Italy: Second generation immigrants wait for passports

The reform of Italy’s citizenship laws has caused hunger strikes, anti-racism protests and huge debates across the country. Today, one million people born on Italian soil fail to be recognised as Italian. For two years, they have been waiting for a law blocked in the Senate, and their struggle to be recognised as an italiano vero is all too real.

After being bombarded by the press and across television channels, the Italian government finally addressed the issue of reforming Italy‘s citizenship laws. The result was jus soli (a.k.a. birthright citizenship). However, masking over current legislative controversies with this new label means nothing. This new legislation would by no means grant those born on Italian soil the right to citizenship (as is the case in the USA). Instead, the government introduced the term ius soli temperato. This regulation underlines a temporary status, placing a series of incredibly detailed limitations and conditions on the right to obtaining Italian citizenship. This way, Italy won’t risk becoming “the breeding ground for Africans and terrorists,” as was described by certain national tabloid newspapers.

“Italy is a mother that doesn’t want us as children”

The immediate and most significant effect this new law will have – if it does indeed get approved – is that it will improve the lives of around one million people (a number estimated by the Italian statistical body Istat). These people’s legal status as Italian residents will no longer be a topic of debate, but instead become a reality. The issue around so-called second generation Italians (those who are born or grow up in Italy) is that whilst these people feel Italian, on paper they’re not. Above all, the law will bear favorably on those who, at around age 18, would only have been a year away for applying for citizenship. It will favor those who’ve passed through the Italian education system but who still have to wait ten years to start the expensive and exhausting bureaucratic process to obtaining citizenship.

The debate around citizenship arises from fear; fear of the ‘other’, fear of people’s failure to integrate, fear of potential terrorist attacks… At this time in Italy, talk about the danger of racial dominance, easy citizenship and the “Islamisation” of society is out in the open.

To deny the right to citizenship means saying no to people who are legally living in Italy, who are registered, who have a doctor, who go to school and who pay taxes, contributing to the national economy. That’s why, in the many protests that have taken place over the last few months, you can read: “Italy is a mother that doesn’t want us as children,” on many signs. With a lot of effort, some have managed to become officially Italian. But what needs to be done for the one million to get their citizenship, and what are the rights of these young people?

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Protesting Italy’s current laws on the right to citizenship | Giuseppe Marsoner/Più Culture


Blessy and her endless expectations

“My parents were granted citizenship before me,” says Blessy Nambio bitterly. She was born in a hospital in Rome to Filipino parents, who have been in Italy for 30 years. Blessy is 28, speaks with a strong Roman accent, and was finally able to read the word “Italian” on her ID card just three short weeks ago. As a ‘non-resident’ for the first six years of her life, Blessy was unable to apply for citizenship at 18, despite being able to show evidence of going to school and receiving medical vaccinations.

She then had to renew her residence permit for more than ten years, first for family reasons, then for her studies. Having reached the age of 18 and being legally independent, she no longer met the income criteria required to apply for citizenship.

For Blessy, who now teaches Italian, citizenship isn’t what makes you Italian, but it does make a difference. “Paper talks,” she concludes. When she tells her students that she’s an Italian national, they’re not surprised: “Nowadays citizenship doesn’t have an ethnicity,” she explains.

Shehan and hidden racism

Back in 2011, the notion that the Italian citizenship law needed to be reformed had already been brought to light. In Milan people realised that, although the law existed, very few youngsters who had reached the age of 18 were realising their right to citizenship – presumably because they were not aware of it. Milan, like other cities, had overcome the lack of awareness on the issue with a special initiative: send letters to any foreigners turning 18 and remind them that they can apply for citizenship up until their 19th birthday. However, this solution was only introduced in some municipalities and promoted by mayors while the initiative never rolled out across the rest of the country.

Shehan Horawala, born in Milan, remembers the moment that letter arrived at his house. As a child, his classmates saw him as ‘foreign’ because of the colour of his skin. “People still think that you need to be white to be Italian, that you have to have certain physical features,” he says. The defeat of the State in the face of second generation Italians without a legal status is evident from Shehan’s words: “I have never felt so foreign in my country than when I was forced to queue up at the police station, along with my mother, to renew my residency permit.”

No one who has experienced waiting in line for hours at a time in the cold to be granted your turn to hand in documents, and have your fingerprint taken as a child, would say that it was a dignified and pleasant experience as an adult.

Now 28 years old, Shehan is a financial broker in the city where he was born and raised. He took his first trip around Europe at age 18 and for him, being Italian means “first of all having the opportunity to move and travel freely.” He’ll be moving to London in the hopes of continuing his career in the heart of the financial world. Perhaps, without the right information, Shehan would never have become an Italian Citizen.

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Protesting Italy’s current laws on the right to citizenship | Giuseppe Marsoner/Più Culture

Cristina and European barriers 

Like Shehan, Cristina also considers being able to travel freely one of a range of rights granted to Italian citizens.

Like Shehan, Cristina also considers being able to travel freely one of the fundamental rights granted to Italian citizens. Cristina Mallak was born in Italy but her parents are of Egyptian origins. Her father came to this side of the Mediterranean to escape the persecution of the Coptic Christians, leaving behind his degree in economics. After being granted Italian citizenship, he passed his citizenship on to his daughter. In 2007, when Cristina was in her last year of middle school, she played the Italian national anthem as her father took his solemn oath to the Italian Republic.

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Protesting Italy’s current laws on the right to citizenship | Giuseppe Marsoner/Più Culture

“Maybe not having citizenship would have stopped me from being able to travel around Europe and gain work experience as part of my studies,” says Cristina. Culture and education are two factors highlighted by this bill. In the case of second-generation migrants, Italy relishes in its schools of excellence but doesn’t safeguard the future (and present) of its country and people.

In her final years of high school, Cristina was rewarded by her region for excellent school results and has since continued her studies, graduating in international communication. She recently finished a year of civil service, which was previously off-limits to those without Italian citizenship. It’s thanks to a petition launched by four second-generation Italians, along with the ASGI (The Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration), that now even “Italians without citizenship” can undertake a civil service.

Blessy, Shehan and Cristina feel “fortunate” to have obtained Italian citizenship. However, to support all of the others who are still waiting in limbo for a passport, all three of them joined the protests in the piazza along with thousands of others to carry on daily battles and open new roads for the children of immigrants; ghosts not recognised by their own state.

Credits and acknowledgements

Author: Nadeesha Dilshani Uyangoda (translated by Elizabeth Arif-Fear), first featured via Café Babel (17/10/2017) (c)

Images: Giuseppe Marsoner/Più Culture (c)

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Four facts about refugees the media ISN’T telling you…

There’s a lot of talk of refugees in the media at present but rather than presenting facts, what the tabloids present is predominantly anti-refugee rhetoricscaremongering and racist/Islamophobic discourse. As a result, many people are worried about the effect of refugees on their local communities and on a wider international scale.

The following statements represent typical “concerns” of certain sections of British/European society fed by the media:

“They’re claiming thousands of pounds of benefits.”

“It’s safe back home for them.”

“It’s just single young men coming over, never any women or kids.”

“We can’t possibly take anymore – why can’t any other countries take them?”

Sound familiar? Well, here’s four myths the media likes to peddle and the real truth that they’re not telling you:

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Speaks volumes doesn’t it! So, next time someone thinks they’ve got their facts right: set them straight! Embrace diversity, protect human rights and welcome your global brothers and sisters! 🙂

Statistics: UNHCR, The Refugee Council (2015)

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Desperation in Dunkirk: French Jungle diaries (part 2)

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Photo: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

In an earlier blog blog piece, I featured a personal account of an aid trip run by Stafford Welcomes Refugees to “The Jungle” in Calais prior to its closure. Following utter chaos, the camp was later cleared. However help is still crucially needed across northern France. Whilst some refugees from Calais seek makeshift refuge in temporary new homes in other areas of France, more specifically in Dunkirk there lie many refugees in the official Grande-Synthe refugee camp, as well as those sleeping in ditches without shelter. Prior to the closure of the Jungle there were – and still are – many refugees in Dunkirk. Here volunteers have long been striving to help refugees in this lesser known area where conditions are harsh, numbers of children are high and various unaccompanied minors lie in wait and desperation to be reunited with their families. Aid is still crucial.

Dunkirk – refugees in desperation

The Grande-Synthe refugee camp – La Linère – located just outside Dunkirk, has received far less press than “The Jungle in Calais”. However, don’t let that fool you. Make no mistake: things are desperate. In fact, conditions in Dunkirk were previously cited as “far worse” than in the Jungle back in 2015, although things have since improved. In March 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières set up the camp on the site of the former illegal Dunkirk “Jungle” where conditions were so dire, volunteers found themselves setting up tents in muddy rat infested areas next to human excrement. Wooden huts have since been set up and unlike The Calais, Jungle this is now an officially recognised camp – but is however not run by the government. At present, there are 1000 people living in the camp, including babies, many children and 150 families. Based on figures from November (2016), there are 106 unaccompanied minors at the camp with family in the UK. Inside the camp, there is no electricity and refugees face the winter cold living in these wooden sheds. The media focus on France may have died down but the crisis is ongoing and aid is still essential.

Following the aid trip to Calais by local refugee organisation Stafford Welcomes Refugees, members of Stafford’s local Muslim community – Stafford Muslim Community Centre (SMCC) – headed back to France after the official closure of The Jungle in Calais to lend a helping hand. They met the wonderful Sofinee  of Kitchen in Calais from the last trip and found themselves instead directed to Dunkirk. Take a look into their trip, helping out our refugee brothers and sisters across the Channel.

Our Trip to Calais & Dunkirk (Yacoob, Bilal and Sulayman) 29th October 2016

This journey began with donations coming in a few weeks before our trip to Calais and Dunkirk. I had been in touch with the formidable Sofinee, a lady who has been at the heart of the Kitchen in Calais, and had adhered to the list of times she requested we took down. […] Friday evening arrived, our dear brother from Stoke-on-Trent, and experienced driver, Bilal, arrived […] with a big silver van. Several of us started filling up the van and whilst doing it, noticed a puncture in one of the tyres. We managed to pump air into it, however, a few hours later, it was flat again!! The entire van was emptied and the tyre replaced and this gave us peace of mind that we were good to go!

Alarm rang at 3am, a quick coffee and cooler bag in hand, my son Sulayman, 16, and I jumped into the van as Bilal had come to fetch us. It was 4am and we were already on the motorway. Almost two hours on the road, we needed to stop at the services near Beaconsfield for a break and morning prayer. Half an hour later, we were back on the road and fast approaching Dover. The glimpses of the white cliffs and seagulls approaching were an exhilarating sight and it was then the thought and realisation of this journey was fast becoming a reality…

We went through customs and parked the van up in the allocated bay and went up into the ferry for the duration of the journey. The grey skies dominated the rest of the journey until we reached Calais where glimpses of sunshine were caught. Once we disembarked from the ferry, within half an hour, we had reached our first destination, Calais. Here we were to meet Sofinee at the warehouse.

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Warehouse in Calais (top right), Dunkirk (bottom left/right)

We introduced ourselves and it was then that Sofinee figured that we were part of the famous Chris from Stafford’s circle of Helping Hands. Sofinee said that due the Calais jungle being razed to the ground just that week, unfortunately, they could accept only one trolley. They suggested that the rest of the contents of the van could be donated at Dunkirk. After a few phone calls arranging our visit there, we set off for Dunkirk.

Approximately an hour later we arrived in Dunkirk. With police visibly present in full force and a few police checks later, we entered the heavily-fenced kitchen area. There was a clear distinction that the kitchen was off-limits to the refugees. As we parked up, we were met by a lovely team of Irish volunteers who had given up their time to support the cause of the refugees. When we opened up the door of the van and the volunteers saw what we had, they were in awe and overwhelming appreciation followed.

As we offloaded the donations and settled for a chat with the volunteers, we learned that the demographic make-up was interesting. Afghan, Kurdish, Iranian, were among the refugees that lived in this camp. There was an interesting combination of the languages spoken and the diversity was clear.

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With the volunteers in Dunkirk

Being mindful of the time, we had to wrap up our visit to Dunkirk by asking what they really needed. Oranges, yes oranges, was on the list! Hopefully next time. […] So, as we left and drove past this sad cold place, I hoped and prayed that these refugees’ plight would be alleviated in some way. […] Having seen some of life’s harsh realities, the smells and sights of this day was to be etched in our minds for a long time. […] Praise be to God, for having made this journey happen. Our job was done this time and more aid will be undertaken in the future, God willing!

Yacoob Patel (Director- SMCC)

Get involved:

So what can be done to help refugees in both Dunkirk and Calais? Here’s a few pointers:

  • Donate: food, clothing, toiletries are all needed. Check out: Help Refugees and Kitchen in Calais
  • Volunteer: if you can spare the time and have the funds, head over to France. Find out more here and here
  • Sign the UNICEF petition to reunite refugee children with their families in the UK
  • Get active on social media: blog, post, Tweet to raise awareness and help reunite separate families and give crucial refuge to these vulnerable refugees.

Credits and acknowledgments:

Text and images: Stafford Muslim Community Centre (SMCC)

A huge well done to all of you who supported and took part in the SMCC trip – God bless.

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Refugees are welcome here: French Jungle diaries (part 1)

On 26th October 2016, the Calais “Jungle” was officially cleared. Yet this didn’t mark the end of the “crisis”. The site may have been shut down but the problems haven’t gone away. Whilst the UK government transferred some young refugees to the UK, many remain cut off from their families in the UK. Other refugees were at the time taken to reception centres across France. Weeks later reports emerged of refugee children who had been taken to reception centres being forced to work on fruit farms and share accommodation with adults. This may seem shocking but the tragic conditions and neglect these children face is an ongoing nightmare following the days and months spent in the squalid jungle by adult and child refugees alike from across the world subsequent to the tragic journeys they took to reach French soil. Here, the only help these vulnerable refugees received was from small scale volunteer groups. No government body or international aid agency was present. Here is the account of Chris Plant – one member of the group Stafford Welcome Refugees (UK) – who along with Paul and Mohamed drove down to Calais themselves in September 2016 to deliver crucial aid gathered by members of the Stafford community prior to the closure of the camp.

When the current refugee crisis flared up, a group of locals in Stafford decided to organise a shipment of aid to the refugees living in squalid conditions in unregulated camps outside the port of Calais. After several weeks of careful preparation, we were finally ready. Three of us shared the driving and had a fairly uneventful drive to Dover. Once you reach Dover though, you become aware that things aren’t as they used to be. Agencies who are normally quite uninterested in your activities were keeping a close eye on those wishing to travel across the Channel. Although all the officials were polite and courteous, it was clear that they were taking note of all traffic in connection to refugees.

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Essential aid items: blankets, tinned and dried foods, fresh fruit and vegetables, scarves and clothes for Muslim women

On arrival at Calais, the first visual impact was made by literally miles of high fencing topped by razor wire. It was bleak and rather surreal. I couldn’t help but imagine that somehow I had strayed into a 1984 Orwellian world – it was all very depressing… My spirits were lifted considerably on our arrival at a large warehouse manned by a truly inspiring group  of young volunteers. They represented just about the best of humanity. They were a multinational group of volunteers from diverse cultures and ethnicities all driven by a shared need to alleviate the suffering of our fellow humans and to demonstrate through real action that decency had not destroyed by the obscenity of corrupt power politics. We proceeded to unload all of the tried and tinned foodstuffs, keeping the rather large quantity of fresh fruit and vegetables for another rather extraordinary enterprise right in the heart of The Jungle. After leaving the warehouse where everything was fairly organised, a few short miles later we came to a very different world. If you didn’t know that you were on the coast of one of the wealthiest most developed presumably “civilised lands” in the world, you could easily imagine that we’d strayed into a shanty town in a developing country. This is not the France that people normally imagine!

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Inside the warehouse – volunteers at work!

Having reached the warehouse just outside the camp, we headed onwards towards The Jungle itself. Upon arrival we were stopped at the entrance by the French CRS police who questioned us about our reasons for coming. After carefully checking the contents of our van they allowed us to proceed. They were coldly efficient throughout our brief encounter. We drove on through… The Jungle was huge. We had to wait for a guide to direct us to our final destination and after a while a cheerful young man or Middle Eastern origin joined us and escorted us through a maze of muddy garbage strewn alleys to our destination – which was truly remarkable.

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Activities in the Jungle and living conditions…

We were then taken to meet Sofinee in the heart of the Jungle. Now, Sofinee is one of those rare individuals whom fate throws your way at time of genuine crisis. A small little Malaysian lady wearing a niqab with only her expressive eyes visible, she radiated personality, energy and unquenchable optimism. She was the life force around which her world revolved. That world was the Kitchen in Calais – a truly inspiring enterprise which she and her husband had created here in the midst of squalor and degradation. Sofinee and her husband had originally journeyed from their home in Durham in the north of England to see the conditions in the Jungle for themselves. Being utterly appalled by the what they found, they decided there and then that they were going to make a difference. From literally nothing, they constructed a kitchen producing hundreds of hot properly cooked meals for those living in the camp. They relied entirely on voluntary donations for supplies, which had never yet let them down.

Fresh fruit and vegetables in toe, alongside scarves and clothes for Muslim women who wanted to retain their sense of modesty, we were chuffed that Sofinee was delighted with our donations, especially with our van load of fresh fruit and vegetables which we had brought the previous night. So, it was with some satisfaction that we bade farewell to our many new friends in Calais, leaving with renewed commitment to be active members of the world wide movement to counter the tidal wave of bigotry, racism and oppression which currently afflicts our world.

Christopher Plant (Stafford Van Aid – Stafford Welcomes Refugees)

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Sofinee and Chris

Stay tuned for part two when Staffordians later return to Calais after the “closure” of the camp and later head over to Dunkirk – another tragic but less well known site where aid groups are working hard to give these vulnerable people a helping hand in their struggle to survive and find hope, security and peace.

Credits and acknowledgements:

Text written by Christopher Plant (Stafford Van Aid – Stafford Welcomes Refugees) (additions and edits: Elizabeth Arif-Fear)

Photography: Paul Jacks, Christopher Plant and Elizabeth Arif-Fear (Stafford Van Aid, Stafford Welcomes Refugees)

Huge thanks to Chris, Paul, Mohamed, members of Stafford Welcomes Refugees and the people of Stafford for all their generous donations, time and efforts which helped to make the trip such a success. To Sofinee, her husband and all the volunteers at Kitchen in Calais, the warehouse and inside The Jungle: fabulous work! God bless!

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‘In Our World, You’re Either Born With the Right Passport or Not’

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A few weeks ago, French President François Hollande announced the “Calais Jungle” refugee camp would be dismantled, leaving thousands of destitute refugees, including unaccompanied minors, in northern France with nowhere to go. Although many have since been able to submit an asylum claim, it still remains that for months on end these refugees from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea relied on the help of small-scale NGOs and the public, with no assistance from the French government.

Amélie Jacques, a famous French blogger who grew up in Paris and Rome, has lived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and now resides in Soweto, South Africa. Following the tense situation with refugees in Calais, in a short essay on her blog “Ubuntu” she voiced her concerns about the French government’s harsh policies limiting refugees’ entrance into the country. She also contrasted how easy it is for her to travel with a French passport with how difficult it is for people from other countries: 

No matter whether they’re refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, if they’re fleeing war, persecution, or simply looking for a better future … all migrants should be able to come to France and to elsewhere in Europe. There’s no moral reasoning not to allow people to come and live in another country.

My country refuses visa and asylum claims submitted by men, women, and families who come in search of peace, work, and so on, yet nobody’s ever stopped me from crossing the border to go on a family holiday, to study abroad, or even to work. Each time I travel, there are a few formalities — a bit of paperwork, exchanging or paying a few euros, and last of all getting a vaccination — and then it’s off and away! I’ve been able to come and stay for several weeks — up to several years — in England, the United States, Italy, Burkina Faso, Iran, and now South Africa…

What’s this prejudice and inequality based on? French people are no more worthy of rights than other men and women. More than rights, these are privileges. What’s more, such privileges are based on where you’re born because in our world, you’re either born with the right passport or not. Such inequality of rights is devoid of all morality. We either take a step down on the ladder of privilege and confine each person to the country where they were born, or we allow every human being the right to migrate and move out of their own land.

France has long been a nation of immigration with debates surrounding assimilation and secular identity, in particular concerning migrants from former colonial nations such the Maghreb region of Algeria, Morocco and North Africa. However, in the light of the recent refugee crisis, France’s response has been rather poor, unlike its European neighbour Germany.

The French government originally committed to welcoming refugees from Syria, but in practice is not a main recipient of refugees from Syria. The UK and France have in fact been locked in a battle of wills in an attempt to pass off responsibility for welcoming refugees. France maintains that these refugees want to reach the UK, whilst the UK government neither wants to fully open its doors.

As a whole, Europe remains divided on the issue of resettling refugees from war-torn countries, and some members of the European Union continue to express hostility to the idea.

Credits:

This article was first published via Global Voices (08/11/2016)

Images: Kevin Walsh, feature image – CC BY-SA 4.0

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Welcoming child refugees means listening to them

img_20160917_125813The plight of child refugees in Europe has been an ongoing issue, in particular since the Syrian crisis spiked in the last few years. Last spring, following pressure from civil society and charitable organisations, politicians voted on the Dubs Amendment, announcing it would be accepting 3,000 child refugees from overseas. Just a few weeks ago, according to figures from Safe Passage UK, there were over 1,000 unaccompanied child refugees living in makeshift refugee camps across the Channel in northern France, including the infamous “Jungle” in Calais – aptly named due to the unregulated mass of makeshift tents and complete lack of regulation, assistance from international aid organisations, sanitation facilities or infrastructure.

Here, thousands of refugees fleeing war, poverty and human rights abuses from all over the world including Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria lay in wait to start a new life. In the Jungle in particular, there were around 387 children legally entitled to come to the UK under the Dublin Convention due to the UK residency of their family members. Some tried to start their own journeys to their families – including a 14 year old boy from Afghanistan who this September was killed on a French motorway whilst trying to reach the UK.

Until this point, the only progress being made was for those children referred on the Safe Passage UK programme, a project set up by the organisation Citizens UK to establish safe legal routes to the UK for unaccompanied child refugees and vulnerable adults in Europe. However, after announcing it would be building a wall to block access from across the channel, the UK government responded to the French government’s decision to dismantle the camp in Calais by beginning to process the safe transfer of unaccompanied minors with families in the UK. This could not have come at a more crucial time. These children could simply have disappeared off the radar. According to Europol, there are already over 10,000 “disappeared” refugee children within Europe. The risks these children face are devastating, as they remain vulnerable to such human rights abuses as child labour, sexual exploitation (rape, child marriage, prostitution) and both radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations offering both economic sustenance and a sense of belonging. In light of this, on the 16th October, the first group of children were transferred to the UK. According to Citizens UK, 200 children have now arrived. However, this represents just a small percentage of the children seeking refuge in both France and across Europe. Following the official clearance of the Jungle on 26th October, there were a reported 1,500 unaccompanied child refugees left in the area where the camp once stood, resulting in a subsequent process led by the French authorities to transfer these children out of the area. In such context, it is more essential than ever that adequate preparation and procedures are put in place to both bring and welcome refugee children.

Here in the UK, where these children begin the long process of re-building their lives, we need to guarantee that we do our best to ensure their well-being and social inclusion so they can lead happy, healthy lives in all senses: socially, economically, culturally, emotionally, and physiologically. Ensuring these children’s wellbeing involves more than providing refuge in a safe space, protected from the physical harm of active conflict. It is fundamental that children are safeguarded against all types of harm, including the risk of trafficking and radicalisation.

Above all, to successfully safeguard this vulnerable group of children and help them integrate into British society we must listen to their stories, their views, their opinions and their needs – first of all as children and secondly as refugees.

Child to Child – participation and safeguarding

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Hearing All Voices – Child to Child (London)

As one of the leading international NGOs on children’s participation, Child to Child believes in teaching essential skills and providing safe, inclusive spaces to enable children to give their views, voice their needs, and fully participate within society as active, engaged citizens. Since 2011, Child to Child has been running its project Hearing All Voices in London, working with disadvantaged young people in secondary schools and FE colleges and teaching staff to create an environment where students are listened to, taken seriously and supported to take social action. This project has been immensely successful in terms of both staff and student outcomes. The tools and outcomes of this project – testimony to the value and need for child participation – are something we can build on.

UK government policy, including education, health and social care needs to ensure that refugee children have the means to participate, in order to be safeguarded from harm. If we are to ensure that child refugees lead happy, healthy, integrated lives in which both the traumatic experiences of the past are addressed and their cultural, religious and social identities can also flourish, then let us learn from them rather than excluding them from decision-making processes. If we truly want to welcome this group of vulnerable children and guarantee their wellbeing, then let them participate and let us listen.

Credits:

This article was first published by Child to Child on 02/11/2016 (c)

Feature image copyright: Max Bryan (2016) (c)

Additional blog imagery: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

Mapping out Europe: The “ban the burqa” debate rages on

niqab-2Governments across Europe are talking about the “burqa” once again [in other words: banning Islamic face veils such as the niqab and burqa]. Although very few countries have officially banned the burqa in public places, many are starting to discuss taking this step in the future. […] The debate is heating up across Europe.

It’s become inescapable. Not a week passes by in Europe when Islam generally, and Muslims more specifically, are not dissected in the media or discussed in government chambers. One day it’s the strange Slovakian Prime Minister who feels he must  “protect his people” from Muslims. Another day, it’s the abominable Geert Wilders who wants to implement an outright “ban on the Quran” in the Netherlands. Now in France, a shocking report from the Institut Montaigne entitled “A French Islam is possible“, has sparked further tension.

While there is no case law on lip service, the ongoing European debate about Islam and those who practice it has centred in on one tiny piece of the puzzle: a piece of fabric called the niqab, the burka or the full-face veil. It has managed to inflame public opinion each year and has now entered into the legal arsenal of certain member states of the EU. Proof of this has been the unending debate about the “burkini” in France this summer. More recently, a YouGov poll in the UK showed that 57% of Brits interviewed were in favour of the burqa ban. That said, in other European countries, wearing the veil has never been an issue. So, which countries are hotly debating the burqa and which goverments have gone so far as to pass legislation against the burka?

Source: Café Babel – see original article for full interactive map annotations

In a study of Europeans aged 18-34, Generation What? interviewed half a million young people from 30 different countries. Respondents from 17 different countries said that it “did not shock them” to see “women wearing veils in the street or at work.” As only a small majority of respondents, this leaves us with the possibility that Europe may not necessarily become more tolerant of the burqa in the future.

Credits:

Article written by Matthieu Amaré and translated by Charlotte Walmsley (FR > ENG)

Image credits: Hani Amir (Flickr) (feature image), John Alcorn

This article was first published on  Café Babel (26/09/2016)

Donations needed for Calais!

Stop The War Coalition along with Stand up to Racism, People’s Assembly Against Austerity, War on Want, Unite the Union, Communications Workers Union, Momentum and the Muslim Association of Britain are collecting donations and looking for volunteers for their Convoy to Calais. They are leaving next weekend.

Priority needs include: food (fresh, tinned and dried), men and teenage boys’ clothing, hygiene items and certain women’s items.

A full list is available via the PDF link below:

Convoy Donation List (please also read the sorting guidelines)

Fore more details about the convoy including the timetable and link to register click here. You can also download their leaflet here.

Salam!

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Image credit: Malachy Browne (Flickr)

Who’s crisis is it anyway? #RefugeesWelcome

Before I left Spain, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Louis Imbert hosted by Malaga University, entitled:

Should we speak of a migration crisis?

The focus of the presentation was the “refugee crisis” – the facts and myths behind it and how society and governments both look at and deal with this reality.

The term “crisis” is overtly negative, denoting panic, urgency, difficulty and confusion. What Louis so rightly concluded was that we should look at the so called “refugee crisis” as an opportunity – an opportunity to reflect on and review our attitudes and means of dealing with the needs of refugees. The actual crisis is itself the demonising of refugees, rampant Islamophobia and governments’ shirking of responsibilities, inadequacy, inability and unwillingness to adapt to current realities. Many European governments (some more than others) have created a number of barriers against welcoming refugees in response to the “refugee crisis” but the truth is that despite stories of “the boat people”, “migrants in lorries” etc., leaving one’s own country has become ever more difficult. Immigration and border policies have become more and more restrictive. Anti-migrant and anti-refugee policies and rampant fears of incomers overstaying have made it more difficult for visa applicants to be granted visas and lead to pre-departure border checks on behalf of the country of destination.

The fact is that we are not being “invaded” by refugees but instead anti-migrant, anti-refugee and Islamophobic rhetoric. Behind the misconceptions and lies, the fact is this:

Asylum seekers who registered in 2015 represent 0.26% of the European Union’s total population.

Figures have been blown out of proportion and scaremongering about public services have lead to public skepticism. Whats more, Europe/”The West’s” collective memory seems to have become rather blurred. The reality is that victims of war, persecuted minorities, political prisoners – all types of people feeling their home land to seek refuge – is not a new, recent, phenomenon. Furthermore, the arrival of refugees is not typical of the so-called “West”. The majority of Syrian refugees are in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – not Europe, as many unjustly fear.

We all have the right to food, shelter, health, religious freedom, an education and more – needs, necessities and rights which constitute our basic human rights. Let us remember, we don’t choose where we are born and in any case – we are all citizens and neighbours in one global world. In Christianity for example, a clear teaching is: Love they neighbour. In Islam, we also have a beautiful hadith [saying] which states:

Would you not do the same in their shoes? Such question is quite redundant in any case as – as a refugee – there is no choice: leave or die.

So, check out Louis’ presentation here and keep the message rolling: #RefugeesWelcome

Salam!

Image credit:

Feature image: CAFOD Photo Library (Flickr)

Copenhagen: Islam, identity and integration

More than 10 years after the controversial publication of images of the Prophet Mohammed, and a year after attacks on cartoonist Lars Vilks and a synagogue shook Copenhagen, Danish attitudes to the city’s 300,000 strong Muslim community have changed. We visit youth associations and cultural centres to discuss integration and the fight against radicalisation in a climate of Islamophobia.  

“When the cartoons of Mohammed were published, we noticed a change in the way the Muslim community was viewed by the media and political classes. We’re living in a less tolerant climate due to terrorism, and for some people this climate has become hostile. Some people believe that we’ve even gone backwards by 10 or 20 years in terms of integration.” These are the words of Waseem Rana, one of the directors of Munida – a Muslim youth organisation that promotes the integration of Muslim identity in day-to-day Danish society.

We went to Nørrebro, north of Copenhagen, to explore the old workers’ district. Here, industrial architecture stands side by side with evidence of multiculturalism and gentrification: Middle Eastern shops, modern pubs, skate parks, street art and small design workshops. It’s no coincidence that here you can also find prayer halls and Muslim cultural centres.

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The Shia Imam Ali Mosque in Copenhagen (c) (Tullio Filippone)

Inside Wakf Mosque

Everything’s ready for evening prayers. Waseem is waiting along with other young men at the entrance to Wakf Mosque at the Islamic Society in Denmark. The prayer hall is built inside two large warehouses and hosts around 100 worshippers of all ages. “Munida was set up in the early 2000s by Ahmad Abu Laban,” Waseem (38) tells me. Waseem was born and raised in Copenhagen by his Pakistani parents.

Later disappearing in 2007, Laban was a central figure in the controversy surrounding the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005 by the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten. He not only took part in the Middle Eastern delegations, but was also partly responsible for the “Akkari-Laban dossier” alongside Ahmed Akkari, which denounced the climate of Islamophobia within Danish society and was accompanied by a rise in protests and violence in the area.

“Laban wanted a youth section, so a group of 4 or 5 young people was formed on the side. Today there are 500 of us – 60% of which are women. We’ve members from around 40 nationalities and our activities cover all social aspects relevant to Danish youth.”

This includes not only social and recreational activities but also educational initiatives. “We’re trying to help young Muslims to develop their identity within Danish society. If they have firm faith and are confident about their identity, they’ll become better citizens,” he adds.

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Waseem Rana in Wakf Mosque (c) (Tullio Filippone)

Prayers start and we receive a warm welcome with only a few wary glances. “Unfortunately, for the last three weeks we’ve been living in a climate of suspicion due to a story on a Danish hidden camera show,” Waseem explains. This was an interview on the public channel TV2 with an imam from Grimhøj mosque in Aarhus – an imam in support of stoning women for adultery and the right to kill apostates.

“They chose a radical episode that risks destroying all the progress that’s been made over the years towards integration,” explains Waseem. “After the attacks in Paris andBrussels, my mother and sister were stopped in the supermarket by a man who accused them of being responsible… He was drunk – no doubt about it – but it’s still a sign.”

Reaching out to young radicals before hate preachers do

We stop in the library, which every year hosts thousands of visitors from schools and universities who come to learn about Islam. The person in charge here is Nils, a 24-year-old physics student who converted to Islam when he was 17. “I’m responsible for looking after new converts to Islam. We get together every Monday and we talk about the fundamental basics of the religion,” he explains.

Born and raised in a Christian family, he converted in 2009. “My parents told me that God exists and I believed in it, but then as you get older, you reach a certain age and you start to ask yourself questions. I met some young Muslims at high school and so I discovered the Qur’an and the Prophet Mohammed and after three months I converted.” His family were accepting of his decision, but not without a few jokes: “My mother used to make jokes and ask me when I was going to blow myself up.”

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Inside the library at the Islamic Society in Denmark (c) (Tullio Filippone)

According to a study by The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, since 2011 an estimated 125 foreign jihadi fighters have left Denmark – at least 62 of which have since returned home. In addition, Omar El Hussein, one of the perpetrators of the 15th of February shootings in Copenhagen in 2015, was born and raised in Denmark within a family of Jordanian-Palestinian origin. He was just 22 years old at the time.

“If it weren’t for conflicts in the Middle East, hate preachers would have less of a hold and an impact on young people. Many young jihadis go to Syria convinced that they’re going to fight injustice,” says Waseem. “But fighting injustice doesn’t mean going to fight in Syria. This will destroy them, their cause and the image of Islam. They have to transform negative impulses into positive energy; learning, writing, venting their frustrations. If we don’t speak to them ourselves, extremist preachers could do so instead, and could control them.”

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Minahj al Quran International Denmark (c) (Tullio Filippone)

“Our generation is trying to define Islam within a Danish context”

Right from the very start, such efforts have also included Minahj-ul-Quran International (Denmark) – an NGO founded in 1981 in Pakistan by Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri that promotes tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Hassan Bostan – a 25-year-old lawyer – welcomes us at their centre.

“90% of our members are originally Pakistani, arriving here in the 70s and 80s,” explains Hassan. “We young members who were born and raised here are trying to define Islam within a Danish context as a universal religion that can be practiced in any country and at any time in history – assuming that you can define its role and understand how young Muslims can integrate. For our parents who had just arrived in Denmark it was difficult. We want to move forwards.”

We visit the rest of the building. Heading upstairs we find the prayer rooms, followed by washrooms for performing ablutions and several rooms where children attend classes. Along our way we meet many children. They’re all directed towards the large prayer hall where the imam teaches them how to recite the Qur’an.

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Children recite verses of the Qur’an at Minahj-ul-Quran centre (c) (Tullio Filippone)

“We teach classical Islamic science, meditation and Sufism to free the heart from hatred and negative thoughts and ideas,” Hassan says, an ex-member of the Danish Ethnic Youth Council. But that’s not all: “We work with Jewish and Christian associations and we’ve also taken part as a steering group in a programme set up by the city of Copenhagen aimed at understanding radicalisation and providing political solutions.”

This is something also carried out on a European level with the assistance of RAN (Radicalisation Awareness Network) – a community based programme aimed at preventing radicalisation – and additionally through seminars studying counter-terrorist material including: Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings (Tahir-ul-Qadri) and theIslamic Curriculum on Peace and Counter-Terrorism (Minahj-ul-Quran International, Tahir-ul-Qadri).

The Women’s Mosque

Then there’s the question of women: “Women’s participation is a Pakistani cultural problem outside of the religion itself,” says Hassan. “We have a Women’s League and in all activities – from sporting to recreational activities – men and women are on the same floor of the building.” This is a topic that led to an innovative cultural experiment aimed at integration: a women’s mosque. Known as Mariam, it’s a home for all Muslims, but Friday prayers are only led by fem-imamsfemale imams.

The first female imam was the founder Sherin Khankan, 41 years old, born to a Syrian father and Finnish mother, a columnist and commentator known in Denmark for her publications on Islam and her radical left wing activism. “The debate’s been moving forward since 2011 when we founded the Critical Muslims forum. We wanted to overturn Islam’s patriarchal structure,” Khankan explains. “The Qur’an does not forbid women imams.”

The mosque, which is currently under construction, is based in an apartment in the heart of Copenhagen – mere metres from a street full of tourist souvenir shops. On the 9th of February, as announced by the AFP new agency, the first Islamic marriages and divorces took place here. This was the first step on an ambitious road that is very much focused on educating young people. “We’re centred on tradition but we put this into context in the 21st century,” explains Khankan. “The new generations don’t know their own origins. We want to introduce them to Islamic philosophy and thinkers such as Ibn Arabi who approved of female imams.”

The message has already won over its first group of young Muslims. “They came to a meeting at university and joined our project,” Khakan concludes. “We can act as a point of reference for the new generation.”

Source and credit:

Article and photography by Tullio Filippone (c), originally posted via Cafe Babel (26/05/2016)

Translation: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

This feature report is a part of Cafe Babel’s EUtoo ‘on the ground’ project in Copenhagen, seeking to give a voice to disenchanted youth. It is funded by the European Commission.