By Fr Cedric Prakash sj*
On World Refugee Day (20 June), the global community commemorates the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees who are forced to flee their homes because of war or persecution. It is also a chilling reminder that refugees, the forcibly displaced, have no choice of their own.We also need to challenge unjust systems and political leaders, the rich and the powerful who are responsible for displacing people, for the refugees and the migrants of this world. World leaders and every single citizen must demonstrate the political will, the courage and compassion to reach out to refugees, to listen to them and to address the endemic issues, which has resulted in the greatest humanitarian crisis after World War II.
Just this past week, two callous deeds have demonstrated the abysmal depths to which humans can sink. The first was the refusal by the Italian and Maltese Governments to allow the rescue ship MV ‘Aquarius’ to dock in their ports. The ship was carrying 630 refugees from 26 different countries (all victims to human smuggling) picked up at sea. Fortunately, the Spanish Government stepped in and the refugees were able to land in Valencia after a horrendous eight-day ordeal at sea. The second is the ‘zero tolerance’ policy of the US Government, which has to date separated more than 2,000 children from their parents who have entered the US illegally. There is an outrage all across the US on this policy but the US administration is unrelenting. These tragedies will forever remain etched in the world’s memory.
Mahmoud from Al-Raqqah seems to have seen it all. There were the “good times” he reminiscences. Those were the days when he worked in Saudi Arabia in a multi-national company, which manufactured wires and cables. “We were people from different nationalities (India, Philippines, and Turkey) and even religions. We were like one family. We enjoyed each other’s company and food!” Mahmoud still uses his smattering of English, which he picked up there. However, everything changed for him very dramatically; today he feels that life for him is only about helplessness and hopelessness.
Seated in his dilapidated tent, Mahmoud looks much older than his 67years old. His breathing his heavy. He has no sight in one of his eyes- and is partially blind in the other. Sadly he narrates how he lost his sight, “it was a day of heavy fighting; there were mortar shells falling everywhere. We were fleeing from one secure area to another. Suddenly I tripped and had a bad fall. Something pierced my left eye. My family rushed me to the nearest doctor. The Islamic State was ruling Raqqah at that time- no doctor was willing to treat me since it was a Friday (Friday is only for God, according to them) I was told to come back on Sunday. It was too late then. I lost my eyesight for no reason. I am angry about it!”
It is two years now since he and his family fled Al-Raqqah and came to Lebanon. It was an extremely difficult trek for ten days through the mountains. The aerial bombings were on. They had to walk carefully through the tractor ruts because landmines were planted in several areas. They slept under the olive trees. They finally reached the safety of Bar Elias where they are in the midst of others from their own area in this tented area. “Today I feel totally lost – without sight, without work –what do I do?” The only comfort for him is the Jesuit Refugee Service. “The school is just across from our tents and our children can go there. They are accepted and welcomed. It is a joy to know all that they experience. Besides the JRS team come to visit me often – they encourage me a lot. The little hope I now have in life is only because of them!” There is anguish in his voice when he says, “I don’t want to return to Syria, there is nothing left for me there!”
In complete contrast to Mahmoud, is fourteen-year old Roula Zahra… “I want to do everything in life,” says Roula coyly but with a sense of determination. The ‘everything’ seems to be the mission statement of the life of this vibrant refugee girl child.She was born in Homs, Syria. She hardly remembers her father. He died due to some illness when she was barely three. Her mother had to struggle and to bring up the six children: two girls and four boys. It was a herculean task, but the family was able to make both ends meet. War broke out in Syria in March 2011.Overcoming many hurdles, Roula came along with her mother and siblings as refugees to Lebanon. A small apartment in the Bourj Hammoud area of Beirut has been their home ever since. Her sister, who is the eldest among the children, is now married, and lives in the same building. Roula is the youngest and in all frankness says that her brothers treat her very well.
Roula loves to study. She is one of the fortunate refugee children who is able to go to a Government morning- shift school. She is very focussed and wants to pursue a career as a scientist. “What type of scientist would you like to become?” she is asked. She thinks for a while then shakes her head and says, “I don’t know yet!” When asked if she would like to become a Space Scientist, become an astronaut, and go to the moon or to mars’, she smiles, there is a glint in her eye and boldly she says, “Maybe!” For Roula and for her “everything” the sky is indeed the limit!
She is also budding poet and artist. Her drawings speak volumes of her meticulousness and care for detail. However, her poems and jottings personify her passion and zest for life. From her notebook, she reads out a touching poem, which she recently scripted in Arabic. “I wish we could return to those good old days… I hope one day people awake from their deep sleep so they start loving, respecting, giving and the souls return to their old days. I hope that one day we would be able to exchange bread for salt, love for feelings and respect for kind words. Yesterday was a lesson, today is an experience and tomorrow is a new beginning!”
Roula is adamant she does not want to return to warn-torn Syria. Instead, she dreams of Australia. Her best friend has now settled down there. Since the past one-year, she has been coming to the JRS Frans Van Der Lugt (FVDL) Centre for the afternoon tuition classes. “I love coming here. I make many new friends. I learn many new things. The teachers help me in my homework. Everyone is very helpful and loving”. She looks at the Principal of the FVDL School Angela Abboche and with an amazing smile says, “Yes, even my Principal! “In her notebook, Roula has a meaningful quote,
“When it is raining look for the rainbow
When it is dark look for the stars”
The “everything” in Roula’s life will have rains and darkness, but she will surely have the courage to see the rainbows and stars in them. It is not every day that one encounters a 14-year Syrian refugee girl who is ready to row out into the deep!
Mahmoud and Roula, in many ways, epitomise the suffering and helplessness; the resilience and hope of millions of refugees who have been forced to flee the security and safety of their homes due to conflict and persecution. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) annual “Global Trends Report”, which was released on 19 June 2018, states, “We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.There are also an estimated 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. In a world nearly 1 person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution”.
On 19 September 2016, at the conclusion of a United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants, in New York world leaders produced a significant declaration to deal with the refugee crisis. To implement the lofty ideals encompassed in the Declaration, they committed themselves to drafting and approving, by the end of 2018, two Global Compacts: one regarding refugees and the second, for safe, orderly, regular and responsible migration. Both these compacts are meant to comprehensively protect, promote the rights and integrate migrants and refugees into the mainstream.
With less than six months to go, some work has been put in, with draft documents on both the compacts already in place. However, it is not smooth sailing. Already on 3 December 2017, the United States announced that it was withdrawing from the two Global Compacts. India on the other hand has literally shut its doors on the persecuted Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar. Millions continue to be victims of war and persecution; from Yemen to Myanmar, from Venezuela to the Central African Republic. At the same time, in many countries, xenophobia, racism, discrimination and exclusiveness is on the rise as never before.
Right-wing, anti- immigrant ‘populist’ leaders are winning elections in some key western countries. New and tougher anti-immigration policies; the shrill voices for refugees to return home does not help in easing the crisis. The military-industrial complex is definitely not keen that the wars end; they rake in huge profits from the sale of arms and ammunition to all the warring factions. Key members of the UN Security council thrive on the production and sale of deadly weapons. Multi-nationals and other big business houses and even Governments with lop-sided anti-people projects, do not bat an eye-lid in displacing the poor and the marginalised.
Pope Francis has been very vocal, consistent in his stand for the refugees and insisting that we all must do our part to welcome, protect, promote and integrate them. He reminds world leaders, “Dear brothers and sisters, in light of these processes currently underway, the coming months offer a unique opportunity to advocate and support the concrete actions, which I have described with four verbs. I invite you, therefore, to use every occasion to share this message with all political and social actors involved (or who seek to be involved) in the process which will lead to the approval of the two Global Compacts”.
Hopefully, World Refugee Day will be an occasion for the global community to demonstrate that Mahmoud, Roula, the Rohingyas, the hapless victims rescued by the ‘Aquarius’, the little children separated from their parents on the US borders and millions of other refugees — are not just numbers, they are humans like us, they are our sisters and brothers. They must be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated! We need to journey with them!
*Indian human rights activist currently based in Lebanon as the Regional Advocacy and Communications Advisor in the Jesuit Refugee Service (MENA). Contact: email@example.com