objected to Ahmad’s passion for dance. When the civil war broke out in Syria, Ahmad received threatening messages from ISIS on his phone and Facebook. ‘I appeared on the Arab version of So You Think You Can Dance, so my face was everywhere. There were even posters of me in the streets.’ Ahmad was scared, but it wasn’t an option to stop dancing.

During the war, Ahmad’s house was hit by a car bomb. He also lost several family members. ‘Five people of my family were killed. For me, life increasingly felt like no life. I stopped living and started to survive.’ At the time, Ahmad was also worried about soon being called up for military service. ‘Right then, I felt like it was “dance or die. I went up to the roof and danced once more, as if for the last time.’ 

A new life

Ahmad’s dance to the song Skin & Bones caught the attention of a Dutch journalist, who asked him to collaborate. That led to invitations from various international ballet companies. Ahmad opted for the Dutch National Ballet.

Though happy with the chance to build a new life, Ahmad found himself up against fresh challenges. ‘I gave interviews to newspapers several times a day. Each time I had to retell my story, which meant that each time I was reminded of the pain.’ Ahmad was overwhelmed by grief, but didn’t dare turn down the interviews. ‘I thought, if I say no to something, they would send me back to Syria.’ It wasn’t until just before the coronavirus pandemic broke out that he felt able to refuse for the first time. He took a temporary break from his work, and received support to deal with his trauma and blackouts.

During the lockdown Ahmad also received some good news: he would be granted Dutch nationality. ‘It’s the first time I’ve ever had a nationality. I’m not Syrian and I  never was Syrian. I was a stateless person without rights. Now I have rights. Now I can travel, and go wherever I want.’

Prospects in the region

Just like Ahmad, many people are no longer safe in their own countries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs helps to improve the reception and protection of refugees in their region of origin.

To this end, the ministry works within the PROSPECTS initiative, a partnership it spearheads that brings together the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank.

Together with local authorities and businesses, the PROSPECTS partners invest in the protection, education and employment of refugees and vulnerable host communities. In this way, the Netherlands helps create future prospects for refugees and their communities of reception. To 2023, the partnership will invest €500 million in creating future prospects for refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Vluchtnummers podcast

Hear more of Ahmad’s story on the fifth episode of Vluchtnummers, available on: