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.”

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#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