The Children of the Revolution

I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows,
all the brave young men
they’re waiting now to see a signal
which some killer will be lighting for pay.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,
you whom I cannot betray.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

The Syrian civil war broke lose in March 2011, two months after the events in Tahrir Square, and one month after the fall of Mubarak.

Amidst the tumult and media hype of the Arab Spring, it was as if the distant drums had suddenly hit the volume switch. In the dusty border town  of Dara’a, just north of Jordan, local kids wrote on a wall: “The people want the regime to fall”. The words had been repeated from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain. It was the cry of the revolution. The local governor decided to come down hard. The young people, all under 17, were thrown in jail. The punishment stunned the town, and suddenly, Syria, progressive, diverse, proud, beautiful, but authoritarian Syria greeted the misnamed Arab Spring.

The young men’s families and friends weren’t having any of it. It is said that in broad daylight, dozens of young men pelted a poster of a smiling President Bashar Assad; a statue of the Bashar’s  late father and predecessor Hafiz Assad was demolished; and official buildings, including the HQ of ruling Ba’ath Party’ and the governor’s office, were destroyed. “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” hundreds of men chanted in shaky mobile-phone footage.

Over that weekend, security forces opened fire on marchers. This was the regime’s well tried negotiating technique. But Assad responded immediately, sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead. The governor was sacked, and the boys released.

So far, so “I mentioned the war but I think I got away with it” But the die had been cast. The demonstrators made demands the regime was unwilling or unable to meet. And the rest is tragedy.

I am not about to retell the story of the Syrian revolution. It is still being written, and as yet, there is no ending. Only more blood. As I write, well over three hundred thousand souls have perished (soon, it will overtake the butchers bill of the Spanish and American Civil Wars), and tens of thousands have disappeared into prisons and oubliez. Millions have been displaced within the country; millions have sought shelter in neighbouring countries; and at least eight hundred thousand have taken to the roads of Central Europe.

But I will quixotically hark back to just before events reached the fork in the road, to when there was an outside chance that Syria could avoid the chaos and carnage that was besetting other children of an Arab Spring that was turning into a bitter winter.

Back to the days before The Fall when pundits were asking whether Bashar would be Hammersmith Man, reflecting his former career as a successful ophthalmologist in London, and his glamorous, cosmopolitan, former merchant banker wife, or Hama Man, recalling his father’s crackdown on an Islamist rising in Hama in 1982, in which uncounted tens of thousand are believed to have perished. We discovered very soon whom he was destined to become.

To the days before The Fall, before the revolution became weaponized and islamized, and demonstrators danced together in the streets, earning the intifada the short lived sobriquet ‘the Dabke Revolution’, named for the circle folk dance popular throughout the Middle East and the Balkans.

image

The days before the slaughters began. First by the forces of regime, led by Bashar’s brutal brother Maher and his notorious Fourth Armoured Division. Then by the thuggish Alawi militia – the Shabiha, or “ghosts” or “shadows”, a double-edged meaning alluding to their underworld origin and methods, and also to the fact that they literally turned people into ghosts. And then, in reciprocal ferocity, by opposition militias that grew and proliferated, fought and died, divided, and divided again, and embraced a jihadi creed, sowing the dragon’s teeth that evolved into Jabhat an Nusra and Da’esh.

The days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. When the picture that is the featured image of this blog was first published in Al Jazeera in early 2011, I was both enchanted and inspired. I immediately started using it, with acknowledgements, in my publications and postings. When more and more of these images appeared, I used them too. But I was becoming a tad suspicious. The lasses looked too clean, too cute, and indeed, many actually looked alike. The photographers’ daughters, perhaps, or those of friends. Were they for-real or where they posed? I guess I will never find out.

Needlessly to say, as the rebellion morphed into harrowing civil war, such images disappeared, and in their place, we saw destruction and carnage, and the broken bodies of little girls and boys slain by bomb and bullet, hardship and hunger. Now, as families were forced to abandon their homes and make their way to the borders, and thence, into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and finally, into Europe, we see children staggering on dusty roads, carried piggy back by exhausted fathers, pushed in strollers, scorched by the sun, soaked by the rain, and frozen by the snow. And we see little Aylan on his golden beach, a Kurdish toddler now a symbol of all the drowned babies of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

Photogenic children no more. Just victims, survivors, lost souls.

I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture…
you whom I cannot betray.

See also, Bombs and Babies

Children of the Revolution

On a personal note, we were last in Syria in March 2009, and whilst visiting the famed Roman amphitheater at Bosra, just northeast of Dera’a, we had the pleasure of the company of a crowd of Syrian school children. They treated us like visiting celebrities and sang us a song of welcome. It is saddening to look at these pictures now, and wonder where these children are now.

Bosra Bosra 2

 

Bosra

Hejira

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Joni Mitchell, Hejira

People’ll tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you’ll never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Other’s just come to harm
Oh Amelia it was just a false alarm
Joni Mitchell, Amelia

How sweet it is to learn new things – to walk new streets, to look through new windows. Working lately as a volunteer with the Humanitarian Settlement Services progrmme,  I have had that opportunity. The HSS’ mission is to assist newly arrived refugees to settle in Australia, participate in our way of life,  access services available to us all, and to develop the skills and knowledge needed to begin a new life in our country. The  following  pieces recall two days in my volunteer life. They are a sequel of sorts, and indeed, a happy ending to my recent post No Going Home in which I endeavored to imagine the refugee journey.  

Hejira is an Arabic word that commemorates specifically  the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622.  But it also refers to any emigration or flight, and this is the context here.

Arrival

I wait at our tiny  airport for an Afghani family coming to Australia from a refugee camp on the Pakistani border. They have come here straight from Iran with but a short transit in Sydney. The plane is a little QANTAS Dash 8, and the passengers walk down the gangplank. The day is hot. Young girls in short shorts and skivvies disembark, and young men in shorts, tees and thongs (the sandals, that is). There a few suited businessmen, and retirees in nondescript array.

Our new arrivals are last off. Mum and two teenage sons. She wears a hijab and Iranian dress,, and the boys, jeans and tee shirts. They step onto the hot tarmac and walk, tired and nervous, to the arrivals lounge. We are with the welcoming party – a family of Afghanis who settled here a short while ago, two young girls, their mother and their auntie. They too are dressed in salwar kameez – they came here from a  camp in Pakistan. The ladies dwelt there for twelve years, and the girls were born there.

A young Hazara serves as our interpreter. She is dressed like a fashionable Iranian muhajibabe in simple and smart attire – for it is indeed Iran that she and he family sought shelter from the Afghan storm. She is eighteen, and arrived with her mother and siblings two years ago. Her English is excellent – she wants to be an interpreter, and is working towards that goal at TAFE. And this is the thing. These folk have all come here on 204 visas for women at risk, the sole carers of dependent families. Their husbands are either dead or decamped in Afghanistan or in the border camps.

And then there are we three Aussies. The tireless Humanitarian Settlement Service caseworker, a lady from community services who wanted to witness an arrival, and myself, working for the HSS as a volunteer, likewise bearing witness to what is quite a powerful scene.

The meeting and the greeting is done with salaams, embraces (the Afghanis) and handshakes (we locals). The first minutes in their new home in the sun. I help the lads load the suitcases on to the bus, and my work done, I bid them all “khoda hafez” and take my leave. They are driven off to their new digs, an Afghan meal, the first of much paperwork, and then sleep.

But not before they are taken to the headland, from where they will view the Pacific Ocean to the east, hills covered in banana plantations to the west, and beyond them, below the cloudless blue sky, the blue-green foothills of the Great Dividing Range. On the other side, far to the northwest, their landlocked, shattered  home is 11,353 kilometers away.

Moving

Our mission today is to move a Hazara family from their first, interim dwelling, to a permanent home on the other side of town. A mother with four children. Three of these are at school today, and the eldest, a sparky eleven year old, has stayed home to help mom move house and help us with translation. Although she has been in Australia for just six months, her English is astonishing. She later tells me she can speak five Afghan languages, Urdu, and a bit of Hindi. Nothing is going to hold this one back.

Their bags and boxes are ready, and these fill the bus. So off we all go to their new home. Two Afghani neighbours greet us on  arrival, with two young girls and a tiny boy. Three ethnic groups, three languages, and two religions, and they are getting along famously.

“Why do you think that is?” asks the caseworker. “Because there are no men around”. No men. No controllers. No patriarchy. No rules. No tribes. No prejudice.

 In Sydney, in Melbourne, with the larger Afghan and Muslim communities, with the mosques and madrassas, imams and ideologies, the self-appointed and self-perpetuating mullahs and muftis, male control would be asserted, with their restrictive rules and regimentation. All the old baggage that was left behind would be brought in and unpacked – the tribal loyalties and enmities, the specious theological diktats on dress and demeanor, form and function. And the patriarchy.

But not here, in this northern, sea-side town. Just women doing their best to get along and make the new life work for themselves and their children.

What will the future hold for these women taken out of their homes, their culture, their society, and asked to craft a new life and identity for themselves and their children in a new and strange land? How will they go with the language and with life in general? Will they make new friends, find rewarding work, and “fit in”,  or will they cling to their old lives, lonely and isolated, their children the sole interface between themselves and the world?

I wonder about the young girls – and particularly the bright and outward-going ones I have met. Will they build successful school and professional careers? Will they make long and lasting friendships with their Australian and other peers?  Will they let go the costumes, conventions, and constrictions of their parents’ culture?

I wonder about the young boys, and the young men whom I greeted at the airport. How will they fare in their matriarchal domestic world? How will they adjust to their new life here with all its challenges and temptations?

If they remain in this regional city, who will be their role models? Will they become more Australian than Afghani as they grow up and mature among their north coast peers? Will they complete their education, and find work in an area with a very high level of youth unemployment? Or will they be isolated and lonely, dislocated and discontented? Will they assume their old culture’s patriarchal role and demand their mothers and sisters subject themselves to the son’s authority as head of the family, and impose restrictions their movements and morality, demeanor and dress?

Will they be drawn to the capital cities with their diverse Muslim communities. And into which circle will they be drawn? To the moderate ones who just want to get on with their lives in an Aussie world, to the pious and unassuming who see jihad as an internal spiritual quest, to the criminal and bikie gangs that we hear so much about, or to the radical proselytizers who view our culture and values as anathema to the word and will of God?

All this is in the future, and as these folk might say, in Gods hands. But in reality, it is in their’s and their’s alone. But I am glad to have been able to play a small part in setting these new arrivals on their path.

see also: No Going Home 

 

A Window on a Gone World

London, back in the day. What wonders dwelt within. I recall here but a few. The old church of St. Bartolph-Without, which turned up in later days in a bad Dracula movie. The churchyard of St. Paul’s, a haven for summer’s day lunch-timing. Green Park in spring sunshine as the lily white skin of England divests for primavera. Berkeley Square, where the fabled nightingale sang, and where Clive of India, his mind curdled by corruption and conscience, and haunted by guilt and ghosts, cut his own throat.

Read more in  Tabula Rasa – Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume One

My first political excursion. The CND Aldermaston March reaches London, 1966

My first political excursion. The CND Aldermaston March reaches London, 1966

CND

See also The Spirit of ’45  and Something About London.

 

 

No Going Home

But never in modern times – since the Second World War – have they been so many refugees. There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are fleeing from persecution or conflict. Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – including six million Syrians. Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield -. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. five million are Syrians. These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. [See below, The World Refugee Crisis in Brief, and The Refugee’s Journey] 

Just imagine …

Millions are on the move  – , and you are one of them.

Lebanese American BBC Journalist Kim Ghattas says well:

I often get asked why my family never left or more pointedly, why my parents kept us there, dodging sniper fire on the way to school and back. The answer is this: We stayed because leaving is hard. Becoming refugees meant leaving our lives, our identity, and our dignity behindNo ones first instinct is to leave. Their first choice is usually to hold on to the comforting familiarity of home; when that becomes impossible, you leave for another safer area within the country. Then you leave for a neighboring country, so you can return as soon as possible or even keep an eye on your property while youre away. Only when the walls are closing in and the horizon is total darkness do you give up and leave everything you have ever known behind, lock the door to your home, and walk away.                                                                                                         

Kim Ghittas, The Sad Fading Away of the Refugee Crisis, Foreign Policy 19th October 2015                

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
Somali poet Warsan Shire, Home

A million spaces in the earth to fill, here’s a generation waiting still – we’ve got year after year to kill, but there’s no going home. Steve Knightley, Exile

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come;  then we’ll come from the shadows. Leonard Cohen, The Partisan 

I pity the poor immigrant whose strength is spent in vain, whose heaven is like ironsides, whose tears are like rain.  Bob Dylan, I Pity the Poor Immigrant

Just imagine …

What if you had to leave behind everything that you hold dear. Your identity, culture, language, faith. You job, your school. Your loved ones, your friends, and your play-mates.

What if you have to sleep with your shoes on so you are ready to run if your enemies are approaching your village? And then you have to flee your home and climb the mountain to escape, helping your youngsters and old folk up the rocky slopes in the summer heat, and there is nothing to eat or drink, and nothing you can do except wait for capture or rescue.

What would YOU do if you had but a short while to gather a few things together and run, leaving your whole life behind? What would you try and take with you?

Then you wash up, literally and figuratively, on foreign shores – in border refugee camps, dusty border towns or urban slums. And there you stay, with other tens, hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands in like dire straits.

Until one day, you are selected for humanitarian settlement in a strange land at the other end of the earth.

That day may never come; so, impatient, frustrated, desperate, you use your family’s savings to pay smugglers and traffickers who prowl the desert and jungle camps like predators and the port cities of Turkey, Libya and South East Asia.

So you take to the seas in frail boats and brave the the deep and dangerous waters of the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Indian Ocean.

You might only have enough money for one passage, so you go on ahead and hope to send for your kin once you have reached safe haven.

You may be one of fortunate ones who make it – not one of those cast ashore, lifeless flotsam and jetsam like baby Aylan on his golden beach.

You are now one of tens of thousands in a river of desperate endeavour.

You walk the long miles of the unwelcoming highways of Eastern Europe to a German or Swedish sanctuary. You might end up in a detention camp in Italy or Spain, stranded in the Calais Jungle, or the harbours of Java and Sumatra.

Or else, you are parked in a hot and hostile makeshift camp somewhere near the Tropic of Capricorn.

Just imagine …

You have fled the terror of the warlords and the militias, the holy warriors and the ethnic cleansers.

You discover that the border camps of Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Afghanistan, Thailand and Malaysia, Kenya and Namibia have their own ecology of hardship and handouts, rape and robbery, beatings and bribes, illness and neglect, cursory and desultory treatment by overworked and under-resourced aid workers, and shake-downs by the criminals who thrive in these places and the cops who take a cut and turn a blind eye or else enforce punitive directives from politicians, parliaments and bureaucrats.

There, you and yours’ attempt to rebuild a semblance of a life-before amidst the tents and the shanties, the dust and the sewage, the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold. A mosque to pray in, a school for the children, games of football or backgammon for idle youth and menfolk.

You try to keep the children warm and fed and free of mortal illness; you try to keep the spirit alive in a time of anxiety, fear, threat, loss, and confusion, a time of hopeful emptiness and of empty hopelessness.

Zaatari-refugee-camp 3 July 2013

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan July 2013

Just imagine …

You are one of the lucky few selected for settlement in the fabled, unknown ‘west’.

New lands, under foreign skies, different constellations, so far away it might as well be the moon.

You now dwell among strangers. You neither speak their language nor comprehend their ways or their foreign gods.

You have no friends or family to call on in time of need.

You must rebuild the basic buildings blocks of a normal life – where even the idea of a normal life has now changed utterly.

The houses, the streets, the shops, the money even – are all new.

The things you took for granted are no longer there, and in their place are new ways and means.

New systems and processes – social, welfare, health, education – with new rules and ways of getting things done. Going to the doctor, to the bank, to government offices.

Understanding  that policemen and soldiers are not people you have to pay off or flee from.

Learning English.

Finding a home.

Getting the kids into a school.

Finding a job when your qualifications are not recognized, and work-ways are different to what you know.

The laws are new, the language is new, the way people dress and behave, talk, walk and eat is new.

Many new things are fascinating, tempting.

Others, confronting and insulting to your morality and values.

Some are alien, even, beyond your comprehension.

Codes of behaviour, dress, decorum, politeness, are new. Less formality, respect and deference; open displays of sexuality, affection, and rudeness that would not have been tolerated, permitted even, at home.

You don’t understand what makes the locals tick – their mannerisms, their speech, their body language, their concept of time and space, even.

And you are shocked and frightened by their hostility. Not all – just a noisy and troublesome few who talk quietly amongst themselves, or hurl abuse, or march through city streets with signs that scream, “go back to where you came from!”, “go home!”

Home?

There is no home.

Home is far, far away.

So far away, it might as well be on the moon.

Just imagine…

This is the new. And you still bear the cross of the old. The world you left behind is still with you.

You miss your family, your friends, and the comfort and support you all gave each other.

You miss your old life. The streets, the sounds, the smells. The weather and seasons. Your job, your status, your school, your neighbourhood.

You yearn for street and shop signs you could read, voices you understood on the radio and television, on the street, and on the buses.

You hate having to try and make yourself understood to officials and doctors, desk clerks and shop assistants, and even the supportive and ever helpful case workers whose mission is to help you get through all this.

You are homesick, and lonesome; you feel isolated, helpless, dependent.

There is a terrible ache in your heart and a rift in your soul.

And then there are the scars that won’t and perhaps can never heal. The psychological and physical effects of the events and experiences that forced you to flee your homeland.

Conflict and violence, intimidation and discrimination, torture and brutality, even. You have flashbacks, bad dreams, anxiety attacks, and actual physical and mental pain and anguish.

They say that PTSD is endless. There is no cure …

Just imagine…

You are a stranger in a strange land, and there’s no going home

See also:  Hejira

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.   Psalm 107

Home

Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.

you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.

your neighbours running faster
than you, the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind
the old tin factory is
holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one would leave home unless home
chased you, fire under feet,
hot blood in your belly.

it’s not something you ever thought about
doing, and so when you did –
you carried the anthem under your breath,
waiting until the airport toilet
to tear up the passport and swallow,
each mouthful of paper making it clear that
you would not be going back.

you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.

no one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of
the boat because you are darker, be sold,
starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,
make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched, find prison everywhere
and if you survive
and you are greeted on the other side
with
go home blacks, refugees
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage –
look what they’ve done to their own countries,
what will they do to ours?

the dirty looks in the street
softer than a limb torn off,
the indignity of everyday life
more tender than fourteen men who
look like your father, between
your legs, insults easier to swallow
than rubble, than your child’s body
in pieces – for now, forget about pride
your survival is more important.

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home tells you to
leave what you could not behind,
even if it was human.

no one leaves home until home
is a damp voice in your ear saying
leave, run now, i don’t know what
i’ve become.

This Syrian mother and her child were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.

The World Refugee Crisis in Brief

The Melancholy Mathematics

Like death and taxes, the poor and racism, refugees have always been with us.  But never in modern times – since the Second World War – have they been so many!

There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – that have been forcibly displaced from their homes – fleeing from persecution or conflict.

This doesn’t count economic migrants who have hit the roads of sub Saharan Africa and Central America fleeing drought and crop failure, economic recession and unemployment, poverty, gangs and cartels, seeking a better life for themselves and the families in Europe or the USA.

Three quarters of a million ‘economic migrants’ are on the move in Central America, whilst the UN estimates that at least four million people have left Venezuela because of its political and economic crisis in what has been described as the biggest refuge crisis ever seen in the Americas. There are refugee camps on the Colombian border. Most are in Columbia but others have entered Brazil and Peru.  But these are not by legal definition refugees – see below, The Refugees’ Journey .

Of those sixty nine million people over 11 million or 16% are Syrians. The numbers keep growing Thirty one people at being displaced every minute of the day. In 2018 alone, 16.2 million people were newly displaced.

Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – this includes six million Syrians and off our radars, some two million souls who once lived in the contested regions of eastern Ukraine.

Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. Some 57% of them come from three countries: Syria, 6.3 million, Afghanistan 2.6 million and South Sudan 2.4 million. The top hosting counties are Turkey 3.5 million, Lebanon, 1 million, Pakistan 1.4 million, Uganda 1.4 million and Iran 1 million.

Jordan shelters over three quarters of a million Syrians; during the Iraq wars, this relatively poor country sheltered a similar number of Iraqis, and still hosts tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who’ve fled persecution at home.

These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. The Lebanese government estimates that there are more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country.

Much of the focus these days is on the Middle East – Syria and its neighbours, on Libya and the frail boats crossing the Mediterranean, on the war in Yemen which has killed over thirteen thousand and displaced over two million.

But situation in Africa is as dire.

More than 2 million Somalis are currently displaced by a conflict that has lasted over two decades. An estimated 1.5 million people are internally displaced in Somalia and nearly 900,000 are refugees in the near region, including some 308,700 in Kenya, 255,600 in Yemen and 246,700 in Ethiopia.

By August 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo hosted more than 536,000 refugees from Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. And yet, there are over 4.5 million Congolese people displaced inside their own country and over 826,000 in neighbouring countries, including Namibia, Angola and Kenya.

Should the present situation in Sudan deteriorate into civil war, another tide of humanity will hit the road.

And closer to home, there are millions of refugees in Asia.

As of March 2019, there are over 100, 000 refugees in 9 refugee camps in Thailand (as of March 2019), mainly ethnic Karen and Shan. Refugees in Thailand have been fleeing ethnic conflict and crossing Myanmar’s eastern border jungles for the safety of Thailand for nearly 30 years.

There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis, and since August 2017, an estimated 625,000 refugees from Rakhine, had crossed the border into Bangladesh.

The top-level numbers are stupendous. The detail is scary.

Some 52% of the world’s refugees and displaced are children. And many are unaccompanied. Every hour, around 20 children run for their lives without their parents to protect them.

Children are the most vulnerable to disease and malnutrition and also to exploitation and lose years of schooling. Millions are elderly and are also face health problems.

And the problems facing young people and adults are all enormous. International aid is limited and host countries often unsympathetic. Work opportunities are few, some countries even forbidding refugees to take work, whilst unscrupulous employers exploit the desperate. Migrants are often encouraged, sometimes forcibly, to return to their countries of origin regardless of whether or not it is safe for them to return. There are reports that many have returned to Syria into the unwelcoming hands of the security services.

Refugees have lived in camps and towns in Pakistan and Thailand, Namibia and Kenyan for decades. Most refugee children were not born in their parents’ homelands.

And the camps are by no means safe havens. There may be no shelter or only basic shelter in tents; no privacy; a lack of clean water; meagre food; limited medical care; and the threat of injury, disease and epidemics. They may be poor physical security and armed attacks, and abuse by the authorities and officials. There may be organized crime, shakedowns and extortion, corruption and bribery.

Families may have become separated, exposing women and children without the protection of male family members to more fear and violence. Women are subsequently vulnerable to harsh conditions, including potential sexual and physical and abuse, poor healthcare, and unequal access to food and water. They may be coping with the loss of the head of the family and with the changing roles and responsibilities that come from being the sole parent. They may not know if their male family members will return to them safely and they must deal with the stress and anxiety, the grief and loss arising from their recent experiences. They might be fearful of the future, which in a camp is unknown and unpredictable

 Australia and Refugees

Of all displaced peoples, 17% of them are being hosted in Europe. According to recent data published by the UNHCR, Germany is home to the most refugees by far in Europe – 1.4 million in total. By comparison, France and Sweden have 402,000 and 328,000 respectively, and the UK, 122,000.

Australia’s contribution to the world’s refugee problem is but a drop in the ocean. But we have a long established humanitarian refugee settlement programme for people officially recognized as refugees by the UNHCR and selected for third-country settlement in Australia.

Our humanitarian migration intake for 2016 -17 was the highest year on record. The intake of 24,162 was some 10% of our broader migration program which saw 225,941 permanent additions to the Australian population, and included the special intake of Syrian and Iraqi refugees (an estimate 12,000 places over several years).

The figures are 17,500 in 2017-18 and similar in 2018-19, whilst Scott Morrison has pledged to freeze the number of humanitarian arrivals for the next term. Under the policy there will be an overall target of 60 per cent of the offshore component for women, up from 50.8 per cent in 2017-18. The Government will also push to increase the number of refugees and humanitarian entrants being settled in regional Australia from a target of 30 per cent to 40 per cent in 2019-20, whilst insisting that new arrivals will only go to areas where there is strong community support.

 Coffs Harbour 

Coffs Harbour is one of several refugee intake towns in NSW, along with Armidale, Newcastle, Wollongong and Wagga Wagga. It’s medical and educational facilities have….

Coffs Harbour hosts several organizations dedicated to helping former refugees settle in Australia. They arrive in Australia on specific humanitarian visas and become permanent residents the moment they are admitted into the country. – and hence cease to be refugees.

SSI looks after them when they first arrive in Coffs Harbour. North Coast Settlement Services, a division of Saint Vincent de Paul Society, takes over once SSI’s work is done – after between six and eighteen months depending on a family’s needs, whilst the privately run Sanctuary organization assists settled migrants with such matters as family reunion and employment. An ancillary NSW government agency, the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS), assists new arrivals with psychological support, and particularly, the effects of PTSD. STARTTS services include counseling, group therapy, group activities and outings, camps for children and young people, English classes and physiotherapy

Settlement Services International

I spend two days a week as a volunteer with Settlement Services International, a Sydney-based community organisation that administers the Humanitarian Settlement Program (HSP) which supports refugees from the moment they arrive at the airport, provides essential support and information to assist refugees settle in Australia and empower them to gain independence and build strong connections in their new communities. SSI helps with the needs of new arrivals and the challenges of settling in a new country. Its aim is to enhance self-reliance with a focus on English language skills, education and job readiness.

SSI administers the Humanitarian Settlement Programme in several centres in regional NSW, including Coffs Harbour, Newcastle and Armidale. In all three areas, SSI has teams of staff on the ground who work with refugees, humanitarian entrants and their local communities to help new arrivals to through their initial settlement. The SSI team includes case managers and volunteers from the local community and from the refuge community itself

SSI’s work includes meeting and greeting, arranging temporary accommodation on arrival; orientation, including familiarization with Australian ways, our services and institutions, and getting around Coffs Harbour; basic official matters like Centrelink, banking, and health services; English classes at TAFE and enrolling children at schools; dealing with real estate agents, rental leases and looking after their rental properties.

 Where do our clients come from?

When first volunteering, I worked for Anglicare. New arrivals were largely from Myanmar and Congo – mostly Christians – and from Afghanistan. Many of the latter came to Australia under the “woman at risk” programme – mothers and children with no father. Whilst all are Muslim, many were Shia Hazaras, a Turkic people persecuted by the Sunni Taliban. Since SSI took over from Anglicare in September 2017, whilst Burmese and African families continue to arrive, the emphasis has been on Yazidis from Iraq and Syria, and particularly from the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar in northern Iraq, where they endured enormous suffering and hardship at the hands of the Islamic State. Considered infidels by Da’ish, they were targets of a campaign of genocide from 2014. More than five thousand were killed, and some five to seven thousand were abducted and enslaved – mainly women and children. Such was the danger that the UNHCR and the Australian and other governments took whole families straight out of the war zone rather than from camps outside Iraq.

The Yazidis

Yazidis are ethnically Kurdish, and their language, Kurmanji, is Kurdish. Their society is hierarchical and endogamous. Their religion, Yazidsm, is a monotheistic religion and has elements of ancient Mesopotamian faiths, including ancient Persian Mithraism, and some similarities to the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Because Yazidis believe in reincarnation and turn to the direction of the sun when praying, it has been thought – erroneously, that the religion has its origins in ancient Persian Zoroastrianism and Hinduism.  They believe in the one god, the creator of all things, who delegated the ongoing management to a heptad of seven holy beings or angels, the chief of whom is Malek Taus – the Peacock Angel.

Malek Taus has in the past been associated, by Muslims and Christians, with Iblis, Satan, and the fall of proud Lucifer. This misinterpretation has led, historically, to Yazidis being perceived as devil worshipers, and thus being subject to persecution and pogrom. The atrocities of Da’ish were only different from past assaults and massacres in their scale and longevity.

 Volunteering

Whilst case managers specifically look after the new arrivals, they depend upon a team of volunteers to assist them in a wide variety of tasks that we locals take for granted. for example: taking new arrivals them to medical or bank appointments, showing them how to use the bus network, setting up accommodation prior to arrival, minding children whilst parents attend appointments, and even helping folk to purchase use lawn mowers – there are few lawns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a volunteer, past and present tasks have included walkabouts to familiarize new arrivals with Coffs Harbour, accompanying clients to house inspections when seeking new rental accommodation, and assisting with rental application forms; sending important documents like birth, marriage and education certificates to Social Services’ translation service for official translations; helping clients to apply for bus concession cards, school bus cards, and children’s sport vouchers; and assisting with NBN plans and connections. I have fixed broken cupboards, replaced light bulbs, checked out washing machines and kitchen stoves. and taking families to school interviews.

As I can get by with spoken Arabic and can read and write the language, and as i am reasonably proficient with computers, I have helped with online applications and prepared resumes. I have shown clients how to budget their money, and have run a class on how to set up and use smart phone calendars to help them make and keep appointments. On occasions, I am asked to just drop in on clients to see how they are getting on, and sort any basic house problems.

My most rewarding experiences have been: assisting case managers at the airport when the clients first arrive. It’s a very emotional moment for all involved; Taking families who have never seen the sea before to the seaside; helping a clients get a job; and helping STARTTS run a youth group for children and young people by registering the young attendees

How I got into this

Since my twenties, I’ve had an interest and, indeed, a passion for the Middle East, its history and politics, its people and culture, its languages and religions. I’ve travelled often to the region, and have studied it formally and as a hobby. I learned standard Arabic in the seventies and worked in academic and government research. Though I took a very different road for two decades, I returned to Syria in the noughties and got back into Arabic  both standard and colloquial (two relatively distinct languages).

On retirement, I wanted to do volunteer work, and by happenstance, Coffs Harbour was a refugees intake town with several organizations dedicated to assisting new arrivals. At first, I used my knowledge of Arabic script to assist Farsi-speaking Afghans, and then the Iraqi and Syrian Yazidis arrived. Though their native tongue is Kurdish Kurmanji, and few could speak English, many spoke Arabic. SSI had several Arabic speaking support-workers, and some new arrivals had good English and now work as Arabic and Kurmanji speaking support staff, I am able to step in when they are already booked. Who’d ever have thought I’d be able to use and grow my Arabic in Coffs Harbour.


 The Refugees’ Journey

Who is a migrant?  Who is a refugee? Who is an asylum seeker?

Migrants

A migrant is a person who makes a conscious choice to leave their country to seek a better life elsewhere. Before they decide to leave their country, migrants can seek information about their new home, study the language and explore employment opportunities. They can plan their travel, take their belongings with them, and say goodbye to the important people in their lives. They can continue to phone friends and family, or write, email or Skype them without fear of adverse consequences. They are free to return home at any time if things don’t work out as they had hoped, if they get homesick or if they wish to visit family members and friends left behind.

People who choose to migrate for economic reasons are sometimes called “economic refugees”, especially if they are trying to escape from poverty. But they are not recognized as refugees under international law. The correct term for people who leave their country or place of residence because they want to seek a better life is “economic migrant”.

However, the displacement of people caused by such economic circumstances, or by natural disasters like flood, drought or extreme weather, can contribute towards political, social and ethnic tensions that can precipitate refugee crises. Effective and timely external assistance from neighbours and donor nations will often help to avert this. Aid is therefore provided in an effort to keep people in their homes or in their home countries.

Refugees

The 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees states:

Any person who owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.”

Refugees are forced to leave their country because they are at risk of, or have experienced persecution. Their concerns are human rights and safety, and not economic advantage. They leave behind their homes, most or all of their belongings, family members and friends. Some are forced to flee with no warning, and may not be able to say goodbye to friends and family, and may never be able to contact or see them again.

Many refugees have experienced significant trauma or been tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Their journey to safety is fraught with hazards, many risking their lives in search of protection. They cannot return home unless the situation that forced them to leave improves.

Location is all important. During civil unrest and conflict, people may be forced to leave their homes, but do not leave their country. These internally displaced persons (IDPs) are often referred to as refugees. But, whilst refugees and IDPs may flee for similar reasons, their legal status is very different. Whilst remaining within the borders of their home countries, IDPs are legally under the protection of their own government, even in cases where the government’s actions are the cause of their flight. A person cannot be recognized as a refugee unless they are outside their home country.

Asylum Seekers

These seek protection as refugees, but their claim for refugee status has not yet been assessed. Many refugees have at some point been asylum seekers, that is, they have lodged an individual claim for protection and have had that claim assessed by a government or UNHCR.

Some refugees, however, do not formally seek protection as asylum seekers. During mass influx situations, people may be declared “prima facie” refugees without having undergone an individual assessment of their claims, as conducting individual interviews in these circumstances is generally impracticable (due the large numbers involved) and unnecessary (as the reasons for flight are usually self-evident). In other cases, refugees may be unable to access formal status determination processes or they may simply be unaware that they are entitled to claim protection as a refugee.

It is important to note that refugee status exists regardless of whether it has been formally recognized. People do not “become” refugees at the point when their claims for protection are upheld – they were already refugees, and the assessment process has simply recognized their pre-existing status. People become refugees (and are entitled to international protection and assistance) from the moment they flee their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution, as stipulated in the Refugee Convention.

What causes a person or a people to flee their home country?

 The most common causes are war and civil unrest, persecution for political or religious beliefs, or ethnic and racial identity, and human rights violations by government authorities or rogue militias. There could be extreme political instability and fighting; assassinations of people associated with certain political or social groups; arbitrary arrest and torture, mutilation and degradation that can happen without warning; routine sexual violence towards women and girls; forced conscription of child soldiers, forcing families to flee to protect their children; and conscription for slave labour. Governments are unable to protect their citizens, and may actively participate in violations, leaving people with no place or person to turn to for protection.

Often people will hang on, hoping things will improve. Flight is the last option because it means leaving everything behind – home, possessions, jobs, education, family and friends, language, culture and identity. People are often forced to flee with very little warning, no time to collect identity documents or precious things, or say farewell to family, friends and neighbours. They may have to travel long distances, often on foot or in small boats, and through dangerous territory or waters. They may go for long periods without food and water. They may become in danger of being intercepted, robbed or recruited, raped or killed, imprisoned or repatriated.

 Life in the Refugee Camps

The fortunate might reach a camp or other place of relative safety. In the camp there may be no shelter or only basic shelter in tents; no privacy; a lack of clean water; meagre food; limited medical care; and the threat of injury, disease and epidemics. They may be poor physical security and armed attacks, and abuse by the authorities and officials. There may be organized crime, shakedowns and extortion, corruption and bribery.

Families may have become separated, exposing women and children without the protection of male family members to more fear and violence. Women are subsequently vulnerable to harsh conditions, including potential sexual and physical and abuse, poor healthcare, and unequal access to food and water. They may be coping with the loss of the head of the family and with the changing roles and responsibilities that come from being the sole parent. They may not know if their male family members will return to them safely and they must deal with the stress and anxiety, the grief and loss arising from their recent experiences. They might be fearful of the future, which in a camp is unknown and unpredictable

The Role of the UNHCR

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated by the United Nations to protect refugees and help them find solutions to their plight. It has over 4,000 staff in 120 countries and an annual budget of about US$1 billion. In addition to legal protection, UNHCR now also provides material relief in major emergencies either directly or in partnership with other agencies.

Refugee protection is covered by International Human Rights Law, and this sits within a broader framework of international law. The agency responsible for the oversight of international human rights law is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR).

Refugees are accorded certain rights under international law, including

  • The right not to be sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be in danger
  • The right to receive public relief and welfare support at the same level as nationals
  • The right to access education and health care
  • The right to work
  • Entitlement to be issued with identity papers and travel documents

The role of the UNHCR is to

  • Safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees
  • Ensure that every person can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country
  • Promote long-term solutions to the refugees’’ plight utilizing the options of voluntary return, local integration in the country of first asylum, or resettlement in a third country
  • Ensure that refugees are treated appropriately by countries that have signed the UN Convention
  • Ensure that refuges are given the same rights as nationals of the countries they are accepted into
  • Protect refuges from being forced to return to their home countries if it is likely they will be persecuted
  • Promote the reunification of families
  • Take into account the special needs of particular refuges classes, e.g. women and children

UNHCR’s “durable solutionsfor refugees:

  • Voluntary repatriation, the preferred long-term solution – going back to the country of origin when it is safe for them to return country. Voluntary repatriation is encouraged if it is safe and reintegration is viable. Indeed, most refuges prefer to go home as soon as circumstances permit and a degree of stability has been restored.
  • Local settlement and integration is the next preferred option – making a home in the country to which they first fled. Such local settlement may e spontaneous with new-comers establishing a new community. Integration is facilitated there are common ethnic groups or co-religionists. However, there may be a political affiliation between the government of their homeland and the country of first asylum which may lead to continued harassment and persecution.
  • Resettlement in a third country – often as a last resort, when refugees can neither return home nor remain in the country of first asylum, and are then selected by the UNHCR and sent to a third country to start a new life. Some eleven countries offer resettlement on a regular basis: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the UK, and the USA.

Refer: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/fact-sheets/international-issues/durable-solutions/

Whilst the UNHCR strives for “durable solutions”, the reality of the global refugee problem is that many countries hosting refugees embrace “non-durable” solutions such as:

  • “Warehousing” – refugees remain indefinitely in a camp where freedom of movement is restricted, basic supplies are scarce and there are few opportunities for any meaningful activity
  • Involuntary Repatriation – refugees are sent back to their country or origin while it is still unsafe. Sometimes refugees are forced back; sometimes they return because this is the “least bad option”
  • Secondary Movement – refugees themselves attempt to get to a western country in which they can lodge a claim for refugee status. This often involves clandestine travel using people smugglers and it can be very dangerous.

 Settlement and Arrival

Refugees are selected for settlement in Australia by the Department Immigration and Border Protection, in conjunction with the UNHCR. Before arriving in Australia, humanitarian entrants are required to go through security and health checks.

The Australian Cultural Orientation program (AUSCO) is provided to humanitarian visa holders who are preparing to settle in Australia. The program provides practical advice and the opportunity to ask questions about travel to and life in Australia. It is delivered overseas, before they begin their journey. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is currently contracted to deliver AUSCO on behalf of the DIBP.

The average length of time spent in a camp or in a place of first refuge is 17 years, and migrants may have little experience beyond this. Children may not even have known their home country. Many will have experiences extreme instability and uncertainty. Being selected for resettlement can be an overwhelming experience, and can include feelings of intense elation on one hand and fear and anxiety on the other.

Under such circumstances, a person may not always be aware of the potential difficulties of resettlement. On arrival, feelings can quickly move from elation and joy to culture shock, resentment, dislocation and confusion. It can take months, years even, for new arrivals to understand aspects of their new country and adapt to it.

Much of above material is taken from: