The UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants, which took place at the UN headquarters in New York on September 19th 2016, was indeed a watershed in the global response to the refugee crisis. The ‘New York Declaration’ which was the outcome of earlier preparatory work and the day-long deliberations, contained bold commitments both to address the issues being faced today and to prepare the world for future challenges. Among the commitments made were:
· to protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status. This includes the rights of women and girls and promoting their full, equal and meaningful participation in finding solutions.
· to ensure that all refugee and migrant children are receiving education within a few months of arrival.
· to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence.
· to support those countries rescuing, receiving and hosting large numbers of refugees and migrants.
· to work towards ending the practice of detaining children for the purposes of determining their migration status.
· to strongly condemn xenophobia against refugees and migrants and support a global campaign to counter it.
· to implement a comprehensive refugee response, based on a new framework that sets out the responsibility of Member States, civil society partners and the UN system, whenever there is a large movement of refugees or a protracted refugee situation.
· to find new homes for all refugees identified by UNHCR as needing resettlement; and expand the opportunities for refugees to relocate to other countries through, for example, labour mobility or education schemes.
The Declaration was surely not short on ideals, desires and promises; however, in the nine months gone by, precious little seems to have translated into tangible commitment. In fact there are some countries like the United States, that have reneged in its response to refugees. The official stand there today is about building border walls, keeping out refugees and even cutting down on financial commitments. In Europe, the emergence of political parties with a right-wing agenda promoting an exclusive and violent form of ‘nationalism’ is a cause of great concern. Xenophobia is on the rise, with local populations feeling more and more threatened for various reasons. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently criticised rising xenophobia and “aggressive nationalism” in western democracies, calling for greater social cohesion saying that, “It is essential to not just address the humanitarian crises, but to build resilience - of populations, of regions and countries - to create the conditions for those humanitarian crises not to be repeated,”
About a year ago, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) pegged the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people around the world as 65.3 million. This means that one in every 113 people on earth has now been driven from their home by war, persecution, human rights violations or climate change (which is erroneously and conveniently referred to as ‘natural disasters’). To put it more graphically each minute about 24 people around the world have to flee their home for no fault of their own. With the escalation of violence in several countries like Yemen, DRC, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria and that more than 20 million people are affected across Africa because of war, drought and hunger- the actual figures of refugees and the displaced might be much more.
More than half of the refugees (53%) today come from just three countries: Syria (4.9m), Afghanistan (2.7m) and Somalia (1.1m). Strangely enough and contrary to public perception the countries which host the most amount of refugees today are Turkey(2.5m), Pakistan(1.6m),Lebanon(1.1m), Iran(979,400), Ethiopia(736,100) and Jordan(664,100). These host countries naturally face several challenges and pressures because of the influx of refugees.
Unfortunately, there is also no political will to counter the military- industrial complex which profiteers greatly from the wars and conflicts that create refugees. The refugee crisis will certainly continue as long as countries like the US continue to produce arms and ammunition and sell them to countries like Saudi Arabia. Just last month the US and Saudi Arabia signed an arms deal of $110 billion. Saudi Arabia is well known for its human rights violations and for fomenting terrorism (the US conveniently forgets that those mainly behind the 9/11 attacks were the Saudis).
Significantly in this month of June, during which the world highlights the plight of refugees, the prayer intention of Pope Francis is to cry halt to the arms trade; He says,
It is also common knowledge that most of those who flee war and persecution are those who belong to minority communities. The Rohingyas of Myanmar are a glaring example. According to a report issued by the United Nations last month, Myanmar’s forces and the majority Buddhist community have committed mass killings and gang rapes against the Rohingya community. There are more than 1.3 million Rohingyas in the world. Although they have lived in Myanmar for more than two centuries, this Muslim minority is sadly not among those officially recognised by the authorities there. Stateless, rejected and persecuted, in recent months tens of thousands of them have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they are crammed into shanty towns. Other minorities in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan and in several other countries, continue to be on the receiving end. Many of them are forced to flee to safer places for their own security and survival. It is the responsibility of national Governments, to protect the minorities and to positively address their plight when they are forced to flee.
The UNHCR last June launched a global campaign under the overarching theme #WithRefugees demanding that world leaders and governments work together and do their fair share for refugees. The campaign is intended to push governments to translate their political commitments into action and advocating for the Global Compact for refugees to be adopted in 2018.
MAJEDA: SHATTERED DREAMS, BUT EMBERS OF HOPE
They lived not far in rural Damascus- a comfortable life: a young couple with three children. He with a secure job, drawing a salary, which was able to provide for his family more than the basic amenities of life. She looked forward to a career in law, once the children had completed their schooling. Suddenly one night in January 2012, their dreams were shattered; there were bombs and shooting all around them. They were much unprepared for this ordeal. They just fled their home, their village Babila - not knowing where to go and what to do. That cold night was spent out in the open. Their little boy Muhammad was just five days old. The next morning, with great difficulty they found their way to another village where some of their relatives lived; they found shelter there for a short time- but had to move on again, because their relatives could not support them.
The trudge, the struggle to survive was their lot for several weeks; they finally landed in Jaramana, a city around 10 km east of Damascus. When Majeda Sheikh narrates what she and her family have gone through- there is pain in her words, but not the rancour or bitterness that could legitimately be hers. Instead, there is a gleam in her eye as she looks at her three children who huddle next to her.
The apartment they now live in is dark and dinghy. They were ‘fortunate’ to rent it from one of the unscrupulous builders in Jaramana. Buildings like theirs have mushroomed everywhere in the vicinity, housing thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the Northern areas of Syria and from villages around Damascus.The windows are covered with polythene sheets, there is no electricity, water or sanitation; however, Majeda and her husband are satisfied that they now have at least a roof over their heads.
When they first came in- it was JRS, she says that came to their help; providing them with blankets, food kits and other essentials so that they could move on. Fortunately, her husband Ammar was also able to get a secure job with the JRS. Life is a bit more bearable now; but Majeda looks towards tomorrow with hope. “I always wanted to be an advocate”, she says, “ I completed my ‘baccalaureate’ – and well then, I had to get married. When I meet other women, and hear what they are going through, I really wish I could fight on their behalf legally. It is perhaps too late for me now. Maybe my daughter Amal (8 years) will become a lawyer”. However, Amal coy as she is, vehemently shakes her head and says “no”. “Okay” replies Majeda, “then I will go back after some years to study law”. Omar (11 years), their eldest son, is a bit more circumspect when he is asked what he would like to become in future. “A doctor”, he says, “because I would like to help the people who are sick or wounded”. Muhammad, now four years old- only smiles through the conversation; having been born in the height of the conflict, he has never experienced a ‘normal’ childhood so far.
For Majeda, living in Jaramana is not easy. The city is crowded with refugees: Palestinians, Iraqis and others. It is estimated that the six-year civil war in Syria has created almost 4 million IDPs – a good percentage, have sought refuge in Jaramana. The newcomers have fallen easy prey to the old- timers- for almost anything. People are generally suspicious of one another. The IDPs are resented by those who have been living here since ages. There are separate queues to buy bread: one for the residents the other for the IDPs (theirs is much longer).
Whether it is standing in the line to buy bread or taking her children to the study centre, Majeda takes it all in her stride. You can see the scars of war on her beautiful face - but in between, there is a glow: a conviction that the embers of hope, which she gently fans, will suddenly burst forth to a new and better tomorrow.
There is something remarkable about Randa! This courageous woman has braved all odds; over the years, she has seen and experienced hunger and deprivation; bombardments and suffering; destruction and death. Randa however, is not one to be defeated. She has an indomitable spirit. Today, this Syrian refugee, from her new home in Baalbek, Lebanon wants the children of the world to hear her story. Her story written in Arabic is a poignant one illustrated with her own paintings. At her book launch at the JRS Social Education Centre in Baalbek on April 11th 2017, Randa is all smiles, “today is the happiest day of my life”, she exclaims.
The book launch was part of a ‘Graduation Ceremony’ when 53 women were awarded certificates for successfully completing a course conducted by the JRS, in English, Computer Literacy or in Make-up. Most of the ‘graduates’ were Syrian refugees; though for good measure there were also some Lebanese ladies. A significant intervention to promote a more inclusive society. Some of the graduates spoke about the impact the course has had on their lives, the belonging they have experienced in the JRS Centre and the overall transformative experience, which they have gone through.
Randa Maghribi however, was the cynosure of all eyes. She shared with the audience the compelling reasons that prompted her to write the story. “Arragheef Alyabes” (meaning “The Dry Bread”) reads like a fairy tale; in reality however, it is the story of the suffering and deprivation that she and her family have gone through (which many others in Syria are also going through). Sometime ago after writing it, she first read out the story to her two little sons, Akram (12 yrs.) and Hamza (6 yrs.). They simply loved it. In writing a story ‘for children’, Randa would like children to be aware about the pangs of hunger, of what it means to be a displaced person, desperately fleeing to a place of safety but often, with nowhere to go! She hopes that her story would inspire many children: to help them realise that food is a basic right for all and they must ask for it; to help them care for and to share with others; to welcome and to accept a stranger! This ‘children’s story’ has a very powerful message for adults too! It is a story that needs to be read by all!
As she speaks about her story, several painful memories overwhelm her: the death of her younger sister in childbirth; of how her nieces and nephews had to survive on ‘cat’s meat’; of how hunger can destroy the spirit of almost anyone. “ For a hungry person she says even ‘dry bread’ means survival it means hope, and it can give new life”. For Randa, having something to eat is a basic right for every human being and war deprives people of this right.
Randa is also an accomplished artist. She has illustrated her story with more than a dozen paintings in vibrant colours. The pictures vividly capture the mood and the flow of her story. Randa happily points out to some of her other drawings and paintings that decorate the JRS Social Centre. One of them is a ‘Lady on horseback’; when asked if it is a self-portrait, Randa only beams back; one does not need an answer! A modern day ‘Joan of Arc’ has arrived in Baalbek! Randa has a special gift for JRS: a ceramic plate and a bag, on which, the previous evening, she has beautifully painted, her expression of gratitude.
For more than a year now, Randa has been associated with JRS. She is very grateful for the meaning and identity JRS has given her. She is happy because she has successfully completed both the Computer and English courses earlier; more so, because her sons receive the needed attention and the academic coaching provided by JRS. For Randa, life has been one long and difficult journey from her beautiful Al – Zabadani in Syria. Nada El Myr, the Project Director of JRS Baalbek echoes the sentiments of many, “ Randa, symbolizes for all of us, strength and hope. A great example of a woman who achieves her goals, inspite of much difficulty and suffering. Someone who is helping make this world a better place.”
Randa’s story is a remarkable one and she tells it in a remarkable way. Her story needs to be listened to and it needs to be shared. Randa after all, is a remarkable woman!
(Fr Cedric Prakash sj is a human rights activist and is currently based in Lebanon and engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Middle East on advocacy and communications. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org )(Published on 19th June 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 25)