Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Helping refugees along the Balkan Route (Part 3)

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The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. This is Part 3 of a 3 part interview. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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We talked about your job and how you deal personally with the difficulties and also about the plight of refugees in Serbia, but what was the reaction of the media to the refugees and their presence in the country?

When the refugee crisis began, there was a lot of media, following what was going on. Now, the refugee crisis is covered only by a few of them, and generally they report only when something special happens, mainly, bad things or accidents. This winter, media reported about the bad conditions in the barracks, behind the Belgrade bus station, but now you can find independent journalists, who come to take a photo or interview and make some personal refugee stories, but there is a lack of media cover of the refugee crisis, generally.

Media behaviour about the refugee crisis in Serbia is positive sometimes, sometimes negative, but generally the situation in Serbia is OK, because I think our government did a good job in the beginning. They said we are an open country, which wants to help and that had an influence on public opinion, which generally has a positive opinion about refugees. And the media played a big role in that. We have less positive comments about refugees, but the situation is OK for now. If we look into the future, we need to use media to raise awareness about refugees’ issues.

And is the reaction of Serbian citizens?

As I mentioned, in the media and from local population, we can hear also negative comments and probably there will be more in the future. The local population is not sufficiently informed about the situation with refugees, why they come, and also about plans for what will happen in the future. Are they going to stay here? Under what conditions? And when it mixes with prejudices and fears, that can create a bad atmosphere in society.

You need to explain to local people who are these refugees, why they flee and to introduce them to each other. Introduce both sides to a new culture, customs and traditions. One of the options how to do this is through media and through personal and human stories, through objective, fair and ethical reporting. And, all of this needs to be done systematically, the government needs to be part of this, to have a plan how to do this and to support the organizations involved.

Due to the economic situation and because it is very difficult to find a job many young people are leaving Serbia. The poverty rate is high and when people say “we cannot even help our citizens, so how we can help refugees”, they are somehow correct. Due to fear for their personal existence, not knowing the situation, prejudices and so on, local people sometimes have negative comments about refugees. On the other hand, we have very positive comments and people want to help the refugees, precisely because we know how it is to be a refugee and how it is to live in poverty. We just need to work to reduce prejudice, raising awareness and tolerance.

I have complaints almost every day, but I also heard them in the past, when I worked with Roma people. They usually asked me “why don’t you help ‘our’ people?”. Then I just ask them “Who is ‘our’ people? Are Roma people ‘our’ people?” And then they don’t say anything. To those, who complain, I always tell to get involved and that they have the opportunity to help some of ‘our’ people, whoever these ‘our’ people are.

I would like you also to address some of the myths regarding refugees and their staying or passing by the routes to Europe, namely the questions of their use of “smartphones”, claiming people who use them are reach and aren’t really refugees; the visibility of adult men, compared to children and women, making it appear they are the majority of refugees (and the fear they they are terrorists); and finally the way people fear “their own” culture will be lost with the arrival of refugees?

Smartphones are one of biggest myths about refugees. People usually say something like “if they have a good phone, they need to have money and if they have money, they cannot be a refugee”. You can also hear a story like “if you are a young boy why do you escape from your home, if you can stay and fight for your country?”

When I try to explain to other people why this is wrong, I tell them to just try to put themselves in that situation. I did that in my Ted Talk. I just ask people in the audience to think about their home and to try to remember everything important there, every detail that makes their house a home. Then just to stop and to go back, because they have only three minutes to pack just one bag, only the most important things, because they have to leave the house, as their life depends on it. Then, I asked them what would they put in that bag? Are they going to take their smartphones? Today, you can’t do almost anything without smartphones. It’s useful for GPS, if you have to cross the border through the forest, for example. Or you just use it to call your family, on FB or Viber. It is necessary.

And, if you are a young boy, and you don’t want to go to war, you have all right to do that. When refugees talk with us, for example, refugees from Afghanistan, they tell us that, in Afghanistan, they need to go to war to fight with someone, but they don’t know on which side they will be, because everything is a big mess.

And sometimes there’s no war but refugees may be facing persecution or hardship in their home country…

People, who are coming from territories which are not in war, they live very badly. For me, it’s a good reason that you can go somewhere to find a better situation. Young people of my generation from Serbia also go abroad to work, if they cannot find a job. They finish school, they get good grades and, after that, they get a job as waiters and just decide to go. Almost all my friends now are in Germany or they work on cruise ships like waiters, so for me, that’s a very legal reason to go. Furthermore, people use this refugee crisis to leave their country, some of them are migrants, some of them are refugees, but they all deserve a chance for a better life.

Do you think this fear and the systematic rejection of many governments of people coming from these countries related to the fact that some of them have a different skin colour or a different religion than the majority of societies in Europe ?

Of course, there is fear of something that is not familiar to us, but learning about each other, putting people on the same table to eat or just play cards together, you can solve some problems. This situation now is very massive, so you need to have some strategy on a national or international level. It’s not in our handling. We do everything we can here in Miksaliste, now, but we need to speak about all this, we need to think about this and prepare some strategy.

In you TED talk, you spoke about the challenges of accommodating the 6000 refugees that may stay in Serbia. According to you, what can be done and what should be done, other than some of the individual solutions you alluded to, not only to avoid discrimination and resentment by the “native” population, while also allowing these kids and adults equal opportunities in Serbia and, more broadly, in Europe?

For now, we can speak only about the situation in the camps and if we have enough food and clothes. We don’t have the time or capacity to think further, because this is still an emergency situation. But, in the future, we need to think about what these people really need and how we can avoid prejudice, how we will organize school, in which language, Serbian or English, or Arabic or Farsi, Pashto, Urdu. How we will help them to find a job and so on. In some places you have already kids who are going to school, but I think we need still need to do more than now.

Should this strategy come from above? From the international community and governments?

Yes, because this crisis involves a lot of countries. First, we need to have an international strategy for refugee crisis, but we still don’t see anything on the paper, regarding what will happen in the future for this people. For now, everything is still, as we say in Serbia, in the “air”. We still don’t know how many refugees will be here tomorrow. We don’t know if other countries will open the borders and if all refugees will leave or a lot of new ones will come. In these conditions, it is almost impossible to plan anything long-term. People’s needs are changing every day and it is very difficult to organize.

And, to conclude, do you believe in the power of ordinary people to face, among other big problems in the world right now, this huge humanitarian crisis?

I think the most important thing we can do, it’s to show them that they are people, like we are. Just to talk is, sometimes, all they need. Sometimes it’s more helpful than anything, because they really need to feel like people and they need to feel that somebody understands them and someone wants to help them. For example, when we worked with Roma kids, it helps them when we teach them Serbian or English or German, but it’s more helpful when they feel that you are a friend. The same as now, when they know they will try to go on border, to try to cross, they come here to say goodbye, to hug some of us. They want to stay in contact and, usually, they say “thank you very much. If you come to Germany and if I’m there, call me”. So ordinary people can bring back faith into them, we cannot forget that we are all humans, just humans and nothing else. We are not Christians or Muslims, we are not from Serbia, Germany or Syria, but we are humans.  Show them that you are both the same, that we have compassion and help them when they need, that’s the most important.

Alexandre Fonseca is currently a volunteer assistant teacher at the Nicola Tesla Technical School in Belgrade, Serbia. Before, he was working as an European Voluntary Service volunteer in Ankara, Turkey and working as a Customer Support Agent in Athens, Greece. He believes that this project is a way to defend the right for everyone to travel and seek refuge wherever and whenever needed. He will be an EVS volunteer next year in Novi Sad aiming to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Serbia and around the world. The YPJ project was a great way to learn about this crisis through personal stories and by connecting them to the bigger, sometimes messy and chaotic, picture.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Helping refugees along the Balkan Route (Part 2)

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The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. This is Part 2 of a 3 part interview. You can read Part 1 here.

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Can you tell us a little bit about the bigger picture regarding refugees and the “Balkan Route”? What are the biggest challenges that refugees are facing right now in Serbia?

Sometimes, refugees just need someone to talk with them, about completely irrelevant topics, such as weather or cricket. Sometimes, they come just to participate in a creative workshop to draw and paint, but sometimes they open their soul to you. They talk about their families, mothers and sisters, show you photos and, very often, these are people, who are gone, who are killed in the war. You need to learn how to deal with such a story and how to be a professional in these situations.

But the biggest problem of refugees, right now, is that they feel that they are stuck here. So, a month or two ago, they had some hope that they could go further and that somehow they would be able to cross the Hungarian border, some legally, some illegally. Currently, only five persons per day, from Monday to Friday, on two border crossings, can cross to Hungary. And this is from a list which is made in the government camps, where most families are staying.

So only 50 persons per week are legally allowed to crossed the border to Hungary from Serbia?

Yes. It’s a very small number of people. They can enter Serbia, through Bulgaria and Macedonia, but it is still very difficult to continue, and they are just stuck, they feel they are stuck. Some of them try to cross the Romanian or Croatian border, but it is very hard, and very few of them manage. Some are even being caught in Slovenia and sent back to Serbia. Some of them are trying to cross the border themselves, some in small groups, some with smugglers, but it’s very dangerous, if they are caught by the police, especially in Hungary and Croatia.

Sometimes, the police are very kind and bring them water and tell them to try again, but sometimes they just beat them and take their phones, their clothes and shoes and send them back to Serbia. Some of them tried up to 16 times to cross the border, unfortunately, without success. I think that they now are getting more and more depressed and some of them you just feel that they are stuck here.

Outside they are smiling, but in their heart they feel pain, because they know that now the situation is critical and that they have a lot less chances to continue their journey. Those, who are in Serbia, outside the camps and live in the barracks, behind the bus station in Belgrade, they live their daily life in very poor hygienic conditions, violence has become more common and the situation is becoming more serious. Life in these barracks, if you can call it life, is not a long-term solution and something will have to change.

What is their impression of Serbia in relation to other European countries and do some refugees or asylum seekers want to stay in Serbia?

Some of them seek asylum in Serbia, but they are a minority. They don’t see future here and it takes a lot of time to get asylum, it is very hard to find work here and, because of that, they want to go to Germany, France or Austria, where they have relatives or friends. They have this dream that everything will be better once they are in Europe, Germany, France…

Sometimes when we speak with refugees about the situation in Serbia or we tell them how much is the salary in Serbia, they ask us: “Why don’t you go in Germany”? They have a pink picture about these countries, because they think that when they get to Germany or any other country in the EU, everything will be OK, but it’s not that easy. They crossed many borders illegally to arrive where they want to be and they will still be illegal there. So, we try to explain them how it works and what are the procedures, their rights and their obligations. It is very important to introduce to them the new systems, laws and customs in the countries different from their own. Today, for example, we spoke with some young guys about woman’s rights and marriage and we tried to explain to them the differences between Serbia and Afghanistan, on this topic.

Most, if not all refugees, find themselves in vulnerable situations. But women refugees may find themselves in a position of double vulnerability, not only because they are refugees, but also because they are women. How is it possible to deal with it?

That was the reason we made the women’s corner. Women are every time in group, almost always with their husband or other relatives. But, in the women’s corner, they can take a rest, drink coffee or tea, and at the same time, talk with someone. In such circumstances, we have a chance to gain their confidence and to help them, if they have problems.

Women refugees are very vulnerable, and because of that, it is necessary to provide them with services that will suit their needs. Sometimes, you have a single mom with three years old children, or you have the case of a woman who travels alone with four children, whose husband died in Afghanistan, and they try to go to Europe. During the entire road, she has a high risk of becoming a victim of human trafficking or other forms of violence – as well as her children – so it’s really difficult for them, and we need to have a sense for all this and to provide services, which will respond to their needs.

What about the children? What are their main difficulties and what measures can be put in place to minimize their suffering?

Children are also a very vulnerable group, especially if they are unaccompanied minors. There are many dangers for them and with children you have to work very carefully. In these situations, not rarely, you are not sure what is the best interest of that child. Whether to stay in the group with which they are traveling, or to separate him or her from the group. One of the most important services for children is to have a safe space. Separation from family and all what is happening leaves a very large effects on their health, both physically and psychologically. They lag behind in education and don’t have the opportunity to be only children. They are forced to grow up very quickly. Here, in Miksaliste, they can come and play and have English classes, but we have a lot of them who just tell us: “I cannot go to learn English, because my brain is a total mess. I can’t focus now on learning English or Serbian, because I’m thinking about my mother or my home or how can I cross the border.”

Alexandre Fonseca is currently a volunteer assistant teacher at the Nicola Tesla Technical School in Belgrade, Serbia. Before, he was working as an European Voluntary Service volunteer in Ankara, Turkey and working as a Customer Support Agent in Athens, Greece. He believes that this project is a way to defend the right for everyone to travel and seek refuge wherever and whenever needed. He will be an EVS volunteer next year in Novi Sad aiming to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Serbia and around the world. The YPJ project was a great way to learn about this crisis through personal stories and by connecting them to the bigger, sometimes messy and chaotic, picture.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Helping refugees along the Balkan Route (Part I)

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The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. This is Part I of a 3 part interview.

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Dobrila Marković is an activist at the Novi Sad Humanitarian Center (NSHC), an NGO based in the Serbian province of Vojvodina. The organization was created to help people that became refugees after the breakdown of Yugoslavia, but has since shifted the bulk of its work. Nowadays, they are mostly involved with helping refugees staying in Serbia or trying to go through the so-called “Balkan Route”.

Dobrila first volunteered in the “Kid’s Centre” of NSHC and worked, afterwards, with other vulnerable groups, such as Roma kids and victims of human trafficking. In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, she started helping refugees in various cities and towns bordering Hungary and Croatia, as well as in Belgrade. Her talk “Refugee Crisis: How much are we willing to help?” (in Serbian) can be found here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O–jUP8voMU

Our talk took place on a quiet and grey Sunday morning on the 6th of May, 2017, at the Miksalište house, an NGO that welcomed refugees in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. This organization- where Dobrila also works – saw its first building being demolished during the election night of the 25th of April to give place to the mega-project Belgrade Waterfront. A year later, after the what came to be known as the Savamala demolitions, and since our conversation, the government of Serbia also demolished the barracks, a large self-built “city”, where many refugees were staying. This demolition as well as the notice that refugees were to leave the place to go to governmental camps within 20 days happened long before, catching refugees and assisting teams on the ground off-guard, creating even larger logistical problems.

Can you tell us about yourself, your life before volunteering and how volunteering provided the opportunity to work?

I went to University in Novi Sad. I came from a little city nearby, but I didn’t volunteer before that. I started to have classes and it was a little too boring for me. I needed some creativity, so I tried to find something interesting and, together with my friend, I found that organization, NSHC, and send them my CV and application to volunteer with kids. I was in Law School, but I thought nobody would call me, because I was not studying something that enabled me to work with kids, but they called me. I came to the interview, but I made a big mess, because I went in another appointment, on the wrong time. But, after that, I started to volunteer and it is how the story begins, on a bit funny way. It was in 2009, the first time I work with kids, Roma kids in Novi Sad.

After 2 years of volunteering, some other projects appeared, about human trafficking and they (NSHC) asked if I wanted to work with them. So in 2011, I started to work for the organization. Before that, I was a volunteer on the project with Roma kids and it was like a big party all day. We worked with a lot of kids and our task was to help them with homework, teach them to read and write.

A lot of them speak a mixture of Albanian and Roma language at home, so they have problems understanding the lessons at elementary school. So we organized additional classes for them, and also we organized workshops and fieldtrips. But, most importantly, we were their friends and that meant a lot to them.

In your Tedx talk, you mention the story of your family, that had to flee Bosnia and leave everything behind. Can you tell also about your past, your life before volunteering and the conflict on ex-Yugoslavia and how that influenced your own sense of mission and response to this crisis?

I was not a refugee, I am born here in Serbia, in Titel, a small and peaceful village, near Novi Sad. But the family of my mother was from Bosnia and they become refugees, when the war started, in 1992. During a period, when the war was going on, we all lived together in our family house, in Titel. I think we were eleven and a lot of kids. That’s also when I started to go to school. Before they came into our house, for a long period, we actually did not have any information about them and it was too hard for my family, because we didn’t know if they were alive. There were no phones at that time… We only had one phone in our street, and we would all use it. So the first contact and first information we got about them was that my uncle was shot and that he was in the hospital. I was little then, but I remember that that was very difficult for everyone. All this had a lot of influence on us and how we look at the world.

I remember some situation where I didn’t want to eat something, like vegetables, and my mother used to say “Oh, you choose what you eat, but your sister Desa [Serbians call their direct cousins as sister(s) and brother(s)] may not have anything to eat today”. Maybe it was too strict, but it taught me to always think about the others. I remember we would collect food for refugees in my street. With my grandmother, we would go to ask people – our neighbours – to donate flour, milk and things like that. The word “refugee” was all the time around us. We were refugees, our family members were refugees, our friends… In the news, we read about refugees, we donated for them. That topic was all around us.

After the war, we had some quite time, but again, in 1999, the NATO bombings happened, and everything started again. I think, I was in the fourth grade then, ten, eleven years old, and lots of kids from bigger cities came to my town, because it was safer. For us, as kids, it was like a party all day, because we were not going to school. We were all the time on the streets playing. And, in some way, we got used to the bombs, sirens and sleeping in shelters. For us, it was no longer a big deal, even though the bombs targeted a bridge on the river, in our little village. Although the plane crashed in the nearby village. But now, when I think about that, it all seems terrible. We always had some connection with some crisis, some war or something like that. All this leaves a lot of influence on people…

Do you think that has helped you personally, and Serbians, identify with the plight of refugees nowadays?

 Yes, I think so. When you work with people in need and when you want to help them, you start with the thought “try to put yourself on their shoes”. And we were on those shoes. Of course, you have people here that say that “they” – the refugees nowadays – don’t need to be here or they ask “why do they come here and don’t stay in Syria or Afghanistan?” But the other part of Serbia just wants to help, because they know what it means to be a refugee. You can see here a lot of people, who just want to do something to help.

Where are you based right now and what is the main bulk of your work?

We work with refugees from the Middle East, since 2015. At first, it was a project where we were providing the first and urgent humanitarian assistance, food and hygiene. We worked with refugees on the border with Hungary and Croatia. As the needs of refugees changed, we also changed our way of working, adjusting to their needs. Now that the “Balkan route” is closed and the refugees stay longer in Serbia, we have the opportunity to provide them with more assistance and support.

Today, we are working with refugees, who are in the camps, but also with people, who are out of the system. We are working in Sid, Belgrade and Subotica. We still provide food and snacks, and we work on monitoring the food distribution. In Belgrade, we work in Miksaliste, where we have services providing first psychological and social help, as well as distribution of clothes and protection of those, who are in bigger risk of violence. In Miksaliste, we have a corner for mothers and babies and also for women and young boys. This is the place where they can get services tailored to their needs. But also through all our other activities, we are trying to work on their integration and raise the awareness of Serbian citizens about refugees.

What are the biggest challenges that professionals and volunteers working with refugees may face?

It is very hard to work on a project like this. It is difficult, physically, mentally and logistically. We work in three locations in Serbia (Beograd, Sid and Subotica, in this moment) and every day our teams are going from Novi Sad to the field, which means you need to fit vehicles and people, packages and needs and everything else – on a daily basis. Also, for people who work as field workers physically this is not easy at all to travel every day for at least an hour to get to work.

How important do you think it is to have support from the organizations for the professionals and volunteers working with refugees? And how to avoid that, despite the willingness to help, untrained volunteers or professionals might cause more harm than good?

When NSHC started to work with refugees in 2015, a lot of people called to volunteer with us, but we don’t involve volunteers for this, because it was hard to work on this, mentally and physically, so we employed new people to work with us. A lot of them are young people who volunteered in our NGO on some other projects, and this was an opportunity for this young people to get a job, but also to help refugees.

People who want to volunteer have good intentions, they want to help and that’s just fine. Working with people in these conditions requires some training and experience. Everything you do needs to be well planned and organized, just for you not to cause more harm than good. Whether providing psychosocial support, cooking food or sharing clothes, you have to be very careful and do it very professionally.

This means that organizations must take care of their employees and volunteers, train them, and also provide psychological support to them to avoid burning out. When you work with people who are in a very bad situation, it is difficult for you to deal with it. You have to look after yourself in order to save yourself from burning out.

Again, as long as you worked on it and as long as you are aware that you have to protect yourself, you cannot avoid the feeling of helplessness, when you have nothing to offer these people or you cannot help them. You will have to deal with situations like this, where you may have five shoes and ten people without shoes and you need to decide who will get it, but you know that everybody need it. It is not easy at all…

You are there and you listen to all their difficult stories and destinies. You share their burden. And we all also have personal life and stories, personal problems and you need to deal with that and then come here and smile for them, because they lost everything and your job is to help them. After every distribution of shoes, I go home and dream about “shoes”, people who are trying on every way to get shoes and tell me: “Sister, I need shoes! Look! My shoes are broken. Please…” Sometimes these situations can be very funny, but sometimes they are very stressful.

And does the support of family and friends make it easier to deal with everything?

My husband works in the same organization and we can almost say that we spent our honeymoon on the “Balkan Route” with refugees. The fact that we do the same job helps us to understand and support each other. But, for some people, it is very hard to understand how we live and how we work and how we spend our time, because we are almost always on the road.

Does the experience working with Roma kids or victims of human trafficking helped you to work and assist refugees today? And are there important differences between the groups?

The difference between this two groups of people is only that we speak different languages. But everything else is the same for me. Working with vulnerable people in Serbia, before this, helped me to understand everything, to know what I can expect and to be prepared for certain situations.

For example, when we had floods in 2014, we provided humanitarian aid also and that helped us to know how to organize the distribution of aid for a large number of people. Also working with Roma people, who are mostly Muslims, helped us to know better the culture and tradition, to know what they eat and what they don’t eat. The work with victims of human trafficking helped us to be very well prepared for such cases and to be able to recognize them amongst the refugee population and to react in time.

Alexandre Fonseca is currently a volunteer assistant teacher at the Nicola Tesla Technical School in Belgrade, Serbia. Before, he was working as an European Voluntary Service volunteer in Ankara, Turkey and working as a Customer Support Agent in Athens, Greece. He believes that this project is a way to defend the right for everyone to travel and seek refuge wherever and whenever needed. He will be an EVS volunteer next year in Novi Sad aiming to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Serbia and around the world. The YPJ project was a great way to learn about this crisis through personal stories and by connecting them to the bigger, sometimes messy and chaotic, picture.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Meeting Khaled

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The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca and Alessia Borzacchielo, members of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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I did not meet Khaled, Khaled met me. When I arrived at the house which hosted me for my EVS (European Voluntary Service) in February 2017, Khaled was a regular visitor bringing with him friends, joy and Syrian dances.

Khaled is a quiet but confident, sagacious and active student of physiotherapy at Hacettepe Üniversitesi in Ankara. He left his hometown of Masyaf in 2014 and, after staying briefly in Gaziantep, a city bordering Syria, arrived in Ankara. The fact that he is a refugee is one of the last things you will know about him, unless you specifically ask. Among other things, he is also part of the project “Building Bridges for Refugee Children”, aiming to help refugee children to get the education they have been deprived of, because of the war.

This interview was done in collaboration with Alessia Borzacchielo, a common friend and Master student at the Oriental University of Naples, and it was more of a conversation between friends trying to understand the conflict in Syria and its consequences, rather than a formal interview with separate roles for interviewer(s) and interviewee.

After reading it, the three of us hope that the multiple and interconnected complexities of the civil and proxy War in Syria, the role of Assad’s government and the international community, as well as the situation of refugees coming from the country, can be a little better understood by everyone.

Alexandre Fonseca (AF): When and why did you leave Syria and what kind of life did you leave behind you?

Khaled Farkas (KF): I left Syria in 2014, because I wanted to continue with my studies and had some political problems, because of what I have done in the past against the regime and also because my sister is a journalist on the rebel side. I left my home town, my family, my friends. That’s it. When I finished my high school, I just took my diploma and I left.

Alessia Borzacchielo (AB): And what kind of problems did you have in Syria?

As I said, my sister is a journalist on the rebel side and she works for them, but our city is known as a regime city. It consists of 475 villages and most of them are with the regime, so they were asking about my sister. They knew about her work, but they were not sure about it, so they were all the time asking about her, they asked my father two times. I was also arrested two times, because I used to paint on the walls “freedom” and this kind of stuff, protesting also…

AF: How did you get to the Turkey and what was your first impression of the country? Did that first impression change somehow?

I went from Syria to Lebanon and I took a plane to Istanbul, and from there to Gaziantep. I had some kind of impression of Gaziantep, because no one spoke English. I didn’t speak Turkish at that time and when I stayed for one month in Gaziantep, it was weird for me, because I didn’t see that much Turkish people, mostly Arabs and especially Syrians, because it’s full of Syrians. But [my impression of the country] has changed in the end, because I came to Ankara and life here is different. It’s easier, there are a lot of different people that are foreigners, friends. First, I didn’t have any friends in Ankara, I sat in a dormitory and then I started to go to the Turkish language course and I made friends there in the Turkish lessons. I became friends with other foreigners, Palestinians, Albanians, Venezuelans, that’s it.

I didn’t like Gaziantep at all, because it’s a small city and you can’t do anything there. I just wanted to go out from that city, because I felt that I had came to Turkey to study and to do something, but there’s no possibility to do anything in Gaziantep. And if you want to learn Turkish there, it’s really hard, because it’s really expensive – even more than Ankara – and it’s not that good, because there are a lot of Syrians, so all the time you probably speak Arabic, you don’t speak Turkish. When I came to Ankara, it was easier, because I could speak Turkish and also English.

And, also in Gaziantep, Turkish people they were annoyed with Syrians, I don’t know why. Most of the people in Gaziantep they hated Syrians, because there are so many. I thought I should not stay there, because people have this kind of mentality. And even if they didn’t know me, they hated me already.

AB: Did something happen to you in Gaziantep?

Yes, all the time, they stare at you, if you talk Arabic in the tramway or on the bus, wherever. I felt this reaction in Ankara sometimes, but only occasionally, not all the time. It happened to me, many times, that on the bus some people were angry, because I was speaking a different language. It was not only in Arabic, even if we spoke English with our friends, they were complaining: “Why are you speaking in another language”? Yes, and sometimes about Arabic, but Gaziantep and Ankara are different in that point.

AF: How did you deal personally with discrimination and how can people that arrive in Europe and in Turkey resist being labelled and reduced to “refugees” or “migrants” or even being considered “dangerous”?

A lot of people already have this idea about Syrians, even if they don’t know anything about Syria or the life before the war. They just judge without meeting anyone in person. And I met Turkish people saying: “What are you doing in our country”? “What are you doing here, go back to your country”? And by replying to them in Turkish, as they are speaking, they become shocked, because they don’t think that someone will learn their language and answer them. Actually, there are a lot of foreigners that speak Turkish, but some persons don’t expect that. I always asked: “What do you want from me? I am not sitting in your place, I am not seating in your house. I am studying and I am working and I’m earning my own money, I’m not getting it from the government, I don’t take any money from you, so you should not be complaining about that”.

AF: So for you learning Turkish, being capable of working and studying also was a mechanism of defence?

Of course. It’s different, because there are a lot of Syrians doing nothing or even some bad things, but most people would judge everyone. If one person does something bad, it turns out bad for everyone, not just for himself.

I don’t have a specific strategy to deal with discrimination, but when someone tries to insult me, I just answer them, I don’t let them speak. Most of the people that did that to me started to calm down, step-by-step, when I answered them. I mean they don’t know you, but they start to judge you, even before they know a single thing about you.

AB: When and how did you get the refugee status ?

I got it after two months in Turkey, actually. I stayed one month in Gaziantep and one month in Ankara and then I got it. I was supposed to take the student permit, but in the migrants office, they told me that they didn’t want to give me a student status, because the government will get money from the European Union, for each Syrian registered as refugee. When I asked them for a student residence permit, they said: “No, no need. You can take the refugee status, it’s easier for you, it’s better for you. You can go to hospital…”. “But I don’t want that, I want to be a student”. And when you get the refugee status, it is very different from getting the normal one. The thing is that if you are a student, you are like all the foreigners here, because all of them have this student or tourist status, and it’s the same. As a student, you can travel without any problems, but if you take the refugee status, it becomes harder and harder. If you want to travel, for example, from Ankara to Istanbul – which are 450 km apart – I am forced to go and get a permission to travel.

AF: How do you get this permission to travel?

From the police, from the migrants office, so it was a big struggle for us. Every time you want to travel, you have to get the permission from them.

AF: Is it more convenient for the Turkish authorities to have people with refugee status than as students?

Yes. For them it’s better, they want to have many refugees, so that they will get more money from the European Union.

AB: What does it mean for you to have the refugee status?

My refugee status doesn’t mean anything for me. In the end, it’s something normal, it’s not something that means that you are not a human. We are all humans. A refugee is a human, who is looking for peace, to live in a peaceful place, just seeking safe area, nothing else.

AB: Do you feel that you have less opportunities than someone else?

Yes, if you have this refugee status you are struggling with a lot of things, especially if you want to work. Because six months ago – or less than six months – they applied these new rules that refugees can start to work, but before you could only work and get paid under the table. If the police caught you working, you would have a big problem, because you were working without documents. Until now, the Turkish employers don’t want to give the work permit to Syrians, because it gives Syrians the same status as a Turkish worker. The employer has to provide insurance and also to apply the law and pay the the minimum wage, which is 1300 Turkish Liras (TL) and some Syrians work for 800 or even 600 TL, when they don’t have any other choice. The fact is that some Turkish still say that the Syrian refugees stole “our jobs”, but they don’t think that the one who gave them the job was Turkish and that he is not doing that because he loves Syrians, but because he will gain more money. It happened with a friend of mine. When he started working in a factory in Istanbul, he was the only Syrian and he worked hard to get 800 TL per month, while the Turkish workers got 1450 TL, plus the insurance. After a while, the factory owner fired all the Turkish workers and brought Syrians instead, because they work more and gain less money.

AB: What are your plans for the future?

Actually, my aim now is to finish my studies and then, if I have the opportunity to go back to Syria, I would be really happy to go. I mean if I don’t have the opportunity to go to Syria, I will not stay in Turkey. I will never stay in Turkey.

AB: Do you see any other opportunities you can take advantage of in the future?

I don’t see such big things, that someone might help me or do something for me, no governments and European countries, because, in the end, I don’t want to take the sea route and just drown myself. Maybe I will die, maybe I will struggle in the sea and I just want to travel normally. Get a visa and travel, but the thing is that the European governments don’t want to give this kind of things to Syrians, so you have one choice to reach Europe, which is the sea, or you choose other countries that don’t ask for visa, such as Malaysia or Lebanon. We don’t have much choices, because since the war started, the Syrian passport became the 4th worst passport in the world.

AF: So the only chance for Syrian youngsters is to apply for studies?

Apply for studies and, at the same time, have a large amount of money. A lot of people went by this family reunion program, they call it like that, but now it’s not possible anymore, because people used to come to Turkey and from Turkey, apply at the different embassies for the reunion, and then go from here to their families. Now, the Turkish government is asking for a visa and they don’t give it anyway, so people are trying to make the reunion from Lebanon.

AF: What will happen when you graduate your studies in Physiotherapy?

I have to find a way somehow, because the Turkish government started to say that educated people left Turkey – mostly to Germany – and that they need this people to stay. It happened with a lot of people – they could not leave Turkey, because they are educated.

AF: Do you know any person, maybe friends, family that went by the sea?

Yeah, a lot of friends. My closest friend went by the sea. He went with a big ship, they hide him inside and he paid 2500$ to get to Greece. He didn’t try to get a visa, he just wanted to travel, so he just went. He arrived in Turkey, one week before me, in September 2014 and then went to Greece. He was trying to go to Germany by plane, but he was caught 4 times in the airport. Finally, he did it.

AB: Why didn’t he try to get a visa?

Maybe, he didn’t have the money and, in the situation of war and currency devaluation, a lot of people couldn’t afford that much, even if they were able to do it before the war, I don’t know. If you want to apply for the visa, it’s around 9000 € to get the student visa plus proving that you have health insurance for Germany, so a lot of people choose the sea, because it’s cheaper.

AF: What is your opinion of smugglers?

They are not helping, they killed a lot of people, they are murderers in the end. I mean they are not doing this to help, if they had done this just to help they would not have taken so much money or they wouldn’t even take any money. But they are taking a huge amount of money. In a small ship for 10 people, they call it Balm, they put at least 50 people inside. People drowned in the sea. It’s taking advantage of people in need.

AF: What is, for you, the degree of responsibility of the international community regarding the war in Syria?

They have a big responsibility, since they didn’t stop Assad’s regime and his supporters, until now. The thing is there are reasons for what they are doing and it is bigger than what we think or see. It’s the big countries which deal with these things, but they want this to happen, I don’t know the reasons, but one of the reasons is that the European countries are in need of young people.

The European governments, USA, Russia, Iran, the Gulf countries and China. And the thing is, they could stop this before people started to flee. They could have stopped it from the beginning, lots of people wouldn’t die, if they would have done that. They could just call Al-Assad, who is a murderer of a lot of people, and just make him leave, but they didn’t do that.

AF: Without all the bloodshed due to the civil war?

Without any of that for more than 6 years. They were the reason of this war until now.

AF: The international community has a lot of responsibility?

Of course. In Egypt, they did it after 21 days, they called him [Mubarak] and he left. In Tunisia also, after 3 month of revolution, Bin Ali left, and I think that wasn’t his choice .

AF: What is the solution of the conflict?

The first step is just take off this government, the regime in Syria. It’s the first thing, and then go for the Jihadis and Al-Qaeda or ISIS, or a lot of groups like ISIS. I mean in 2012 there were no ISIS, no Al-Nusra [Front]. They could have stopped it ,at that time, and we wouldn’t be in these troubles.

Now, they saying there are a lot of terrorists. Of course, there are a lot of terrorists! Because the Turkish government opened the borders to everyone leaving Syria, but at the same time they opened the borders to everyone who wanted to go to Syria to fight with ISIS. They opened the way to a lot of Americans, Albanians, Macedonians, Afghanis, Uzbeks, French who have this mentality of jihad. It was really easy for them to go to Syria : “You just come to Turkey and no one asks you what are you doing and then you go to the borders and you cross and no one asks you where are you going”, so they opened the way for them.

This did not happen with the borders in Jordan, because the border in Jordan was closed, just for people that want to go out. At the same time, they let the Free Syrian Army groups, in Daraa, deal with people who wanted to come to Syria, this is why you don’t see ISIS groups in the south of Syria.

AF: Are you afraid that if Al-Assad leaves, even with a political solution and with the end of conflict, that the post-war conflicts and struggle for power in Libya, Iraq and and other countries, could happen?

Yes, definitely this is going to happen, because there are a lot of different groups with different goals. They will try to achieve what they want .When we see our country now, we say that why they didn’t do something in 2012 or 2013. And later, if they don’t do something, we will ask “Why didn’t they do something in 2016 or 2017”?. The longer the conflict lasts, the harder it is going to be to solve it.

AF: And what do you have to say about other Arabic countries which are, according to some, not taking refugees? They say that these countries, like Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia, should be taking refugees from Syria…

It’s right, because these countries did not take anyone and they even kicked a lot of people out. It’s politics in the end, everyone is playing the game. There are no countries that are not playing this game. All of them are to be blamed for what is happening is Syria.

AF: Nowadays, what are your main sources of information about Syria? Your family, on-line channels, mainstream media?

Of course, first my family, especially my sister as journalist who lived in Alepo. She is working with Channel 4, a British TV channel and also my friends, I have a lot of friends, who fight with the Free Syrian Army. Also a friend who is a journalist in the besieged country side of Damascus, and other friends, my father, my mother, in my city.

AF: Finally, can you achieve tell us more about your project Building Bridges for Refugee Children here in Ankara?

When I came here I’ve spent one year studying Turkish, working and then a friend of mine told me : “We are thinking about making a project with Syrian and other refugees”. So we went, we visited the families in a big refugee area in Ankara. We were seven people, we started to teach the children in their houses, take care of them and teach them some Turkish and Arabic. They didn’t go to school, but they have to learn Turkish language, because they live here and Arabic, because it is their native language. Then we saw there were a lot of children, more than 200, and most of them could not go to school. We met children who used to walk for an hour and a half to get to school, and then come back home too, because the parents couldn’t afford the money for the transportation.

We wanted to do something about it, but we had a lot of problems to find a place, because we don’t have a legal status and we are not supported by an NGO. We are just friends working. We got some contacts and we started to talk here and there – with ministries, municipalities and governmental departments. Then we found a small place, we started with 25 children and 15 volunteers. Now we have 90 child and around 160 volunteer. Not all of them are working now, but 160 worked in this project.

In the end, these are people who cannot be left without education. It’s not their fault, if they are uneducated because of the war. We asked our friends to help us and we started a school, teaching Turkish, Arabic, English, mathematics, games, ice-breaker activities, handcrafts and we have field trips. It started last year, in March 2016, and is still running until now, with more volunteers and more students. We are all happy to be part of this project, because we see the happiness in the faces of the children, and that’s more than enough for us.

Alexandre Fonseca is currently a volunteer assistant teacher at the Nicola Tesla Technical School in Belgrade, Serbia. Before, he was working as an European Voluntary Service volunteer in Ankara, Turkey and working as a Customer Support Agent in Athens, Greece. He believes that this project is a way to defend the right for everyone to travel and seek refuge wherever and whenever needed.