Just one of those unlucky lucky days

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Unlucky days can sometimes turn out to be a different kind of lucky… the tortuous variety.

Thursday 2 November 2017

One recent Saturday, the day after my birthday, as it happens, has officially become my unlucky, lucky day. It started as usual with a breakfast of yoghurt and shouting.

The yoghurt was a prune bifidus-laced concoction (tastier than it sounds) and the shouting was to rouse the pre-teen who was running late for karate practice. Or was it football? I forget which … but I can’t forget what followed.

Practice takes an hour. Just long enough for a run in the nearby forest and a coffee or drink on the terrace outside the club. The run started oddly, as a mobile home tried to park on top of a Mini Cooper. But watching the couple piloting the Belgian-plated behemoth argue about the spatial disconnect between 6m-long vehicles and city parking places gave me time to untangle my earphones and warm up.

Suitably armoured with tunes for the run, I headed off with my keys in one pocket and the music player in the other. The sun was shining. The woods were empty. It was going to be a great day.

I churned through the kilometres and my play-list pretty well, spurning the occasional slow one. As I approached the last bend of my circuit, I began feeling around in my pocket for my keys.

A guy on a dented old Puge moped cruised past carrying a giant smoothie blitzer on a pole (Now duly confirmed as a portable cement mixer!). Odd, I thought. But that little mystery quickly gave way to another much bigger one. One of those ‘Oh shit!’ moments, when you instantly realise you dropped the keys to your life somewhere in the wilderness.

Obviously, with headphones on I didn’t hear them clink to the ground as they fell through a surprisingly large hole in the right pocket of my shorts. The unpleasant task before me was to retrace every step for kilometres! I must have lost them early on the circuit, I concluded, so headed in the same clock-wise direction.

As I was about to disappear into the woods, the putt-putt of the Puge got louder again. The old guy riding it pulled up right next to me, planted his therapeutic shoes on the ground and said in Flemish, “You lost your keys, right!” The confidence of the statement stunned me. Then, before my eyes I saw them, dangling from his gloved fist.

I reached out for them like a child receiving undeserved sweets. He said he’d been riding around looking for the make of car matching the key fob in case I returned to it. As luck would have it, he was just about to give up the search and leave the keys with the police.

How about that for timing? I could have kissed the bloke, but a hand shake and a farewell saw him pedal/scoot off in a puff of blue smoke. This is my unlucky, lucky day I said to myself as I fished around in my other pocket for the tiny iPod that I could still hear in one ear playing an old favourite called ‘You’re in a mess this time’ by Australian band, the Falling Joys.

As the little metal wonder surfaced from the stupidest and deepest of pockets, I stumbled on the curb and dropped it. Did my unlucky luck hold up? Did it land on the grass or the concrete? Did it land face-down or on the metal shell?

Yepp, you guessed it … slap-down on the glass cover, right on the corner of the guttering. Damn it! But, you know what, shattered glass or not it still works fine. So, depending on where you fall on the half-glass full or empty character test, it was not the worst result.

When I got home and showered, life was feeling pretty fortuitous, so I thought it was time to dust off the manuscript and use the positive energy to visualise that final chapter. The words flowed, the plot came together, the planets aligned… until I heard a peep like an injured bird with a mechanical voice box. The screen went blank.

Normally, I’m reasonably anal about backups but with the chaos of the summer months, I quickly discovered the last one was over six weeks ago. My financial files, two days of work on a project due the next day (a paying job), and of course the product of several hours of epiphanous scribbling on the manuscript. All gone.

It was only 4 o’clock and the IT shop in town was still open, so I gathered up the ageing Acer, cables and stuff and high-tailed it down there. First thing the technician asked (Wait for it?) is whether I have a backup. No, I bloody don’t is what I wanted to say, but admitted to being a little out of date with that. The disappointment, for that is what it was, in his eyes was palpable. Another person had failed his ultimate test.

He tried starting it with the battery pack still in. Dead. He tried without the battery pack. Dead. He plugged in his universal power cable thingie to my computer, and I followed his nail-bitten finger as it headed, in slow motion it felt, towards the power button. He held it down for a second or two. I held my breath. A blue light flickered, the electric bird beeped.

Hallelujah, Acer! Another kissing instinct (What was getting into me with all these emotions?) parsed thankfully into a hand-shake and I was out the door with a new cable.

This was truly the unluckiest lucky day I could ever expect to have. I was pinching myself as I fired up the laptop at home, instantly connecting the portable backup drive. Whir, clunk, flash, loading symbols. All good, I dared to hope and then the bird beeped again. Blackness overcame the scene.

By this time, I was beside myself. Straight back into the car and down to the IT shop I headed. The technician went through the same heart-sinking tests, scratched his head a couple of times and called back to his colleague, “You reckon 90 watts is enough for the bits, bells, amp, bobs, volte face…?” and other stuff I didn’t follow. “No, you need the 120 watt unit!”

And just like that, with 120 watts of pure unadulterated torture surging through the Acer and me, the blue light reappeared like a beacon of all things pure and good. I backed up to the cloud all of the stuff I really needed right there in the shop. There was no way I was going to further challenge the kismet-induced power of this very special Saturday, the day after my birthday.

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Greek island teaches Europe how to welcome refugees

 
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Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

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

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 15 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tilos Hospitality Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doing what is normal and what is right”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wills and ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improvised fun

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the ground quakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A whole new circle of hell

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

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

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

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

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The Working Dead

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

Save yourself before the Working Dead consume you!

working-dead2

Friday 21 October 2016

They’re among us

Some named … Cathy, Donald, Robert, Dale, Meredith … Some nameless

They are The Working Dead

Hunched over desks … 9, 10, 11 hours a day

Thick stench of inactivity and wounded ambition

Sustained on routine, machine coffee

Doing just enough most of the time

Little enough some of the time

Never enough at crunch time

Oh, you’ve seen them alright

Shared an office 

Watched them shuffle … 

To the copier, kitchen, smoke room 

You tried to reanimate them

Call them out or cast them out …

Save the team, save the company 

No, forget it … save yourself!

Before The Working Dead consume you

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Don’t get mad, get evidence

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Companies which miss the opportunity to learn from a mistake compound it. For customers, high horses are tempting to ride, vindication is better. 

Wednesday 27 January 2016

These are two obtuse conclusions I reached after a recent experience with me in the protagonist’s role of ‘irate customer’ and the manager of a car rental company reluctantly (it seems) playing the antagonist role.

It started with an e-mail on a Monday morning from the rental company thanking me for my custom but regrettably informing me that I had caused some damage:

Unfortunately, there is a new small¹ damage on the car that was not there before your rental. It is a bump/skratch on the left backdoor, see pictures.

The pictures in question revealed a neatly manicured fingernail pointing to the said scratch/dint. After some choice words and audible huffing, my indignant reaction went as follows:

It’s amazing what you can find if you look close enough, and when the insurance companies are paying […] The fact that you have documented the dents from previous users and not actually repaired them shows that this little extra money spinner will continue until you write off the car after 200,000 km […] I know which rental company to avoid like the plague now. The attendant at the counter was very sweet and I’m sorry that she has to work for such an operation. So, an unpleasant start to the week all round.

I’m not proud of the sniffy tone and it is probably one of those mails you should write because it makes you feel better, then delete because you’ll feel worse for sending it… but (What can I say?) in this case I had to send it, and I didn’t even expect a response, let alone any chance of escaping the fee.

Not long after firing it off, curiosity and the prospect of a 350 euro surcharge got the better of me… I remembered I’d taken photos of the dents pointed out by the attendant when I rented the car and a few when I dropped it off. Maybe they would reveal something, I hoped. The pick-up pictures were at night and there was dew on the car, so the quality was dubious. Still, I thought it was worth a try, and sent ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots to the office manager. Shortly after, I received the following:

I am very sorry that you feel like you do. This is two other pics of the car, you can see the dent, but from another angle and better daylight so that you can see that the dent is on the left back door. But with an mobilecamera and with a Llttle distance, the damage is harder to catch on picture. Also thank you for the pictures you sent, the light is unfortunatly not so good and it is taken quite far from the car.

Salutations say it all

The salutations during the exchanges were firmly on the ‘sincerely indignant’ end of the spectrum, on my part, whilst my antagonist remained polite and mostly apologetic about the surcharge. I was starting to waiver on the scam theory that was running in my head. Maybe it was just over-diligent dent-spotting but I’d have to pay up regardless.

Then it occurred to me that the company had handed me a trump card in the second set of photos. Now I could compare ‘like with like’ on the panel in question. So, I went CSI on the photos and cropped close-ups of the dent they were accusing me of making and the one I had documented at pick-up. It was clear to me that they were the same triangle-shaped mark. My slightly trumpeted mail to the company followed:

I have attached the photo of that piece of damage as a close-up with your colleague’s red nail polish, and you can see that it matches the one you just sent (also attached for the record), especially when you examine the cropped version embedded below. Note the way it comes to a triangular shape on the left and tapers off to the right […] Again, can you please reconsider processing this claim.

An hour passed before a reply came through – the one every frustrated customer wants to receive:

You are absolutely right! […] This is a huge mistake and something I take very seriously. Theese kind of conversations is not exactly anything that I enjoy and nevertheless you as our customer. I am deeply sorry for this mistake. And I am glad that took these photos and I can also use this to show my collegue. I cannot say it too many times that this misstake is extremly serious.

I asked for confirmation that they would not take the additional charge and explained that I understood her predicament. But had I not taken steps to record the state of the vehicle myself, no amount of haughtiness would have gotten me out of paying the fee.

I think the moral to the story, if there needs to be one, is that you can be wrong for the right reasons in business and customers may be willing to forgive you, especially if the circumstances play out in their favour. Of course, the ultimate test of customer relations standing up to a challenge is whether a client is prepared to use the product or service again.

So will I use their service again? Absolutely not. But it’s not really because someone made a mistake or possibly falsely documented damage. It is more because the company is under the impression this is a one-off (or nearly a one-off) and that there are no mitigating circumstances, such as the systematic over-documentation of piddling damage that any rational being would put down to wear and tear, and that the damage is documented in words (a language that the customer might not understand) and not pictorially. Had there been a pictograph of the car in the vehicle condition report, the mismatched information between the physical examination and the documented damage may have been spotted earlier.

And perhaps the last piece of evidence that this is not a ‘learning’ company: the manager blamed the operator for not properly documenting the damage in the first place. And despite heart-felt apologies from the company, there was no offer of compensation or other remedies. For example, I pointed out in one of the first exchanges that I felt they had also unfairly charged me a late pickup fee (an amount that was about 1/3 of the total rental fee) because my flight landed 20 minutes after the cut-off! This would have been a prime opportunity to claw back some credibility by reimbursing that amount. Alas, it was not to be.

I could have got on my high horse and threatened to take the case up the management chain or named and shamed them into submission on social media. In the end, though, all I wanted was to be treated fairly. Sure, the money was quite significant, but perhaps more important was knowing that the care taken in a transaction like this – indeed, in any social exchange like borrowing a book or collaborating on a project – is reciprocated, that there is mutual respect and understanding.

And vindication doesn’t fully cover that. Yes, I proved my case but the best outcome would have been for the company to have recognised that this was likely not a one-off – others have surely fallen foul to the systemic problems but not had the material evidence to prove otherwise. This company has clearly let a learning experience slip through their fingers.

And the lesson for rental car customers? However annoying it is for your travelling companions to wait while you photograph every scratch and panel on the car, their moaning is tolerable in the end when you save a few hundred euros in (potentially) bogus excess fees. Everyone should collect the evidence and hold car rental companies to account. Some good tips and information here.

1. All typos in these exchanges are SIC

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Do the laws of nature apply to your career?

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Just as people reach the very heights of their chosen careers, their job satisfaction begins  to dip. Is this an inevitable law of career physics?

Grafitti inside a church steeple. Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Grafitti inside a church steeple. Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Tuesday 29 September 2015

The unwritten law of a stellar career is that you work hard when you’re young, establish a good reputation and reap the rewards as you climb the ladder. But what happens when the view from high up the ladder starts to get a bit blurry?

At some stage after about 50, a strange phenomenon begins to take hold. Reading goes from being an enjoyable cerebral exercise to an upper body workout as well, as you pump the book in and out to find what seems to be an ever-changing range where the words become clear.

Standing up, once done with ease, becomes a two-step manoeuvre; first you raise yourself, then you wait a second to stop the spinning (that could be a sign to go to the cardiologist as well). And the once simple task of cleaning a gutter becomes a daredevil act as vertigo sets in (something to do with the inner ear, among other things).

Could it be that a career also follows the laws of nature, ageing or mechanical motion?  As you achieve what you set out to do early in your career, the highs and the exhilaration of ‘new’ challenges drop off – unless you’ve been job-hopping for decades or qualify as some kind of workplace adrenaline junkie and always push for the latest, toughest assignments.

Speaking to people who have reached their career Everest – or K2-equivalent – reveals a hidden tyranny of success. The higher they climbed, the further they moved away from what they loved doing the most; the things that drew them to the job in the first place and, no doubt, propelled them on the path to career success.

One medical scientist I spoke to said in the final years of his career – before retiring from a position as head of department – he spent more time dealing with holiday rosters and refereeing staff tiffs than he did looking through his beloved microscope. The rest of the time he dedicated to grant proposals and speaking at conferences. Neither of which were terrible but these tasks didn’t light the same fire in the belly as a discovery in the lab.

A French-speaking engineer I once helped to improve his English presentation skills – after his company was taken over by an American one – once confided that he still yearned for the days when he managed the factory floor. His intimate understanding of the production processes, combined with people skills and aptitude for figures, made him an ideal upper-management candidate in industry. He took every promotion he was offered and valued the challenge of leadership roles. But – and this is a big ‘but’ that comes later in a career – deep down it wasn’t really what he loved doing.

For some jobs, or perhaps the people in them, the true height of their career may not be the wrung in the ladder that delivers the best views. Of course, the decision to take promotions is theirs, and they have to own that. But the irony – wrapped inside an enigma – is that the majority of people only discover this ‘viewpoint’ after climbing to a dizzy height.

But there is another law of nature that everyone knows; what goes up must come down. So, whether by choice (step down), failure to continue performing (demoted or sacked) or simply holding on tight (pension time), there is at least one certainty in every career.

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One year on: Gaza’s hidden psychological ruins

 
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By Khaled Diab

It is not just the landscape that is scarred and devastated, Gaza is an emotional and mental wreck teetering on the verge of psychological ruin.

Gaza is on the verge of psychological ruin. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Gaza is on the verge of psychological ruin. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 8 July 2015

At the Erez crossing.  Photo: ©Khaled Diab

At the Erez crossing. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Entering Gaza feels a little like infiltrating the world’s largest maximum security facility, home to 1.8 million inmates, living on 360 km² of land.

On the Israeli side of the high wall surrounding the imposing Erez crossing, there is a large field of magnificent sunflowers, which looks out of place in these bleak surroundings.

Small, impoverished, overcrowded and trapped between the deep blue sea and the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, Gaza is a stifling and suffocating place. Already confronted with a severe housing shortage before the Israeli military offensive in 2014, the displaced live in whatever available spaces there are: UNRWA schools, tents, heat-intensifying tinplate or zinc containers, with extended family and even in damaged buildings.

With reconstruction work stalled for lack of materials and funds, the deep scars left on the landscape by last summer’s brutal war have not even begun to heal. Almost everywhere you go, the remains and ruins of war are visible, even in Gaza city’s only upmarket neighbourhood, al-Rimal.

Posing in Shuja’iyya. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Shuja’iyya, which was flattened by Israeli forces and became an icon of the war, is still largely a rubble-strewn crater, where the skeleton of the odd building still stands drunkenly like a fallen house of cards. Bulldozers slowly remove the traces of destruction and young children play in the newly vacated spaces, asking us to take their photos.

Given the many rounds of destruction Gaza has endured, there is a sort of geology of devastation. The oldest artefact is the short-lived but once-gleaming Yasser Arafat International Airport. But like Palestinian dreams of freedom and independence, its Andalusian arches lie in ruins. Now a grazing ground for camels, this locked gateway to the world is a poignant symbol of Gaza’s current siege.

However, it is not just the landscape and architecture that are scarred and devastated, psychologically, Gaza is an emotional and mental wreck. “There is a high level of psychological pressure in the Gaza strip,” Hasan Zeyada, a veteran psychologist at the pioneering Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), told me.

Gaza airport, a grazing ground for camels. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Gaza airport, a grazing ground for camels. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

On the surface, Gazans exhibit remarkable fortitude. But scratch a little deeper beneath the smiling, welcoming facades and you quickly find bubbling despair and overwhelming distress afflicting every segment of society.  “This is no life. No-one cares about us,” confessed Samer, a teenager forced to collect and sell rubble to help his now-homeless family.

With large families the norm, people seek whatever escape they can. Gaza’s teeming beaches are popular day and night, even in areas where raw sewage flows straight into the sea. “We go to sleep, we wake up, we take walks on the beach – we fill the time,” says unemployed graduate Saleh Ashour, 24, describing a typical day.

Everywhere you turn, there are many, many children, but few genuine childhoods are visible. With the exception of flashy, brightly lit toy cars on the beach promenade and a few makeshift football pitches, there is little in the way of child’s play, but a rising amount of child labour. And these poor young souls, who make up the majority of Gaza’s population, are the most vulnerable psychologically. “Children are the most sensitive group and they are the most likely to be affected by the socio-political reality,” explains Zeyada.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

And the trauma some have endured could buckle the toughest adult’s shoulders. Take Reda, 15, who lost her mother, a number of siblings and members of her extended family during an Israeli airstrike. Now she must care for her father and surviving siblings, while clinging desperately on to the memory of her mother. “My mum was my friend… I feel that she is talking to me,” the girl, who has shed 8kg since then, her appetite drained by dreams of eating the pizza her mother was preparing when disaster struck, told al-Mizan, a Gaza-based human rights organisation.

The trauma of loss has been tough on the adult population too. “I lost Arwa, the apple of my heart,” confesses Hamida, whose favourite niece perished with 18 other members of her family. “When I used to visit her, her smile would precede her and she would open her arms wide to hug me… Her drawings were so beautiful. I wish one had survived.”

But it is not just the trauma of war and the loss of loved ones which afflicts Gaza’s adult population. With unemployment at 44% (60% for youth), GDP at a quarter of what it would be without the blockade and real per-capita income a fifth of what it was two decades ago, according to the World Bank, the psychological impact of Gaza’s prolonged isolation is immense.

“The whole of life in Gaza is in a state of deterioration. There is no stability for anyone,” describes Hasan Zeyada.

“Gaza has endured multiple losses, what we call multi-traumatic losses,” elaborates Zeyada, who became the patient as well as the doctor when he lost his mother and five other close family members during an Israeli airstrike. “People in other places usually endure a single loss: the loss of a home, or a family member, or a job. Many Gazans have lost them all.”

This prolonged and continuing stress and trauma have resulted in a growing plethora of psychological difficulties. These include low self-esteem, self-blame, displacement of anger, anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorders, mood swings and full blown depression.

Displaced feelings of anger and frustration have also led to a growing level of domestic violence and more aggressive public behaviour, notes Zeyada.

“I’m sitting around, and this guy’s sitting around, and that guy. We’ve all had it up to here,” says Saleh Ashour. “If someone comes and cracks a joke with me, I find I get all serious with him.”

Faced with this economic, social and psychological wasteland, large swathes of Gazan society are possessed with the overwhelming urge to take flight and escape. “If they open up the crossing and give us opportunities to emigrate, not a single young person would remain in Gaza, not even those with jobs,” said unemployed graduate Amer Teemah, 24. And true enough, even successful Gazan academics and journalists I met want to leave, temporarily, they say, but they fear they may decide never to return.

Teeman and his lifelong friend, Ashour, paid $3,500 each to smugglers to get them to Europe, but failed.

“You are condemned to be a failure before you can even start,” says a crest-fallen Teemah, who has no clue what to do now that his outlandish plans to build a new life in another land have failed, and only landed him in debt.

Despite the immense emotional and psychological strain, Gazans are remarkably tough and resilient survivors. Thousands continue to work, despite not having received a salary in months, and there is an air of relative law and order, considering the dire circumstances.

But if the status quo continues, Gaza faces the prospect of total psychological ruin, with unforeseeable consequences. Ultimately, Gaza’s psychological and emotional malaise is of an entirely manmade nature. “Many of the psychological problems in Gaza are reactive. They are a reaction to the present situation,” observes Hasan Zeyada. “That means that mental health in Gaza is connected to the political reality.”

Gaza’s cure lies in Israel and Egypt’s hands, who need to urgently seek counselling regarding their irrational paranoia towards the Strip. Catastrophe can be averted if the blockade is lifted, which will provide the Gazan population with what it desperately misses the most: hope for the future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 13 June 2015.

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ISIS’s war on women in Mosul

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

Before ISIS began targeting Iraq’s minorities and cultural heritage, it set to work veiling women in a new dark age, reversing decades of hard-won gains.

Despite ISIS' attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Despite ISIS’ attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

When I was growing up, the women of Mosul had the freedom to pursue whatever path they chose to follow. They had the right to work, study and dress as they desire. Women were empowered participants in the community. Growing up during the early 1980s in Mosul, I witnessed the freedom women had. Perhaps it was less than in the 1960s and 1970s, but certainly more than the current sorry situation. I was surrounded by female relatives who all worked after completing their university degrees. They drove cars, went out and travelled abroad alone and refused to get married, preferring the single independent lifestyle. Even at home, when I opened my eyes to the world, I saw my mother going to work everyday as a teacher. The stay-at-home woman was an alien concept to me as a child, and I assumed everyone had to go to work.

Mosul, unlike other Iraqi cities, was a blend of conservatism, tradition and modernity, a balance between the fairly modern and free Baghdad and Basra, and the strict and conservative Najaf and Karbala. Nevertheless, in all the years I spent in Mosul, I came across only one woman who wore a headscarf, one of my primary school teachers. I’m not sure whether the absence of the veil was down to Iraq’s secular rule or whether it reflected a more confident society not yet torn apart by economic sanctions, wars, occupation and sectarianism – all of which are contributing factors to the social change that began to take place in Mosul even before the ISIS invasion.

During the 1960s and 1970s, women were free to wear trousers, mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses. By the 1980s, this was beginning to change, and Mouslawi society started to be critical of such styles. Not everyone complied with the new conservative mores and some carried on wearing what they wanted but most decided not to become the talk of the town.

Just as the Islamic State (ISIS) has striven to destroy Mosul’s heritage and cultural diversity, the group has been working to devastate the position of women. Before the jihadist group began demolishing places of worship and archaeological landmarks, and before they started their campaign of ethnic cleansing, it issued new rules for women to follow, including a repressive dress code. ISIS recently imposed further restrictions on what women are allowed to wear – the new “Law” demands that women wear an almost tent-like cape which covers them from their eyes to their feet. There have even been reports of women falling and fracturing their legs as they struggle to walk in such attire.

Such codified restrictions were alien to a society where the long struggle for female emancipation scored many notable victories.  Iraq has always been at the forefront of female emancipation in the Arab world, with a wealth of famous women who have left a mark not only on Iraq’s history but on the world stage too. Figures like the writer and traveller Maria Theresa Asmar, who wrote a book in the early 19th century describing her travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Armenian-Iraqi Beatrice Ohanessian was Iraq’s first concert pianist and one of the few women to become a director of the Piano Department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Other prominent Iraqi women include Nazik Al-Malaika, considered by many to be one of the most influential contemporary Iraqi poets who was the first poet to use free verse in Arabic, Zaha Hadid, the renowned international architect, who is in fact originally from Mosul, and many more.

It seems ironic today that Iraq in the 1950s had the first female cabinet minister in the Arab region.  This remarkable woman, Naziha al-Dulaimi, was probably one of the most respected and recognised Iraqi women. An early pioneer of the Iraqi feminist movement and co-founder and first president of the Iraqi Women’s League, she studied medicine at the Royal College of Medicine in Baghdad and, at the age of 19, she was one of few female students at the Medical College. During her government career, al-Dulaimi was instrumental in turning the vast slums of eastern Baghdad into a massive social housing project and helped author the secular 1959 Civil Affairs Law, which was way ahead of its time in liberalising marriage and inheritance laws to the advantage of Iraqi women. She was also a prominent member of the international feminist movement and an active participant in the Iraqi and world peace movements.

It is hard to imagine how a country that has made such progress can be expected to to return the dark ages where women who do not meet ISIS’s requirements are often sold into slavery or forced to marry one of its fighters. The rest of the women who are not targeted for sexual/slave trade are segregated from men in all aspects of daily life.

Anyone who contravenes ISIS’s draconian rules faces heavy repercussions, but some locals are defiant, despite the risks. One friend witnessed a so-called “hisbah” patrol stop a woman who was with her husband because she was not wearing the “right” clothes. Within minutes, an ISIS member raised his baton to strike the woman when, in a fit of rage, the husband shouted: “In ten years of marriage, I have never lifted a finger against my wife. Do you think I will allow a fanatical foreigner to degrade and hit her?” The man my friend witnessed wrestled the baton out of the patrolman’s hand and started beating him with it.

To avoid such situations, many women have opted to stay at home and not venture outside or go to work. But not everyone can afford this luxury, especially with the soaring cost of living. Even girls as young as 11 cannot escape these draconian rules. Fearing for their daughters’ safety, many families have kept girls home from their schools and universities. One mother had no choice but to stop her 14-year-old daughter from attending school after an ISIS patrol stopped the chauffer-driven car that was taking the girl and her younger brother to their school demanding to know why the girl’s eyes were not covered. Apparently, the fact that her entire face was veiled was not enough. When the ISIS militant started to question the girl as to why she was out with “strange men”, the driver explained that the young boy was her brother, which provoked the patrol to ask who the chauffer was. By this point, the girl was so scared that she lied and said he was her uncle. The girl was so frightened that she told her mother she never wanted to leave the house again, even though she had been defying her parents to pursue her education despite the ISIS presence.

ISIS members have also prohibited female students from attending classes because their attire was considered “un-Islamic”. The only accepted attire for female students is the one-piece black burqa. And it is not just girls who are dropping out in large numbers. Boys reportedly are too.

It should be pointed out that there is significant local divergence within Mosul, in terms of rules, and how strictly or leniently they are applied, which often depends on the ISIS militants in the area. “I witnessed several women in the market areas without niqabs,” one local said. “[This] appears to be a change in strategy following a number of attacks perpetrated by disguised men in niqab.”

Iraqis, particularly women, are resilient and adaptable. Iraqi womenhad to endure years of wars without a man in the house, as often they were on the battlefield and many never came back. Women also had to improvise throughout the long years of sanctions to ensure their children and loved ones got fed. With the arrival of the US invasion, women faced a new challenge of protecting their family from foreign invaders. Similarly, despite all the atrocities and savage acts ISIS commits, people try to get on with life in Mosul. Women still go out – provided they are covered from head to toe – they drive to work (though at work they are segregated from men) visit each other and go to the shops. Beauty parlours and hair salons have been banned, and various cosmetic and hair products are no longer sold in shops, driving women to find alternatives when caring for their appearance. Despite the restrictions, three weddings took place last month, two of which were hosted by my old neighbours in Mosul. And that is the contradictory nature of the city, while some women are fleeing, others are being defiantly normal.

There have been reports of public executions of women, notably ones who were politically active. For example, two former candidates for the Iraqi parliament – Ibtisam Ali Jarjis on the Watanya list and Miran Ghazi, who was a candidate for Arab List – were sentenced to death by ISIS’s Sharia court.

According to officials from Mosul, the two candidates had repented in one of the ISIS mosques in Mosul to spare their lives, but the Islamic judge overruled their repentance and the two women were re-arrested. Isis militants also publicly executed Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, a leading lawyer and human rights activist, after she was seized from her home for allegedly “abandoning Islam”, whereas in actual fact her kidnapping took place after she had posted messages on Facebook that were critical of the militants’ destruction of religious sites in Mosul. The militants then tortured al-Nuaimi for five days before killing her. Al-Nuaimi left behind a husband and three children. There are many more tales of women being publicly executed, such as the three female doctors who refused to treat ISIS militants. ISIS militants recently paraded two sisters and a man who were accused of adultery before stoning them to death.

Life under ISIS for the women of Mosul is unprecedented in Iraq’s modern history. But tough, patient and resilient as they are, these women will continue to resist.

 

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Part III: The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

____

* The author’s name is a pseudonym.

 

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Egypt’s other revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

Revolutionary disappointment in Egypt has concealed the ongoing social revolution whose shifting sands are likely to result in a political earthquake.

Women are at the vanguard of efforts to subvert the established social order.

Women are at the vanguard of efforts to subvert the established social order.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

The fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution “brings back memories of what might have been,” a relative of mine remarked.

And for those who were there, on Tahrir Square and in pretty much every town and village across the country, those memories are precious and magical. “I’m proud. We did good, we did right,” said a friend who was active in the 2011 uprising. “True, we lost [and] the villains are back in power… but we were right, and we tried.”

At the time, Egyptians discovered their latent and long-dormant power to rock the president’s throne and unseat the pharaoh – all in just 18 days. In addition  to elation and euphoria, this led to a sense of near-invincibility, that the revolution could surmount any obstacle and transform Egypt into a vibrant, free and equitable society.

In light of the brutal and deadly efficiency of the counterrevolution, four years on, even the most optimistic are disillusioned and disenchanted, with people I know calling it the “cruelest joke”. Some even wonder whether the revolution was just a mirage, an illusionary oasis for the thirsty millions stumbling through Egypt’s dry desert of oppression.

But the political revolution was real, though it has been derailed and delayed, and I am convinced it is not over, not by a long shot, but it, like its French predecessor and others, will be a multi-generational project.

This is because, despite popular belief, the issues are not just political – they are social, economic and cultural too. Ever since the start of the revolution, I have warned that we must curb our enthusiasm because the uprising would not succeed without an accompanying social revolution, without the unseating of Egypt’s million “mini-Mubaraks” stifling society and without addressing the country’s centuries-old leadership vacuum.

And even at a time when the political revolution is fatally wounded, the social revolution, largely unnoticed and unappreciated, is, at many levels, in full swing. One area where revolutionary socio-economic change is visible is the organised labour movement.

The uprising of Egyptian workers actually predated the revolt in 2011 by a few years. In addition, Egypt’s independent unions, despite the attention lavished on middle-class youth activists, played a pivotal role in the revolution, organising thousands of strikes and mobilising workers.

Moreover, the al-Sisi regime’s efforts to contain and break the labour movement, and to co-opt some union leaders, have not succeeded. In 2014, despite the controversial anti-protest law, understated official figures show that Egypt witnessed 287 strikes, with independent estimates suggesting that the country was shaken by 2,274 incidents of industrial action. And continued failure to tackle this economic bottom line could well prove to be the current regime’s undoing.

Beyond Egypt’s workers, another long-marginalised group, which constitutes half of society, has also been up in arms. Tired of generations of having their rights deferred in the service of this or that greater cause, women are actively and muscularly agitating for change, both collectively and individually.

In a phenomenon I call Egypt’s “underground sisterhood”, women are fighting Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic, including support networks, challenging the social stigma associated with being single, and even struggling to become mosque preachers, not to mention the growing number of “feminist” men, even from traditional backgrounds.

In addition to the huge ranks of women involved in every line of activism, this is reflected in the rising number of women rejecting the hijab or headscarfed women choosing lifestyles previously associated with their “liberal” sisters, as well as those who break away from convention by living alone. Then there are the women intruding on traditional male domains, such as the traditional men-only tea houses, and even the iconic photograph of a public kiss between a girl in a hijab and her boyfriend.

Despite the risks involved, even previously unrecognised minorities, such as atheists, are beginning to demand attention and rights.

While the social ground shifts and quakes, political activists are digging in for the long haul and trying to learn from their mistakes. “That’s our homework: to prepare a substitute,” Mohamed Nabil, a leader in the now-banned 6 April Youth Movement, was quoted as saying. “At the end al-Sisi is lying, and the Egyptian people will react. You never know when.”

In fact, I sense that al-Sisi may find himself unwittingly presiding over Egypt’s transition to democracy. This is not because the Egyptian president is ready for democracy – none of them have been – but Egypt will be.

With the social ground rumbling beneath his feet and oppositions forces regrouping despite the repression, al-Sisi will eventually find himself faced with a stark choice: reform or perish. Given the weakness of the state and the fact that the repression machine is already working at full throttle, pragmatism and self-preservation would require al-Sisi to recognise Egypt’s pluralism and make major concessions.

Failure to reform could, at best, spark a third revolutionary wave or, at worst, push Egypt off the cliff into the abyss of full-out civil conflict. Today, as in 2011, the answer to Egypt’s woes remains freedom, democracy, and socio-economic justice.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 24 January 2015.

 

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A graceful exit?

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

Exit interviews are ‘in’, but how trustworthy are they in today’s tough market? Is it like forced confession or can it ensure knowledge transfer?

Thursday 15 August 2013

Contracts are harder to come by so companies are downsizing like they’ve got a wasting disease in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. In their haste to save the company’s arse – and often their own – managers are falling into the ‘restructuring trap’ … not securing knowledge transfer and not learning from their mistakes.

Sure, exit interviews come highly recommended to staunch the knowledge loss, but how reliable are they when you consider the person being interviewed has just been told to pack his bags? Isn’t it like a forced confession? Don’t psychologists say our instinct is to mentally burn what we leave to justify our onward journey? Surely that is why we have evolved so well.

And what does a company’s failure to implement exit interviews say about its attitude to staff… or indeed its overall management competence? Interviewing a departing colleague makes good business sense. You can learn what works and what doesn’t in the company; and perhaps more to the point who works well and who doesn’t. Because the chances are that someone left behind will have to pick up the work of the departing colleague – unless of course they really were useless or cruising.

But even then you can learn something: how did they manage to keep under the radar, and does this mask a systemic problem which could explain the drop-off in business? Is their supervisor really on the ball? Does management understand how to win business in tougher economic climes?

There are reasons why companies baulk at looking too closely in the mirror. They could argue the cost of exit interviews during a period of ‘restructuring’ can’t be justified. But this rationalisation most likely masks a deeper problem – failing to implement robust human resource management practices (hiring, training and firing) – which may also reflect on the ‘no-one is indispensable’ corporate culture.

Companies, or indeed their agents (the managers) are also shy about being exposed to criticism, especially during times when it seems almost everyone is under scrutiny. Like this, the ‘honest feedback’ may shine a light on some poor decision-making made at all levels of the company. The default reaction: “Let’s not look too closely, shall we?” or “Let’s blame this person because they’ve already gone, and leave it at that!”

But this attitude misses the point of restructuring, and failure to implement exit interviews misses an even more valuable opportunity not only to learn something new about the company to improve its performance, but also the chance to send out ‘peaceful emissaries’ to the business world. Retrenched or fired staff members may have unflattering things to say about their previous employer. An exit interview gives the employee an opportunity to air their views, to feel their contribution amounted to something. For the company, it’s the last chance to make peace with the departing member of the team, sending them away with more positive impressions.

There is also the matter of what goes around comes around. Many companies operate in a relatively small marketplace and the chances of coming across the employee in another company, as supplier (or even client) are quite high. This works both ways, too.

The writers at Businessballs.com put this quite well: “The adage about treating people well on your way up because you might meet them on the way down applies just as well to on your way out.” So they advise departing staff to approach an exit interview, if it is offered, in a positive way: “Recrimination, blame, revenge and spite are destructive feelings and behaviours so resist any temptation you might have to go out with all guns blazing.” Nice visual.

Talent out the door

There is also the risk that during a rather radical staff-letting exercise a company may have misread where its true strengths lie, or indeed who its true talents are. A decision to let a whole department go which is no longer considered critical to the business – i.e. only making a ‘non-billable’ contribution to the company – can be risky when individuals in that department are rising talents, or already very accomplished. What happens to these skills? The competitors get them.

Forbes writer Mike Myatt highlights the pitfalls of failing to identify and nurture top talent in a company. “Few things are as costly and disruptive as unexpected talent departures,” he says. He questions the culture of a company that doesn’t see the signs of disenfranchisement. And arguably worse still, actively pushes the talent out.

People leave a company (not sacked) mainly because they feel under-appreciated and disconnected. More than 40%, according to the Forbes story, don’t respect the person they report to and around half say their values are different to their employer’s. Some two-thirds don’t feel their career goals are aligned with the company’s plans, and more than 70% feel undervalued and under-appreciated.

Myatt provides a litany of reasons which could explain how talent slips away from a company including: a failure to fire up their passions, challenge their intellect and engage their creativity; not developing on their skills or giving them a voice; providing insufficient support and care; weak leadership and not recognising their contribution to the company; and not delegating responsibility or securing their commitment.

Even in tough economic times when lay-offs are unavoidable and perhaps justifiable, there is always a good case for carrying out what needs to be done with professionalism and respect. The benefits far outweigh the costs, regardless of what the balance sheets say in the short term. Business is – or at least should be – a long-term investment, and that goes for the handling of staff as well.

Equally, parting employees – regardless of their talent or whether they had a choice – also have a unique chance to exit with grace and dignity. Who knows, they may find themselves back in the same office when business picks up again.

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Greece and the euro – a Trojan tragedy

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The Greeks are putting a new spin on the legend of Troy by snubbing the fattest gift horse they’re likely to get from the weary euro club.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Violence continues to rock the streets of Athens, as anti-austerity protestors vent their anger at what unions see as meddling outsiders “covertly abolishing or eroding democracy and national sovereignty” in Greece.

Last week, the unions called a 48-hour strike – the latest in a series of anti-austerity actions which have taken place since the European Union and International Monetary Fund began bailouts in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 – and sporadic violence erupted as some 10,000 unionists rallied around Greece’s Parliament, where leaders are meeting to thrash out the terms of the next installments.

“The tombstone of Greek society” is how trade unionists in Greece describe the €3.2 billion in cuts needed this time to save the country from sliding into the Aegean.

For several weeks, the right-wing Laos party has been deliberately blocking the austerity package – a move many predict could see the country fail to secure the new €130 billion EU-IMF bailout needed to stave off imminent default on Greece’s sovereign debt. Then last week, Laos promptly quit the new coalition government altogether.

Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a technocrat recently chosen to lead Greece out of this mess, still has a majority in the Parliament. But as talks heated up in Brussels last week, euro-club finance ministers insisted all of the main parties – including Laos – will have to sign a pledge to respect the latest round of austerity measures after elections in April.

Greece’s position in the euro zone is very much under threat – rightly so, in my view. Yet despite his party’s clear distaste for outside intervention, Laos leader Georgios Karatzaferis said Greece should remain in the euro, like it was some kind of ancient privilege that does not involve duties too, but not “under the German boot”. “I am very disturbed not by the sacrifices we have to make, but from the humiliation of Greece. They have stolen our dignity,” he asserted.

So, while the rest of troubled euro zone countries tighten their belts, commit to work harder and dig ever-deeper into their pockets to pay for Greece’s profligacy, we should feel sorry for the Athenians who are feeling humiliated. That kind of farce is worthy of Greek tragedy, no doubt.

Just to put Greece’s waste, graft and work ethic into perspective, the latest figures fresh from the Greek finance ministry show that the government has managed to collect only 1% of the €8.6 billion in tax penalties issued over the past two years.  According to media reports, had the government managed to collect even a third of the fines, the new austerity package may not have been needed.

The European Commission is starting to talk tough, hinting in statements last week that it could absorb the impacts of a Greek default and departure from the euro zone. A Commission spokesman said on 10 February that the increased presence of EU and national experts in Greece leading up to the next possible tranche is part of the new bailout deal, helping the government do what the rest of Europe manages to do – collect taxes.

It doesn’t seem to matter how much money and concessions you throw Greece’s way. The ‘good money after bad’ adage keeps bubbling up. Only a few months ago, EU and IMF leaders put an astounding deal on the table for Greece. Under intense pressure from world leaders fearing that an imminent Greek debt default would sink the whole euro zone, member states and banks agreed to wipe 50% off current obligations.

That’s like borrowing a €100,000 to extend your house or expand you business, and then being told: “Don’t worry, you only have to pay half back!” What kind of message does that send to Greeks who already appear to have a distorted understanding of the connection between saving, spending, borrowing and other such financial fundamentals?

And what does it say to other EU members, many of them newly entering the euro zone and some struggling with their own debt demons? No doubt the Hungarians who are having to pay back huge loans taken out in Swiss francs when the euro was strong, would like a piece of that action. So, too, would the Slovaks who earn considerably less than the Greeks and had to make many concessions to enter the euro under what now seems like a fading hope that it would improve their lives.

So, are the Greeks delighted that the rest of Europe is chipping in to help them out? Apparently not. Their pride is hurt, and they don’t like what the gift horse comes saddled with … “austerity measures”, unpopular measures that many other Europeans are also having to endure, despite the social unrest and anger they unleash.

According to the UK’s Guardian, around the time of the last bail-out, some 60% of Greeks thought the European deal was bad for the country. “In most polls, voters have voiced their support for remaining part of the euro, but have increasingly vented their frustration at austerity measures,” the paper noted. “Cuts in the bloated public sector, reductions in pay and pensions, new taxes and privatisations of airports, state lotteries, the Greek water supply and the postal service are part of the deal agreed.”

Fat chance of that happening while Greece remains hooked up to life support. It’s time to switch off the machine. Let Greece regain its pride without the euro and all these Olympic coaches teaching it how to tread water.

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