Nonviolence, Peace, UN Report

Is it sufficient simply to acknowledge the nonviolent heroes among us?

by Mary T. Yelenick
Pax Christi International NGO Delegation to the United Nations

It is not difficult to find heroes at the UN: individuals and communities who, in the face of enormous challenges, maintain a commitment to peace and nonviolence. Najlaa Sheekh, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, exemplifies the power of nonviolence in the midst of the ravages and soul-grinding consequences of war.

I first met Najlaa late last Fall, at a forum at the UN sponsored in part by Peace Direct, celebrating women from around the world who were making a difference in their communities. The following day, Najlaa joined our UN-NGO Syria Working Group for a discussion of her life and work.

Najlaa and her family once lived a comfortable life in cosmopolitan Damascus. With the breakout of war in Syria, that life ended. A brutal barrel-bomb attack killed members of her family and demolished parts of her neighborhood. In the aftermath, her younger son could not be found. Najlaa and others searched frantically through the rubble for him, eventually finding him – alive, but seriously injured. The only way for Najlaa and her family to secure the medical care her son needed was to flee to Turkey. Her son did survive. But Najlaa and her family remain refugees.

Upon arrival in Turkey, Najlaa was haunted by the number of older Syrian women in the streets desperately begging for food for themselves and their families. She was also deeply saddened to learn that the only real way for young Syrian refugee women – many of whom had been raised in deeply conservative families – to survive was to join the local houses of prostitution.

Herself personally experiencing the deep loss and trauma of displacement, Najlaa recognized that the nightmarish existence now confronting Syrian refugee women could not be borne alone. So she approached and introduced herself to other women, inviting them to join with her, in her small rented home, to discuss what they could do collectively to adjust to their new realities.

These small gatherings gave birth, in 2013, to a new organization, Kareemat (meaning “women of dignity,” in Arabic). Over the years, Kareemat has functioned as a place of gathering and stability for Syrian women refugees and their families. Kareemat offers counseling and vocational training for women, teaching them sewing and other life skills. To Najlaa’s immense pride, young Syrian refugee women are no longer forced to work as prostitutes; instead, they have acquired , through Kareemat, work skills and community connections that enable them to live a less degrading and dangerous life. In addition to helping Syrian women lead better lives, these new avenues of employment for women afforded by Kareemat also help combat negative stereotypes of Syrian women in Turkey.

Kareemat also engages in a variety of peacebuilding activities: hosting workshops on the dangers of war; facilitating discussion groups regarding the impact of violence against women; and presenting film screenings to raise awareness of the important role of women leaders in effective conflict resolution.

Kareemat also engages in activities designed to dissuade young Syrian refugees, whose passions are sometimes stoked by their vengeful elders, from returning to Syria to pursue armed retaliation. When Najlaa’s own eldest son vowed repeatedly to return to Syria to seek vengeance, she responded that if he insisted on returning to Syria, she would also return, with him, to remain always by his side. Her threat of accompanying him – which her son recognized would place his mother in mortal danger – convinced him to relinquish his dream of retaliation and violence. Instead, both he and his brother have now renounced any plans of revenge, and are directing their energies instead to acquiring an education.

This accomplishment, Najlaa said – her turning her two sons away from perpetuating the cycle of violence – is her proudest personal achievement.

Najlaa’s vision, courage, and fortitude, alone, would have made her remarkable. But what will stay with me most is the message she had for those of us who might be inclined to simply romanticize her story, without connecting it to our ourselves.

Najlaa explained that she recognized that traveling to the United Nations was a once-in-a-lifetime gift and opportunity for her, and for the women of Kareemat. When she arrived in the United States, she realized that her first obstacle was the fact that few of the people she would meet spoke Arabic, and that she would thus not be able to convey, in her own tongue, the urgency, or nuances, of her personal story. Instead, she would have to rely on the sensitivity and goodwill of an interpreter. (Luckily, her interpreter, Lebanese journalist Sawssan Abou-Zahr, who had previously published an excellent article about Najlaa, https://www.peaceinsight.org/blog/2018/10/remarkable-story-kareemat-and-its-founder, was both an effective and empathetic translator.)

Thus, the first words spoken to us by Najlaa – this woman who has accomplished so much, in unfathomable circumstances – were an apology to us for not being able to speak English. At that moment, I felt the tyranny and imbalance of a world in which people given vast power over the lives of others – the global decision makers – do not speak even the same language as those who suffer the consequences of their decisions.

Najlaa then described to us, repeatedly, her burning desire and goal of returning to her homeland, to help rebuild her country. It is the Syrians themselves, she said, who must solve Syrian problems. It is not for other countries to do. The people being sent to resolve the Syrian crisis should not be special envoys from international organizations, jetting in and out. It should be Syrian women. For it is the women of Syria who best know Syria. It is the women of Syria who best know Syrian families. It is the women of Syria who best know Syrian needs.

Najlaa’s story was both heart-wrenching and memorable. Yet I sensed her holding back.

Finally, after about an hour of questions-and-answers, there seemed to be a shift in our group dynamics. Najlaa sat back, paused, looked at us closely, and asked if she could be frank with us. She seemed finally to trust her audience – despite the imbalance of power and access – to hear what she was really trying to say. We (with some discomfort), urged her to speak honestly.

I want you to listen to me, Najlaa said to us. I want you to remember my words. I want you to remember my story. I want you to think about the way that you, being privileged, are connected with this story. I want you to think not simply about what we Syrian refugees are experiencing, but about what you can and must do to change that story.

She then explained that, in preparation for this trip to the UN, she had made cards (no easy task, living as a refugee) to share with the people she met, listing the contact information for her and for Kareemat. Najlaa had made a significant effort the day before, she said, personally to hand a card to everyone in the room.

And yet at the end of the meeting, most of her cards remained on the table. People had accepted her card, but had not cared enough to take it with them.

Mary Yelenick is Pax Christi International’s Main Representative at the United Nations (UN) in New York. She is member of the UN-NGO Syria Working Group as well as the UN – NGO Security Council Working Group.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Meeting Khaled

ypj-logo

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.