Spotlight: Balquis

So many people of every colour and nation

Yemen
Women in abayas and conical straw hats in Hadhramaut, South Yemen Photo by Steve McCurry from http://wordsinthebucket.com/yemen-mud-skyscrapers-palaces-wadi-hadhramaut

We had war in Yemen so my family had to go to Somalia and live there for a couple of years. Then we went back to Yemen because there was war in Somalia. I was one-year old maybe. We went back to live in Hadhramaut, a small town in the South. A lot of my family live there.

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Photo of Hadhramaut by Eric Lafforgue

pixel-2 It’s really, really hot. After sunsets we go upstairs, take our mattresses, have dinner, talk a little and then go to sleep ‘cause you can’t sleep inside while it’s hot.

I have four brothers, three sisters. I’m in the middle. In Yemen my father worked in a shop, selling groceries. My mum used to bake samosa, spring rolls and falafels. Then she’ll sell them.

I went to school. In the morning it was all the boys and the afternoon it was all the girls. Sometimes we leave messages on the table, [Laughs]. But we didn’t see each other. I was really intelligent kid. I loved mathematics and science. I love art, but back in the days I used to hate it because they’ll ask you to buy everything and you just can’t afford it and then you get told off in front of everyone. That was really harsh.

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Yemeni women in the desert landscape near Hadhramaut. Photo by Eric Lafforgue

After lunch we get dressed, my mum does my hair and I’ll go out with the girls and just play around. It’s very deserty, really hot. I had to be home before sunset.

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Hadhramaut by Eric Lafforgue

It’s about 45 minutes to the sea. We used to rent a car. It wouldn’t fit us all sometimes so we’ll be put into the boot. The beach is beautiful. The sand is really white. We used to have lunch, swim and play with the sand. We collected rocks – different textures, different colours, different sizes. They look beautiful.

I remember Eid. We used to go to one of my family’s house and queue up for henna to get done. And then shopping. We’ll show off how you match your shoes with your dress and your hairclips. The women wear abayas and cover their faces.

My mum had a car crash and my dad had to look after us and we were kicked out of the house we rented. It was a very hard situation. We were coming back from a visit to another relative and my Dad asked, “Do you guys want to go to London?” I thought he was joking [laughs]. So we went to Sana’a for interviews. I think twice. My dad stayed away for nine months.

My dad had to come first and then I came with my family. I’ve never cried as much in my life, just leaving everything behind and never coming back.

We went from Sana’a to Qatar, and stayed there overnight. The hotel was lovely so I was just jumping up and down. Next morning we took a flight to London. I thought I’m watching a movie, because I never thought London would be this diverse, so many people of every colour and nation. I’d never seen someone different like me. I’ve always seen people of my kind.

I remember running to give my dad a hug. First of all we went to a hostel in Hackney- London Metropolitan Hostel. It was very weird.

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Metropolitan House, Hackney. Photo by Eithne Nightingale.

It was the first Eid I spent away and I remember crying so much because we didn’t know where to go and what to do.

I started going to BSix College in Clapton. I’ve had a lovely teacher. She understood that we just came and made us feel comfortable. We had to mix with boys, but you get over that. I did one year of Entry 1 and Entry 2 ESOL, the second year was Entry 3. And then I went to BTEC diploma in media for the third year.

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BSix College, Hackney. Aspired, Study, Achieve. Photo by Eithne Nightingale

When I was 17 the government stopped funding the course so I went to Tower Hamlets and did two years of my diploma in media.

Ravensbourne was the dream of my life. The first two years was a foundation degree in editing and postproduction, and then you do one year of BA top up. During the summer holiday, I used to take part in workshops and short courses, which Tower Hamlets used to do. I’ve loved the photography and collage. It was girls only and about the power of women.

It was really hard for me to feel I’m part of the society. How do I fit in here, what can I do to make myself feel at home? I’ve started meeting people, going to different places with my friends. Like art exhibitions, or open days or going to the park [laughs]. Most of the Yemeni community live in Sheffield.

We’ve been back to Yemen, was it 2012? It was my cousin’s wedding. When I first arrived I felt I am actually at home, that safe feeling of being where we belong. But with the heat and the electricity not working and too many people in one house I hated it. [Laughs]

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Yemeni woman by Eric Lafforgue

I was very happy when I came back. I felt I’m home again. I was like, oh, I can’t wait to go to my bed. I miss my house in Newham so much.

I have my place where I keep my artwork and shelves of books that I I’ve read or I want to read. I still have my sketchbooks from those summer courses. I share my room with two sisters, but it’s all right.

I think if I were still on there (Yemen) I wouldn’t have a future. I wouldn’t have much, I wouldn’t respect myself and have confidence just like I do right now. I would have been absolutely a different person. I think I might be married at home with kids and running around going crazy. [Laughs]

You can hear recordings of Balquis, including excerpts mentioned here on Soundcloud:

With thanks to Eric Lafforgue for allowing us to use his wonderful images of Hadhramaut in Yemen.

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