Nazeeha Saeed about the Attribution “Refugee,” “Asylum,” and “Exile”

Nazeeha Saeed, a journalist from Bahrain who lives in Paris and Berlin since 2016, talks about how she came to call herself a “journalist in exile” and not a “refugee” or “asylum seeker.” She criticizes the external compulsion to put herself in one of these boxes with the same stroke. She also reports on her successful efforts to obtain the right of residence in Europe even without asylum proceedings.

Nazeeha Saeed © private photo

I just put my stuff in the suitcase and I left, coming to Paris because I was working with the French media for 12 years or something. So it seemed logical to go to Paris and start work with them from there, but this was not the case.

So I found myself in a country I don’t know. I visited it as a tourist, as a visitor, but now I’m here. And I don’t know the language, just a few words and sentences. I don’t have a job, I don’t have an income, only some savings that I’m spending. Okay – so am I a refugee now? But the thing is that after a few months I realized that I’m in exile. Because I didn’t choose this.

Yes, I’m living here. I’m trying to find a flat, I’m trying to make my life working here, I’m doing some freelance jobs. But this is not my choice. So, this is what’s called exile.

I’m not a refugee because there is no war pushing me, there is no decision from outside, like they put me in a plane and sent me away – I don’t know. I just didn’t want to compare myself because it’s injustice to compare myself with the people who had to go in boats in the Mediterranean and had to flee. I can’t be as the same. Going to the airport without knowing anything was also scary: Are they going to arrest me there? I hate seeing the police because I had so bad experiences with them. But I cannot compare this to other refugees who live in tents and don’t have any money and left all their life back home. I mean, I could take some of my life with me and I still have family who visit me when they can – just as if I chose it.

Because now I chose it. After a year and a half I said to myself: Okay, I don’t want to go back. I think I want to stay out for I don’t know how many years until something changes back home, and then go back. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the country. I’m still connected very much. […] Because I thought, staying here and writing what I want is serving the purpose of being a journalist and the country that I come from. Better than being there and not being able to do anything. […]

People ask me:

– Are you on asylum?

– No, I’m not on asylum.

-Are you a refugee?

– No, I’m not a refugee.

– Are you in exile?

– I don’t know. Maybe. I want to go back, so I don’t think that this is called exile.

So there are boxes that people want to put you in. […] Like everywhere else in life. In every stage of my life I was fighting these boxes that you should fit in: You should be married, you should be the girl who is wearing dresses … So this was just another box that I was challenging: I don’t want to fit in any of these boxes.

The legal part is very challenging. For me it was a special case because I did not have to ask for asylum. For me it worked in another way. As a journalist/writing activist I could find alternatives, like residencies and visas for visitors or journalists. It’s nothing against the people who did this, I respect them and most of them don’t even have the choice – either they do this or they will be sent back home. And this is why I hate borders. I had the choice. I didn’t want to go to the camps and so on. Although all my supporters in Paris, you know, the journalist’s organizations and so on, they advised me to apply for asylum because they knew how dangerous it would be for me to go back. But I didn’t want to do this.

Nazeeha Saeed worked as a journalist for international and local media in Bahrain for over 20 years. From 2011 she was exposed to state repression because of her journalistic work, especially on human rights issues. She was arrested and tortured for her critical reporting on the democracy protest movement, which erupted in Bahrain in the course of the “Arab Spring.” Nevertheless, she remained in the country until 2016 and was an activist for freedom of opinion and freedom of the press. In 2016 her journalistic license was revoked and a travel ban was imposed. She was sued for allegedly continuing to work as a journalist despite having her license revoked. As soon as the travel ban was lifted for a short time, Nazeeha Saeed left the country out of fear of further arrest. She first came to Paris to continue working with her previous clients. International organizations for free press work supported her in starting over in Europe and she succeeded in obtaining a right of residence even without asylum proceedings. She has been living in Berlin since the fall of 2019.

Nazeeha continues her journalistic work in Europe. She continues to write about the situation in Bahrain and the Gulf region, especially about human rights issues such as the situation of guest workers, women and LGBTIQ* persons. She also publishes articles on the situation in Europe, especially on exile life in Paris and Berlin. Nazeeha Saeed is committed to free journalism and gives empowerment and strategy workshops for journalists working in areas of political conflict. Because of her work she has become the face for violations of freedom of the press and freedom of opinion in Bahrain, which ranks 169th out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index.

Although Nazeeha Saeed’s personal history of persecution certainly meets the requirements for recognition of refugee status according to the Geneva Refugee Convention and the right to asylum, she does not define herself as a refugee or as being in asylum. She justifies this by saying that she does not want to equate her fate with that of refugees who flee from war, come to Europe on dangerous escape routes, and have to start over without any possessions. Moreover, she has managed to obtain residence permits in Europe without an asylum procedure. Instead, she describes herself as a journalist in exile and at the same time criticizes the boxes into which people try to put her and others. Nazeeha Saeed spoke about her own identity as a forced migrant in an interview she gave to the We Refugees Archive in July 2020. Her reflections show the complexity of self- and third-party attributions of “refugee,” “asylum,” “exile,” “forced migrant” etc. beyond the official definitions.

This interview with Nazeeha Saeed was conducted by We Refugees Archive, 15 July 2020.