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.

 

“I just want to be seen as a normal human being and respected” – an interview with Palestinian-Syrian asylum seeker Khaled

IMG_1321.JPGI recently had the honour of meeting Khaled – a Palestinian-Syrian asylum seeker living here in Málaga.

Khaled – 44 years old – is a sculptor, previous owner of his own factory, trained psychologist and human rights activist active in Syria. Khaled used to live in Yarmouk (in the south of Damascus) in Yarmouk Camp – a refugee camp for Palestinians in Syria. Khaled is now living as an asylum seeker here in Málaga (southern Spain) after leaving Syria in November 2015.

As a Palestinian refugee in Syria and human rights activist, Khaled had a lot to say on the war, sectarianism, life as a refugee and life in Syria.

Human rights in Syria

Khaled is originally Palestinian and comes from a large family. His parents fled Palestine to Syria – where Khaled was born – when the state of Israel was created. For the last three years his nephew has been imprisoned in Syria for helping protesters in demonstrations which started in his city Daraa. They visited him after two years and he is now condemned to stay in prison forever. His brother with his wife, their little baby and mother-in-law are under embargo by the Syrian regime.

When I ask Khaled about campaigning with NGOs around human rights issues, he makes it perfectly clear of the oppression in Syria:

In Syria, there isn’t such humanitarian activism because it’s oppressed by the regime but there are lawyers who are active, such as Michael Shamas – he is a very very good man. […] There is also a famous humanitarian activist his name is Khalil Maatouk – he contributed a lot towards humanitarian issues in Syria but unfortunately right now he’s been imprisoned by the Syrian regime for more than two years. There are a lot of lawyers, a lot of activists but there activism is very limited because of the amount of repression.

Even being a family member of somebody who’s in prison or being associated with somebody who’s in prison makes you subject to harassment. In Khaled’s own words: “Society was highly manipulated with sophisticated political and social tools, for example there are 12 universities and there are 16 security departments around the universities.” However, people were “conscious”. The massacre in the city of Hamah in 1982 resulted in the death of 50,000 people. A lack of social media at the time has meant that this went largely unpublicised:

The people of Hamah so far are still scared, traumatised due to the experience they had. At that time it was Margaret Thatcher in government and […] the international community didn’t react at all.  [… ] All they had were economic sanctions – an economic embargo for a certain time.

Thanks to social media people have been able to raise awareness of human rights abuses – something Khaled did himself. However, people remain oppressed, threatened and scared.

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A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among the rubbish in al-Qsair (10/02/2012) (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

Syria and the Palestinian issue

What is particularly shocking regarding human rights in Syria is the way that Palestinian refugees are treated in Syria. When I asked Khaled about the approach of the government and if they had been welcomed it became clear that the government had an agenda. Whilst he found that Syrian people were originally welcoming on a social level, the government exploited the Palestinian issue:

[…]  Whenever they had economic problems, they would use the Palestinian issue as a justification to silence people. They would tell them […]: “We’re not providing you with enough jobs or with enough socio-economic solutions because we are contributing a lot to free Palestine” which is a total lie. They are not doing anything for the Palestinian issue. They convince ordinary people. They blame all their problems on Palestinians. […] The numbers of Palestinians in Syria are manipulated by the government […]. They claim that they have two million Palestinian refugees

According to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, there are 526, 744 registered Palestinian refugees in Syria (and Palestinian refugees within other Arab states – see here for more information). Not only are Palestinian refugees limited in terms of future job potential but also in socio-cultural terms. This is an issue across the Middle East, when sadly one would expect brotherhood:

[…] Palestinians in Egypt […] don’t have the right to say “We are Palestinians”. They have been told, “As long as you’re here to have to say ‘I’m Egyptian'”. You don’t have the right to be Palestinian. And in Lebanon […] they are not entitled to do certain jobs. For example, you cannot be a doctor. They are limited; they have a quota. They can do only 70 specific jobs/professions.

In Syria, even after 50 years they cannot vote or run as candidates in elections. Palestinian refugees are not even given citizenship. Khaled shows me his Syrian Palestinian refugee travel document. He’s legal but he’s not Syrian – and that’s the way the Syrian government wants it: “People are not aware of the issue of Palestinian refugees at all. It’s a structured aimed ignorance that the government wants everybody to forget about them. Moist of the people wonder that a Palestinian is doing here […]”. Any hope of a brotherhood of Arab states is a fail – which Khaled refers to as not fully fledged states but simply “gangs of mafia” who came to power with force after the former colonial powers of Britain and France quickly left. Yet despite all of this, Khaled sees himself as Palestinian-Syrian and Syria is his home.

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Yarmouk (Damascus) – (c) 2013 EC/ECHO/Dina Baslan (Flickr) (CC)

Sectarianism and conflict

Despite the obstacles facing Palestinian refugees in Syria, Khaled says he had a good life in Syria before the war. Khaled left Syria due to war. He – like the others feeling conflict and oppression by both ISIS and/or the Assad regime – is not seeking money, but simply peace, security and a better life. Khaled had been offered a way out of Syria when he participated in a language exchange with other Europeans but rejected this. Back in Syria he had a stable life, friends and family and in fact; he didn’t want to go. Post 9/11 he felt how anyone from “The East” was given the tag of “terrorist” – for every Arab, even those who are “tolerant or the most peaceful of people”. He enjoyed his life in Syria and was fully integrated into a society which boasted around 72 minorities – including the Alawi, Druze, Shia and Kurdish populations – in which everyone lived peacefully and cohesively. Yet such a  diverse rich nation became married by sectarianism – the most horrible of which Khaled confirms was of the Alawis who controlled the system. The “Godfather” was Hafed Al Assad:

Before he came to the regime, the level of or the ratio of corruption was a certain percent and when he came to power it became 98%. He got rid of anything to do with transparency or with fairness or justice and the government is literally just full of Alawis – people from his sect. […] There is corruption […] in different European countries, but the level of corruption in Syria and the Alawi system was so high.

Notwithstanding the vast religious diversity in Syria, this was not a religiously motivated conflict. Before the onset of war, around 10 families (not the Alawi population as a whole) were “taking advantage of this situation and taking advantage of their family member being in the regime” – including the al-Bayt family (equivalent to The Rothschilds). As a Palestinian refugee, Khaled did not witness sectarianism in mainstream schools as Palestinians were segregated from primary school until university. At university they were finally merged together. Khaled admits there was segregation but “it was hidden. People didn’t know. It was not expressed.”

Educated people outside of the elite introduced activities to try and combat such sectarianism and division. Khaled belonged to “Towasil” (‘Continue‘) – a group which would organise team building activities for people from different religious backgrounds, including walks in the mountains. This was a great “bonding” initiative to break down barriers between people. Even within the working class there were many initiatives but such sectarianism came to light with the outbreak of war which became further manipulated by the political system: “Bashar Assad is very intelligent in his game and he knew how to manipulate”. Going back to the sources of different sects, religious preachers did not preach unity. We all know in history how easy it is for differences – no matter how small or large – to be exploited for power and towards the oppression of others.

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Mazzeh 86 neighbourhood (23/11/2012) – a bomb went off in a mostly Alawite area according to the regime (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

From protests to war

A politically corrupt system engulfed by a religious sect, economic and social inequality and a dictator able to manipulate sects and citizens against one another, stirred conflict within Syria, which was later marred by Islamic extremists. As socio-economic political demonstrations started, the government’s response encouraged protests to become a full scale revolution and war. Khaled was more than clear in his desire as a human rights activist to express the fact that the initial protests were not an attempt to overthrow the regime:

It started totally as a civil revolution, social, economic […] innocent, peaceful […]. Then the regime started oppressing […] shooting down the protesters. I was one of the participants in the revolution. I was arrested and held for four months. I was hit [Khaled shows where his missing teeth have been replaced with small dentures]. I was beaten and tortured. […] The intention of the revolution was not to overthrow the system but just to make major economic political reforms and it started first in Daraa […] What happened is because of the level of control of the system and using the security system to control every small detail in people’s lives. It got to the level that [nobody] would trust the other. They would always feel suspicious that probably one of them is a spy or works as a security agent. [..] Kids were kidnapped […] and their nails were cut off. They were tortured. When the parents went to […] bring them back, the security officials said “we are not going to give you your kids back, bring us your wives […] then we will give you your kids again.”. So people felt so humiliated, so oppressed, they revolted – they had to revolt.

As Syrians witnessed but the Tunisian Revolution, within the context of the Arab Spring, Syrians fought back against their own injustices. Khaled recalls how they symapathised with the people and supported the revolutions and toppling of the regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Yet what people may not be aware of is that before the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, there as the Rabi’a Damasq – the Damascus Spring:

In 1988/89 there was a left wing party started to develop and I was part of it. It was a communist party but it was also oppressed by the regime – a lot of people were killed. There were also individual cases and kidnappings. On an individual level […] it was  not recorded because there were no humanitarian NGOs at that time in Syria. A family member of mine was kidnapped 30 years ago. He disappeared. We know nothing about him up to now. This is in the time of Hafez Al Assad- the father of Bashar. When Bashar came into the system he was so young – he changed the constitution to suit his political ambitions. At that time there was a political uprising – the Rabi’a Damasq […] People protested against Bashar Al Assad because the way he took the regime was illegitimate – it was not constitutional. […].  Bashar […] waited until it calmed down then he kidnapped most of the people – the leaders of that movement against him.

Such family style dictatorships are spread across the MENA region – hotbeds of corruption and nepotism: “Rami Makhlouf [part of Assad’s mafia – his cousin from his mother’s side] makes decisions in every small detail. […] It got to the level that you couldn’t breathe without his consent.” This small family – in effect a “gang” – were “taking control over everything.” We’ve all heard the expression: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”- well all the more here. Khaled informed me about a sculpting competition in Damascus which he participated in. Those who stood a chance of winning were those who had contacts and knew people working within the system.

In other words, the reality was this: deep nepotism vs. frustration and inequality. We all saw how quickly such reforms led in to a full scale war. As the Syrians took the opportunity of the Arab Spring to start their own reforms, I asked Khaled if he believes whether the war would have started had there not have been an Arab Spring elsewhere: “The components and factors of the revolution were already there. Maybe it would have started but it would have taken a long time – longer”. Longer – in light of a deep prolonged conflict – is definitely what describes the sad reality of the crisis in Syria today…

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A house destroyed by a Syrian army tank shell in Al Qsair (25/01/2012) (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

ISIS and Islamic extremism

One element intertwined with sectarianism and the war in Syria is the emergence of ISIS (a.k.a. Daesh). Khaled assures me that the revolution was purely political, social and economic but later exploited by Islamic extremists. What started as a legitimate movement later became an “extremist movement”. He is particularly keen to explain that ISIS is a result of the war not the other way round: “There is still a legitimate position but nobody cares about it and all that we see in the media are the extremist groups and now anything to do with such positions is labelled as extremism.” In fact, when I asked him if he expected the war to get this far, he explains how he didn’t and that it was with the involvement of extremist groups that the future started to look bleaker:

[…] As soon as Al Nusra and Daesh […] started rising I knew that it would get this way. The reason we had jihadi and extremist groups is because the international community and the West betrayed the Syrian revolution. They saw and they witnessed that the regime was oppressing the revolution in the most horrible ways. I even witnessed some of that. […] One of the parents saw […] their son being killed in front of them and then the body was used as a trap to get people to go there to pick it up. So you’d go and pick up that dead body – […] you’d be shot by a sniper and killed. There were even gang rapes where they [Alawi groups] would bring Sunni girls to a public place and rape them.

So you think that you were betrayed because the international community did nothing? How did they betray you?

Yes, it’s because of the negative and passive way in which the international community reacted. They didn’t even respond – they didn’t care about what was going on. They saw the videos, they saw the pictures but nobody wanted to support them so that’s how it got to the extreme level. The revolution was manipulated and they stared using Allah and the word of jihad – giving people hope.

Khaled is pessimistic about the war and whether it will even come to an end at all. He doesn’t believe that anyone intends to “come to a peaceful resolution” and is particularly conscious of the lack of action or “good intention” on behalf of the US and Saudi Arabia. In fact, Saudi Arabia is one of the countries supplying arms to ISIS.

The backing of ISIS by foreign nations is not the only shocking disappointment. What is particularly disturbing is the number young Europeans and non-Europeans travelling to Syria to join ISIS. Young, naive, bitter or misguidedly enthusiastic, these jihadists – young and old, male and female – believe they are entering an Islamic utopia or the land where they can fulfil their religious duties and make a difference for the Islamic ummah (community). The reality is that they fuel, support and even engage in rape, torture, slavery, murder and barbarity. Once you are these it’s very hard to escape. Even if you do, you’ve pretty much ruined your life and hopes of a future back home. I asked Khaled what would he say to young jihadists – young Europeans wanting to go to Syria. This was his reply:

Integrate into society – going there is not a solution. You’ll be treated like animals. You’ll be brainwashed. You’ll be dumped.

Indeed, your life is over. Behind the eyes of these lost souls or barbaric animals, they are dead inside. Being in tune with humanity, with Allah, with good; one cannot live such life. Muslim and non-Muslim communities need to engage and work back home and not keeping fuelling the fire back in Syria. Jihadists go, whilst refugees come for a better life. There could not be a simply clearer message. Khaled, like myself, believes that to defeat ISIS, you have to go back to the roots and know the causes: “It’s not an action – it’s a reaction” as Khaled so rightly sums up. Indeed, I agree with him that there are multiple factors – as is visible from the variety and diversity of its members. Where social economic hardship lies, lie the seeds to brainwash and manipulate young naive Muslims. One thing for sure, is that bombing Syria will not achieve anything – which Khaled affirms himself: “If the “solution” for extremism and terrorism is going to be just with bombing and such military interventions; well I don’t believe that this is a solution. It will never end”.

Whilst many Europeans are concerned about the threat of ISIS on European shores, as a refugee, Khaled is clear to reiterate that integrating and understanding individuals are key. He sees refugees frustrated and depressed with the six months waiting time for papers. Amongst cultural differences, new freedoms and social norms, he believes refugees’ talents should be “cherished” and assistance should be given to help refugees contribute towards the overall progression of society:

ISIS is an idea. It manipulates people through their fears – the fear of death. I didn’t come here to get cars, to get girls.

So for lack of a better word, you feel a bit dumped and isolated?

It’s a ghetto. In the Arab world, people are sociable. You’ve got your neighbours, you’ve got your family […]. So far I didn’t see any, but there is racism. In my case, because I’m conscious and aware of things; I could never be radicalised. In other situations, there are people who could even be a project of a terrorist.

As a refugee, Khaled has been looked at with suspicion but the idea of ISIS members coming over to Europe is simply scaremongering: “ISIS members would never come here. They have a better life than any European”. It has already been proven that videos with so-called refugees chanting “Allahu akbar” and rallies in the streets are lies as they are misrepresentations or the result of edited material. It is indeed jumping on the scaremongering wagon – just like the Cologne story as Khaled points out.

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ISIS (Credit: Day Donaldson – Flickr – CC)

From one country to another – Khaled’s refugee journey 

As originally Palestinian, Khaled’s journey is an interesting one. Khaled lived in Syria as a Palestinian refugee and was living in southern Damascus – an area under embargo by both the Syrian government and the Shia militia. There were only two ways to get out: either you go to security officials and gave information about the opposition (revealing names of people they would later shoot) or you bribe your way out. Khaled paid a million Syrian Lira to an army official to let him out. Once you’re out though, you face being killed or arrested by other security personnel. Khaled hid in Damascus for 12 days in the officer’s house before the officer took him to the airport and directly on to a plane heading to Algeria, where his mother had fled to before her son. One of Khaled’s brothers is also now living in Holland and another in Libya is hoping to leave with his son and daughter. Algeria as it stood was the only option open to Khaled offered by the security official. On the other end, other people weren’t as fortunate as Khaled. He told me about one of his friends who went missing:

Nerez Sayed is a Syrian journalist. He’s famous. I know him, he is my friend. I […] used to take photos and videos and upload them onto social media to raise awareness with the international community and to show the real picture […]. My friend tried to do the same thing . He hid for two months in Damascus. He was then kidnapped and arrested. I don’t know where he is now.

Khaled had managed to escape a war zone of oppression and misery. He told me that he felt like it was a “miracle” when he left Syria. Yet, he found the treatment and facilities in Algeria lacking. Just like the disappointment of Arab so-called Arab “brotherhood” regarding Palestinians, he was met with suspicion in Algeria: “I always felt under control in Algeria. My family was always under control. Always under suspicion. But not in your face.” His mother – aged 75 – had already been there for three years and “was not being looked after very well”. As a result they left – in his words – “to go to a better place, where there was a good health system , where we could lead a good life.” Feeling concerned about the Algerian government, he did not apply for asylum:

I didn’t even go to the authorities. I was worried. I didn’t feel alright. I know that the Algerian system is pro the Syrian regime. I knew that there was even cooperation between both armies.

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Khaled’s journey (Original map credit: Namelesss23)

So, a month after he arrived, Khaled and his mother crossed the border into Nador into neighbouring Morocco where they were met with hostility by the Moroccan security forces:

I hated the experience in Morocco because the Moroccan security officer treated us really badly and he was telling us: “What are you doing here? Why don’t you go back?” I even heard him talking about giving orders to one of his soldiers to just go and get rid of us [kill us]. I told myself: why doesn’t the world care about us? Our blood is no longer valued. Nobody cares about us. […] We don’t mean anything to the world…

From the hostility in Morocco, they left Nador and fled to Melilla – where they were then officially on EU soil and that’s where his Spanish journey began. After staying in a refugee centre in Melilla, he was later brought to Málaga –  where he is currently based.

Living as an asylum seeker in Spain and beyond

Khaled’s story is one of suppression and shock, yet survival. From the miracle of leaving Syria, where civilians had to eat cats and leaves to survive and the population faced political persecution, Khaled told me of his disappointment:

I’m totally disappointed with getting to Europe. I feel like I’ve lost 44 years of my life in Syria. I didn’t come here for money. I already had money in my country. I came here to be valued as a human being to feel safe to feel secure but unfortunately I still have to prove that I’m not a terrorist. I still have to always be under check and control. I still have to prove that I’m a human being. I thought that I would come here to contribute towards society, to be part of society – to be an active part of  society – but unfortunately in this so-called “developed European society” that made technology, that had The Renaissance, that had this and that – all that I see is total disappointment. […] I love Spain, I love Britain. I didn’t come here to beg or to ask for money – I just want a better life; a safer life, a peaceful life.

That is the reality of refugees and asylum seekers. Regardless of what the media says about the “boat people” and “(economic) migrants” and the stretching of our resources – these people are human beings who simply want respect, peace, security and stability – a life like many of us have. Khaled after his experiences in Syria and Algeria, came to Spain as the closet European country and a country which he loves, where he doesn’t feel “foreign” or “strange” as he finds Spain similar to his own country within the Mediterranean bracket. People take note of this. Syria is not a million miles away – it’s simply another country like ours. Spain is beyond similar to a variety of North African and Middle Eastern countries – except that in Europe we are offered a greater deal of social, economic, religious, cultural, and political freedom and security. What is sad is that Khaled found the Spanish authorities more welcoming than in other fellow Arab countries. However, despite the warm welcome, they are rather disengaged and apathetic here in Spain. His brother in Holland is very well integrated – but is engaged in doing so. His mother in Germany has not been affected by racism, but a friend in Eastern Germany has.

In terms of entitlements, he is provided with food, drink, a room he shares and €30 per month. When I asked him about the refugee centre where he stays, he confirmed that there is no prayer room but halal food is available for Muslims. So far, he states his experience is positive and he is happy with his treatment there despite the lack of engagement. Those living in the centre get on well and there is a sense of community among refugees and, Spanish people have been kind. The only obstacle is language which is hindering socialising with locals but there are four Spanish classes a week and Khaled also goes to another school. CEAR – the organisation which accommodates refugees here in Spain offers language classes as well as the governmental  Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (EOI) here in Málaga as well. Activities are run with refugees and Spaniards offering excursions around the city, yet when I ask Khaled who he spends most time with his answer is… himself. With his mother and sister in Germany, alongside other family members abroad – the life of a refugee can be lonely.

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Life as an asylum seeker without your family can be lonely (Credit: daniMU – Flickr – CC)

With any luck, Khaled will be reunited with his loved ones in the not too distant future. As soon as he gets his papers, his dream is to work for a humanitarian NGO and help refugees perhaps in Germany or in Turkey. He already has several years’ experience in NGOs and I can see his passion for helping others. He needs to stay in Spain as he is hoping to marry his Palestinian girlfriend who is a refugee from Jordan living in Syria. She has no papers – not even a travel document to prove her identity. In the meantime, as he waits for his papers, he describes the experience of being an asylum seeker as boring on a day to day basis. In his spare time Khaled loves reading and downloads books on his phone.

As anyone would hope, his long term hope if for the war to end and to be able to return to Syria. Despite the anti-refugee pleas, he makes it abundantly clear that Syrians are not here not to drain the system: “I’m sure that if the war ends, the international community will be surprised by the Syrians – that they will not have to kick them out, that they will go themselves to their land, to their country to rebuild it and to help its progression for the better. Khaled does not want to be seen as a “victim”. As a Palestinian Syrian he has witnessed things many of us take for granted but all he wants is to be respected, to be seen and treated as a normal human being and to be a able to live a decent life:

I blame all this situation not just on the Syrian war but as a Palestinian; I blame it on Israel because they are the reason behind my family and I going to Syria – living as a refugee in Syria and then coming here, living as a refugee here. I don’t want any material compensation. I want emotional compensation because I felt humiliated [..] for the suffering, the frustration I felt. […]

Do you see an end to the oppression… of the Palestinian people in the near future?

No solution. I don’t like playing the victim role. I just want to be a normal human […]. Respected.

So there we have it – so many issues and it’s in our hands to help as much as we can.

Building bridges – how can we help?

Whilst we all hope for peace in Syria and (I would hope) freedom for the Palestinian people, in the meantime – what can we do to help? For those in a similar situation to Khaled and locals, what can be done to create a better environment? For those wanting to help refugees and asylum seekers in their country, Khaled suggests cultural exchanges – exchanging national dishes and languages. I’m a firm advocate of such activities. Even amongst a climate of racism and Islamophobia here in Spain, people love couscous. Look at how the Balti in Birmingham forged a new British culture in which British Asians are just as British as a family with no migrant history. Beyond socio-cultural exchanges, we can do a lot to help the crisis: “Raise more awareness, be more sympathetic, because they ignored it [the war] for a long time – this is how it ended up, people coming here, flooding in”.

If you’d like to help with the Syrian refugee crisis locally or internationally, here are some suggestions:

  • Volunteer with local, national or international refugee and asylum seeker organisations – lend your time and skills. There is a great need for ESOL teachers, translators/interpreters, immigration specialists and medical personnel
  • If you are a linguist: join Translators without Borders
  • If you are a medical professional: get in touch with Doctors without Borders
  • If you are a professional counsellor or medical professional: get in touch with bodies which offer health care for those who’ve suffered trauma. In the UK for example, try Freedom from Torture
  • Get involved with groups going over to and helping in Calais – or further afield – Google and search via Facebook and Twitter, including the likes of CalAid for example
  • Donate to relevant NGOs working in your area or abroad: in the UK check out Refugee Action and many other NGOs out there
  • Take part in or start your own food or donation bank/collection including your family, friends and other members of the community to give to Syrian refugees within your own country or abroad (this could include money, clothes, shoes, toiletries, maternity and baby items, children’s toys etc.)
  • Raise awareness: blog, tweet, post, lobby, petition, join or build workshops, conferences etc. – raise your voice
  • Check out groups and pages such as Free Syria Media Hub (caution is advised due to the photography) sign their petition to stop the bombing
  • Start a language/cultural exchange or buddy scheme in your area to welcome refugees – swap English for Arabic or bring your own national dishes (be careful of halal food requirements etc.- halal meat only, fish or vegetarian dishes otherwise, no alcohol – particular caution should be taken to avoid all forms of gelatine)

To help the Palestinian cause:

  • See the above activities and suggestions – most of these are also worthwhile e.g. donating, volunteering, raising awareness
  • For relevant NGOs and bodies see here

If you’d like to help Khaled:

  • Khaled is looking for donations of art materials (for sculpting/painting). For more information, including photos of his art work, see here

So, there’s lots we can do in practical terms, but something I’d like to finish with is this: talk, befriend and build bridges, respect differences. See the commonalities and celebrate positive differences! It’s what makes the world interesting! As we finished the interview, I asked Khaled if he had  a message for the Spanish government or European people and he definitely does! His message is one of  peace, community and social cohesion:

Just to understand refugees and to not see that the opposition in Syria is just jihadist  – there is a real neutral opposition. I believe that there should be more dialogue between the two sides- the East and the West. They need to find a common  ground for them both, to understand each other and to get closer.

An important message that I for one definitely agree with. Let us reach out and remember that we are all HUMAN. Khaled could be your brother, your father, your uncle, your cousin… You don’t choose where you are born but you can choose what you do in life -where you go and what you do to help others.

Salam!

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Ahlan wa sahlan! (Welcome!) (Credit: opposition24.de – Flickr – CC)

Acknowledgments:

I’d like to thank Khaled for taking the time to do this interview and I wish him all the very best in the future.

Thanks also go to my interpreter and all those who helped to arrange this interview.

Image credit:

Feature image – Chaoyue 超越 PAN 潘 (Flickr) (CC)