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

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

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

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

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

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Inside the warehouse – volunteers at work!

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

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Activities in the Jungle and living conditions…

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

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

Christopher Plant (Stafford Van Aid – Stafford Welcomes Refugees)

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Sofinee and Chris

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

Credits and acknowledgements:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credits:

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

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

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Welcoming child refugees means listening to them

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

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

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

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

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

Child to Child – participation and safeguarding

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Hearing All Voices – Child to Child (London)

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

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

Credits:

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

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

Additional blog imagery: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

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

Donations needed for Calais!

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

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

A full list is available via the PDF link below:

Convoy Donation List (please also read the sorting guidelines)

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

Salam!

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Image credit: Malachy Browne (Flickr)

Ramadan Mubarak – how to support six humanitarian causes this month

Ramadan – the holy month of fasting for Muslims worldwide – is approaching. This is a month of religious devotion, charity and remembrance of those less fortunate than ourselves. Muslims abstain from eating and drinking (amongst other activities) during daylight hours in remembrance of the poor. For many of us, no matter hungry you feel, you know you will eat at sunset. Yet imagine not having anything to break your fast with. Imagine every day being a constant struggle. Many people – Muslim and non-Muslim – around the world are suffering due to poverty, natural disaster, war, persecution and much more. In your very home town, there may be those who go to work hungry, having fed their children but gone hungry themselves as there’s not enough food to go around. You may switch on the TV and thousands of miles away you may see starving refugees fleeing war. People carry on suffering and aid donations are all the more essential, both locally and internationally. Additionally, there are various Muslim (and non-Muslim) groups who continue to be persecuted, discriminated against and even killed. Whether victims of war or persecuted religious minorities, many face difficulty in finding safe shelter and in practising their religion.

So whilst Ramadan starts and we wish fellow Muslims “Ramadan Mubarak” (Happy Ramadan), let’s remember the following people and causes (in no particular order) and call one another to action.

1. The Syrian crisis

Muslims, Christians, Yazidis… millions of Syrians have and continue to suffer due to the Syrian crisis of civil war and religious extremism. Rape, torture, starvation, bombing…the suffering is ongoing. For the displaced Syrians still inside Syria, those living in controlled areas and the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled Syria, the situation in Syria is sad, complex and shows no signs of being resolved any time soon.

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Syrian refugee – Image credit: Bengin Ahmad (Flickr)

You can help by donating money and resources to provide aid both in Syrian and in refugee camps. You can also read more about Syria through my interview with Syrian-Palestinian asylum seeker Khaled – click here.

2. The conflict in Yemen

The Saudi bombings and the Sunni-Shia conflict in Yemen – already the poorest country in the Middle East – have led to more instability for this nation in which men, women and children are continuing to suffer. The war has been going on for over a year and so far more than 3000 civilians have been killed:

[…] the conflict in Yemen […] continues to take a terrible toll, with more than 3000 civilians killed, and 5700 wounded, since it began a year ago. If the violence and fragmentation continue, the people of Yemen face a very bleak future. The war has devastated an already weak infrastructure, with multiple attacks on hospitals and schools. It has opened vast opportunities for groups such as Al Qaeda and so-called ISIL to expand their grasp. Most tragically, the ongoing political unrest, violence and air strikes have created a massive humanitarian crisis. This could trigger refugee flows, further destabilising the region.

Statement by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (10/03/2016)

The lack of public uproar against the Saudi led bombings is deafening and shocking. Innocent children are starving and the world remains shockingly quiet.

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Air strike in Sana’a (11/05/2015) – Image credit: Ibrahem Qasim (Flickr)

To get involved and help innocent Yemenis:

  • Sign the following petitions calling to end the violence: Oxfam, MoveOn
  • Donate: your help can provide essential aid for the Yemeni people

For more information on the war in Yemen, see:

3. The Palestinian crisis

Palestinians face immense ethnic, cultural and religious discrimination, manifesting itself in difficulty in attending school, water shortages, humiliation, torture and even death.

You can support the Palestinians in many ways:

  • Boycott Israeli goods and investments: brands/businesses include Nestle, Marks and Spencer, Starbucks and Coca Cola
  • Support the #CheckTheLabel campaign: make sure you check the label when buying dates to break your fast – don’t buy Israeli dates! You can order the campaign leaflets via the Friends of Al-Aqsa website to hand out at the mosque and raise awareness amongst fellow Muslims and interfaith activists when attending events etc. You can also share the message via social media – get tweeting, posting and sharing!

4. The persecution of Rohingya Muslims

Whilst the media has gone rather quiet, the persecution of the Rohingya people – “the most persecuted refugees in the world” – is ongoing. A report by The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic (Yale Law School, October 2015) concluded that the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar constitutes genocide:

The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have suffered serious and persistent human rights abuses. Myanmar authorities, security forces, police, and local Rakhine actors have engaged in widespread violence, acts of torture, arbitrary detention, rape, and other crimes causing serious physical and mental harm. The scale of these atrocities has increased precipitously since 2012. […] the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya have been confined to villages in northern Rakhine State or internally displaced persons camps. […]conditions in both northern Rakhine State and the IDP camps are dire: Rohingya lack freedom of movement, access to food, clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care, work opportunities, and education. They live in conditions that appear to have been calculated to bring about their destruction. The acts committed against the Rohingya, individually and collectively, meet the criteria for finding acts enumerated in the Genocide Convention […]

Persecution of Rohinyga Muslims: Is Genocide Occuring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State? A Legal Analysis, p64

To help this persecuted minority, you can:

For more information, check out:

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Around 90,000 Rohingya’s live in cramped shelters in camps near Sittwe – the capital of Rakhine State – Image credit: European Commission DG ECHO (Flickr)

5. The oppression of Uyghur Muslims in China

China’s Muslim minority, the Uyghur community who live in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, have been facing increasing discrimination over the years. The Chinese State has banned face veils, forced certain shopkeepers to sell alcohol, introduced restrictions on beards and in the past banned fasting during the period of Ramadan. This year, the State has declared that there will be no restrictions regarding Ramadan – yet one can never tell given the secrecy and human rights abuses that go on in China.

How you can help:

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Men praying at Id Kah Mosque on Eid al Fitr – Image credit: Preston Rhea (Flickr)

6. The war in Ukraine

If you’d like to help towards the crisis in Ukraine you can:

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Image credit: Guido van Nispen (Flickr)

So there’s six causes that we are all aware of and of course there are many other worthy causes, many groups facing persecution and many more campaigns and petitions. This is simply a brief guide to current urgent and perhaps not so well publicised causes which we can all help towards.

So – brothers and sisters in Islam: Ramadan Mubarak!

And to all readers: check out the tips and get going!

Salam!

 

Image credit:

Feature image: Amila Tennakoon (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

Human rights in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syria and the Palestinian issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sectarianism and conflict

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

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

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

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

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

From protests to war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISIS and Islamic extremism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ISIS (Credit: Day Donaldson – Flickr – CC)

From one country to another – Khaled’s refugee journey 

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

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

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

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

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Khaled’s journey (Original map credit: Namelesss23)

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

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

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

Living as an asylum seeker in Spain and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building bridges – how can we help?

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

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

  • Volunteer with local, national or international refugee and asylum seeker organisations – lend your time and skills. There is a great need for ESOL teachers, translators/interpreters, immigration specialists and medical personnel
  • If you are a linguist: join Translators without Borders
  • If you are a medical professional: get in touch with Doctors without Borders
  • If you are a professional counsellor or medical professional: get in touch with bodies which offer health care for those who’ve suffered trauma. In the UK for example, try Freedom from Torture
  • Get involved with groups going over to and helping in Calais – or further afield – Google and search via Facebook and Twitter, including the likes of CalAid for example
  • Donate to relevant NGOs working in your area or abroad: in the UK check out Refugee 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)