by Ambreen Khan, a 28-year old Medical Biochemist, Healthcare Manager, mother and occasional blogger for peace and justice
“So often the world sits idly by, watching ethnic conflicts flare up, as if these were mere entertainment rather than human beings whose lives are being destroyed. Shouldn’t the existence of even one single refugee be a cause for alarm throughout the world?” – Urkhan Alakbarov
“…Hast thou seen him who rejects religion?
That is the one who drives away the orphan,
And urges not the feeding of the poor.”
(Qur’an Chapter 107: Verse 2-4)
With the news exploding with a plethora of terms popping up in relation to the crisis that is “the refugee crisis”. Terms such as “stateless generation”, “migrants vs refugee vs asylum seeker” How does it impact, if at all, you and I?
Have you ever been homeless?
The reality of being someone 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 nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (definition of a “refugee” according to the 1951 Refugee Convention) is inconceivable to most of our minds!
For the mothers out there, have you ever contemplated giving birth on a flimsy rubber boat in the middle of treacherous cold sea? To add insult to injury, Babies born to migrants and refugees may be ineligible for citizenship in any country because of inadequate paperwork causing for bias law to work against refugees, further compounded by inadequate EU controls. “According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a stateless child is born every 10 minutes somewhere in the world…which can prevent children from leading productive, fulfilling lives whilst taking a “devastating psychological toll” on them and their families. The report quotes one Syrian refugee father saying: “If they don’t have a birth certificate, it’s like they don’t exist.”
In relation to refugees from Bosnia who fled the genocide and Balkan wars resulting in resettlement in the UK “suffered worse trauma than those who stayed behind in their war-shattered homeland, according to a study by a British psychologist.” Upon meeting Nedžad we knew this was true, he wished to escape to America after his traumatic survival from execution in the valleys of Srebrenica, but couldn’t mentally find a way to live. He felt he needed to be back in Srebrenica, where he is to this day, with his wife and daughter.
For the fathers out there, have you ever imagined grabbing your wife and children, leaving your job, home and even clothes behind and walking through snow, through sub-zero, freezing temperatures for not just days but weeks, months…clocking up thousands of miles by foot/boat to an unknown foreign country and being met by barbed wired fences and police thus forcing your wife and child to sleep on the concrete street?
Why do people flee their homes?
It’s a simple yet impossible situation to be faced with by a man or woman who is about to enter refugee status. As I listened intently to political refugees of war answer this very question, many bluntly explained that if you stay you most certainly face death, if you leave you have a small hope of surviving and finding safety despite the possibility of dying along the way. You leave your home, your memories, your friends and family especially if they are too sick or elderly to travel, your livelihood and to a great extent your future dreams.
(Image taken on Jan. 31, 2014, and released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), shows residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, queuing to receive food supplies, in Damascus, Syria (UNRWA via AP)
Fleeing is not really a choice when you’re faced with barrel bombs, airstrikes, flattened hometown reduced to rubble, dust and dead bodies. On top of this untenable situation you encounter a severe lack of water, fuel, food, schools and medicine. The UN reports that nearly half of the total population of Syria, 12 million people, are in desperate need of humanitarian help and assistance (the total population was 23 million in 2011). Consequently, the only brutal decision you’re confronted with is to remain in your broken house and await the next bomb or most likely starve to death or be captured, raped and/or killed by ISIS or rebels or government forces as we are witnessing presently in Madaya as well as other areas, or run with only one item in your pocket, “hope”. This is what many are challenged with as you read this; Syrians have already endured a long four years of brutal conflict that shows no signs of ending or easing; hence, a fifth year may be the last year on this earth for many hundreds of thousands of people especially children if they remain stationary in Syria.
Political refugees are not running to a bright future as the motivator, they are running from a devastated life and shattered future. We haven’t even explored the difficulties faced by refugees who actually survive and reach a destination to rebuild a life, the language barriers, the alienation of cultures and lifestyle, the challenges of integration, of finding work, of making their qualifications and education valid in their new country of residence.
The point I am trying to articulate here is that “we” could be “them”. The life of a refugee could easily and swiftly be something we fall into unexpectedly. To add a further dimension to the status of refugees, its vital to point out that about 80% of the world’s refugees are women and children who are subjected to violence in active conflicts worldwide. For myself as a woman born, brought up, educated and having worked in my birthplace of London I try to swap shoes and think of myself as a refugee….I can try but I fail. It’s harrowing enough to simply imagine.
Why is this a “crisis”?
Despite a historic, recorded practice of people flowing across borders and being granted asylum over the last 3500 years since the time of the Babylonians, Assyrian and ancient Egyptians, to escape persecution it seems the 21st century has hit a “perceived” crisis in this flow of young families largely from Syria but also flowing from Afghanistan (and where else?). Syrian refugees awaiting to cross into Turkey – Image courtesy of LA Times.
It is not a new crisis, but is somewhat new to European and Western soil. Is there a lack of resources, land, space, finances to support and intake of extra people into our countries or is it the limited space in our politicians’ hearts that cannot accommodate our fellow human beings thus turning this forced migration into a “crisis” for the European and American nations (although Canada appears to have the biggest heart of all alongside Germany and soon to be better stronger growing economies due to this new influx of youth and skills). We saw a huge campaign on social media adorning “refugees welcome” banners across football pitches and signs held in personal photos, which demonstrated both solidarity and hope that the people of Western nations have love in their hearts even if the political figures are struggling to locate their own hearts. In the midst of an existing economic crisis, Lebanon’s population of 4.5 million “is hosting over 1.5 million refugees from Syria”, thus one out of every four people is a refugee.”
There is a current deafening and disconcerting silence from the countries closer to Syria namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE etc; despite these affluent countries being geographically nearer and easier to reach for refugees and economically growing promisingly thus paving the way for more work and opportunity, we hear nothing in the recent past or present from the leaders or the media about their role in helping to save the lives of those still fleeing a war that is literally flattening homes, schools, hospitals, villages, towns and whole cities. These conditions help create a storm with no reason or hope for people to stay in the Middle East. Perhaps this is a political piece to leave for another day (I would perhaps heavily exceed my word count in exploring the such issues here!).
Where is our “Humanity”?
“Sowing fear of refugees is exactly the kind of response groups like ISIS (Daesh) are seeking,” pertinent words from the deputy executive director for program at Human Rights Watch, Iain Levine on November 2015. It is clear we need to re-assess the rise in xenophobia.
If we can set aside any umbrage felt towards people seeking safety and open up our hearts, our homes and “share” we could surprise ourselves and realise how far resources can truly stretch. How mightily our sense of sharing could positively impact the lives of those who are fleeing war, destruction and heavy, bloodied conflict.
These famous refugees, yes, refugees have made a difference, or imparted change or even left a mark of distinction in “our” world in a variety of ways. Why, then, are we turning “our” future away? Many names include:
- Albert Einstein –one of the world’s most famous scientists; German-Jewish refugee.
- Michael Marks – one of the founders of Marks and Spencer; a Russian refugee.
- Rashmi Thakrar – a Ugandan refugee and founder of Tilda Rice
- Regina Spektor – singer, songwriter; fled Soviet Russia aged nine; now based in NYC.
- Mika -famous singer who fled from Beirut Lebanon.
- Wyclef Jean – Haitian refugee. Named group Fugees (short for refugee).
- Bob Marley – Fled Jamaica to Miami after being shot during political violence.
- Oscar Straus – Austrian-Jewish composer and refugee
- Ed & David Miliband – British MP and sons of a Belgian Jewish refugee
- Sigmund Freud – Austrian Jew, founded psychoanalysis, he fled Nazism in Austria
- Max Born – Nobel Prize for physics – German-Jewish refugee
- Sir Hans Krebs – Nobel Prize-winning scientist – German-Jewish refugee
- Jelena Dokic – tennis player and Serbian refugee
- Omid Djalili – comedian and actor. He and his family are Iranian refugees.
- Jackie Chan – Fled to USA from Hong Kong after death threats from the Triads.
- Ismail Kadare – winner of the Booker prize; fled Albania in 1990 for political reasons.
- Rigoberta Menchú –author and Guatemalan refugee; Nobel Peace Prize winner 1992.
You can find an extensive list here at http://www.refugeeweek.org.uk/info-centre/famous-refugees.
Others like Einstein and Freud continued doing important work that would not have been possible if not for asylum (Four of Freud’s five sisters died in the Holocaust).
A reminder to us all “All refugees and internally displaced people have the right to receive assistance; the right to protection from abuse and the freedom to seek asylum. These rights were enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the basis of all human rights laws and conventions — which applies to everybody — regardless of who they are or where they come from.”
Who are we denying a better life? a better society? progression? Take a simple glance at the refugees who were granted asylum; given an iota of opportunity they each impacted the world in various fields marking their names in history.
Why are we, governments and the attitudes of some people within the local population, as affluent, stable societies denying ourselves of the talent, brains, skills, diversity, man/womanpower and knowledge that refugees can bring into our societies?
We truly are a global village. When we pass from this world and decompose into the soil, we will not take our land with us, so why the xenophobia, the possessive hold on borders to our countries? Why the un-inclusiveness; narrowness and constriction in sharing of space, land, food, water, education and ultimately, humanity.
“I urge you to celebrate the extraordinary courage and contributions of refugees past and present.” (Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General). If we can proactively bring ourselves to be a part of the resolution in helping the Syrian refugees overcome the intractable hardship they are facing, we too, can celebrate and partake in the special status, achievements and successes of future scientists, artists, writers, inventors and sportswomen and men that we have celebrated only 70 years ago from Jewish and other European refugees. Surely, this would lead to a beautiful enrichment of our local and national communities to learn from the willpower and perseverance of these survivors of perilous conflict. “While every refugee’s story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage – the courage not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives.”.
I suggest we take a leaf from the Founder of Islam on reviving our humanity and sharing abilities. As a Western writer eloquently describes about the character of the Holy Prophet Muhammad in his book ‘The History of Muhammadanism (and its Sects)’, W.C. Taylor writes: “So great was his liberality to the poor that he often left his household un-provided, nor did he content himself with relieving their wants, he entered into conversation with them, and expressed a warm sympathy for their sufferings. He was a firm friend and a faithful ally.” 
The Holy Prophet of Islam (peace be upon Him) simply and frankly stated; “You will not be a believer until you love for your brother what you love for yourself” (Sahih Al-Bukhari). Surely, this principle also taught in similar teachings of Jesus (peace be upon Him) are just 17 words of wisdom that could transform the way we view “the other”, i.e. as brothers and sisters and equals.
We can explore a further description of the Holy Prophet Muhammad in his feelings on the condition of the world which I feel reflects even more so today, where a sense of the nature of man has left the world somewhat bereft of good and void of peace. “His weeping was not for himself but was on account of his awareness of the condition of the world. The worship of God had disappeared and God Almighty, having put faith in his soul, had inspired him with a joy and delight. He naturally desired to communicate this delight and love to the world, but when he observed the condition of the world and the capacities and the natures of the people, he was confronted with great difficulties. He wept over this condition of the world so much that he put his life in danger.” (Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, The Founder of Ahmadiyyat-Islam from the Essence of Islam, Vol. 1 a passage from Ruhani Khazain)
A look at tomorrow, the future?
Many Syrians, according to activists and think tanks say they desire to one day return home.
“If you are lucky in this life,
A window will appear on a battlefield between two armies.
And when the soldiers look into the window
They don’t see their enemies.
They see themselves as children.
And they stop fighting
And go home and go to sleep. When they wake up, the land is well again.” (A poem by Cameron Penny’s If You Are Lucky in This Life)
Peace talks so far have collapsed in trying to manoeuvre this unpalatable and unrelenting conflict towards a more sound situation leading to peace and safety for the people of Syria.
There is a tangible challenge in attempting to end the displacement of millions whilst also looking to support the creation and maintenance of peace and eventually, self-sufficiency. I feel the future should address the education of the children born into war, not knowing peace as Bosnian war survivor Suvad explained to us on our visit to Bosnia. Alongside education, the rebuilding of the infrastructure of the country and the opportunities for these youth to flourish need vital input. Keeping our mindset on track to realise “they” could be “us” and “we” could be them, empathy and undertsanding goes a long way in brightening the future of those whom we share this global village with. Ideally, we should not treat others in difficulty different to how we would treat ourselves and children…lest we forget, it can return on us adversely…or positively, we choose!
“In countries where people have to flee their homes because of persecution and violence, political solutions must be found, peace and tolerance restored, so that refugees can return home. In my experience, going home is the deepest wish of most refugees.” Angelina Jolie.
I leave you with these final thoughts “Those who believe and do good deeds — the Gracious God will create love in their hearts.”
Once we find this love, let’s keep it alive and remember we are one…human beings.
 Quote by Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
 Verse from The Qu’ran: Maryam Chapter 19 : Verse 97
Collage images courtesy of http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/after-aylan-4-year-old-syrian-refugee-drowns-will-it-move-eu-now-34419; http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2015/09/09/obama-propose-higher-refugee-ceiling-syrian/71948318/ ; http://www.politicoscope.com/canada-trudeau-misses-syrian-refugee-target-for-2015-as-6000-arrive/ ; http://www.politicoscope.com/israel-syrian-war-refugee-crisis-not-necessarily-bad-news-for-israel/; http://www.ydr.com/story/news/2015/11/17/wolf-defends-accepting-syrian-refugees/75963044/ ; http://www.salon.com/2015/09/28/john_oliver_destroys_fox_news_over_staggeringly_offensive_refugee_coverage/ ; http://www.haaretz.com/world-news/.premium-1.675832 ; http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/09/17-syrian-refugees-greece-interviews-ferris ;
Image courtesy of http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/
Image of girl waving – Courtesy of Reuters – A girl waves from inside a bus on her way to a refugee camp after her train arrives at Dortmund, Germany Photo: Reuters. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/11847545/Migrant-crisis-Refugees-welcomed-in-Germany-like-war-heroes-as-Berlin-expects-10000-in-one-day.html
Image of “Refugees are human beings” courtesy of http://expnowhere.com/interview/what-you-should-know-about-refugees-in-portugal/