Moria and the smouldering ruins of Europe’s humanity

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek in Lesbos

The refugees and migrants who survived the fire at the Moria camp in Lesbos find themselves in an even worse predicament as authorities repeat the same dire mistakes.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Thursday 8 October 2020

Safia R (not her real name), 17, from Afghanistan, was afraid: afraid for her future, her physical integrity, her ailing mother and her 12-year-old brother. After living on the streets and in the nearby forests following the devastating fire at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, her family was forced to enter Kara Tepe, the replacement camp hastily constructed overnight on a former military shooting range still riddled with bullets.

“On 9 September, at around two in the morning, I was woken up by the screaming of my neighbours,” Safia recounted, her voice trembling. “They were banging on our container and screaming that a severe fire had broken out. They said we should just drop everything and run.”

It was traumatic for her to recall how the Moria camp, the symbol of Europe’s thoroughly dehumanising (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies, was reduced to an ash heap.

“So we just got up and ran, heading for the highest ground in the camp. Flames were raging everywhere we looked, and people were scrambling for their lives,” the articulate and bright young woman continued. “Right then, I really believed we were all going to die. Oh God, I was so scared… All I managed to grab before I ran was my mobile phone and the charger. Everything else was lost in the fire.”

Losing her father at an early age made her all the more exposed and vulnerable to the horrendous conditions on Lesbos. “I am one of those Afghans who’s never set foot in Afghanistan,” she went on in her excellent English, partly picked up at the local language institute and partly on the internet. »My parents were refugees from Mazar-e-Sharif. I was brought up in Iran. Losing my father so soon was the worst possible blow for all of us. My mother and I used to agonise over setting off for Europe or not. But in the end, we realised we simply had no other choice. There was no future at all for us in Iran.”

Fright night

Before she got coerced into moving into the new camp, Safia spent 10 days sleeping rough, with only what passing strangers gave her for sustenance. These, she winced, were the worst days of her life. The experience was even more frightening than the savage four months she spent in the murky side streets of Istanbul and Izmir, waiting for her passage to Greece.

Yes, there was the proverbial kindness of strangers in the wake of the Moria fire. But there was also humiliation, harassment and bitter invective. Toward the end of her ordeal, Safia was reduced to a quivering wreck.

Moving into the new camp, which could easily be dubbed Moria 2.0, didn’t do much for her mental state.

Her new reality is quite simply overwhelming. Tents without even remotely adequate flooring, a single meal each day and a dire shortage of drinkable water. In the entire camp, there are only 35 chemical toilets for 12,000 people and a few appallingly filthy shower stalls. Then there is the lack of medicine and medical staff and the pitifully inadequate quarantine measures for the almost 300 refugees already infected with the coronavirus. Hundreds of children and teenagers in Moria are without their parents. The horrible overcrowding is stirring up ethnic hostilities. All the war trauma and PTSD leads to countless acts of petty cruelty. Racism. Despair. Mounting police violence. The understandable rage of the local population.

The list goes on and on.

Given the conditions in Moria, it was only a matter of time before things came to a head – before the whole thing went up in flames. Yet it now seems clear the Greek authorities have learned nothing from the debacle.

The conditions at Kara Tepe are direct proof that the authorities learnt nothing from the mistakes of the past. The surreal squalor of Moria 2.0 is the final confirmation that the authorities in Athens are deliberately failing to invest into improving the living conditions for migrants, despite the European funds collected specifically for that purpose.

There is a twisted logic to the Greek authorities’ actions. After all, improved infrastructure could greatly contribute to Greece being rebranded as a ‘safe country’ in the eyes of the other EU members. And this could trigger the so-called Dublin II Regulation, which has been described as exceedingly unfair to the southern EU states – and rightly so. The northern states would then be legally able to send their asylum seekers back to the state of their first asylum application. And due to basic geography, the vast majority of them had first set foot on European soil in Greece or Italy.

The Greek authorities are, thus, doing everything in their power not to be deemed a safe country. And Safia, her mother and brother and everyone else in the camp, are paying the price.

No more music

“When the flames started to settle, I ran to our container,” Safia explained, now on the verge of tears. “There was nothing left… Nothing. Even my most treasured possession, a pair of guitars I’ve managed to hold on to – both were lost to the fire.”

She went on to share that she was a self-taught musician. In addition to the guitar, Safia also played the piano and used to regularly post her recordings on the internet. “Without my guitars and my singing, I simply do not feel alive.”

When one of the humanitarian volunteers helping the refugees learned of her loss, he gave her his own guitar. There is only one thing, she says, which could bring her even greater joy. And that is for her family’s asylum request to be granted, so they could finally resume their journey to Germany.

This is something she daydreams about. Every day, every hour, all the time. She is also working hard to learn the German language over the internet.

Five years after the historically unique but temporary refugee corridor through the Balkans toward Northern Europe was closed down, Germany is still considered to be the promised land for the vast majority of the refugees and migrants here. Roughly 70% of those currently stranded on Lesbos arrived here from Afghanistan.

“A month and a half ago, we were summoned for an asylum interview,” Safia recalled. “During the whole year we spent waiting for it, most of the other single Afghan women with children were allowed to leave the island. I don’t know why they made us wait so long. Anyway, the interview was perfectly pleasant – they were actually quite nice to us. They promised we would get their reply in two weeks’ time. But once again, nothing happened. And then the fire broke out.”

Safia shivered again, only to clear her throat and resume: “My greatest fear is that the calamity has sort of reset the entire process. And that we will have to remain here, in hell for a good long while. I can’t tell you how sad it makes me, watching my sick and exhausted mother and all the other broken-down people here trying to make it through another day.”

Penal colony 

It wasn’t hard to understand the naked fear on Safia’s face. The first major downpour was certain to demonstrate just how pitifully misguided the choice of location for the new camp was. Its ramshackle ramparts seemed vulnerable even to the wind.

Kara Tepe was being set up on the land of a well-known local member of the ruling New Democracy party. Ever since its opening, the entrance to the camp had been a very crowded place. Adding to the crowds was the commendably high number of humanitarian workers alighting here daily from all over the world to help reduce the inmates’ plight.

The humanitarians were quick to inform me that they are increasingly being targeted for attacks. Not only by the extreme right-wingers from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, but also by locals who had previously shown tolerance and understanding towards the refugees.

The locals were now truly starting to lose their temper, especially in the wake of the increased tensions with Turkey, which sent several thousand refugees and migrants over to Greece at the start of March. The people of Lesbos realised all too damn well that they – along with the local populations of Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros – had been sacrificed by Athens and Brussels on the altar of shameless political and economic opportunism.

It has to be said: the people of Lesbos have managed to hold out for an admirably long time. But now their empathy seemed to be running on fumes. And little wonder. Tourism, their main source of sustenance, was now officially dead. The agency buses have been replaced by police barriers, and the well-heeled travellers by desperate traumatised people on the run.

Possibly the greatest tragedy of all is how misguidedly the locals have started picking the targets for their justified rage. Once again, the most vulnerable and exposed are bearing the brunt of it. Humanitarian workers are also being increasingly punished for the cardinal sin of working around the clock to save lives, both at sea and on solid ground.

But the blame for sacrificing the island is of course not theirs. The main culprits why, in the words of brilliant British journalist Andrew Connelly, Lesbos has been turned into ‘a penal colony’, can be found in the governing chambers all over Europe.

The EU in its entirety has decided to look away. Granted, there is much talk about ‘a refugee crisis’, but at least in the bloc, there is no such thing. And there never was – not even in 2015 and 2016, when the European border was crossed by over a million of those fleeing war, abject poverty and the ever more devastating consequences of climate change.

Please allow me to repeat this crucial if direly under-reported point: there is and never has been no such thing as a refugee crisis in the EU. The 500-million-strong union has so far accepted fewer Syrian refugees than crisis-riddled Lebanon, with a population of just 5 million.

Nowhere to turn

As I entered the perimeter, the exhausted refugees and migrants were forming a long line in front of the new camp to wait for registration and a quick COVID-19 test. The choice they were facing was between moving to Kara Tepe or hunger and deportation. At first, while they still had some strength, many tried to resist. But then hunger and thirst broke their resolve, so they took their place in line.

Naturally enough, the Greek authorities are trying to frame the quick relocation to the new camp as a great success story. In this, they are greatly helped by the soft rhetoric of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is ignoring the dire conditions of the refugees in the new makeshift camp which are not very different to those that prevailed in the smouldering heap that was once Moria.

As the new authoritarianism spreads like wildfire all over the globe, both the international conventions and the international structures tasked with upholding them are crumbling fast. And the abject dehumanisation on Lesbos continues unpunished. The banality of evil is gaining momentum and the rights of asylum-seekers are by now nothing more than a threadbare joke.

“For ten days, we slept out in the open. Though we hardly slept… We were hungry. The children got very ill. They cried and cried all through the night. They need medical help, but there are so many of us, and most of us need help. I don’t know what to do, where to turn,” said a Hazara mother of four waiting to gain admission to the new camp.

The woman refused to give me her name. But at least she was willing to talk to me. Most of her fellow sufferers did not do so. Covered with face masks, figure after passing figure declined to speak, using apologetic gestures to convey their utter exhaustion.

The ruins of civilisation

Like a David Lynch scene, the remains of the Moria camp are huge and frightening, dealing a rough blow to the senses. The smell of burning is exceptionally strong and soon sort of etches into the skin. In spite of the sun’s blaze and the blue of the Aegean sky above, the site seems strangely drained of colour, except for black, white and grey.

Burnt-out containers. The smouldering remains of what used to be a cot. A thoroughly blackened teapot. One half of a sooty teddy-bear. A shoe. Lots and lots and lots of charred metal. A number of olive trees braving this apocalyptic landscape like spent matches about to crumble. A clump of possibly still live electrical wiring. Fresh human excrement. Discarded face masks, a half-melted mobile phone, a trampled baby pacifier. A portable stove, a shard from what used to be a plate, heaps of refuse and blackened clothes. And among them rummages a playful and frighteningly trusting puppy with eyes of two different colours. Life had not yet kicked him in the teeth.

A number of local labourers were carrying off large chunks of metal and heaving them onto a truck. The process of recycling the former site into Moria 2.0 was already in full swing. A lone policeman was assigned to keeping vigil over the ash and dust. He seemed blissfully unconcerned by a pair of local teenagers combing through the site.

“Next week I’m going to have to close the place down. The fire put me out of business,” grimaced the owner of a local bar, who used to do quite well for herself before the fire.

The place itself was left untouched by the flames. Yet this made its red, blue and yellow plastic chairs and the advertisements for a famous Italian coffee brand seem only more surreal amid the cinders.

This was less David Lynch and more like Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Out of the Taliban frying pan, into the Moria fire

“Yesterday, my wife and me moved into the new camp. We got our quick COVID tests and then we got registered. Both of us are on our final legs: the lack of sleep is killing us. We want to go somewhere else – anywhere – just as long as we can go right now. But we’re stuck here,” winced Asif, 36, standing by the reeking exit of Moria 1.0. “Almost everything we had was burned in the fire. I suppose we’re glad to have survived. But the problem is that we now have to live.”

Asif is from the Afghan city of Helmand, a notorious Taliban stronghold. After we exchanged a few memories from some of the Afghan war’s bloodiest battle-fronts, he opened up.

“Two days before the fire, my wife and me, we finally got the asylum interview,” he said. “We told the Greek officials that we were fleeing for our lives. We said we were quite prepared to remain here in Greece. We kept promising that we really were fleeing horrible bloodshed, and that we weren’t out to steal anyone’s job. And then, after spending a year in Moria, we almost died in the fire. It was unbelievable. It was like nothing I had ever seen.”

Asif shook his head as he pushed a shopping trolley filled with sooty junk from the old camp to the new one. He was exhausted and might have been suffering from the initial stages of sunstroke. For the high UN and EU officials’ information, this is what ‘relocation’ really looks like on the island of Lesbos.

“The conditions in the new camp are even worse than in Moria,” Asif sighed and halted his progress, leaning onto his trolley to gather strength. “Perhaps the worst thing is the filth. We’ve been reduced to washing in the sea, but even the sea is now dirty. The people are so angry. Lots of fights break out during the night. I’m afraid we are about to see a lot more violence.”

On the concrete wall by the road to Kara Tepe graffiti reading ‘Welcome to Europehas been supplemented with the appropriate qualifier ‘Human Rights Graveyard.

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

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

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

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Sunday 18 March 2018

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

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

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

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

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

Anywhere but home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monolithic migrant masses

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

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

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

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

Too late for refuge

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

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

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

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

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

Crisis of faith

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

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

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

 

 

A hundreds days of destitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From wedding planner to war photographer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Integrating into the community

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Hypocrisy and the Holy Land

 
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By Khaled Diab

In their reactions to Donald Trump’s hypocritical Jerusalem declaration, many Arab and Muslims leaders have exhibited their own grotesque double standards.

At the behest of the Turkish president, Islamic leaders gathered for an extraordinary summit to denounce Trump’s declaration.
Source: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Twitter account

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Exercising his peerless talent to make enemies and infuriate people, Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there changes nothing on the ground – except perhaps highlighting the extent of American hypocrisy and how Washington was never an impartial broker.

Nevertheless, Jerusalem is a city of enormous symbolic significance, not just to Jews and westerners but also to Arab Muslims and Christians, and the Palestinian struggle has been at the heart of Arab and Muslim consciousness for generations.

This partly explains why a merely symbolic announcement from Trump has triggered such angry reactions both in Arab corridors of power and on the streets. Another factor is the need to forge a semblance of unity in this bitterly divided region.

Arab League foreign ministers warned that Trump’s move “deepens tension, ignites anger and threatens to plunge the region into more violence and chaos,” as though it was not already mired in both.

In keeping with the League’s track record of futile, toothless endeavours, the ministers said they would seek a UN Security Council resolution rejecting Trump’s move, as though the US was not a veto-wielding permanent member.

Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, urged the Arab world to adopt economic sanctions against the United States. While Bassil was outspoken in his defence of Palestine, his position towards Palestinians is a different matter.

The foreign minister has previously stirred controversy with his opposition to the naturalisation of not only the recently arrived Syrian refugees but also the Palestinian refugees who have lived in Lebanon for decades. Bassil is even against allowing Lebanese women to pass on their nationality to their children if they are married to a Palestinian or a Syrian.

While Bassil is an extreme and bigoted example, loving Palestine but disliking the Palestinians is a fairly common dissonance in Lebanon. This is reflected in how angry protesters clashed with riot police outside the American embassy in Beirut, with some denouncing the US as the “enemy of Palestine”.

Meanwhile, nearly half a million registered Palestinian refugees call Lebanon home, many of whom live in poverty and socio-economic marginalisation, excluded from numerous professions, in one of the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, including the infamous Shatila in southern Beirut.

Of course, Lebanon has been a frontline state in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has integrated some Palestinians and its failure to integrate the remainder partly rests on the fear of what this would do to the country’s delicate balance of power, which dangerously and precariously hinges on a sectarian fulcrum. Some Lebanese are opposed to the integration of Palestinians on the grounds that this keeps the Palestinian cause alive, even if it exacts a heavy human cost.

At a rally in Beirut last week, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaking by video link, urged Palestinians to rise up against Israel and vowed that “Jerusalem and Palestine and the Palestinian people and the Palestinian resistance in all its factions” would become his group’s top priority.

One wonders why the Palestinians of Syria were not a priority for Nasrallah, whose militia has been actively supporting the Assad regime in its destruction of Syria, including Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, upon which the regime and its allies have inflicted a cruel siege and fought a number of battles.

Not to be outdone, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to lead Islamic efforts to resist the US move, even hosting a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to prove his point. Calling Israel a “child-murderer state”, Erdoğan pledged to “continue our struggle within law and democracy… Our road map will show that it will not be easy for them to realize their plans.” What Erdoğan failed to mention is that he has almost destroyed Turkey’s democracy and undermined the rule of law through a systematic campaign to jail journalists and critics and to purge the state of opponents and enemies, both real and perceived.

After the summit, Erdoğan pledged to open a Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem. However, he built a cunning escape hatch into his plan by claiming that he could not, for now, open this embassy, because East Jerusalem is under occupation. This sounds like low-risk grandstanding to me, as Turkey already has a consulate in Sheikh Jarrah. He could declare that the embassy, if he really wanted, and hang a sign outside, even if it pissed off the Israelis or led to the Israeli taking action against the consulate-cum-embassy.

The reason Erdoğan talks the walk but does not walk the talk is because of all the Turkish interests at stake. What is also absent from Erdoğan’s inflammatory remarks is that, increasingly isolated like Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, he ratified a lucrative reconciliation deal last year with Israel, the country he accused of infanticide.

While Turkey has longstanding official relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, which severely reprimanded Egypt for its peace deal with Israel and ostensibly upholds the Arab boycott of Israel, is seeking closer ties, not to work towards peace and reconciliation in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to build a mutual alliance against Iran, Riyadh’s belligerent regional rival.

Regardless of which side of the Gulf spat they stand on, much of the Gulf Co-operation Council has been hungrily eyeing Israeli technology, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar all finding covert paths, via middle countries, through which to import Israeli products, including military ones.

This, along with Saudi Arabia’s hatred of Hamas and murderous starvation of Yemen, could explain the muted reaction from Riyadh compared with other Arab and Muslim capitals. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is keen to build an axis of autocrats with wannabe dictator Donald Trump in Washington.

Egypt’s reaction has also been fairly reserved. This is partly because of the mutual appreciation society President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi enjoys with Donald Trump, and partly because Egypt has an ambivalent relationship with the Palestinians.

On the one hand, the Egyptian regime has helped Israel maintain its blockade of Gaza by keeping its Rafah crossing mostly closed and has stoked hatred and fear towards Hamas. On the other hand, Egypt has been a central mediator, though hardly an unbiased broker, in intra-Palestinian efforts to mend bridges, helping clinch the recent reconciliation accord between Fatah and Hamas.

Beyond the regimes, on the street, where outrage is generally more genuine, much of the anger has been on behalf of stones and symbols rather than flesh and blood humans, and has featured a troubling element of religious bigotry.

Over and above the chanting of tired and outdated slogans, there has been little in the way of creative new approaches to break the deadlock and support the Palestinians.

____

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in German in Die Zeit on 14 December 2017.

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Angela Merkel: The ‘Arab’ chancellor

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Monday 25 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

 

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The adventures of Rami and his magic violin

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

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

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

Tuesday 12 September 2017

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

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

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

The sound of music

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

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

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

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

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

The border concerto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A crescendo of memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brother’s sacrifice

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

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

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

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

Farewells and hard roads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answered prayers

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

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

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

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

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

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

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

Musical doors

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

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

“It’s a violin,” Rami replied.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The washing machines ft. Bach

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

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

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

Collateral damage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Bombing ISIS in Syria will not tackle extremism in Brussels

 
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By Khaled Diab

Rather than airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS), Belgium should strike at the root causes of homegrown extremism.

Bruxelles est (Re)belle. Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Bruxelles est (Re)belle.
Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Tuesday 5 April 2016

When we moved from Europe back to the Middle East, some of our Belgian friends who were unfamiliar with the region were worried about us and expressed concern for our safety.

So it felt bizarre that my wife and I found ourselves checking on the well-being of friends in Belgium after the terrorist attacks at Brussels airport and in the capital’s metro system, which claimed at least 31 lives and left another 330 injured, some in critical condition. To add to the irony, colleagues and friends in Gaza, who have more than enough on their plates, contacted my wife to check that her family was all right.

The scenes of the destruction and slaughter seemed almost unreal when juxtaposed against the casual, everyday mundanity with which I have used both hubs over the years. However, although the onslaught was shocking, it was sadly not surprising, especially following the Paris attacks in November of last year. “We feared a terrorist attack, and it occurred,” declared the Belgian premier Charles Michel solemnly.

Brussels is, after all, not only the capital of Belgium, it is also the unofficial capital of the European Union and hosts NATO’s headquarters. It is also home to a pool of disillusioned and marginalised young Muslims who can be preyed upon by jihadist recruiters.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the fear is palpable, even for those who are determined not to allow terror to guide their lives. “It’s not easy not to have fear,” one Belgian admitted to me, “and I try not to fear, just love.”

Belgium’s Muslim minority is not only fearful of the terrorists but also the almost inevitable backlash from the mainstream. “It was always a dream for me to have a [trendy] beard,” recalls Hassan Al Hilou, a 16-year-old Iraqi-Belgian student and entrepreneur who has started up an online platform for youth. “But I am scared of my own hair and scared of my own name.”

Syrian refugees are also feeling the heat. “I have escaped from a war zone and now I am feeling threatened just walking down the street.” one refugee who has received threats was quoted as saying.

In addition to the solidarity, defiance and soul-searching has come the inevitable finger pointing, with reports of suspected intelligence failures and bungling, which prompted Justice Minister Jan Jambon to try to tender his resignation.

However, it is easy to find fault and condemn in hindsight, as happened previously in the United States after the 11 September attacks, or in Paris, London and Madrid, amongst others. But, at the end of the day, even after all the precautions are taken, determined killers will eventually locate a weakness or gap to exploit. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in Belgium’s defence.

Some criticism is also agenda-driven. It seems to have become almost routine for governments and interest groups to seize on every terror attack to roll back civil liberties and trample on our privacy.

The EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove hinted at this in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre when he urged European representatives to “never let a good crisis go to waste”. And true enough, Kerchove pounced on the Brussels bombings to try to blast through controversial legislation on airline passenger data.

This tendency has me and many others who value our hard-won freedoms worried. “We are gradually moving towards a state in which our security will come at a heavy price,” says my friend Jan, despite his concern about extremist activity in his neighbourhood, Molenbeek, an area of Brussels dubbed as “jihad central” by the more sensationalist segments of the media. “I hate the voices who say that it is either freedom or security.”

Just as occurred with the Front National in France following the Paris attacks, the latest atrocities have provided Belgium’s faltering far-right with a surge in support, with its ripple effects empowering everyone from Geert Wilders in neighbouring Holland to Donald Trump across the Atlantic.

The anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang claims that its support has grown by 25% since the attacks while the fringe white supremacist Voorpost says its membership doubled in just three days. Vlaams Belang’s leader Tom Van Grieken has already seized on the opportunity to demand a “water-tight” border policy and the “preventive detention” of known Islamic extremists, which sounds like far-right code for harassing Muslims.

Later, the far-right party went further to demand the reintroduction of the death penalty for Muslim terrorists and their accomplices (but preusambly not for non-Muslim ones) and, like Trump across the Atlantic, the VB wants to ban foreign Muslims from entering Belgium.

But some are hopeful that the combined power of young Muslim and mainstream moderates of the divide can overcome the religious and racial supremacists. “I believe in this generation,” insists Hassan Al Hilou. “We know how to accept everyone and their cultures, how to live together with love and not with hate.”

For its part, the Belgian government immediately unveiled plans to resume airstrikes against ISIS targets, as if bombing Syria or Iraq would somehow de-radicalise extremists in Brussels.

As I’ve argued in before, the government’s fixation on security and the “war on terrorism” diverts vital resources from the policies that would prevent the homegrown terrorist threat, which draws on the alienation, disenchantment, exclusion and marginalisation felt by inner-city Muslim youth, making them softer targets for extremist brainwashing.

The way to deprive jihadist recruiters of a fresh supply of young people willing to die would be to give youth greater reasons to live, by promoting respectful integration and mutual tolerance, as well as investing in education and job creation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in The National on 28 March 2015.

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Syria: Return to a dying land

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

As Europe turns its back on refugees, Syrians who can’t afford the “luxury” of fleeing are making the perilous journey back to their ruined homeland.

Syrian refugees in Turkey cross back into Syria, placing their lives in grave danger. Photo: © Elio Germani

Syrian refugees in Turkey cross back into Syria, placing their lives in grave danger.
Photo: © Elio Germani

Monday 7 March 2016

On the Saturday morning when the ceasefire in Syria came into effect, a weeping woman slowly approached the Turkish-Syrian border crossing Bab al Salama (Oncupinar) near Kilis. She was carrying a little girl, wrapped up in a heavy blanket. For an hour, she begged the Turkish policemen to allow her back into her broken land before she gave up.

Her aim was to take her visibly depleted and painfully pale little girl to the hospital in Azaz, located a mere four kilometres from the border. Yet the Turkish men refused to let her pass. The woman kept crying and stroking the poor girl, who soon passed away in her hands. It was only then that the Turks allowed her to cross the border.

To avoid the possible consequences.

___

Right before the border with Syria, the Turkish army vehicles turned off the main road leading to Aleppo. The blue sky above nearby Azaz was empty, violated neither by Russian jets nor the regime’s bombers. For the moment, it was also clear of Turkish Army artillery fire, which had been inflicting a week’s worth of heavy pummelling on the members of the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG. At the moment, the border into Syria was open only to a number of heavy trucks flying the insignia of various Turkish and Qatari humanitarian organisations. The drivers were frightened. One of the vehicles was filled with bread ovens. Lone refugees or couples were trickling in from the Syrian side, having set off from the refugee camps located between Azaz and the border.

Large bands of refugees were resting on the grassland near the border. The majority of these were really extended families, mostly children, all of them absolutely clueless as to where or whom to turn to next. A few goats and a decrepit-looking horse were grazing close by. The Turkish policemen were simply biding their time, gazing at the sky. From the look of things, accidental visitor could be easily forgiven for failing to notice he or she had just come up on one of the Syrian conflict’s most important frontlines.

“I come from a village north of Aleppo. My youngest daughter was killed last week in a regime air raid. I buried her back home in Syria and then ran away along with the rest of my family. I myself was wounded, too – my head had been hurt,” I was told by a man named Ibrahim, who pointed to the blood-soaked rags on his head. He had received medical assistance in the hospital located in the Turkish town of Kilis, where the population had more than doubled since the beginning of the Syrian war. Over the past five years of armed conflict, the far from affluent Kilis has absorbed more than 120,000 refugees and has done its best to accommodate them in a decent and humane fashion. This is the reason why the town is one of this year’s candidates for the Nobel peace prize.

“They took really good care of me. But now I have to return to the refugee camp on the Syrian side. My entire family is there,” Ibrahim clarified. From his shrapnel-nicked face, it was clear he was lucky to be alive. His humble ambition was somehow to find a place for himself and his family in Turkey, but the chances of that were looking exceedingly grim.

Turkey is hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Last week, 35,000 refugees arrived at the Oncupinar crossing in the space of 48 hours. Suleyman Tapsiz, the local governor on the Turkish side of the border, claims Kilis and the neighbouring towns will not be able to take them in. “Our doors are not closed. But there is no need to let these people into Turkey right now,” he said. Some 140,000 people are currently stuck between Azaz and the border. Should Aleppo fall, which could happen quite soon, at least 600,000 more are expected to bolt for Turkey in a matter of days.

Even a few days ago, it looked like the Turkish army was about to take control of the area between the border crossing and Azaz, thereby preventing the strategically vital town from falling into the hands of the YPG. Without doubt, that would have been a horrendous strategic blunder, triggering a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions. According to our sources, the Turkish government has opted to take “a time out” for now – mostly on account of all the pressure exerted by both the EU and the United States, especially since NATO is as yet unwilling to risk a military showdown with Russia. If the Turkish forces were to take over Azaz, such a showdown would become an inevitability.

The border is still being crossed by humanitarian convoys, merchants, those refugees who can no longer afford to stay in Turkey and members of certain rebel groups supported by Turkey. I managed to talk to some of the fighters who were waiting at the border to be readmitted to Syria. Two of them, both 18, were from the Free Syria Army (FSA), And on their way back to the front north of Aleppo after having spent the previous 10 days in a Turkish hospital. “We are under attack from all sides: ISIS, regime forces, Russian planes, and now the Kurds as well… We are all alone. No help is on the way. But we shall fight until the very end,” I was told by one of these two young fighters, who refused to tell me his name. He did relate that his family was living in Turkey, yet despite all his injuries, his only wish was to return to the frontlines as soon as possible: “My friends are dying. I am fighting for my homeland.”

After the regime’s forces and Russian planes cut off the supply lines to Aleppo, a few hundred members of various Syrian rebel groups entered Syria from Turkey. They have done so with Ankara’s official support. The Turkish authorities are desperately trying to prevent the fall of Azaz because it would mean all the Kurd-dominated areas in the north of Syria would become connected into something resembling a unified whole. In addition, the fall of Azaz would almost certainly spell the fall of Aleppo, the Syrian conflict’s decisive battlefield.

Quite the privilege

On the Turkish side of the border, about a hundred people, mostly civilians, arrived to wait to be readmitted into Syria each day. Many of them are wounded or seriously ill, their lack of funds forcing them to return home after a brief stay in one of the Turkish public hospitals. Most of the ones I talked to were not returning to their homes but rather to some form or another of temporary lodgings. As far as the world’s attention is concerned, the heart-wrenching misery of the people who had lost their homes and remained in Syria is almost forgotten. Yet inside the ransacked land, almost half of the population is currently not living at their normal addresses. These are the people who cannot afford to flee – not even to Turkey, let alone the European Union. One of the great modern ironies is that, in some quarters, being a refugee is now justly considered quite the privilege.

A number of utterly exhausted people were standing in front of the metal-wire barrier on the Turkish side of the border, waiting to be allowed to pass into their homeland. Among them, two glassy-eyed little boys were sitting on the concrete floor. Their heads were seemingly turning uncontrollably, their eyes darting hectically all over the place. It was obvious they had been profoundly traumatised and were in urgent need of medical assistance. All they had on them was one plastic bag each. The others were simply ignoring them.

Mohamed Rahmo and his blinded son, Mustafa, on their way back to Syria. Photo: © Elio Germani

Mohamed Rahmo and his blinded son, Mustafa, on their way back to Syria.
Photo: © Elio Germani

While on the Syrian side more than 100,000 people staying in refugee camps were hoping to be allowed to enter Turkey as soon as possible, a man named Mohamed Rahmo was trying to convince his 16-year-old son to get up and rejoin the line of those waiting to return to Syria. Tears were streaking down Rahmo’s cheeks, yet his son Mustafa remained seated, his gaze aggressively pointed to the ground. He kept hiding his face away from the light.

A little over a month ago, a Russian air raid on their small village north of Aleppo had cost Mustafa his left eye, while the right one has been severely damaged. His entire face was covered in burns. His father decided to take him to Turkey – back then, the border was still open. Mustafa underwent surgery at the public hospital in Gaziantep, but the operation was not a success. Soon after he lost the sight in his right eye as well. His father then took him to a private doctor who told them the only procedure capable of saving the eye would cost $4,000. By then, the two of them were penniless, and their only recourse was to return to Syria.

“We have to get home. I need to take care of my family. The bombing raids have cost us everything we had. Our house is badly damaged. It is so horrible, but there is nothing I can do for Mustafa. We are so poor. We cannot even afford to remain in Turkey. How could we possibly press on to Europe? We cannot afford to buy bread. Yesterday was the last time we had something to eat. We are starving,” Mohamed Rahmo recounted with a heavy heart.

With a visible effort Mustafa finally stood up. Still staring at the ground, he broke into sobs and placed himself in the queue, where most of the people were not at all eager for conversation. They were patiently waiting to be allowed to be readmitted into a war zone.

Neighbouring on ISIS

A concrete wall and a small minefield are what now separates two formerly closely connected towns, the Turkish Karkamis and the Syrian Jarablous. Today, this artificial border is one of the most unusual – and dangerous – ones in the world.

The Syrian side is controlled by ISIS fighters. At the moment, the Islamic State also controls another 50km of the Turkish border stretching westward. As far as Turkey is concerned, this area forms a sort of buffer zone with no armed Syrian Kurdish presence. For some time now, members of the YPG have been trying to gain control of Jarblous, but the town is still firmly controlled by the Sunni extremist militia. The area east of the town, on the other hand, is controlled by the Kurds.

Up until the end of last year, the border was rather peaceful. From 2012 on, a hundred people or more were crossing it daily in both directions without major problems. Many of them were foreign fighters aiming to join the various insurgent groups in the north of Syria. Some of them were certainly crossing the border to join ISIS. The part of the border stretching between Karkamis and Kilis was the most porous segment of the more than 900-km-long border between Turkey and Syria.

The conditions started to deteriorate when Turkey officially entered the war against ISIS. This, it is worth remembering, was after a long period of what some have termed “Turkish active passivity” which enabled the terrorist militia to grow in strength.

It certainly holds true that, for a while, Ankara had found the Islamic State activities quite useful. But then things began to change. A series of suicide bombing attacks came to pass, and the geo-strategic situation grew more complicated as well. Turkey suddenly found itself in a rather unenviable position. At the same time, the Kurdish question was reopened, and in a rather spectacular way.

The Turkish authorities’ first move was to shut the border with Syria, then to send in heavy military reinforcements, while placing kilometres and kilometres of concrete walls and barbed wire along the frontier. As numerous watchtowers rose up to the sky, the closing of the border severely hurt the prospects of the Syrian civilians trying to flee the war crimes perpetrated by all sides. Tens of thousands of people remained trapped on the Syrian side of the border, while some 100,000 Syrians are currently staying at Karkamis and the neighbouring refugee camps.

On the other side of the border, the members of ISIS have set up minefields to shield themselves from any possibility of Turkish incursions. To the Islamic State, Jarablous has become a key strategic operation. The only question is why the almost 70 countries which make up the coalition against ISIS are so reluctant to attack the positions of extreme Islamists around theis small town which has been deserted by most of its civilian population.

At the end of January, Karkamis saw the first direct clash between ISIS and the Turkish state. The ISIS fighters began to fire at the Turkish soldiers who had come to clear the minefield. Several gunshells came crashing down on the small impoverished Turkish town. The Turkish army responded by deploying tanks. A few days later, the Turkish security forces captured a group of people from Jarblous trying to illegally cross the border. They were equipped with suicide-bomber belts and headed for Gaziantep, located about an hour’s drive from the border.

Since then, Karkamis, situated in the immediate vicinity of the Euphrates river, the region’s key water resource, has been plunged into a state of turmoil. The residents live in constant fear of new ISIS attacks and the Syrian war spreading to the Turkish territory. The entire town has become militarised. Police cars are patrolling its every silent and dusty street, and if you are a foreign visitor, your every step is closely monitored if not actively hindered.

Streets apart

“Life here is extremely hard. You have to be on the lookout all the time,” I was told by Merwan Kaya in his small kebab shop. A year ago, Kaya escaped from Jarablous to Karkamis. “You see that street over there? If you were to follow it to the railway station, you would reach the place where my old shop used to be. The spot is precisely 400 meters away from where we are standing now. It’s incredible, isn’t it? When the Islamic State took over Jarablus, things changed. My store was destroyed, and I was forced to flee to Aleppo and then to Karkamis. Now I am a refugee who lives two streets away from his former home.”

As he recounted his tale, Kaya brewed us tea while his two sons prepared the food. There are not very many inns in Karkamis, so the talkative Syrian was quite pleased with his earnings. “Over here, a kebab costs about six times what it costs in Syria,” he laughed, right before answering the phone. The call was from his daughter, checking in after a lengthy period of time. At the moment, she was living in Latakia, a Syrian coastal town and regime fortress.

The streets in the centre of the border town were almost deserted. Up until the fighting broke out, the residents hadn’t really been all that trouble by the ISIS presence only a shot away. Less than 200m now separate the population of Karkamis from the ISIS positions, and many expect their town will become yet another frontline in the Syrian conflict, which is evidently entering its decisive phase.

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Sexual harassment, Islam and the politicisation of women’s bodies

 
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By Khaled Diab

Sexual harassment in Cologne and elsewhere is not about Islam. It is about the patriarchy and the politicisation of women’s bodies.

This offensive cartoon has appeared at Pegida rallies and on T-shirts.

This offensive cartoon has appeared at Pegida rallies and on T-shirts.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon in its latest issue featuring the drowned Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, in which it suggests that, had he lived, the boy would have morphed into a man-ape and become an “ass groper”. This was a crude reference to the shocking spate of robberies and mass sexual assaults of women in Cologne on new year’s eve, which has further fuelled anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment across Europe.

Defenders of the cartoon claim it is a parody that “mirrors racist public discourse” and a “damning indictment of our anti-refugee sentiment.”

As someone who is no stranger to satire and who was outraged by the slaying of Charlie Hebdo staff by Islamist terrorists, I feel these defences give the satirical French magazine too much credit. Even if we were to give it the benefit of the doubt, racists and bigots are likely to take the cartoon – which echoes traditional depictions of blacks as oversexed monkeys – at face value, and use it to confirm their prejudices.

Rather than challenging the growing anti-refugee sentiment, I feel Charlie Hebdo is pandering to it. Social media in Germany and across Europe has been awash with a tidal wave of hate speech against migrants since the Cologne mob attacks, as epitomised by the grotesquely racist “rapeugees” hashtag and the call on Facebook for a “manhunt of foreigners”, which has already claimed casualties.

That is not to say that I do not feel outraged by what happened in Cologne on new year’s eve. So far, nearly 350 women have reported being sexually assaulted by roaming mobs of drunken men, many of whom were described as looking Arab or North African.

The scale and mob nature of these attacks reminds me of Tahrir square, where groups of men would erect a “circle of hell” around female protesters and sexually assault them.

Although a large number of these savage attacks were likely opportunistic, exploiting the confusion of big crowds and the vulnerability of women inside them, others were politically motivated.

Victims accounts and circumstantial evidence suggest that many were likely carried out by the regime’s paid thugs or undercover police to intimidate female protesters, by the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamists, who have a track record of inciting against female protesters, incensed by women acting as equals and demanding equality.

The reactions to these crimes have more often than not also been politicised, with Egyptian society’s most reactionary forces, from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood, trying to capitalise on these tragedies by blaming their political opponents for them.

A similar dynamic has been at play in Germany. The apparently orchestrated nature of the sexual assaults in Cologne suggests that they may have been politically motivated, though for what end or by whom is a mystery.

As if the sexual abuse of the women in Cologne was not enough, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups and politicians have been falling over themselves to politicize their plight.

This political profiteering was on blatant display during a rally organised by the anti-Islam Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident).

“This is Deutschland, not Afghanistan,” opined Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the extremist English Defence League and founder of the European Defence League. “Islam is the cancer and Pegida is the cure.”

What exactly sexual assault and sexual harassment have to do with Islam – or at least any more so than other religions – is unclear. Syrian refugees, for one, do not seem to have read the memo. A group of them produced a flyer addressed to the German public, in which they declaimed: “Our cultural values were trampled by these crimes. Those values include respect for women and men [and] respect for bodily integrity.”

On new year’s eve, one American woman in Cologne was rescued from a mob attempting to assault her by a group of Syrian refugees who set up a protective cordon around her and helped her locate her boyfriend. “The good people, nobody speaks about them,” one of the young woman’s rescuers lamented.

If Islam really were to blame for the Cologne assaults, then you’d expect there to be a clear pattern of sexual harassment across the Arab and Muslim world. But anecdotal evidence suggests that no such pattern exists.

An unscientific survey I conducted of female friends and acquaintances confirmed Egypt and Pakistan as among the worst in the Muslim world, and India topped the non-Muslim league. Meanwhile, the Levant, including Syria before the civil war, was seen as pretty mellow. “I feel a lot more comfortable around 11pm in Manger Square… than I do walking in Cairo during broad daylight,” one friend confessed.

In Egypt, the sexual harassment epidemic is partly a backlash against the gender revolution taking place, in which women are becoming more assertive and unapologetic in their demands for equality, as well as years of denial and the breakdown in law and order.

Interestingly, women living in some Gulf states, such as the UAE and Bahrain, report that the harassment there is minimal. Given their conservative reputation, this would appear to be an anomaly.

However, this conservatism may be part of the reason why their streets are relatively free of sexual harassment. There, the traditional concept of a woman’s “honour” being intertwined with that of her family is still robust. So, rather than gender equality, it is the idea that a woman is some man’s sister, daughter or even mother that holds other men back.

Although less common, this attitude is not unfamiliar in the West. This was demonstrated at the Pegida rally. Not only were the majority of the protesters there men, Tommy Robinson reminded his audience that: “It is the duty of every man to protect their women.”

“When exactly those people who otherwise spend the year telling women that they should button up their blouses suddenly start promoting women’s rights, then it is instrumentalized racism,” wrote Sascha Lobo in Der Spiegel.

Much as we would like to believe that we, in the West, live in some kind of post-patriarchal society of equals, misogyny remains, persistently and infuriatingly, alive and well. And despite all the gender legislation and education, sexual harassment in public is a reality that millions of women on both sides of the Atlantic must live with.

“The place where I have been most harassed is France by non-Arab men,” one well-travelled friend admitted. Another said that harassment was less frequent in Europe than in the Middle East but when it occurred it was “more aggressive or very rude… Harassers have pretty often seemed drunk or high.”

What limited research has been conducted reveals that street harassment is a challenge of global proportions. One study in the United States found that a whopping 87% of American women had been sexually harassed, with half reporting “extreme” harassment. A Europe-wide survey found that one in three women had experienced physical or sexual abuse, with one in 20 reporting they had been raped.

The assaults in Cologne were an extreme and discomfiting public display of this reality, and singling out migrants will not resolve the problem. In addition to better policing, Europeans need to tackle the misogyny and sexism, both amongst minorities and the majority, that give men a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, breed a blame-the-victim culture and provide victims with insufficient emotional and legal support.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 20 January 2016.

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Syrian refugees: The civil rights movement of our time

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

Rather than threatening Europe’s way of life, refugees are, through their struggle, helping to preserve the most precious of European values.

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Monday 16 September 2015

Numerous segments of the mainstream and social media portray the Syrian refugees on their way to Europe as public enemy number one. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Among them, one can easily find highly educated young people, most of them from the urban middle class, their cultural and historical references startlingly close to those of their European counterparts.

If Europe could whip up an iota of empathy or historical recall, these are the sort of people it should be thoroughly identifying with.

It has to be said: during the past few months, these brave and industrious souls have shamed an anaemic, drowsy continent with their courage and their dignity. They have demonstrated the importance and the immense potential of fighting for one’s human rights. With the help of little else than their wits and civil disobedience, they have managed to rattle the Schengen area’s complacency, to thoroughly shake up the Dublin II agreement and to spark a wide-scale public debate. All this, after mustering the gumption to leave their war-torn lands and risk the torturous march to freedom. For all these reasons and plenty more besides, I like to call the men, women and children heading for Fortress Europe the civil rights movement of our time.

On their brave desperate dash for Europe, the refugees are still headed for the Europe of tolerance, dignity and freedom of movement. In reality, this rather threadbare illusion of the Promised Land is increasingly ruled by a scourge of nationalism, xenophobia and open racism. For a long while now, these three blights of the modern and, indeed, any age have remained hidden behind the dangerous mask of political correctness. Now, fuelled by the ruthless opportunism of the paranoid and narcissistic European political elites, they are having one hell of a coming-out party.

While men, women and children are still dying in the Mediterranean – this year alone, the flight to Europe has already claimed 2600 lives, while the decade’s tally is now set at some 23,000 souls – the old continent is visibly caving in to fear. What we are witnessing is an epidemic of terror slowly gearing up for a collective panic attack. So many of the still quite comfortable citizens from Krakow to Newcastle seem positively elated in their dread of all the modern-day barbarian hordes, terrorists, Islamic extremists and generic monsters surging up from the South and the East.

The prevailing discourse – both in public and in private – grows uglier by the hour. It seems these latest developments have finally allowed the far-right to break free of its fetters. The views that, even two years ago, would have seemed batty and deranged are steadily creeping into the dominant narratives of the day. The distance between Europe’s ivory towers and its gutters has never been so small. While every soul still clinging to a shred of decency should be howling with alarm, the heart of Europe is polishing off its jackboots.

Men, women and children who have lost everything in the bloodiest conflict of our time are now being greeted as aggressors. Yet why would Europe, having done nothing to prevent or mitigate the war in Syria, start caring now? After all, the continent – Germany and Sweden serving as commendable exceptions – has already turned its back on the refugees in the early stages of the war, forcing some 4.5 million people to run for the neighbouring countries.

Now that the problem has become too huge to deny, Europe has opted to tackle it with a system of quotas. From the look of things, the individual countries will even be able to choose the refugees they want, evoking the image of a modern-day slave market. The profoundly cynical EU beaureaucrats must have known in advance of the Raft-of-the-Medusa effect this was sure to have on the migrants and refugees on the Greek islands.

In the coming weeks and months, the onrush is only likely to intensify. We are acting as if these men, women and children neither have nor deserve names, faces or any sort of a tolerable future. Even worse: Europe has chosen to treat these individuals pretty much as it does its nuclear waste. It seems as if, for us, collective memory is a luxury well out of reach.

Things are clearly out of control. The refugees who are crossing borders with their babes in their arms, swimming the Mediterranean straits, climbing walls, surviving police violence, protesting Hungary’s cruel and boorish policies to ultimately force the far-right supremo Viktor Orban to start transporting them to the border by bus… Right now, all that makes these brave and resolute men and women the only genuine mass freedom movement of our time. Just as, in the second half of the 1950s, African-Americans fought racial segregation with civil disobedience, protest marches, exemplary internal organisation and solidarity, the Syrian refugees have now taken on the inhuman anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies of the EU. To put it in plainly, they have taken a stand against the racial segregation of our time.

The incomers from Syria are waging one of the most important battles of them all. It is the battle for the survival of the open and humanitarian Europe, indeed its very humanistic foundations. They are persisting in this conflict – which is also being waged for every freedom-loving European’s sake – armed only with their own courage, wits and steely resolution. At root, this is a profoundly revolutionary struggle, and one that actually carries the potential to change the continent for the better.

In 1964, Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This year, my personal favourite by far is the unbroken caravan of Syrian refugees on its freedom-loving march to peace and dignity.

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A utopian refuge for refugees?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Can an Egyptian billionaires vision of turning a Mediterranean island into a just republic for refugees help solve the refugee crisis?

Monday 14 September 2015

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

This verse from the poem by Emma Lazarus titled The New Colossus was not quite the words used by Naguib Sawiris, but it seems to be what he meant. The Egyptian billionaire caused a tempest when he announced his wish to purchase a Mediterranean island – possibly near Rhodes, where the original Colossus stood – to provide shelter for the region’s desperate refugees.

“Greece or Italy sell me an island, I’ll [declare] its independence and host the migrants and provide jobs for them building their new country,” Sawiris tweeted. And this brave, new refugee republic would be named Ilan, the Egyptian tycoon later elaborated, in  honour of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian child whose haunting image shook the world.

With neighbouring countries unable to cope further with the influx of Syrian refugees and wealthy Gulf states doing almost nothing to take them in – while even contributing by proxy to the Syrian refugee crisis and directly in Yemen – Sawiris is the latest entrepreneur to step into the void. One prominent example was Turkey’s yoghurt moghul, Hamdi Ulukaya, who pledged to give away more than half his $1.4 billion fortune to help Kurdish and other refugees.

Sawiris’s proposal resonated so widely because it is an appealing and symbolic notion which tugs at the heartstrings. As untold thousands of refugees take to the sea to escape the shipwreck of failed and failing nation states, Aylan island will provide them with a safe haven from the storm, and a place where they can live in dignity, and not be “treated and used like cattle,” in Sawiris’s word.

The scheme, though extremely costly for the Egyptian billionaire, sounds impressively self-sufficient. Housing, educational and other infrastructure on the uninhabited island would be built, and presumably operated, by the refugees themselves, providing them with a shot at independence and dignity, rather than the marginalisation and unemployment that often greets those fleeing conflict.

Sawiris’s implied faith in the refugees’ abilities, work ethic and potential for productivity is an implicit jab at Europe’s anti-immigrant right, who regard refugees and migrants as  lazy layabouts and a threat to their way of life. It would also help boost Europe’s capacity to absorb refugees by providing it with a purpose-built refuge.

That said, despite the presence of numerous candidate islands and the welcome income to the cash-strapped treasuries of Greece or Italy, it seems unlikely that either country will take enthusiastically to the scheme.

One major stumbling block is the question of sovereignty. Which European country would be willing to cede territory, which would be declared “independent”, to the eccentric scheme of a foreign billionaire?

Even if they were to accept this or were to retain sovereignty, there would be the possible fear that, rather than an alternative for refugees which would sidestep the European mainland, the island would simply become a stepping stone to Europe, rather like the Italian island of Lampedussa or the Greek island of Kos. This would especially be the case if Sawiris’s idealistic project ends up becoming little more than a glorified refugee camp, rather than a utopian republic.

But it is Sawiris’s almost Platonic discourse of  a just republic for refugees that is probably the most appealing to the Arab public’s ear, especially if, against the odds and expectations, this idealised and idyllic oasis can succeed where Arab regimes have failed. In fact, it would be extremely poignant – even poetic – if refugees fleeing murderous dictatorships and blood-thirsty non-state groups managed to construct a functioning and productive society which respects individual freedom and dignity. If successful, I imagine it would attract Arab immigrants, not just refugees.

In addition to the challenge of building an effective society from scratch by truamatised people from diverse backgrounds, one wonders whether Sawiris will have the commitment to carry through such a feat.

It is true that Sawiris was a self-declared supporter (and fairly enthusiastic for a businessman who made the bulk of his fortune under Mubarak) of the 2011 revolution, helping set up the “Council of Wisemen” which was rejected by Egypt’s revolutionary youth.

However, like with many Egyptians, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi spooked him, and the party he established, the Free Egyptians Party, backed Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s campaign for president, despite the clearly undemocratic way al-Sisi had got to where he was and his violent repression of dissent.

This raises the question of whether rich Egyptians and Arabs can help lead their societies down the path to freedom, justice, equality and prosperity.

Some Arab tycoons are joining the growing movement of billionaires committed to philanthropy. For example, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has voiced his intentions to give away his considerable fortune.

Despite the undoubted value of philanthropy and the importance of interclass solidarity, the world’s billionaires are more a part of the problem than the solution, especially when you consider that the richest 1% own more than the rest of the world, and 85 or so billionaires are worth as much, in economic terms, as half of humanity.

This is the case in the Arab world, and perhaps more so. Not only is economic inequality massive, and widening, the region has become a living laboratory for unfettered neo-liberal economics and a stronghold for crony capitalism.

The intimate links, both explicit and implicit, between the business elites, the military and repressive regimes across the region mean that, no matter how well-meaning, the individual efforts of (relatively) enlightened tycoons are no substitute for systematic and fundamental change and reform.

More than greater philanthropy, the Arab world is crying out for greater social democracy, equity, solidarity, welfare systems, education and justice for all.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 7 September 2015.

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