‘My father was embraced with open arms by the Maltese – if that hadn’t been the case, I wouldn’t exist’

Fresh off a workshop involving various young migrants organised by human rights organisation aditus, half-Maltese, half-Syrian social worker Omar Rababah speaks to Teodor Reljic about growing up in ‘two worlds’, and how it motivated him to advocate for the integration of all migrants

Omar Rababah
Omar Rababah

My last news feature for this paper parsed through an academic paper on the vulgar, though evergreen, term ‘ghala bieb zobbi’. Naturally, the expression was repeated and dissected many times throughout the article, understandably prompting a varied reaction from readers, with some laughing along as expected while others – also somewhat predictably – clutched at their proverbial pearls in surprise and indignation that a national newspaper would stoop so low as to employ such rude language in print. 

But the one comment that really got to me, in the sense that it literally made me a bit sad, was one that picked on my name to make certain assumptions. 

“I come to the conclusion the author enjoys our swearing words like all foreigners do because they sound good to them,” the comment read. Never mind that I grew up on the island since the tender age of seven. And never mind that the visceral appeal of learning the bad words of a new language – a point I actually bring up in the article – would have been fun to me roughly two or three years after my (admittedly, entirely Serbian) family had landed in Malta. Never mind that we acquired our citizenship, fair and square, after long years of bureaucratic limbo. Never mind all that. 

The decidedly Eastern European name will stick no matter what, and online commentators are not known to really look beyond immediate impact, or to question prejudices and presuppositions. 

Being made to feel like a perennial stranger in your own home is not a new feeling for Omar Rababah either. I meet up with the 25-year-old, half-Syrian, half-Maltese social worker at the University of Malta campus as Fresher’s Week Thursday starts to wind down. Speaking in fluent Maltese as we weave through the now emptied-out promotional tents before settling down on a freshly-vacated wooden bench – Omar was born in Malta – we quickly figure out that there’s quite a bit we share, in terms of our experience of living in ‘two worlds’ at the same time. 

“I am Maltese. And I am also Syrian. I will describe myself in this way when I’m in Malta, and I will describe myself as such whenever I visit Syria too,” he tells me in an assured tone. In fact, it almost sounds like a mantra. He’s thought about this before. He’s probably thought about this over and over again. As someone always forced to contextualise his national identity while their peers took it for granted, he’s had no choice but to do so.

A pro-active member of the Maltese Syrian community – his father arrived in Malta in 1988 where he met Omar’s (Maltese) mother; he has four sisters – Omar is a pin-sharp advocate for intercultural understanding among the various migrant communities on the Maltese islands. It’s not too hard to see why his own unique background would make him the ideal ‘mediator’ between the Syrian and Maltese populations on the island. And judging by his articulate dissection of the issues at hand, it’s a role he takes to with relish. 

In fact, the reason I’m meeting him in the first place has to do with his participation in ‘Youth, Not Status’ – a workshop organised by the human rights NGO aditus held over the last weekend and which invited young migrants from various communities to share their experiences while attempting to find pro-active ways around troubling facts of migrant life: among them the instant criminalization of migrants upon entry to the island. 

“It’s something that really strikes me, because I think of my father arriving here back in 1988,” Omar tells me, once again recounting a story that he’s clearly processed many times over. “I am thankful that he was embraced with open arms by the Maltese at the time – he started working at the Golden Harvest bakery, actually! – and if that hadn’t been the case, I would not exist. And this is what motivates me to give back to the society as much as I can, and to make sure that other migrants in the same situation are given the chance to integrate.” 

But integration can be a complex, if not thorny, subject. I ask Omar what this loaded term really means to him.

“For me, it boils down to respecting an individual’s rights. But then, that individual also needs to accept that they cannot impose their rights on anyone else. For example, I can strongly believe that Arabic coffee is the best coffee in the world. But if you think that Brazilian coffee is in fact the best, it’s not up to me to convince you otherwise.” 

Omar then supplements this with a more serious example that cleaves more closely to his personal experience. “If I want to go to the mosque on Friday, leave me be; let me go to the mosque then go back home in peace. Just like I would never question anyone who goes to mass on a Sunday...” 

Unsurprisingly, religion has always played a big part in Omar’s formative years; and continues to do so in many ways. Raised in the Muslim faith – a mutual decision by his parents – Omar had to grow a thick skin during his schooldays. 

“My parents couldn’t afford to send me to the Maryam al-Batool school,” Omar tells me, potentially lifting the lid on an interesting class distinction among Maltese Muslims, “so they decided to send me to government school instead, while my father continued to instill the Muslim values in me at home”. 

The school in question was St Paul’s Bay Primary – now famous for being among the most multicultural schools on the island. However, that wasn’t the case in Omar’s day. 

“Back then, the only ‘minority religion kids’ were two other classmates of mine – a Jehovah’s Witness boy and a Russian Orthodox girl... then there was myself.”

I can’t help but find this image endearing: a trio of outsiders from entirely different cultures, brought together by circumstance and pitted against a world that barely understands them. But outsider chic was certainly not the forefront of Omar’s mind while growing up in such an environment. After all, the surname – ‘Rababah’ being as loud a tell tale as ‘Reljic’ – is already a strong enough tell to get prejudices up and running. 

“They would ask where I’m from. And then it would start. ‘Your father married your mother just to get citizenship’. ‘You’re going to marry four wives’. ‘You Arabs don’t wash’... and I was always labelled as ‘the Arab’ – as if that’s something to be ashamed of.”

With a wry smile, he adds, “You know what I always used to tell my mother? Thank God I was born white! If my complexion were any darker, things would have been a lot worse...” 

Omar is not ashamed to admit that this situation led to something of an ‘identity crisis’ when he was growing up. But he managed to get through it thanks to the values instilled in him by his family. “Which, incidentally, are not the values portrayed by the media,” he is quick to add. In fact – and true to the nature of his dual nationality – Omar puts his Muslim faith in a specific context. 

“The values I really appreciate have to do with simple things... like going up to your parents to greet them when you’re at home. That sense of respect is something which stuck with me. But then, I don’t agree with the stoning of homosexuals, for example, or with equating homosexuality with mental illness... I cannot condone that in any way, shape or form. And even if I did, I have to come face-to-face with the fact that I’m living in Malta, and that Malta follows certain values. Again, that’s what integration truly is...”

As a counterpoint, he brings up a common rebuttal. “Sometimes people tell me, ‘Well, in Saudi Arabia if you say you’re Christian you’ll be persecuted’. This is true, but I don’t like to look at countries that are worse than us in terms of human rights. I like to look up to those who are better. So I don’t look at Saudi Arabia. I look at Norway. I look at Sweden.” 

For Omar, the work ahead lies with ensuring that more people meet up with migrants at a regular basis. He mourns the fallout of the recent ‘protest march’ in Marsa, asking, “Did any of the mayors or councillors who had originally planned to go on that march visit shops and bars run by Africans, Syrians or other migrants? Did they speak to them, to maybe try to understand why some individuals within their communities are acting in problematic ways?” 

Whatever the case, Omar strongly believes that racism should not be a short-cut reaction – much less a solution – to anything. And in line with his proudly-adopted mixed heritage, he succinctly articulates the absurdity of Maltese racism.

“We are the result of so much intermixing. Even our language is a complete melting pot. So how can you even think about uttering racist remarks while using a language so imbued with the influence of different races?”