Not simply adults in waiting: UN launches General Comment on the rights of adolescents

By Elizabeth Arif-Fear

On February 7th, the UN officially launched its new General Comment on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence – an event attended by our Director, Tricia Young, in Geneva. This timely document highlights both the capacities and vulnerabilities of young people, holding States accountable for recognising, upholding and implementing the rights of adolescents as individual, autonomous persons.

This is a much needed tool to draw the world’s attention to the need to encourage and protect adolescents, taking their political, educational, socio-cultural, economic and sexual development into account. Stereotypes of adolescents abound. It is a developmental period that is often demonised and pathologised; adolescents are often referred to as a homogeneous group who are irresponsible and selfish. Simply by being an adolescent, young people can face a distinct form of discrimination in addition to other marginalisation as a consequence of their gender, sexuality and / or disability.

As the UN Children’s Rights Committee highlights:

Adolescence itself can be a source of discrimination. During this period, adolescents may be treated as dangerous or hostile, incarcerated exploited or exposed to violence as a direct consequence of their status. Paradoxically, they are also often treated as incompetent and incapable of making decisions about their lives.

Contrary to the stereotypical views of children and teenagers as incapable, “adults in waiting”, young people in fact possess significant developing skills and capabilities. Not only are they more autonomous than their younger peers, but they are in general more outspoken, independent and more critically aware of their environment.

At the same time, they face specific challenges as they move through this critical time of physical, emotional and sexual growth. Particular groups of adolescents may also be more vulnerable to human rights violations as a consequence of disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity or other factors. Promoting and upholding adolescents’ rights therefore requires recognition of specific safeguarding and anti-discrimination measures, as well as support for them to develop their capabilities to become engaged, socially aware young adults.

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Adolescent participants in Child to Child’s life-skills project Hearing All Voices making a real impact by fundraising for Ebola-effected orphans in Sierra Leone

 

As a leading organisation promoting child participation, Child to Child has long been advocating for adults to not only listen to children and young adults but to also recognise the value they have in creating change in every aspect of their lives; whether social, political, economic, cultural or educational, both at home and in the wider public sphere – in their schools, communities, nationally and internationally.

Indeed, the UN General Comment expressly states that adolescents are “agents of change, and a key asset and resource with the potential to contribute positively to their families, communities and countries.”

The discrepancy between the capacities of young people and the lack of opportunity they have to play an active role is specifically pinpointed as a government issue in the General Comment. States neither recognise nor invest adequate time and resources to ensure adolescents enjoy their rights.

Child to Child has actively witnessed how participatory practices can transform adolescents’ lives – and the perceptions of adults who engage with them. Through our life-skills project, Hearing All Voices (HAV), previously marginalised and disengaged students were given the opportunity to participate and help citizens in both their local communities and those as far away as Sierra Leone. They grew in confidence, developed a range of skills and, most importantly: they learnt that they are agents of change in their own right.

The ideas and values expressed in this new General Comment are not simply for human rights or child practitioners but for all of us: parents, teachers, siblings, community members, religious leaders, civil servants and most crucially politicians and State leaders. If we are to respect human rights and the rights of children, then we must acknowledge, respect and advocate for the right of adolescents worldwide to participate in matters which affect them, recognising and harnessing the enormous contribution that they can make.

Copyright:

This article was first published on Child to Child (13/02/2017) (c)

Hey Mr President: Here’s 10 shameful human rights issues you need to get work on…

Dear President Trump,

I’m not an American citizen nor am I of American heritage (I do have Italian-American family mind!) BUT in any case,  I think it’s safe to say that your presidency affects every one of us worldwide. As global citizens, in an increasingly connected and globalised,  world we should be looking out for our brothers and sisters, advocating for human rights and denouncing both threats towards and violations against human freedoms and human rights worldwide.

Long since the start of your presidential campaign, you’ve gathered a lot of media attention. I myself, never expected you to take over office but well – this is theoretically your democratic right. The American people spoke! Out of ignorance, fear and hatred I may add BUT that time has passed. Now you’re ready to settle into the White House and are starting to take on your presidential duties. In light of this, I’d like to remind you of some core human rights abuses which the US needs to address. You state you are the “land of the free” after all… a land which is on show to the entire world…

  1. Abuse of the right to a fair trial: At the end of 2015, Amnesty International recorded a total number of 107 detainees at Guantánamo – most being held without charges having being pressed. These men lie in wait, without hope, facing torture and humiliation. If you believe these men (or anyone else) have committed criminal acts, then take them to trial whilst respecting their right to legal representation and a FAIR trial.
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  2. Abuse of the right to freedom of expression and permissibility of hate speech: Freedom of expression is an important right but that doesn’t mean that citizens should be able to spout inflammatory obscene, hate speech and harass other members of the public. Permissible exceptions to the First Amendment include: “incitement, defamation, fraud, child pornography, obscenity, fighting words and threats”. Well, take a look at some of these gentlemen in the videi below harassing Muslims on the streets and ask yourself, is this acceptable? Freedom of expression is one thing, hate speech and hate crimes are another….

3. Threats to religious freedomYou claimed in December 2015 that you will uphold the right to freedom of religion, when you stated:

“Religious liberty is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is our first liberty and provides the most important protection in that it protects our right of conscience.”

I would however like to compare that to the comments you made regarding Muslims entering the US and American mosques and draw your attention to the fact that since you became elected, there has been a sharp rise in the number of Islamophobic incidents. American Muslims, Jews – every rational person – is counting on you to respect their right to freedom of belief…

4. Denial of the right to adequate health careThere are a series of critical abuses and  health care issues which need addressing:

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An insurance based health care system often leaves citizens unable to receive medical assistance

Lack of a national health care system: Former  President Barack Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on 23rd March (2010). As a result, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that roughly 32 million extra people will have health insurance by 2019 after the law is fully implemented. 32 million people will however remain uninsured. This is simply not good enough – every human has the right to emotional and physical wellbeing and to access adequate health care.

Abuse of mentally ill prisoners: Mentally ill prisoners have been beaten, pepper sprayed, shocked, burnt and have sometimes even died in custody. Staff training, resources, greater knowledge and awareness is crucially needed to address such inhuman treatment and provide the necessary level of care required. Further information can be found in the Human Rights Watch report – I urge you to watch this video (although I found it very distressing – simply because the reality is just that shocking): https://youtu.be/OCaKethFbEg.

Inadequate medical care for transgender women in custody: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) introduced a new policy in June 2015 to provide transgender women in immigration detention with certain protections. However, despite this new policy, transgender women in ICE custody still receive inadequate medical care, as well as reporting sexual and verbal harassment whilst in detention.

Inadequate maternal health care: In a report published by the WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and The World Bank (1990-2008), the USA is ranked 50th in the world for maternal mortality. In fact, the issue of maternal health has long been a concern for Amnesty International. In 2013, the maternal mortality rate was 17.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, with “significant racial disparities” among different racial groups – very concerning indeed. Native American and Alaska Native women who are raped for example, are faced with continuous lack of access to medical care including examinations and emergency contraception. African-American women are also almost four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their white American sisters. I found a range of shocking information via “U.S. Public Health Emergencies: Maternal Mortality and Gun Violence” and Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 report.

5. Abuse of the right to privacy: The US government continues to spy on its citizens by urging major US mobile phone and internet companies to loosen the security measures of their systems so the government can spy more easily on its citizens during criminal investigations. In May 2015, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression called on all countries (including the US) to respect citizens’ right to privacy and “refrain from weakening encryption and other online security measures” due to the fact that human rights defenders and activists across the world rely on the security of such tools and weakening encryption and other online security measures poses a danger to citizens own security. According to Human Rights Watch, although Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in June 2015 which limits the government’s ability to collect phone records and detailed new measures for greater transparency and oversight of NSA surveillance, the law does not restrict surveillance by the government justified to undertake “mass violations of people outside US borders”. Human Rights Watch also highlight how the law does not look at several modern surveillance means from malware to the interception of of all mobile phone calls in any given country. Very worrying indeed…

6. Use of torture, inhuman and degrading punishment and treatment:

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Protesters dressed as Guantánamo detainees

Back in January 2016, former President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for minors in federal prisons. OK – one change, but there is still a long way to go. Having already documented the abuse of mentally ill inmates, the torture of prisoners in Guantánamo is also no secret; including sexual assault, sleep deprivation, mock executions, being forced to watch other inmates being tortured – and the list goes on… Mr President, I’d also like to draw your attention to this comment you made regarding the waterboarding of prisoners/detainees:

“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. I would approve more than that. It works… and if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us“.

Torture is inhuman, inhumane and in any case Mr President – it doesn’t work! “Evidence” and “confessions” extracted under torture are not reliable. We are living in the 21st century, where are you…?!

7. Use of police violence and arbitrary arrest: Following on from point number six, another tragic issue that has been featured a lot in the media recently is the abuse of black Americans by the police – even resulting in their death. We’re not talking about one-off incidents here, we’re talking about recurring patterns of violence, inequality and a culture of racism and abuse. Please don’t deny this. Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 US review records 43 deaths at the hands of police Tasers (across 25 states), reaching a total of at least 670 Taser-related deaths since 2001 (as of 2016). Just in case you think these people were a threat, most were unarmed and appeared to post no threat of death or serious injury when the Taser was used. It is estimated that the number of people who have been killed by law enforcement officials ranges from around 458 to 1,000+ people each year. This is however an estimate as the authorities did not track the exact number of people killed… How convenient… As we all know (and as backed up in the Amnesty report), black males are disproportionately affected by police killings…

8. Discrimination/inequality based on gender, “race”, colour, culture and sexual orientation:

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Black American men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than their white brothers

This is such a big point – where do I start? I’ve already touched on several inequalities including treatment in maternal health care and the use of excessive police force towards black males, so let’s also talk about the fact that African-American males are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned than their white male counterparts for drug offenses committed at “comparable rates”  – according to Human Rights Watch who state that: “African Americans are only 13 percent of the US population, but make up 29 percent of all drug arrests. Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men.”

There is so much discrimination it’s difficult to even squish it into one post…but here’s one more documented by Human Rights Watch: “At time of writing, 28 states do not have laws banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, while three states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation but not on gender identity.” Everyone has the right to work free from discrimination. This just isn’t good enough!

And whilst we’re at it, women don’t just face inequality in the workplace but sexual violence crossing socio-cultural ethnic groups at disproportionate levels. Native American and Alaska Native women not only face inadequate levels of health care but are also dis proportionally affected by sexual violence. They are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped then other women in America. Such issues need to be addressed Mr President.

9. Detention of migrant and asylum-seeking childrenI’m quite frankly shocked and worried by your attitude towards migrants, asylum seekers and refugees… We’re all human and we all deserve the right to a peaceful, stable life free from torture, persecution and war and a decent standard of living. What’s worse is that the US detains asylum seeking women and – wait for it – CHILDREN. The USA has the largest detention immigration system in the world, including a huge amount of asylum-seeking mothers and children from Central America. Such treatment has a devastating psychological impact on these mothers and children. In June 2016, the government announced it would be limiting the practice of detaining mothers and children long-term for those who pass the first stage of the asylum-seeking process. According to Human Rights Watch, in July 2015, a federal judge ruled that the State’s family detention policy “violated a 1997 settlement on the detention of migrant children“. Policy has improved as those appearing to make a “legitimate” asylum claim are released within weeks but family detention still continues. Mr President – such children should never be detained and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers must never be detained for simply seeking protection and US residency.

10. Use of corporal punishment in schools – including against disabled children19 US states still use corporal punishment in schools. Even more shocking is the fact that disabled children are disproportionately affected by such behaviour. Corporal punishment is – as I believe – wrong. Add to this the fact that such punishment will greater affect disabled children’s physical and psychological conditions, this is just completely unacceptable. Across the globe, 124 countries have criminalised such physical punishment in State schools. So why is the USA  – the so-called land of “freedom, equality” etc. – so far behind Mr Trump…?

So, there we have it. There are so many social, cultural, political, economic and human rights issues in the USA which need addressing Mr President, but here’s 10 to get you started. Why not show toady’s protesters something positive? Why not prove us wrong? It’s up to you…

Key information sources:

Amnesty International: United States of America 2015/2016

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2016: United States, Events of 2015

Image credits:

Donkey Hotey, Waywuwei, Justin Norman, Ben

Syrian medics on the frontline: an interview with the Medics Under Fire campaign

It’s been almost six years since the outbreak of civil war in Syria. Since March 2011, an estimated 11 million Syrian refugees have fled their homeland, whilst a staggering 6.6 million internally displaced Syrian citizens still lie within Syria’s borders, having also had to flee their homes due to the conflict. Within Syria itself, 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The heartbreaking conflict shows no signs of ending any time soon. As President Assad and his Russian allies continue to bomb civilian homes, schools, and hospitals, there is sadly no peace for millions of men, women and children. Humanitarian aid workers and medical staff continue to risk their lives to tend to the sick with scarce resources. In light of this, I got in touch with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) who run the Medics Under Fire campaign alongside the NGO The Syria Campaign to find out more about the situation on the ground in Syria right now. 

As a humanitarian organisation, the focus of SAMS’ work is: “to provide medical care and relief to any patient in need, regardless of religious or political affiliation”. According to SAMS, the major threat to their facilities comes from airstrikes from the Syrian government and its allies. 94.7% of medical workers who have died in Syria have been killed at the hands of the Syrian government. In exact figures that’s 750 medical workers since the beginning of the Syria conflict, with a total of  52 staff who have not been killed by Syrian/Russian government attacks. As SAMS notes, these figures only include documented numbers. They estimate that the real number is much higher.

In light of this and the immense difficulties that come with both living and working in Syria at present, I wanted to find out more about the realities and challenges doctors are currently facing in Syria. This is what SAMS had to say.

Thank you for taking the time to undertake this interview for Voice of Salam – your time is very much appreciated.

Although the conflict in Syria has been going on for five years now, there’s been a much greater focus in the media over the last few weeks – in particular on Aleppo. Could you give a breakdown on the current situation and state of emergency?

Eastern Aleppo City was evacuated in December 2016. Evacuees were taken to the Aleppo countryside, Idlib, and Turkey, for the most critical medical cases. Aleppo countryside has seen aerial bombardment in the past few weeks. However, the situation in other parts of Syria remains critical, including the recent developments in Wadi Barada, located north-west of Damascus. The area has seen intense shelling, and the Ain Al-Fijah spring has been cut off, which provided drinking water to many of Damascus’s neighbourhoods. The situation in Wadi Barada must be addressed. 

What are some of the human rights violations taking place in Syria both before and during the war and from which side? Who are the perpetrators and to what level?

Physicians for Human Rights has well documented the range of human rights violations taking place against healthcare in Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011. They have documented 400 attacks on healthcare facilities and the deaths of 768 medical professionals, the majority of which were perpetrated by the Syrian government and its allies.

In January 2017, SAMS published its report The Failure of UN Security Council Resolution 2286 in Preventing Attacks on Healthcare in Syria, documenting 2016 as the most dangerous year for healthcare in Syria.

The Medics under Fire campaign is run by yourselves – The Syrian American Medical Society – and The Syria Campaign. Could you tell readers a little more about your organisation, campaign and the work that you do?

When the conflict in Syria began in 2011, SAMS expanded its capacity significantly to meet the growing needs and challenges of the medical crisis. SAMS has since supported healthcare throughout Syria, sponsoring field hospitals and ambulances, training and paying the salaries of Syrian medical personnel who are risking their lives to save others, and sending lifesaving humanitarian aid and medical equipment to where it is needed most. SAMS also supports Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries with critical psychosocial support, medical and dental care, and art therapy programs.

The Medics Under Fire Campaign was created to highlight the horrific conditions that medical personnel in Syria have been forced to work under since 2011. Medical workers, hospitals, and ambulances have become acceptable targets in the conflict, completely undermining the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law. SAMS has lost too many medical staff and rebuilt too many destroyed hospitals as a result of the Syrian government’s campaign of targeting healthcare. 

What are some of the main issues and vulnerabilities that medical professionals in Syria are currently facing?

Healthcare has continuously been used as a tool of war in Syria, with the Syrian government indiscriminately targeting hospitals and medical facilities. The targeted strikes on medical facilities have left medical personnel without the adequate tools or resources to treat patients. Since the onset of the crisis, over 700 medical workers have been killed, and every doctor’s death or hospital’s destruction means that thousands of people will be deprived of life-saving medical care. The remaining doctors know that they will be targeted by airstrikes, but they risk their lives to continue to provide healthcare to patients in need. Because there are so few doctors inside Syria, many are forced to practice medicine beyond their expertise, and often without the resources they would typically have. Our medical personnel make do with what they have, but unfortunately because access is routinely blocked into non-government held areas, we cannot deliver the supplies that they require.

Could you tell us about some of the personal accounts you’ve come across?

SAMS highlights many personal accounts on the homepage of our website under ‘Stories from the Field.’ We also produced Syrian Medical Voices from the Ground: The Ordeal of Syria’s Healthcare Professionals

As a non-political organisation fighting to raise awareness of the human rights abuses taking place in Syria and aid medics working on the ground since the onset of conflict, what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced? Have the public been as receptive as you’d hoped?

We have had success in elevating voices of medical workers and attacks on healthcare. We were so amazed and moved by the tremendous support we received in December 2016 following the crisis in Aleppo. 27,000 people from 90 countries donated to our Aleppo Fund on Facebook, which raised over $1.5 million dollars. However, policy change has been limited and there has been very little change in the situation on the ground, despite global awareness and condemnation.

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For people out there who are currently disengaged or sceptical about the issues you work with, what would you say to them?

We would appeal to their humanity and ask them to see Syrians as men, women, and children like them. We understand that this crisis is now entering its sixth year, and there is a lot of compassion fatigue, but the world cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering that continues every single day. While politics have unfortunately played into the crisis, we must always remember the humanitarian side of the issue and the innocent lives that are at stake.

Where do you see your campaign going? What are your next steps and strategies?

SAMS recently released a report on the failure of the UNSC Resolution 2286, which condemned attacks on medical personnel. Until there is accountability for these war crimes, SAMS will continue to reinforce our hospitals for the safety of our doctors and patients, provide medical care for those in need, and advocate at the highest levels for their protection.

What do you envisage for the immediate future of Syria and the Syrian people?

We hope that the world continues to pay attention to the situation in Syria, not just Aleppo, and calls for protection of civilians. 

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How can we support the Syrian people, aid workers and medical professionals working in Syria?

SAMS is one of the most-trusted local Syrian NGOs working on the ground, both inside Syria and in refugee-host countries including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece. 

Choosing local Syrian organizations, like SAMS, to donate to or volunteer with is an effective way to reach Syrian men, women, and children and provide medical support to those in need.

Thank for your time and I’d like to wish your campaign all the greatest success in the coming future!

[…]

So spread the message and raise awareness! For further information please visit:

Acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank SAMS for their time and assistance in undertaking this interview and wish them all the success in the world with their crucial inspiring work.

Image credits:

Syrian American Medical Society (Medics Under Fire) (c)

Feature image: Johannes Zielcke (CC) – photo of Golan Heights hospital (Quneitra, Golan Heights, Syria)

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

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

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

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

“It’s safe back home for them.”

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

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

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

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

Statistics: UNHCR, The Refugee Council (2015)

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Desperation in Dunkirk: French Jungle diaries (part 2)

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Photo: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

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

Dunkirk – refugees in desperation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With the volunteers in Dunkirk

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

Yacoob Patel (Director- SMCC)

Get involved:

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

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

Credits and acknowledgments:

Text and images: Stafford Muslim Community Centre (SMCC)

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

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Journalism is not a crime – #FreeShawkan

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Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c)

“Taking pictures isn’t a crime”

These of the words of Mahmoud Abu Zeid aka Shawkan – a young Egyptian photojournalist who has been falsely imprisoned in Egypt for the last three years.

Shawkan was covering a sit-in protest in Cairo on 14th August 2013 when police, security forces and tasks swept through and chaos ensued. As a talented photojournalist who would capture both Egypt’s beauty and daily life alongside current events, Shawkan photographed the scene where he stood as bullets and tear gas went flying.

Unfortunately for Shawkan though, once the Egyptian police found out he was a journalist – unlike foreign journalists – he was arrested. Police tied his hands with plastic cables which began to cut into his skin. This was then followed a beating. After being left in a hot vehicle he was later imprisoned where he has remained for the last three years without charge – in contravention of Egyptian law. Shawkan is one of hundreds arrested on that very day across Egypt. Yet even more tragic; over a thousand people across the country lost their lives.

With trumped up charges of “murder” and “joining a criminal gang” Shawkan faces the death penalty if he is convicted. As he lies in prison, both his emotional and physical wellbeing have deteriorated. Despite having Hepatitis C, he has not received adequate medication and his health is suffering.

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Photo: Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c)

Capturing the beauty and reality of Egypt

On Monday 28th November I was delighted to attend an Amnesty International exhibition of Shawkan’s work. His stunning photos capture hope, passion and vitality, whilst also engaging with the oppressive regime that rules over Egypt. Freedom of conscience and expression are vital human rights which we must all fight towards, whether via a camera lens, a keyboard, a pen; whatever it may be. In Shawkan’s case, when he was arrested he was simply doing his job.

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Photos: Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c)

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Photos: Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c)

Write for Rights – fighting for freedom

You can help help Shawkan’s case by getting involved in the #FreeShawkan campaign and putting pressure on the Egyptian authorities via letters, tweets and emails. Amnesty International has continued to lead on the campaign calling for Shawkan’s immediate release.

Most recently, Shawkan’s case has also been included in a group of 13 case studies in Amnesty’s current Write for Rights campaign which addresses a range of priority cases. The campaign calls on citizens worldwide to send cards with messages of solidarity for those who have been falsely and unfairly imprisoned and mistreated and to put pressure on authorities to address these cases fairly in the context of each individual, for example calling on governments to offer medical treatment, visiting rights and/or to release the prisoner.

Please send a solidarity card to Shawkan and an appeal letter or email to the Egyptian authorities – it really does make a difference! Shawkan has expressed how the #FreeShawkan campaign and his supporters have given him crucial hope.

Visit the Amnesty International website to:

  1. Sign up for Write for Rights
  2. Download the case sheet for Shawkan
  3. Download the sample letter for Shawkan
  4. Sign the online petition for Shawkan, in addition to writing
  5. Take action on the other cases
  6. Let Amnesty know if you wrote

You can also download a copy of the Write for Rights campaign booklet for full details of all the cases. This booklet is highly recommended  as it gives a great compact guide to getting involved with full instructions on how to send both messages of solidarity and appeals. Background information, sample messages and  safety guidelines are all provided.

Journalism is not a crime! Write for rights and call on the Egyptian authorities to #FreeShawkan!

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Photo: Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c)

Credits

Images: Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c) – all images photographed at the Amnesty International Shawkan photo exhibition (London, 28/11/2016)

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The Sound of Silence – an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi

Dear Aung San Suu Kyi,

You once famously said: “The true measure of justice of a system is the amount of protection it guarantees to the weakest“. Wise words indeed. Society has a responsibility to not only provide for its citizens but address social, economical and political inequality. So, bearing that in mind, I’d like to know why the Rohingya people are not included in your political system and sphere of beliefs – in the values of democracy you stand for and which you fought for so long to hope to make a reality in Myanmar.

Of course, one of the few things you are rumoured to have said is for foreign governments to stop referring to this group of people as “Rohingya”. Yet I’m afraid the issue is more serious than simple semantics… As you are more than aware, the Rohingya face social, economical, religious and political discrimination. They are not only denied citizenship – despite their long history and residence in Myanmar – but are subject to repeated racist/Islamophobic attacks by your own citizens including extremist “Buddhists” and worse of all subject to rape, torture and murder at the hands of your father’s military – an army you are apparently quite “fond” of.

The Rohingya have been referred to as “the world’s most persecuted refugees in the world” – a people subjected to genocide whom nobody seems willing to help. I’m quoting here the renowned international human rights organisation Amnesty International – an NGO which fought for your freedom and upholds the values you claim to believe in and stand for. Here you feature on their website in an article entitled: “15 inspiring human rights quotes” with the following words of peace:

Peace does not just mean putting an end to violence or war, but to all other factors that threaten peace, such as discrimination, such as inequality, poverty.

You’re a renounced figure of justice, peace and democracy worldwide. You’ve received many honours including the Nobel Peace Prize, Sakharov Prize, Rafto Prize, Jawaharlal Nehru Award, Order of Australia, US Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You were also an honorary member of Nelson Mandela’s Elders. But now I ask you, what was this for? For what purpose? How can you sit back and remain silent when an entire group of people are being massacred?

I hate to cry “racism”or “Islamophobia” but what else is there? You’ve been challenged about this before and the result was a combination of rather astonishing angry backlash or vague excuses and often utter silence. One shocking incident was when you made an off-air comment about BBC Today presenter Mishal Husain following your interview together in which she asked you to condemn anti-Islamic sentiment. You apparently lost your temper, later stating: “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim”. What a sad precedent this set…The Dalai Lama, the holy figure of Buddhism (a peaceful faith which you claim to belong to and shape your life by) has also called on you to address the issue – yet nothing…. You instead blame the reality of violence and “a climate of fear” on both sides (Muslims/Buddhists) with which you apparently “do not want to take sides“,  in addition to the fact that Myanmar is a slow growing democracy. However, the fact remains that the Rohingya community are overwhelmingly affected and this is your responsibility.

Firstly, it is up to you as a leader and politician to help build social harmony amongst groups and to condemn Islamophobic hate speech and hate crime in Myanmar. Extremist “Buddhist monks” are no better than ISIS/extremist jihadi preachers. Extremism is a human disease. It belongs to no religion. Any violence committed by any group is an atrocity. Yet sadly, secondly: we have moved beyond the shunning of Rohingya businesses and the lack of citizenship for this poor stateless group but to rape, torture, murder…and ultimately to genocide. Now is not the time to stay silent. It’s too late. You are already implicit.

Implicit is a strong word but at this stage you have blood on your hands. How can anyone, least of all yourself stand by and fail to even simply condemn such actions?! Do you not value these people or are you simply struck by fear? Fear has never held you back before. In your own book Freedom from Fear, you said:

Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.

Years of activism in the name of democracy and 15 years of house arrest…for what I ask? One Noble Peace Prize… for what outcome, for what legacy? Regardless of faith, ethnicity, skin colour, whatever it may be – we are all human. The Rohingya people – of YOUR country – deserve equality, freedom, democracy. They deserve life, family, religious freedom, freedom from sexual violence, freedom from poverty and economic and social discrimination. They deserve life, their dignity and above all they deserve you to remain true to your word and walk back from the path of silent hypocrisy you currently stand upon. They deserve you to recognise them as their social, religious, cultural and ethnic equal. They are your brothers and sisters who want to live a life a peace – a word you claim to stand for but of which no trace remains. Instead of peace lie the cries of the raped, the tortured and the grieving widows and family of those massacred at the hand of your government’s army.

It’s all over the media: how can a Noble Peace Prize winner stay silent? Your initial lack of action allowed such hatred to grow and your current silence implicates you as you fail to stop military violence. Protests are now taking place. So, I ask you: when you look in the mirror, when you lie in bed, when you wake up and when you pray – do you think of them…?

Your sister in humanity,

Elizabeth

Credits:

Feature image: European Parliament (CC)

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True Islam – an insight into the global peace campaign with Salaam Bhatti

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Image credit: Mayesha K

Back in June, I dedicated a post to the True Islam campaign entitled: True Islam – 11 reasons why ISIS does not represent Islam – detailing the 11 points of the worldwide campaign which dispels common misconceptions of Islam and gives an insight into the true peaceful mission of Islam.

I’ve since been fortunate to have been put in touch with Salaam Bhatti who works on the True Islam campaign in order to get a greater insight into the campaign itself.

Here’s what Salaam has to say about the campaign: its origins, success and future.

Assalam aleykum. Thank you for taking the time to speak about the True Islam campaign.

The True Islam campaign is about teaching the true values of Islam centred on peace, tolerance and human rights. How, when and why the campaign was set up? 

The campaign launched after the San Bernardino massacre, where two Muslim extremists killed 14 and injured 22 people.  President Obama called for a unified effort from the Muslim community to battle elements of extremism within our communities and the True Islam campaign does exactly that by educating away extremism.

Could you summarise for people unfamiliar with the True Islam campaign what it’s addressing in particular?

There are extremist groups which use Islam to spread their terror for their geopolitical goals. They brainwash disaffected youth by using Islamic terminology and convince them that these are Islam’s true teachings. We took 11 of these points and present in easy to understand terms what Islam’s true teachings are about topics like jihad, women’s rights, freedom of speech, etc. This way, Muslims and non-Muslims can know how true Islam is separate and apart from extremism.

What is your role? Could you explain how you became involved?

I serve as a spokesperson for the campaign and work on the social media arm of our campaign. I became involved because my friends and I did not want Islam’s narrative to always be a battle against extremism and we wanted to help our country out. Through this campaign, we not only combat extremism, but we also let everyone know Islam’s other beautiful teachings.

There are 11 points in the campaign. Which issue(s)/misconception(s) do you believe are the most prominent and most at need of addressing? Why? Where do you believe this originates from?

The points about jihad and women’s equality are two I hold very dear. Many erroneously think that jihad is a violent battle with non-Muslims. Jihad and violence became popularly linked through Maududi, a cleric who is celebrated in extremist circles. Jihad is not a violent concept. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who Ahmadi Muslims believe to be the Promised Messiah and Mahdi, defended Islam when it was accused of being a religion spread by the sword by saying, “The sword it wields cuts its own throat before reaching others.” Women’s rights are also important. Many forget the state of women when Prophet Muhammad (sa) was born. They were treated as less than animals.  But Prophet Muhammad’s (sa) teachings raised the status of women so high that paradise lay at their feet. Unfortunately, now we see in the very homeland of Prophet Muhammad (sa) that women cannot drive cars and we see women in general being subjugated in many ways throughout the world. We need to stop killing each other for different beliefs and we need to stop depriving our mothers of equal rights.

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Image credit: Ahmed Alper

Where does Sharia law and Islamic guidelines fit in with the True Islam concept of secularism and Islam? Could you explain more about this?

Sharia is a way of life and a code of laws for Muslims only. The popular notion of an “Islamic state” is incorrect because the Quran does not prescribe a political system. The Quran calls for mutual consultation and justice on every level. The Quran and Prophet Muhammad (sa) also teach that we should obey those in authority and to be loyal to our country of residence.  Prophet Muhammad’s (sa) example as leader of Medina showed a pluralistic government and not an Islamic state. If we don’t like our nation, Allah reminds us that the Earth is vast and we can move anywhere else.  Separation of religion and state is very important so we do not end up treating others as “less than”.  Many “religious” states in today’s world have done just that and one only needs to read Human Rights Watch to see the gross injustices occurring against minority groups. So, to nip all this in the bud, Islam is very clear that there is no religious-based political system.

Why do you believe there is so much Islamophobia and Islamic extremism nowadays?

When we did not know about math, we went to class and learned from a math teacher.  When we did not know about science, we went to class and learned from a science teacher. But with 60% of Americans not knowing a Muslim and there being no class to learn about Islam, we see fear based on ignorance. Additionally, there’s a failure in Muslim leadership. This failure results in Muslims not knowing about Islam’s own teachings, which leads to feelings of no unity, which can lead to an identity crisis, extremist thought, etc.

The True Islam campaign is a global campaign originating in the USA. How receptive have people been on the ground? What’s the situation like for everyday American Muslims?

As American Muslims, we launched this campaign so that American Muslims could be connected much closer to their faith and so that our national security would improve once people could differentiate Islamic teachings from extremist ways. It has been well-received from many different people, especially due to our active social media presence.

There is a rise in Islamophobia across the nation. Whereas American Muslims focus on spending time with family and friends, paying bills and mortgages, and enjoying life, there’s an additional concern of worry whether oneself or a family member could be a target of threats or violence. However, it is very important that we do not give into this fear, it is important that we open the doors to our mosques wider than ever so we can educate this extremism away. Extremists want us to be afraid so that we grow resentful to our nation and ultimately join their cause.  We’re better than that.

What has the response been from the local and global Islamic community regarding your campaign?

Before we launched the campaign, we sent a letter to over 2000 mosques, imams, and Muslim organizations in America to join the initiative pre-launch and received no responses.

How have non-Muslims responded to your campaign?

Non-Muslims are impressed with the campaign. It is presented at many venues across the nation throughout the year, universities, interfaith events, and open mosque programs.  The clear, concise language briefly and efficiently explains core Islamic concepts and non-Muslims (as well as Muslims) have enjoyed that.

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Image credit: Azlan DuPree

On the website, visitors can see who has endorsed the campaign and its 11 points. Could you tell us a bit more about who’s backed the campaign?

People of all backgrounds, Muslim and non-Muslim, politicians, faith leaders, and others have endorsed this campaign. For 15 years, rhetoric against Islam has been widespread. Many are annoyed and sick of this because it is a false narrative of Islam. This is why so many people are stepping up to endorse this campaign and spread the word about it.

How can “everyday Muslims” educate both Muslims and non-Muslims and work towards establishing peace? What practical steps can people take? What methods has your community in particular found to be productive, engaging and well received?

The best way to educate others about Islam is by our actions and the best action to take is to follow Prophet Muhammad (sa)’s model. We should show patience in adversity, firm resolve during our struggles, and kindness to God’s creation. The True Islam campaign has found it very helpful to disarm internet trolls not by fighting back, but answering in clear terms the issues they present. We have also invited all to mosques across the nation. There was a local politician from York, Pennsylvania who said insulting things about Islam in a voicemail to a church and on social media.  We invited him to a mosque during Ramadan and, in his meetings with Muslims, he was awestruck by Muslims, admitted his error, and now endorses the True Islam campaign.

What’s the future of the campaign? Are there any particular upcoming developments?

We just launched a nationwide event called “Coffee, Cake, and True Islam” where we invite people to chat in a friendly environment, like a coffee shop, about Islam’s true teachings. This is a chance for Muslims and non-Muslims to meet and talk with Muslims to learn what Islam actually teaches.

Do you have a message for Muslims and non-Muslims out there?

Education will erase extremism. It worked for Prophet Muhammad (sa) when he taught his people that extremist ways of killing girls, ruthless bloodshed, and women’s subjugation was not right.  It will work again today.  We cannot let hate divide us. Let us educate away extremism and start by endorsing the points at TrueIslam.com.

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Image credit: Ikhlasul Amal

Jazak Allah. Thank you for your participation!

So, check out the campaign and endorse the 11 points here!

You can also check out the campaign via social media on Facebook and Twitter.

Salam!

Credits and Acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank Salaam for taking the time to be interviewed and to wish him and the rest of the True Islam team the very best in the future with their campaign.

Feature image: Jona Nalder

 

Death Penalty Still Looms for Mauritanian Blogger Who Spoke Out Against Caste-Based Discrimination

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“No to slavery” – from the website of Moroccan legal expert Ibn Kafka where he states: “Where Mauritania may have suffered injustice throughout history it also exemplifies resistance and human dignity”

A Mauritanian blogger has been sentenced to death by Nouadhibou Criminal Court after writing a blog post criticising the use of Islam to justify a caste system that dates back to the Middle Ages.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould M’kheitir, whose father is prefect for Nouadhibou, the economic capital in the south of the country, is a 29-year-old trained accountant. They are part of a caste group known as les forgerons (the “forger cast”), one that was originally made up of blacksmiths.

He has appealed the conviction, which dates back to 2014. Writing for the website Chezvlane on 25 December 2014, he said:

For those who dare to invent fake hadith and attribute them to the Prophet (peace be upon him), no morals and no religion can stop them from interpreting an article written by a simple normal young man — an inexperienced one at that. They won’t spare any effort in stirring up collective Muslim discontent to serve their interests. That’s how they claimed that the forgerons blasphemed against the Prophet (PBUH) in an article one of them wrote. It was just like when they claimed that it was a forgeron who was responsible for the Prophet’s teeth falling out during the Battle of Mount Uhud.

Bearing that in mind, I’d like to confirm here the following:

1. I have not, consciously or unconsciously, blasphemed against the Prophet (PBUH) and I will never do so. In actual fact, I don’t believe there’s anyone in the world who shows him greater respect than myself (PBUH).

2. All the facts and accounts I cited in my previous article were historically accurate. These accounts can of course be interpreted literally and superficially or looked at more closely and deeply.

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Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, published on ODH Mauritanie

On 21 April 2016, the Court of Appeal in Nouadhibou confirmed his sentence to death after re-examining the case. The accused is no longer considered to be an apostate but simply a non-believer.

Following this re-examination of the accusations against him, human rights campaigners in Mauritania remain hopeful that the Supreme Court will dismiss the death sentence and announce a more lenient sentence.

The Senegalese website Setal recalled the turn of events:

This Thursday, the Court of Appeal did not follow the accusation which called for his death sentence to be upheld. Lawyers are happy with the turn of events, even if for them it’s clearly not enough. It’s been two years and three months since Mohamed Cheikh ould Mkheitir was arrested for a simple article posted on the Internet. This article was judged as being blasphemous towards the Prophet and Islam. This shocked the most conservative section of Mauritanian society who at the time called for him to be sentenced to death.

This is the most severe sentence possible for the blogger — a severe sentence that many believe was issued due mostly to internal political strife. In a 26 April 2016 post on the Amnesty International website, human rights journalist and campaignerSabine Cessout quoted a colleague (who remains anonymous) who commented on the case:

The whole affair reveals “the internal politics…with a tribunal which wants to fund Salafis, a spiraling trend in our country, as throughout the whole Arab-Muslim world”

International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) quoted Fatimata Mbaye, President of l’Association Mauritanienne des Droits Humains (AMDH) (The Mauritanian Association for Human Rights), former vice-president of the IFHR and advocate for anti-slavery campaigners speaking on the issue:

This sentence — the first for “apostasy” in Mauritania since Independence — signifies a step backwards in terms of tolerance and shows just how much issues of cast, religion, slavery and therefore democracy are taboos in Mauritania. We’re noticing society and politics is becoming less tolerant towards voices of dissent on these issues.

After the post was published, religious extremists sparked public calls for the blogger to be hanged. The Senegalese website Leral described the public sentiment which had been stirred up in Mauritania against the accused:

A year ago thousands of Mauritanians took the streets of Nouakchoutt, Naouadihbou and elsewhere demanding he be hung, plain and simple. Some of these had read the incriminating article — others had never even seen it. The Republican President, in front of a crowd of protesters which had grouped in front of the entrance to the palace, declared: “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for gathering in such numbers here to condemn the crime committed by a individual who is against Islam, the religion of our people, our country, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, which as I’ve said in the past and I’m reaffirming today, is not secular and never will be… I assure you that as a result, the Government and I myself will stop at nothing to protect and defend this religion and its sacred image…”. This declaration made by the President, those of other different political parties along with the protests and fatwas demonstrated their reasoning.

The 2006 France Human Rights Prize winner Aminetou Mint Noctar also drew outrage from extremists after she expressed support for the blogger, some of whom issued a fatwa against her. Noctar is also the 2010 winner of the medal of Chevalier in the French Legion of Honour. According to the website Africa News, Noctar was the first Mauritanian woman to be nominated for the Noble Peace Prize for her commitment and work towards human rights.

On the website aw41k.com, Yehdhih Ould Dahi, head of the radical Islamist movement “Ahbab Errassoul” (Friends of the Prophet) condemned Noctar for defending the blogger:

May this villain who’s defending Mkheitir, saying that he’s a prisoner of conscience and demanding he be released so he can go back home to his wife, be cursed by Allah, the Angels and all people. This woman compares the Friends of The Prophet to members of Boko Haram and Takfiris because they call for the Prophet to be respected and honoured. Today, with the blessing of Allah, I declare her to be an apostate for having tempered the outrage in defence of the honour of the Prophet. She’s an infidel and it this therefore lawful to seize her life and assets. Those who kill or poke out her eyes will be rewarded by Allah.

Amid the public vitriol around Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould M’kheitir’s case, his life hangs in the balance. For now, he will continue to languish in prison.

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Article originally published via Global Voices 

Daraya, Symbol of Non-Violent Revolution and Self-Determination, Falls to the Syrian Regime

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Daraya: “[…] peaceful protests were subjected to violent repression. Flowers were met with bullets, protesters were rounded up en masse and detained.” Photo credit: Non-violent protests with protesters holding roses in Baniyas, May 6th 2011 – Syrian Freedom (CC BY 2.0)

By Leila Al Shami

Four years following its liberation, the predominantly agricultural town of Daraya, strategically located near Syrian capital, Damascus, has fallen to the regime. A deal was reached to evacuate the 4,000-8,000 civilians remaining there, out of a pre-uprising population of 300,000. The local fighters who defended their town so courageously will go to Idlib and join the resistance there.

The Daraya residents being evacuated know that they may never return to their homes. Photos circulated on social media showed people gathered at the graves of loved ones to say goodbye. Fears abound of a plan to cleanse opposition strongholds permanently, and in previous evacuation deals—even those carried out under UN auspices—many were detained by the regime, never to be seen again.

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But Daraya’s residents are desperate. A few days ago a group of women published a open letter to the world. They described the horrific conditions in the town. A regime-imposed siege, ongoing for 1,368 days, had blocked the entry of food and medical supplies. People were starving. They described the daily regime assault which has seen over 9,000 barrel bombs dropped on the town, as well as internationally prohibited poisonous gas and napalm. The hospital had been targeted and was out of operation. Agricultural land, the sole source of food, had been deliberately burned and destroyed. The women called on the international community to take action to end the violence and lift the siege. This letter followed months of protests held by women and children with the same demands. The first, and only, aid convoy to reach the town entered in June 2016. It contained medicine, mosquito nets and baby formula, but no food. ‘We can’t take medicine on an empty stomach,’ read a banner at a protest soon after.

Those who leave Daraya leave as heroes. Daraya is an iconic town for Syrian revolutionaries. It’s been a centre for the development of the thought and practice of non-violent resistance and has inspired civil disobedience across the country. And despite the horrific repression inflicted on the town, it’s had remarkable success in practicing local, autonomous self-organization. Revolutionary activist Razan Zeitouneh, who was herself kidnapped in 2013, said: “Daraya was a star before the revolution and a star during. What the young men and women of the city built took immense efforts and resulted in a small exemplary model for the future of Syria, the one we dream of. The activism in the city never ceased to amaze us for a minute… In Daraya, the signs calling for co-existence continued to be held high even when the entire country was falling into despair following every new massacre.”

In 2011, when the uprising began, a local coordination committee quickly emerged to organize anti-regime protests. The committee emphasized the importance of non-violent struggle and handed out leaflets calling for a democratic Syria and for equality between all religious and ethnic groups. As church bells rang in solidarity, protesters marched holding flowers, and handed bottles of water to the security forces sent to shoot them. ‘The army and people are one,’ they chanted.

One of those involved with the local coordination committee was a 26-year-old tailor called Ghiyath Matar. He earned the nickname ‘Little Gandhi’ for his commitment to peaceful resistance. Ghiyath was arrested by security forces on September6, 2011. A few days later his mutilated corpse was returned to his family and pregnant wife. In one of his last Facebook posts, Ghiyath said: “We chose non-violence not from cowardice or weakness, but out of moral conviction; we don’t want to reach victory by having destroyed the country.”

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Daraya

The principles of non-violent resistance that influenced Daraya’s youth had a history in the town. Unusually for Syria, a police state that ruthlessly suppresses independent organization, a group of young men and women aged between 15 and 25 established the Daraya Youth Group in 1998. They had been studying Quran under the religious scholar Abdul Akram Al Saqqa. Al Saqqa promoted social and political freedom and encouraged free thinking amongst his students. Because of his liberal views he was controversial amongst the Syrian ulema (religious authorities). He called for women to choose their own husbands and argued that women’s education was more important than whether or not they wore the veil. He introduced students to the work of Jawdat Said, an Islamist scholar who promoted non-violent thought and practice through the Quranic traditions as well as the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Al Saqqa’s work attracted the attention of the authorities and he was imprisoned in 2003 and 2011, but under his mentorship, the Daraya Youth Group organized actions such as cleaning the streets of their town, boycotting American products, and risky campaigns against bribery and corruption. In 2002 they demonstrated against the Israeli invasion of Jenin refugee camp and in 2003 they organized protests without government permission against the US invasion of Iraq. This activity led to the arrest of 24 members of the group. A few were released soon after, but the majority were sentenced to between three and four years in prison.

The peaceful protests were subjected to violent repression. Flowers were met with bullets, protesters were rounded up en masse and detained. In August 2012, following intense shelling, Syrian army troops stormed the town and committed one of the regime’s worst massacres. Some 400 men, women and children lost their lives in execution-style killings. Those attempting to flee were hunted down and shot. The bodies of the dead littered the streets or were thrown into mass graves.

In a scene that would be endlessly repeated, some Western commentators sought to exonerate the regime from wrongdoing. The celebrated journalist Robert Fisk visited Daraya shortly after the massacre, embedded with regime troops. He reported that the situation was the result of a Free Army hostage-taking and a prisoner exchange gone wrong, quoting sources saying that victims were relatives of government employees. Daraya’s local coordination committee issued a strong condemnation of Fisk’s report. They had never heard of the prisoner exchange story, questioned whether interviewees would be free to speak the truth in the presence of regime soldiers, and criticized Fisk for not meeting with opposition activists. Meanwhile, the American war reporter Janine Di Giovani also entered Daraya—without regime support—a few days after the massacre, and gave a harrowing account in her excellent book ‘The Morning They Came for Us’.

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Daraya: the spirit of the Syrian revolution, and the heartbeat of every rebel

Daraya was liberated by local rebels in November 2012. As the state withdrew, residents set up a Local Council to run the town’s affairs. One of those involved was anarchist Omar Aziz, who encouraged revolutionary Syrians to organize their communities independently from the Assadist state, and work towards advancing a social revolution.

Despite enormous challenges, Daraya’s local council has had remarkable success. It has established numerous offices to provide services to civilians, including media services, legal services and public relations (they maintain an excellent website). A relief office runs a soup kitchen which began providing three meals a day, although this frequency was reduced due to the siege. The council also tried to build self-sufficiency, growing beans, spinach and wheat. A medical office supervises the field hospital which provides for the sick and wounded. A services office is responsible for opening alternative roads when the main ones are inaccessible due to airstrikes or collapsed buildings.

The local council also aimed to unify civil and military efforts. Daraya is one of the few communities where the local Free Army brigade is part of the council’s organizational structure and subject to civil administrative control. Revolutionary women set up the Enab Baladi magazine to discuss events happening in their community and Syria more broadly and promote civil disobedience. Activists built anunderground library so residents could continue their education.

The people of Daraya have paid a heavy price for their dream of freedom. For four years they defended their autonomy from the Assadist state and kept going despite the bombing, despite the starvation siege. Their struggle will continue to be remembered and honoured by Syrian revolutionaries everywhere.

Leila Al Shami is a British Syrian who has been involved in human rights and social justice struggles in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East since 2000. She is the co-author of “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” with Robin Yassin-Kassab, and a contributor to “Khiyana-Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution”. A version of this story was originally published on her blog.

Credits:

Re-shared from Global Voices (26/08/2016)

Additional imagery taken from Leila’s original article and blog

Feature image: Poo.243 (Flickr)