To the refugee father I only met once, but whose story changed my life
In this occasional series, we will feature letters from people to refugees who have shaped their lives.
Solenn, 25, who was born and raised in France, had never met her dad, a refugee from Iraq who fled persecution on the basis of his religion in the 1980s, until one day which changed her life a year ago. After delving into his story and those of millions of others, she decided to go back to university and study refugee law.
Solenn's letter is the second in a series to run occasionally on the UNHCR web site that features real letters written to refugees who’ve profoundly affected the writers’ lives.
This letter has been edited for length and clarity.
Listen to Solenn read the letter:
UNHCR, UN Refugee Agency · Dear Father - Solenn
As a child, no myth I read could evoke the same sense of wonder as the one your story evoked in me. We do not know each other, and yet we both know we share a common secret. The secret of your existence and also of mine – separated by your faith, despite the love you had for my mother.
Dear Father, you held me in your arms one time, then you disappeared. Mom recalled that on that day – the one and only day you met me – you spoke to me in a tongue she did not know, the language of your village between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The village where you grew up and from which you fled.
Later, I spoke my first word, “Aziza.” It might sound naive, but I like to think that it came from you, that it is an heirloom and also proof that you loved me.
Yet, I understand now, this life doesn’t call for a reunion. Still, I wished to thank you for one thing: Father, I was born twice, in 1996, and again in 2017. That year, I finished my studies and for the first time in my life I had time to think about that which had been easier to ignore; your existence.
Guided by my mother’s memories, I pieced together the little that I knew of you, and putting together the clues, as we read the stars to understand the world, I learned about your journey. In researching your name, I gauged the significance of mine, and from your story, I started understanding mine.
As I moved towards you I discovered the conflicts of the world. At first with fear, then with courage.
I spent my days and nights turning the pages of books which could bring me closer to you, and my heart was moved by all the journeys, I decided for the first time to reach out to refugees. I listened to their stories, their courage, the families they found, and those they lost. I taught them French and discovered your language, Aramaic.
For a long time I wished to come across you by accident turning down a street or on the metro. But a year passed in vain. You remained a mystery like Babylon. Then, one night, when I couldn’t sleep, I took up my research again. That night, after turning through every article where you appeared, the world stopped. I learned you would be coming to a conference not far from where I lived.
It was a summer evening, and France had just won the World Cup for the second time. With my heart beating faster than any soccer player’s, I found you again.
The room, resonating with the voices of those who came to listen, suddenly fell silent. I sensed your presence. Hidden in the second row, with a trembling heart, I finally put a face to the name. I stayed two hours, sitting only a few meters from you. What words can fill in so much silence? There are none.
For the first time, I understood the other part of me. My brown hair and my black eyes, which as a child I wished were blond and blue like my mother’s, I got from you. Despite my clouded eyes, I spent the first hour watching yours. Through your eyes, I saw your lands bordered by the mountains separating Türkiye and Iraq, as well as the lands you crossed to come to a safer place, in France, the country where I was born. In the second hour, your voice soothed my soul. I recalled its softness, like a sacred song of Mesopotamia, and I could see myself beginning to cry discreetly.
It wasn’t about just you and me anymore. My eyes were crying for the entire world, my eyes were crying for people on all continents, of all religions, languages, genders, colours and orientations, uprooted people. My eyes were crying for the bombs and the atrocities. In me, in that moment, a force was born.
Though I know very little of you, your journey made me realize how lucky and privileged I am. Father, not one day has passed since that year that I don’t wake up and feel grateful to be safe, to be able to dream, and to help. Help. In the months that followed, this word took on more meaning and space in my life.
Opening my eyes to you, I opened them to the world. Wanting to reach Asia, I discovered Africa. I met Adjo, Koffi and Rebecca, and more people, whose inner strength increased my own. Thanks to you and to them, I was no longer afraid. So, at age 24 I quit my job, went back to school and started studying refugee law.
Dear Father, if the world is cruel, on the route that led me to you I encountered its goodness. For this, I thank you.
This letter does not need a response. I do not blame you for leaving us. Sometimes there are reasons that are bigger than us.
Your secret daughter,
This letter is part of a series written by young people to a forcibly displaced or stateless person who has had a major impact on their lives. If you are interested in writing a letter to a refugee friend, family member, or anyone who has inspired you, share your idea with us at [email protected]