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ASYLUM: Crossing the Pyrenees, 4/4

This is the final part of Marie-Rose Ourabah’s story of asylum. Here she reflects on the impact of her experiences as a refugee during the 2nd World War: her separation from her father, being treated as a foreigner at a young age, her adolescent search for identity, and her feelings about the plight of refugees today.

Bonjour Ben,

You were asking me where I stand with regard to this whole story. My feelings have evolved over time.

I don't remember being cold or hungry as a child [during the Spanish Civil War]. Maman was there. I risked nothing, and my imagination was fertile. I was not aware of any harmful consequence, yet if I am to believe my mother, when the planes passed overhead I hid under a chair, my mouth open because she had told me that explosions can destroy the eardrums.

My mother protected me. She tells of the first bombardments on Reus, when she put me in the pushchair and took to the road to find refuge with the family of a nurse at a farm some 100 kilometers from the city. It was not a pleasure walk! Sometimes the crowd of fugitives was seized with a hysterical panic. When my mother saw lost children crying by the side of the road, she panicked she might lose me in this mad crowd as well.

I don't remember that, but I do remember the terrifying images of my delirium when I had pulmonary complications from measles. I owe my life to the newly discovered antibiotics, and to my mother's care. Among other things, I saw a soldier advancing behind the glass of the alcove door. I screamed to warn my mother of this dangerous presence. To reassure me she put me on the mattress on the floor where she sometimes lay down. It was still horrifying: a soldier was lying under my bed!

So yes, I have to admit that there was an agonising climate from which I had difficulty escaping.

Above all there was the absence of my father. During my first four years, and more, I no doubt had opportunities to meet him, but I have no recollection of them. For me the remarkable reunion is in Prats de Mollo [after we crossed into France].

Yes, my mother was protecting me. She owned me, too. She proudly recounts how she copied 13 dresses from Shirley Temple, the little star of American cinema. She dressed me, painted me like her. I was, in a way, her child and her doll.

I understood. The ‘Spaniard’ was my father. So, I perhaps I was not completely French.

[Once we were in France] I quickly learned French and, as we no longer spoke Spanish or Catalan, I gradually forgot my mother tongue. Today I have no words in my memory or in my mouth, other than French. I had no doubts as a child. I had early childhood memories that made me a bit special and I was a little unusual because I lived in the hospital with the madmen. But none of that posed an existential problem for me: I felt French.

My mother once said that my father was called to the deathbed of a classmate's grandmother. After the funeral her daughter confided to my mother: “See, she kept her lucidity until the end. She said to me: ‘Go get the Spaniard, he won't charge you.’”

I understood. The ‘Spaniard’ was my father. So, perhaps I was not completely French.

In my teenage years, I was really not certain about myself. At the Lycée, I took Spanish as a second language. At one assignment, although having a good mark, I was second in class. For me it was good, since the student who had the better grade was a studious one. But the teacher called out to me in Spanish: “Lazy little Spanish girl!” I thought, “Lazy, maybe. But Spanish? What am I? Spanish? Catalan? French?”

You know how the first years of life are essential in the evolution of a child? A few years later, in adolescence when I aspired at independence like any youngster, without realizing it I made the choice of a dual protection-possession relationship like the one maintained in early childhood with my mother. I had been a docile girl, I was a docile wife. My mother did not have high regard for me then. During a family meal, she once said "You are too molassonne!" I don't know how you're going to translate this into English; It's pejorative, more than "soft", more than "characterless". I think I remember that Dali, in one of his paintings, represented a sort of flowing, shapeless Camembert. Well, that's the representation my mother had of me and threw in my face.

She and my husband tolerated each other, but didn't really value each other. They were too similar. They had the same injuries, that heightened feeling of having been discredited, being the last wheel on the cart. For both, the merest shadow of a criticism, a simple observation, became a crime of lèse-majesté. They were of an infinite generosity which also required an infinite recognition. Paradoxically, in view of this generosity, they were both capable of a meanness which left one speechless.

What I wanted in life was to build something. Something solid, lasting. I did what I had to do and since my husband wanted the same thing, we went through the years, chugging along, like many couples, but still united. My husband was a modest man. He never said "I love you". I would have liked it but it was not in his culture.

One day, one of his nephews came to visit us in Granges-sur-Lot with his wife. As we were having coffee, the young woman asked my husband how we had met. He paused and said, "We have loved each other sincerely." That was everything. When I think back to his answer, even today I am overcome.

My father sometimes called my mother "Lena." Isn't that the moon? And if my father had chosen this woman for his life companion, my choice of the lunar (not to say the lunatic that he was sometimes!) could only be right.

Today's news shows migrants en masse. Things have barely changed, or perhaps changed for the worse.

It took years to conceive of the complexity of beings and take note of my own identity. The ten or fifteen years I spent in the kitchen at Granges-sur-lot, filled with cigarette smoke, collecting my father's words, typing on the machine, making corrections the next day, and compiling his book, was a great enrichment to me. It led me to reflect on the impact of the Spanish Civil War.

It is obvious that the war and our exile had an impact on the course of my life. It all comes from there. I believe we were very lucky. In 1940, after all the floods of ‘39, we journeyed inland, less exposed than on the coast. Apart from the bastard smuggler who planted us in the middle of the mountain after having collected the price of the passage, we were lucky to find good people: that shepherd and his nephew; the hotel keeper who hid us; even the gendarmes. Don't tell me that the gendarmes didn't know what was going on in the village and that by recommending this hotel to us, they didn't give us a chance to save ourselves? And the Prefect of Lozère. Do you know many Prefects who might issue a laissez-passer attesting to false information?

You will say that the conditions were special, that it was war and resistance. It's true. And the Balvets, and the Chaurands, and so many others... To all of them, I am grateful, as I am for that night, haloed by an extraordinary and magical moon which led me to my father. Quite a symbol. Yes, we were very lucky.

Today's news shows migrants en masse. Things have barely changed, or perhaps changed for the worse. The traffickers are the same. For them, all that matters is profit. They don't care about those embroiled in this tragedy. You don't leave your land, your parents, your friends for pleasure. We flee from war, abuses, misery, famine. We leave in hope of a better world. It is a question of survival, and sometimes on arrival we find death when we do not find inhuman conditions.

Exile is a road strewn with pitfalls. I do not know what our destiny is: who pulls the strings of us puppets or how far our freedom goes. But that would take us to other pages.

It’s a good afternoon. We have some sun, but the air is chilly. If possible, I would like to wait until the end of October to turn on the heating. Everything is electric at home. On Thursday, I am going to the opening of the exhibition "La Déconniatrie" about François Tosquelles, at the Musée des Abattoirs in Toulouse. I will meet there my siblings and many other exhibitors.

Sincerely yours,

Marie-Rose Ourabah

A huge thank you to Marie-Rose for sharing this gripping story and for telling it so beautifully. Her book, À l'Ombre des Poiriers, a history of the Tosquelles family, is available in French here. For stories of contemporary asylum seekers, please read my friend Ajay Makan's substack newsletter, Lisbon in Colour.

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Marie Rose’s story is both frightening and compelling. How does one remain un injured through an experience like that? She sounds so strong. She does not mention hate, just fear, which makes it powerful. Generations were affected, both young and old, most of whom have passed away by now, but I still feel an overwhelming shift that brought me to the place I am in now! Nobody ever talked about the ‘war’ the ‘change’ the ‘difference’, but I couldn’t push it away. It dominated my nights with horrible nightmares where I was always being chased, caught, chosen for punishment. Even now it’s something I want to erase but can’t. I am stuck with that knowledge of being different and of…

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