Breaking Barriers

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Ozlem, photographed by Jo Metson Scott

In October, the London-based charity Breaking Barriers put on an exhibition in London featuring photographic portraits of refugees to the UK. The photographs were accompanied by stories about each of their experiences of migration and the relationships they had formed on the way. I wrote the text for the exhibition, interviewing each of the 10 people to be featured, and turning those interviews into short first-person narratives that were displayed alongside the images at the Protein Gallery in London.

Selected photographs and stories were published by various media outlets. Stylist featured some of the women, while the BBC also chose a selection.

Here’s a short excerpt from Ozlem’s story (she is pictured above). You can read the rest of her story over at Stylist.

I didn’t want to go to jail. So I left the city, assumed a different identity, and worked. I was very young and couldn’t be in touch with my family. I didn’t want to leave Turkey, but after five years of living this way, I had no choice. In 1999 I came to the UK to join my sister, who came for the same reasons. Suddenly, I had nothing to hide and nobody to run from. I started to listen to myself, and remembering what I had gone through, I fell into a severe depression.

Reframing gender violence

4492I was absolutely delighted to be selected as a media fellow for a programme run by Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference. The programme, titled  Religion and the Global Reframing of Gender Violence, aims to question dominant narratives about gender based violence, with a particular focus on the Middle East and South Asia. Along with two other media fellows, I attended an academic conference in Jordan (a book containing all the papers should be out at some point this year), and then went on to do several weeks of reporting in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. My focus was on gender-specific issues in the refugee crisis; I’ve had a few pieces already out based on the reporting I did, with some longer articles in the works.

Yazidis in Iraq: ‘The genocide is ongoing’ (Al Jazeera)

ISIS’s crimes against the Yazidi community were an international sensation – but despite this attention, many in northern Iraq do not feel they are getting the support they desperately need. I interviewed Yazidis who are taking action to help their community.

Iraq after ISIL: ‘It was like a ghost town’ (Al Jazeera)

Telskof is a Christian village in Iraq’s Niniveh plain. It was occupied by ISIS – but now the militant group has been cleared out, and residents are moving back. I interviewed people there about the struggles of starting over.

The Refugee Whose Husband Sold Her Into Sex Slavery (Broadly)

Syrian refugee women are incredibly vulnerable to sexual exploitation due to their precarious economic position and uncertain immigration status. In Lebanon, I met one particularly brave woman, who has escaped forced prostitution and is now working to help others in the same situation.

Hairdressing, sewing, cooking – is this really how we’re going to empower women? (The Guardian)

Women’s empowerment has long been a development buzzword, but a narrow focus on getting women into low-paid work may be marginalising them further. I drew on material from Jordan and Iraq to examine the occasional failings of empowerment programmes.

 

 

Activism and hope in the Syrian crisis

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Syrian women protest in Aleppo Photograph: Women Now for Development

During my recent trip to Lebanon, I spent time with various refugee-focused organisations, and had the privilege of meeting some inspiring Syrian grassroots activists. Here are the stories I wrote.

Syria’s ‘disappeared’: families demand to know fate of their loved ones (Guardian)

In Syria, over 60,000 people are missing – detained by the state or rebel groups. I spoke to a group of Syrian women – spread around the world – who are campaigning to find out what happened to their missing relatives.

Syrian feminists: ‘This is the chance the war gave us – to empower women’ (Guardian)

During my time in Lebanon, I spent time at the offices of Women Now for Development, a remarkable grassroots organisation. They and other feminist activists in Syria and neighbouring countries are challenging patriarchal norms, to ensure they have a place not just at the negotiating table, but in rebuilding the country after the war.

Our home became very far, very far”: how singing about Syria is bringing refugee children together (Prospect)

While I was in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley – where many Syrian refugees live – I saw a children’s choir, where songs drawing on traditional themes of longing, migration and land are giving refugee children a voice.

Schools in Lebanon

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Dama school, Bekaa Valley (photo: my own)

I recently travelled to Lebanon, one of the countries where the Syrian refugee crisis is felt most acutely. There are well over 1 million Syrians currently residing in Lebanon, a country of only 4 million people. Around half of these Syrians are children, meaning a huge scale educational crisis as Lebanon’s already struggling public school sector.

In response to this crisis, Lebanon introduced a “second shift” for refugee students. This offered a lifeline to many families, but it also entrenches segregation. In a piece for IRIN, the humanitarian news service, I wrote about some of the complex challenges posed by the education crisis, and the importance of integration within the classroom.

Although the second shift system has obvious benefits, it comes with its own set of problems. By the afternoon shift, teachers are exhausted and learning time is compressed. “Human resources are stretched very thinly,” explained Oscar Wood, co-director of Seenaryo. “There are not always new teachers in the second shift, and core staff like heads and senior leadership have to stay all day.”

You can read the rest of the piece over at IRIN.

People smuggling and border policy

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On Saturday 16th August, the Norstream, a P&O Ferries commercial ship, arrived at Tilbury Docks in the British county of Essex. The ship, which had come from the Belgian village of Zeebrugge, was loaded up with 64 containers. Around 6am, dock-workers heard “banging and screaming” coming from one of the containers. It was opened. There were 35 people crammed inside. One man, in his 40s, had died on the journey. It turned out that the group – which included 13 children – was entirely made up of Sikhs fleeing from Afghanistan.

I wrote a piece for the German outlet Deutsche Welle about the case, explaining the background:

Currently, a European law known as the Dublin Regulation dictates that someone seeking refugee status must make their claim in the first country that they land in. This means that there is a disproportionate strain on countries on the southern and eastern borders of Europe; countries such as Greece, Italy, and Poland. Many of these countries have overstretched asylum systems and struggling economies; therefore, many migrants want to remain under the radar until they can reach Germany, Sweden, or Britain.

I also blogged on the story for the New Humanist:

The Independent points out that just 0.23 per cent of the British population is made up of asylum-seekers. The horrific plight of the 35 found at Tilbury should serve as a reminder that immigration policy is not simply a political hot potato over which to trade inflammatory rhetoric; seeking to make these policies more humane, to accommodate the world’s most vulnerable, is a matter of moral obligation.

 

The UK and Syria’s refugees

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Syrian refugees in Spain.

The Syrian refugee crisis has been described as the worst since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, with 6.5 million internally displaced and more than 2 million seeking refuge abroad. The UK has been reluctant to offer sanctuary to a significant number of refugees, a decision that should be seen in the context of a dominant anti-immigrant political mood. While the British government has agreed to rehome 500 Syrian refugees, a small number have claimed asylum here already. Two of them told me their stories.

Ruqaiya was in her final year of university when she realised she couldn’t go home. In London on a student visa, she had missed the worst of the fighting in her hometown of Damascus: after the revolution began in March 2011, her family had told her not to come back for the holidays.

In May 2012, gearing up for her exams, she received terrible news. “My brother, who works in Germany, called to say that our father had been killed in an airstrike and the house destroyed. My mother had fled with my aunt to Jordan. Suddenly I didn’t have a home.” On the advice of an uncle living in the UK, Ruqaiya claimed asylum.

You can read the full article over at the New Statesman website, and here’s the (shorter) version that appeared in the magazine:

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