Confessions From a Receiver on the Other End of War

Here’s a confession from Sweden: despite working in Syria and Iraq during the civil wars, the collective trauma of the wars has hit me the most when being in Sweden.

I am happy I have friends and colleagues from different countries also in Sweden. I’ve shared my views on my female friendships on this site before, several times. I’m happy I have a job where I get to offer some support to the refugees in Sweden. But the secondary traumas are creeping up on me from time to time, as well as the high cost of trying to be neutral in the midst of relationship chaos that comes from internalised conflicts.

There is one thing, according to me, that people who suffered a war have in common: distrust. And distrust can take many forms. People can become shattered. Or angry. Or hostile. Or traumatised. Or depressed. The good things lies underneath, still there; people can be still be wonderful friends, colleagues, human beings; but the reaction to war rarely leaves a person without a trace.

On the outskirts of these conflicts, here in Sweden, I’m trying to manage the Assad supporters disbelieving in the activists from the opposition. The opposition activists suspecting the Assad supporters for being in liaison with the intelligence. People blaming Iranians for messing up Syria. People blaming Iraqis for Daesh. People blaming each other for not caring about the others. Trying to remain neutral in this is a battlefield on its own.

Taking part of people’s experiences made things to me as well. All the stories I have heard are sometimes blurring in my mind, if I ever am to retell them. Was it the Iraqi boy I knew who was forced, as a teenager, to watch a gang rape of an Iraqi girl? Was it the Syrian woman I knew who couldn’t sleep through the night so she chose the day instead, terrified of the dark? Was it the Palestinian man who had covered his child’s ears from hearing the bombings at night in Gaza, who still was in anguish, because despite being outside of the country, his child still heard the bombs? Or was it someone else?

I just now recalled a morning that I spent some time back with a Syrian friend in the Swedish Migration Board, when she was about to apply for asylum. I had gone with her as she didn’t want to be on her own. She hadn’t slept all night but she was still composed. In the Migration Board, the queue system had broken down and people were fighting in order to get to the desk to have their application handed in before closing time. The scene somehow reminded of the situation at the Syrian border. There were no pens to fill in the applications. There was no one to explain anything. People were pulling at me, a Swede, to explain the system to them (I only could somehow), to ask for water (there was none), to ask if they would be allowed somewhere to sleep during the night (I didn’t know). There were too many people in the room that became unbearably hot. I started to yell at the woman behind the desk when she said she was out of pens. I started to yell when she refused to come out and organise the queue. I became increasingly irritated with the asylum seekers begging me for help.

My friend told me to come out and sit down at one of the benches in the waiting room, and surprisingly enough, a man left his place so that here was room for me. A Syrian family that my friend had befriended in the waiting room came up, and their 8-year-old daughter placed herself in my knee, so that she could watch music videos on my iPhone. But before so, she folded my jacket and placed it behind my head. Why did the girl do that? Her mom gave the girl’s brother a KitKat and a soft drink to give to me, him resolutely pressing the items in my hands, urging me to open the chocolate bar. Then a few minutes later, I heard the children’s father speak to his bench neighbour next to us. The neighbour had asked him something about Sweden, and the man answered:

“I don’t know… there is a Swedish girl over there who speaks a little bit of Arabic, that I could ask. But I don’t want to do it right now. As you can see, she is very tired.”

#SyriaB4War – Hashtag Gone Wrong

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UNHCR Northern Europe wanted to launch a hashtag on Syria to remind people on how Syria was before the war. Little did they probably suspect that Syrian activists – these admirable, young, brave people – would take over the hashtag to remind the world of what was going on behind the beautiful scenery of their homeland. UNHCR even happily encouraged twitters to publish their photos of Syria before the war, seemingly disregarding the Syrian activists using Twitter as their main forum for resistance towards the regime.

Everyone agrees that Syria was a beautiful country before the war, but if you happened to be against the regime, to be one of those who wanted to speak, read and write whatever they wanted to, Syria could show a very ugly face. This, many people seem to have forgotten by now. The Twitter activists quickly took the opportunity to remind of this, and to show an excerpt of their remarkably dark humour:

“#SyriaB4War: is where you have to watch the criminal dictator pictures in all streets” (attached, a photo with the ever-smiling Bashar Al Assad)

“#SyriaB4War: Farm for Bashar al-Assad and his family”

“#SyriaB4War: Thousands of writers and the opposition were in prison”

“#SyriaB4War: is where the civil society activism was only for Asthma Assad and her entourage”

“#SyriaB4War: is where families dream of eating meat without being able to fulfil that dream with their miserable salaries”

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And the last touché: one twitterer attached a photo of the Tadomour prison in Syria: “who goes there never return”.

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I bet UNHCR’s communication department will think twice next time.

American Jewish Women in Support of Middle Eastern Refugees

After Donald Trump’s horrifying statements regarding Muslim refugees, tensions have been high in social media, and therefore I was happily surprised to see a different kind of action.

A Jewish women’s group in US decided to start a movement under the hashtag #welcomethestranger, with this aim in mind:

“…to counter the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and corresponding legislative action recently taken by Congress (HR 4038) that would keep refugees in limbo until they are “certified” as not being a security threat. People who are fleeing for their lives. We must not let this come to pass in the Senate. please join us in this action of writing your representatives, and share additional actions you are taking. Now is the time.” 

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It will be interesting to see how far this campaign can reach. In this polarised and intolerant times, I decided to share this small, but for humanity so necessary action, with you.

Photo copyrights: Leah Katz Ahmadi

Alfarra Ft. Sami Bakheet: Refugee, Official Video with Lyrics

From the artist Alfa in Gaza, together with the rapper Sami Bakheet, who usually plays in Darg Team, here is the song “Refugee”.

The lyrics are on how the journey begins in Gaza, and where it ends. The reasons you have for leaving Gaza in the first place, until you meet reality.

Even if you don’t understand Arabic, I still hope you find the song nice to listen to.

Update August 5:

You can now read the subtitles in English if you click “settings” -> “subtitles” on the Youtube clip.

The Subject of “Immigration” Has Hijacked Our Lives

A while ago I came back to Sweden after being abroad on a humanitarian mission for eight months. It’s always a minor culture shock to come back after a humanitarian mission, but what struck me the most this time was not usual differences; the rainy winter, the small changes in the street fashion, new songs on the radio – but how the topic of immigration has seeped into each and every conversation.

While I was away, Sweden held an election in which the populist right-winged party Sverigedemokraterna doubled their support and scored an amazing 13% of the votes, despite for example my own eager attempt to stop them by mailing my vote from the Asian country where I was. The main topics that Sverigedemokraterna made their election issues, are immigrants, refugees, the economy (unclear how), the elderly population, and immigrants again. Even before the most recent election in 2014, the party had been able to set the public agenda to be focused on immigrants, even for people otherwise not engaged in politics.

In the year of 2015, I discovered upon taking the train from Copenhagen airport to Sweden and re-entering my home country, the subject is not only popular: it has now completely hijacked our conversations. Most of my friends seem to speak about it. Acquaintances I hardly know speak about it. A man who I sold my old bed to raised the subject when he came around to pick up the bed. I hear the subject when queuing in the grocery store. You would think that people would want to speak about something else. How was my humanitarian mission, for example? I was in a rough place where many things happened, both of the exhausting kind due to the domestic politics, but also positive things. I don’t have to speak about that constantly, but I wouldn’t mind venting a bit with friends or sharing of some of the things that I experienced and learned. But it’s almost never brought up, because other things are on most peoples’ minds.

For example: Should all refugees really come to Sweden? Will integration of immigrants really work? Why has Sweden’s integration policy failed? Should Muslims have the right to wear headscarf in school? How can we get rid of the newly arrived immigrants from Romania, who are begging on the street? Almost no one seem to be in touch with concrete, true facts about immigration or integration, and I wonder how they know that Sweden’s integration policy is so failed? Have they read the policy? Many also don’t seem to be in touch with a lot of people who classify as “immigrants”, in their own daily lives.

The other day I caught up with a friend of mine who factually stated:

“In the papers you read all these chronicles about immigration, from all different perspectives, as if it’s the only current thing right now, and then we read these chronicles about that there’s a major subject about immigration. We just shouldn’t keep discussing the subject. I mean, what happened to other current affairs? What happened to global warming?”

The subject has totally hijacked us and we’re not even aware that we’re hijacked, like a Boeing 787 where the passengers seem not to notice the change of course, despite there being clouds outside when there should have been sun, and the pilot lying on the floor of the cockpit, tied up and gagged, desperately trying to call for help.

Today I went to the hairdressing saloon, a new place I haven’t tried before. The woman who owned the saloon was really nice, and during the hours it took her to do my hair, we chatted about many things. She told about her upcoming vacation in Dubai with her family, how she loved the country and was ready to soak up in the sun, to get away from the rainy Swedish spring. I said I had recently returned, and that I had missed the rain. We spoke about the difficulty on buying clothes online, that even if it’s cheap it’s sometimes a loosing deal since you rarely put in the energy to send back an item you don’t like. We bonded over that we both loved shopping and missed the variety outside Sweden, and agreed that we equally could spend 24 hours straight in an American-style mall if we’re given the chance.

That was nice. A different conversation from many of the others I had recently. The woman didn’t even mention the word “immigration”. Maybe she would want to hang out with me sometime? It would be a wonderful change. I might see if she’s up for a coffee this weekend.

One of Two Oppressors in Syria

So there’s a shortage in food aid to Syrian refugees scattered around the Middle East region, and UN has made an unusual appeal for the world to help out. If aid doesn’t reach thousands of people risk starving to death during the cold winter months in under equipped refugee camps. The horrifying threat of ISIS and the other over 1.000 militia groups that are terrorizing the country have received international condemnation, internet campaigns against ISIS and a new awareness about the Syrian civil war that is now on it’s 4th year. Many seem terrified about the terrorists in Syria and the damage they have brought to the already devastated country that’s slowly falling into pieces. But what the world seems not to remember is that Syria for decades was plagued by a dictatorship where people disappeared into the intelligence service Mukhabarat’s secret prisons for having their own opinions, and young women gang raped and dumped in the sea by the ruling elite’s young men, safe in the awareness that they’re affiliation with the Assad regime would protect them from any consequences. Long before the civil war, human rights activists in Syria tried to call for attention on the ongoing crimes against humanity, unheard. Not until the bearded young men with rifles and a twisted version of Islam showed up on Youtube, the world started to react. And now it’s most likely too late. Photo credit: cskc.daleel-madani.org

The Non-Existence of The Iraqi Conflict

This article was originally posted on A Brave New World’s website.

Have you been to any of the neighboring countries of Iraq recently? Have you seen the Iraqi widows begging in the streets? Or the teenagers that have lived most of their lives outside their home country, raised without proper education or housing, on the run as long as they can remember? On the 11th anniversary of US invasion of Iraq, the country is again leaning towards the brink of a civil war and the remnants of the mass exodus in the last decade are still present, scattered around the conflict-ridden region. In Jordan and Lebanon, the Iraqi refugees are now intermingling with the Syrians; in Turkey they blend in easily with the masses of trafficked people who are trying to survive on the dangerous streets of Istanbul.

Last week, Baghdad and Mosul were the latest targets in the series of bomb explosions that has plagued Iraqi since 2003, along with the terrorist groups that are de facto ruling parts of the country with their own extremist agendas. In the governorate of Anbar, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militia briefly tool control over the city of Al Sainiyah before the government troops were able to retrieve it, in what is not a completed battle. The last decade is repeating itself all over again.

Having worked as a humanitarian aid worker for different Iraq missions, what is as disheartening as the continuous reports about lives being lost is the international response. Not in the sense of the humanitarian NGOs and UN’s collective force to – by remote management – try and assist the troubled nation. Following the slow collapse of Iraq, a mass invasion of NGOs established themselves in compounds in Baghdad, in Erbil or the surrounding countries. A staggering amount of US dollars was thrown into the country when NGOs where found to offer anything from counseling to art classes, very few providing roof over the head or food, as an aid for a war the Iraqis didn’t start themselves. But in terms of legal aid or security, the response was nowhere to be found.

UNHCR has been unable to secure the lives of the many Iraqis seeking help in neighboring countries. EU started to deny Iraqis asylum as far back as in 2007 with the justification that threatened Iraqis could “seek help from the Iraqi authorities”. This was at a time when representatives from the Iraqi government officially begged receiving countries not to deport minorities back to Iraq, as the government could not guarantee their lives. Not even the horrifying massacres of Christians during the Sunday masses in churches in Kirkuk and Baghdad seemed to change the international community’s seemingly strong belief in the Iraqi government. The well-known phenomenon that extremist groups had connections and sometimes worked in cooperation with members of the government never seemed to make it to international media, and the government’s failing interest or ability in protecting their population was silenced among international actors. Because the tragedy that was Iraq was an obvious never ending disaster, and who wants another needing family on their doorstep?

11 years later, US has pulled out, leaving behind a nation where terrorist groups are intertwined with the government; minorities are in constant fear of random assassination and terrorist attacks pose a daily threat to the civil population. Oil companies and related contracting agencies have moved in large-scale and the international community is benefiting from the booming industry, but the foreigners employed still cannot go outside of their compounds as safety still is not prevailing – as it would, if the country was back to a normal state of being. The independent region of Iraqi Kurdistan recently closed their borders to their fellow countrymen after the September bomb attacks in Erbil, and so the last resort has been cut off. They had taken a fair share of the conflict; many of the young boys and girls who became orphans joined gangs in Kurdistan when the grim reality of survival in the last decade made many people turn their backs on their orphaned relatives. And is it possible to criticize Kurdistan for closing the door to the chaos of the South, especially after considering the ridiculously low number of refugees that US has accepted since the start of their uninvited attempt to liberate the Iraqi people?

To this reality even the Iraqi refugees that are still in even a country as Syria prefer to stay where they are. Here, UNHCR is still assisting around 44,000 Iraqi refugees. Too afraid of what is waiting them back home, they prefer to stay in a country where the majority of the native population soon will be refugees themselves. Yes, a wealthy family that can afford protection or has a budget allowing them to leave the country whenever they might need to, can consider staying in one of the relatively safer cities, such as Basra that has seen an upswing in security the last years after a permanent military presence. They have seen how their fellow countrymen have suffered as refugees outside; people spending years seeking asylum with no result, living in hiding in different places in Europe and the Middle East, many women being subject to exploitation and sexual trafficking. But the absolute majority of the refugees don’t have the possibility of returning to a safe life in Iraq. They might belong to a minority; they might have had a family member murdered or disappeared without trace; or they have simply lost their hopes that Iraq ever will be a safe place again.

“We will die here or there,” a young Iraqi girl told me last year in Damascus. “It is less painful to just stay on.”

Other refugee groups in Syria have decreased after the start of the Syrian revolution, but in aftermath of the silence of the international community, for many of the Iraqis there is just nowhere else to go.

Photocredit: http://commons.wikimedia.org

Two Voices from Aleppo University

Aleppo University after the bombings January 2013

I was able to talk with two persons from Aleppo University in Syria, that shared what they had been going through.

Here are their stories:

I was offered a job at Aleppo university after my studies. When the revolution started we as employees in a governmental institution were made to cooperate with shabiha (a feared subgroup within the Syrian intelligence/military, some claim they are criminals that the government recruits to terrorize civilians, a strategy to stop the revolution). We had to assist them in their fights against the protests. I tried to act as if I assisted them, then I was able to escape the country.

My home in Syria is all destroyed, my street is in ruins. No food is available and when going to search for food to buy people are being killed by snipers. Why are the government and the Free Syrian Army taking it out on us? We are only citizens.I  didn’t think the revolution would go this bad, and I blame both sides now. They have both helped in destroying my city.”

I was a student in Aleppo university. In January 2012 students were gathering in front of the cafeteria, holding a protest. They were protesting peacefully, shouting for freedom, protesting against the war and demanding the release of political prisoners. Security guards inside the university called shabiha without the students knowing. They came directly and started arresting students on spot and hit them with electrical batons. Another time they gassed the university with teargas.

Then on January 15 2013, it was first day of the examinations, the government bombed the university, many people saw the attack and that it was carried out by a warplane. Still when I see a plane or helicopter in the sky I get an awful feeling. One missile hit the entrance of the faculty of architecture; the other one hit the student dorm that had been evacuated to host refugees from other areas of Aleppo, people that had have to flee their homes. Dead people were littering the streets all around.

I can’t forget the barbarity of Shabiha and the security forces, the way I saw them attack the students or the sounds of clashes and missiles around us. I still have nightmares and then I wake up sometimes and I have to say to myself: ‘It’s ok, I’m out of Syria,I’m safe now’. But now a year after my departure, the situation is more much worse. There are inner borders and snipers in everywhere and there isn’t any safe place left in Aleppo.

Photo credit: New York Times

Crossing the Syrian Border

In a time of peace and normality, the border between Syria and Lebanon is like any other border: queues are busy, rules are neglected, bored military officials are stamping passports in between smoking and drinking endless cups of tea. Now everything is different. And as the road to the airport is not safe, crossing the Lebanese border by land is the only safe alternative for leaving the country, making an otherwise sheltered humanitarian aid worker like me left to mingle with the Syrians that are trying to get out.

The border on the road between Damascus and Beirut is still controlled, heavily controlled, with new checkpoints every few minutes before reaching the border office. Outside the office cars are parked everywhere and masses of people are moving with their plastic bags and children, the chaos mirroring the domestic collapse. Many internal refugees are now dirt-poor, without money for bus or shared taxi, leaving the country by foot.

I was holding on to my passport and documents, trying to make my way in through the crowd and into the office. It was steaming hot and people were pushing and shoving each other, small children were crying. The lines leading up to the cashiers where the necessary stamps were given to the lucky ones that were able to reach there, was swamped. The driver that had taken me was not allowed to do the documents for me, and without stamp you couldn’t cross the border. I was able to make my way a few meters in to the crowd before I got stuck. People were so tightly packed it was impossible for a short woman like me to advance forward, and the crowd was turning aggressive. Even if I wouldn’t be squeezed, would I be saved from being assaulted? A man that was trying to make his way back through the crowd was being squeezed and received help from his wife and another man that pulled him out. The officers behind the counters shouted out, telling people to stop, and some shouted back: “How can we do it?” “We’re stuck!” “Help us instead!”

A military man passed by and people flipped their papers to him, begging for help: “My husband is sick, please help us!”, “Ammo, we need to get out, please stamp our passports!” The man ignored them, but I took my chance and pulled out my humanitarian worker’s ID:

“I’m a foreigner, I work for the Red Cross! Or something like the Red Cross!”

He glanced at me.

“Ok, come here.”

He let me go before him through the door he was entering and shoved away the others that tried to follow. A big metal tool was placed against the door to prevent it from opening again and the desperate bangs from the outside followed immediately. In the small room aside of the counters a few other people, a man on crutches and some lone women like me, were waiting hopefully, squeezed together in the small window facing the officers. Maybe we would be able to leave the country today? But we were being ignored.

“Go stand in line!” an officer yelled.

“We can’t stand in line, they’ll squeeze us! We’ll die there!” a woman replied.

Through an open window some young men climbed in. From all ways everyone was desperately trying to reach the officers, the stamps. The room was filling up with people and was becoming unpleasantly crowded as well. A girl who was pressed next to me laid her head on my shoulder, seizing the opportunity of the closeness to rest. She was maybe 10 years old.

“Are you tired?” I asked her.

Eh.” Her voice was just a whisper.

The girl drifted off to sleep as we waited, her head staying on my shoulder, her body leaning on me. The pressure from other people kept her upright.

After maybe an hour an officer appeared and suddenly lost his temper when seeing the amount of people that had materialized in the back room:

”Get out, all of you!”

The protests made him furious, he violently pushed us out:

“Go! I said go!”

No one wants to unfold an argument with an armed military. We stumbled upon each other as we hurriedly left the room. I was being pushed to the right and lost my balance, quickly catching it before falling face down. The driver that had been waiting for me in the back of the main room saw me from a distance and shouted: “Someone help her at least, she’s small, she can’t make it there! She’s afraid of all you men!”

A man suddenly gave in, reached out for me through the forest of people, took my passport and papers and sent them through the crowd.  “A small girl” I heard him mumbling to the others protesting. A few minutes later the papers came back, sent from hand to hand, with the proper stamps, nothing missing. I advanced backwards through the masses and was able to press through the door. Before reaching the relief of the fresh air I saw the little girl that had slept on my shoulder, now slumping alone on the floor. Her mother probably had left her there while trying to make it on her own. She was also a small girl, but no one took notice of her.

Two White Women Buying a Table from an Iraqi Family

On a rainy November evening a few years ago, me and my flatmate took a bus to the other end of our city to buy a second hand couch table we had seen an ad for online. We were scraping together to buy things to furnish our flat going all over the city to collect second hand furniture from richer people that traded off their old stuff, and we were happy to finally afford a table for our living room. It was a long way to go to this neighborhood, where small houses replaced the rental flats in our area, and we searched for a while before finding the house. A pretty little brick house with an accompanying garden, was supposedly the correct place according to the address we had been provided with.

As we rang the doorbell a small boy opened. “My mom is coming” he said, then adding, unasked: “She only speaks little Swedish.”

A woman dressed in a black abaya appeared in the doorway, introducing herself in broken Swedish. We realized it was an Iraqi family that we had come across. It was obviously not one of the Baghdadi families, liberal in the urban kind of way – it was a conservative, religious family we could tell from the woman’s appearance and the religious scripts on the wall. We were surprised, then felt stupid being surprised. Why couldn’t a conservative Iraqi family stay in this upper middle class area? Here we were: two white women still buying second hand furniture because we couldn’t afford the new things, still sharing a flat in what someone could have called a “socially deprived area” where water leaks in the house made our flat smell of mold, and shootings was such a regular happening it hardly made headlines. Your own prejudices can have a way of coming back and slap you in the face sometimes.

The woman introduced us to the tables they were selling off and we chatted a bit. It turned out they were from Diwaniya, a city in Southern Iraq, and had arrived to Sweden a few years before. Selling all they had in Iraq before fleeing the escalating violence, and her husband starting to work as soon as they had arrived, after a while buying a small candy shop, had made them being able to buy themselves the house and put their children in nearby reputable schools.

Her husband and his brother came home, we agreed on a table on a price, then it was time for us to go. The woman started to propose that we had to drink tea first, we must be tired from the long bus ride. Or maybe eat something before leaving? We explained we were in a hurry and that we had to call a taxi to transport the heavy table to our place.

“Taxi?” the man asked. “You don’t have a car?”

“No.”

None of us actually even had a driving license, but we withheld that so as not having to lower ourselves even more in the eyes of the sellers – we had already told them the area we lived in. Without further discussion the man and his brother carried the table to their car, announcing they would bring us home.The woman kissed us both goodbye and, when we declined tea or dinner a second time, welcomed us back anytime. None of the people we had bought our furniture from had been that nice.

We squeezed into the car (damn, it was even a Volvo) with the brother of the husband and the big table, and at our house he helped us to carry the table into our living room. When he had left we looked at each other, baffled. It had been a trip of surprises, not only over who stayed in the house, but over the ride. None of our fellow Swedish countrymen would ever have done us that favour.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog