Monday, July 21, 2014

The new Iranian blogsphere

 The Iranian blogging scene used to be so lively entire books, compiling blog posts and annotating them, were written about it. The most famous of those books was, I believe, “We are Iran”, published in 2003. From the book you could learn not only about the every day lives of young Iranians, as they were struggling through the everyday Iranian world, facing strict public rules, or trying to live more freely, behind the closed doors of their homes, away from prying eyes. If you leaf through it now, you realize not a lot has actually changed (and if it did, it's to the worse). 
As you read through the book you also learnt a great deal about the modern history of the country.   

Yet, ten years after the book was published (I wrote this in 2013, I just never posted it!), the blogging scene has dried out quite a bit. Why is that so? 

Don´t worry, every one is still around. People have moved on to the next social networking tool. Instead of posting an article on their personal blog, they now post articles on Facebook. Whereas the American-owned site carries also a great risk for activists, because people are expected to use their real names, which are often connectd to photos, and it even indelibly saves every conversation, even things you typed, after which you neglected to press send. Yet, Facebook got so extraordinarily popular around the world, and with activists, too, for its own particular reasons. Undeniably, Facebook is much more interactive than blogs, and almost every post gets immediate returns. Comments on popular posts are so long and numerous, many of them turn into full-fledged debates. What is happening is that Facebook effectively unites the qualities of the two previous ´internet eras´, the internet forum and the blog. 

Sitting down with Taha on his living room couch, we are going through some of his friends´ profiles. One article we are looking at right now has 180 comments so far. In earlier times, only a very few select blogs would attract that many reactions. Contributions are specialized and going deep, “I learn a lot from these comments”, says Taha. We look together at a discussion under one post, and he translates for me the parts that I do not understand. “Look, this woman, Forough Asadpour, she is a sociologist, the author of the book my reading group is reading now”, Taha points out a name for me, “she is a bit older than us. She thinks the younger generation is good in action, but needs more theory. So she is putting a lot of effort into discussions.” We click onto another contributor´s profile: “This guy, he is very radical. He just churns out articles, and on top of that, he writes a new book every three months. And they are good! I have no idea how he does it. He is so good, it is shocking.” There seem to be a lot of bright minds on the internet. Taha does not stop name-dropping different thinkers, Foucault, Wallerstein, Agamben, mentionning that they were translated by this or that Facebook member. “This girl”, he shows me the profile of someone under the name Temps Perdu, “is one of those who committed suiced after the riots of 2009. We lost a lot of people this way. For them, seeing what was happening to their country, and what was happening to their friends was just too much. She was barely twenty and she also was a translator, she had translated two or three books of Georges Bataille into Persian.“ 

Although Taha did not mention it, personal trauma after being arrested certainly also played a role in many people´s suicide; the rapes and other forms of torture that they went through.   The links between political activists and the literary scene are strong. “Some people like poetry more than politics”, sighs Taha, who is something of a die-hard revolutionary. Although one obvious aspect is that in a country so harshly authoritarian as Iran even poets are risk-takers. Writing poetry can be an act of dissidence that can get you into a lot of trouble.

  Like a lot of other people on the social media website, many of the members of Taha´s network have a collection of cool-looking pictures on their profiles showing themselves in dramatic lighting, hair tousled, smoking a cigarette, looking to the ground. The lightness with which Taha throws in the remark, “that friend of mine, I met him in Kahrizak prison”, “that friend, he was also in Kahrizak” is disconcerting, seems incongruous. 


Later that evening Taha has a skype meeting, his fellow conspirators being Iranian exilees in Torino, Bremen or Munich. “On the internet, on skype or on facebook, we feel no distance. We work on the same projects. It is as if we were truely together”, he says, excuses himself and turns all attention to the screen.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Women refugees

So far, I have put a handful of refugee stories onto my blog. Almost every refugee in Europe has a story to tell which in some ways is often similar to others on one hand, as well as being wildly individual on the other. What is often similar is the degree to which these stories are shocking or at least impressive to most of those who are Europe-born and raised, and who, for the most part, lead comparatively tranquil lives.
I could interview hundreds of refugees and keep on churning out similarly engaging stories for youse to peruse, all different in their own right, shaped by the fates and personalities of those who lived them. So far the only stories I have typed out in detail for my blog are stories of men. This is because there is simply a lot less visible female refugees; there is fewer of them, and they are "harder to catch". Often, extracting the personal stories of female refugees is more difficult, too.

In the women refugee's squat in Amsterdam. The laptop shows a still in Amharic from an Ethiopian music video, while the TV screen holds the ghosts of three other people in the room.

"How long have you been in the Netherlands?"- "Three years" - "Did you always live in Amsterdam?"-"No, I lived in Den Bos as well" - "How did you get here from Ethiopia?" - "Oh, those are things I would rather not remember, those times were just too hard", is a typical conversation I have had.

From as far as I think I have understood, the reticence of women refugees about their histories is very often caused by rape trauma. It is widely known about rape trauma that the psychological process of shame, which is many times amplified by the surrounding societies, keeps victims from talking about what happened to them, and from acknowledging the fact that what happened to them was, in fact, rape. It is possible to talk about other forms of violence and torture, but a tall psychological barrier often holds both male and female victims back from mentioning that they were raped.

If you want to understand anything at all about women's background stories, you have to piece together general ideas from small details that you catch here and there. It is puzzle work.
Among the people I have met, there are next to no female immigrants of a Middle Eastern background, the migrant women that I know almost exclusively being of some kind of African origin. I have met many women from East Africa, from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia or Eritrea, but none have confided to me the details of how they crossed over to Europe. Some women from East Africa came with their husbands. I have never met one who came by herself, or without the aid of her family (although of course I may also simply not have been able to find out).  But I suppose of some of the women from West Africa that I've met, from Guinea or Mali or from Ivory Coast, that they crossed by themselves.

In East Africa the preponderance of a relatively harsh Islamic culture creates a more difficult climate for women's mobility than moderately religious West Africa does. There, when travelling around ten years ago, I got the general feeling that women were undisputeably among the main actors of society. It was a given that women were present and asserted themselves. In the east of the continent the role proscribed to women seems to be one of subduedness and self-effacement. Because of their upbringing into dependency, for East African women, these psychological barriers constitute real hurdles in the way of just packing their bags and leave their homes.
But even these are nothing compared to the natural obstacles that exist. There is a dessert to cross, and a sea. In West Africa as much as in East Africa, these geographical givens are brutally and pitilessly exploited by local mafias. Out in the dessert, far from the watchful eye of any kind of nation state or any form of human society, the mafias reign supreme. If you choose to go with them, your life lies entirely in their hands. And the fact that women are women is easily exploited.
In order to cross, you will have to be married, and you will have to pay the mafia who will "provide" a husband for you with whom you are obliged to have sex. Often you are simply sold to someone as a wife. Women are also raped for intimidation, or if they do not conform with what they are asked to do.
And women's bodies are at the pity of not only the mafias, but also the local police and military, as well as fellow migrants, the female sex being heavily outnumbered by the male one. Often, for many hundreds of men, there are a few tens of women, at best.

While in West Africa, the immediate mental and societal hurdles for women to take their fate into their own hands and travel north are certainly much lower than in many part of East Africa.
But a woman cannot rid herself of her body, and a woman's body will be exploited. It seems that it is near impossible for a woman migrating in West Africa to not end up doing sex work somewhere on the way, for example in cities on the southern fringes of the Sahara dessert. Sex work as a way of surviving presents no problem in my opinion, as long as there is an element of choice involved. But in many, if not all, camps along the way, women are expected to have sex with men just for being there.
In one report about the situation of refugees in Tinzaouaten on the Malian-Algerian border one report stated that at the time of visiting about a third of the 70 women present were pregnant or had little children. "Women are often an exchange currency to barter with the local military to obtain what some of them term the "tranquility of the ghetto", the report explained.


As for Europe, Calais is the central point where migrants try to cross over to England, the place with the highest density of migrants on the continent. This means that what is happening in Calais often telescopes processes that occur elsewhere in Europe. If things seem extreme in Calais, this is only because Calais presents in many ways a concentrated form of what is happening everywhere else, where the violence, while more diffuse, is nonetheless ever-present. 
In Calais, your origin defines under the "jurisdiction" of which mafia you fall,  you absolutely have no choice but to cross over with the mafia of your own home area. The East African mafias are notoriously more ruthless even in Calais, 1000s of kilometers from their origins. Migrants from East Africa are also on the gross more traumatized than migrants from West Africa by the time they arrive in Europe, so they are more easily scared into obedience with invented dangers as concerns the trip across the Channel, and get abused of even more. As a woman, if you try to cross over to England with a mafia from a different country of origin as your own, you simply will be raped into compliance.

       While in the women's squat in Amsterdam there are only six or seven women, in the non-mixed female squat in Calais there are over 60 refugees. This squat only has four rooms, and when it began was housing only 10 refugees, a much more reasonable number given the space available. It only took a couple of months, and two or three women were sharing a bed however. If another non-mixed female space opened, it is obvious that it would fill very quickly, too. 
It must be said that this "squat" is not a squat anymore: In the preparing period of the evictions of June and July 2013, the women's house was taken from the hands of the squatters and given over to an NGO, Solidaires. It is understandable that the squatters are taken aback by this move of Calais city council, but just maybe this actually beats being evicted, it must be admitted. 

As I am typing this, I have just come back from a visit to the women refugees' squat in Amsterdam. Upon entering I noticed with contentment a sticker on the front door, "Respect existence, or expect resistance". Soon after passing the threshold of the house I was invited into one of the bedrooms, and we were soon busily chatting away with some of the inhabitants. The room was nicely made up with doilies on the tables, fresh flowers in glazed porcelain vases, and a framed mirror flanked by some perfume bottles. A picture of Jesus on a shining path was leaned against the wall on one bedside table, a mini Koran lay on the neighbouring one. After a while one of the women came in serving everyone some traditional Eritrean food she made: lofty and thick salty pancakes in the centre of which two types of thick, spicy sauce were topped. You tore off a piece of pancake from the edge and picked up some sauce with it as you would with a spoon.
The refugees often receive their guests with open arms like this; partly because the cultures they grew up in highly value hospitality, partly out of sheer personal kindness.

It is important that many of us go and visit the refugees. Getting to know these women and men personally gives their movement a face and a personality, it makes abstract theories of migration politics come alive, and it dismantles the "safe distance" which politicians want us to keep as they formulate their inhuman policies in our name.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Heat

In the June of 2011, I found myself on Nasha's couch somewhere in a well-to-do neighbourhood of the Eastern Pakistani city Lahore, drinking hot clove tea. I was nursing the flu symptoms I had acquired the day before when, after coming in sweaty from the street, I went to sit in the cold draft of the fan.

 The kids of Nasha's family's live-in servant Sarah (in Pakistan, like in India, it is normal that the middle class has servants) got heatstroke at school the day before. They had too little fans there and were crammed with 40 others into the stuffy classroom. They were now staying home with fever.

Lahore, picture taken from http://windsweptwords.com
The heat in Lahore is formidable, especially in May and early June, just before the Monsoon season starts. A caricature going around on the internet shows it well: It depicts the earth and the sun, and a point half-way in between with an arrow indicating that point to be "Lahore".
Even though in degrees I have been to hotter places, in terms of difficulty I have not. In Lahore, humidity is high, and there are frequent electricity cuts, at the time I was there, three times a day one or two hours, although a year later I heard, electricity cuts were several hours at a time. In any case, during these long moments of outage, you do not have the benefit of the anyway feeble ventilators to relieve the heat, your body has to combat it by itself.

A month later I was in Iran at 50 degrees. But Iran is a lot more developed, and these kind of temperatures just meant that I would spent most of the day in a coolly air-conditioned house, and, if at all going out before seven in the evening, when temperatures began to naturally be much more agreeable, this would be in an equally strongly air-conditioned car, which would take me straight to the door of a climatized ice-cream parlour. Walking from door to door would be a bit like walking through a furnace, but it only lasted 10 seconds or less.

There was one incident, when I was held at a police station for a few hours. Instead of sitting in the climatized office as they wanted me to, I refused to go inside. I sat outside on a chair, moving it into the thin margin of shade thrown by the flat roof of the building. The heat was crushing, it lay heavily on one's chest and slowed down one's breathing. It seemed to get hotter by the minute, not only to me. The police men came outside saying: "It is 50 degrees, go out of the sun!", only to come back a few minutes later, shouting, "It is 51 degrees! Go out of the sun now" The next time they came they exclaimed: "It is 52 degrees! Go inside." They repeated this until they arrived at 57 degrees.  In reality it may have been a dry 50 or 51 degrees I believe.

When I visited Kavir-e Lut in Eastern Iran with a taxi driver and his wife, it may have actually been somewhere under, or even over 60 degrees. I remember the heat was not just oppressive, it was searing. It was in July that I went there. On the highway entering the dessert there was a sign saying "Welcome to the hottest region on earth. In the summer, it gets up to 65 degrees." Luckily I spent most of the day inside the taxi driver's house in the last village, sipping lemonade together with his wife on cushions directly in the stream of the air conditioning. The three of us went out when the day neared its end, the light sank and temperatures became more tolerable.

This is pretty much how I remember Kavir-e Lut 

It is funny how people from hot countries have trouble understanding that too much cold can be a bad thing. I told a family in Lahore where I had been in the mountains. "Oh, it is cold there! How wonderful! Did you go camping?" - "No, there was snow", meaning to imply, as I am sure most Europeans will understand, it was too cold to comfortably sleep outside. The answer that came however was the remark that this seemed perfect camping weather.
On the other hand, people from cold countries also have difficulty to comprehend just how much suffering a life in the heat can cause if you do not have appropriate fans or coolers, and how dangerous the heat can be.
Ryczard Kapuczinski describes the danger of heat in Mauritania, when hitchhiking away from the Ouadane oasis. Ouadane is a place I have also visited, although almost 30 years later (if, as I believe, he went there in the early 70s).
Ouadane

“Without water, you can survive in the desert for twenty-four hours; with great difficulty, for forty-eight or so. The math is simple. Under these conditions, you secrete in one day approximately ten litres of sweat, and to survive you must drink a similar amount of water.”
He gets out of the cab, looks around and sees underneath the truck bed four goatskins that are used to store water. He sighs with relief but only for a moment as he realizes they will empty quickly once the two of them begin drinking.
“The sun was climbing higher. The desert, that motionless, petrified ocean, absorbed its rays, grew hotter and began to burn. The Yoruba are said to believe that if a man’s shadow abandons him he will die.”
They lie underneath the vehicle into the shade, in order to save their own energies. They get rescued two hours later by another truck coming along.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

During the March for Freedom protest march one aim was to visit significant points, such as deportation centres, if not with the whole demo, then at least by sending a smaller group as a delegation there. In Strasbourg, we visited a fist deportation centre. The prison complex was hidden away at the end of a road made especially for the prison, which was adjacent to a military area out of bounds to normal citizens. The prison itself had an open courtyard, and we could talk to inmates seperated from them by two welded wire mesh fences. The space of about a meter and a half between them formed a sort of corridor, which could be used by guards to march up and down, which they soon started doing.
At the deportation centre. Especially when talking to a guy from Congo I felt like I wanted to cry when hearing his story. He seemed like the sweetest guy ever.
The inmates told us that this centre was a temporary prison, where the newly arrested were brought for 45 days, after which they were transported to other prisons, where they could be kept for a year or longer. Those I spoke to people had come from India, Russia, Algeria, Niger and other places. Everyone I spoke to told me that they had been arrested in random ID controls in town centers or at train stations, that is not for any sort of petty crime except walking the streets. Some of them spoke accentless French and had been in France for years, they just lost their lives built up over such a long time with a single fingersnip.


On a lighter note : a few weeks earlier there had been an escape from this specific detention center. It happened when guards made a barbecue right at the gates after work, and go too drunk to notice someone climbing over the inside fence, slipping past them through the corridor in front of their very eyes to the guards' building, and then climbing out over the lower entry gates surrounding it.
   A little after our visit to the deportation centre, one group of people also drove some 20 kilometers outside of Strasbourg and visited a Rroma camp, equally situated on a piece of land way out of sight of villages or other habitation, at the end of a dust road crossing this time a former military area. The living conditions in the camp were terrible, with makeshift living dwellings, and the entire camp being surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire. After initial hesitations whether it was a good idea to visit the camp, since it was not sure whether inhabitants would be welcoming outsiders, the group that went came back in high spirits. They had been received like family. They learnt that all the Rroma in the camp were undocumented nomads. Everyone there seemed very enthousiastic about coming walking with us, but since participating in the march could endanger their right to reside in the camp, they had to weigh out the risks first for themselves. Finally three men came to the picket in front of the European parliament in Strasburg the following day, one of them, the only one who spoke French, also took the microphone and spoke to the press. Three women at the camp had seemed equally eager to come, but the men did not let them. I do not know if we, as outsider activists can do anything more about this than encourage them to participate; maybe one day some of us can start thinking of some strategies. Maybe at least we should impress it on such a group of people as explicitly as possible that for us it is important that the women also come along. It should be stated clearly to them that this is our wish as a group, and for political reasons as well.
The march itself by the way this time happened to be organised by a group strongly dominated in numbers by women.

During the duration of the march until now, a series of sideline events happened that are worth mentionning for diverse reasons. First of all, a series of solidarity protests sprang up, mostly in German cities. In some places police violence and arrests followed. Nothing remarkable in a violent world if it was not that in Hamburg, when it came to the eviction of a sit-in on the stairs of the town hall, one division of the riot police collectively decided not follow orders and stood by with their arms crossed as their colleagues did the dirty work and began pushing and beating the protesters.

Furthermore, a week into the beginningof the march, the right-extremist Front National was elected in France, which must be mentionned. Their election posters were routinely “desecrated” along the way. Their election to European parliament is to adversely affect the lives of undocumented people in Europe for a significant future time period. The succes of the FN is of course mostly due to political apathy in France, where people do not care about voting even if it is to prevent the worst. But the effects of this will be lived intimately by real individuals, mostly, but not exclusively non-white Euopeans, documented ones as well as undocumented ones, although those without papers always get hit hardest.

Another thing that happened almost at the same time as the FN election in France was the announcement of the eviction of refugee camps and refugee squats in Calais, the one spot where, because of its proximity to the UK across the English channel, migrants are concentrated most densely in Western Europe. It was not the first time that such an all-round emptying out of living spaces was about to happen in Calais. And while for the police these kind of evictions are just another mission, for the migrants concerned they constitute a seriously life-endangering destruction of their living space. 

As a reaction to that on the 11th of June, a  group of 53 migrants began a hunger strike. Over a week later, some even threatened to immolate themselves in protest. They said they had nothing to lose anyway.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

March For Freedom

"The first time that I went on a protest march was in 1993, as part of a workers' movement. We marched from Ankara to Istanbul, which took a week, and then, in Istanbul, we went on a hunger strike. In the nineties I went to prison twice, and I went on hungerstrikes twice, too. The first one was in 1996 for a few weeks. And then in the year 2000 a massive hunger strike happened in the prisons, which was violently broken down by police who beat inmates on hungerstrike in their cells and even put them on fire.”
Turgay was talking about the gruesomely famous “Return to Life” operation which ended the biggest collective hungerstrike in Turkish history. Many were wounded in the operation, and four people died from having been burnt alive. The hungerstrike itself recorded a death toll of about 150.


Turgay has been interviewed a lot, be it for the mainstream or for activist media (for example in "Embryo der Freiheit"). It is kind of sweet how, despite the extreme hardship that he went through to get to this point in his life - Turgay spent a total of 15 years in prison-, he gets his little vanity kick out of being interviewed, how being in the spotlight still continues to amuse him. “I have been interviewed again”, he said on midday after lunch, lying on the grass and closing the mobile phone on his chest with a smile while blinking into the sunlight.

A couple of hours later we were walking next to each other. Since this was a 500 km protest march against borders and for the rights of undocumented people, we usually took country roads, where traffic could see us, and tried to pass through as many villages as possible, but right now the planned route took us through a stretch of forest. Turgay told me more about his own life story, as well as about the earlier refugee protests organized in Germany. “There was one previous protest march a few years ago. It stayed within Germany, going from Würzburg to Berlin. We were 13 refugees walking, if I recall correctly, and between 600 and over a thousand supporters. At the high point we were 2000! I walked the whole way. Then this year again, in 2014, just a couple of months ago, we again did a big action I participated in : a 22 day hungerstrike on Oraniensquare in Berlin. For me it was the fourth hungerstrike of my life.”
As for me, the writer of this blog post, I participated a mere week on this so-called “March for Freedom” which symbolically connects the two European capitals Strasbourg and Brussels and is still going on as I type this. For the part of the trip that I went on, it was a calm affair, and although walking 20 kilometers a day was physically taxing, spirits were high in the group of between 30 and maybe maximum 60, 70 people.  We shouted and sang slogans, and even danced a lot, people playing drums, guitar and the trumpet.


I must mention that, while I say that things were calm and the atmosphere generally very positive, for the entire trip of the march that went through France, Germany and Luxemburg, there was a police escort. That means that while on the surface everything was quiet, there was always a promise of violence with us, to be applied if we overstepped any invisible lines. Already on the very first day, on arrival in front of the European Parliament where we started our protest, a long row of French riot police vans were parked just so we kept that in mind. The Strasburg police had announced that if there was any change to the plan that had been registered with the municipality, they would arrest every one on the demo. 

Even when they only stand by, where there is police, there is always latent violence. The idea of this violence is precisely what the concept of a state is based upon, and what keeps the power of the state and its laws in place. The first day the police team that accompanied us was visibly larger and better equipped than the following days, after they had seen that we were overall a very pacific group of protesters. Yet I kind of liked how someone wrote “fak de polis” into the dirt on their back window without them noticing.

And it was already on the first day of walking by lunchtime that a message reached us about how a small group who had been on their way to join the march from central Germany had been arrested the same morning. That went to show that even if things seemed to proceed smoothly, this was maybe only an illusion.
The whole endeavour of walking from Strasbourg to Brussels had been planned to take a route that purposefully crosses as many borders as possible. The very beginning took us across what is seen as the natural border between Germany and France, the river Rhein, from Kehl to Strasbourg, where an action camp followed for the next two days. After a week, the march approached and crossed the German border again, and a few days later Luxemburg was entered, at the symbolic village Schengen. It was there that, in a series of agreements between EU member countries, it was decided to have a border-free zone within the European Union, a decision which may seem a welcome one at first, but which also went along with a severe tightening of the screws on the outer borders, therefore strengthening the so-called “fortress Europe”. When the March passed through Schengen, needless to say that public spaces were covered with posters, stickers and graffiti as much as possible, especially the monument to the Schengen agreements by the river! The three local policemen present at this moment just looked on.

Sending the march across as many borders was a risk in and of itself, but it was also a symbolic choice that made its message stronger of course. Once you agree to participate in this kind of protest march, you agree to take certain risks, after all. Because the whole march is a registered demonstration and all countries that were chosen finally agreed to “hosting” it on their territory, the risks of arrest -which for people without papers can be life destroying-, are actually smaller than travel to and from the march, away from the protection of the crowd. Like in the rest of life, possibilities and risks are unevenly dealt out, the choice to participate for only a piece of the road is a much lighter one for an activist with papers.

Things were calm until a standing protest in front of a government building in Luxemburg city where a meeting of EU Interior Ministers was held, it did come to police violence. Shortly after the peaceful protest was begun the police carried out a harsh attack. CS gas was sprayed at protesters, and policemen wrestled some individuals very violently to the ground. Several people were injured, and there was also many arrests, six of whom concerned people without papers. Solidarity protests to get those who were arrested free were planned the next day in cities across Europe, although, gladly, everyone was released the previous evening already.
The local press, unashamedly lied in its coverage of the incident by stating that the protesters attacked the police with CS gas. For attacking a policeman in such a way, an individual can receive up to two years in prison, so certainly no one in the situation at hand would be in their right mind to try to do such a thing. The protest was meant to be peaceful and was started as such. Only the police chose to use violence. Let us hope this will turn out the only occurrence of police violence during the March for Freedom. At the end of the march an action week in Brussels is planned, which is coordinated to happen at the same time as a two-day EU summit about migration. Given the fact that during the last international activist event, the No Border camp four years ago the police also treated protesters with violence, such a hope will probably remain a vain one.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

My name is Abdul-Salaam

"My name is Abdul-Salaam, I am a refugee from Syria, now living in the Netherlands. I am undocumented here, and I have been undocumented all my life. In Syria, where I was born, that was because I am Palestinian. Under Assad certain groups of the Syrian population could never acquire papers, like the Kurds, if they did not want to be Arabized, or us, the Palestinian refugees. I was born and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, and neither me nor any of my 14 siblings were given any papers. My sisters and brothers had children themselves, and they were not given any papers either. We could be five or six generations, they still would leave us undocumented, depriving us in this way of basic human rights.

Pictures of starving Palestinians in the Yarmouk refugee camp under siege became very famous this past winter

My father was born in 1935 in Canaan, the place where Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding. In 1948, when my father was twelve years old, the newly founded Israeli army started a war against the local population. They came and seized the Palestinian’s land to occupy it, evicting local families from their homes, and creating a great stream of refugees. At this time my father lived with his parents and siblings in Nazareth, ten kilometers from Canaan. Because of its great Biblical symbolicalness, Nazareth was taken with little violence compared to other places, and Christian Palestinians were allowed to stay. But my father's family were Muslims. They had to flee. They left their house, their land, and most of their belongings behind. Until this day, over 60 years later, my siblings and I, we have kept the papers of our house and our land in Nazareth. But none of us has returned there, we cannot.
My father and his parents first went to Golan Heights, but later they moved on to a refugee camp in Damascus, in the district Yarmouk. This is where my father spent the rest of his years growing up. As an adult he founded a family in the very same camp. He got married four times, and had fifteen children. My mother was his last wife. He died a few years ago.

Yarmouk refugee camp became famous in the war because of attacks of Assad's troops and their allies on opposition fighters hiding inside the camp, and, this past winter, with the terrible famines that haunted it. The picture of a sea of people waiting for bread at Yarmouk camp became world-famous, you've probably seen them. Luckily my family survived. People made do with what they had, they hunted pidgeons and later started to plant their own food.

One thing I've learnt from living a war, is how amazingly flexible human beings really are. It is amazing how you outgrow yourself under such extraordinarily difficult conditions. When at first you have to go and get food or other necessities in a war situation, you feel scared. But from the second or third time on, you grow brave, you just have no other choice. I swear that is what happened to everyone in Syria at the time war broke out around them. You just do what you have to do to survive, even if it means risking your life every single time. Especially doing things for others makes you go beyond what you thought you'd ever dare. I was the only one of my sisters and brothers who was not married and had kids, so it made sense for me to take the greatest risks in providing for everyone. If I risked dying, at least it was only my own life on the line.
To imagine what I went through, think of this: one time I drove my car through a rain of bullets with my family inside. Yarmouk camp was under siege by Assad's because of opposition fighters inside. They were ready to shower anyone coming outside the camp with machine gun fire. It may seem magic that none of my family members inside got hurt. We heard that six or seven people died this way when leaving the camp. Assad's troops were building up, preparing for an attack to oust their opponents. We thought fleeing early was actually the safer way.
We stayed away for a while, but we later returned to our house in the camp. We did not really have another place to go.

The first member of my family trying to escape Syria after the war erupted was my elder brother. He was arrested and taken to prison when he was caught trying to smuggle himself out of the country. Thankfully he was liberated after a relatively short time. But conditions in Syrian prisons can really be said to be the worst in the world. Even in other Middle Eastern countries the situation is ever so slightly better. My brother lost 15 kg in two weeks. And you have to know that he has high religious upbringing, so he actually received preferential treatment from other inmates. He said they were forty people in one cell. When they were fed, the food was thrown onto the ground, and who was first to grab it, was to eat. There was not enough for everyone. 

Two people’s place was in the toilet, they were taken out when someone was allowed to use it. And it tells you something about conditions, if he said that the toilet was actually the best place to be. It was cooler and less crowded than the cell, where there was not enough space for everyone to lie down, or even to sit. You have to imagine that a forty degrees heat outside, and no ventilation inside the prison. At the back of the cell there would be a row of people standing, on front of which there would be people sitting, while others could lie. Every few hours they rotated. People who arrived with medical conditions in the prison ran great risks for their health. One time someone with diabetes died in the cell. The guards left the dead body for two or three days, as a psychological torture for the other inmates who had to endure the sight and the smell of the deceased. 

I still tried, and I managed to flee Syria and come to Europe. My brother later succeeded, too, by the way. But my mother and many of our other siblings are still in Syria. Almost every time that I talk to them on the phone, I hear bombs or shooting in the background. 

Right now, I live in the AZC (asylum seekers' hostel in the Netherlands). Every day I say goodbye to someone. They kick out people every day, and they do not care if that person has a place to go.
Tomorrow I have an interview with the "citizen service". I am nervous, they are like the secret police, they ask so many questions, and every little detail you say is analyzed. In this they they are no better than the IND (the Dutch immigration service). I was told that I could have papers a few weeks ago. Now I know that if I make but the slightest mistake tomorrow and give what they consider to be a “wrong answer” that offer can be rescinded."

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Hairdressers of Hatay

Tansu (her name means "water coloured like dawn"!), says to me in the evening: "But tomorrow you are not going to dress like that", meaning my long skirt, which I find comfortable and well-adapted to travel in Muslim countries. "Tomorrow you wear jeans and a tight T-shirt when we go out together!".
The next day Tansu came, an hour later than the time announced, wearing tight jeans stopping above the knee. When she saw that I was still dressed in the same unseemly long skirt of yesterday, she was disappointed. She had been hoping being with me dressed equally licentiously would have given her a sort of fool's licence. Now she preferred we take a back-street to arrive at her workplace, so the neighbours wouldn't start bad-mouthing her for her outfit.
Her young boss, whose name was Ceylan ('gazelle'), was dressed up to conservative standards in the way that she was covered from neck to toe; both shirt and trousers were extremely tight though, something less frowned upon in Turkey strangely enough. Between her legs an impressively detailed camel-toe was showing. I was offered a cup of coffee and asked to make myself comfortable.

When I asked Ceylan whether she was Christian she first looked at me a bit shocked. But then she remembered solidarity and reacted cordially: "I am Alawite! But we stick together; Kurds, Christians, Alawites, Alevites - we are all oppressed people in this country." Then she went into detailed account of real, lived discrimination and drawn out conspiracy theories.
I admit that the last thing I expected from a girl like that, with eyebrows plucked to death, who probably spends an hour putting on make-up in the morning, was a political tirade against the state. I should have known better. Will I never learn? This is Turkey, and almost everyone is politicized, for better or for worse (in this case, the better).

Typical of many young people having to make a living, she opened her shop illegally two years earlier, even if for the moment she stays officially a student. Later I learnt that Hatay has a strange, random notoriety for hairdressers. It is not uncommon that hairdressers elsewhere in Turkey come from this province. Certainly, the amount of hairdressers I met during my week there served to bear out this affirmation. The explanation is that cutting hair is an easy job to learn for young people who have to fend for themselves in the real world, quitting school at sixteen, or even earlier. The families here make many kids while they cannot afford offering good education and perspectives in life to all of them, so many have to find a job that is easy to learn, and quickly, so they can start making money.