Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: An island of hope, a home away from home

The following interview was done by Sr. Daisy Anne Lisania, a member 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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The crisis of people who happen to have nowhere to live, people who have no other way, no remedy but to risk their lives and seek asylum in other nations — this has become the reality of some people’s life.

I recently interviewed a man who wished to remain anonymous. In this interview, he shares his life experience as a refugee who has found haven in the comforts of a small island of Manus province in Papua New Guinea where he seeks refuge.

“The torturous system of Manus prison sometimes throws a person into distant and stunning places. Following Papua New Guinea’s high court decision regarding the illegality of the detention of refugees on Manus Island, we have gained some freedom although limited in time and scope,” he said.

He said that during the past nine months, this partial liberty, where he had the freedom of having a place to sleep, eat and wake up each day, has become part of his life.

He added that whenever the tension intensifies in the prison, he takes refuge in the jungle, the sea, and in some far-flung villages of Manus Island.

His journey of finding a safe place began when Sudanese refugee Faysal Ishak Ahmed lost his life on Christmas Eve, and later on New Year’s Eve when two Iranian refugees were beaten badly by immigration authorities and local police at the detention centre. He took refuge then in nature. The violence and injustices of these incidents cut deep.

‘‘I put some bottles of water in my backpack, grabbed my cigarettes, caught the morning bus and followed the jungle road. After 40 minutes, I arrived at Lorengau, the main town of Manus Island. I went out to the sea in a small boat, heading for Mendirlin Island,’’ he said.

He described the journey as foggy but the ocean was calm and smooth. The route took him past other small islands; first Rara Islet, 500 meters from the main island, then Hauwei, twin to the famous Hawaii of the United States, of which locals tell that American soldiers gave this name to the island during World War II due to the resemblance to America’s Hawaii.

He added that after an hour he arrived on a small, green island in the middle of the ocean. The island is called Mendirlin. It is the size of a soccer field and covered in dense jungle. Its economy is dependent on nature. It is a small island, in all its beauty and innocence, a centre of gravity for many complex matters at the heart of our global crisis: war, environmental pollution, climate change and the refugee crisis.

The story of his life is as incredible as the beauty of Mendirlin Island. He and his family of 35 people live there. He is a strong, muscular man with a heart of gold. He lost one of his hands on a fishing trip, due to a dynamite blast.

He became the victim of a war that occurred 70 years ago, a war in which Manus and its surrounding waters were transformed into a battlefield. There are dozens of signs marking the bitter history of colonization and war all over Manus and its tiny islands.

During the past 100 years, Manus has been a theatre of war in two separate conflicts. The only lasting outcomes of those wars for the people of Manus are about 800 shipwrecks left around the island, along with explosives and toxic materials. Those materials not only pollute and harm the environment, but also the economy of an island that is completely dependent on nature and seafood. People of the island occasionally fall victim to the harmful impact of the leftover materials.

When the Japanese and Americans fought against each other in the jungles of Manus and its surrounding waters, it was the people of Manus who were slaughtered without even being aware of the reasons for the conflict.

People of an island at the furthest part of the globe have become victims of a battle between the world’s superpowers. It appears as if nowhere on this planet is there a place that has not yet been affected by war and the competition between superpowers.

However, the life of this anonymous outsider and his family presents us with a very different story. He has made a small shelter for refugees out of leaves and wood on the shore of this small island to allow people to take a rest from their ordeal.

I was curious to know why he helps refugees. He smiles and says, “One day, when I was in Lorengau, I saw a few Iranian refugees wandering aimlessly around town. Something flashed across my mind about them. I realized they have no father, no mother and relatives; they are like aliens here. I felt they were afraid of being in Lorengau. I told them that you are my brothers and introduced my island to them. I invited them over and asked them to come and visit me whenever they liked and to spend some time with my family.”

He has a poetic way of seeing things. He placed a small notebook under the shelter he had built for refugees. When refugees are about to leave Mendirlin, he asks them to write something about their motherland and about the feeling they experience on his small island.

He said that when he was browsing the notebook, he found many notes written by refugees about war, homelessness and their dreams of a peaceful world.

He added that there were lovely words about him and his family and the island that reflected how deeply impressed the refugees were by his kindness. Many said they would never forget being there.

I asked about the notebook and he replies, ‘‘I like to hear about the experiences of people who have been exiled from distant lands, because I learn from them. I’d also like to know their thoughts about my island as I plan to have many tourists visit my island in the future.’’

A strategic question about the future comes to my mind and I ask if he knows anything about climate change and the possibility that his small island may go under water. He replies and says, ‘‘Yes, it is a reality that my island may go under water one day and I’ll become extremely depressed; however, I’ll still believe in nature and I’m confident that nature will allow me time to gradually transfer my family to a safe place.’’

It is not difficult to imagine that in the future people like him and his family who have welcomed refugees to their island may need to seek asylum in other countries.

He said that after a few years he returned to Manus Island and its prison. On the way, he was thinking about the images and questions parading in his head. Question such as: what happens to our world when a tiny island such as Mendirlin embraces refugees with open arms while a huge continent such as Australia throws them thousands of kilometres out into the middle of the ocean?

He added that two years ago there were only a couple of flights a week to faraway Manus province. Today aircraft sweep in everyday over the Bismarck Sea, crossing 370km of open water from the Papua New Guinea mainland to bump down on a strip carved into the jungle by Japanese soldiers 72 years ago.

‘‘It’s here, since November 2012, that more than 1,659 asylum seekers who once tried to sail to a new life in Australia have instead found themselves unloaded on to PNG soil,’’ he said.

He added by naming a few problems that have aroused the nearby villages due to the detention centre and goes on to say that kids are not being fed because there is no one to cook for them. Many marriages are fracturing under the stresses and jealousies of seismic change. The respect that the family had in the village system is becoming loose and today some villages near the detention centre are almost deserted when the contractor Transfield’s staff shuttle buses pull out.

He holds forth on these problems for half an hour; then, just as I’m folding up my notebook, he declares that despite it all, the detention centre is a blessing for Manus — at least it could be.

He added that the Australian government has given opportunities in school, health and building roads; now it is up to our leaders, mandated by the people, to act for them, to manage the social fallout and to sustain the wealth when the centre closes.

“We are only a tiny island surrounded by a huge sea. The resources are there but they are in the sea, not on the land. Our timber is slowly going and our agriculture is nothing. People will want to kill themselves, they will be confused. They haven’t seen money before, now they’ve seen it,” he said.

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Sr. Daisy Anne Lisania is a Catholic  nun for 15 years in the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus of Hiltrup. She is currently working in the Communications Office of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.
Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Being human

The following interview was done by Valerie Luckey, a member 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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Adam Ali* teaches English and living skills to refugees in Erie, Pennsylvania, United States of America at Saint Benedict Education Center (SBEC), a ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie that provides education and job placement services. A refugee himself, he understands their struggle. It is through his work with these refugees and others that he has grown in compassion for the inherent struggles of being human; it is also through his work with these refugees and others that he has grown himself as a human. He recently sat down with me to share his story for the Peace Stories blog.

Adam Ali was born in Iraq, outside the capital city of Baghdad. As a young child, he spent time with his four sisters and four brothers. His father worked as a carpenter and his mom worked at home while being self-employed as a carpet maker. He also played with friends, growing up in a neighborhood with “green areas called orchards” and “natural life and quiet.” He played soccer and enjoyed going to school – a normal upbringing for many children. Adam said it was his mother and father who taught him, “This is wrong. This is right,” and “You have to be respectful of people, even if they don’t agree with you.”

In the top tier of his class, Adam attended both high school and college, choosing to study English literature at the university level. There he read the classics like Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, as well as Waiting for Godot and Great Expectations, while learning grammar and composition. Adam was studying to live his dream of being a translator or a teacher. His oldest brother was an Arabic teacher, and another brother was an instructor in agriculture – his role models.

Little did he know how those dreams would realize themselves.

After attending university, Ali began teaching English at the high-school level. This was during the 1990’s, during the First Gulf War. At this time many Iraqi people, including his friends “left legally and illegally, having to give money either way.” Adam said he did not have the money to leave the country, but if he did he “would have spent it on the family.” Making only the equivalent of three U.S. American dollars each month, he had to sell gold and furniture, work in the market, and teach private English lessons to the children of wealthy citizens to support himself.

During this time as a teacher, Ali married his wife and began a family. Then the year 2003 came. Saddam Hussein fell from power during the United States-led invasion of Iraq in March of that year. Now, there was no government. One day Adam was walking and saw a Humvee with an announcement declaring a need for doctors, engineers, and interpreters. Adam felt encouraged to apply as an interpreter. With his translation skills, he passed the written and oral exams with ease and was hired immediately.

From 2003 until 2009, Adam worked for the Civil Affairs of the United States government in Iraq. During that time he “rebuilt schools, orphanages, and hospitals.” He “talked to people in the street, asking, ‘What are your concerns?’” I wondered why Ali would choose this work where “people will look at you like a traitor,” where he was threatened more than once, where he moved to live in different locations at military bases away from his wife and children for days at a time. By 2007 the sectarian violence had escalated greatly: “If you are an interpreter or translator, you are killed right away. Many of my friends were killed, thrown in a dump field.” Why then, would you do this work, full of risk and danger?

“I helped people,” Ali told me, “like rebuilding schools and other things. When you do something like that, you feel you are human.”

Ah, there it was. Adam felt like he was human. I asked him to elaborate. He told me, “It made me feel proud.” I asked if he felt the same way, the same goodness of being human, working with refugees here in Erie. “Yes, being through this myself, I want to help them.”

In 2008, Ali applied to come to America through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He was in the first one hundred accepted. People wondered, with the danger to his life in his US government work, why he stayed as long as he did in Iraq, “My family did not want to come because life here is not easy, especially if you don’t have friends or relatives, so you have adapt.” Again, Ali conveyed to me his understanding of and compassion for the struggle for so many refugees today. While many members of his family still live in Iraq, he had to tell them, “Just let me go; I want something safe.”

In 2009, Adam and his family came to the United States of America. When they were in Frankfurt, Germany he thought he was coming to Raleigh, North Carolina, but there he was told that he would come to Erie, Pennsylvania.

Since then, Ali has worked as a translator for a family doctor and for the International Institute, a committee that works to help uprooted people rebuild their lives. Once he found employment at SBEC, he started teaching in a classroom again. More than just English and life skills, he teaches his students that they are worthy humans, “Here they feel embarrassed and nervous, so I teach them to be confident.”

In 2015, Adam became a citizen of the United States. But even as he continues to settle here with his wife and children in this country, he remembers the reality of being human, a reality he has learned through his own struggle, “You don’t know:  Today you are healthy; tomorrow you are sick. Today you are rich; tomorrow you have no money.” Adam is moved to compassion when he sees others struggling, “When you someone in need, you wish to help them.”

Adam’s story, unique yet filled with the truth of being human, taught me that in all the uncertainty intrinsic to life, the best thing we can do is be there to help others in their need.

*Not his real name.

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Valerie Luckey recently entered religious life in the community of Benedictine Sisters in Erie, Pennsylvania, USA. She is currently a novice studying the history of monasticism and the community while exploring many new adventures. Before entering, she taught fourth grade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: A journey to freedom, part 2

logo_transparentThis is part 2 of the interview which was done by Andrea Šmider, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. Click here to read part 1.

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We continue our conversation with talking about S.’s new life here, in Croatia, but this time in a different setting. This time we are sitting in a coffee shop, in a local shopping centre. It is quite crowded, and S. is sitting across from me, watching all the people pass by. The first question comes naturally: I ask her about her impression on Croatians.

Her experience with Croatian people, thus far, has been mostly positive, as most of them she met seemed open and friendly.

“Croatian values correlate with my own, and that’s why I like it here. Family, friends and hospitality seem to be as important as they are to me. People that worked with us in Porin I like especially; they are good people.”

She says she enjoys having the freedom to invite her new friends to her apartment, as that’s something she wasn’t allowed to do in Iraq. Most of her time these days, however, is spent on cooking classes, which she attends daily. Apart from working on getting a qualification as a chef, it is also an opportunity for her to bond with people, making new connections and friends .

“I like it there. Everybody is really nice and people seem to really like the food we are making. It really is a chance for me to connect with some like-minded people.”

When she finishes the course she will get a cooking license, after which she hopes to open up a Kurdish restaurant.

“Maybe after working as a chef for couple of years, I can open up my own restaurant serving Kurdish meals. I’m thinking it would be a good idea, as that would be something new for Croatia.”

But of course, there is that dream to be a teacher here in Croatia, something that, for now she says, seems to be only a mere possibility. She seems discouraged by the language barrier. In fact, that is one of the hardest things she finds about her new life in Croatia.

“One of the hardest things here for me is the language. Having a proper Croatian course would really help me learn it faster, which would help my independence as you need to know the language to be able to get any kind of job.”

Interested to know what could improve life for asylum seekers here in Croatia, I ask her to tell me one thing that she feels would help the quality of her own life.

“Well, apart from a language course, I find myself confused with some Croatian traditions and holidays. So what I think would help asylum seekers here is some sort of course where they will be able to learn more about Croatian tradition and customs.”

When asked how else she spends her days here, she mentions one of her hobbies: making traditional Iraqi dresses. She showed me the dresses back in her apartment, when we were doing the first part of the interview. Rather than just describing them to me, she got up and started getting the dresses out of her closet. I was amazed at their beauty – they were all rich in texture and equally vibrant in colour.

“Those dresses are some of the last things I decided to take with me. I left so many of my things in Iraq, because you really have to choose what you are going to bring with you … but I just couldn’t leave them behind.”

S. seems to be a person of many interests, devoting her time and energy to a lot of different things. And so naturally, I’m interested to know how she pictures her life 5 years from now.

“I imagine myself in a nice house, with a good stable job, surrounded by good friends and, of course by that time, I have already learned Croatian. There are too many problems in my country, especially as a woman… I didn’t come here to live a crazy life; I’m not in my twenties anymore and I have no interest in that. I just want my own place and space, where I will be able to recharge my mind, body and soul. I just want my peace.”

I am truly thankful to S. for sharing her story with me, but mostly for making me realize that freedom and equality are the needs of all of us, and whether you have them or not should not depend on where you were born.

I believe that positions of power come with the responsibility to use that power for the betterment of those who don’t. Even though most of us don’t hold powerful political positions, we still can and should use the power that we do have, freedom and equality, to fight for those who need it.

So let us all dare to believe that we CAN make a difference, because, as the famous quote goes, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

As a final question, I asked S. if there was a message she could share with the people of the world, what would it be? And so with that message I am ending this interview.

“When any person is unhappy they want to change their life for the better. And so, my urge to change mine has brought me here to Croatia – I can say my new country that I love and respect. And to every other asylum seeker out there: love and respect the country that opened its doors for you. Even though there are still a lot of things in my life I wish to improve, I can finally say I am happy. Wishing good for everybody.”

 

Andrea Šmider (22) currently lives in Zagreb, where she studies Social Work at Faculty of Law. After volunteering in a refugee camp, she stayed active in the field of refugee rights through attending different conferences and seminars. The urge to learn more in that field has led her to take part in the project Young Peace Journalists. She hopes to continue in that direction in the upcoming years. Her other interests include reading, spirituality and music.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: A journey to freedom

logo_transparentThe following interview was done by Andrea Šmider, a member 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 interviewed S., a 38 year old woman who left Kurdistan, Iraq back in February 2016. It’s been years since she decided she wanted to leave Iraq, but only 10 months since she finally proceeded with that decision.

Her journey was long and troublesome, lasting 23 days. Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and finally Croatia, where she decided to ask for asylum — a decision she made on the spot, partially because she just wanted her journey to be over. But it’s a decision she says she doesn’t regret. She was first placed in Porin, a former hotel where all asylum seekers are placed, in the capital of Croatia, Zagreb. She spent 6 months in Porin, before moving into an apartment, as her asylum application was approved.

The first part of this interview was done in her apartment.

S. has a passion for cooking, which was obvious from the minute I stepped into her new place. She welcomed me graciously with a traditionally cooked Iraqi dinner. Eating this delicious food opened up a conversation – not only of her past and present but also her future – something that, in her words, back in Iraq didn’t seem likely. When I asked her what exactly was her breaking point, she said that it came down to either death or fleeing.

“I have never known happiness. Constant fear of getting killed and no freedom, especially as a woman. It is no life for anybody. It came down to either dying or leaving, so, in a way, it’s as if I had nothing to lose.”

But still, it was very hard to leave.

“I remember all the people who were traveling with me being very sad. You are leaving everything you have ever known, every tradition behind. Even when you want to leave, you are still leaving everything you know. Your job, friends, family, and instead you are heading into the unknown. Even if you end up really liking your new place, some things will never feel the same… For example, every Friday I would go to my parents’ grave, and now I am unable to do that anymore, and that is very hard for me.

S. is a very open, warm person and it’s hard to believe she went through so much. Her journey started back in February, when she finally decided to leave Iraq, a decision that she says she planned for years.

“For years I’ve been telling my family I will leave for Europe, and they would always laugh at me. Yeah, it felt discouraging, but I knew deep within me my determination was too big not to win.”

Being an open person, she was willing to share everything about her past life in Iraq.

S. was very detailed in her answers, painting vivid pictures with her stories in English, a language she only learned on her journey to Europe. But when asked to describe her life in Iraq, she did so in only one sentence: “It was no life at all.”

Her childhood is dominated by memories of war, as early as age 3, she recalls. I was amazed at how positive and light she seemed. But as soon as we got deeper into the conversation, talking about her life in Iraq, the heaviness of her past was obvious. It was clear that it has left a mark on her.

This is when the conversation got emotionally heavy. She tells me about jeopardy in every area of her hometown in Kurdistan, describing different wars she experienced throughout her earlier life. She tells me about teachers hiding kids in the school basements for the fear of bombs landing on schools.

She knows that part too well because S. herself was an elementary school teacher for 13 years. Talking about her job, she says it’s the only part of her old life she misses. She loves kids, she loved teaching them and she misses them dearly. But she shows no interest in returning to Iraq.

“The only thing I enjoyed about my life in Iraq was my job as a teacher. I love kids and so it brought me great joy to teach them. Sometimes, when I see a school, I remember my job and I just start crying … But I have no interest in ever going back there … That country for me is finished; I am never going back.”

And from what she proceeds to tell me next, it is clear just why.

“It is a war on land, but even more so, a war on women. I had very little control over my own life, simply because I am a woman. Even small decisions, like what I was going to wear, I had no say in.”

She continues talking about freedom. Freedom to wear what she wants, to spend time with people she genuinely wants to spend it with, doing what she wants.

Freedom to not get married to somebody already decided for her by her family.

Not to be defined as less than, solely by being a woman. Something for which she has a constant reminder of as S., when she was a little girl, was forced to undergo female genital mutilation, a practice rooted in gender inequality.

“It is something that before the nineties almost every girl had to go through. I remember joking about it with my elementary school friends, because we had no idea it was a bad thing. In the eyes of people that supported this, every woman was kept as pure as possible, because it prevents you from feeling anything towards a man. And if you hadn’t gone through that process, they believed you were dirty, impure. It was typically done by old ladies, but now the government banned it. I still don’t understand how, my dad being an educated teacher, let his wife take their daughters to these old women to do that to us. It is crazy…”

She doesn’t plan on moving to any other country. When she decided to leave Iraq she had no particular place in mind.

“What attracted me about Europe was freedom. I didn’t really know where exactly I wanted to go, but I remember seeing this different culture on TV, and I wanted to experience it for myself. I wanted to go where women were free to express themselves.”

It is already clear to see that S. is a strong woman with a unique personality…

This is the end of part one of this interview. Part two will be published in the coming days.

Andrea Šmider (22) currently lives in Zagreb, where she studies Social Work at Faculty of Law. After volunteering in a refugee camp, she stayed active in the field of refugee rights through attending different conferences and seminars. The urge to learn more in that field has led her to take part in the project Young Peace Journalists. She hopes to continue in that direction in the upcoming years. Her other interests include reading, spirituality and music.