Statement on Srebrenica Memorial Day 2017

July 11th is Srebrenica Memorial Day 2017. This year, we are recognising the 22nd anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, during which thousands of men and boys were systematically murdered, simply because they were Muslim. It is vital to commemorate Srebrenica to take a stand against hatred and discrimination that targets groups based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or any type of difference.

During the course of the conflict that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped, and sadly in societies all over the world, including our own, there still remains a lot of stigma around sexual violence. This year, we are working with the charity Remembering Srebrenica to commemorate the genocide, and to reflect on the experiences of women in conflict. Remembering Srebrenica’s theme this year is Breaking the Silence: Gender and Genocide. This year is about recognising the strength and resilience of women who have survived conflict, standing committed to challenging sexism and gender based violence within our own communities. You can read more about this year’s theme on Remembering Srebrenica’s website.

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Ten years since the war in Bosnia ended with the signing of the Dayton peace agreement in November 1995, thousands of people are still deeply traumatised by the war. Here a woman cries for her sons and husband who were killed in the massacre at Srebrenica

It is now more important than ever for us to come together, no matter what our background, to celebrate diversity and to stand together in solidarity against hatred and discrimination. I wrote about the Srebrenica genocide in a previous post last year, which I urge you to take a look at. It is vital that we remember this tragedy in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past and honour the memories of the innocent men, women and children who were killed, just for being Muslim.

On the 11th of each month the Women of Srebrenica gather in the main square of Tuzla to stand in silent protest of their missing and dead men_Cl.jpg

On the 11th of each month the Women of Srebrenica gather in the main square of Tuzla to stand in silent protest of their missing and dead men

I hope you will join us in mourning the loss of those who died at Srebrenica, and reflecting on how we as individuals, groups and communities can come together to build a better future without hatred.

Salam, peace ♡

Text and images: Remembering Srebrenica

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Gender, colour, faith: Tell Mama reveals the shocking truth about hate crime in the UK

I recently met with Fiyaz Mughal (OBE) – Founder and Director of the UK hate crime organisation Tell Mama. As the leading body in reporting Islamophobic and racial hate crime, I wanted to find out in light of Brexit, the rise to power of Trump, ISIS’ ongoing tirade of extremism and the spate of recent European terrorist attacks, how the nature of hate crime has changed in the UK and who is most affected. Here’s what I found out…

[…]

VoS: For Muslims and non-Muslims out there, can you tell us a little about the work that you do?

TM: So, the work of Tell Mama involves many different prongs; the first being direct support to victims who have suffered anti-Muslim hatred who make contact with us through a variety of means (WhatsApp, email etc.). We provide detailed case work support; writing to agencies if need be,  collecting evidence, talking to police forces, trying to get prosecutions with the police in relation to anti-Muslim hatred. Then there’s the other flip side, which is really about advocacy and emotional support. Many, many, many victims are Muslim women and certainly the targeting of Muslim women involves not just Islamophobia and anti-Muslim material but also a lot of misogynistic material – a lot of gender hate material that’s mixed in, as well as racialised language so it’s really unpacking that and giving them that kind of emotional support – so multiple services. […] The two other prongs; creating and sustaining good educational material that’s out there for not just schools but for use in the public domain through social media as well as some small courses for schools that we produce educational material for. Last but not least, we are really heavy on trying to influence policy change – not just with social media companies but with government and police forces around understanding anti-Muslim hatred.

VoS: So you said you deal with a lot of hate crime which affects Muslim women in particular. Especially since Brexit and the rise of ISIS over in The Middle East, there’s been a sharp rise in racist and Islamophobia attacks in the UK and Europe and North America. One shocking case for example was of a Muslim lady who was attacked in London, causing her to later miscarry her twins. I’m presuming this didn’t come as a surprise to you? Were you expecting a sharp increase in the rise of hate crime since Brexit and in the current political situation?

TM: When we started the project with Tell Mama in 2011, we came across an online world which was absolutely full of anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred. There was no checking. There was no counter-speech. There were enormous amounts of accounts that were promoting anti-Muslim bigotry. We knew that that would have a real world impact from the virtual to the real. We could see that. So in 2011, we realised early on that actually there was a wind – a nasty wind – that was coming across the horizon and was going to affect Muslim communities. So, did we expect this? Well, yes. Did the statistics start to pan that out? Yes. And that was also corroborated by police forces. Did we expect more aggressive stance towards Muslims at a street level? Yes. And so this case does not come out of the blue. Sadly, we expect that actually there will be more incidences of assaults and we’ve seen a change at a street level from predominantly verbal abuse before to now over the last few years a much aggressive level of physical incidences taking place – again predominantly at visible Muslim women. So it’s moved from the virtual about what people were thinking into the practical in people wanting to do things and that’s a bad place. This is not going from people thinking about it. They’re actually thinking and doing it now.

VoS: So do you think that it’s simply -as some people have said – that the political and social situation has evolved in such a way that it’s almost been normalised to behave in such way and so people are just expressing opinions and hate they had before or that people’s opinions have actually become more extreme since the recent political crisis?

TM: We also know that international and national incidences create large spikes of anti-Muslim hatred – Paris, Charlie Hebdo, all of them… We’ve got evidence of the numbers of cases coming in. Did we expect Brexit to cause such a large rise? Actually we didn’t but what Brexit did do was clearly bring out the views that people had. These things don’t just fester overnight. They’re there. So Brexit was an amplifying point for them and so to your question: it’s a combination. Today what we’re seeing is a combination of people who are emboldened to think that they what they believe which may be prejudicial bigoted and racist is actually okay to say – that’s the first thing. The second thing you asked is if are there more people who are becoming anti Muslim. The answer is that there is actually an influence of what I would clearly class as extremist material which is anti Muslim in nature and percolating into the minds of younger men in our society who are then targeting Muslims and Muslim women in particular. So yes, there are more people consuming accepting and regurgitating extremist anti Muslim material and there are individuals who had these previous thoughts who now think it’s justified and validated that they can say them. It’s a combination of both.

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Photo credit: Chris Page

VoS: That’s very interesting. Why do you think young non-Muslim British males in particular? You said there was a lot of misogyny and sexist crime. Is that particularly to do with the veil or because Muslim women may appear as less likely to be able to defend themselves?

TM: When we’ve spoken to some of the perpetrators there’s been the notion that they’re not going to be threatened by the victim – the victim is not going to stand up physically to them. That’s the first thing. So there is a validity in what you’re saying. The second thing is that the targeting of Muslim women is quite complex. In some of the perpetrators we have discussed this with, the first thing is an extremist anti-Muslim view promoted by not just far right groups but the new alternative right – the Trump brigade, the people who who believe the nonsense that Muslims are here to take over the world… That alternative right kind of narrative has promoted the view that actually Muslims are here to take over the West by outbreeding everyone. This is the nonsense and the toxic extremism that is promoted that feeds the minds of some of these perpetrators in which Muslim women are the carriers of the future generation, as the “prolonger” of Islam, as the gender which will actually keep Islam and Muslims in Europe. That’s why there’s a drive towards Muslim women subconsciously in the minds of some of these people. So it’s physical – they know they’re not going to be attacked but Muslim women have also become not only symbolic of the longevity of Islam but also symbolic of Islam itself. When you get that combination – that’s why they’re being targeted. What’s bizarre and I think I think there’s a very strange link here which is around the procreation again is that the amount of sexual language that is thrown at Muslim women. We have not seen this behaviour before but it is particularly acute online. So what you find is two women talking on Twitter. They just say, you know: “What do you do today?”, “I went to the cinema” etc.  and suddenly a troll will come in and basically say “Oh you look really sexy in your hijab.” And what they’re trying to do: they’re trying to humiliate the woman by targeting her sexuality because she’s religious to you and so in their minds that humiliates her. They’re sexualising them to humiliate them but let me be very clear: those people who are doing that towards Muslim women will in many instances also have  deeply deeply troubling views towards women in general. So there’s a confluence that they they they think really badly of women but as this is a Muslim women they feel more confident to vocalise this. You know they will be thinking about other women but it’s Muslim women that they’ll vocalise it towards. That’s the distinguishing thing right now.

VoS: So how have you dealt with this sharp increase in hate crime in particular, in dealing with the amount of reports and complaints you’ve received? What’s life been like as an organisation since Brexit in terms of case loads and complaints?

TM: So we’ve seen a year on year increase. What we’ve started to pick up now is a combination because possibly more people know about us but the data also clearly shows that when there  is a major incident like a terrorist incident, the spikes are getting higher and higher. Let me give you a really clear example. We had the brutal murder of Lee Rigby and the pictures were pretty brutal on newspapers. They were all over them. That was the first indicator that there was a huge anti Muslim backlash taking place. We  recorded that and we vocalised that in the press. To some degree you can understand that actually there will be a backlash given the pictures and given that it happened in Woolwich, in England, in our streets. But when you have Charlie Hebdo and when you have Paris and particularly Paris which is 400 miles away and the peak is even higher than after the murder of Lee Rigby: that is indicating to you a disturbing trend that something 400 miles away is even higher than the brutal murder of somebody right on our street. That’s disturbing. That’s where this is going. The more Muslim communities are buffeted by international incidences, the more fractures are taking place between communities, the more brittle, the more hardline views are becoming towards Muslims and even those people who may have been receptive and susceptible to engagement with Muslim communities are now starting to think: “Have these these groups got a point about Muslims?” That’s the problem! Views in some areas are regressing not progressing !

VoS: Well it goes beyond social identity debates into a wider debate about Islam looking at Islam as a whole. Obviously, a lot of your work is going to be confidential but what sort of reports and cases have you dealt with which you can share with us on a broad basis?

TM: So the cases will range from general abuse, through to neighbourhood disputes and cases where people have actively tried to run over women in a vehicle, through to bombing campaigns. After the murder of Lee Rigby, what was reported to us from some of the masjids was that there were explosive devices left in some mosques in Walsall, Wolverhampton and Tipton [in the West Midlands]. One of the mosques in fact informed us about the explosive device and they tipped us off. That’s the kind of variety of work we get in. And by the way – the crossover at that point between the explosive devices being left outside mosques was not because was not triggered by the murder of Lee Rigby – it intersected at the same time. It was  done by a neo-Nazi. So there’s a range of work we deal with. We are becoming quite an intelligence hub about what the threats to Muslim communities are today.  

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Photo credit: Tim Green

VoS: In addition to hatred from outside Muslim committees you also focus on what you refer to as intra-Muslim bigotry. Could you explain a little more about this for people that are perhaps confused by this term?

TM: So intra-Muslim bigotry is basically what we call Muslim on Muslim hate incidences. Members of the Shia community will report to us when they’re targeted for being Shia, members of the Ahamdiyyah community will report to us when they’re targeted because they’re Ahmadiyyah… No other Muslim organization tackling Islamophobia does that. Why is the question and the response should be in life that if you are targeted because of an element of your identity that needs to be recorded and support provided to you in relation to that. So doing this work is really important 1. to honour the victim; 2. to provide practical assistance to the victim; 3. not to take any political view of whether people should be washing their dirty laundry in public. This is not about that. This is about human rights. This is about the rights of individuals. The numbers reporting to us is not high  but I can tell you: the bigotry towards Ahmadiyyah communities is quite significant. And actually the spike we saw after the murder of Asad Shah was worrying. So we record and we call it out because it is wrong. I think this issue of intra-Muslim bigotry is something that Muslim committees need to get over and that actually, they need to start vocalising that this kind of internal hatred is not acceptable.

VoS: Being vocal is definitely important. You’ve faced criticism in the past for being what’s been classed as “soft” on Muslim groups which are often deemed heretical by certain people. How have you responded to members of the Muslim community with these views about the importance of overcoming these issues and divisions and addressing hate crime throughout the community?

TM: It’s a really important question you raise. Look this is where I will revert back to our belief as a staff members in Tell Mama – and we’re not all Muslim. Only one third of the team is Muslim. So Muslims are in the minority running Tell Mama let me just say that to people on your blog because it’s really important to realise that this is a movement which is not just about Muslims: it’s about human rights. The second thing I want to say is let me revert back. I’m a Muslim and for me and those Muslims in the team in Tell Mama – the view is pretty clear that in Islam there is no difference in values of the protection of human rights and the protections of individuals. In Islam there is no difference […]. Islam is very clear about that. The history of Islam is is consistent with that. Islam does not say brush things under the carpet. Islam says defend those who may be weak. It doesn’t say so do because they are Muslim. It says defend anyone who is attacked – whether they’re Christian, Jewish, non-believing… Your right to defense by Muslims is sacrosanct. Your right to be defended by Islam is in the Qur’an. It’s in Islamic tradition. So, we make it clear that if you think that just because members of the Ahmadiyyah community are reporting in and that’s bad and let’s not talk about it and they’re not really Muslims…then you were taking away the very core issue of Islamic theology which is to defend the weak and defend the oppressed and defend those who are targeted. It doesn’t matter who or whey’re your from. It doesn’t matter what sexuality or where you come from. Defend your rights is key.

VoS: Prior to the unfortunate murder of Asad Shah in Glasgow, had you received many reports of hate crime between Muslim groups? What’s the difference ? Has there been a change both before and after this event? Was that a huge marker or was that just one unfortunate incident?

TM: Again brilliant question. The answer is no. There were other markers. The first time we came across intra-Muslim bigotry recorded by us and reported to us was during the start of the Syrian civil war. The first indicators we got was when members of the Shia community started reporting to us around 2012/2013. So we did start to see anti Shia bigotry being reported to us and then the Asad Shah murder created a spike of anti-Ahmadiyyah cases coming to us. So there’s been a general rumbling, just a slow burning rumble of intra-Muslim hate cases that we receive but what’s clear again is national/international impacts don’t just affect Muslims, they also affect intra-Muslim bigotry. The Syria crisis created a lot of anti-Shia rhetoric. Asad Shah’s murder happened and then suddenly you see people thought that because he was Ahmadiyyah he deserved it, even though the murder of Asad Shah was not related to him being Ahmadiyyah. The murderer said he killed him because Asad Shah was saying he was a prophet of God – distinctly different. You see the bigotry just seeped in – completely different to facts and that is what we are dealing with. If we’re to tackle these issues we have to be brutally honest and anti-Ahamdiyyah rhetoric is quite accepted in a large section of Muslim communities. It may not be vocalised but there’s a claim of acceptance. I personally think it’s wrong. Do I think that we need to challenge that? Yes. On the issue of what we receive in cases, these individuals deserve and have every right to access the same service as anyone else.

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Photo credit: Descrier

VoS: Have you received a significant number of calls for help from any other particular group and could you tell us a little bit about this?

TM: Firstly, some individuals will report to us thinking that they can trip us up by thinking “they won’t service us. […] Let’s trip up Tell Mama and say ‘I’m Christian. Will you help me?'” Well, you’re not tripping us up because actually if you’re Christian or you’re Jewish and you report to us we will provide you with the same service. Secondly, the first time another group started reporting to us was after Brexit. Two groups reported to us: Eastern European communities and African Caribbean women. Here we go back to the gender issue. Why? From talking to the African Caribbean women, we found that the “N word” came back into the lexicon – old racism. Three African Caribbean women reported to us just a day after Brexit to say that they had been called that racial word that they hadn’t heard in 20 years. But… all of them were women. That is not a large enough figure to make an extrapolation but certainly the fact that they were women tells us about gender and goes back to what I said before. Gender has to be looked at. Eastern European communities also report to us and we had five cases from Polish communities who were targeted as well.

VoS: Yes there was the unfortunate murder of the Polish gentleman. That’s been a big issue. Do you believe the government is doing enough to tackle hate crime and Islamophobia? Islamophobia is now recorded as a separate category of hate crimes so it won’t fall into the bracket of racial crimes etc. beyond that – do you think they’re doing enough?

TM: Yes, but not enough. The government have made huge headway in understanding that anti-Muslim hatred is a real problem that needs to be tackled. When we started our work in Tell Mama the government was in a different place. It was very difficult for them to understand the nature of the problem and the place the government is in today is substantially different in its understanding of anti-Muslim hatred from five years ago. They’re putting money in. They’re putting resources in. Ministers are standing up and are constantly reaffirming the fact that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred is something they need to tackle as well as other strands. But, they have also done something else. Looking at the Action Against Hate hate Crime action plan for 2016 that the government produced, within the thread of every page they’ve mentioned Islamophobia as a key issue they need to tackle. So there’s a lot more that can be done but let’s commend the government for what they have done. Many people within Muslim communities constantly bash away at government and I’m one of those people who will absolutely hold government to account if I think that they’re fundamentally wrong. I’ve actively challenged the government on issues. So I’m not sitting here as some kind of a puppet for the government. No. They know I actively challenge them but when they’ve done something right, we need to commend them and they’ve done a lot in this area and will continue to do a lot more.

VoS: What are your predictions for the immediate future? What do you believe are the main challenges ahead for both Tell Mama and British society in terms of social harmony and political based issues and in light of this, what are Tell Mama’s goals for the coming future?

TM: The fact is that 2017 will be turbulent with major political shifts and changes on the horizon. After Brexit, we saw spikes in hate crime and far right groups are becoming more organised in Europe. So, there will be more turbulence. Our goals are to ensure that Muslim communities feel confident to be able to report it, campaign and empower themselves to be able to handle and challenge anti-Muslim hatred AND other forms of hatred. Muslims are not an island and hatred affects other communities, though with a significant international focus on Muslims, they need to become self-empowered right now.

VoS: How can local communities and residents from all faiths and none and from different backgrounds come together to help prevent attacks against Muslims – from both within and outside the Muslim community – and as a whole, anyone affected by hate crime?

TM: Simple things can be done through social media activism, ensuring that faith communities and institutions undertake activities together and last but not least: do not fall into the trap of looking like you’re doing a ‘tea, samosas and steel band’ type activities. Whatever is done together should be practical, realistic and impactful – and sometimes challenging.

VoS: Do you have a final message for those who are concerned about the position or place of Muslims in British society or for those attracted to extremist, hateful or far-right rhetoric in any form?

TM: Yes. Muslims are here to stay in Britain and will be here for the next 500 years or more. So, unless we find a way to live together, are we going to hand down a legacy of conflict to our children?

[…]

If you’d like to find out more information, see:

To report an incident of hate crime in the UK:

  • In an emergency, please call 999
  • To report a case to Tell Mama, get in touch via telephone: 0800 456 1226, email: info@tellmama.org, text: 0115 707 0007 or WhatsApp: 07341846086

Acknowledgements and credits:

I’d like to thank Fiyaz for his time and insights and I wish the Tell Mama team all the very best in their work and future endeavours.

Image credits: Steve Snodgrass (feature image)

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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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‘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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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)

Laïcité of lies – Laïcité à la française is not secularism

There has been a lot in the news the past week about France, its so-called “secular policy” and a recent ban on burkinis in Cannes. This is yet another example of an Islamophobic, discriminatory ideology that is not secular in any sense in relation to freedom, justice and democracy – three words it is usually described and presented in relation to.

Let’s have a look at what secularism is supposed to be. According to the Oxford dictionary, secularism is defined as:

The principle of separation of the state from religious institutions‘he believes that secularism means no discrimination against anybody in the name of religion

Now, as a translator, I usually refuse to translate France’s policy of laïcité to “secularism” when translating into English. No, this is not a political bias as a translator – it is simply the truth. Laïcité is a whole different political policy of its own and not what we in Anglophone countries equate with secularism. There is a key core ideological difference:

  • Secularism: non-discrimination, the lack of political power/influence over one’s religion and vice versa
  • Laïcité: not simply separating state and politics. This principle is the banning of religion from the public sphere, in all senses. “Privatising” personal religion and refusing to acknowledge/understand religious identity/belonging.

I always compare it to being more of “State atheism” – but of course with a Catholic bias in the case of France. I spent six years at university studying – amongst other things – French language, culture, politics and aditionally human rights. Before even becoming a Muslim, I was convinced that France was Islamophobic. Before marrying an Algerian… Before the new line of laws which just keep hitting Muslims… Before the ever worsening regression of religious freedom and increase in Islamophobic politics…

In order to keep this short, just consider these examples of the treatment of religious communities – essentially affecting largely Muslim women and girls  – and see if this sounds like secularism, freedom, democracy and justice

1. Banning burkinis on the beach for unfounded reasons of “hygiene”, “safety” and “secularism” (see here and here) which essentially rules out swimming for a groups of (Muslim) women like myself (Cannes – I won’t be visiting next summer by the way!)

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Image: Elizabeth Arif-Fear (c)

2. Banning facial coverings (niqabs, burqas) – meaning innocent Muslim women cannot wear face veils unless they want to face a fine and/or imprisonment (see here)

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Image credit: Khalid Albaih

3. Banning “conspicuous” religious symbols in schools such as headscarves and for those “delivering a public service”, which means either removing your kippa, Sikh turban or hijab or removing yourself from the Republican sphere;  i.e. be taught at home, work from home or go to a Muslim/Islamic school (see here and here)

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Image credit: Vincent Albanese

This is the model that Turkey used to base its headscarf policy on. I myself have direct experience of this having being informed I could not teach in my headscarf when I applied for a teaching post. I therefore withdraw my application. Fortunately things seem to have changed in Turkey. Clearly, I was out to indoctrinate the students during English class by being myself whilst teaching girls who they themselves had the right to cover their heads and were Muslim… Glad to see, things have changed a little in Turkey at least!

Things have become so extreme in France, that a young Muslim girl was recently told that her maxi skirt was “too religious”, resulting in her being banned from the school.

Now just ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this sound like non-discrimination?
  • Does this sound like freedom?
  • Does this sound fair?
  • Does this sound rational?

For me, that’s a big, fat NO! It must be said:

France: laïcité is not secularism! Please stop pretending your République functions for the benefit of the people according to liberté, égalité et fraternité. It doesn’t! What it is is:

neo-colonial, intolerant,

Islamophobic, hypocritical and nothing less!

Salam!

Credits:

Feature image: Lisecher

What has the European Convention on Human Rights ever done for us?

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Image credit: Rich Girard

On June 23rd the British public voted to leave the European Union. This came as a shock for many of us. It also brings to light a series of further questions: What about free movement? What about trade? What will happen to EU citizens already in the UK? What about the European Convention on Human Rights?

As a member of the Council of Europe, the UK is bound to the The European Convention on Human Rights. The EU and the Council of Europe are two different bodies. Phew, what a relief many of us might be inclined to think.

However, and this is the butlawyers fear what the future holds post-Brexit regarding the ECHR and Britain. There has been talk about pulling out and adopting a British Bill of Rights. The Human Rights Act (1998) – which the British government have been looking at scrapping for a long time – is the partial incorporation of the ECHR into domestic law and ideas are based on replacing this with this potential British Bill of Rights (see here for full details). We quite rightly should be worried. Theresa May – the new British PM – when working as Home Secretary prior to the referendum on leaving the EU stated the following:

It isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court

This is very shocking indeed. The ECHR is an important, powerful instrument which I often feel is undervalued by the British public and is clearly undermined by British politicians. Human rights are being eroded in the UK. Those affected include disabled citizens, “Skype families” of mixed EU and non-EU families being forced to live apart and those on low incomes and benefits. It is time to get vocal and stand up for the ECHR.

I was shown a fantastic sketch made by The Guardian starring Patrick Stewart, which I urge you to watch entitled: What has the ECHR ever done for us?” Well, that’s a good question. You can check out the video below for the answer:

So, what has the ECHR ever done for us? Well, a lot and we need it!

Here are 20 rights it enshrines; rights which offer us freedom, hope and equality:

1. The right to life

2. Freedom from torture

3. Freedom from slavery and forced labour

4. The right to liberty and security

5. The right to a fair trial

6. Punishment to be enforced only by law

7. The right to respect for private and family life

8. Freedom of thought, conscience of religion

9. Freedom of expression

10. Freedom of assembly and association

11. The right to marry

12. The right to an effective remedy

13. Freedom from discrimination

14. The right to education

15. The right to free elections

16. Prohibition of imprisonment for debt

17. Freedom of movement

18. Prohibition of expulsions of nationals

19. The right of appeal in criminal matters

20. Compensation for wrongful convictions

So, spread the word and let’s raise the profile of support for the Human Rights Act and the ECHR. Sign and share the following petition and blog and tweet away!

Salam!

Credits:

Feature image: Portal gda

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)

“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)

Torture and Transplants – China’s Bloody Secret

china-flag-1418969 (3).jpgWhen we hear about human rights, we often hear about China due to its poor human rights record. Whilst China is well known for a range of human rights abuses, its economy continues to grow and the State has been working on its international relations. President Xi Jinping visited the USA last September, followed by the UK in October and protesters drew attention to China’s human rights abuses. Indeed – it’s essential more than ever to bring China’s often bloody secrets (further) out of the closet.

One such ongoing issue that has been publicised but is not frequently in the media is that of China’s illegal organ harvesting. This tragic issue has many shocking elements: illegal imprisonment, torture, death, blood money, religious and ethnic oppression  in short… mass murder.

Organ transplants in China

China is the world’s second biggest organ transplant provider – with the USA at the top. However there are a variety of worrying factors regarding China’s:

  • High number of organ transplants: 10,000 per year
  • Incredibly low rate of voluntary organ donors due to cultural beliefs
  • Lack of a national organ donation or distribution system (supposedly until 2014)
  • Incredibly short waiting times: two to four weeks (according to 165 organ transplant centres)
  • Lack of laws allowing the use of organs from people who are brain dead or have undergone cardiac arrest
  • Lack of accountabilitytransparency and traceability according to the World Health Organisation‘s guidelines
  • Resistance to investigation
  • Duty to ethical organ donation which requires “voluntary and informed consent”

Sources: European Parliament (2013), Matas (2008)

In 1984, China introduced a law to allow transplants from executed prisoners. In 2005, Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu declared that 95% of organs used for transplants were sourced from executed prisoners (Sherif et al., 2014). However, following allegations of forced organ harvesting using imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners, Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific David Kilgour were asked to investigate the issue by The Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of the Falun Gong in China (CIPFG) in 2006. Their report Bloody Harvest (2007) declared the allegations to be true: China is harvesting organs through the imprisonment of persecuted Falun Gong practitioners.

The anti-Falun Gong campaign

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Falun Gong (aka Falun Dafa) is a peaceful spiritual movement akin to Buddhism, founded in China by Li Hongzhi in 1984. It is now practised worldwide. In 1992, Falun Gong was officially recognised by the State and was given a permit to teach across the country. However, by 1996 problems began to arise with the Falun Gong movement and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political and economic demands. Censoring and harassment later started and by 1999 the CCP started its campaign to wipe out the practice and banned Falun Gong. Practitioners were beaten and taken to detention centres and an anti-Falun Gong media campaign began. The reason? Whilst the CCP has labelled Falun Gong as an “illegal cult” (see this Chinese non-governmental anti-cult website as an example), reasons cited are “fear” and “jealousy”.

As one of China’s persecuted religious minorities, the Falun Gong face discrimination in regards to work, finance and education, destitution and are forced into labour camps and “education centres” – facing imprisonment, various forms of torture and death – including: forced labourbeatings, burning, water torture, rape and sexual assault, brainwashing and worst of all since 2000: the unwilling removal of their organs and death.

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Harvesting high price human organs

The Matas-Kilgour report was first published in 2006 – in which roughly 20,000 organ transplants are reported to have taken place (2007, Sharif et al., 2014). Their research across China included:

  • Evidence from organ transplant/information centre websites (later closed down)
  • Donor recipient interviews
  • Information on corpses of imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners with missing organs
  • Telephone calls to hospitals/transplant centres

The following is taken from a phone call to Director Song at the Oriental Organ Transplant Centre in Tianjin City (2006):

N: Her doctor told her that the kidney is quite good because he [the supplier] practises …Falun Gong.

Song: Of course. We have all those who breathe and with heart beat…Up until now, for this year, we have more than ten kidneys, more than ten such kidneys.

N: More than ten of this kind of kidneys? You mean live bodies?

Song: Yes it is so.

Source: Matas and Kilgour (2007)

After being imprisoned, Falun Gong prisoners undergo specific medical tests (unlike other prisoners). When required they are “taken to surgery” – still conscious and under a low level of anesthetic Falun Gong prisoners’ organs are removed. Medics then place the bodies in a boiler/incinerator to remove all traces – the victim could be alive or dead at this stage. There have also been other cases of corpses being “collected” by so-called ” relatives”.

Confessions from medics and their families confirm claims involving Falun Gong practitioners and other persecuted minorities. Former Uyghur surgeon Enver Tohti declared he removed the organs of an executed Uyghur prisoner in 1995:

A moment later there were gun shots. Not one, but many. […] An armed police officer approached us and […] pointed to a corpse, saying ‘this is the one’.

[…] our chief surgeon [..] told me to remove the liver and two kidneys. […] we took the body into the van and removed his liver and kidneys. An operation to repair an organ is very difficult and takes a very long time to do, but this […] was an operation of extraction, so it was easy and quick.

Falun Gong and other persecuted minorities share the same fate. Not only have Falun Gong practitioners suffered but Uyghur (Muslim) and Tibetan prisoners have also been victims of forced organ transplants as well as House Christians (European Parliament, 2013).

Donor recipients were originally high ranking officials and their family members. Nowadays however, anybody from within and outside China with enough money can buy an organ. In 1996, The China International Transplantation Network Assistance Centre in Shenyang City advertised the following prices on its website (http://en.zoukiishoku.com/):

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Source: Matas and Kilgour (2007) – website archive

National and overseas donor recipients from countries such as Taiwan are paying for nothing more than state murder with huge revenues.

Although Matas and Kilgour (2007) acknowledged the potential difficulty in proving or disproving the allegations due to a lack of corpses, freedom of speech in China and information from the State, their conclusion from their research was that the allegations were true. Author Ethan Gutmann in his 2014 book “The Slaughter” declared that between 2000-2008, organs were harvested from: 65,000 Falun Gong practitioners and 2,000 – 4,000 Uyghurs, Tibetans or House Christians and Kilgour has confirmed that human organ trafficking in China is ongoing today.

In 2014 China claimed to have introduced a new computerized system including organs of both voluntary donations (following a Red Cross scheme introduced in 2010) and those of executed prisoners but this excludes prisoners of conscience and the fact that China had previously declared it would stop using organs belonging to executed prisoners (Sharif et al., 2014).

Human rights abuses

China is abusing a number of universal human rights, including: the right to lifereligious freedom and freedom from torture. Whilst the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – supported by China – is not legally binding, some of the very few international human rights conventions that China has ratified and consequential legal violations are:

These conventions establish a variety of rights including: freedom from torture and “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” (ICESCR, Art.12).

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The ongoing campaign

Despite investigations, reports and the ratification a number of human rights conventions, 15 years later this tragedy is ongoing. So what can we do to stop this brutality? Well for starters, how many of your friends, family members and acquaintances know about this shocking reality? The first time I heard about it myself was in London in China Town just a few years ago. There is a mountain of information online and various NGOs involved in research and campaigning such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the organisation Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH) who launched a petition to the United Nations in 2013.

To take action, you can:

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  • Raise awareness – blog, Tweet, share, give a talk, street campaign
  • Sign the Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting petition to the UN
  • Sign the Friends of Falun Gong petition to the US Secretary of State (US and non-US residents)
  • Sign the Stop Organ Harvesting in China petition (US residents only)
  • Donate your time/money to relevant NGOs

It’s crucial that Falun Gong practitioners, Muslims, Christians and Tibetans be free from persecution. The Tibetan struggle is ongoing, religious discrimination and persecution is increasing towards Uyghur Muslims and House Christians and the issue of forced organ harvesting has not disappeared even if the media remains rather quiet.

Get signing and get shouting!

Salam!

Sources and further information:

*Images from FreeImages.com shares under a Creative Commons licence