Arab exiles: Fleeing nightmares or chasing dreams

 
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By Khaled Diab

When Arab revolutionary dreams turn into anti-revolutionary nightmares, the fortunate ones find safety abroad. But with exile comes unprocessed trauma, guilt, fear, dealing with xenophobia and painful yearnings for home.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Sunday 20 October 2019

Imagine knowing that your government has arrested disappeared hundreds of people over the past few weeks.

Imagine knowing that your government has, in the recent past, not balked at the prospect of killing 1,000 protesters… in a single day.

Imagine how much courage it would take to swallow your fear and take to the streets or to continue to protest loudly on social media. And yet this is exactly what brave Egyptians up and down the country have been attempting.

The numbers are a far cry from the millions who broke through the fear barrier and came out, in 2011, to topple the former dictator Hosni Mubarak’s three decades of rule. But then the regime of the current strongman and Donald Trump’s “favourite dictator”, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has been doing its utmost to prevent a repeat of the mass uprisings in 2011 and 2013.

The Sisi regime’s determination to bury Egyptian aspirations of bread, freedom, social justice and dignity in the graveyard of ruthless, murderous repression has spurred an untold number of Egyptians to pack up their shattered dreams of liberty and try to piece together their lives in (self-imposed) exile.

Refuge from the storm

Some have headed to safe havens in the region, such as democratic Tunisia, while others with the means or opportunity have moved to Europe or America. While the media image of refugees is of desperate people crossing the Mediterranean on leaky boats or traipsing through the desert, many exiles are actually not officially refugees. They move to the West ostensibly to take up job openings or to pursue postgraduate studies, but they are fleeing a nightmare rather than pursuing a dream.

For many, it takes time to come to terms with the reality that they are exiles, stranded in a foreign land. “After five years of being away from home, it’s kind of crystal clear at this point,” admits Ganzeer, who is currently based in Houston.

This Egyptian street artist who became famous for his revolutionary murals, which were later physically and figuratively whitewashed, had to flee his homeland after pro-regime TV started to spread conspiracy theories that he was, in a case of life outdoing black comedy, both the leader of a sinisterly decadent international alliance of artists out to ruin the image of Egypt’s military and a member of the sinisterly pious Muslim Brotherhood.

Like grief, the first phase of exile is often denial. “I rejected the fact that I couldn’t go back home… For almost a year, I moved from one temporary accommodation to another. Eight flat shares in less than a year,” A1, an exile whose name, identity and country of residence I am withholding because (s)he fears for their life.

“I really don’t enjoy living here, but I’m staying here for the safety and welfare of my children,” an anti-Assad Syrian dissident of Alawite descent told me recently in Potsdam, near Berlin. “I miss Syria every day. Being here makes me feel bad for the family and friends I left behind.”

Stolen lives

Wherever they end up, many find that though they are physically elsewhere, their minds, consciousnesses and hearts are firmly back home. “It feels like someone has stolen my life. The life I know of. The life that I have invested many years, a lot of money and a lot of hard work to build. If feels like someone has taken my family from me,” describes A1.

Not everyone feels pangs of longing for their country in and of itself but they do long for that part of it they call their own. “I don’t miss living in Egypt. I do miss my friends and family there. I miss Sinai and the sea, my favourite place,” the Egyptian novelist and writer Ahmed Naji told me from his new home in Las Vegas, where he is a resident writer at the University of Nevada.

For political exiles, it is tormenting to watch what is going on back home and not feel saddened for the millions still imprisoned in the nightmare. “It drives me crazy. I find myself glued to the screen,” confesses Ganzeer, who has designed a number of biting caricatures of Sisi to protest the Egyptian dictator’s latest crackdown.

Gaining escape velocity

In Arabic we have an expression which roughly translates as “What has passed has passed away,” and some exiles, fearing the power of the distant (geographical) past to trap and entrap them, try to focus their energies on their here and now.

“I don’t want to live in the condition of the exiled writer who resides in one country but his heart and mind are in another country,” says Ahmed Naji.

I grew up with just such an exiled writer. Although we lived in London, my father lived in a bubble: he ran an Arabic-language opposition newspaper, wrote political polemics in Arabic and hung out almost exclusively with fellow Arab dissidents, usually leftists and pan-Arabists.

My late mother, on the other hand, preferred to mix it up. In addition to spending time with Arabs, she had an “everyone welcome” attitude and loved to spend time with immigrants from other diverse backgrounds, not to mention native Brits from all walks of life.

As a multiculturalist, I prefer a broad church of friends and acquaintances wherever I find myself.

“I want to understand the new place and be part of its cultural and literary scene,” Naji elaborates. And for Naji, this may be easier than for many exiles. Although acquiring a sufficient command of English to express himself eloquently and to develop his own voice remains a challenge, the themes he deals with in his literature, such as sex and emotional turmoil, are universal ones.

In fact, it was Naji’s breaking of sexual, rather than political, taboos which unexpectedly landed him in hot water. Although contemporary Egyptian literature has become increasingly open about sex and drugs, an explicit scene in a novel of Naji’s, which was being serialised in a literary magazine, prompted a legal complaint from a reader who claimed rather ridiculously reading it had harmed his health. This mushroomed into a Kafkaesque-Orwellian trial by a brutal regime desperate to virtue signal to religious and social conservatives.

Whimsical whippers

The arbitrary, whimsical, oft random nature of state repression, as well as authoritarian regimes’ vicious brutality are meant to instil terror, and it does – as last year’s chilling, cold-blooded murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi succeeded in doing, and not only for Saudi dissidents.

“I feel cowardly and humiliated, which is a collective feeling afflicting Egyptians at home and abroad,” observes Naji. “Those outside Egypt experience attacks and humiliation. Even here, I receive direct and indirect threats.”  Fear, nebulous or concrete, individual or collective, is a common emotion amongst exiles. On a personal level, even though I am not an exile and enjoy the relative protection of a European passport, I often feel a sense of vague anxiety upon landing in Cairo at the potential trouble my outspoken criticism of the regime and of religion may land me in.

Nevertheless, exiles are generally safer than their counterparts back home. However, this relative safety and security often provokes involuntary feelings of guilt. “I get the feeling I am talking from a privileged position, even though I was kind of forced to leave the country and was harassed, investigated and threatened all the time,” Jeje Mohamed, an Egyptian freelance journalist who is currently based in Washington, DC, told me recently.

“People sometimes call it survivor’s guilt or something like that,” she elaborates.

Migrating to Mars

While recognising how fortunate it was to have found a safe haven, A1 finds the anti-refugee, anti-migrant sentiment in Europe hurtful and galling, especially the notion that people come to sponge off the state. “I never received money from their state. Economically speaking, I have brought with me my own education, which is worth at least one million euros of direct and indirect costs,” A1 counters.

As time has drifted by, A1 finds it too exhausting and fatiguing to challenge these prejudices. “I’m sometimes confronted with those Europeans who think I’m here to benefit from their system,” A1 says. “What do I do about it? Nothing. I smile and walk away. I’m too exhausted to explain or argue.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, in Trumpian America, things are far from cosy for many exiles. “You wouldn’t have expected it from America, given that it’s made up of people from all over,” reflects Ganzeer. “It’s particularly weird to me that I get the sense that there are more people open to the idea of humans migrating to Mars than they are of humans migrating within the vicinity of our planet Earth.”

For those able to observe matters with some variety of detachment or a well-honed sense of irony, there is plenty of bleak humour to be derived from the circus of primetime bigotry. “I diligently follow right-wing news channels and radio stations, not to mention their websites,” says Ahmed Naji. “They are very entertaining and possess wild and fertile imaginations… I enjoy watching them and laugh a lot.”

To hear xenophobic rightwingers speak, you would think the influx of Arab and Muslim exiles and refugees was something new. However, it has been going on for generations, albeit the numbers have grown significantly with the current upheavals in the Middle East.

Arab cultural capitals

Paris and London (and to a lesser extent, New York) traditionally played the roles of intellectual, political and cultural centres of gravity for Arab diasporas, one for Francophones and the other for Anglophones, acting as living labs and testing grounds for ideas crushed at home.

When I was growing up in London, I witnessed this symbiosis firsthand, though I was too young and disinterested to grasp its full significance. Despite the racism of some, London was also a tolerant, welcoming and accommodating place well on its way to becoming possibly the most diverse city in the world.

In London, it is easy to find Arabic newspapers and books, Arab cultural centres and media outlets, Arab hangouts and restaurants, and Arabs from every walk of life. Despite this, it is still not home for some. One Cairo-based Lebanese journalist who ended up in London after being kicked out of Egypt finds the British metropolis demoralising and alienating.

The growing xenophobia in America and the UK are shifting the centre of Arab exile to mainland Europe, and specifically to the German capital, Berlin. “Brexit has made London, and the UK in general, deteriorate in the eyes of the world,” observes Amro Ali, a political sociologist who is currently researching Berlin’s emerging status as the unofficial capital of Arab exile.

“There is something happening that many cannot put their finger on. But there are many dynamic spaces, from theaters to film screenings, to art galleries, and so on, that are thriving in the Arab spaces of Berlin, and that gives it… that positive general mood,” notes Ali.

Interestingly, Berlin has also emerged as a refuge for Israeli progressives and leftists escaping the dominant right-wing ultranationalism and constant conflict at home. “I’m not in physical exile because I can go back to Israel whenever I want,” explains Mati Shemoelof, an Israeli poet and journalist with Iraqi roots. “There is a mental exile, but I’m okay with that, I’m one with that. I miss the good parts of Israel. I don’t miss the bad parts of Israel.”

While Arabs and Israeli have few opportunities to interact in the Middle East, far away from the conflict, they are finding common ground in this cosmopolitan city, despite some incidents of anti-Semitism. “There’s something very beautiful here in Berlin when I can meet Arabs and do literary evenings and literary events with them,” reflects Shemoelof.

Such cultural and social interactions are promising for the future.

Unlike economic migrants, who are vilified in some parts of Germany, refugees and exiles are generally treated with more understanding and sympathy. This is partly because of the difficulties they faced in their homelands and partly because many wish to leave once things calm down.

“The young Syrians I speak to say they want to go back to Syria, unlike their parents who want them to settle down in Germany, but the children want to return to a post-Assad Syria and build it up,” Ali says.

Older Syrian exiles also pine to return home. “I did not spend years as a political activist, go to prison twice and risk my life in Syria to end up living and working in Germany, even if the work is rewarding,” insisted the Syrian exile I met in Potsdam. “It feels like my life’s work has gone down the drain. It’s very depressing.”

These exiles, biding their time in anticipation of changing times, are following in the footsteps of previous waves of exiles, many of whom returned to the Middle East at promising junctures in history, such as the so-called Arab Spring, with the dream of contributing their knowledge and skills to create a better tomorrow at home.

In the meantime, their host societies would do well to make the most of these motivated newcomers.

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Bordering on inhumanity: How Slovenia and Croatia illegally deport refugees and migrants

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, Mašenjka Bačić, Nerminka Emrić, Maja Čakarić and Klara Škrinjar, with the support of Journalismfund.eu

Rather than being allowed to apply for asylum, thousands of refugees and migrants attempting to enter Slovenia and Croatia are being illegally and often violently spirited across the border to Bosnia, and out of the EU. 

Image: ©Matej Povše

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Read the personal testimonies of migrants

Western Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a bottleneck for migrants and refugees who are fleeing through the Balkans. In the past year, many of them have been caught en route to Northern or Western Europe in Slovenia and then systematically handed over to Croatian authorities. In Croatia, they are often subjected to police violence. They finally end up in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they are condemned to an interminable wait.

The Slovenian police deny illegal migrants access to asylum and turn a deaf ear to their appeals. These are first-hand accounts of the migrants who we met along the Balkan route from Slovenia to Bosnia. Similar cases are also recorded by NGOs and are being investigated by the Ombudsman.

Such actions systematically contravene international conventions on human rights and are occurring in two EU member states.

The situation today is very different from the one that came as a rude awakening to the public in the fall of 2015.

Memories of those events, during which, according to rough estimates, a million displaced people entered the EU via the Balkans, are perhaps still freshly etched in our minds. The situation on the ground now, however, has changed dramatically.

This migration route to Western and Northern Europe became impassable after the agreement between the European Union and Turkey entered into force. Among other things, it provided for the return of refugees and migrants from Greece to Turkey. The deal’s effects included the termination of mass migrations and an almost complete closure of the Balkan corridor in the spring of 2016. This meant that many migrants were left stranded.

The following year, information emerged regarding the controversial return of displaced people in Slovenia and Croatia to the border with Bosnia, including reports of violence, confiscated and smashed phones, stolen money, thefts and damaged personal belongings.

Despite the existence of numerous testimonies and compelling evidence, the Slovenian and Croatian police outright deny the case put forward by NGOs, the media, migrants and refugees.

In the middle of July, the Croatian Ombudsman published an anonymous complaint from a group of Croatian police officers. In it, they admitted that their superiors had instructed them to return illegal migrants to Bosnia. Many of their colleagues used violence and took away migrants’ belongings while executing these orders. “If we stood up to this, we would get laid off and then how are we supposed to support our families?” wrote a presumably concerned but fearful police officer.

Many displaced people we met along what is left of the Balkan route confirm that such treatment routinely occurs. Among them was a young Syrian family from Hama who made it all the way to Slovenia this spring. “As soon as we crossed the border, we bumped into Slovenian policemen. We tried to apply for asylum but they said that this wasn’t possible; that there ‘is no asylum in Slovenia,’” the father recounted. “They returned us to Croatia where they took our phones. They treated us like savages even though we were travelling with kids. They threw us into a van and took us to near the Bosnian border.”

From there, they went on foot in pouring rain and biting cold to Velika Kladuša, a town in north-west Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is currently one of the hotspots on the Balkan migrant route. The Bosnian Ombudsman estimates that at least 60,000 migrants will enter the country this year, but local authorities warn that the country is ill-prepared for them.

In Velika Kladuša, innkeeper Asim Latić-Latan let the drenched and exhausted Syrian family into the dining room of a former pizzeria, now converted into a makeshift soup kitchen. He has been serving refugees and migrants for a year and a half. Every day, he prepares as many as 800 evening meals for them. His guests are fleeing from war, totalitarian regimes, poverty, violence and climate change, and he serves them dinner.

After arriving, one family ate dinner, their first real meal in a week, the father of two small children told us. He only gave us his initial, A. He was the only refugee who did not wish to reveal his full name among those whose testimonies are published below. He said he feared that the regime in his homeland, where his parents, brothers and sisters remained, would take revenge on his family.

He had left Syria for Europe with his family, brother-in-law and his partner in the hope of asking for international protection when he arrived. He did not expect any complications as he was coming from a war zone and was travelling with children. He was wrong. His family joined the ranks of a mounting number of people who were stripped of their right to asylum before they had even applied for it.

Fast-track refoulement

Slovenian police have denied many undocumented refugees and migrants the right to asylum and handed them over to Croatia.

This practice of blocking the filing of asylum applications and pushing back refugees and migrants began at the end of May 2018. At that time, a now former director-general of the Slovenian police, Simon Velički, issued instructions to police that people who are caught crossing the border illegally by mixed Slovenian-Croatian patrols “should be handed over to Croatian police to be handled by them.”

This was the moment when Slovenia systematically started to begin thwarting the possibility of claiming asylum by deporting refugees and migrants en masse.

Data published by the police on its own website confirms the changes in the treatment of migrants, and also possible irregularities in the procedures used for handling people who enter Slovenian territory with the purpose of applying for international protection.

The number of refoulements, i.e. the forcible return of refugees to countries where they are liable to face persecution, has risen dramatically since last year when, according to data from a report by the Slovenian police, as many as 4,653 people were deported to Croatia, which is 11 times more people compared to the previous three-year average since 2015, when the Balkan migration route was mapped out.

Slovenian and Croatian police deny entry to displaced people on the grounds of a bilateral agreement which the two countries concluded in 2006. This agreement provides for the return of migrants according to a summary procedure.

“It’s appalling that two EU member states simply get rid of some asylum seekers by using a summary procedure to bounce and return them into a third country,” says Amnesty International.

The Ombudsman’s office also warned that such treatment is controversial because the agreement does not absolve the police of the obligation to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Slovenian constitution, laws and other regulations.

If the Slovenian police hand over a foreigner who is caught by a Slovenian-Croatian patrol in Slovenian territory to Croatian security authorities, even though she or he has expressed an intention to apply for asylum, this infringes on the laws of international protection.

This conclusion was reached by the Ombudsman’s office in the report on the treatment of migrants by the police at the border. Due to allegations against the police regarding violations of the right of access to international protection, the Ombudsman’s office, as an autonomous and independent agency, reviewed the work of police.

Among other things, it highlighted the lack of (serious) consideration of the personal circumstances of each individual. From police documents, it was not clear whether a detained person stated his or her intention to claim asylum or whether he or she stated such an intention but was possibly ignored. Such inconsistencies could mean that the police denied some people asylum procedures.

The Ministry of the Interior assured the Ombudsman that everyone is able to find out their rights in police facilities and that brochures are available in various languages. Such provision of information is, according to the Ombudsman, undoubtedly useful, but should be accessible in places where people can leaf through the brochure’s contents.

The Ombudsman insists that an asylum seeker should be granted the possibility to apply for international protection and obtain it in line with the provisions of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, i.e. the Geneva Convention.

“The negligible number of intentions to apply for asylum actually recorded at Črnomelj police station reflects the seriousness of the allegation that some police procedures could be irregular, including collective expulsions which are prohibited in compliance with the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” explained Nataša Kuzmič from the Ombudsman’s office.

In its report from April 2019, the civil society initiative InfoKolpa found that “the practice of violating the legislation by denying the right to asylum” became systematic last June. It states that this practice spread from Črnomelj station to other police stations in the southern border region, such as Metlika, Ilirska Bistrica, and Dragonja.

A sudden slump in asylum seekers

Last June, soon after the above-mentioned instructions were issued, the volume of people stating their intention to apply for asylum at the Črnomelj police station decreased by 95% in only one month – from 98% to 3%.

We asked Slovenian police for updated data on asylum seekers from January 2018 to July 2019 (by individual border police stations), but received none. They explained that gathering the data would constitute a “disproportionate burden” on them.

The statistical report on illegal migration, however, confirms that “the number of foreigners handed over rose considerably due to a strengthened collaboration with Croatian security authorities. The increase was noticed especially in the second half of 2018.”

This year, numbers have hit an all-time high. The number of people whom Slovenian police returned to the authorities of other countries rose by as much as 406% in 2018 compared with 2017. There was also a spike in the number of people returned to the Croatian border – a staggering 507%.

The available official data from the police, nevertheless, shows that the number of filed asylum applications in the first half of 2019 was similar to the same period last year, but that the number of unauthorised crossings of the national border increased by as much as 47%.

The number of refugees and migrants who the Slovenian authorities returned to neighbouring countries under the guise of various bilateral agreements rose even more – by 200%. In the same period last year (from January to June), the authorities deported 1,117 people, whereas this year the number was as much as 3,534 people. By far the most (98%) were returned to the Croatian border.

Urša Regvar from the Legal Information Centre for NGOs (Centre PIC) stated that some asylum seekers still attest to being refused access to asylum procedures, “which confirms our observations and shows that individuals at the border are still being denied access to protection.”

The police claim otherwise: “We have already provided answers to such generalisations and unfounded accusations in the past, as well as explained that we verified each and every one of the concrete cases presented to us. Until now, these allegations were confirmed in none of them.”

For some time, journalists, activists and NGOs have warned that the police procedures at the border are untransparent, carried out systematically and en masse. Last year, these suspicions reached the Slovenian Ombudsman and Information Commissioner. Suspicions of illegal police procedures and possible violations of human rights are being investigated by the Specialised State Prosecutor’s Office. The investigation is ongoing.

A crucial document was appended to the report which states that, last May, the Slovenian police command gave orders to all police stations about how to treat migrants and asylum seekers at the border. Until recently, the document was confidential. “The public, however, is not familiar with the entire content of these instructions, because the police is contesting the disclosure in court, despite the decision of the Information Commissioner that it involves public information,” InfoKolpa added. The procedure is pending.

The systematic and collective expulsion of asylum seekers continued this year. We gathered testimonies that prove this.

Entering the bureaucratic triangle

Not far away from Plitvice National Park, one of the most important Croatian tourist sites, lies the town of Korenica. It looks slightly forlorn, its buildings rather dilapidated.

Although it is just a stone’s throw away from a national treasure, it is off the beaten tourist track. According to Croatian NGOs, the Korenica police station compound has become a “bureaucratic triangle” or “temporary accommodation centre” for a different type of visitors.

Migrants who are captured during unauthorised border crossings are first taken to this faraway police station and then onward to the green border from where they are expelled to Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“It’s true that they bring migrants here,” confirmed a resident of Korenica. As to why, how and how many, she did not know.

However, the report on illegal push-backs and border violence published in April of this year by the NGOs that collaborate in the Border Violence Monitoring initiative contains more testimonies about this particular police station or, to be precise, a garage next to it. According to the news published by the H-alter.org portal, people are detained and mistreated there, and then returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Croatian police categorically deny that they are carrying out push-backs. However, the testimonies of refugees, a series of photographs and videos prove the opposite. Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović herself recently asserted that “a touch of force” is necessary. The irregularities in police treatment are reflected also in official statistics, or rather in their incongruities. The civil initiative Dobrodošli (Welcome) and two NGOs, the Center za mirovne študije (The Center for Peace Studies, CMS) and Are You Syrious, discovered inconsistencies in official data.

In 2018, 8,207 people crossed the Croatian border without permission, 71% more than in the previous year. The rise in unauthorised border crossings was most obvious close to the border with Slovenia and amounted to as much as a 158% increase. In the vicinity of the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian police noted an 88% increase in unauthorised crossings, whereas such crossings in the rest of the country increased by 55%. Of those 8,207, 1,438 were returned to third countries, 1,068 applied for asylum and 536 were detained.

This means that there is only data on a total of 3,042 people who Croatian police detained who attempted to cross the border clandestinely. “Where are the remaining 5,165 people and how did police treat them?” asks Julija Kranjec of CMS. In its report, CMS assumes that these people were illegally refused entry in Croatia. It speculates that the police do not register all of the people they capture.

According to CMS, there are no official statistics on expulsions of refugees from Croatia. In light of data collected by international organisations, they conclude, however, that Croatian police have illegally pushed at least 10,000 people back to neighbouring countries. “I constantly repeat the question: where are these people?” says Maja Kević from the Croatian Ombudsman’s office that receives complaints about illegal returns of migrants to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The majority of complaints in the last annual report of the Ombudsman refer to police procedures against migrants who were apprehended while attempting to cross the border or immediately after.

The Ombudsman’s office also discovered unpublicised internal rules which allow the Croatian police to carry out the push-backs.

According to the statements of XY, one of these rules is supposedly based on an oral order from the end of 2016 and the other on a written document from 15 February 2018. According to instructions from the then Director General of Police Marko Srdarević, police officers must send undocumented migrants found deep inside Croatian territory to a police station near to where they crossed the border and not to the station closest to where they were found – as stipulated in the regulations.

In addition, according to Kević, the Ombudsman’s investigations revealed the existence of a form that is presented to migrants “which, among other things, says that they agree to be returned, do not need a translator, can communicate also with the help of Google Translate and the like.” This is flies in the face of Croatian law. Refugees should be given the option to apply for asylum if they wish to do so. They should be treated individually in order to find out why the entered the country, says Kević.

The form they receive is actually a decision on their departure which demands that they leave the country within seven days. In order to cross the border, they would need to possess valid identity documents which the majority of migrants neither have nor can obtain. “Therefore we think, and also state it in [our] report, that they take them to these outlying police stations in order to get them over the green border,” continued Kević. She thinks that this actually constitutes a violation of human rights, which, considering the large numbers of returns, are being committed en masse.

The Croatian Ministry of the Interior – as is the case with its Slovenian counterpart – consistently denies that border police are engaged in such illegal conduct, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. This May, a Swiss television channel published footage of a policeman pushing migrants over the green border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. When questioned about it, Croatian Interior Minister Davor Božinović said: “This is another futile attempt at throwing accusations against the Croatian police that abides by national and European laws.”

Bosnian camps

The migrants and refugees caught by the Slovenian or Croatian police upon crossing the border end their journey in Bosnia and Herzegovina for an indefinite period of time. Bira, a former factory which produced air conditioners in the northwestern town of Bihać, is one of the largest migrant centres in the country. Every migrant that lives there has attempted to cross the border with Croatia at least once, and then to continue their journey towards Slovenia. Some of them were returned; others succeeded in their attempt, or ended up in Serbia.

According to data from Bihać’s communication office, around 11,000 migrants arrived in Bihać between last April and this June, whereas the Ministry of the Interior of Una-Sana Canton counted 17,000 of them. These were only how many they actually registered. No one can explain this discrepancy since both authorities say they are registering them correctly.

Various displaced people converge on the streets of Bihać: from Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and other Middle Eastern and African countries. Many of them sleep outdoors. Some of them find shelter in abandoned buildings, of which there are plenty in Bosnia. For a long time, no one took care of the migrants without a place to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In July of last year, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) took over the care of refugees and migrants in all of the reception centres across the country. These centres, however, are often full, meaning that many migrants are left on the streets without a roof over their head.

Outside the entrance to the Bira centre there are reception facilities where, during our visit this spring, around 500 people were milling around. When we talked to them, they asked us for help and told us that no one in the Bira centre wants to help them. They claimed that they were not given food or water. Melisa Kljuca, the IOM representative who manages the Bira centre, assured us that everyone is getting regular meals but that the centre is overcrowded.

We also witnessed how security officers from Bakrač, the private security company that protects the Bira centre, used electric stun devices to force the migrants away from the entrance to the reception centre. The use of such devices is prohibited by Bosnian law. We contacted a representative of the Bakrač security company but they were not willing to explain why they use them. Melisa Kljuca of IOM told us, however, that the individual security guards had already been suspended and relocated due to the use of these batons.

That night many migrants were left outside, sleeping in a meadow close to the Bira centre. Not far from Bihać, Bosnian authorities set up tents in a field previously used as a landfill site. The police now send the migrants that they find on the city streets to this improvised camp, called Vučjak. Living there is worse than being in prison, they say.

The Balkan bottleneck 

Migrants usually enter Bosnia and Herzegovina from its eastern border, where there are no reception centres for them. Then they head to the country’s interior, towards Tuzla. As we witnessed on the ground, the brunt of the migrant crisis is borne by a handful of volunteers. They act on their own initiative and are occasionally aided by humanitarian organisations and a few of Tuzla’s residents. Among the most active is local Senad Pirić. He says that they cope as best they can and that they are already exhausted. Their supplies of food, sanitary material and other basic necessities of life are almost gone, but there are more and more migrants pouring in every month.

Displaced people enter the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina or Republika Srpska from the neighbouring Serbia over the Drina River. The government of Republika Srpska, one of the two political entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, insists that it will not help migrants but that it can provide a humanitarian corridor. Hence, police direct everyone who enters the Republika Srpska to the other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Tuzla.

During the late evening hours, several migrants arrive in Tuzla on foot, usually in groups of up to 30 people. They are soaked, hungry and afraid. They gather in front of the assembly centre, in the park or at the main bus station. From there, they continue their journey to Sarajevo. “There is no location in Tuzla that is suitable for living. Public toilets do not operate in the evening. There is also no provision of health services or any help from the responsible authorities,” explained Pirić.

The authorities are intentionally indifferent to this problem, says Pirić, the tireless volunteer, who offers help to refugees and migrants day and night. He says that Bosnia and Herzegovina has no systemic solutions to deal with the migrant crisis. “They are not allowed to enter the EU and here, where they are stranded, they are also not provided with anything,” reflected Pirić, sadly. “They are stuck and can go neither backwards nor forwards.”

“By being unresponsive, the country blatantly infringes on the basic human rights of refugees and migrants, while the EU encourages non-member states to use repressive methods,” finds Nidžara Ahmetašević, a Bosnian activist and journalist who has been following the migrant crisis since 2015.

Denial and indifference

Following three months of intensive fieldwork and data processing, we conclude that the practice of push-backs – denial of entry to refugees and migrants at the border without the possibility of applying for asylum – on the Balkan route continues unhindered in 2019, despite the warnings of national Ombudsmen, NGOs, journalists and other activists in this field.

The clearest proof of this is the testimonies of numerous refugees and migrants to whom we spoke in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly in Velika Kladuša and Bihać – and our verification of the facts on the ground, as well as our combing through and analysis of the available data. The testimonies are of key importance because they provide evidence of the systematic treatment of migrants that contravenes the international conventions on human rights and refugees.

It is impossible to know with any accuracy how many refugees and migrants Slovenian police pushed straight back to Croatia after they crossed the border illegally, because many of them are not included in the Slovenian statistics and often not in the Croatian ones either. In Croatia, the local police – also confirmed in the collected testimonies – employ brutal and cruel measures to return refugees to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where inhumane conditions prevail in the IOM accommodation centres. Many must fend for themselves.

Read the personal testimonies of migrants

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Island of despair

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

While the outrage of Europeans has been turned to Donald Trump’s wall and the handling of migrants at the border with Mexico, they ignore a humanitarian disaster closer to home. The EU has left Greece to handle the influx of refugees on its own and those stuck on Lesbos are living in abysmal conditions.

Friday 30 November 2018

The dark-grey sky is wide open. The rain keeps pouring out of it as if from an Asian monsoon. Every now and then a crack of lightning rips open the heavens. Torrents of mud are flowing across ‘the jungle’, the parallel refugee encampment which sprang up alongside the ‘reception and identification centre’ of Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos (Lesbos, in English). The mud is coalescing with the ubiquitous faces, until the mixture forms a small river. No toilet facilities have been provided at the barbed-wire-ringed camp, let alone showers, save for those falling from the clouds.

Some 1,500 people living at the outer edges of Moria camp – currently home to some 7,000 refugees and migrants – are desperately trying to save their pitiful belongings. The filthy bilge is flooding their improvised dwellings. The cardboard-bolstered tents keep sagging under the weight of this Mediterranean monsoon.

Some of the children, who represent over 40% of the refugee and migrant population, nonetheless take to frolicking in the mud. A number of parents try to step in and protect them from the fury of the elements, but their efforts are to no avail. The scavenger dogs seek refuge under the trees. A group of defeated-looking men simply stand there in the rain, silently staring at nothing in particular. The women are struggling to save what little food they have stored in the tents. Since the mice and the rats are constantly on the prowl, the provisions are kept as high from the ground as possible. Despite these efforts, water, which is trickling down from the tents’ ceilings, is now threatening their precious stashes. A number of shrieks and wails can be heard from all over the perimeter.

The very colours are being washed away in the deluge. The one bright thing you can still discern amid the total and all-pervasive greyness is the garishly cheerful sign which, without a hint of irony, bids the inhabitants of the camp ‘Welcome’.

____

“We would have gone anywhere where it was safe. Where we could live like human beings. But the situation here is impossible to bear. We’re struggling to survive. Over here, it’s worse than war,” Alina, 27, tels me in her small tent.

Alina arrived here from the eastern part of Afghanistan, which the EU, for some reason, considers to be a safe country, despite the fact that conditions in the Hindu Kush are worse than at any time since 2001, with the Taliban now controlling two thirds of the Afghan provinces. Things are especially bad for the Hazara, the long-persecuted people whom the horrific experiments in ethnic cleansing sent fleeing to Europe in their tens of thousands.

Should their asylum application get rejected, Alina, her husband and her five children are facing deportation. It is a prospect that chills them to the bone. And for good reason: at least 10 of their compatriots have already been killed or gone missing after being sent back to Afghanistan from Germany or Sweden.

“We set out 13 months ago,” relates Alina, as she sits wedged between her children in the tent designed to accommodate only two people. “We simply had to leave. The fighting had reached our village. We borrowed the money. We first spent almost a year in Turkey. A lot of the time we were living on the street. My husband got work helping out at a cow farm, but the pay was disastrously low. So we decided to take our chances and head to Greece.”

The real irony is that the dire conditions on the other side of the fence, behind the tall barbed wire and surveillance cameras, are comparatively better, even though the ‘official’ camp only provides a single shower for every 84 inhabitants and one toilet for every 72, according to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee. Beyond every low lurks a lower low.

Europe’s migration frontline

In the wake of the European-Turkish refugee deal and the closing of the Balkan refugee route in the spring of 2016, crossing the strait between Turkey and the Aegean islands became much harder. Even the smugglers found themselves in a tough spot after the Turkish authorities started cracking down on the incomers, and after ‘protecting’ the EU’s external borders was entrusted to Frontex, the Union’s border and coastguard agency. The price of the risky voyage to the Greek islands has risen considerably, even though the prospect of reaching central or northern Europe have become slimmer than ever. The Greek islands have now completed their transformation into the frontline of the European migration policies.

At present, Afghans are the most numerous group on Lesvos, constituting more than 40% of the entire refugee population. The Greek authorities, assisted by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, have transported most of the Syrians over to the mainland. According to official UNHCR data, the Syrians were the most numerous group arriving in Greece as a whole in 2018: 41% of all incomers were from Syria, while 20% hailed from Afghanistan, 15% from Iraq and 6% from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The numbers paint a clear picture of the changing flows brought about by EU policy. In the current year, 30% fewer arrivals reached the European Union via the Mediterranean than last year, while Greece has experienced a 40% increase.

At the moment, almost 70,000 refugees and migrants are based in Greece. The very number is a clear testimonial that many have become permanently trapped. The recent developments have put an increasing strain on the housing capacities all over the country. The official limits have long been surpassed. The local asylum system may be markedly more efficient than it was two years ago, but that doesn’t mean it is anything but slow.

At the time of writing, the accommodation centres on the mainland house around 20,000 people. Although the regional authorities in Lesvos issued, at the end of September, the Greek Ministry of Migration with an ultimatum to ‘clean up’ the Moria camp in the next thirty days, the desired changes did not take place at the required pace, with the organised departure of only around 2,000 people from the island to the mainland occurring over the past six weeks.

But fresh newcomers keep rolling in.

____

“We made two different attempts [to cross to Lesvos]. The first time we were caught by the Turkish police,” recounts Alina. “On the second occasion, we hid in the forest for three days and nights. There were seventy-five of us. We all had to fit on to a single rubber boat. The children were absolutely terrified. All I could do was keep pretending everything was just fine. After an hour at sea, the boat sprang a leak. Before long, we were sinking.”

The group was fortunate enough to be picked up by the Greek coast guard. As the Moria camp had long reached its capacity, they were left to fend for themselves. After applying for asylum, they pitched down in the middle of what used to be a grove, located right next to the camp.

“All of this came as a horrendous shock to me. I’ve never seen anything remotely like it. It’s so crowded, and there are no toilets or even running water,” says the petite Hazara woman. “We are so hungry. Every meal means waiting in a line for two or three hours – though there’s no guarantee you will get served. And there’s so much violence here … At night, the children are forbidden from leaving the tent. I myself don’t dare go anywhere without an escort from my husband.”

“The Greek policemen are merely observing the violence. They couldn’t possibly care less for our safety,” she adds.

Just like in her homeland, Alina is surrounded by violence, misery and the threat of sexual assault. The latter is so omnipresent a number of women and girls in the camp have taken to wearing diapers during the night. Healthcare is virtually non-existent. For the (at least) 7,000 people here, a single doctor is available at any given time. Alina’s doctor appointment has been postponed and postponed for over a month now.

No wonder she is terrified something truly horrible is bound to happen. “All of my children are sick. They keep coughing. All of them complain of aching lungs. They have lost a lot of weight. Everything here is so filthy. I am unable to help them,” Alina explains, powerless. “But what will happen when the winter comes? I know we will have to somehow survive it here. We badly need some winter clothes and blankets. We have nothing. Our asylum interview has already taken place, but it takes several months to get a response.”

Follow the money

With all this wretched misery, one can only ask: where did the EU money go, namely €1.6 billion euros allocated to Greece since 2015 to help the refugees? How is it possible that two years after the closing of the Balkan route, people are still living in such festering landfills, cut off from the world and stripped of all resources?

Some Greek journalists refuse to balk at such compelling but difficult questions. A few weeks ago, the Fileleftheros newspaper published a story on the misappropriation of European funds. The defence minister Panos Kamenos, the president of the far-right The Independent Greeks party, responded by sending the police after the two journalists and the editor. The paper had managed to link Kamenos to a local businessman grown rich by what passes as servicing the refugee camps. His company, funded using EU money, was in charge both of the distribution of food and the plumbing. The prices were dictated by the supplier, and the contracts were awarded overnight and without oversight.

At least the journalists were released the very same day they were arrested. Furthermore, the European Anti-Fraud Office immediately launched an investigation into the ‘suspected irregularities’.

____

Ahmad Ebrahimi, 31, is another one of those who, despite completing his interview with the Greek Asylum Service five months ago, has yet to receive his reply. The slight and surprisingly calm young man tells me he is trying to keep a cool head and take advantage of his infinitely bleak and frustrating days at Moria.

Back home in Afghanistan, he was working as a journalist. He was a TV producer, and also produced his own podcast. He enjoyed the work, and was making a decent living, at least by Afghan standards. From a reasonably well-off family – his father owns three stores in Kabul – he has never known penury. Ebrahimi’s desperate flight to Europe was not motivated by economics. The only reason Ahmad set off for Europe was that his status as a journalist – and a Hazara – had made him a target for the Taliban.

Despite being somewhat aware of what was taking place along the European refugee routes, the actual conditions at Lesvos came as a profound shock. “I fled Afghanistan because I wanted to reach the free and democratic world, where I could safely do my work. But here, the situation is unspeakably dreadful,” he reflected. “The camp is in chaos. It is simply not safe for anyone. I mostly keep to myself. I don’t need anything from anyone. All I want is to leave and continue on my journey.”

Ahmed is currently volunteering as an organiser of photo workshops for his fellow refugees and migrants. He is also making a documentary on conditions at the camp. His most fervent hope is to leave this island of the damned and head for the Canadian embassy in Athens. A collaborative stint with a Canadian journalist had opened up the prospect of a North American job. Yet the burned-out Greek – and European – asylum systems are functioning to the tune of a merciless algorithm. Certain inhuman rules are in place, and the fates of individual humans are far from being a priority.

A whole new spectrum of trauma

“I met a number of families in the camp telling me of their escapes from Syria, Afghanistan and the Congo… They managed to flee some of the most atrocious wars on the planet, yet they all feel what they encountered here is much worse. They would rather have bombs falling on them than keep living in such ruinous conditions,” says Idoia Moreno, the coordinator of the Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic located next to the infamous camp.

MSF’s facilities are operating at peak capacity. During our visit, the medics performed a mass vaccination programme on the children across the island’s camps. Moreno informs me she has been stationed in the Congo, the Central African Republic and in Angola. She has served in camps ravaged by the Ebola virus, yet she has never seen anything remotely like Moria.

“In recent months, the camp’s demographics underwent a significant change,” reports Carola Buscemi, a paediatrician stationed at a small field clinic operating on Lesvos since February. “We’ve never had so many children as we do right now. They currently form almost half of the entire refugee population. We are operating in serious crisis conditions – and they should be recognised as such by the authorities in Athens and Brussels. Yet they refuse to do so. For the most part, people here are left to fend for themselves. The children’s medical condition is rapidly deteriorating. Even the ones who arrived healthy are getting sick. And the same goes for the adults. The situation grows more alarming every day. We keep notifying the authorities, but nothing changes.”

Every day, Buscemi treats 25 to 30 refugee and migrant children. According to her, the most pressing problem is respiratory disease, with skin conditions coming in a close second. In the Europe of the 21st century, malnutrition is a major source of suffering as well.

“The food is of very poor quality, hopelessly unsuitable for children. And there is not enough of it to go around. The children are losing weight in front of our eyes. A number of them have simply stopped growing,” she observes. “The stress is a major contributing factor. There is a lot of bed-wetting, anxiety, panic attacks and self-harm. I cannot emphasise enough how rife with psychiatric disorders the camp’s inmates have become. These people have fled savage war conditions, only to come here and face a whole new range of trauma. You can see the wages of post-traumatic stress disorders on every step.”

A few days ago, the Italian doctor treated a seven-year-old Iraqi boy who tried to commit suicide by jumping from a roof. It was his second attempt. The first time, he had already managed to fasten a rope to a tree branch and was only saved in the nick of time.

“It is horrendous,” Buscemi testifies. “I have never seen anything as awful as the situation here. And what makes it worse is that it’s taking place in Europe. Over here, at least, things should be very different.”

Over the past few weeks, the doctors at the clinic have tried to appeal to the international community for help through the media. “The parents at Moria fear their children have already sustained irreparable psychological damage. They come to the clinic telling us their sons and daughters have stopped talking, or that they have harmed themselves in a number of ways,” says Giovanna Bonvini, head of the mental health department at the Greek branch of Médecins Sans Frontieres.

Her colleague Caroline Willeren, the MSF’s coordinator of activities at the Moria camp, is even more direct: “It is a disgrace. Here we are seeing the high human cost paid by the refugees on account of the European-Turkish deal. The political arrangement gave rise to a human catastrophe.”

Fear is a dangerous thing

The local communities can be counted among those who have paid a heavy price for the European migration policies turning the Greek islands, the south of Italy and Malta into a human dumping ground.

It needs to be said that the local communities have displayed a commendable sense of solidarity and empathy. Lesvos, which over the past three years has seen the passage of some 650,000 refugees and migrants, deserves a special mention in this regard. The locals have done their utmost to help the incomers avoid the pitfalls created by the bureaucrats and the politicians. Yet understandably enough, both the patience and the compassion gradually ran out.

Throughout Samos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Lesvos – where the European and Greek authorities set up the infamous reception and identification centres (or ‘hot-spots’) – a great deal of anger and frustration is being voiced. One consequence is the strengthening of the far-right political movements, most notably the Nazi-tinged Golden Dawn.

“The refugees have been turned into a tool of the far right. In an age of populism, fake news, mental laziness and depleted attention spans, their work has never been easier. Serious reflection is a thing of the past,” comments Efi Latsoudi, a long time human rights activist who spoke to me at Nan, the activists’ restaurant in Mitilini, where the local waiters and the refugee chefs work side by side.

Latsoudi fears that both Europe and Greece are hurtling back to a dark place. The refugee crisis strikes her as “tailor-made” for the purposes of dismantling the very concepts of human rights and an open society. In spite of Europe’s slide towards the wrong end of history, she has somehow managed to hold on to her hopes. Lasudi has been helping out the new arrivals since 2008, when, all across the EU, the refugees were still considered as a rather quaint and exotic phenomenon. But even then, a decade ago, a quick scan of the Aegean islands would reveal the shape of the things to come on the horizon.

Latsoudi is, in her own words, devoting all her energies to fighting for what should be the simplest thing in the world: for all people being treated as people. Still, even this redoubtable humanitarian from Lesvos, whom I have been meeting up with for a number of years, can no longer hide her profound exhaustion.

“Fear is a dangerous thing,” Latsoudi picks up our conversation. “The hatred is spreading like brushfire. At the same time, humanitarian work is becoming criminalised. I am concerned this may be nothing short of an epidemic, further weakening the social fabric with each passing day.”

She goes on to relate how she is still haunted by the memories of last spring, when the local neo-Nazis launched a savage assault on the Kurdish refugees, who had fled the violence of the former members of extremist Sunni Arab militias at Moria and resorted to sleeping in the parks. Even two years ago, Latsoudi informs me, she would have never expected such a thing on Lesvos, one of the great historical entry points for migrants.

“After all this time, I still feel as if we are living in a warzone. So many unforgivable things have happened. We have fallen because we failed to protect the people. The whole of Europe has fallen with us. What we are witnessing is an utter dehumanisation of the refugee problem,” she says. “The systemic violation of asylum rights is affecting the entire continent. Before long, we are all bound to experience the effects of this basic erosion of common decency. Here on Lesvos, we are still struggling to hold on to our sense of community and solidarity. On the other islands, that fight seems all but lost.”

____

As far back as 2012, a group of Lesvos volunteers began utilising the premises of a former summer camp on the outskirts of Mytilini to set up the PIKPA refugee settlement. Back then, there was no such thing as official refugee camps, so the incomers had to seek shelter on the beaches, in the parks and in the forests.

In 2015, when Lesvos was turned into one of the focal points of the Balkan refugee route, a single day could easily bring in as many as 10,000 new refugees. By then, the local activists had already restored the former campsite and started putting up wooden shacks. While Moria was being turned into a suffocating prison, PIKPA was there to provide the most vulnerable among the refugees with a place where they could take at least an occasional unfettered breath.

Today, the open refugee shelter is funded by donations and managed entirely by volunteers, who keep arriving from all over the world. On several occasions, the local authorities, spurred on by the local business community (especially hotel-owners), tried to shut the place down. One of the cases against PIKPA is still to be decided on by the local courts. Yet as if to spite their persecutors, the volunteers refused to shut down the operation for even a single day.

At the moment, the volunteer-managed camp provides sanctuary to a hundred refugees, who are living in the best conditions I have seen over the last few years. The shelter’s personnel picked them out among the most vulnerable members of the Moria camp. PIKPA is now providing shelter to a number of pregnant women, single mothers, orphaned children and some of the most profoundly traumatised casualties of war. At PIKPA, they are housed in neat small wooden structures and provided with basic medical and psychological assistance. They are also treated to the wildest of luxuries like regular meals, their own kindergarten service, courses in English and Greek, plus the option to start preparing their children for joining the Greek schooling system. Work therapy is also provided for any who might benefit from it.

____

After the savage downpour is spent, a couple of tiny Syrian girls start dragging a plastic boat each over the humongous puddles covering the PIKPA basketball court. After a few moments, the girls let out a festive laugh. For a few moments at least, the trauma of war and of the subsequent desperate flight is overpowered by the sheer joy of being young and playing outside.

“If I hadn’t made it here, I would have lost my mind. They saved my life. They also managed to salvage my basic humanity,” says Muhammad Z, a 27-year-old man from the Syrian coastal town of Latakia.

Muhammad joins me for a long stroll around the PIKPA compound. He reached Lesvos in august 2016, a little less than six months after the Balkan refugee route was shut down. He left Latakia, one of Bashar al Assad’s main strongholds, because he decided he could not participate in the murdering of his friends, relatives and other compatriots, who had ended up on the other side of his country’s chaotic and unimaginably violent divide.

Muhammad managed to avoid being mobilised, but knew very well what lay in store for him following his decision. Even before that, he had been jailed by the regime for no apparent reason. They beat him up savagely and also tortured him in a number of other ways, only to release him after a month, which was nothing short of a miracle. A number of his friends were not so lucky.

Muhammad struck out for Europe accompanied by his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law, and their two children. Upon reaching Lesvos, the entire group applied for asylum. After months of waiting, the bureaucrats decided to split up the family, turning down Muhammad and his mother’s applications without an explanation. Twice in a row, their appeals got overruled as well. Under the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal, the pair of them should have long been returned to Turkey.

“In Moria, I was really starting to lose it,” the timid and friendly young man continues in fluent English. “Everything was wrong. The fights, the chaos, the awful food, the unbelievable crowdedness. The fires. The protests. I simply wanted to stop breathing. It was easier back home, even with the war. When the bomb hits, you die, and that’s it. Over here, the suffering just never ends. My mother was suffering terribly. She would cry all the time. Fortunately, the activists came to our aid. We have been living here at PIKPA for a year now. The volunteers helped me to remain a human being, one still capable of hoping and believing. They respect me here, and this has done wonders to restore my dignity.”

After a while, Muhammad opens up some more and tells me he lives and breathes for the weekly football matches between the refugees and the volunteers. This is hardly surprising, since back home in Latakia, he had just signed his first professional contract with a local premier division team, while also working as a trained optician.

“I used to have a great life,” Muhammad shakes his head. “I was hoping for a serious football career. I was doing quite well. But then the war broke out, and everything stopped in its tracks. My team fell apart. Very soon after, my father was killed by a bomb. After my first arrest, I realised I needed to leave. My mother insisted on going with me. The two of us, we’re very connected. Without her, I would have long reached Germany or Sweden … But it is my duty to remain by her side.”

It is quite impossible to convey the hope in this young man’s eyes when he relates how a team of volunteer lawyers promised to help reopen both his and his mother’s cases. “I only rarely dare to venture outside PIKPA,” he winces, “Because I’m too afraid they might arrest me and send me back to Turkey.”

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In search of the lost city of Londonistan

 
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By Khaled Diab

Our intrepid and fearless reporter visited the fabled capital of  the European Caliphate, Londonistan. What he discovered was shockingly, surprisingly, confoundingly, almost frighteningly… ordinary.

Headless or headscarfed, Londoners like to do their own thing.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Sunday 9 September 2018

“Other tourists may remember London for its spectacular sights and history, but I remember it for Islam,” wrote columnist Andy Ngo in the Wall Street Journal after a recent trip to the British capital, which seems to have coincided with my own visit during which I experienced a very different city.

“I wanted to cut past the polemics and experience London’s Muslim communities for myself,” he claimed. Despite this commendable sentiment, Ngo immediately proceeded to launch a polemical diatribe about the capital’s “failed multiculturalism”, in which he does not quote a single London Muslim nor does he appear to have had any actual conversations with these terrifying individuals, as if they have not yet evolved the capacity to speak or he has not discovered the capability to listen.

Instead, he depends on the mood music of imagery, spending most of the column describing the dress code of conservative Muslims on their way to Friday prayers, as if their choice of clothes defines who they are, what they think of others, how they treat their fellow citizens or how they relate to their country.

But as I know from experience, judging a Muslim (or anyone) solely by how (s)he dresses can be highly deceptive. Although extremists undoubtedly exist, if Ngo and others so fearful of the other took the time to spend time with ordinary Muslims, they may be surprised by what they learn.

Take the Iraqi woman whom I happened to chat to on a London bus after I almost landed on her lap when the driver braked too hard. Dressed in a baggy black dress, cloak and headscarf, she was the fabric far-right horror is fashioned from but, in reality, she was cut from a different cloth to their nightmares.

Despite her conservative attire, she was a harsh critic of the sectarianism and religious identity politics that had overrun her native land, despised ISIS and looked back with nostalgia to Iraq’s secular past – though her admiration for the Arab dictators of yesteryear and her poo-pooing of today’s young Arabs as ignorant and apathetic riled me. Moreover, she was a proud Londoner of 30 years and her enthusiasm for the city had not been dimmed by the UK’s role in the disastrous and illegal invasion of her homeland.

At a certain level, I understand how the unknown other can be frightening, especially if there are some extremists in their midst. For instance, as a child in London in the 1980s, I feared skinheads, initially unaware that in addition to the violent and racist fringe who sometimes hurled racial abuse at us or who picked fights with me as a teen, there were leftist or apolitical skinheads – some are trying to reclaim the movement – who loved reggae and ska and hung out with fellow black working class Londoners, many of whom were also skinheads. In the London of today, there are many men with shaved heads (often because they are balding) and sporting elaborate tattoos who have absolutely nothing to do with what used to be known as skinhead culture when I was a kid.

Either through ignorance or malice, Ngo notes that near the mosque in Tower Hamlets he saw a sign which read “Alcohol restricted zone”. This leaves any reader unaware of British law and customs with the impression that, through ‘creeping Sharia’, the local Muslim community had managed to ban alcohol. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, as reflected by the enormous number of pubs and off-licences in the area.

In its battle against what it defines as ‘anti-social behaviour’, the UK government has reserved the right to restrict the consumption of alcohol in certain public spaces, such as parks, including in Tower Hamlets and over 600 other places across England and Wales, while the ban on consuming alcohol on the London underground was introduced by that well-known firebrand Islamist Boris Johnson.

This view of alcohol as a social ill or evil has nothing to do with Islam or multiculturalism and stems from Protestant Puritanism. This is reflected in the 19th-century temperance movement. In the United States, where this form of zealotry was far more successful, temperance eventually led to prohibition. Today, alcohol is still banned in hundreds of local counties, representing an area that constitutes an estimated 10% of the land mass of the United States.

In today’s America drinking on the streets or in public spaces is prohibited almost everywhere, as I was surprised to discover on my first visit to the country, which makes Ngo’s surprise at the sign he encountered in London, which is relatively rare, appear faux and contrived.

Moreover, the Muslim attitudes to alcohol and drinking are not as straightforward as many believe, as I point out in a chapter dedicated to the theme in my book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect. Many, many Muslims openly drink, both in the diaspora and in Muslim-majority countries where it is legal, and many Muslims who do not drink tolerate and accept the right of others to consume alcohol.

This diversity of attitudes is reflected in Arab- and Muslim-run establishments. Take the famous Little Arabia on and around Edgware Road, which is home to numerous off-licences and pubs. There, many Middle Eastern eateries, especially the cheaper, faster ones, serve nothing stronger than fruit juice, but some, especially the more upmarket ones, serve wine, beer and spirits from their countries of origin. In fact, for certain types of liberal Arabs, eating mezzas without washing them down with arak would be considered sacrilegious.

While a disproportionate amount of Western media attention is directed at the relatively small number of radical Islamists, missing from the picture is the fact that London is probably the main capital of Middle Eastern secular, progressive and leftist culture outside the Middle East. The city has been drawing a rich and diverse tapestry of Arab and Persian writers, artists, opposition figures, dissidents, exiles and refugees for generations – a few of whom I met during my latest visit.

One ageing Arab intellectual who has lived in London for decades pointed out to me, for instance, a stretch of territory in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea which had been a mini Iran in the 1970s and whose inhabitants found themselves stranded after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Most Iranians in the area moved to the United States or other parts of the UK.

One of the most unintentionally hilarious moments in Andy Ngo’s column is his observation of how, outside the mosque in Tower Hamlets, Muslims and non-Muslims “avoided eye contact with the other”.

As anyone who has lived in or spent time in London will tell you, making eye contact is considered one of the gravest social sins (I exaggerate only slightly), and those who engage in it could elicit silent contempt, a hostile, “Oi, what are you staring at?”, or occasionally even stronger reactions.

This is partly because Londoners guard their private and personal space jealously. The upside of this oft-unfriendly attitude is that Londoners are also generally meticulous respecters of other people’s private and personal space, and their right to do what they wish within its actual or imagined confines.

That is why the streets of London often appear to the outsider like an archipelago of random subcultures, each existing in parallel and each studiously ignoring the other, whether that is the colourful circuses of colour on the buses, tubes, along the embankment of the Thames, or at the city’s huge array of pop-up festivals and carnivals. Nobody even bats an eyelid when, say, a woman dressed in a black coat and hijab shakes hands with a headless street performer dressed in a dark suit.

Despite the growing anti-Muslim sentiment and general xenophobia in the UK, the London of today appears, to my eyes as a relative outsider now, to still be a more open and tolerant place than the city in which I grew up. That is not to say that there is no tension or hatred in the city, especially as inequality sores and socio-economic welfare tumbles. Nevertheless, many of the city’s inhabitants take London’s multicultural kaleidoscope in their stride and seem to thrive on it, especially those who grew up since large-scale immigration began.

I hope London remains London, maintains its unique spirit, and ignores rightwing fear-mongers.

—-

This article was first published by The New Arab on 31 August 2018.

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Alt-jihad – Part II: Delusions of grandeur and persecution

 
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By Khaled Diab

In the second in a series of articles exploring the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, Khaled Diab examines the far-right’s dual sense of superiority and inferiority, as well as its persecution complex.

Source: https://lorddreadnought.livejournal.com/69990.html

 

Tuesday 17 April 2018

In the previous piece in this series on the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, I examined the emerging phenomenon of far-right suicide attackers and far-right political violence in general. In this, the second article in the series, I explore a number of other parallels, namely the bizarre blend of supremacist convictions combined with a sense of inferiority, an overpowering mentality of victimhood, a persecution complex centred around a rogues’ parade of imagined enemies, as well as a related belief in outlandish conspiracy theories.

Inferiority-superiority complex

Extremist Islamist and jihadist discourse is dominated simultaneously by a dual inferiority-supremacy narrative. On the one hand, they view Islam as innately superior to other religions and political philosophies, lament Islam’s loss of global dominance and dream of the restoration of its hegemony. On the other hand, they are convinced that Muslims everywhere are oppressed and victims. Even in situations where conservative Muslims are the dominant political force and wield enormous political clout, Islamists often believe they are oppressed, their beliefs are under attack and their way of life is threatened with extinction.

A similar narrative has emerged in white and Christian nationalist circles, though, given the continuing might of the West, superiority outweighs inferiority when compared with Islamist discourse. This sense of entitlement was best summed up by Richard Spencer, the spiritual leader of the alt-right movement in America. “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build; we produce; we go upward,” Spencer told the audience at an alt-right conference in Washington, DC. “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

Nevertheless, unlike the cocky white supremacy of the 19th century, when the West directly ruled most of the planet and required an ideology to justify its global dominance, instead of the white man’s burden of yore, many whites, especially men, now feel they are regarded as the burden. In fact, these far-right movements, as well as some segments of more mainstream conservatism, to a lesser degree, have appropriated the language of oppression and subjugation more common among the formerly enslaved and segregated African-Americans, or subject populations who lived under colonial rule.

At one level, this shift in rhetoric is opportunistic and cynical, with the aim of turning the tables on the truly marginalised minorities living in the West and on those who have suffered under the boot of western hegemony by suggesting that the real victims of racism and imperialism are whites, and especially the Christian right, who supposedly suffer under the multiple tyrannies of political correctness, liberalism, immigration (which is regarded as a sort of invasion by stealth) and Islam.

However, it would be a mistake to view these attitudes as merely rhetorical devices. Many on the far-right absolutely believe, their sense of supremacy and privilege notwithstanding, that they belong to an oppressed, repressed and persecuted group. At times, this can be a reflection of their sense of personal isolation. “I didn’t have many friends at school, I wanted to be a member of a group of people that had an aim,” admitted Kevin Wilshaw, who was a well-known organiser for the UK’s National Front in the 1980s and later joined the British National Party, before renouncing his former life and coming out as gay and of Jewish heritage. “Even though you end up being a group of people that through their own extreme views are cut off from society, you do have a sense of comradeship in that you’re a member of a group that’s being attacked by other people.” This sense of camaraderie, as well as a desire to stand out and be noticed, appears to have been a spur for Andrew Anglin’s transformation from a vegan anti-racist into the American extreme right’s most outspoken and outrageous troll, through his creation of the rabidly racist website The Daily Stormer.

This sense of alienation and the desperate desire to bond this produces is also something that afflicts many who fall into the embrace of radical and jihadist Islamism. “For most jihadis, the first steps on their journeys to Syria were rarely taken for political or religious reasons,” observes Kenan Malik, the Indian-Britisher writer and intellectual. “The journeys were, rather, a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect.”

Paranoid confusions

This sense of living in a world which deprives them of their perceived God-given right to dominate society and to rule the world translates into an increasingly outspoken and irrational victimhood mentality. “No one mourns the great crimes committed against us. For us, it is conquer or die,” Spencer lamented in the speech mentioned above, echoing the jihadist extremists the Christian right so despises. “We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace.”

This sense of being embattled has led to the paranoid conviction that the modern-day white conservative is surrounded by foes, both near enemies and far ones, to borrow from the jihadist lexicon. The far horizon of Enemistan is dominated by Muslims, who are closing in so rapidly and decisively that the very survival of Western civilisation and Christendom is at stake. At home, the alt-right fears migrants and other minorities, including a resurgence of classic Judeophobia, leftists, liberals, journalists and media professionals, experts, academics, feminists and the LGBT community.

This paranoid sense of being surrounded and besieged by enemies on every front has led to the proliferation of outlandish conspiracy theories. In societies whose superior technologies have for centuries visited mass slaughter upon weaker populations across the planet, there is now talk of a “white genocide” – a paranoid theory that there is a conspiracy to wipe out the white race. What is most infuriating about the white genocide myth is that many who subscribe to it deny the historical reality of actual genocides, such as the Holocaust or extermination campaigns against native populations.

The purported white genocide is not just confined to Europe and America, it is also allegedly taking place in Africa. The alt-right blogger Laura Southern has even produced a ‘documentary’ entitled Farmland which claims to highlight the plight of supposedly persecuted whites in South Africa. Needless to say, no such extermination programme is occurring in the country where the legacy of Apartheid still lives on in stark racial inequalities, unless by ‘genocide’ she means the relative erosion of white privilege.

The army of Islam

In Europe, the end goal of mass immigration, according to far-right conspiracy theorists, is not only ‘white genocide’ but also a stealthy conquest of the West, its complete Islamisation and subjugation and its conversion into ‘Eurabia’, the mythical European Umma. And Eurabia is apparently making major inroads in America too. The far-right myth that there are “no-go zones” in Europe where the police do not dare enter and Islamic law prevails has made it across the Atlantic, and has been spread by both Fox News and the NRA, amongst others. A similar narrative of a crusade/war against Islam is a common refrain amongst Islamists. However, this notion amongst both conservative Muslims and Christians that we are in the throes of a monumental clash of civilisations does not hold up to scrutiny, as I reveal in my book Islam for the Politically Incorrect.

How far this dastardly Muslim conquest has advanced is a matter of some disagreement, however. The most pessimistic on the far-right believe the war is already over and the West has lost, others believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end, while some, like the founder of France’s Front National (FN), are convinced that it is the “the beginning of the beginning” of the Islamic subjugation of Europe. “It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism,” he claimed. “The blindness and deafness of our leaders, for years, is in part responsible for these kinds of attacks.”

The most recent variation on this is the conspiracy theory that the refugees who have been entering Europe are not desperate civilians fleeing war, but part of an invading army bent on the destruction of western civilisation. This supposed phenomenon has been called “jihad by emigration” – a term coined by the creator of the far-right website Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer, not to be confused with the Richard Spencer mentioned earlier.

In its self-righteous panic, the right has become more panicky and shrill, triggering the kind of terror usually expressed by the defenceless towards an army of ruthless conquerors. Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word, yet, this army without soldiers or arms is somehow mounting an invasion.

They’re not refugees. This is an invasion,” said Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, a bishop in southern Hungary, a country which has become a far-right hotbed in recent years and found itself on a major transit route, until it built a wall to keep the refugees out. “It’s an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity,” echoed Dutch far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, who once infamously called for the banning of the Quran. A related myth is the notion that Muslim asylum seekers are obsessed with an uncontrollable urge to violate and rape western women – they are not refugees but “rapefugees”.

Away from the high-security fortress of far-right perception and in the real world of hard facts, the influx of refugees into the European Union from 2012 to the peak of 2015/16 represented under half a percent of the EU’s population. Since then, thanks to government reactions to knee-jerk xenophobia or to the xenophobia of politicians, the numbers have tailed off significantly, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency. Moreover, and contrary to the ‘sponger’ image of refugees, an analysis by the Brookings Institute revealed that the inflow of refugees actually has a net positive effect on host economies – and the OECD agrees – which raises the perplexing question, if migrants are out to destroy the West, why are they making it richer?

More confoundingly still, if the aim of Muslims in Europe and America is to destroy Christendom and wipe out the infidel, either with actual bombs or with demographic time-bombs, it appears inconceivable that any Muslim fanatic worth his salt would head the other way. Yet this is exactly what they are believed to be doing, with overstated and exaggerated hordes of European Muslims heading to Syria and Iraq to heed the call of jihad, so sensationally covered that you would be forgiven if you had the impression that Europe was being depopulated of its Muslim population.

Master puppeteers

Despite the fixation on Islam, it would be a mistake to think that Muslims have replaced the Jews in extreme right discourse – their presence appears to be a complementary one. A special place remains reserved for Jews in far-right narratives and conspiracy theories. For decades following the Holocaust, these narratives had become marginalised or had gone underground (such as the transnational Malm Movement), often only mentioned in hints and suggestions. But with the rise of the far-right, they have enjoyed a comeback in recent years in a number of countries, from Hungary to the United States.

Many Judeophobic conspiracy theories are recycled or adapted traditional anti-Semitic canards revolving around how Jews represent some kind of homogeneous cabal which runs the world clandestinely by controlling the financial sector and the media. This includes the renewed vogue the discredited hoax known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the fantasy that the Rothschild family controls the world’s central banks and causes war by financing both sides of every conflict enjoy in the growing far-right movement. More recent variations on this theme include the troubling mainstreaming in conservative circles of the narrative, which is especially popular in Hungary, that the tycoon and philanthropist George Soros is behind all kinds of sinister conspiracies to destroy Europe in order to be able better to rule it. Another is the conspiracy theory that a shadowy Zionist Occupation Government (‘Zionist’ here refers to Jew, not political Zionism) controls governments in the United States and Europe.

Some have even attempted to forge unified conspiracy theories of everything, in which various disparate and contradictory conspiracist ideas are forcibly mixed into a potently toxic cocktail. An example of this is how the mythical Zionist Occupation Government is responsible for mass migration in order to dilute or exterminate the white race so as to facilitate its satanic quest for global dominance. This blends anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, white genocidal and anti-leftist/liberal conspiracy theories into one incoherent whole.

Toxic far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have drifted not only to segments of the far-left but have found their way into Arab, Islamic and Islamist narratives, which historically discriminated much less than Christianity against the Jews, with Muslim bigots traditionally regarding Jews with condescension rather than suspicion and fear. This changed dramatically with the advent of modern Zionism, the influence of fascism and the creation of Israel, and is often fuelled by a desperate need to scapegoat weakness and failure by depicting the ‘enemy’ as super-humanely powerful and evil.

The hatred, contempt and fear of Jews shared by Christian and Muslim extremists has occasionally resulted in some unlikely and troubling alliances between neo-Nazi groups and Islamists, such as has occurred in some parts of Germany, both of which “ascribe extraordinary political power to Israel and the Jews, and their goal is to fight this power,” in the words of Heinz Fromm, the then president of the German domestic intelligence agency.

Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has even suggested that the Kurdish referendum on independence was a devilish Jewish conspiracy, one unconvincingly masterminded by Bernard-Henri Lévy, once memorably described as the “Donald Trump of French philosophy”. Of course, this is not the first time that Erdoğan has ascribed superpowers to BHL, as he often referred to in France: he once hinted that the French ‘philosopher’ was behind the ouster of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi. Islamists often portray Arab regimes with whom they disagree as being American and Jewish stooges. Some members of the outlawed and oppressed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt subscribe to a conspiracy theory that dictator Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has a Jewish mother. Some conservative Muslims and Islamists are convinced that ISIS is a creation of western and Zionist imperialism, as are some secular Arabs. Interestingly, numerous white supremacists are also convinced of a similar conspiracy theory, even alleging that ISIS’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is actually a Mossad agent.

Mainstreaming falsehood

These far-right conspiracy theories do not exist in a vacuum. They are fed by more mainstream conservative falsehoods, which then feedback to the mainstream, pulling it ever further into the la-la zone. This is apparent in everything from the decades of eurosceptic myths that led the UK to leap off the Brexit cliff to the anti-immigrant, pseudo-fascistic rhetoric of large segments of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire in Italy. Some mainstream conservatives find the twilight zone so alluring that they take the express train to the extreme because the mainstream’s gradual drift to the former fringe was not moving nearly fast enough. An example of this is Gavin McInnes who abandoned his creation, Vice, to embrace his inner white supremacist, misogynist and racist.

Even though the negative stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs has a very long pedigree, and has for generations been a staple of Hollywood myth-making, toxic mainstream conservative demonisation took off in earnest in the wake of the horrors of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Since then, America and Europe’s Muslim minorities have been inextricably linked in conservative perceptions with terrorism and treason.

The same applies to other minorities and marginalised groups, from Jews to Eastern European migrants to asylum seekers. The rightwing tabloid media in a number of countries has been vilifying them for years while claiming that it the imagined bogeyman of political correctness that was enjoying the upper hand, rather than the reality, that rightwing bigotry has been the dominant voice for generations.

Read part I

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“Instead of protecting me, they treated me like a murderer”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

In the two years since the EU’s inhumane deal with Turkey, the plight of traumatised refugees arriving on the Greek islands has worsened significantly. Instead of refuge, they are being offered prison.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Sunday 18 March 2018

It has been seven years since the conflict in Syria erupted and two years since the Balkan refugee route was shut down and the EU-Turkey deal to return refugees arriving in Greece to Turkey was set in motion, which have led to a severe worsening of the plight of refugees and migrants. Last August, when the Greek authorities succumbed to pressure from Brussels and took on a number of duties previously performed by various NGOs and solidarity initiatives, the conditions on the ground have reached new lows. As things stand, some 13,000 people remain trapped on the Aegean Islands, mostly in what used to be called ‘hotspots‘ but have now been euphemistically re-branded to become ‘reception centres’. A further 30,000 are still stranded on the mainland, many of them for two years or longer.

The Greek authorities have been efficient at guzzling up the European funds pouring in as payment for having turned the country into a buffer against all comers. But when it comes to the actual aid received by the refugees and the migrants, Greece has distinguished itself as slow, sloppy and often completely unresponsive.

The fate of tens of thousands has, thus, been handed over to an incompetent bureaucratic machine, whose main purpose seems to be stalling things to a standstill. Its second objective is to repel the ‘invaders’ massing at the borders. But the refugees and migrants keep pushing in. Owing to the horrendously escalated situation in Syria and the Turkish crackdown on Kurds in Afrin, a substantial mass of people is again making its way to the Aegean Islands. As for Turkey … Well, that destination is currently safe only for the loyal supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his authoritarian policies.

***

“If you’re waiting to die, you can just as safely do that in Syria,” Majd Tabhet, 24, said with a rueful grin. At a glance, it was clear that the articulate and urbane young man had grown highly adept at masking his pain.

After a few hours of conversation – actually a monologue – I was left with the burning question: how was it possible for this young man, who had undergone all the dehumanising savagery of European anti-refugee policies, to retain his basic sanity? And how could he still bear to look into anyone’s eyes without lashing out?

Majd, from Damascus, left his homeland in the wake of the first year of war. On receiving his conscription notice, he realised he that he was absolutely against taking up arms. He preferred to risk everything than to start butchering his friends, colleagues and neighbours, yet he still could not quite bring himself to believe the country had degenerated into all-out war.

“You see, my life was barely starting,” he shrugged helplessly, during our conversation at a social centre on Samos run by volunteers from all over the globe.

Prior to the escalation, Majd had been following the developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. He had been listening in on his elders’ talk, and many of them had been foretelling the tragedy. It seemed obvious to Majd that pent-up hatred was boiling on every doorstep. Unfortunately, the regime had been prepared for the ensuing wave of protests. And Bashar al-Assad proved highly skilled at learning from his fellow tyrants’ missteps.

Majd’s conscription into the state military was followed by a very similar ‘invitation’ to join the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Fortunately, the young man had already applied for the post of a steward with a Saudi charter jet company. He hadn’t exactly held high hopes of getting the job, but his perfect English and his innate resourcefulness and charm had apparently made an impression on his future employers.

Instead of to the barracks and the frontline, he was relocated high above to the Asian sky.

“I was so relieved. I managed to avoid the slaughter. And it was a good job, you know. But I simply couldn’t adjust to life in Saudi Arabia. Being a moderate Muslim, I found pretty much all of it alien, intrusive, unnatural and just plain weird. Everything there revolves around faith and countless ‘special rules’ one never heard of in Syria. I must confess it had a very repelling effect on me. My ideas about Islam were beginning to crumble. I was tumbling into an identity crisis. My personality was beginning to split,” Majd recalled.

As had been the case with thousands of his fellow refugees, his asylum application had been twice rejected by the Greek authorities. His current fate was to await deportation to Turkey, according to the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Majd has spent most of his stay on the island at the infamous Vathy refugee camp, where the living standards are even worse than those at the similar hot-spots on Lesbos and Chios. On the day we met, two days of incessant rain had finally let up. For a long while now, no journalists had been allowed into these hellholes of human misery. But I managed to enter Vathy with the help of a group of residents, who didn’t need much to persuade me of the outrageousness of their situation.

The camp itself had been set up on a slope above the island’s capital. A muddy creek was running down the steep incline forming the ground floor, with drying laundry hanging off the ubiquitous barbed wire. A thin, knock-kneed boy was sitting in the mud and eating what remained of his breakfast. Suddenly, a rat shot by.

It was a far from uncommon sight. The camp was riddled with vermin. But for the most part, this was the least of the refugees’ concerns. On some days, the camp’s residents needed to queue for up to two hours to get fed. Their tents were so thin they were only suited for warm and dry summer nights. In the camp’s upper section, where the unaccompanied children were being housed, the ground was strewn with broken glass and all possible kinds of refuse. The boys and the young men were simply left to fend for themselves. A gag-inducing reek was blowing in from what could only charitably be described as toilet facilities. Many of the families here were spending most of their time hiding inside the containers. The campsite was simply not safe, especially for women.

Here, sexual violence has long become the norm. Alcohol, drugs and vicious brawls are abundant. Many of the camp’s traumatised and thoroughly humiliated inmates were finally beginning to lose their patience. Their anger was primarily directed at the continent of Europe, whose bureaucrats had seemingly solved the refugee problem by turning it into a life-sized Raft of the Medusa.

Anywhere but home

In 2015, three years after Majd arrived in Saudi Arabia, all the Syrian employees in Saudi companies were notified they were to return to their homeland. Syria and Saudi Arabia had severed all contact. Majd had ten days to decide on his next destination. All he knew for certain was that he would not be returning to Syria.

Had he been foolish enough to do so, he would have been jailed – either by the government or by the rebels. During his three-year stint abroad, both regime troops and rebel soldiers had repeatedly visited his family to look for him.

Given that Majd only possessed a Syrian passport, he was not exactly spoiled for choice. So he flew to Turkey. He had managed to save up some money, but he was painfully aware that he would be unable to go home for a long time. He rented a room in a house in Istanbul, where 22 other Syrians were already residing. Many of them had just recently arrived straight from the battlefield. They were exhausted and traumatised veteran soldiers. Many of them had also been thoroughly radicalised. Having already turned his back on Islam, Majd found their company exceedingly unpleasant. Since so few of them had work, they spent their empty hours preaching their religious and political doctrines to him.

“‘Leave me alone,'” I would tell them. ‘I don’t believe a word you say,'” Majd would tell them. “So they grew hostile. Had we been in Syria, I’m sure I would simply be murdered. Fortunately, they didn’t quite dare do that in Turkey. I was all alone and very exposed. But I refused to pretend and go along with them. It’s not in my nature. I lasted four months among them, then I was forced to leave.”

Through his connections he managed to land a well-paid job with a private company specialising in airplane rentals. During this period, bombs started crashing down on the section of Damascus where Majd’s family lived. Tanks were invading the outskirts of his neighbourhood.

It was the first half of 2015, when countless thousands of Syrian refugees had already struck off for the Aegean islands and beyond … hoping to reach Germany and northern Europe. Majd’s family – father, mother, brother, sister – decided to flee for Turkey. They arrived virtually penniless. For the period he remained in Turkey, it fell to Majd to support them. They were barely scraping by.

Throughout this period, the serious and introspective young man kept exploring Christianity and ‘seeking out a new way’. Following his visit to a small Orthodox church on the outskirts of Istanbul, a gang of young men beat him for being an ‘infidel’.

At the hospital where he was taken afterwards, he was questioned by the police. The Turkish policemen added a number of their own threats to the bargain. Majd no longer felt safe in Turkey. He knew he needed to push on to anywhere in the European Union, which he thought of as the Land of Freedom and Democracy – anywhere he could freely exercise his religious beliefs and address as many complex issues as he pleased.

“Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Europe,” he confessed 18 months after his arrival in Samos, speaking in a quiet, weary, all but defeated tone.

Monolithic migrant masses

“European refugee policy, and especially the conditions at the reception centres, is stripping the refugees of all dignity. They are being treated as a homogeneous mass, instead of as human beings, instead of as individuals with unique fates,” Aliki Meimaridou, the woman in charge of a Samos refugee mental-health support project run by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).

Meirmaidu had been working on the island since last November. In her assessment, the refugees’ living conditions are absolutely scandalous. “Housing them amid all the mud and the rats in these overcrowded camps is humiliating. It is also not safe, especially for the women. There is a great deal of stress, depression and self-harm,” she explains. “These people have lost all control over their lives. Here on Samos, all the international human-rights conventions are being violated on a daily basis. Everything is just wrong. The procedures for obtaining asylum status are slow and chaotic, and the bureaucrats can do pretty much as they please.”

But the hardships the inmates face do not end there. “Their mental health is getting progressively worse,” the Greek humanitarian worker was quick to add. “Severe new traumas are piling up onto the prior ones. Relief is almost non-existent. The local solidarity movement has done its utmost to help. But I have to tell you: our mission here ends in March, and we shall leave highly frustrated… It shouldn’t be our task to plug up the holes in the official refugee policies. It is an almost purely political problem. One has to wonder where all the money pouring into Greece is ending up.”

Aliki Meimaridou also explained how the so-called ‘hierarchy of vulnerability’ system has led some refugees harm themselves intentionally and even to a number of calculated pregnancies because they see how pregnant women are granted swifter passage through the hell of Samos. “All this is pure pathology. These poor, aggressively passivised people are afraid to confess to getting better. Why? Because they know it would surely rob them of any chance of obtaining the medical certificate enabling them to proceed to Athens.”

Too late for refuge

Majd Tabhet arrived in Greece on 11 October 2016, just over six months after the so-called Balkan refugee route was shut off. Although Majd knew he was too late, he crossed into Greece anyway because staying in Turkey was growing too dangerous.

After he undertook a perilous night voyage on an overcrowded rubber boat, the police threw him into a huge tent outside a refugee camp. It was raining, and everything was covered in mud. “There were so many people crowded into that tent. We were utterly devastated. Hungry. Filthy. They were treating us like common criminals. We were insulted and pushed around. I could not believe my eyes: this was how Europe was treating refugees? I couldn’t bear to remain in that tent. I escaped the very first night.”

And on that very first night, he was promptly caught and beaten by the island’s police. This left him thoroughly confused, which he remains to this day, in spite of all his subsequent dismal dealings with the Greek bureaucracy. His suffering, however, had gradually delivered him from all his illusions and expectations.

“I had fled slaughter and religious violence, but here they were treating me like a criminal, like a piece of garbage. I had to ask myself: why should I even apply for a Greek asylum? It was clear this was not a good place. And also not a safe place, at least not for me,” he said. “But what choice did I have? I put in my application and spent the next several months in that camp. Among the rats. In an atmosphere of barely contained violence. With absolutely terrible food and severe overcrowding. Amid all this human chaos.”

Majd tried to manage as best as he could. He co-operated with the local solidarity movement and the various NGOs. He put in many hours as a translator. He helped out the stream of refugees arriving at the island. He sought out a local orthodox priest and informed him of his plight. The priest lost little time initiating him into the faith.

Crisis of faith

For Majd, Islam was now firmly consigned to the past, and he started learning about the rituals and the basic tenets of the Orthodox church. Soon after, he was baptised. He arrived at his first asylum interview with a broken nose. The previous day, he had been roughed up by a band of refugees who saw him emerging from the church. After a five month wait, his application was turned down. A local lawyer helped him formulate an appeal. But it got turned down as well. Majd’s status as a single young male had stripped him of most of his chances. The first time he was turned down, Majd was shocked. The second time his entire world came crashing down.

“All I wanted was to be safe,” he told me with tears in his eyes. Majd had by then realised he was to be deported. He was sharing a tiny tent with two and sometimes three companions in a chaotic and very dangerous camp. The camp’s official capacity was 700 people, but it was currently housing at least 1,500. Last August and September, as many as 2,200 were crammed there in absolutely savage conditions. And fresh refugees were arriving all the time. Every other day, a fresh boatload of them was delivered to Samos. The situation on the other Aegean Islands was much the same.

The UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov confirms that recent months has seen a steady flow of vulnerable refugees into Greece: “Roughly 40% of those arriving in this last period are children. Many of them are parentless. There has also been an increase in invalids among the new arrivals. The situation is extremely sensitive.” Cheshirkov also drew the attention to the severe overcrowding and catastrophic conditions at the reception centres on the islands, especially on Lesbos and Samos. The most vulnerable refugees are being transferred to the mainland. “The reception centres have become a dangerous environment for women. There is very little oversight of what goes on. Sexual violence is on the rise. We at the UNHCR have recently pointed all this out in our official report,” he explains.

 

 

A hundreds days of destitution

To avoid deportation, Majd Tabhet accepted his Orthodox priest’s offer to move in to the monastery for a while. But he knew he would not be able to hide for long. After a few weeks, he was apprehended by the police. This was during last autumn. Majd was immediately put in a small detention cell at the local police station. Over the next few months, he was to share the cubicle with all sorts of criminals and a number of fellow refugees.

It marked the beginning of the worst hundred days of his life.

Several times, Majd was convinced he was losing his mind. It felt like he was constantly fending off demons. He refused to be put on antidepressants or any other kind of medicine. He was subjected to the vagaries of his various cellmates’ fates. Apart from them, he was completely cut off from the world. His lawyer could not – or would not – help. The humanitarian workers were powerless, as they themselves were exposed to increased regulation from Brussels and Athens.

For a hundred days, Majd did not see the light of day. There was no room to exercise in the overcrowded prison. Sleep was very hard to come by. Hygiene was horrendous, to put it mildly. The food was a disaster as well.

Twice, the Syrian convert was transported to a different location. At one of those two detention facilities, the cell he shared with three Algerian men was constantly illuminated by a bright red light. It was pure torture. Then, one morning, Majd simply collapsed. He was taken to a hospital to run some tests. Upon reading the results, the attending doctor announced that sugar levels in his blood were in the potentially lethal range. She gave the policeman who brought him a good talking to. Then she wrote a recommendation that Majd should be released immediately.

However, the Greek bureaucracy refused to give in without a fight. Majd’s release certificate took 12 days to arrive from Athens. In the meantime, the exhausted and severely ill young man nearly lost his mind. “I’ve been to many places, but they only jailed me in Europe,” Majd spat. “Instead of protecting me, they treated me like a murderer.”

The words were pouring out of the young man along with his tears. “The whole system here is rotten, I simply can’t understand it. They had all the relevant information about me, but it didn’t seem to matter one bit. If I had lied or faked severe illness or lunacy, I would have long reached Germany. But I’m still stuck here. I’m not even on my way to Athens. I have fought, I have suffered … And now I’m completely lost, with no chance of continuing my journey. I’m trapped on this island, and sooner or later I’ll get deported to Turkey. It simply doesn’t make any sense.”

On any given day now, Majd runs the risk of being approached on the street by police officers who could either send him off to Turkey or imprison him again. By this point, he wouldn’t mind returning to Turkey that much, he admitted. The crestfallen refugee couldn’t find a single reason to sustain his faith in Europe. His life melting away, every day here seemed lost to him. Seeing that he was obviously running out of energy, it was little wonder his days were getting shorter and shorter. All he felt like doing was sleeping.

From talking to him, it was clear that the years of suffering had seriously hurt him. He knew very well he needed help. But there was none to be had, even from the God whom he had so feverishly sought out. “When you’re beaten to the ground, nobody will pick you up. Not even God. I managed to learn that much.”

From wedding planner to war photographer

Majida Ali, 41, hails from the vicinity of the besieged Eastern Ghouta. She spent years suffering in both regime and rebel prisons, where her body and soul were stolen from her. Utterly ruined, she eventually managed to flee to Greece through Turkey. Once she arrived, she was forced to face the entire spectrum of local bureaucratic savagery.

Before the war broke out, Majida was living some of the best years of her life. After completing her degree in economics and political science, she started a wedding planning company, which became a huge success in Damascus. For a time, Majida was able enjoy the finer things in life, turning herself into a minor celebrity in the process. That last part was to prove the engine of her undoing.

In the spring of 2011 war broke out. Majida had grown up in a military family: her late father had been a high-ranking officer in the Syrian army. Owing to her tremendous respect for the army, she refused to give credence to the reports of regime atrocities against protesters. She was also unable to believe the news of the sudden emergence of foreign fighters is some parts of Damascus.

No, she firmly told herself: such a thing was simply impossible in the Syria she knew.

So she took to the streets to establish what was actually going on. She took many pictures of the protests and the first tanks rolling through the streets of her home town. Frantically darting her way through the initial shoot-outs and bombings, she took in the first heaps of corpses.

It took a few weeks for the last of her illusions to crumble. What she found hardest to grasp was how perfectly ordinary people could overnight morph into cold-blooded killers… And how easily the old, repressed hatreds could be catalysed into outbreaks of collective lunacy.

Eight years later, no end to the lunacy is in sight.

Turning herself into a citizen-journalist, Majida set out to document the various forms of violence erupting around her. Then her friends and relatives started disappearing. After a few months, she was arrested by government soldiers. On account of the photographs found on her camera’s memory card, she was immediately jailed. For a month she was beaten and tortured. She became the victim of several sexual assaults. She could see people dying all around her from the wounds sustained through torture.

Majida eventually managed to secure her release from the government prison by drawing on her family’s connections. She knew very well she could not remain home. She wandered all over Syria: writing, taking photos and reinventing herself as she went along.

It wasn’t long before she was apprehended by the members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). At first, she believed their intentions were honourable. But she was wrong. She was accused of collaborating with the regime and thrown into an improvised jail cell. There, the whole sordid tale of the regime prison repeated itself, until, as she puts it, the woman in her was eviscerated.

“During the five war years I spent in Syria,” she told me, “I spent about half that time in various prisons. It didn’t much matter if they were of the government, rebel or Islamist variety: the jailers’ approach was basically the same. Yet I also managed to learn so much. Some of the worst criminals had taught me a number of things. You know, I can turn myself into a regular Ali Baba.”

***

Before her final escape from the war-torn land, she was again imprisoned by the regime. This time, she was convinced she would not make it. The authorities had actually notified her family that she was dead. What remained of her relatives even held a symbolic funeral for her.

After all the violence and suffering, Majida finally lost the connection to her soul. Her connection with the outside world had been broken long ago. On 17 March 2016, she was released. The help of friends got her first to Turkey, and then two weeks later, here, to Greece. But she was too late. The Balkan corridor had been welded shut.

“When we arrived on Samos,” Majida Ali went on, “We were all put inside a closed camp. It was just one more prison. I can tell you I wasn’t myself at the time. I was profoundly traumatised. I even lost my memory for a while. I didn’t have a clear idea of who or what I was. I had no home left. I was so alone and vulnerable. I wasn’t at all familiar with my rights. I was in dire need of all kinds of assistance.”

Throughout our conversation, she kept flicking anxious glances at her cell phone. She was perpetually terrified of receiving a call from Eastern Ghouta and the Damascan quarters that had been bombed hard over the past few weeks. Ten days earlier, the regime bombardment had cost her another sister. Altogether, she had lost 45 relatives in the Syrian war.

Her three brothers were currently held in three different prisons. She had no clear confirmation they were even still alive. Her gravest fears concerned her mother, who, after the bombs had flattened the family home, had moved to a safer part of Damascus where she now spends her days preparing meals for four hundred people.

“My mother is my hero, you know,” Maida related, laughing and crying at the same time. “She is the only one I can trust. She tells me not to worry. She sometimes scolds me for giving in to panic – she says my time would be better spent improving my situation.”

Their refugee status is nothing new for Majida Ali’s family. Her grandfather had been a reputable Palestinian businessman. Fleeing Israeli violence, he left the country in 1949. He bought a large plot of land on the outskirts of Damascus and built housing for numerous Palestinian families.

“I don’t know, it seems being refugees is my family’s eternal fate. And the fate of thousands of other families from our country. Together, we are a mirror to the world. The mirror to all of us,” Majida observed. “Maybe that’s why I can’t bear to plan for the future. My very genes are aware that tomorrow my world could be turned upside down again.”

For five months Majida had been residing at Vathy, a 21st-century concentration camp and one of Europe’s human landfills. Once more utterly alone, she was again exposed to sexual harassment. It was her first contact with the continent of Europe: danger instead of safety, prison instead of aid, humiliation in place of dignity; bureaucracy masquerading as justice. It took 14 months after she filed her application for the first official interview to take place.

“It was a time of extreme hardship for me. I think it’s not that much of an exaggeration to say I didn’t exist at all. I made my bed here in the mud and tried to help the others. I got in touch with the local solidarity movement. I took it upon myself to organise a school for the women and children,” recalled the Syrian wedding planner, turned war photographer, turned prisoner of conscience, turned torture victim, turned refugee. “I tried to stay active. Every day, I work very hard to dam the flood of my poisonous thoughts. It is all I can do not to completely lose it. I’m fighting off my pain all the time, all the time… And I’m always steeling myself against the next loss.”

Integrating into the community

When we took a stroll around the island, Majida was cordially greeted by every other person we passed. During the two years she has spent on Samos, she has taken an active part in the local community, even if that community was so conservative it first refused to accept that Majida was still wearing a headscarf.

But things have changed. The derogatory remarks were much rarer now, and as for threats, they all but vanished. For the past few months, Majida had been employed at the Help Now NGO, where she specialises in helping refugees. The people here have got used to her, and she has grown accustomed to them.

When they ask her about the war and her own life story, she usually gives out very vague and generalised answers. She knows that very few people can comprehend what she has been through. And what she is still going through. She has learned to avoid a certain type of men. “I know those eyes,” she told me. “I know what they want.”

Her wish was simply to live, she added. But not on charity – never charity. She has consistently refused any form of monetary aid. Her aim is to live exclusively off her own labour. Until now, she has been successful at the task. Her driving force has become helping out her traumatised peers. She has no intention of returning to her homeland, now or ever. Her Syria no longer exists. Perhaps it never had. Perhaps it had all just been a big illusion, a sordid lie. In fact, this interpretation struck her as the most plausible. How could she otherwise explain that it all ended in such slaughter?

“When I was granted asylum, I decided to stay here on Samos. My friends and acquaintances weren’t sending me very good news of their stay in Europe,” she explains. “Many of them have been badly disappointed. Some of them have been broken by the experience. I, myself, decided to put an end to years of suffering. It was my choice: I decided to choose life.”

 

 

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Donald Trump: Universal scapegoat

 
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By Khaled Diab

Donald Trump is possibly the worst American president in history, but that does not give the rest of the political establishment a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to taking responsibility for the mess the world is in

Photo: White House

Wednesday 13 December 2017

While former US President Barack Obama regularly signalled that the “buck stops here”, even for matters that were not directly his responsibility, his successor, Donald Trump, lobs the buck way over there to escape responsibility, even for his own direct actions.

Even though Trump’s tendency to blame the political establishment for everything is legendary, less well-known are other politicians’ and leaders’ inclination to blame everything on Trump. This was visible in the tidal wave of criticism Trump received for his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his plans to move the US embassy there. Although this has been US law since 1995 and numerous presidents have campaigned to do just that, Trump has been accused of single-handedly destroying the ‘peace process’, which has been defunct and deceased since its birth, if not its inception, and undermining America’s role as an ‘honest broker’, as if Washington was ever impartial.

Another jarring example was the unexpected transatlantic spat with the UK sparked by Donald Trump’s decision to retweet propaganda videos shared by the fringe far-right group Britain First.

Condemning Trump’s implicit endorsement of Britain First, which Theresa May slammed as “a hateful organisation,” the British premier said the extremist group “stands in fundamental opposition to the values that we share as a nation – values of respect, tolerance and, dare I say it, common decency.” Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson echoed his boss’s sentiment, calling Britain First “a divisive, hateful group whose views are not in line with our values”.

Invoking the UK’s “proud history as an open, tolerant society”, Johnson emphasised that “hate speech has no place here”.

The sheer and breathtaking audacity and hypocrisy of this statement will immediately strike anyone who has followed, even cursorily, Boris Johnson’s almost peerless ability to offend people around the world, including his offensive claim that Libya offered great investment opportunities once they “clear the dead bodies away”.

Although wittier with a manufactured bumbling affability, his persona as dishevelled as his blonde mop of hair, Boris Johnson has much in common with Donald Trump. Both the sons of privilege, their political careers rest not on any political achievements but on their popular media personas. In the case of Johnson, his regular appearances on the popular satirical show Have I Got News For You and his widely read column propelled him into the Tories’ political A list.

Long before Donald Trump became a leading advocate of the anti-Obama birther movement and officially inaugurated the era of “post-truth” and “alternative facts”, Boris Johnson is credited with inventing EU-related fake news. “He turned euro-scepticism into an art form,” a former colleague recalled. “Boris campaigned against the cartoon caricature of Brussels that he himself invented.”

Despite the very strong likelihood that Trump will live up to people’s expectations of becoming (one of) the worst American president(s) in history, he has yet to accomplish an act of collective national self-harm quite as suicidal as the cynical Johnson-led Brexit movement.

Johnson and May’s appeal to tolerance, openness and respect ring even hollower considering how much they and their party have undermined these values, from May’s infamous disparagement of the almost half of the British people who regard themselves to be citizens of the world, to the growing tide of xenophobia threatening refugees, migrants and even EU citizens in Brexit Britain.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a similar dissonance exists amongst the conservative political establishment. It is almost as though history both ended and began with Donald Trump. This is clear in the rehabilitation of the former worst American president, George W Bush, who has recently been receiving fawning media coverage for his (veiled) criticism of Trump. Without naming Trump, Bush accused the sitting president of promoting bigotry, fuelling intolerance, undermining democracy and spreading falsehood. “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” Bush rebuked.

For those of us who lived through the Bush years, this is very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black, with the main exception being that Bush was not a racist – at least not by the standards of his party. “Bush paid lip service to rights and norms before crushing them underfoot. Trump is more brazen in his language and more candid in his intent,” wrote the prominent author and journalist Gary Younge.

Despite defending diversity rhetorically, Bush and his administration were not beyond using prejudice and paranoia as tools of governance or weapons of mass distraction, even deception. They exploited the post-9/11 atmosphere of fear and anger to trample on civil liberties at home, to co-opt the media, to intimidate or silence opponents, and to launch two large-scale military invasions and occupations (in Afghanistan and Iraq) that killed hundreds of thousands, destabilised the Middle East, and effectively bankrupted the United States.

In order to achieve this, the Bush administration spread exaggerated misinformation and patently fake news, such as Iraq’s non-existent WMD arsenal, and browbeat allies and enemies alike, with polarising talk of “you are either with us or against us” and the infamous “axis of evil”, which inexplicably placed Baathist Iraq in the same camp as its arch enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the process, the Bush administration squandered the tidal wave of global goodwill and sympathy towards the United States in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This makes the fact that the conservative resistance against Trump is being led by former Bush administration figures seem extremely ironic. One of the loudest such critics is Bush’s former speech writer, David Frum, the man who coined the axis of evil and wrote a glowing biography of the former president, who is now a senior editor at The Atlantic.

It is not just neo-conservatievs and the Republican establishment who are failing to search their souls and introspect, the Democratic party’s mainstream are also falling short in that mission. While they obsess over the extent of Russian subterfuge and meddling, they ignore their own role in creating the groundwork for the toxicity overtaking Washington. This includes choosing the status quo of Hillary Clinton over the genuine change offered by Bernie Sanders, the decades of support for destructive neo-liberal economics, and the failure to push for the reform of America’s authoritarian two-party system and outdated electoral colleges, which saw Clinton win the popular vote but lose the election.

None of this is to understate the threat Donald Trump poses to America and the outside world. But just because he is the villain that does not automatically make all his opponents and critics heroes or even innocents.

—-

This is an updated version of an article which was first published by Al Jazeera on 6 December 2017. 

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Angela Merkel: The ‘Arab’ chancellor

 
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By Khaled Diab

If Arabs could have voted, Angela Merkel would have won by a landslide, rather than the embattled situation she currently finds herself in following the shock gains scored by the far-right.

Monday 25 September 2017

Unlike the ‘Hussein’ in Barack Obama’s name, Angela Merkel Muhammed is not related to a conspiracy theory that the German chancellor is a secret Muslim. Born in August in Münster, the Angela in question is the daughter of a grateful Syrian couple who fled the danger and desolation in their devastated homeland and were granted asylum in Germany in 2015.

Prior to this, like many Arabs on the progressive or leftist end of the political spectrum, I had not been impressed by Merkel’s destructive neo-liberal policies and economic nationalism, most notably demonstrated in her handling of the Greek debt crisis. But Merkel’s willingness to gamble her political future to defend the weak and vulnerable strengthened her image in my eyes.

Although unaware of it herself, Baby Angela embodies the admiration her adult namesake has earned in the Arab world since Merkel defied a sceptical and hostile Europe, and her own conservative and far-right opponents at home, to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in 2015.

While Merkel was being booed by far-right protesters in Germany, Syrians and Arabs were sending her messages of love and admiration on social media. “We will tell our children that Syrian migrants fled their country to come to Europe when Mecca and Muslim lands were closer to them,” one Facebook user reportedly wrote in an expression of gratitude.

Merkel’s principled stance on refugees in the face of stiff opposition and a number of Islamist terrorist attacks earned her a great deal of respect and numerous Arab commentators showered her with praise. “Despite all this, Ms Merkel courageously refused to ‘shut the door’ in the face of any/all asylum seekers found to be legitimate refugees,” wrote London-based journalist Faisal J Abbas in July 2016, while urging Syrian refugees to become more adept at “cultural diplomacy” and “to show more keenness to integrate and respect the culture of their new home countries”.

However, Merkel has subsequently flip-flopped on the issue of refugees, supporting the much-criticised EU-Turkey deal and pursuing similar ‘one in, one out’ deals with North African countries. This may have shored up her support among conservatives at home but has damaged her image somewhat in the Arab world.

The EU’s efforts to block the migrant flow from war-torn Libya, where the central state has completely collapsed, has helped fuel what many witnesses and observers, including the UN, have classed as the emergence of a modern-day slave trade.

Although many Arabs echo the western praise of Merkel as the new ‘leader of the free world’ due to her willingness to stand up to Donald Trump, Arab pro-democracy and human rights activists, as well as opposition figures, are perplexed and critical of Merkel’s willingness to collaborate with dictators and despots to deal with the flow of refugees, to combat terrorism… and to do lucrative business.

While lauded and applauded in the pro-regime Egyptian press, Egyptian President Abdel-fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Germany in 2015 and Merkel’s visit to Egypt in March of this year, drew condemnation from human rights groups and Egyptian opposition figures. “After Merkel’s visit, Sisi is full of confidence that the big hitters have got his back, that they will turn a blind eye to his human rights crimes, with the excuse that he is fighting against terrorism,” wrote Wael Kandil, a journalist and liberal politician who went from opposing ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to supporting him, becoming an outspoken opponent of Sisi in the process.

Some go even further and see Merkel as not only maintaining a cynical silence in the face of Sisi’s human rights abuses but of being a “tyrant” in her own right. “When it is in a certain direction, selling weapons, plundering economies, manipulating politics, bombing people, [it] is called business, diplomacy or humanitarian military intervention,” wrote Walid el-Houri of Berlin’s Institute for Cultural Inquiry, in 2015. “The human cost, the lives destroyed, the blood spilled by the German government, among many others, is no less than that by Sisi’s, and the two are no less than complicit.”

Despite such harsh criticism, Angela Merkel received generally glowing coverage ahead of the forthcoming elections in the Arab press. In the run up to the elections in Germany, many Arabic-language newspapers ran admiring profiles of the chancellor, focusing on her unusual path to power, her early life as a scientist in East Germany, and her apparent frugality and modesty.

Despite my own personal reservations about her economic policies and convenient embracing of certain dictators, this generally positive image resonates with many ordinary Arabs I know. “I like, respect and trust her,” said Marwan El Nashar, an Egyptian comic artist. “As someone who was a minister of women, youth and environment and with a scientific background, she’s [been] able to find a balanced formula in Germany and Europe,” echoes Nancy Sadiq, a Palestinian peace activist.

Judging by such reactions, if Arabs could have voted in this weekend’s federal election, it seems Merkel would have won by a landslide, rather than the embattled situation she currently finds herself in following the shock gains scored by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

____

A version of this article appeared in German in Die Zeit on 20 September 2017.

 

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The adventures of Rami and his magic violin

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Syrian Rami Basisah and his violin have been through hell and high water together. His childhood dream of becoming a world-famous musician is about to come true. But the trauma of losing is country means he cannot enjoy his success.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

Tuesday 12 September 2017

A strong, refreshing breeze was caressing the mountains high above a prestigious Swiss holiday resort. At the height of summer, the soft and fragrant grasses could barely be greener. From the nearby glacier, flashes of white brilliance were glistening in the afternoon sun. A small cluster of mountain bikers were hurtling down a steep trail towards the valley below, while a number of hikers topped to marvel at their courage. Herds of cows were munching on the grass or staring off into space. But instead of the Swiss horns and accordion you might expect as mood music for this quintessential scene, the exuberant sound of a violin playing Arabic rhythms and the laughter of a boy who had survived echoed in the Alpine valley.

Rami Basisah, 22, a Syrian refugee from the countryside between Homs and Hama, was playing to chase away his demons. Applying the bow with a series of flourishes, he was doing what he could to fight off his strong emotions.

His violin is his best friend and trusted companion. It is both the core of his identity and his ticket to freedom, his passport to safety and perhaps even a modicum of prosperity. In his mind, the idyllic Swiss mountains all around us formed the perfect counter-point to the Syrian carnage. Yet a single glance would tell you Rami was present only in the most basic physical sense. This was clear from his every move and every word, spoken or unspoken. It was also embedded in every note of the music issuing from beneath his fingertips.

The sound of music

“I used to dream about this when I was a kid. Every day I used to dream of playing the violin before European audiences as the people clapped and cheered,” Rami told me as he put the instrument away. His violin was always with him. He never let it out of his sight. He knew very well what it had helped him overcome.

But the tragedy-ridden path to fulfilling Rami’s childhood dream has made it hard to enjoy the achievement. “I can’t really say I’m happy,” he confessed. “I’m confused. I’m not sure what is happening to me, or even where I am. I mean, yeah, things are great and I’m very grateful… But my thoughts are somewhere else. Above all, I really want to help my brother, who’s spent the past three years as a refugee in Lebanon. And I want my parents and my three sisters, who remained in Syria, to be safe.”

The dark-haired youth’s stare was a compelling one, powered by a mixture of hard questions and a resolution not often seen in one so young.

“The events are starting to overtake me,” he confided. “This is becoming so huge. Everybody wants something from me, and I’m not yet fully prepared. I don’t even know if I’m good enough, you see. What I want is a little peace and quiet, a true friend and some love. Yes, that’s right, all I want is a normal life… But everything around me has been the opposite of normal for such a long time. I can sometimes no longer tell what’s real and what’s not.”

Following a string of happy coincidences, Rami had been invited to the Swiss Alps as a special guest of the prestigious classical music festival in Klosters. Up here, the traumatised and very lonely Syrian musician was awarded the opportunity to play in front of one of the world’s most demanding audiences. The onlookers may have been knowledgeable and refined, verging on the blasé, but Rami still managed to take their breath away… and not just with his indisputable musical talent.

The border concerto

Rami performs ‘Ode to Joy’ Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

August 2015: darkness was slowly descending over the savannah-like border between Greece and Macedonia. Startled flocks of doves were sweeping over the wizened sunflower fields. A local hunter, dressed in an army shirt, was leading his three dogs through the brush. Tired yet relaxed-looking clusters of Syrian and Afghan refugees were lounging under the trees and near the deserted border guard facilities.

This was the heyday of the so-called Balkan refugee route, and the men and women were waiting for permission to move on. All the time, fresh groups of refugees and migrants kept rolling in from the Greek side of the border. At the nearby reception centre, Rami, who was 20 at the time, took out his violin from his travelling bag. Giving it a long, affectionate stroke, he went on to tune the strings. The bashful and introverted young man then stepped in front of a mass of his fellow refugees waiting to catch the next train to the Serbian border.

His friends were encouraging him to abandon himself to the moment and just start playing. But it still took Rami, a former student of music at Homs university, a while to work up his courage. The Macedonian police watched on in bewilderment, trading glances and wondering if they should possibly confiscate the instrument. Then one of them motioned to Rami that he was free to proceed.

The young man began playing, slowly at first, even somewhat timidly. A hush descended over the crowd of refugees, their lively chatter turning to primal awe. The police officers’ faces broke into a grin when they recognised the melody. The refugees’ warm response had a visibly relaxing effect on the young musician. He started playing with redoubled vigour, drawing in even the most apathetic ears. Rami was getting more and more in the zone. His stifling thoughts finally dispelled, he was guided by pure love. Yet he was far from being in a trance. He was all too aware of what was going on.

As he smiled, his face was suffused with a hard-boiled irony. The reception centre was ringing with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which the EU had adopted as its anthem. Was this indeed irony? Or more of an inspired prank? A spurt of brilliant political analysis? Improvised psychotherapy? Whatever it was, the police themselves were soon keeping time with their boots.

When he was finished, the audience clapped and urged Rami to play on. He paused for a few seconds. Then his violin gave birth to the profoundly mournful, yet also movingly proud tones of a Syrian patriotic song.

His friends – all of them from the vicinity of Homs, all of them educated and urban – began to sing along. Many of the others were happy to join in, men and women who had nearly forgotten dignity could occasionally be found in the world as well. Some of them were soon weeping openly. The women hugged their children a little tighter to themselves. For a few precious minutes, the ice of pain was melted by the fire of hope. Rami played on… And on. The new refugees kept rolling in. It was getting close to total darkness.

The astonishing concerto ended with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, both an obvious and spirited choice. There was plenty of applause. Rami gave a bashful bow. As soon as he put away his violin, his motions became stiff, and the contours of his face slid back into their default traumatised expression. His trance broken, anxiety was king once again.

“Forgive me,” he smiled, still catching his breath from his exertions. “I’ve made a number of mistakes. I was so very nervous.” Just before he was swallowed up by the crowd, we exchanged contact details and promised we would stay in touch.

A crescendo of memories

The superb acoustics at the St Jakob church in Klosters had helped it become one of the music festival’s main venues. Outside, the Swiss organisers were mingling with the guests. The heavy heat was something of a drag on the mood, along with the overdressed atmosphere and the often bizarrely refined manners.

Rami, a lad from a different world altogether, stepped out of the car. He was besieged by doubt and fear. Confused and still rather innocent of the European music scene, he was about to perform in front of David Whelton – the festival’s acoustics director, the long-time head of the British Philharmonia Orchestra and one of the most influential people in the world of classical music.

As we caught each other’s eye, it was as if the ground beneath both our feet gave a momentary shudder.

So here we were. Rami’s concert at the Macedonian-Greek border and the feature article I’d written about it had helped to turn his life upside down… And now, two years on in Switzerland, it seemed like a miracle.

“Wow! Hey! Oh my God, this can’t be happening.”

His words sounded about as shaky as he looked. Our embrace lasted a long time, our limbs heavy and joyously light at the same time.

“I didn’t think we’d ever get to see each other again. Everything is coming back to me now, everything… Well, how could I forget it? The war, the journey, the Macedonian performance, our meeting, and then the horrible journey to Germany,” Rami reminisced. 

Prior to our brief encounter at the Greek-Macedonian border, Rami had already spent 40 days in flight. Before that, he had been a refugee in his own homeland for two years. He now told me he wanted to continue with his studies at whichever European music academy would have him. Overall, he did not feel like talking too much about himself or the war.

“I need to do everything I can to help my brother. He fled Homs two years ago and went to Lebanon. As he left, he promised he’d help me reach safety. He worked so hard over there in Lebanon. When he got enough money to fund my trip to Europe, he sent it to me right away,” Rami explained. “Now he’s lost his job. And so it is my duty to help him out somehow. I owe him my life.”

Instead of focusing on the moment and the incredibly important rehearsal ahead, Rami was swept under a barrage of memories. He was grasping for concentration, but the thoughts were simply coming on too strong. For a few minutes at least, the music became what it actually is: an ancillary, secondary thing. But then David Whelton determined that, at least for the moment, Rami’s heart would migrate to where the music was.

A brother’s sacrifice

Rami left his homeland on 30 July 2015. From the regime-controlled Al Bayadiya village, located between Homs and Hama, he took a taxi to Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast. Along with a number of fellow refugees, none of whom he had met before, he then took a bus to Beirut.

They first had to wait 15 hours to cross the Syria-Lebanon border. Rami had arranged a meeting with his older brother Faheed, a fellow musician who had fled to Lebanon a year before. At a time when the Balkan refugee route was still open and Germany was boasting an open-door refugee policy, Faheed summoned his younger brother to Lebanon and told him he would pay for his long trip to Europe.

In Beirut, Rami collected his plane ticket to Turkey. It was very difficult for him to say goodbye to his brother again, Faheed being something of a central figure in Rami’s life. Their farewell was extra hard on Rami since he knew his brother also wanted to reach Europe but was willing to sacrifice himself for his younger sibling on account of his exceptional musical talent.

And so Rami was sent on as a sort of vanguard force, one charged with the exceedingly important task of ‘making it’… Not only for his own sake, but for the sake of the entire family – father, mother and three sisters – staying behind in Syria.

Farewells and hard roads

“At the airport, I played a farewell song,” Rami Basisah recalled, as we strolled through the idyllic Swiss mountain village, which had been transformed into a temporary backdrop to the mad bruising toboggan his life had long become. “It was tough on both of us. I so wished he was on that plane with me. My brother saved my life.”

Rami flew to Izmir on the Mediterranean coast, where he was supposed to meet the people who would ‘manage’ his entry to Europe. But things didn’t work out as planned. So he first had to reach Istanbul to make the necessary arrangements. At the time, as many as 10,000 refugees were sailing to the Greek Aegean islands daily. The smuggling business was booming. The Turkish authorities were content to look the other way and leave the incomers at the complete mercy of the smuggling industry.

While Rami waited for the fateful call, he met a few of the local musicians in Istanbul, along with a number of very talented refugees. Together, they played a series of spontaneous concerts at Taksim square, in the heart of Istanbul, and were met with unexpected warmth from the passers-by.

When the call came, Rami and a group of 39 fellow refugees travelled back to Izmir, destined to become their jump-off point for Kos, Lesbos and other Eastern Aegean islands.

It took them no less than five attempts to reach Greece. On the first one, the water flooded their crowded rubber dinghy, causing it to start sinking a few hundred meters off the Turkish coast. Compulsively holding on to his violin, Rami managed to swim back to the shore. But the saltwater had done extensive damage to the sensitive instrument, especially to the strings.

The second time they tried to set out, the Turkish police chased them off the beach moments before they were to embark. And so Rami and his fellow refugees decided they would try their luck from Bodrum, Turkey’s second great launch point for the refugees’ heading for Greece.

The third attempt saw them trying to row off by themselves, but the coast guard again sent them back. They opted to regroup into a few smaller groups of eight. On the fourth try, three smaller boats cast off together. The one Rami was on was powered by an electrical battery. “We were going very slow,” he recalls. “Our boat was commanded by a man from Pakistan. When we reached the open sea, water started leaking in. The Pakistani wanted to push on. In the distance we could already see the lights from Kos. We would need about an hour to get there. But the other refugees decided to force our ‘captain’ – a few actual blows were necessary – to turn the boat back to Turkey.”

They somehow managed to reach the shore, where, in Rami’s colourful phrase, they were ‘met by the mob’. The criminals roughed up the Pakistani pretty badly, while making the other refugees pick up their boat and set off on a night-time march.

Even though the men were armed, Rami and one of his mates refused to go with them. They knew that the boat’s battery was empty and that the smugglers would be sending the group to their deaths. So they stayed on the coast and watched the sea filling up with refugee boats. Suddenly the police appeared and snatched them up. The two of them spent the day at the Bodrum police station. “They were pretty nice to us Syrian refugees over there,” Rami continued his tale. “But they beat the others, especially the Africans and the Pakistanis.”

When he and his mate were released, they had to fend for themselves. They eventually hooked up with another group of smugglers, who placed them with yet another group of refugees.

On the fifth attempt, luck finally smiled down on the by now all but exhausted and bankrupt Rami. Since it was a Turkish national holiday, most of the policemen had stayed home, and the sea was rather calm for a change.

“I was completely fed up,” he remembered. “I was prepared to take some major risks if necessary. I was on the verge of really losing it. Anyway, we were going very slow again, and then sometime near the halfway mark the electric battery went again. This time we didn’t turn back. We had two big paddles on the boat. I took hold of one of them, the other one went to a strong young guy from Latakia. As it was getting light, we sent our coordinates to the Greek coast guard. They came to pick us up. On their boat, I saw four dead refugees from my previous group.”

From there, it could have been a swift journey from Kos to the Ode to Joy concerto at the Macedonian-Greek border… But Rami decided to hang back in Athens for a while to wait for a friend, visit some relatives and get new strings for his violin. It was a decision destined to mark his life in completely unexpected and very profound ways.

Answered prayers

At the great concert hall in Klosters, the Swedish philharmonic orchestra from Malmö was playing Beethoven, whom, along with Vivaldi, is Rami’s favourite composer. It was raining heavily outside. At times, the downpour turned so heavy the sound of raindrops pounding the roof worked its way into the intensity of the music.

“This man – what music! What madness! Oh, the violent mood swings…. This is exactly how I feel. That’s why I feel so close to Beethoven,” Rami whispered to me during the concert.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

He still looked pretty lost in the Swiss setting. Even the well-wishers who came over to pay their respects succeeded in making him uncomfortable. This was simply not his world. After a few more minutes of listening to the music, his attention was shot and wandered off to who knew where. He suddenly became very tired. He nodded off, but his entire body gave a violent shudder that brought him to again. His first instinct was to cover the whole thing up, to pretend nothing had happened, that he had been listening all along… But to no avail.

Tears flowed from his eyes. “I would like to play on such a stage one day too, so I can help my family,” he whispered, avoiding the curiously appraising looks from the members of a high society still governed by strictly demarcated etiquette, much like in the times of the great European monarchies.

That same day, Rami spiced up the rather staid atmosphere at the festival sponsors’ lunch with a string of Arab melodies. A few hours later, he performed at a mountain lodge in front of NGO members of from all around the world. Rami’s musical performance was so brutally honest even this normally so garrulous and cocky crowd was left speechless.

One of the festival’s main sponsors, who wishes to remain anonymous, was grinning from ear to ear. Inviting Rami, despite his being somewhat lost in time and space, had proven a great success. Near the end of May, his CD Rami: My Journey (by Decca), recorded in collaboration with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, was presented on the legendary British Classic FM radio. Among the many listeners who had voted it Album of the Week was a retired businessman who went on to invite Rami to Switzerland. He decided the young Syrian violinist deserved all the help he could get.

Musical doors

That August, in 2015, when Rami crossed the Greek-Macedonian border, where my Jure Eržen took his iconic photo which would later be chosen by Classic FM radio as one of the 10 most iconic photographs of wartime music, the Balkan refugee route to Germany was still open… though it was increasingly strewn with obstacles and humiliations.

Rami ventured forth to Serbia and then on to Hungary, Austria and Germany. He was accompanied by two friends named Mohammed and Mudhar, both of whom he had met in Turkey. Amid the chaos reigning at the various borders they stuck together and helped each other out. In the Serbian town of Preševo the police broke them up. His two friends were allowed to continue, while Rami was taken into custody. After a six-hour wait at the station, one of the policemen asked him what was in his bag.

“It’s a violin,” Rami replied.

“Is it yours?” the policeman wanted to know. “Can you play?”

“Yes.”

“Well then, why don’t you play something for us?”

Rami knew exactly what to do. Relying on his tried-and-tested formula, he once again played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, this time in the south of Serbia. The policeman was so thrilled he called his wife on his mobile so she could partake in the ‘solo concert’. In a matter of minutes, Rami was issued with the papers enabling him to push on.

At Belgrade, where tens of thousands of refugees were waiting for the next stage of their journey to the promised lands, he bought a ticket for a train to Budapest… But this was a tactical mistake. At the time, the Hungarian government was finishing the building of the fence at the Serbian border and was turning its attention to the border with Croatia. Viktor Orban’s government was starting to implement a series of systematic anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies.

Rami and his two friends had to get off the train before they even reached the Hungarian border. They crossed the border via the classic route at the time, winding through the forests. “I was very afraid. I didn’t want to go on, but my friends convinced me otherwise. Mohammed was the one who carried my violin. We walked for a long time. Then we were arrested by the Hungarian police. The three of us got separated again. I was suddenly left without my violin and without my friends.”

Rami spent the next week at a small refugee camp. Even now, he didn’t feel much like dwelling on this period. He was almost devoured by various mites, he said, and his allergies were killing him. He was then relocated to a bigger camp, where he was finally able to sate his hunger, wash up and don a fresh set of clothes.

But all he cared about was resuming his journey. He escaped the camp during the changing of the guard and somehow found his way to Budapest. He reached the capital’s central railway station at a time when the authorities had halted the trains carrying refugees to Austria and then onward to Germany and northern Europe.

“Things were pretty crazy at the station… There were at least 20,000 of us. We were shouting that we wanted to go on to Germany. We talked to the press. A lot of good people came to see us, they brought food, drink, clothes and medicine,” Rami remembers.

Along with his fellow sufferers, our involuntarily intrepid violinist set off from Budapest to Austria. After a few hours’ walk, the Hungarian authorities backed down a little – at least enough to allow the refugees to use the buses. A number of perfect strangers from Austria and Germany drove over to pick them up and transport them north in their cars. Crowds of thousands were gathering at the German railway stations to greet the incomers. It was a time when it still seemed that European humaneness, however fragile and hard-won, might prevail. But this proved to be just one more in a series of tremendous illusions.

Like so many of his fellows, Rami was quick to grasp that Germany was not nearly ready to receive almost a million Syrian refugees: not politically, not logistically, not bureaucratically.

For several months, he was moved from one overcrowded camp to the next. At a camp near Aachen, a woman handed him a small violin and asked him to play something for her. Since he was happy to oblige, the woman made a recording of his performance and played it to the conductor of the local orchestra.

The man invited Rami to take part in two different concerts, while his story began to spread across Europe with the help of various newspaper and magazine articles. Soon a number of agents were calling to offer their services, while the maestro from Aachen offered him a permanent place in the band as well as accommodation. But Rami had to wait for his asylum request to be granted, and so his first serious chance at a better life eventually fell through.

The washing machines ft. Bach

An order was issued for his relocation to yet another camp, situated inside a basketball arena near the city of Lahr. “The place was crammed with people. We were sleeping virtually on top of each other. I was only able to play my violin outside or in the laundry room, where I had to compete with the rumble of the washing machines. So I mostly played Bach,” the young Syrian violinist recalls with a mischievous glint in his eye.

As rumours of his musical acumen spread, an old lady from one of the local churches came to visit at the camp. As a Christian himself, Rami had no problem complying with her request to come play at the church. The people in charge of it were also among those quick to recognise his indisputable talent, so they invited him to join their ranks. But Rami was still ‘in the waiting room’.

In March 2016, the German authorities finally granted him asylum. Teresia and Winfred Oelbe, an elderly couple from the village of Niederschopfheim, offered him a place to stay – a room and a bathroom, free of charge. The brunt of the young man’s ordeal had finally drawn to a close. A few weeks later he signed a deal with Decca, the British publishing house, whose executives learned both of his lengthy plight and his technical accomplishment. It wasn’t long before his CD was released, consisting of his own compositions and a few adaptations.

Collateral damage

When all his social and concert-related responsibilities at the mountain resort were dispensed with, the visibly exhausted young musician retired to his hotel room as soon as possible. He needed a bit of peace and quiet to reflect. These last few years of turmoil hadn’t exactly provided a lot of opportunity for that. Events, he told me, were again starting to overtake him. More than anything he needed someone he could confide in: a good listener, someone he could trust, someone who would neither expect nor demand anything of him, at least for the time being.

“I am very grateful to all these kind people. I know I’ve been very very fortunate. But more than anything I’m interested in how to best help my brother, without whom I would never have got this far. He sacrificed everything for me! You know, I’ve felt so alone much of my time here in Germany. I miss my family, my friends – I really miss my old life. I’m learning to speak both German and English over the internet while trying to get in touch with my acquaintances, who are scattered all over Germany. Let me tell you, it’s not easy,” he told me while absently fondling his violin in his hotel room.

He was quick to add he was keen to avoid being seen as a victim. Unlike hundreds of thousands of refugees and those who never even got the chance to get out of Syria, he was very lucky – and he was all too aware of the fact. “My friend Mudhar, for instance – he wasn’t half as lucky as I was. When he got to Germany, he started having these headaches. They kept getting worse and worse. And so they finally took him to a doctor, who eventually found a tumour in his brain. His condition rapidly deteriorated, and he soon died. I miss him very much.”

Rami buried his face into his hands, sinking down into his thoughts. His body was twitching uncontrollably. His head was between his knees in a sort of foetal spasm. He looked for all the world like a heavily wounded child. All of a sudden, he was unable to answer a single question, not even with a syllable.

The next day he told me he was sleeping poorly, very poorly indeed. His post-traumatic stress disorder felt all-pervasive, but nobody seemed to be addressing the issue. Instead, everyone was focusing on how hot Rami had suddenly become, how popular. His anxiety, even depression behind closed four walls was merely the collateral damage of success. Yet I am happy to report that a safety net has nonetheless started to form around him – an informal network of people not interested in him as a product but rather as a human being. People who had felt enough pain in their lives that they can understand and accept it when they see it in someone else.

So what was there to do? A long road still ahead of him, Rami picked up his beloved instrument to help him confront his stark realities.

Play on, Rami,” I whispered as we embraced in another temporary farewell. “Play on.”

And play on he has and he will, spectacularly. On Tuesday 19 September 2017, Rami is set to perform at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall, and I will be there to watch him bring down the house.

 

 

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Greek island teaches Europe how to welcome refugees

 
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Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

The Greek island of Tilos has hosted more than seven times its population in refugees… and has done so with dignity, respect and with its own limited resource.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 15 August 2017

A tired middle-aged man, dressed for autumn even though it was a sweltering July afternoon, was quietly staring out at the clear blue sea. His old soldier’s face had a frozen, immutable aspect to it, but you could still sense he was awash with emotion. With the sun mercilessly beating down on the nape of his neck, he was stoically yet carefully monitoring his five children chase one another on the almost deserted beach. Every now and then a thought escaped his lips – usually no more than a word or two. In these conditions, it was hard to remain of sound mind if one didn’t have an occasional chat with oneself.

“I haven’t slept for five years,” the man eventually told me. “Five years! Can you even imagine what that means?”

Mohsen is a former high-ranking officer in the Syrian government forces. He hails from the northern city of Hasaqa where the Kurds form the majority of the population… A city where, from the war’s outbreak in the spring of 2011, the members of the Kurdish militia have often coordinated their manoeuvres with the officials in Damascus. This marriage of convenience somehow held out to the present day.

Mohsen used to command 400 men. For a long time, he had managed to hold on to his hope that all-out war could be avoided. His hopes withstood even the fact that after the first few weeks of the mostly peaceful demonstrations against the Bashar al Assad regime, his superiors ordered him to start jailing the protesters en masse.

The demonstrations in the Kurdish-majority region were not as intensive as those in other parts of Syria. About a year into the riots, when the country had already plummeted into the abyss of war, his superiors ordered Mohsen to relinquish his command to the Kurdish units.

It was not the first direct order this proud Syrian patriot refused to carry out. The crux of his argument was that Syria was Syrian, not Sunni, Shi’a, Kurdish or Christian. Since he was very popular with his soldiers and revered by many of his superior officers, the authorities chose not to jail him. Instead, they transferred and demoted him. He knew what was coming next.

“I no longer have a future, but my children do”

Pressure was slowly put on Mohsen’s family. The mukhabarat, the country’s security and intelligence service, followed his every move and monitored his every word. Eventually, they imprisoned his brother. Then he was given another impossible order: his unit was to open fire on the protesters.

This was when the international fighters looking for a holy war had already started reaching Syria through the Turkish border. And with them, intelligence officers and arms dealers. Mohsen rounded up his soldiers and told them he was deserting. His men were free to either join him or comply with the orders from Damascus. Some of them decided to join him. At the end of 2012, he struck off for Iraqi Kurdistan, accompanied by his family and a number of his former troops.

He managed to get a job in Dohuk, but the Syrian intelligence was hot on his trail. He was considered a traitor, and the war soon splashed over the Syrian border to the north of Iraq.

In June 2014, after the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS or ISIS) took Mosul, the extremist Sunni militia began conquering the Kurdish territories. As ISIS neared Dohuk, the outlook became increasingly grim. Despite his dreams of the Syrian war ending, Mohsen finally resigned himself to a refugee’s fate.

He took his family to Turkey, where he knew he was not safe on account of his status as a ‘traitor’. Still, he spent more than two years in the vicinity of Izmir, after deciding not to register as a refugee. When the Balkan route opened up, it was generally seen as everyone’s golden chance to reach Europe. Yet Mohsen waited, hoping against hope the situation back home might still somehow improve.

When he learned that he had been stripped of all his assets in Hasaqa, he realised this was no longer an option.

After the EU and the Turkish government struck their bargain, things became much worse for the Syrian refugees in Turkey. Sadly, Mohsen was too late to strike off for Greece… Too late for his family to be granted permission to spend the rest of the war in Germany.

“I decided to try to reach Europe because of the children. I no longer have a future, but they do. It’s my duty to do everything I can to help them on their way. Forty days we waited for a boat, and then the smugglers boarded us onto a small ship. There were so many of us… And it was very very cold. The captain was taking the ship around in circles. I knew something was not right. Maybe he was drunk? We changed our course countless times, and then we hit a huge rock. Eventually, we were rescued and transported to Greece,” Mohsen says, describing the scenes from eight months earlier.

Mohsen was talking to me on the small Southern Aegean island of Tilos, which he now calls his home. “Here on Tilos all I wanted was to get some rest,” he smiles. “But now I would very much like to stay. These people have treated me like a human being. I had already forgotten what that even means. I feel welcome, safe and useful here – seeing how I can take care of the kids while my wife goes off to work… I can simply say that I’m living again. And I have begun to enjoy a good night’s sleep. After five years. I am so grateful for all that.”

Tilos Hospitality Centre

Along with his wife and five children Mohsen resides at the Tilos Hospitality Centre, a tidy refugee settlement in the seaside village of Livadia. This sleepy yet somehow still lively village is proof positive of what can be achieved when humanity triumphs over fear, prejudice, xenophobia, racism, and politics.

The centre, which is made up of 10 comfortable residential units housing 46 Syrian refugees, is decidedly not a refugee camp. It is an open, free and dignified residential area providing shelter for people whose lives have been completely wrecked by the war. It is a place of hope and – the importance of this cannot be overstated – of activity.

Many refugees, especially the women, had little trouble finding work on the island. At the time of our visit, coinciding with the height of the tourism season, not a soul on the island was unemployed. Quite the contrary: many of the locals are working 18-hour shifts.

Tourism is Tilos’ main source of income, so the summer months have to be milked for all their worth. The refugees are paid perfectly respectable wages in the hotels, restaurants, bistros and at the local bakery. Legal help has also been made available to them, while the Tilos Hospitality Centre is constantly visited by volunteers from all over Europe. The centre is both a study in the humane integration of war-torn souls and an antithesis to the sum of the EU’s (anti-)refugee and (anti-)immigrant policies.

This commendably complex approach is far from accidental; the islet of Tilos is a paragon of progressiveness in other respects as well. In a few months, Tilos is set to become the first Mediterranean island to boast energy self-sufficiency. One hundred percent of its power will be drawn from renewable sources like the sun and the wind. This warm green refuge has thus become the meeting place of two key issues affecting our present and future: migration and renewable energy. Most of the dominant Syrian-war narratives have proven all too oblivious to the fact that climate change has been a major factor contributing to the conflict’s escalation, especially by driving the impoverished rural masses to leave their drought-scarred land and move to the cities.

On Tilos, the local community is functioning like one giant cooperative: interdependent, highly responsible, free of ideology and propelled by humanism. Tilos was, in 2008, the location of the first gay marriage in Greece. From as far back as 1993, hunting has been completely outlawed on the island, which is in its entirety protected by the EU’s Natura 2000 programme.

Tilos is the future as it might have and could have been across Europe, had other places not succumbed to xenophobia and fear. Simplicity so complex it boggles the mind.

“Doing what is normal and what is right”

The island is located only 17km from the Turkish coast. Outside the tourist season, it is inhabited by only 823 people (and approximately 10,000 free-ranging goats). Between 2013 and 2016, more than 6,000 refugees landed here. Most of the incomers had been dumped by the smugglers on the smaller beaches – they had simply been left there to die, since the cliffs and the rocks made it impossible to leave.

The local activists, led by the mayor Maria Kamma-Alfieri, soon cracked the smugglers’ pattern. They started following the Tilos-bound boats to be able to gather the shocked, traumatised and often severely dehydrated refugees from the remote beaches. Nearly every resident of the island with a boat or a small ship had taken to the sea, saving hundreds and hundreds of lives.

At first, the rescued refugees were housed at the local orthodox church, only to be transferred to a deserted barracks. Almost no help was coming from outside, so the living conditions were rather poor, while the incomers only grew in number. Yet the people of Tilos refused to give up. They decided they would do everything in their power to help.

In the end, they managed to defeat both – the state and the EU bureaucrats. A year ago, the Tilos Hospitality Centre, housing exclusively Syrian families, opened its doors in Livadia. For the locals, this aim was self-explanatory, a product of their basic decency and genuine desire to help. For those of us who have spent the better part of a decade chronicling the refugees’ tragedy, it was a quite a shock. This alone tells a lot about how things stand.

“We’re simply doing what is normal and what is right,” shrugged Elena Pissa, a driving force behind the centre. “We are normal human beings. We know what to do, that’s all. But unfortunately, you’re also quite right: in this racist and selfish world, what we’ve done here on Tilos is unusual – exceptional even. And that’s a scary thought, isn’t it?”

I got talking to Elena over a cup of ice-cold cappuccino. I could sense she was a deeply tired woman. She had long forgotten what a holiday felt like.

From morning to late afternoon, she takes care of her wards. She helps refugees in every way possible: she takes care of the paperwork, calls up the relevant officials, arranges emergency medical appointments, forms legal strategies with lawyers, finds work, mediates in their family disputes, coaches her colleagues and keeps up everyone’s morale. When she is finished with her duties at the refugees’ settlement, she relocates to her tourist shop in the village, where she remains until 11 at night.

Her business is not exactly thriving. It has not been the best of seasons for Tilos, but Elena is holding on, having to provide for herself and her 11-year-old son. This activist with a degree in management from Athens hasn’t even been to the beach this year. By focusing so hard on the needs of others, she has been neglecting her own. Elena has little time for compromises. Now is simply not the time. Greece has found itself on the frontline of the battle for what remains of Europe’s basic human decency, and Elena is a crack commando of the grassroots’ special forces.

Wills and ways

So what’s so special about Tilos?” I asked the mayor; Maria Kamma-Aliferi, who had taken over the helm after the sudden death of her legendarily progressive predecessor Tasos Aliferi. Maria has been serving as the mayor for the last six years. She has never ran in an election. Around here, it is deemed enough that she has the people’s support and a college education.

The thing about Tilos it’s probably how the people here are keen to embrace innovation. Like renewable energy sources. On many other islands or even in the mainland cities, the reactions would have been mostly negative. But here we’re very serious about the environment. Its protection is our basic aim. If the community is an open one, free of prejudice and taboos, then everything is so much easier. I guess this is why we see our achievements as something completely normal. We are working towards our objectives step by step, carefully planning our moves in advance. The key is always focusing on the good of the community. You can’t just force on people something they do not want. Once they established the refugees were not a threat, they quickly opened up. In time, they realised the refugees’ presence could even prove beneficial to the future of our island. Much the same can be said of our renewable energy project.”

According to the mayor, Tilos has never suffered much from xenophobia. As recently as 15 years ago, the small island had been almost deserted, its young people moving away en masse. The local school used to be empty then, while it now takes care of the needs of 80 children… A number sure to experience a significant boost in the autumn, when the refugee youngsters are set to join in.

The island was close to being dead,” the mayor recalls. “But then our solidarity came to the fore. When the first refugees started coming in, our small community immediately accepted them in our midst. The first hospitality centre was built by the local volunteers. We made all of it ourselves.”

According to Maria Kamma-Aliferi, the most important thing was for the island’s residents to come face to face with the people, particularly the children, who had undergone unspeakable horrors. “When we looked into the little ones’ eyes, we could see naked fear. The smugglers simply dropped these poor boys and girls on a bunch of rocks. They were shaking like leaves. How can you remain neutral and unperturbed when you see a freezing crying baby no more than twenty days old? These people’s only crime is to have survived,” she notes.

The island may be facing numerous problems, mostly of the financial and infrastructural variety. But the locals are firmly set on pursuing their hospitable policies. They have long stopped counting on help from Athens – not only because of the state’s long stumble on  the brink of bankruptcy but also because of its traditional neglect of its more remote islands and regions.

The mayor seemed hopeful the Greek state might at least aid the islanders with respect to the refugees, since the island’s council is planning the opening of a dairy processing company as a joint venture between four local and four refugee families. The entire project is estimated at around €150,000, and any scrap of help from Athens would be welcome.

“Our problems need to be viewed as a challenge. We have made our choice, so there is no question of changing course. Regardless of how small the island is, we’ve already managed to take care of thousands of refugees. If only some of our larger [regions] could muster up the will – think of all that could be accomplished. I can only hope that some of them might yet be inspired by what’s happening here,” she urges.

Improvised fun

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

In the late morning heat, a huge and fairly slobbery mongrel dog was chasing a saggy punctured ball thrown by the refugee children. Little boys and girls were darting off all over the place, the dog was happily barking… But both sounds were drowned out by the sound of the cicadas.

Abu Kareem from Daraa, who was eight and bizarrely confident, picked up a guitar and started playing something remotely resembling a tune. His older sister Hiba gave him a pointed glance and quickly confiscated the instrument, taking it up herself to play a traditional Greek melody. An elderly Syrian refugee lady was hanging laundry. A delicious smell wafted over from a nearby kitchen. All over the clean and comfortable settlement, even those refugees who worked the night shift were slowly waking up.

As for the sleepyhead children, they were being roused from their slumber by a Belgian volunteer named Sofie De Bois. Summer school was about to kick off, providing Greek and English classes to the refugees and Arabic lessons to the activists. Sofie, a 24-year-old student, runs a series of fairly improvised psycho-therapeutic workshops. They consist of drawing classes, chess, guitar and electric piano lessons, some pretty wild looking yoga, something resembling a jazz ensemble – and a lot of happy noise-making needing no justification whatsoever. After finishing up, Sofie then spends her evenings and nights waiting tables in one of the cafeterias.

The local activists were seated around a huge wooden table in the shade. Most of them have been actively saving lives for the past few years. A number were currently employed by the Solidarity Now project financed by the UNHCR. Their contracts are good until the end of 2017. They are hoping they will get renewed, but lately they have started to worry.

Over the past two months, the Greek authorities – spurred on by the EU – have chased the NGOs from most of the islands. From 1 August 2017, the Greek government took over the control of the so-called refugee ‘hotspots‘, which are prisons in everything but name.

This, at least, is the official plan. For the migrants and refugees trapped in Greece, this is catastrophic news. The Greek authorities have neither the personnel nor the finances to take care of the country’s 50,000 refugees, most of whom got stuck here after the closing of the so-called Balkan refugee route, stranded between their destination somewhere in central or northern Europe and the increasingly unstable Turkey.

The ‘residential centres’ on the islands are currently holding more than 10,000 people. Most of them have been there for more than six months. An additional 2,200 can be found on the mainland. The state has turned this precarious situation into a business opportunity, as the funds Brussels used to allocate to the NGOs will now be rerouted straight to Athens. But for the Tilos Hospitality Centre, the pernicious new arrangement will not come into effect until the new year at least.

When the ground quakes

Maysoon al-Deri, 30, also comes from Daraa – a city in the southeast of Syria, where the insurgency against Bashar al-Assad was first sparked. It was a spark that soon triggered a civil war, which then exploded into a global conflict of sorts, given how many countries are currently involved in the conflict.

The war didn’t need long to claim the home of this mother of five young children, ranging from the ages of two to ten. In spite of her house being destroyed, Maysoon remained in the war-torn city until 20 February 2016, when she set off for the Turkish border. A large portion of her journey was through ISIS-controlled territory. For the first time in her life, Maysoon put on a burqa – purely for safety reasons. She didn’t take it off for almost two months. This is how long she, her husband and their children had to wait to cross the Syrian-Turkish border. When they finally reached Turkey, the pathway to Europe had already been welded shut. After the deal involving €6 billion had been struck, the Turkish authorities began to implement heightened security measures to restrict the refugees’ movements. They also cracked down on some of the smuggling ‘ networks.

The family managed to contact a smuggler who, on second attempt, got them to the Greek island of Lesbos. For the first time, actual shots were fired at them – not by ISIS but by the Turkish coast guard. They then spent four months in the infamous residential centre of Moria, in essence the modern version of a concentration camp. “It was a very warlike experience,” Maysoon recounts of her experience there. “We have horrible memories! The situation there was inhumane, simply inhumane!”

Last September, when the UNHCR authorised the family to relocate to Tilos, a glimmer of hope returned to their lives.

“When we got here, I was ill and absolutely exhausted. It took a long while before I regained some of my strength. The people here were helping me on every step of the way. I’ll always be grateful,” she told us at the Hospitality Centre on the morning after a forceful earthquake had shaken Greece, including Tilos. Maysoon’s head was covered with a headscarf, and it seemed she still hadn’t completely woken up. She had slept straight through the earthquake, being rather used to heavy turbulence. Yet some of the refugees had been given quite a jolt. Many of the children were terrified that the war had caught up with them again.

Maysoon has spent the last 10 months here on Tilos. The small Aegean island has become her temporary home. Until the war in Syria simmers down, she refuses to budge. She is especially proud of having found work waiting tables at one of the local restaurants. Come autumn, the older contingent of her kids is set to enter school here. Her husband has also managed to find a semblance of peace.

“I’ve stopped dreaming of Germany or other European countries,” she smiled. “I know it’s hard for refugees anywhere you go. Here, we have everything we need. We won’t have it better anywhere else. The people here are so helpful, they took us in… things are very nice and warm and peaceful.” Maysoon told me she still sometimes catches herself gazing at the sea, wondering how it was possible all her children had survived the journey. “So many – so many have drowned,” she remarked. Just last year, some 5,500 people perished in the Mediterranean sea trying to reach Europe. This year, the tally currently stands at 2,500, making the death toll more than 30,000 since the turn of the millennium.

“I didn’t think I could ever get rid of the fear… For a long time, I was so afraid someone might come after us. It’s such a relief to be able to take a walk at one in the morning, after I’ve finished up at the restaurant… I walk along the beach and think, ‘It is so peaceful and quiet there by the sea. People respect me here,'” reflects Maysoon.

Maysoon’s train of thought was broken by a burst of hysterical crying from her two-year-old son. A toy car made of steel got stuck to his lip. The problem was quickly solved, but the toddler’s tears kept flowing. “He tries to eat everything he can get his hands on, everything,” the boy’s mother smiles.

Before she came to Tilos, Maysoon al-Deri never had a job. “I’m so happy to be able to work here. This way I can feel free, strong and self-dependent. True, I get tired quite a lot, but it’s a good feeling. I hope it lasts.”

The fact that many of the women have found employment while the men stay at home to tend to the children is a revolution in its own right. At first, there were some problems, Elena Pissa recalls, since it was necessary to break down the cultural barriers. But a little tenacity went a long way. In just a few months, integration fell into step with emancipation.

“For the first time in my life, I have a job! I’m cleaning apartments and preparing breakfast. It’s not particularly hard work, and I’m having a good time doing it,” Waala al-Hariri smiled bashfully.

A whole new circle of hell

Waala, 28, is a mother of two. She reached Tilos last November after spending close to eight hard months on Lesbos. Along with her husband and two children she had fled the war, only to face a whole new circle of hell over here in Europe.

For a long time, she was simply unable to comprehend it. “There were 80 of us on the boat I arrived on. The smuggler was laughing, telling us we were taking a trip with the Death Tourist Agency. It was so horrible. Every time I think back on the journey, I start crying.”

As she was telling me this, Waala’s sharp green eyes were cutting through me like twin laser beams. In Syria, she had to quit school just before graduation on account of getting married. Her ambition is to continue with her education and one day open a beauty salon. But not on Tilos, not here in Greece. Like many of the local refugees she and her family wish to push on towards Germany. The relatively ideal living conditions on Tilos are not enough to keep them here, since many of them are desperate to reunite with family members located somewhere to the north.

“To be frank,” Waala says, “what I really want is to return home… But the war is not going to be over for a long time. Our house was badly damaged in a bombing raid. All Syrians should be on their way back to rebuild their country, but I know this won’t be possible for a long, long time.”

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