“I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me…”- Experiences of American convert to Islam Ashley Bounoura

In light of Trump’s new “career change” and the rise in Islamophobic hate crime both here in the UK and USA, Muslims here in the UK, across Europe and in the US in particular, face being potentially verbally and physically abused whilst going about their daily lives. Discourse around values, identity and belonging feed Islamophobic rhetoric. As a Muslim convert living in the UK, I’ve had no real trouble so far. I feel happy, safe and wanted here in the UK. But what about in the US?

Having met the lovely Ashley – a young American convert to Islam currently living in Algeria with her husband and founder of the blog Muslimah According to Me – I wanted to get an insight into her experiences as a convert: how did her friends and family react to her decision to become a Muslim? Was she welcomed within and outside the Muslim community? What is life like in the US for a Muslim convert? Well, here’s Ashley’s guest post talking about her experiences in both the US and UK. Enjoy!

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15181533_10211268880938203_2784240802646481146_n.jpgAs I began to seriously think about reverting to Islam, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was scared of the reactions of my friends and family, and I knew to expect some backlash in general from the public as I went out for the first couple of times in my hijab, but I didn’t know what form any of that might take.

Looking back, in the few months after I first reverted, the reaction was far kinder than anything I had come to expect. Especially within my family, the people who are most important to me were the most supportive. My mother, sister, and grandfather all felt some apprehension at first, but as they began to see that I was the same person, and even becoming a better person because of this faith, they were quick to let me know that they supported anything that made me happy.

Within my friendship group there was a slightly more mixed reaction; I had a couple of friends from Los Angeles area that had a little bit of a difficult time stepping out of their affluent republican mindset, and unfortunately my decision to wear the hijab officiated the end of some friendships. My best friend, however, was completely supportive of me, and now even participates in World Hijab Day every year to spread awareness. Of course, I also made a couple of new friends along the way, both born Muslims and reverts [Muslim converts].

Integration into the Muslim community itself – another problem many reverts face – was easy and painless for me, in the beginning at least. I had one very good friend, who acted as a sort of all-in-one mentor, shoulder to lean on, and resource library. She always took me along to classes and lectures with her, and her friends all accepted me as I was. I joined the Muslim Students Association at my university, and the sisters there were all also very welcoming and ready to share in my journey.

However, upon moving to London (United Kingdom), I found that such accepting communities are actually quite rare to find. I had in fact been spiritually “growing up” in a metaphorical bubble. I had been excited to move out of my tiny community into something bigger, and I thought London would be a great opportunity for me to make tons of new friends. I instead found the community there to be far less open, and deeply separated into cultural cliques that had no place for a native-English speaking American university student. Because of this, I ended up being very isolated for the year I was studying there. The one good thing about moving to the diverse city of London however was the fact that the people on the street hardly gave me a second look.

Back in my university town in California, I had found myself in an odd place between the two communities. I found myself experiencing my majority cultural community in a much different way than I ever had before. Though I am always, to some degree, a novelty within the Muslim community, within the wider community, I experienced everything from micro-aggressions and confused stares, to actual violent threats (though this was by far the exception to the rule). For the most part, I got an odd look or two walking down the street, but I made it my policy to just look back and smile, and this tended to put people at ease. The broad majority of interactions I had in my university course, with my colleagues at work, and in my extra-curricular activities were positive. People were curious but kind, sceptical but supportive, and sometimes they just ignored the change completely.

The negative things I did experience mainly consisted of mildly irritating micro-aggression, usually in the form of slightly ridiculous questions. One thing I got asked a lot by random strangers was: “Where are you from?” Of course I would answer with: “California,” but they would almost always follow up with “yeah, but where are you from?” Sometimes I would just be given two choices: “Are you from Iran or Iraq?”, “Lebanon or Syria?”, “Albania or Turkey?” People seemed to have a very difficult time believing that I actually am just from California, and so are my parents, and my grandparents, and my great-grandparents (with the exception of my maternal grandfather’s parents, who are from Italy). Other times I have been asked very strange questions, but as long as there is space for a conversation I am always OK with giving an answer. Beyond the small things though, the biggest problem that I find that people had with me is not the fact that I am a Muslim, or that I “resemble the enemy,” but the fact that I am white and I choose to dress and believe as I do. Many of my most violent and aggressive encounters have stemmed from this type of animosity and the fact that, according to them, my lifestyle choices are not valid.

So, as I am preparing myself here in Algeria to begin the move back to the United States with my husband, I sometimes worry about the situation I will be returning to. I hear stories daily from my Muslim friends of attacks, mosques burning, being sworn at an intimidated in the street. I have been the recipient of not-so-cordial comments on my own blog and social media, and I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me, instead of being made to know that I am officially no longer welcome here, in the country where I spent the first 21 years of my life, because I choose to look and believe differently than those who hold the power.

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Credits and acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank Ashley for her time and efforts in writing this guest piece. I’d also like to wish her and her family all the very best for the future and their move back to the US.

If you’d like to find out more about Ashley and her experiences, please do visit her blog and Muslimah According to Me Facebook page. The blog is well worth a visit!

Images:

Greater than Fear (Shepard Fairey, Ridwan Adhami) (feature image) (CC), Ashley Bounoura (c)

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

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

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

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

“It’s safe back home for them.”

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

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

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

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

Statistics: UNHCR, The Refugee Council (2015)

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If you think violent jihad is the answer, read on…

Dear brothers and sisters,

Assalam aleykum,

I’m writing to you in light of the suspected terrorist attack on a German Christmas market last night just six days before Christmas – a time when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom we refer to as Prophet Jesus/Issa (pbuh); a kind, modest, preacher from Palestine born to Mary/Mariam who taught us to love and have mercy on one another, to worship God, to undertake good deeds and to repel evil.

If you’re sympathetic to ISIS and the concept of waging ‘holy war’ you may see nothing wrong with this event. You witness the atrocities in Syria, you saw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you hear about sisters being harassed and you feel injustice. You feel you need to ‘seek revenge’ and ‘fight back’. You see it as your blessed honourable duty to fight in the way of Allah through bloodshed. Oh, how I pity you….

When the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) fled Saudi Arabia in his early years of prophethood he sought refuge in Ethiopia amongst Christians. When the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) established a government in Medina, the constitution comprised a multifaith community where Jews, Christians and Muslims alike could live in peace. The Prophet’s own family included Christians – none of whom he ‘forced’ to convert to Islam or despised. When we think of the wonderful beautiful names of Allah (SWT) we are reminded of such beautiful qualities and the lessons and teachings which accompany them as part of Islam: kindness, patience, generosity, truth, justice, modesty, compassion, mercy, wisdom and understanding. Amongst the 99 names of Allah revealed by Allah (SWT) in the Qur’an itself, are 15 names in particular which I’d like to draw your attention to with a relevant teaching from a Qur’anic verse or hadith:

  1. Ar Rahman (الرحمن)  – The All Merciful: Allah will not be merciful to those who are not merciful to people.” (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim)
  2. Ar Rahim (الرحيم) – The Most Merciful: Be merciful to others and you will receive mercy. Forgive others and Allah will forgive you.” (Sahih Ahmad)
  3. As Salam (السلام) – Peace and Blessing: “O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace [Islam].” (2:208)
  4. Al Ghaffaar (الغفار) – The Ever Forgiving: “Show forgiveness, enjoin in what is good, and turn away from the ignorant.” (7:199)
  5. Al ‘Adl (العدل) – The Utterly Just: “God does not love corruption.” (2:205)
  6. Al Latif (اللطيف) – The Subtly Kind: “He who is deprived of kindness is deprived of goodness” (Sahih Muslim)
  7. Al Ghafur (الغفور) – The All Forgiving: “The reward of the evil is the evil thereof, but whosoever forgives and makes amends, his reward is upon God.” (42:40)
  8. Al Karim (الكريم) – The Bountiful, the Generous “[…] But whatever thing you spend [in His cause] – He will compensate it; and He is the best of providers.” (34:39)
  9. Al Hakim (الحكيم) – The Wise: “Invite to the way of  your Lord with wisdom and fair preaching […]” (16:125)
  10. Al Wadud (الودود) – The Loving, the Kind One: “Those who believe and do good deeds – the Gracious God will create love in their hearts.” (19:97)
  11. Al Muhyi (المحيي) – The Giver of Life: “[…] and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” (6:151)
  12. Al Barr (البر) – The Most Kind and Righteous: “Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever is not kind has no faith.” (Muslim)
  13. Ar Ra’uf (الرؤوف) – The Compassionate, the All Pitying: “And good and evil are not alike. Repel evil with that which is best. And lo, he between whom and thyself was enmity will become as though he were a warm friend.  But none is granted it save those who are steadfast; and none is granted it save those who possess a large share of good.” (41:35-36)
  14. An Nur (النور) – The Light: “O Allah! Make for me Light in my heart, Light in my vision, Light in my hearing, Light on my right, Light on my left, Light above me, Light under me, Light in front of me, Light behind me, Light in my hair, Light in my skin, Light in my flesh, Light in my blood, and Light in my bones. O Allah Grant me Light!” [Tirmidhi]
  15. As Sabur (الصبور) – The Timeless, The Patient: “Those who spend (in Allah’s cause) in prosperity and in adversity, who repress their anger, and who pardon men, verily, Allah loves the al-Muhsinum (the good-doers).” (3:134)

Please enlighten me and explain how by controlling one’s anger, being just, truthfulhonest and resorting to self-defence only when required in time of necessity (always excluding women, children and animals and not even harming a plant!) as Islam teaches, one is permitted and even obliged to carry out bombings, shootings and other acts of violence against unarmed innocent civilians? Such acts can only be described as terrorism and are completely forbidden.

Have you no respect for your fellow brothers and sisters in faith: Jews and Christians (The People of The Book) – forgetting that Allah permits marriage amongst Christian/Jewish sisters and Muslim brothers? Have you no respect for your brothers and sisters in humanity and Allah’s Creation? He created each and everyone of us the way HE intended.

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Perhaps I need to remind you of these key points:

  • Sectarianism, racism, (overt) nationalismgreed and corruption are haram [forbidden] and have caused endless suffering within and amongst Muslim nations: “And hold fastAll together, by the rope Which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves” (3:103).
  • Millions of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis and Yemenis (the list of nations goes on) – innocent victims and your brothers and sisters in Islam – have fled and are continuing to flee war, violence, torture and persecution or what’s more: continue to remain trapped in their own country where they are subject to ongoing bombing, famine and starvation due to repugnant violence, intolerant extremism, abhorrent politics and relentless military campaigns by the likes of ISIS, Al Qaeda and “Muslim” dictators/regimes who are harming even innocent babies and children.
  • For those of you enjoying your freedom in Europe, do you not think that ‘biting the hand that feeds you’ is sheer hypocrisy? Islamophobia is wrong, racial abuse is wrong, wars are wrong – no one is denying that but if you hate Europe so much, why are you here? Oh the irony of hating democracy when Allah himself has given us free will, stating: “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned” (2:256)….
  • The more you commit terrorist atrocities, the more likely Muslims in the ‘West’ risk facing potential Islamophobic attacks. You risk making life harder for Muslim communities in non-Muslim majority nations. Fortunately, there are many many non-Muslims out there that have educated themselves on Islam, shown tolerance, understanding, compassion and stand united in solidarity against such hatred and inhumanity, refusing to be beaten down and divided as a society.

Finally and most simply of all: Islam isn’t dogma. Islam is spirituality, peace and a way of life. If you’re not in tune with that, then it’s all pointless. Picture this: how can you violently shoot others one minute, then pray in subdued peaceful silence in tune with Allah the next? I must therefore ask: who is Allah to you? I suggest you review Allah’s 99 names and the Qur’an and look at the bigger picture…

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Credits:

Images: Brian Jeffery Beggerly (feature image), Anuradha SenguptaBengin Ahmad

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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)

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

The biggest massacre in Europe since WWII – do you know it?

After the tragic events of WWII and the genocide of millions of Jews, Roma gypsies, homosexuals, political opponents, the handicapped and anyone else deemed “unworthy” under Nazi Germany‘s policy of extermination, the World said never again. Yet the sad reality is that the world continues to witness immense violence and the massacre of groups of people due to their political, ethnic, cultural and /or religious beliefs.

The fact is that last week witnessed the 21st anniversary of the massacre of around 8,000 young men and boys. What was the “reason” behind such killing?

They were Muslim

I attended a memorial evening showing the following documentary and was shocked. It retells events of 11th July 1995 – the day in which Bosnian Serbian forces entered the town of Srebrenica and massacred 8,100 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. This is the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in the 21st century.

This genocide of Bosnian Muslims is the biggest massacre since WWII. The documentary is really is worth a watch to get the facts behind the massacre and show just how it continues to affect families and the area it devastated.

What was left from this massacre – stemming from extreme nationalism and religious hatred – is the unearthed and scattered remains of these victims and heartache of the wives, mothers and sisters left behind. In some cases, generations were wiped out within one single family. Those in power sought “revenge” for the Ottoman domination – as absurd as that sounds. In seeking “revenge” and Serbian domination, they massacred thousands – raping women and killing their male family members.

In order to conceal their crimes, the Serbian forces scattered the remains of the victims across a variety of sites. If not painful enough, many families cannot fully morn the loss of their loved ones as they await for their remains to be found. Other families hold a funeral with what remains of their loved ones are left. Any sense of real closure is near impossible:

I can visit my loved ones. It is much harder for the widows and mothers who still haven’t been able to bury their loved ones.

Fadila Efendic, Srebrenica survivor

DNA sampling continues to be used to trace living relatives to the remains of the massacre. According to Valerie Hopkins of Al Jazeera: “About 1,000 people remain missing from Srebrenica, another 7,000 are unaccounted after the 1992-1995 conflict which claimed a total of 100,000 lives.”

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Remains of the victims are stored until they can be identified / pieced together – Image credit: Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal

Whilst families still struggle to come to terms with their losses, there is another crucial message that comes from such tragedy: whilst we said never again –  it happened. This massacre stemmed from a gradual process of demonisation and discrimination up until the point of genocide.

Dr Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, formulated the “10 Steps of Genocide” detailing how stereotyping, and minor hate crime can lead up the mass extermination – genocide – of a group of people. These stages go hand in hand with the series of events leading up to the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany and massacre of Muslims in Bosnia:

  1. Classification: distinguishing “us” and “them”
  2. Symbolization: adding names and symbols for these classifications
  3. Discrimination: oppressing other groups in terms of legal, political rights etc.
  4. Dehumanization: denying the humanity of said group – equating them as “animals”
  5. Organization: arrests, torture, special army training, buying arms
  6. Polarization: driving people apart using propaganda
  7. Preparation: increasing hate propaganda, using euphemisms (e.g. objectives are for “counter terrorism” purposes or as “ethnic cleansing”), building armies/
  8. Persecution: formulation of “death lists”, segregating victims into ghettos, deporting victims to concentration camps, confinement
  9. Extermination: mass killings, rape
  10. Denial: burning of bodies, digging up mass graves, covering up evidence

Further information in how these 10 steps relate to the massacre of Bosnian Muslims, can be found in the NGO Remembering Srebrenica‘s latest publication which can be viewed online here. I really recommend reading this mini-book to get an overview of events past and present and to learn more about the NGO and how you can help. The fact that concentration camps were introduced post-WWII is simply shocking. Testimony of camp survivors is also available online via their website, including that of Subin Musić at Trbopolje Camp, Prijedor):

Men would be shot dead before us, and left to rot for hours. The smell was intoxicating. […] The women were systematically raped at Trnopolje. They were kept in a separate building to the men, but we could hear them.

The fact that such events happened so close to home for many of us and so recently – essentially breaking all “Western” conceptions and stereotypes of human rights and tolerance (akin to Orientialist discourse) – shows us once again that we all belong to one global humanity where hatred is widespread. We are no different from each other: we are capable of doing both good and bad. What this teaches is us is that: intolerance, negative stereotyping, “otherising” and scaremongering are found all over and they have serious consequences. All this can lead to discrimination, persecution and even genocide.

Communities must embrace differences and build a common foundation of tolerance, peace and understanding. If we look at the rise in media scapegoating of refugees and immigrants, the rise in Islamophobia and hate crime steadily over the last few years and in recent weeks since Brexit we must stand united. Remember the lyrics of the famous Groove Armada song:

If everybody looked the same
We’d get tired of looking at each other

Well, it’s true! Variety is the spice of life as they say. We should be proud of who we are but not exclude others. Discovering other cultures and languages and meeting new people is what life is about! Find the common ground and celebrate the differences that make us individual and unique. At the wonderful memorial presentation I attended last week by Hifsa Iqbal, Muslims and non-Muslims were reminded/witness to the following verse:

O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.

O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful.

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.

Qur’an (49: 11-13)

We were created differently and should embrace difference and treat each other fairly. Sadly, Srebrenica is not an example of tolerance, community and peace but instead demonising, Islamophobia, nationalism and ultimately death…

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Women left behind to remember the victims – Image credit: Photo RNW.org

Helping, learning and moving forward

So with the sad remnants of Srebrenica and in today’s context of increased levels of hate crime, intolerance and prejudice, what can and should we be doing to both remember the victims of Srebrenica and to ensure that this sad tragedy (like many others) does not repeat in any other form?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Host a memorial event
  • Teach children about the event and the importance of community cohesion
  • Donate to help towards the cause
  • Blog, tweet and raise awareness online
  • Check out the Remembering Srebrenica‘s website for ideas and make a pledge
  • Work towards relations in your community: join/form/become involved with interfaith groups, community centres and intercultural programmes
  • Stand up to racism/intolerance whenever you see it
  • Encourage victims of hate crime to report incidents to the police. Muslims can also contact Tell MAMA and The Islamic Human Rights Commission directly

Remember the past, learn from it and keep the peace!

Salam!

Credits / further information:

Feature image: Stefano Giantin

Hopkins, V. (10/07/2015) ‘Srebrenica: Unearthing loss‘, Al Jazeera

Remembering Srebrenica – further information, witness testimony and extra resources

Stanton, G. (2016) ’10 Stages of Genocide’, Genocide Watch

“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 ActionIslamic Relief (UK, USA, Spain, Italy) and many more
  • 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
  • Join the boycott Israel BDF movement: avoid brands and shops such as Marks & Spencer, Nestlé and all forms of travel to Israel (for a more information click 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)

Expat or immigrant? – Immigrant. Why everybody should experience living abroad

Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked in their shoes.” Each and every persons’ life experiences are unique but until you’ve experienced something it can be difficult (if not impossible) to understand. Even though no two experiences are the same, sometimes you have to try and put yourselves in that person’s shoes. In the case of migrants and refugees this can sometimes be difficult yet all the more important.

There’s a lot of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee discourse around at the moment concerning undocumented migrants, the recent refugee crisis and EU migrants. Lots of people form unsavoury opinions without even any direct experience. Well, I’ve been living in Spain now for over a year. I’ve spent time living for certain periods in a few countries. I’m passionate about social justice, human rights, migrants’ rights and about fighting racism and religious discrimination. I want to talk about my experiences here in Spain as a “white” Caucasian, British (EU) Muslim migrant married to a non-EU, North African Muslim who is a migrant himself and what we’ve witnessed in our time here. There are a lot of labels there. Whilst labels can be counterproductive, essentialist, and encourage both discrimination and narrow views on identity, in order to uncover the different layers of discrimination here in Spain, you have to pick out the different markers of identity and socio-cultural-economic “classification”.

Here’s my experiences of being an immigrant in Spain, of what I’ve lived, learnt, heard and witnessed (of course I can’t speak for everyone or overgeneralise):

  1. As a non-national or “non-native”, the factors which distinguish you and lead to the most discrimination are: colour, economic status, religion and nationality (which incorporates culture).
  2. Racism/discrimination can be multi-faceted and you may sit between communities. I found myself affected by what I believe to be mild Islamophobia yet almost no racism based on my culture or nationality. I tried to compare experiences, histories and stereotypes; trying to judge and understand my situation in relation to Moroccans as North-African and Muslim and with non-Muslim “Western European” migrants here in Spain.
  3. A lot of people really don’t know the difference between an economic/social migrant and a refugee or asylum seeker – this is a political tool and drives racism and stereotypes.
  4. Integration is a TWO WAY process – you have to put in to get out. Locals, in the name of humanity and collectivity; welcome others! Build bonds and collective identities – crush stereotypes and misconceptions. Likewise for non-locals, if you don’t want to put in – why are you there? If you’ve got no choice – remember this: it’s a duty/blessing to give something back. In doing so you may counteract unfair, unjust racial, religious and cultural discrimination and stereotypes and open up opportunities, relations and change mentalities.

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Unfortunately, there’s negativity here: Muslim women being physically and verbally abused (“Moor”, “terrorist”), poverty, destitution… I see destitute migrants, drinking away their sorrows, sleeping on mattresses. Yes, this also happens with locals  but with immigrants is unfortunately common. I’ve also experienced for myself being asked in interviews for English teaching positions on a few occasions about my headscarf, knowing that I’m a native English speaker (not just “British”) – which adheres to their “standard” or “ideal English teacher” persona. Some interviewers added that it wasn’t an issue. Some I know were genuinely curious or unperturbed but one lady added: “What’s your religion?” and no, this wasn’t in a post-interview chat. Although I can’t prove anything, it’s not a good feeling. Some employers simply tell other Muslims that they’d have to take their scarves off. On top of this, I’ve also seen a jobless, homeless Moroccan woman (both a mother and wife) asking for help, running from domestic violence and neglect, pregnant with young children and each with full legal residency, being told there’s “nothing they can do”, being sent one from office to the next, till her and her children end up on a boat home. Yet, despite all of this I have also witnessed the kindness of Spanish police in such situations and of Spanish neighbours, colleagues, parents, students and general members of the public. Each country has its own inner issues – here there are economic struggles – but there is a wider socio-cultural issue that is void of economic reasoning: socio-cultural exclusion.

Multiculturalism appears to be non-existent here. There’s no real sense of “collective identity” – not if you’re Muslim or Arab at least from what I can see. Neither does there appear to be a great appreciation of other cultures – besides tucking in to a plate of couscous or other “world-cuisine” and despite all the Arab-Moor history in Spain in what was once known as Al-Andalus. I’ve heard otherwise but it seems rare, even despite the positive safety and peace of many migrants living here to counteract it (I can’t speak for refugees/asylum seekers unfortunately). What I stand by is that you have to put in to get out – especially when living in such societies. Yes, without a doubt, migrants should be welcomed but on the other hand, when you see the mosque closed during Ramadan – that’s a missed opportunity right there. That’s your chance to reach out to impoverished or curious people here. Budgets are stretched at both ends but that shouldn’t hold back local and migrant communities in reaching out to each other. In terms of Spaniards, apart from Latin Americans and “typical Westerners/Europeans” and the odd exception, I’ve so far only really seen locals “socialising” with alcoholic destitute migrants (one being Kenyan) who must be in similar situations to themselves. On the other side of the fence, I’ve seen those which appear to have turned their back on their own cultural norms or have come across as so assimilated they were unrecognisable as North African or Muslim. You don’t have to drop your own cultural values. Regarding religious values, you’d be a hypocrite in doing so. A Muslim doesn’t need to sell alcohol or ham to be accepted. I stand by my words: Spain – like many European countries but unlike the UK in terms of majority in my opinion – has a reputation of being Islamophobic and racist. Indeed, there are issues regarding colour, nationality/”race”/culture and Islam but not as much as I’d envisaged. There is hope but things do need to change.

Helping hand shakes another in an agreement

It’s through witnessing, feeling and living all these moments that you see and feel what others go through. I’ve always said to my husband: “Racists should go abroad and see it’s not easy”, “You can’t hate people you’ve met and really know – people need to travel”. Indeed, some of the friendliest Spanish folk I’ve met here are elderly Spaniards who used to live in Morocco. They knew it on a personal level – they’d grown up there, they’d made Moroccan friends. So, if you’re up for an adventure, go abroad and see what life is like for others. Go “native” – don’t go “expat” or “tourist” in your bubble of sun soaked fellow countrymen or tourists. Put yourself out there. If you’re staying put, reach out to the migrant and refugee community. It’s not easy for them. Build bridges. We’re all human. A smile can and does go a long way. If you’re living abroad, reach out to the local community!

Salam!

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