‘Relationships are like flowers — if you don’t tend to them, they will die’

An unexpected romance has taken one couple from Iraqi Kurdistan to a new life in Dublin

Photography for Hyphen by Kate Ormond O’Neill
Photography for Hyphen by Kate Ormond O’Neill

Goran Jawdat, 29 first laid eyes on Ala’a Omer, 30, when she was 18 years old. Both were working together, painting over graffiti at their high school in the city of Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan. They grew to be close friends over the years — volunteering to repair and repaint schools damaged by war, build libraries and plant trees —  and studying at university in the same city. However, she never saw him as a potential suitor. 

In 2013, though, Goran asked Ala’a to marry him. In a series of 13 text messages, he told her how his feelings for her had developed over the years and that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Ala’a told him that she needed time to think. She had not imagined him as a husband and knew she had an important decision to make. 

One year later, she said yes. When they officially got engaged and introduced their parents, they learned that their mothers had been best friends in school, but had lost touch. At that moment, both Ala’a and Goran knew that it was meant to be. In 2014 they were married in Sulimaniyah.

Since then, the couple have covered a lot of ground. In 2016, they both got scholarships to continue their studies in Istanbul, and in 2018, Ala’a’s job as a software engineer took them to Dublin, where they now live with their two children, Adam and Aaron.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Ala’a: My rule with guys was always that I could talk about any subject, but that there would be no flirtation. I was just friends with Goran and even though I’m only a year older than him, I never imagined being married to a younger person. We were close because we had travelled together and done all of this volunteer work together, but he wasn’t on the list of people I saw myself with. Then he was sending me all of these messages in a row and I was like, “-what is going on?”

I told Goran he had to give me some time. I made a list in my notebook of all of the good things I knew about him, and all of the bad things, and whether or not I could accept him for who he is. We knew each other on a deep level, but because there wasn’t love in the beginning, I wasn’t blinded by it and could really think about what he would be like as a partner and add the romance afterwards. I’m sure this doesn’t work for everyone, but it worked perfectly for us.

Eventually, I said yes and he went to make it official by visiting my parents’ house in Sulaymaniyah and asking for my hand. At that moment, we found out that our mothers had been best friends when they were in school, but were separated when they had to flee Saddam Hussein’s attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988. They hadn’t seen each other since then. It was so nice that they were able to reconnect and grow closer because of us. 

When I moved to Istanbul to study, I experienced a lot of racism. I speak Turkish, so I could understand what people were saying behind my back. I couldn’t say I was from Kurdistan. Instead, I had to say I was Kurdish. After doing that for two years, you just feel like you’re hiding yourself — like you’re not yourself any more. 

I was destroyed when I came to Ireland and just broke down. I had a period of time where I couldn’t leave the house. Goran would clothe me and take me down to the street so I could walk for half an hour. I couldn’t do it without his support. Having a child also made a big difference. As soon as I was pregnant, I was positive. I love being a mum. I love experiencing these small moments as a family. 

I feel like Goran and I have grown so much as human beings, taking different parts of cultures that we like and incorporating them into our lives. For me, the number one thing in a relationship is patience. Goran is his own person and nothing outside will affect him. I am the kind of person who is affected deeply by external things. I get sad and I get happy, but he is so patient and he doesn’t get angry with me.

Goran: We had a tough time living in Turkey, especially because we are Kurds. In Ireland, I’ve never felt that at all. Besides, Irish history aligns very well with Kurdish history — people here were conquered by the British and separated and had to fight for their independence.

Every time I think about different cultures, I try to hold onto the things that I believe are positive and leave behind everything that is doing harm. I see that as my contribution to making things better. 

The first things that come to mind are family values. I want to pass them onto my children. I want them to have a strong relationship with their relatives, because that isn’t something I really see in the western world, but I don’t want to tell them that they have to be engineers or doctors, or whatever. 

I think that, once you get used to western culture, it transforms your vision of your own culture. When you go back home, you’re not the same person. You kind of see yourself as a stranger in your own country. You also don’t see yourself as 100% like people in the west, so you’re in this limbo in between.

I’ve learned a lot from Ala’a. We’ve been together for almost nine years. One big thing I’ve learned is critical thinking, because she is always questioning things. She never says “yes” right away.

I think relationships are something that you have to take care of on a daily basis. They’re like a flower: if you don’t water it, it will die. I don’t believe in forever love or these dramatic things. You have to really take care of love every day. If you don’t, it is very possible to lose it, even if it was very passionate in the beginning. I’ve seen real-life examples of that. 

Ala’a and I are very different in the way we think and the way we live and interact with people, but the things that have kept us together are the understanding and the continuous communication that we share. I don’t think you have to be 100% like each other to get married. You just have to be able to communicate.

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