American-Syrian couple’s love story & journey to Norway
American-Syrian couple Elie Gardner, 34, and Ziad Al-Taha, 30, are well-known in the quaint South Norwegian town of Mandal. Elie Gardner is an American photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, and Ziad Al-Taha is a Syrian national who fled from the civil war in his home country and has been granted asylum in Norway.
Elie and Ziad met in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2015, when Elie was working as a freelance journalist. The first time they saw each other in person was at the Orthodox Easter party where they had been invited by their mutual friends. Ziad admits that it was his first time being invited to such a big party. Elie says her first impression of Ziad was “very quiet, nice and a lot of hair gel.”
At the time, Ziad was working and lived in a hotel on the Taksim square. He says his only interaction with the outside world was when he was talking to customers coming to the hotel.
Elie says she had been told about him long before they met. “My friends told me about this guy who was making very good shisha,” says Elie about Ziad.
“I was living in Turkey and got very interested in the Syrian war. There were many Syrians and Iraqis living in the neighbourhood, so, I became curious. As a journalist, I am always interested in the vulnerable population, groups that have the most challenges. I had a comfort level with Ziad. So, I thought I was going to ask him for story ideas, get some background, sit and talk to him about being a Syrian in Istanbul,” Elie says.
Thus, Elie decided to document Ziad’s journey from Turkey to Europe. She followed him in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria in September 2015 and afterwards, in Norway. During the period of filming, both of them began to develop feelings for each other and started dating first online, and later, Elie visited Ziad in Norway on numerous occasions before she moved here in August of 2018 on a student visa.
Elie Gardner studied Journalism in the U.S. According to Elie, her dream as a journalist was always to report about Spanish speaking immigrants in the U.S. This desire made her learn Spanish and later, move to Peru where she worked as a freelancer for 4 years.
She then moved to Istanbul, Turkey. While in Turkey, Elie was collaborating as a freelance journalist with humanitarian organizations travelling to Zimbabwe, India, Lebanon, Jordan, Afghanistan. Elie says she chose Istanbul, as it was the best of both worlds: the east and the west.
In Afghanistan, she was involved in the project run by the Catholic Relief Services documenting the program aimed at getting girls in schools in rural areas.
“I always believe I can make a difference. It is impossible to treat journalism as a job. You are invited to people’s home, so intimate, private. You are asking questions that are hard to answer sometimes, and you feel a connection, and that changes people,” says Elie.
Ziad’s journey from Syria to Norway
Ziad’s journey to Europe is very similar to others in 2015 and at the same time, very different. Before the war in Syria broke out, Ziad had a peaceful life studying English literature at the University of Damascus and working in a hotel which mainly depended on foreign tourists. According to him, the war took some time to reach the capital city Damascus. When it did, the hotel he was working for was closed, and Ziad began to work in another hotel where mainly IDPs settled.
Ziad was supposed to graduate from the university in 2011, but he stayed in the second year for two years because of his job, and later, he tried to prolong his studies not to be taken to the army. In accordance with the Syrian legislation, graduate students have to go through the required 2-year military service.
“I did not want to kill my own people and did not want to be killed,” he notes.
Ziad says first, he did not have any intention to leave Syria until the last minute and hoped the war would be over soon. When he realized that there was no other option, he accepted the help of his friend who promised to get him to Dubai but got stuck in Turkey for a while.
From 2013 till September 2015, he worked in a hotel in Istanbul. According to Ziad, the working conditions of refugees in Turkey are very hard. They are often forced to work very long hours for a low salary.
“My 2 years in Turkey were terrible. I had no time for myself. My life was working in a hotel 24 hours without any days off. I wanted to continue my education, but I could not because of my job. You have two options: either work full-time or no job at all. You have no rights,” Ziad mentions.
When he understood he had no future in Turkey, he decided to move to Norway after saving up some money for his trip. He arrived in Norway on September 16, 2015, and exactly, in a year, he was granted a residence permit.
According to Ziad, he got inspired by how elderly people in Mandal volunteered and dedicated their time to refugees spending time and talking to them. So, he wanted to give back and started volunteering at the Refugee Center in Mandal translating for other families who did not speak English or Norwegian. Later, he got involved in other social projects for refugees.
Life together and future plans
In 2016, one year after arriving in Mandal, Ziad was elected the Mandalitt of the year for being active and involved in volunteering.
Currently, Ziad and Elie rent a house in Mandal. Ziad volunteers with refugees and Norwegian children through BARK (The Children’s Red Cross). He works as a substitute at various daycare centres.
Ziad has already established very good rapport among his friends and acquaintances so that when somebody at daycare takes maternity leave or sick leave or cannot work for any other reason, he is asked to replace them.
He is going to complete his bachelor’s degree in Norway. He is very optimistic about the future and works hard to improve his Norwegian and later, enrol in a university.
Ziad enjoys working with kids and is planning to study to be a daycare educator. He is actively engaged in social projects for refugees, translates for them. He has been elected as the leader of the Norwegian People’s Aid organisation in Mandal (Norsk FolkeHjelp).
In turn, Elie studies Development Management at the University of Agder in Kristiansand and learns Norwegian.
Ziad says he misses Syria a lot.
“If it was not for Elie, I would miss Syria more because of my family, but Elie is like a family for me, so, it makes it easier, but I still miss my parents, brothers, sisters. I miss Damascus,” Ziad emphasises.
“I like the weather here, I like snow, rain. In Syria, when it is raining, you do not leave the house, it is so muddy, so dirty. Here, I like it more; I go to the forest and come home clean. I like the system here. You have rights, but you also have duties. There is no corruption. Everybody is treated the same,” Ziad points out.
According to Elie, her family was supportive of her relationship with Ziad and the idea of moving to Norway.
“But it took some time, not because he is a Muslim, not because he is a Syrian, not because of anything else, but because they thought I would be with another person my whole life,” she underlines. Ziad’s family also accepted his relationship with Elie.
“In 5 years, we will be married with at least one kid, but I do not see the place, because in 5 years, I will have the Norwegian citizenship, and I can be anywhere, I can work anywhere I want,” says Ziad talking about his future plans.
“Maybe, that is the scary part. Now, we are working in a small frame, but in 5 years, the world will have so many options, but at least, I know I will be working with people I like and who like me,” Elie adds.
This article is written by our Azerbaijani guest writer Rana Aghayeva.
Rana Aghayeva has a bachelor degree in International Relations and Regional Studies. Her passion for journalism has made her change tack. Rana started her master’s degree in Journalism and Media Management at GIPA (the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs). Currently, she is an exchange student at NLA University College. She is specialising in Global Journalism.
© Rana Aghayeva / #Norway Today