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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Prisoners of our guilty consciences

 
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By Khaled Diab

The intensifying crackdown on the media and civil society in Egypt leaves Egyptians who are out of the country feeling powerless to help and guilty about the freedoms they enjoy.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Egypt’s war on dissent, opposition and the media shows no sign of abating. Worse still, it appears to have intensified in recent months, ever since the run-up to the presidential “election.” Even the recent Ramadan pardons issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will barely make a dent, because what the regime giveth, in its caprice, it taketh away.

By way of example, several prominent activists and bloggers have recently been arrested. These have included included Wael Abbas, the prominent journalist and blogger who has been shedding light on police brutality and other abuses since the Mubarak years; Walid al-Shobaky, a PhD student who works at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression; labour lawyer and veteran activist Haytham Mohamadeen; former actor Amal Fathy, who was arrested on terrorism charges for posting a profane video condemning the dire socioeconomic state of the country and sexual harassment; satirist Shady Abu Zeid, who is despised by the security services for mocking the police, and Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a surgeon and activist who allegedly posted tweets that “insulted” the president.

In addition, controversial and daring atheist Sherif Gaber was prevented from leaving the country, detained for several days and then disappeared into the ether, his whereabouts unknown. That is not to mention all those who have been arrested or disappeared that we do not know about, or who are not prominent enough to be reported on by media, or the banal and everyday intimidations, threats and harassment from a security apparatus that has reached the threatening levels of excess that only the threatened can muster up.

It is difficult to watch what is going on in Egypt and not feel saddened for the millions of people who, set free by a dream, rebelled against their jailers, only to be imprisoned in a nightmare. Rarely have so many sacrificed so much for no visible gain and such an abundance of extra pain. Yes, the situation in Egypt is not (yet) as bad as in Syria, Libya or Yemen, but you know a country is in serious trouble when it builds new prisons at a frantic pace, while shutting down libraries, where jails have become repositories of squandered human talent and potential, and where prisons are home to more freethinkers than the country’s academies.

The situation appears all the more depressing when you consider that it need not have been so, that the Egyptian regime and military could have bowed to the inevitable, instead of attempting to reverse the irreversible. I am made painfully aware of this reality from my temporary base in Tunisia, which now stands where Egypt should and could have been, especially since the pre-revolutionary freedoms Egyptians were able to snatch from the jaws of the Mubarak regime outstripped anything Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his cohorts were willing to concede.

The situation here is far from perfect or ideal, and Tunisia faces enormous challenges, but people are largely free to speak their minds without fear of losing their freedom. Even unauthorized protests are left in peace, governments come and governments go peacefully, political parties try to cobble together compromises and build consensus, and no leader is above reproach or being unceremoniously dumped by the electorate.

Tunisia’s newfound freedom has made it a magnet for activists, dissidents and journalists from across the region. This includes a burgeoning Egyptian community of civil society activists and NGO workers, some of whom gather together to watch Egypt play in the FIFA World Cup, their downsized hopes of a modicum of national success disappointed. One Egyptian who cannot return to Egypt has adopted the FIFA World Cup as a kind of substitute for home, every fleeting hope causing his spirits to soar; every let down knocking him down. “I wish we could take pride in something,” one Tunis-based Egyptian remarked following Egypt’s mediocre performance against Russia. This is, of course, only football, as I am well aware, not being a great lover of the game. But for a traumatised nation with its revolutionary pride shredded and mangled, and its dignity crushed under the boot of junta rule and growing poverty, it is also a lot more than just football.

“Tunisia is an Arab country that was on pretty much the same path as Egypt after the revolution, and so comparing the two was inevitable,” observes Ahmed ElGohary, who works at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which moved its headquarters from Cairo following a campaign of harassment from the state. “Our presence in Tunis is easier for some of us than Europe … but it also accentuates the sense of failure. Any small news item on the radio or the internet about Tunisian politics or human rights reminds you that we could have also had the same space to work and engage in Egypt.”

When confronted with the levels of injustice plaguing Egypt, I feel compelled to use the freedom I enjoy to write about it and to do my bit to confront it. Beyond questions of duty, I have a strong interest in and desire to write about developments in Egypt, even if my years outside the country outnumber my years living in it, but I do try to keep up with regular visits. And I believe I have every right to do so. In fact, I am convinced that everyone has the right to write and speak on any topic they choose, and that they should be judged on their knowledge and abilities, not on their background or situation, and that is why I write about many contexts in many countries. In reality, the only times I have ever heard complaints that my absence disqualifies me from commentary is from some supporters of the regime, for my criticism of it, and some Islamists, for my criticism of their project and my outspoken support of secularism.

That said, writing about Egypt from afar presents certain practical challenges. An important one for someone like me, who likes to write about the human angle, not just the aggregate geopolitical, economic and social picture, is keeping abreast of what is happening on the ground and what people are thinking as individuals. Getting a sense of the mood on the streets is challenging when you rely on occasional visits and secondary sources, yet acquiring the perspectives of individuals is much easier from afar than it once was. This is not ideal, but writers in the country also face challenges, albeit different ones, such as the distortions created by Egypt’s highly polarized political and social scenes, with the heightened levels of propaganda they contain.

“Whenever I write from abroad about Egypt, I’m always afraid that this distance might have made me lose touch with the pulse of the street,” observes Maher Hamoud, the former editor at Daily News Egypt who is currently based in Brussels. “I always cared in my writing (both in Egypt and Europe) about ordinary people and their real-life experiences.”

This distance has led Hamoud towards an increased focus on analysis. “I find myself compensating for this insecurity in writing about Egypt by being more theoretical and analytical (also historical) in my work,” he points out. I have also noticed this trend in my own journalism, though this is also partly a function of becoming more experienced, with editors seeking out my perspective, and being more interested in the connections between various parts of the world and various periods of history.

There is also the drive to contextualise, to highlight that what is occurring in Egypt is tragic, but it is not unprecedented or a uniquely Arab malaise. “I make sure to relate to the ‘developed’ countries and their problems while talking about Egypt,” notes Jehad (Jeje) Mohamed, an Egyptian freelance journalist who is currently based in Washington, DC. “It helps eliminate the ‘othering’ of Egypt and eliminate the white saviour complex that we are less and need saving, and so on.”

Covering Egypt from afar also presents certain moral and ethical challenges. One is the haunting sense of powerlessness and futility. As a journalist and writer, one can attempt to speak truth to power, but what if power does not care to listen? One can attempt to tell the world, but what if the world is preoccupied with other things, or some of it is applauding what is going on? Writing articles and posting tweets appears barely to make a shred of difference against the tide of brutality sweeping the country, the region and other parts of the globe. Does this apparent futility mean you should give up, or continue with greater gusto? Is it enough just to write and speak, or is there more one should be doing? The Sisi regime, like many in the region, may fear the pen more than the sword, and so it prefers to silence or discredit its holder, rather than heed its words.

Then there is the question of guilt. In Egypt, we say those with their hands in the water are unlike those with their hands in the fire. “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. People sometimes call it survivor’s guilt or something like that,” explains Jeje Mohamed.

“I feel guilty because I was luckier than others and was able to leave Egypt at a suitable moment and to continue my work with the same organization. Most of the others were not so fortunate,” says AlGohary. “And this feeling is renewed and grows every time an activist or human rights defender is arrested or banned from traveling.” Carrying around a guilty conscience for simply having got away is a common emotion I have noticed among Egyptian activists and journalists who have left the country or been forced out.

Even though I am not an activist, I also often experience an involuntary surge of guilt when I learn of the latest miscarriage of justice, or carriage of injustice, in Egypt, and think of the courage exhibited by the dwindling rank of colleagues who still manage, against increasingly draconian odds, to report independently and honestly from within Egypt. While journalists and activists are being intimidated, stripped of their freedom and robbed of their dignity, I lead a comfortable and remarkably unthreatening life in a picturesque seaside suburb of Tunis, for the most part. My days are generally spent writing and reading in peace, interspersed with looking after and caring for our son, without having to fear a midnight knock on my door. This affords me the luxury (and it is a huge luxury) to think and express myself, without the stifling shadow of fear and repression to cloud my mind, and perhaps also to see certain things that are not as visible from close up, or which may be distorted by the constant barrage of propaganda.

With everything that is going on in Egypt and the wider region, about which I also write (among many other things), as well as the violent intolerance of dissent exhibited by numerous state and non-state actors across the Middle East, the dissonance caused makes me sometimes feels like I am floating in the tranquil eye of a storm, close enough to observe but not be consumed by the surrounding cyclone.

This distance protects me from the tempest, and my foreign passport offers me a measure of protection from the vengeful whims of the regime when I visit Egypt, albeit much less than in the past. This causes me occasional mild anxiety, as I am aware that the unruly winds could shift and the storm could sweep me up in its destructive, increasingly indiscriminate path. And if someone were to decide to bring me down, they have a wealth of material to twist against me. When I hear some of the far-fetched and ludicrous cases made against dissidents and critics, I occasionally wonder what kind of alleged allegiance(s) they may one day concoct for me, a writer who has always prided myself on my independence.

This anxiety is at it most pronounced whenever I am entering or leaving Egypt. Part of the apprehension is irrational, perhaps founded on the number of times my family was banned from leaving the country when I was a young child. More rationally, I have been detained or delayed a number of times upon arrival or departure, including one marathon interrogation session of several hours, which, along with the random exercising of arbitrary power, makes me wonder whether next time will be “the time,” and whether my fate might be a short stretch of indignity in an overcrowded cell or the long-term deprivation of freedom.

My low-level anxiety is nothing compared to the undoubted fear and pain endured by those on the frontlines, despite all the risks, who were stripped of their freedom, often in degrading and violent ways, for their pains. How must it feel for someone like photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan) to have survived the hell on earth of reporting on the lethal dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya encampment (which I had visited a couple of weeks beforehand to see what it was like for myself) and, instead of receiving treatment for the trauma all this death and destruction caused, to wait in purgatory for a potential death sentence?

I admire all those who stood up for their principles, even if it meant years in the slammer. The iconic representation of this is Alaa Abd El Fattah, who has been imprisoned by every leader since Mubarak, and is currently serving a five-year sentence. I sometimes wonder what it is like to live the monotony of incarceration, to be deprived not just of your freedom but also of your freedom of choice, to miss out on the milestones your family and friends reach in your absence, and the undoubted heartache you cause them, and the gap you leave in your child’s or children’s lives.

“The day that they broke into my house and arrested me, Khaled was sick and unable to sleep. I took him in my arms for an hour until he slept,” Abd El Fattah wrote in a letter during one of his shorter incarcerations, in 2014, in which he expressed profound longing for Khaled, his son, and Manal, his wife. “We may be handed down sentences, in which case time stops for me and continues to go on for you for years, which means that Khaled grows up without me. This means that he will undergo many colds and will sleep away from my hugs for long.”

The letter betrays Abd El Fattah’s sense of disillusionment at the direction Egypt had taken, and reveals how he was motivated mostly by guilt. “The previous imprisonments had meaning because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for positive gain,” he confessed. “Right now, I feel that I can’t bear people or this country and there is no meaning for my imprisonment other than freeing me from the guilt I would feel being unable to combat the immense oppression and injustice that is ongoing.”

Abd El Fattah is not just a prisoner of conscience but a prisoner of his own conscience. “It is true that I am still powerless, but at least I have become oppressed among the many oppressed and I no longer owe a duty or feel guilt,” he wrote.

Guilt is a surprisingly common reaction among survivors of torture and political imprisonment, especially once they return to their “normal” lives, their trauma untreated and often undiagnosed, even though it makes little rational sense. Despite the genuine and profound suffering they have experienced, they often feel bad for the continuing suffering of others and cope by externalizing and contextualizing their own situations in comparison with those who are perhaps worse off than they are. This causes many to suppress their own emotions, with potentially catastrophic consequences, both for the individual and for society, as the collective, cumulative trauma builds up, unresolved and unprocessed.

“I never thought of saying or sharing my feelings because there were bigger stories and deeper feelings, which I thought are more important or bigger than my own. Other people had more than that happening to them,” one former prisoner of conscience was quoted as saying in a rare study of trauma among political activists in post-revolutionary Egypt, carried out by Vivienne Matthies-Boon of the University of Amsterdam. Other effects of the trauma caused by the state’s brutal handling of dissent include polarisation, dehumanisation, demonisation and the normalisation of violence in the community.

Perhaps this desperate effort to contextualise is a last-ditch attempt to cling on to one’s sense of common humanity, which imprisonment and torture seek to destroy, by expressing empathy with others, by resisting the ‘selfish’ allure of personal pain for the solidarity of shared suffering. The alternative is the abyss of desensitisation, despondency and anchorless apathy. “Now my problem is that I don’t feel at all, I don’t fear death, I am not afraid. Right now I am not afraid to lose anybody,” confessed one of the traumatised activists interviewed in the study mentioned above.

Those pushed beyond their breaking points often become desensitised not only to their own suffering but also to the suffering of others. “When I see someone dying or I lose a friend, I am supposed to be really sad,” reflected another activist. “For me now, I am very okay with it … which is dangerous, because I think humans need to be sad about it.”

This provides some insight into how the state’s extreme crackdown on dissent and the mindless violence it has unleashed is not as mindless as it first appears. In a variation of the classic divide and rule mentality, it seems to be aimed at killing solidarity and obliterating hope. The regime also erodes an individual’s sense of certainty and security, and the trust of others in them, through more prosaic but highly punitive measures such as travel bans, the freezing of assets or open-ended legal action that drags on for years and years. By corroding people’s trust in and sympathy for one another and their sense of solidarity, the regime hopes to avert a repeat of the millions who took to the streets in 2011 to 2013.

When I was younger, my mother often criticised fellow Egyptians for their apparent apathy, arguing that those in power do not just give rights on a silver platter, that people must demand and seize their rights. The idea is that, eventually, the cost of opposing the popular will becomes higher than the benefits of oppressing and exploiting the people.

But what happens when a regime, like in Syria or Libya, behaves totally irrationally and finds no price is too high to pay, or makes others pay for its survival, even if it ends up governing a smouldering ruin? Or what happens when the dear leader, or king of kings, or surgeon of surgeons, or philosopher of philosophers, believes that he and the nation are one and the same thing, or, more frighteningly, that the nation is a part of him or subservient to him, and cannot or should not survive without him?

In Egypt, the regime seems bent on turning this logic of protest, dissent and revolution on its head. If there is method to its madness, it is that the cost of opposition should be set so excruciatingly and painfully high that people will desist and no longer resist, believing that resistance is not only futile but will make their situation much worse. Some ex-revolutionaries got that message loud and clear, with quite a few becoming depoliticised. “I just want to be alone … You feel this meaningless feeling,” confessed one participant in the study cited earlier. “You just want to stay at home or to hug someone you love, that is it.”

I do not wish to succumb to apathy and indifference. Although I accept that my writings could land me in trouble and have made reasonable sacrifices for my principles, I have little interest in becoming a martyr without a cause. I do not want to become a prisoner, not in a jail cell nor of my fears. I most certainly do not wish to be broken. And I suspect I can be broken. I do not know whether I possess the physical, mental and emotional strength to withstand torture or the humiliation of political imprisonment, and I am cowardly or courageous enough to admit that I do not wish to find out how strong my mettle is — I prefer that this question remains academic and unanswered.

As much as I dream of and desire freedom for everyone, I am not ready to sacrifice my own freedom to the machinations of the Egyptian regime — at least that is how I feel now, at this moment, when the individual price in Egypt is so high and the collective rewards so negligible.

Better, or at least more effective for me, in my humble, unheroic view, is to be free and to advocate and agitate for the freedom of others, to live to fight, or at least to struggle, another day. In fact, that is one of the motivating factors that led me to move away. I left Mubarak’s Egypt not out of any material need; I had a good career as a journalist, and before that as a teacher. I left to expand my margin of freedom as a journalist and writer and to enlarge my horizons as a human being, as well as to think and write outside the box about back home. This has not just expanded my horizons but also my mission as a journalist, which now includes challenging the false assumptions, misconceptions and biases toward Egypt and the wider region, to show it in a human and humane light, to flesh out its ambiguities, because it is in the ambiguities that the human resides.

Those of us on the outside can use our liberty not only to campaign for the freedom of those who have been deprived of theirs, but to play our modest role in keeping hope alive in the wastelands of hopelessness through which so many are wandering and wondering, to help people dream of a tomorrow that is beyond the nightmares of today.

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The generous of the earth in the most wretched of places

 
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By Khaled Diab

If you’re feeling dejected by the troubled times we live in, remember that human generosity lives on, even in the most wretched of places.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Iraqi Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted an ISIS attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Friday 2 September 2016

War. Mass murder. Fanaticism. Bigotry. Racism. Hatred. Environmental devastation. These are depressing times we are living through.

However, scratch beneath the surface of the headlines and beyond the escalating news cycle of violence and you can find human beauty, even in the most wretched of places, at the most wretched of times.

This was driven home to me by what seems to be a startling statistical finding. Iraqis are the most likely people in the world to help a stranger, according to the World Giving Index (WGI).

Let that sink in for a moment. This is a country that was “shocked and awed” by the US and Britain into almost total state collapse, endured years of civil war, is supposedly prey to sectarian and ethnic hatred and is at the mercy of rival militias and warlords, including the infamous and bloodthirsty Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).

Against such a backdrop and in a world where the relative trickle of refugees into Europe is causing continent-wide panic, you would expect Iraqis to fear strangers, to suspect that a passerby in apparent need is actually part of an ambush or a ploy, to keep what little they have for themselves and their nearest and dearest.

Despite this, a full four-fifths of Iraqis report having helped a stranger in the past month. How is this possible?

Part of the reason may be cultural. Arab societies possess elaborate and nuanced social codes demanding oft-excessive generosity and hospitality to visitors and strangers. This is encapsulated in the ancient Arab proverb: “A guest is greeted like a prince, held like a captive [to your generosity] and departs like a poet [to sing your praises].”

And many is the time that I have been made to feel  like the proverbial prince by Arabs I’d never met before. In fact, the most memorable shows of spontaneous generosity from strangers I have encountered in my life were in Egypt.

But culture is only part of the story. Necessity is the mother of generosity. There is a universal human tendency to respond to need and the needy – and a sense of guilt when we do not. In places like Iraq, where the ranks of those in need are enormous, the ranks of those willing to help them also grow, though they can never keep up with the runaway demand.

Conflict- and warzones bring out both the worst in humans and the best. This, to my mind, was symbolically embodied in a single recent incident in Iraq. An ISIS suicide bomber was on his way to take the lives of many innocent worshippers in Balad.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine. By preventing the mass murderer from entering the shrine and by taking much of the initial impact of the blast, al-Baldawi committed perhaps the supreme act of generosity: he gave his life to save dozens of others.

And despite Europe’s current (partly unjustified) reputation for selfish individualism, wartime Europe was replete with stories of such heroic, self-sacrificing generosity and solidarity, from the suicidal heroics of World War I trenches to the death-defying resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II and the sheltering of fugitive Jews destined for German death-camps.

Religion also seems to play a role in generosity. When it comes to giving money, Myanmar and Thailand top the WGI. Experts attribute this to the Buddhist practice of Sangha Dana, which encourages people to make donations.

But one must not overestimate the role of religion or assume that secular societies are less giving than pious ones. In the example above, Myanmar was assumed to be the most generous country because a higher percentage of its citizens had given money over the preceding month. But we know nothing of the amounts given and how they relate to income.

So it is entirely possible that in another country where people give away large sums to charity but do so only once or twice a year, citizens would donate a large proportion of their incomes yet appear less generous on the World Giving Index. For example, research has repeatedly found Americans to be the most generous charitable donors in the world as a percentage of income, giving away around 2% of GDP.

However, this does not necessarily make America the most generous country in the world. Like in developing countries with low taxes and huge income disparities, the visible poverty all around forces wealthy people of conscience to give.

In more egalitarian societies, that need is less because of the disguised or invisible forms of collective generosity that do not appear in WGI or statistics on charitable donations. In high-taxation societies with a generous social safety net, “giving” is a legal duty, not an individual choice.

For instance, in the European Union, where such a social model is prevalent, at least nine countries spend over 30% of their gross domestic product on social protection, led by Denmark (34.6%), France (34.2%) and the Netherlands (33.3%).

In addition, although foreign aid is woefully inadequate and wealthier countries are generally reneging on their obligations, a number of countries donate significantly above the benchmark 0.7% of GDP target. These include Sweden (1.4%), the UAE (1.09%), Norway (1.05%), Luxembourg (0.93%) and the Netherlands (0.76%).

This shows how generosity comes in many shapes and sizes, from the individual to the collective. Then there are the intangible, unmeasurable aspects of generosity. A dollar given by someone poor is worth far more than a dollar given by someone wealthy. Help given at great personal risk is worth more than risk-free assistance. Assistance received when you most need it is worth far more than that which is received too late. And a fish given to feed you once is worth far less than giving you the rod or net with which you can feed yourself.

Next time you feel despondent at the selfish taking and destructiveness of the world, look around for the everyday examples of giving which may not capture headlines but do capture a spirit of generosity that may just save humanity from itself.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 August 2016.

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Watanili: Helping Syrian children to rediscover childhood

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Through art, film and education, Watanili is a grassroots initiatives which is working to give traumatised Syrian kids a dose of normal childhood.

watanili 2

Wednesday 6 January 2016

There are over  4 million Syrians registered as refugees, with millions more displaced within Syria.

Watanili or ‘My Homeland’ is a grassroots initiative dedicated to providing support for displaced Syrians through art therapy, educational programmes, and other community-oriented projects. It works directly with civilians within and outside Syria to empower communities to repair their social and intellectual fabric.

Watanili was launched in May 2014 by Yara Tlass, its founder and executive director. Born and raised in Damascus, Yara received her BA in international management from Lugano in Switzerland and moved to Paris to pursue an MBA.  Like many Syrians, she was forced to leave her homeland due to the political situation.  Yara explains that Watanili was born out of the desire and need to offer a different perspective on the conflict in Syria: “Initially, we were mainly focused on the civilian aspect of the Syrian uprising, shedding light on the human stories and pressing issues of the conflict, which we thought were not being sufficiently covered by the mainstream media.”  The Watanili team did this by producing videos  and by sharing photo essays on social media.

The idea of the project emerged from the urgent need to do something for Syria and Syrians. “I started looking into ideas to offer a different perspective on the conflict, one that is not just limited to Assad and ISIS or Islamist fighters,” explains Yara. “We got excited and put our everything into it. We knew a few activists and photo journalists on the ground in Syria and that is how we kicked off our first video.“

Watanili’s main mission was to tell the world that there are people in Syria who want to live in peace and with dignity, but that no one was listening to their stories or providing them with any significant support. Yara and her team wanted to shed light on this and give a voice to their stories. Their mission and projects have since diverged and expanded to other initiatives, including art therapy workshops, educational programmes and community-based aid.

The team launched an online crowdfunding campaigns in order to collect funds for their projects but they also received support from generous individuals at fundraisers. Watanili’s biggest supporters have been friends and family and people who advocate for democratic change in Syria. They have also received some generous support from the British Council and Hivos who match-funded Watanili’s crowdfunding campaign to run cinematic events in the city of Aleppo which helped to inject an element of joy and peace in one of Syria’s darkest zones.

watanili 5Watanili has seen volunteers from around the world joining their missions and projects in the field in Turkey. However, the team still hopes to reach out to as many people as possible in order to maximise the project’s potential and expand Watanili to benefit the largest number of Syrian children.

The team’s main base is Reyhanli, a small Turkish town about 5km from the Syrian border, which has seen a very large influx of refugees. Unfortunately,  the team is not ready yet to expand into other parts of Syria and/or neighbouring countries. “We would like to build up our presence and grow the support given to Syrians in the areas where we already operate, in order to ensure we have a sustainable presence before branching out into other cities and projects,” says Yara.

Watanili offers  educational opportunities to displaced children who have been unable to access public schools, or those who need to catch up with what they have missed since they fled Syria. The Watanili team, as Yara stressed, cares about art “as food for the soul and believe in its therapeutic power to alleviate stress and reduce anxiety, as well as harness inspiration and creativity, fostering a space of cultural expression.”

Watanili strives to help children overcome the nightmare they have lived by rekindling their dreams. One time, after a fun-filled day of creative activities and art workshops, they asked the children to write down what  they were thinking.  As Yara unfolded the papers to read their answers, she recalled that she “was filled with joy and excitement”.

“A Syrian boy from Idlib had written ‘I am imagining my wedding in this hall.’ This was his reaction after the fun he had had during the activities led him to actually envisage his wedding at this very young age,” recounts Yara. “At that moment, we thought we had achieved our goal – if we can foster their imagination and mindset towards a positive future, [reviving] their hopes and dreams, then that is a step in the right direction.”

Yara reiterates the positive impact that every workshop has upon the children – enabling them to smile, laugh and have fun are things that many take for granted but have become lost luxuries for Syrian children.

Last September Watanili held ‘Souq for Syria’: a pop-up market inspired by the bazaars of Damascus featuring art, textiles, jewellery, toys and Arab cuisine from independent artists, designers and traders. It was held in London’s Rich Mix and featured the award-winning storyteller and BAFTA-nominated performer Alia Al Zougbi and live music from the acclaimed Iraqi jazz singer Alya Marquardt and rapper El Far3i.

The Watanali team were keen to make the Souq not only representative of Syria but also the wider Middle East. It drew participants from Syria, Palestine, Libya, Iraq, and Lebanon. The funds raised from the Souq went towards the launch of ‘Makani’ (my place) a Learning Centre in Reyhanli where refugee children are taught basic literacy and numeracy skills, as well as English. Makani was officially opened in November 2015.

The team have already organised several events in Dubai, France, Canada, Lebanon and Spain, including fundraisers, photo exhibitions, trivia nights, spoken word poetry and a documentary screening of Basil by Adnan Jetto.  Basil was filmed during a trip to the refugee camps in Reyhanli, and it offers a glimpse into the lives of Syrian children there.

Other projects include film screenings in Syria, specifically in Aleppo, where young Syrians can enjoy a brief respite from the ongoing conflict through an underground cinema that was put together by Watanili.

Another event that was organised by Watanili last month was ‘The Psych For Syria’. However, it raised only £331 and about 50 people attended. The funds will also go towards running Makani. It takes $4,000 a month to run the centre.

Loaded are a London-based Psych band led by Henry Wickett-Padgham. Henry and his two brothers (all in the band) are very passionate about supporting Syria and contacted Yara to ask about putting on a concert in support of the charity. All three brothers, and their parents, actively support the Syria Solidarity Movement and attend their meetings and demonstrations. The concert was organisedtook place at the Old Blue Last, now owned by Vice News, and a landmark in Shoreditch nightlife.

Watanili is a project with a difference. It is run by young people for the youth and children of Syria who will ultimately influence the shaping of Syria’s future generation and contribute to the reconstruction of a vibrant civil society once the guns fall silent.

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Invading Europe without invaders

 
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By Khaled Diab

Any objective observer can see  that the refugees of today are not the invaders of history. So why are so many Europeans afraid of refugees?

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.  Photo: © Jure Eržen

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.
Photo: © Jure Eržen

Friday 9 October 2015

It has been wondrous to behold the massive outpouring of sympathy towards refugees in Europe. Every “refugees welcome” placard and act of solidarity has restored my faith a little in our human ability to do collective good. Those poignant acts of solidarity – from donations of meals and clothes to people offering their homes to those who have taken flight – which have shamed our leaders into action have been kindling to warm my heart during this winter of human misery.

But it strikes me that, as the mainstream has warmed to the refugees and their plight, the right has become more panicky and shrill, triggering the kind of fear and anxiety usually expressed by the defenceless towards 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, across Europe, conservatives have been singing, in chorus, the refrain “Islamic 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, stuck on a major transit route, has been building a wall to  keep the refugees out.

What is most remarkable is that Bishop Kiss-Rigo’s comments were a rebuke of his spiritual boss, Pope Francis I’s commendable appeal to European churches to take in refugees.

Much further west, similar calls to man the barricades could also be heard. “It’s an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity,” said Dutch far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, who once infamously called for the banning of the Quran.

When it comes to prosperity, the influx of refugees (equivalent to just 0.37% of the EU’s population since 2012) poses little to no threat, economists and other experts agree. An analysis by the Brookings Institute  reveals that the inflow of refugees actually has a net positive effect on host economies – and the OECD agrees.

If the European economy stands to benefit from the influx of refugees, why all the panic?

One reason is economic anxiety. Across Europe job insecurity has risen dramatically while youth unemployment in many countries is perilously high. In addition, the corrosion of the welfare state and severe austerity measures have left millions reeling in shock.

Rather than attribute Europe’s economic ills on the continent’s growing welfare state for the wealthy, the corporations exporting (or “outsourcing”) jobs for greater profit and financial sector mismanagement, far-right demagogues find it easier to blame the weak, and kick those who are already down. In addition, the periphery countries dealing with the brunt of the crisis are the poorest and least-equipped to do so.

Beyond economics, many Europeans are genuinely concerned about the potential danger to their security posed by refugees. While it seems far-fetched and even preposterous to people like me that those fleeing the combined terror of the Assad regime and ISIS will themselves turn to terrorism, many ordinary Europeans do not possess the luxury of that insight.

In addition, there is the slim chance that ISIS will play on these fears and send a handful of terrorists amid the flow of genuine refugees. In such an instance, all it need take is a single act of calculated terror to cause Fortress Europe to pull up the drawbridges it has recently slightly let down.

However, fears about security are subordinate to anxieties about culture and identity. Since World War II, Western Europe has witnessed a remarkable demographic transformation in which citizens from former colonies – and from Turkey, in the case of Germany – and their offspring now constitute a significant minority of the population.

Though many have related to this new multicultural reality as enriching and empowering, others have found it troublesome and threatening, particularly those who feel their culture is superior to those of the immigrants. When coupled with the corrosive effects of globalisation and rapid technological development, as well as the rapid demise of religion in many parts of Europe in recent decades, many feel adrift in an uncharted ocean.

Although fanatics capture the headlines and people’s imaginations, this death of religion has also been occurring among what Europe identifies as its Muslim minority, which was never defined so monolithically in the past. For example more than a fifth of “Muslims” in France don’t believe in Islam nor practise it.

One reason why anxiety towards Muslims carries an extra punch compared to other groups, such as Indians and Chinese, is the centuries-old mutual rivalry between neighbouring Islam and Christendom (nowadays referred to as the West).

Just as the crusades continue to cast a shadow over the Middle East, Islamic expansionism in the early centuries of Islam have left their mark on European identity, both negatively and positively.

This partly explains why an older Spanish gentleman told a friend of mine: “There is more than one way to re-conquer Spain.” This is despite the fact that it has been half a millennium since Spain completed its Reconquista and expelled the last Muslim king in Andalusia, Muhammad XII of Granada.

This Muslim menace is shrouded in the mists of time and subsequent might for the powerful former empires of western Europe, which partly explains why they have been able to absorb large Muslim populations. However, this is less the case in some parts of central and southeastern Europe, where the Ottomans dominated until relatively recently, and whose independence was won at a huge cost. But this should be something that unites them with the Syrians who, like many eastern and southern Europeans, were victims of the Ottoman empire too, especially once it shed its multicultural tolerance.

Remembered history, along with the resurgence of religiosity and its negligible Muslim minority, might help explain why Slovakia wished only to take in Christian Syrian refugees. After all, what is today Slovakia was a frontline in the constant wars between the Ottoman and the Habsburg empires, though Slovakia, except for a small sliver in the south, was never actually ruled by the Turks.

Populists and demagogues have been riding, and fanning, the wave of re-Christianisation and growing Islamophobia by playing the history card relentlessly. “When it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go through that experience for 150 years,” said Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right “Viktator”, evoking memories of the Ottoman carve-up of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary which empowered the peasantry but destroyed the ruling class.

This is a far cry from the earlier pronouncements by Orban, who is an atheist who now regularly talks about “Christian values”, that “Turkey is not a state at the edge of Europe anymore.” What Orban’s swinging rhetorical pendulum underlines is that there is no “clash of civilisations”, just clashes of interests and convenience.

Moreover, any sensible observer should be able to see clearly that the refugees of today are not the invaders of history. In our interconnected world, people need to conquer their fears and let sensibility and humanity reign.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 1 October 2015.

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Greek islands: No holiday in the sun for Syrian refugees

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Kos is straining under the influx of Syrian refugees.  Though locals are hospitable, the refugees are desperate to move on but where or how eludes them.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Over the past couple of months, the Eastern Aegean islands have become the main gateway for the refugees and the immigrants seeking entrance into the European Union. The mere few kilometres separating the Greek islands from the Turkish coast have long been one of the Turkish traffickers’ favourite approaches, while the sheer volume of people making their escape to a hoped-for better life has never been greater.

“You know the most devastating irony of all? That we have to pay one thousand euros to get from Bodrum to Kos, while the return trip costs the tourists only €10,” said Amir Obada, a thirty-year-old Syrian standing with me in the shade cast by the abandoned hotel Captain Elias on the outskirts of the Greek island of Kos.

Amir comes from the famous Christian town of Malula in Syria, where a bitter struggle between government forces, the Islamic State, various insurgent militias and armed groups of local Christians has been taking place for the past few years.

When the war broke out, Amir was just finishing his studies in chemistry. His father was one of the professors at the Malula university, which got shut down on account of the fighting. As a devout pacifist, Amir refused to pick up a rifle. Staying home, he assured me, was not an option. His family home got shredded in the crossfire. And so he set off for Turkey and then to one of the Eastern Aegean islands, where a serious humanitarian crises has been developing over the past few months.

The Greek authorities found themselves unprepared for such a massive inflow of people. So far this year, the island of Kos alone has seen the arrival of some 7,500 migrants and refugees – six times more than was the case over the same period in 2014. Most of them had come in from Syria and Afghanistan. During the second half of May and the first days of June, Kos – still much favoured by tourists from all over the world – was in a state of turmoil. Anywhere between 100 and 500 people were arriving daily by rubber dinghies and small sailboats from the Turkish coast.

One of them was Amir Obada, who set off on his journey accompanied by five of his friends and relatives from Syria. At the time of our interview, he was sharing a small room with them in the squalid, abandoned hotel with no electricity and no functioning toilet facilities.

Walk west

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

“I’m so glad I’m safe. I don’t know what else to say. These last two years I’ve seen some things that, well… I still can’t believe I managed to escape the war,” Amir confesses. “But I can’t help thinking about my parents and relatives who are still in Syria – I think about them all the time. Unlike most of my travelling companions, I’m not married and I don’t have any children. In a time of war, that is a huge advantage.”

Amir proudly produced his ticket for the evening ferry to Athens. The Greek authorities – at least partly because of the approaching peak of the tourist season – had recently introduced the so-called fast-track for Syrian refugees. This means that the people arriving daily aren’t given too much hassle. After they reach Athens, they are issued with a permit for a six-month stay, which can later mostly be renewed without great difficulty.

None of the many refugees I talked to wished to remain in Greece. They understood all too well that the country is in a state of profound crisis, and that things can only get worse. “I had to leave behind my wife and four children – they’re waiting for me in the countryside near Damascus. I promised them that, once I reached Europe, I would do everything in my power to help them join me,” Muhammad Issa, 45, told me, as he sat in a cramped room filled with old mattresses, tattered blankets and empty plastic water bottles. “Yes, I know it’s going to be very hard. But I simply couldn’t have brought them along on such a dangerous journey. It was too risky. And the children were too small.”

Some two and a half years ago, a similar task – getting his loved ones safely out of Syria – was undertaken by Yassin Sinno, 26. He somehow managed to escape Malula and reach London through Turkey. The British authorities approved his request for asylum. Earning his living as a waiter in a coffee shop in Yorkshire, he is now free to travel all over the European Union. He came to the island of Kos to pick up his brothers Mahmmoud and Hussein, who had sailed here in the same boat as Amir Obada.

“I can’t describe my joy at seeing them again… It was God’s will that we met again, and we all cried,” Yassin grinned, going on to describe how he had arranged his two brothers’ entire trip from Syria to Greece. The goal now is to get to Athens and seek out one of the more competent ‘contacts’ who can get his siblings further on their way. The official routes toward Great Britain are out of the question. At this time, the only remotely tenable way out of Greece and on to Western Europe is the extremely dangerous and arduous walk through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary.

Muhammad Issa managed to reach Greece on his second attempt. The first time around he was caught by the Turkish police. He was thrown in jail for two days and was then released. In Bodrum and all over the nearby coastal cities in Turkey, where the trafficking trade is booming, this is more or less a matter of routine. “There were 44 of us on the rubber boat. It was very dangerous. We went out around midnight. The trip only took two and a half hours,” Muhammed recalled in the ruined hotel. “I was very scared, because I can’t swim. When we got to Kos, they took us in with decency and kindness. It’s just that here, where we are now stationed, things are quite unbearable. But tonight we’re moving on.”

Amir Obada didn’t have a clear (geographical) destination in front of him. He was more than willing to go anywhere where he could continue his studies in chemistry. His country of choice would be Sweden, yet he knew all too well that this choice, for him, might prove to be an unattainable luxury. He was prepared, he said, to start from scratch. In order to reach Greece he had had to invest a great deal of his savings. This is the reason why on arriving to Kos, like most of his friends and companions, he took up lodgings in the filthy and dilapidated ruin on the outskirts of Hippocrates’ town.

In front of the main building, a few Afghan teenagers were kicking around a somewhat deflated football. On a meadow nearby, a pair of cows were grazing in the sun, while a number of Pakistani men were lying in the shade.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

On a platform in front of what remains of the hotel, the local authorities have set up a system of pipes providing the residents with drinkable water. This was where the refugees could also wash and shave. As I strolled by, some of them were washing their clothes and mending the decrepit shoes that still needed to get them over the long trek to Central Europe.

“I’m not used to living like this,” Amir frowned at me.  “Until the war, we lived very well back home in Syria. I have to admit that the people here greeted us kindly, but there are no resources to be spared for us refugees.” Amir chose his rundown lodgings in order to save money. “I’ll need every coin I got to get me further off into Europe. I have decided to walk,” he informs me. “I intend to cross Macedonia and Serbia to get to Hungary. Once there, I will probably take a train through Austria all the way to Germany. To be honest, I don’t have much choice.”

Good Samaritans

As he told me of his plans, Amir’s comrades were nodding their silent agreement. No one among them was able to produce anything resembling a clear-cut plan. They were hoping for one of the target European countries to grant them asylum. As of yet, no one had informed them how to apply or even what basic rights had been accorded to them. In general, the presence of the international humanitarian outfits on the island of Kos was much too scarce for comfort. The necessary infrastructure for helping the migrants and refugees was virtually non-existent. For the most part, these tormented souls were depending on the help of local good Samaritans. For the most basic medical support, a small itinerant band of Doctors without Borders (MSF) was on hand to provide assistance.

“The island was completely unprepared for such a crisis. The sheer number of incoming people is staggering. And it is only likely to get bigger. The smugglers’ routes have been changed. Right now, the Eastern Aegean islands are the most popular location. Kos, Lesbos, Leros, Samos… The Greek authorities are trying to help, but they themselves are struggling under some pretty heavy loads. There’s no infrastructure here to help us help these poor people. So we had to improvise,” explains Aggelos Kallinis, the local UNHCR representative, who was speaking to me in front of the local police station, where hundreds of people were waiting every day to obtain the permits enabling them to proceed to Athens. “We’ve managed to enlist the help of the local community, some NGOs and a number of local volunteers. Surprisingly, many of them have risen to the occasion, but the situation is still rough, very rough.”

All-inclusive solidarity

©Boštjan Videmšek

©Boštjan Videmšek

On a daily basis, the Kos Solidarity volunteer group comes to the Captain Elias ‘hotel’ to distribute food, clothes, shoes and items of basic hygiene. When these local Samaritans – Sofia (a primary school teacher), Elena (a doctor), Alexander (a primary school teacher) and Jorgos (a businessman) – arrive to bring the refugees their one daily meal, a huge cheer can be heard from far away. The children, some of them not even ten years old, cling hard to the visiting humanitarian workers who can barely control the surges of the starving crowd. Under the vicious sun, the locals keep handing out the food prepared especially for the migrants in the kitchens of some of the nearby hotels.

There is plenty of food, enough to last the whole day. A tremendous gratitude can be felt emanating from the crowd, but also a great sense of shame. At home, these people weren’t used to living off their fellow humans’ pity. Quite the contrary. The Syrians and the Afghans come from arguably two of the most hospitable countries in the world. My long years of war reporting have taught me that a country’s hospitality usually bears a direct correlation to the scope of the tragedies experienced by the country’s population.

 

A tired man in his mid-forties, flanked by four of his six children, was observing the distribution of food from a distance. Visibly anxious, he obviously wanted to reach out and get his fair share, yet his pride wouldn’t let him. “I come from the Golan Heights, right near the Israeli border. Sometime before the war I moved to a suburb of Damascus, where I started a small business. I was doing very well. I built myself a big house and got married. Everything was fine. I had a good life,” Bilal informed me rather angrily.

During the first two years of war, not much trouble came to his neighbourhood, but his business slowly ground to a halt. About a year ago, his house got razed in the fighting. “The Free Syrian Army and the government forces were fighting for control of our mahala. A bomb was thrown directly on my house,” he recalled. “I don’t know who dropped that bomb, and frankly I don’t care. Me, my wife and six children – we got out of there as fast as we could.”

By now, there was a distinct tremble to Bilal’s voice. He landed on Kos last Friday. Huddled at the hotel with his family, he was waiting to proceed towards Athens, and then… And then? “I don’t know. I don’t have a plan. My only goal is to for us to be free and to be safe. To get where we are now, we had to spend quite a lot of money. The trip took twenty-two days,” he described.

“From Syria, we went to Lebanon, then we flew to Turkey. We had to pay off a huge number of people. You know that merely to go from Turkey to Greece by boat you have to pay one thousand euros per person,” Bilal continued. “I mean, of course we would like to move on! Maybe to Germany or even Scandinavia. But I know it’s going to be very hard. I want to find work. I have a lot of skills and experience.”

As I talked to Bilal, his wife and two youngest children lingered in the cold room of the abandoned hotel. The lady didn’t feel very well. Some time ago, she underwent a complicated and dangerous operation. Breast cancer had taken a visible toll, yet she still managed to endure the risky and exhausting journey to freedom. “I can’t wait for my [wife] to get well, so we can all relax and start living again,” Bilal said quietly: “Inshallah, God willing!” He was still making a strong effort not to join the line formed by his fellow refugees waiting for food.

Absolute uncertainty

In the hot Aegean mid-afternoon, a pair of young Syrian girls were simultaneously leaning against a wall and against each other. They had been doing their best not to fall asleep, but their exhaustion had finally prevailed. Sleeping, they were breathing in unison, with their mouths open, joined at the hip as if they were Siamese twins.

But the trauma of everything these two little girls had been through was etched deeply onto their young, sleeping faces.

Only a few hours before, they had arrived in Kos at the break of dawn in a rubber dinghy, along with their parents and a number of other Syrian refugees. “Hey, do you need a room? A hotel? Cheap – very cheap!” an older local woman accosted the family as they stood waiting in line in front of the police station. The two sleeping girls’ parents hesitated for a moment. As to their immediate future, they had very little relevant information to go on, even though they had been waiting in the crowd since early morning.

“Only for one night? Just to get some rest? We want to move on as soon as we can, madam,” the father replied and gently woke his daughters. Once they stopped propping each other, they nearly collapsed from exhaustion. Their mother gave them a warm hug.

They then scooped up their pitiful possessions and followed the Greek woman’s lead.

This “lucky” family may have managed to escape the bloodiest conflict of our time, and they may have just passed the major mark of having successfully landed in the EU. But their future was still heartbreakingly uncertain.

____

Follow  Boštjan Videmšek on Twitter

His website is: bostjanvidemsek.com

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De lijm die België bijeenhoudt

 
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By Khaled Diab

De nationale voetbalgekte verbergt de realiteit dat België al twee staten is. Ik gebruik mijn stem als lijm die kan helpen om België samen te houden.

banner_brazil

De nationale voetbalgekte verbergt de realiteit dat België al twee staten is.

Zondag 25 mei 2014

In de aanloop naar de Wereldbeker in Brazilië heeft de voetbalgekte België in haar greep, merkte ik onlangs tijdens een bezoek naar ons huis in Gent. De Rode Duivels, de beste ploeg sinds een generatie, lijken alomtegenwoordig: in de media, in uitverkochte stickeralbums en zelfs in een campagne van het Rode Kruis om bloedgevers te werven. In een land dat normaal een hekel heeft aan vlagvertoon is de nationale driekleur in haar voetbalversie overal te zien en worden zwart, geel en rood op wangen gesmeerd en in pruiken geverfd.

Maar achter die opwelling van nationale trots gaat een andere realiteit schuil: het lijkt meer dan waarschijnlijk dat de regionale, federale en Europese verkiezingen van 25 mei zullen tonen dat België in feite twee aparte staten is geworden.

Bedreigde Brusselaar
De verschillen tussen Vlamingen en Walen uiten zich in de politiek, de cultuur, de identiteit en het bewustzijn – of toch op het eerste gezicht. De peilingen voorspellen dat in Vlaanderen de neoliberale, separatistische N-VA een derde van de stemmen zal halen. Andersom zou in Wallonië de linkse PS een derde van de stemmen krijgen en de grootste partij zijn.

Los van de ogenschijnlijke rechts-linkse tegenstelling tussen het welvarende noorden en het arme zuiden, is er de taalkloof. België heeft al sinds tientallen jaren geen nationale partijen of nationale media. Ook het onderwijs is geregionaliseerd. Dat alles heeft de vervreemding en het wantrouwen tussen de gemeenschappen in de hand gewerkt.

Dit geleidelijke vervagen van ‘België’ wordt symbolisch belichaamd door de bedreigde status van de meest typische Belg: de tweetalige Brusselaar, met één voet aan elke kant van de taalgrens. Vandaag is Brussel nog altijd officieel tweetalig, maar spreekt bijna iedereen Frans en vormen de Nederlandstaligen een kleine minderheid. Buiten Brussel wordt het Engels een officieuze lingua franca voor zowel Vlamingen als Walen.

Als genaturaliseerde burger die al bijna tien jaar Belg is, vind ik die trage ontbinding jammer – voor een stuk omdat ik de excentrieke charme waardeer van een land dat ondanks zijn saaie reputatie op een subtiele manier cool is. Voor iemand als ik, die uit de immigratie komt, is het bovendien vaak gemakkelijker om je als Belg te identificeren, wat niet dezelfde etnische bagage heeft als ‘Vlaming’ of ‘Waal’. Tweederde van de Brusselse bevolking is trouwens van buitenlandse afkomst, zodat de etnische aanblik van de hoofdstad sterk is veranderd. Je ziet dat ook op het voetbalveld, met spelers als de Congolees-Belgische Vincent Kompany. Hij spreekt even vloeiend Nederlands als Frans, is aanvoerder van het nationale elftal en bovendien een figuur die de gemeenschappen samenbrengt.

Er wordt vaak gegrapt dat Belgen alleen in het buitenland een gezamenlijk nationaal gevoel hebben, als ambassadeurs van hun nationale tradities (meer bepaald bier en chocola, die tot de beste van de wereld behoren). En veel Belgen die ik ken, hebben zich verzoend met het vooruitzicht dat ze hun land zullen overleven, in de veronderstelling dat het zich in afzonderlijke soevereine staten zal splitsen. Anderzijds blijkt uit peilingen dat in de twee gemeenschappen een grote meerderheid België intact wil houden, ondanks het gekibbel tussen de politieke klassen van de gewesten.

Bovendien is de politieke kloof tussen Vlaanderen en Wallonië wel heel goed zichtbaar, maar bleek uit een recente peiling van de VRT dat de meeste Belgische kiezers min of meer dezelfde politieke standpunten en meningen delen. “Je hebt een vergrootglas nodig om de verschillen tussen Vlamingen en Walen te zien als het over de sociaaleconomische problematiek gaat, de ethische vraagstukken, de immigratie of het milieu”, zegt politiek wetenschapper en columnist Dave Sinardet. Dat zal geen verrassing zijn voor wie in de twee gemeenschappen heeft geleefd. Ik denk al lang dat de Vlamingen en de Walen meer met elkaar gemeen hebben dan met respectievelijk de Nederlanders en de Fransen, die met argwaan worden bekeken.

Stem als lijm
Een van de karaktertrekken die Vlamingen en Walen delen, is een zwak voor het ‘Belgisch compromis’, een ingewikkelde manier om problemen op te lossen waarbij alle partijen iets krijgen maar ook toegevingen doen, zodat er geen winnaar maar ook geen verliezer is. De jongste jaren heeft die politieke kunstvorm minder succes dan vroeger, maar ze heeft er wel voor gezorgd dat een conflict dat al meer dan een eeuw oud is nooit tot geweld heeft geleid.

Deze Belg zal dan ook op zondag zijn stem niet alleen gebruiken als een beetje lijm dat kan helpen om België samen te houden, maar ook als een blijk van vertrouwen in de multiculturele toekomst en de verdraagzaamheid van dit land.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article appeared in De Morgen on 21 May 2014. It was originally published in the New York Times on 18 May 2014.

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Glueing Belgium back together one vote at a time

 
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By Khaled Diab

With Belgium little more than a hollow shell, I’ll be using my vote as a squirt of glue to help hold the collapsing country together.

Friday 23 May 2014

Equipped with the best team in a generation, soccer mania has infected Belgium in the run-up to the World Cup in Brazil, as I witnessed during a recent visit home. The Red Devils, as the national side is known locally, seem to be everywhere: in the media, in sold-out sticker albums, and even a Red Cross blood donation campaign.

In a country where flag-waving is generally anathema, the soccer version of the national banner is everywhere and the national colours — black, yellow and red — are smeared on cheeks or dyed into wigs.

But the red devil, as always, is in the detail. Despite the apparent surge in national pride, the forthcoming regional, federal and EU elections, which will be held on 25 May, highlight the reality that Belgium has, in effect, become two separate states.

The divisions separating Dutch-speaking Flanders from Francophone Wallonia extend to politics, culture, identity and consciousness – at least at first sight.

In Dutch-speaking Flanders, which has long had a fractured political landscape, polls forecast that the neo-liberal, secessionist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) will top the ballot with a third of the vote. In contrast, in Francophone Wallonia, it is the leftist Parti Socialiste (PS) which is likely to walk away with a third of the vote, putting it in first place.

Over and above the apparent right-left split between the north and south, there is the perennial linguistic chasm, which is deepened by the parallel and separate socio-economic realities in which the regions exist.

In addition to the economic gap between the prosperous north and the struggling south, Belgium has not had national parties or national media for decades, while education too has been regionalised. This has led to the drifting apart of the country’s constituent parts, and a rise in relative ignorance, distrust and even demonisation.

This gradual fading of “Belgium” is perhaps most symbolically embodied in the endangered status of the quintessential Belgian, the bilingual Bruxellois/Brusselaar, who firmly had one foot on each side of the language frontier.

Today, though Brussels remains officially bilingual, its residents are mostly Francophone, with a minority of Dutch speakers. Beyond Brussels, English is increasingly becoming the second language of choice for Flemings and Walloons alike, making it an unofficial social and business lingua franca.

As a naturalized citizen who has been a Belgian for nearly a decade now, I find this slow disintegration to be a terrible shame. This is partly because I appreciate the eccentric and understated appeal of this country with a dull reputation but an understatedly cool reality.

Moreover, for people like me of immigrant background, it is often easier and less troublesome to identify as “Belgian” because it does not carry the same ethnic baggage that Flemish or Walloon does.

Like “British” is a more neutral label than English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, Belgian is better suited to minorities. In fact, with some two-thirds of the population of Brussels of foreign origin (including European), the ethnic complexion of the bilingual Brusselaar/Bruxellois — and, hence, quintessential, Belgian — has rapidly shifted.

This is exemplified on the soccer pitch, among other places. Take, for example,  Congolese-Belgian footballer Vincent Kompany, the captain of the national squad. Equally at home in both Dutch and French, he not only plays for the national side but acts as a unifying figure between the country’s bickering communities, both of whom are proud of the success he has found in England, including two English Premier League titles for Manchester City in 2013/14 and 2011/12.

Although many Belgians I know have reconciled themselves to the prospect that they will outlive their country, I don’t think we should condemn Belgium to the dustbin of future history just yet.

Wits have joked that Belgians only feel a sense of shared nationhood when abroad, where they become ambassadors or even missionaries for the finer aspects of the national lifestyle, from probably the world’s best beer and chocolate to the country’s fine cuisine and music.

In Jerusalem, where I am currently based, I have found that there is more than a grain of truth to this. Amongst the surprisingly large Belgian community here, there is a shared sense of kinship, camaraderie and solidarity between Walloons and Flemings – albeit a typically understated and pragmatic Belgian variety.

While this may have something to do with the more open-minded and inclusive nature of being an expat, it strikes me that many back home share similar sentiments. Surveys regularly show that clear majorities on both sides want Belgium to survive, despite the Byzantine bickering of the political class.

Moreover, despite the visible political divergence between Flanders and Wallonnia, a recent survey conducted by VRT, the Flemish public broadcaster, revealed that the majority of Belgian voters have similar political positions and views. “Whether it relates to socioeconomic, ethical, immigration or environmental issues, you need a magnifying glass to see the difference between Flemings and Walloons,” concluded the columnist and political scientist Dave Sinardet.

And this would come as no surprise for anyone who has actually lived among the two communities. Equipped with the perspective of the relative outsider, I have long held that Flemings and Walloons have more in common with one another than they do with the French or the Dutch, both of whom are viewed with suspicion due to their colonial history in Belgium.

One characteristics which both Flemings and Walloons share is their penchant to strike “Belgian compromises”, a form of settlement by which all sides concede something in return for something else, creating a complex web of gains and losses in which there is no victor or vanquished. Although this political art form has had a lower success rate in recent years, it has ensured that this conflict of more than a century has never erupted into violence, nor captured international headlines, except in the surreal.

Come election day, this Belgian, for one, will use his ballot not only as a small squirt of glue to help hold Belgium together, but also as a vote of confidence in its multicultural future and capacity for tolerance.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

A condensed version of this article first appeared in The New York Times on 18 May 2014.

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Can the boycott against Israel succeed… and how?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The furore surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream endorsement raises the question to what extent BDS can help end the occupation… and how.

ScarJo

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Lost in Translation brought Scarlett Johansson global fame. Will the actress’s latest role – lost in the occupation – earn her widespread infamy?

Since the announcement that the Hollywood star was the new face of the controversial Israeli firm SodaStream, a war of words between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis has gripped the (social) media. While pro-Palestine activists condemn Johansson for whitewashing the Israeli occupation, pro-Israel activists see the American’s insistence on sticking with the endorsement deal as a vote of confidence in Israel’s economy and democracy.

Meanwhile, sensing a contradiction in Johansson’s dual roles as an Oxfam and SodaStream “ambassador”, the international NGO castigated the American celebrity, eventually parting ways with her. This came after, according to the BDS movement, a reported “internal revolt” within Oxfam, or in ScarJo’s own words, “a fundamental difference of opinion” with the charity over BDS.

In her own defence, Johansson contends that: “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.”

In this, she echoes the Israeli company’s own publicity. “At SodaStream, we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope,” the firm’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum said in a promotional video.

It is true that SodaStream employs hundreds of Palestinians under terms they probably wouldn’t get at a similar Palestinian firm and Birnbaum, to his credit, was willing even to embarrass the Israeli president in defence of his Palestinian workers.

However, it is hard to miss the elephant in the room: if Birnbaum is such a prophet of peace, why is he profiting from the occupation by operating a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement which makes the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible? Surely, if SodaStream really wished to act as a “bridge”, it should relocate its main factory to the Israeli side of the Green Line or, better still, set up shop in PA jurisdiction.

The high-profile campaign against Johansson, as well as other recent successes has been interpreted by many pro-Palestinians as another success for the BDS movement. In contrast, a lot of pro-Israelis have seen in the actress’s refusal to back down a clear signal of what they call #BDSfail.

Setting aside the ethical debate surrounding BDS, this raises the question of whether efforts to pressurise Israel by isolating the country can really achieve their stated goals of “Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall”.

One way of determining this is to examine similar efforts in the past. By putting pressure on a firm’s reputation and profits, corporate boycotts have a relatively decent success rate, as reflected in a number of recent examples, though some companies are more vulnerable than others to this kind of pressure.

Despite the growth of neo-liberalism and the associated privatising of government, countries do not tend to operate like corporations, with the financial bottomline only one factor in many affecting their behaviour.

Hence, the record of boycotts and sanctions against states is far more patchy. In reality, when faced with a determined adversary, punishments of this kind can often fail to deliver the desired results, even in their most extreme manifestations: full sanctions.

More than half a century of American sanctions against Cuba did not lead to the demise of the Castro regime, but impoverished Cuba, leaving it suspended in a decaying time bubble. Other Cold War sanctions hardly fared much better.

A decade of international sanctions against Iraq only succeeded in turning what was once the most-developed Arab country into a graveyard for children and a public health catastrophe. Similarly, the Gaza blockade grinds on, with Egypt too tightening the screws, yet Hamas is still very much in control while the people suffer terrible destitution and isolation.

In fact, in the three examples above, sanctions actually had the unintended effect of strengthening the regimes in question. In each case, sanctions were portrayed as an unfair and unjust form of foreign meddling and the regime as a heroic force of resistance, enabling it to intimidate opponents and shutdown dissent.

There have, of course, been some successes. Many advocates of BDS point to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as a clear precedent. “Sanctions were the final blow to the apartheid regime in South Africa,” the BDS movement says on its website.

“Such action made an enormous difference in apartheid South Africa. It can make an enormous difference in creating a future of justice and equality for Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land,” believes none other than Nobel prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But what kind of a role did the campaign of disinvestment and sanctions play in toppling apartheid in South Africa?

Although South Africa was under African sanctions since the 1960s, these had only a marginal effect, and it was not until the West joined the movement in earnest in the mid-1980s that it began to have a perceptible impact.

Among the boycott’s clearest effects was the flight of capital and credit, the rise in economic hardship, and a slow-down in the flow of much-needed foreign technology, which had a knock-on effect on economic growth and the cost of doing business.

On the other hand, even at the height of anti-apartheid sanctions, South Africa managed to find “sanctions-busting” alternatives, and began a process of recalibrating its economy and finding alternative trading partners. There is also evidence that the boycott was losing steam. For instance, even though the United States had passed a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act only in 1986, US imports from South Africa, by 1988, rose by 14% and exports by 40%.

In addition, sanctions had some unintended consequences. For instance, it forced the country to innovate more, such as developing alternative energy technologies, and had economic consequences for poor blacks and post-Apartheid governments. This explains why opposition to sanctions was not only the preserve of neo-cons, with some South African black and white anti-apartheid activists expressing serious misgivings.

If economic sanctions had only a marginal effect, the academic boycott was even more questionable in its efficacy. “That most of the scholars in our study judged the boycott to be an irritant or inconvenience, rather than a significant barrier to scholarly progress, suggests that it proved more a symbolic gesture than an effective agent of change,” concluded one extensive survey of South African academics conducted at the end of the apartheid era.

In many cases, rather than causing guilt and galvanising opposition to the system, “many scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against”.

If boycotts and sanctions played such a vague and marginal role in toppling apartheid, what actually brought down the system?

It is my conviction that the lion’s share of the credit must go to internal dynamics. Apartheid was not only an unjust system but an unrealistic one. It is impossible to oppress and disenfranchise the majority of a population indefinitely. Mounting, sustained and highly organised black (and, to a lesser extent, white) resistance was the pivotal factor. Of similar import was the enlightened leadership of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, who managed to neutralise stiff conservative opposition to dismantling apartheid.

With hindsight, there is a tendency to afford boycott and sanctions against South Africa a more central role in defeating apartheid than they actually played, thereby depriving the real agents of change, who risked all for their convictions, of some of the glory they deserve.

That is not say that boycotts and solidarity campaigns are useless. If anything else, they at least provide a morality boost through solidarity to the oppressed and enable outsiders to distance themselves from policies and actions of which they do not approve. However, these are tools that need to be handled with caution and care to ensure they do not misfire.

In the Israeli and Palestinian context, the most effective approach is to continue to demand the grassroots boycotting of corporations that profit from the occupation, thereby promoting a more virtuous and constructive cycle of investments. For instance, a campaign could be launched to force SodaStream to relocate its facilities to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

In addition, like with South Africa, the United States should end its military aid to Israel until it ends the occupation, which might possibly be the single most effective economic action any party can take.

I also believe that the academic and cultural boycott needs a major rethink and revamp, especially its Arab variant (which sees many Arabs unwilling or afraid to engage with even sympathetic Israelis), to penalise Israeli peace-breakers and to embrace and empower peacemakers. Such engagement, especially between Palestinians and Israelis, will also help lay the ground for the post-occupation era.

Ultimately, like in South Africa, the occupation, segregation and injustice of the situation will be defeated by Palestinian resistance and Israeli opposition, which would be a far truer “bridge to peace” than the words of a self-interested beverage company or glamorous actress.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 January 2014.

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The Arabs, apartheid South Africa and Israel

 
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By Khaled Diab

Reactions to apartheid South Africa differed across the Arab world and were coloured both by anti-colonial solidarity and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Friday 27 December 2013

Like just about everywhere else, the death of Nelson Mandela triggered passionate responses across the Arab world. “Men and women everywhere feel they have lost someone very close to them,” said the respected international diplomat and peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

“Humanity has lost its greatest son,” tweeted former IAEA chief, prominent anti-Mubarak opponent and short-lived transitional vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei, himself also the winner of a Nobel peace prize.

Egypt even took the extraordinary measure of announcing three days of national mourning to mark the great man’s death. Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika went a step further and ordered eight days of national mourning during which all flags were to be flown at half-mast.

Unlike in the West, however, Arab sentiment and sympathy towards Nelson Mandela stretch back decades, back to the days he was a radical rebel and not yet a hallowed peacemaker – some Arabs even prefer that Mandela of yesteryear.

Previous generations of Arabs saw in the long and bitter struggle against apartheid and its precursors in South Africa – spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC) – the reflection of their own plight under the boot of European colonialism and imperialism. This was particularly the case in North Africa, which also felt a sense of African solidarity.

According to Mandela himself, who admired Algeria’s long battle for independence, the situation in French Algeria most closely paralleled that of South Africa.

In this light, it is unsurprising that the ANC received training, funds and support from Algeria. In 1961, during his clandestine Africa tour after which he was arrested, Nelson Mandela spent time with the Algerian Liberation Army and the rebels of the National Liberation Front in Algeria.

Although Mandela was impressed by what he saw, even back then he realised that “there was no point in trying to overthrow the apartheid regime; the ANC had to force them to the negotiating table.”

Algeria also provided the ANC with constant diplomatic support, such as helping spearhead the pan-African charge against apartheid South Africa. For instance, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, when he was president of the UN General Assembly in 1974, ruled that South Africa could not participate in its proceedings.

And Algeria was there right to the end. For example, Lakhdar Ibrahimi was the UN Special Envoy for South Africa and monitored the transition to democracy. Ibrahimi is also a member of The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Mandela to promote global peace.

Nasser’s Egypt also provided the ANC with strong support, in its multiple roles as a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Although Egypt did not shut down the South African embassy in Cairo until May 1961, the Egyptian capital hosted offices for the ANC from the late 1950s.

Mandela’s time in Egypt clearly impressed him, both in cultural and historic terms, but also for the new regime’s efforts to develop the country. “President Nasser had an impressive programme of economic development based on African socialism,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs written on Robben Island.

Solidarity was not one way either, and the ANC supported Egypt whenever it could. In Egypt’s hour of need during the Suez Crisis, known as the Tripartite Aggression in Arabic, the ANC said: “We pledge our solidarity with the Egyptian people and are confident that the people of Africa will not allow themselves to be used against their fellow Africans in any predatory war.”

Showing early signs of his conciliatory humanism and inclusiveness, Mandela spoke up and lobbied robustly in 1962 against strong sub-Saharan African opposition to the entry of North Africa to the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA), which became the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and eventually evolved into today’s African Union.

“An aspect that particularly disturbed me was the attitude of most delegates in the PAFMECSA area to visitors from West Africa and the Arab countries,” Mandela recalled. “The whole issue upset me and I felt I could not keep quiet.”

“The trouble Nelson is that in North Africa you have Africans who are not Africans,” one delegate yelled out, not without justification. Nevertheless, Mandela carried the day and paved the way to Egypt, Algeria and the rest of North Africa to become full members of the African club.

It should be pointed out that the Arab world was not uniform in its stance towards apartheid. North Africa and the secular, revolutionary states were generally more sympathetic to the ANC than the conservative monarchist regimes, which feared that the contagion of radical socialist politics would spread within their own borders.

Moreover, some corners of the Arab world, namely some countries in the Gulf, still lived under the dark shadow of perhaps the worst form of apartheid: slavery. Saudi Arabia, for instance, did not abolish slavery until 1962, and only under immense pressure from Egypt’s then-unrivalled propaganda apparatus.

This may in part explain the Saudi regime’s ambivalent attitude towards apartheid and how Riyadh was quite happy to supply South Africa with oil until the oil embargo which accompanied the 1973 war with Israel forced its hand. This may have not lasted long, however, as there is some evidence to suggest that Saudi became South Africa’s leading supplier during the sanctions-busting secret trade of the 1980s.

That said, Saudi Arabia, despite its contradictions, also deserves credit for being among the first nations to push for international action against the apartheid regime. It was, for instance, a co-signatory of a 1952 letter to the UN Secretary-General asking for South Africa’s apartheid policies to be placed on the General Assembly’s agenda.

In addition to anti-colonial solidarity, many Arabs saw South Africa through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing parallels between the two. This remains the case, as the rest of the region, the general view goes, has gained its independence but the Palestinians continue to live under occupation and subjugation. While this is sadly true, this overlooks the fact that there are others who remain deprived of their right to self-determination, such as the Kurds and Sahrawis.

The ANC and Mandela’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause has won them many Arab hearts and minds, as illustrated by the genuine sense of grief felt across Palestine at Mandela’s passing.

However, what both Palestinians and Israeli critics of Mandela do not seem to realise  is that the great reconciler’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle did not equate to hostility towards Israelis. “I always thought it unrealistic to ignore the existence of Israel and maintained that the Jewish people are as entitled as any other nation in the world to have their own national home,” Mandela reflected on Robben Island.

Beyond the Holy Land, South Africa’s experience continues to resonate and remains relevant. As Arabs struggle against dictatorship, Mandela stands as a shining example of a liberation leader who not only established a largely functioning democracy but also stepped down graciously, in stark contrast to the Arab model of leader-for-life or until revolution strikes.

Despite post-apartheid South Africa’s many imperfections, this rainbow nation also provides our bitterly divided region with an inspiring model of reconciliation and healing.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 December 2013.

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