A cold coming

Another train arrives. About a thousand people disembark. Many families with small children, babies wrapped in blankets, lads with worn backpacks. The elderly and disabled are helped into wheelchairs. From grim carriages they make their way out onto the platform. Floodlit in the darkness, a thick layer of snow covers the ground around the tents and prefabs. It’s been snowing for several days. Temperatures have dropped to minus fifteen degrees. Then there’s a slight thaw. Gravel paths become a mess of mud and slush. Freezing rain starts to fall. A shadowy police cordon guides the emerging passengers towards registration.

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Train in which refugees travelled – taking photos in the camp was very much restricted

Welcome to Croatia. The Slavonski Brod transit centre is a brief stop-over on a route that begins in the throes of war. This trail of displacement involves risky voyages across land and sea, led only by the hope of a better future. Papers are processed. People enter the distribution area. It’s like a makeshift bazaar. At the doorway, sweetened tea is served in plastic cups. On one side of the railed passage through the tent, NGOs hand out health and sanitary supplies. On the other, volunteers distribute clothes. An array of donations is stacked on metal shelves and spread on trestle tables. Further items are sorted into labelled boxes – shoes and boots that quickly disappear, underwear, gloves, hats and scarves.

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Our work as volunteers in the distribution tent

Footwear is a high priority. Some people are wearing soaking trainers, wellingtons, even flip-flops. Socks are saturated, stuck to raw, chapped toes. One woman tries to squeeze into warmer boots. She winces with pain but doesn’t want to linger to get treatment for her chilblained feet. It’s all about moving, keeping going on adrenaline. The travellers are exhausted but they’re anxious to complete what is almost the last leg of their journey. Before borders close. Tense officers hurry people on.

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Some of the very necessary boots which I bought with donations from Ireland

They pause to gather essentials. We never have enough of what’s most needed – strong shoes for men and women, jackets, kids’ tracksuit bottoms. Generally, the people are thinner and of shorter stature than European sizes anticipate. As volunteers, we soon learn the Arabic word ‘asr’ar’, which is used to ask for something smaller. It’s a relief to hear ‘akbar’, meaning larger, as finding a bigger garment is easier. With gestures, guessing and a bit of humour, we try to meet requests as best we can. Strange linguistic combinations are coined: ‘geansaí’ sounds quite similar to the Arabic equivalent for jumper while ‘đrabat’, as it’s transliterated onto a piece of cardboard, and the Croatian ‘čarape’ are interchangeable terms for socks. ‘Shalwar’ – trousers – is our keyword in Farsi.

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Jackets and tracksuits for children from the Irish donation

New Year 2016… This is travelling through Europe if you’re sufficiently ‘lucky’ to be from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Only these nationalities are allowed to cross the Greek-Macedonian border and continue into Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and beyond. The right to seek asylum gets reduced to racial profiling. For those who are permitted to proceed, the mass movement is akin to the aftermath of World War II. People weary from conflict and near-drowning, trekking through ever-colder countries.

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Ready to give out New Year gifts to kids

A Syrian man describes the waves that almost claimed his family not far from the Turkish coast. A young woman from Afghanistan loses her phone with all her relatives’ contacts while she’s taking care of her siblings. Pregnant women look for stretchy clothes because ‘baby coming’. Mothers change and breast-feed infants in the UNICEF tent before they board the train again. Girls must cope with periods in unhygienic portaloos. Children have no chance of a hot meal or a bath. Yet their excitement at receiving a banana or a snack sends ripples of joy through the crowd. Moments of gladness… A mum’s delight when a pair of scruffy runners fits her little son. The charming guy who demands a ‘stylish’ jacket makes everybody laugh.

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The snowy road to the camp

‘Sister, sister!’ All we can offer are second-hand scraps of clothes, through smiles and elemental forms of communication that transcend our different languages, cultures and experiences. Humanity is expressed in these fleeting interactions between brothers and sisters. But now it’s time to go. People pick up the remains of their belongings. The rain has turned to snow. Feathery flakes drift down as the last groups are directed back to the platform. Three or four trains per day, with wagons often unlit and unheated. Volunteers from Croatia and across Europe wave goodbye. ‘Thank you!’ voices shout from open windows. Heading towards Germany or wherever their ultimate destination may lie. Those who pass through the surreal station that is the camp in Slavonski Brod are nearly there. Although who knows what reception awaits them when they reach their new home.

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Slavonski Brod, Croatia

Written after two weeks working as a volunteer in the Slavonski Brod refugee camp, Croatia, with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Refugee Support Initiative of the Centre for Peace Studies, Zagreb. For further details see: http://welcome.cms.hr/index.php/en/

Bless all the dear children…

Speed-writing amid the madness of Christmas Eve – so this may be a stream of semi-consciousness! December has been hectic and the last few days were simply too short. Meeting deadlines and getting things sorted for the festive season… This year, though, it’s a different type of Christmas. Perhaps 2015 has forced us, across Europe, to wake up to the reality of our unjust world. To make us respond to those seeking safety and shelter. How have we reacted? Have we said ‘welcome’ or ‘there’s no room’? It’s a Christmassy kind of question.

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At a lovely ‘Santa Lucia’ feast-day event organised by a dear friend in aid of my appeal.

Anyhow, to answer it in a personal way, I’m heading to Croatia on Monday (28th December) to volunteer for two weeks with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Initiative, which has been offering tremendous support to refugees there. And, thanks to incredible help from many people in Ireland and beyond, I’m delighted to say that I’ve far surpassed my fundraising target of €2,000! This money will go to Croatia ADRA, which is bringing essential aid to refugees in the main camp in Slavonski Brod. Please check out this link for details of my appeal: https://www.gofundme.com/BalkansRefugees

Yesterday, I read about a Syrian woman who had just given birth to a baby in Slavonski Brod, shortly after she and her family arrived in the camp. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, her story has huge human resonance. But she’s not the only mother to have made this trek, not the only pregnant woman to have braved this difficult journey. Her children are lucky to have survived the merciless seas which claimed more young lives this week. The least I can do is spend a little time lending a hand of solidarity with people like her.

In the meantime, I want to make tomorrow special for my kids. I’d also like to wish you all ‘Sretan Božić i Sretna Nova Godina!’ with an image that my eldest daughter created…

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Together to live as one

Solidarity, solidarité, solidarnost… Perhaps it’s an instinctive human reaction to inexplicable horror. Shock at the appalling events in Paris on 13th November turns to grief, confusion. What vile brand of evil could target people enjoying a Friday night? In the city of love and light? At a rock gig, in restaurants and bars, at a football match?

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All across Europe, we were doing similar things. In our house, the whole family was watching the first leg of the Euro 2016 playoffs. Insofar as it could be seen through the fog in Zenica. The Ireland versus Bosnia game was heading towards a draw. We were joking that the result wouldn’t serve as grounds for a Bosnian-Irish divorce. Until, just before the final whistle, our screens began to fill with scenes of chaos. Paris… Sirens screeching, carnage unfolding in real-time. Unreal. Young fans at a concert, taken hostage, brutally slain.

We mourn for the victims. But our tears are crocodilian if they don’t flow for the quarter of a million Syrians slaughtered in almost five years of conflict. Those murdered by ‘Islamic State’ extremists, who’ve now added the attacks in Paris to their catalogue of terror. And the tens of thousands more who’ve been killed by the forces of President Assad and his allies. It’s no wonder that families trek to Europe to escape this. From Syria and elsewhere – fleeing bloodthirsty fanatics and oppressive regimes. What would you do if a hazardous journey was the only hope of a future for your children? If the other options were either the daily fear of death or indefinite displacement and destitution. When all you want, as a parent, is to give your kids a safe home. To ensure that they have health, education, peace.

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Photo: UNHCR

The chance of a new life. It’s the destination sought by the adults and children crossing the Mediterranean, the families and individuals making their arduous way through the Balkans. Up to 800,000 so far this year. And over 3,400 lost at sea. Like at least two Titanic-scale disasters in less than twelve months. Though drowned infants are no longer headline news. Numbers become numbing. Words seem, at best, useless and, at worst, sinister tools to redefine the innocent as threats. From refugees, back to migrants, now potential terrorists – the terms bandied about by journalists and politicians seep into public opinion.

But the people keep on coming. Although the waves are rougher and temperatures are falling. Despite an atmosphere that’s growing colder. After Paris, the challenges they face may be greater. Yet, if Europe is to boast of any ethical values, these must hinge on cherishing our brothers and our sisters. Treating them equally. Sharing with them the liberty that we take for granted. Not closing our doors and turning them away. As European citizens, we should play a part in shaping these critical moments in our history.

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Photo: UNHCR

On a personal level, I find it’s not enough merely to talk or write about this issue. I need to act. That’s why I’ve decided to go back to Croatia and do some voluntary work with refugees there. I’m travelling to Slavonski Brod at the end of December. It’s a town that I last visited in 1994 when I was volunteering with Bosnian refugees who’d fled to Croatia during the wars in the Balkans. Now, it’s the location of a new camp to accommodate people en route to countries, such as Germany, in which they hope to stay.

This tragic cycle of world conflict has prompted my plans to return. I might be twice as old but I’ve acquired significant experience since the nineties. In fact, the course of my life owes much to those turbulent times. I’ve spent the intervening years with someone from Sarajevo. He came to Ireland, for urgent medical treatment, through a resettlement programme established for people who were affected by the Bosnian war. My three daughters are the children of a former refugee. Thus, the present crisis hits straight home. I’ve got to put my energy into practical action.

So I’ll be joining volunteers with the ‘Dobrodošli’/’Welcome’ initiative which has been supporting refugees since their arrival in Croatia this autumn. Over the next few weeks, I’ll also be fundraising for donations to aid refugees in the Slavonski Brod camp. More on this to follow very soon!

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a small example of solidarity. On Saturday (14th November) I went to an event at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland. It was a festival of food hosted by the Syrian community and Human Appeal Ireland, an organisation which has done remarkable work in bringing essential supplies into Syria. From speaking to Syrians, Irish people and attendees from other countries, it was clear we were united in revulsion at the atrocities in Paris. We were also linked by concern for those still suffering in Syria and an awareness of the ongoing plight of refugees. Above all, though, we were simply fellow humans engaging in conversation. We talked about common interests over sweet Middle Eastern cakes on a wet afternoon in Dublin. Together – irrespective of our origins or beliefs. And this was welcome.

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Fáilte, refugees, welcome!

Déjà vu. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict and persecution. Like refugees from the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. But the scale of this movement is far greater. This is Europe, 2015.

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Most EU states have been reluctant to deal with this crisis. Countries of arrival and transit have been struggling to cope. Some leaders have used language tantamount to hate-speech. At the same time, across Europe, people are showing solidarity with our sisters and brothers who’ve made perilous journeys from even more dangerous places. Offering hands-on assistance and appealing to our governments to accept refugees.

Sadly, it took the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, almost two weeks ago, to finally awaken our collective conscience. The photograph of this Syrian boy, lying tiny and lifeless on a tourist beach in Turkey, has sparked a huge reaction. Yet, over recent months and years, many children have drowned in the Mediterranean as families – in the hope of escaping conflict – make risky crossings on routes run by traffickers. Just this weekend, another boat capsized near the Greek islands. Fifteen victims of this latest tragedy were babies or young girls or boys. Meanwhile, thousands of children have been killed in Syria and other war-ravaged regions. Without any public outcry.

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Now, prompted by both sympathy and shame, support for refugees among ordinary Europeans has galvanised. In Ireland, we’ve been signing petitions, pledging beds in our homes, getting involved in the aid effort, writing to the media and to politicians. We’ve attended protests in Dublin – at the Famine Memorial on 5th September and at the Spire last Saturday (12th). People have gathered demonstrations and events throughout the country, calling on the Irish government to do more. On Sunday, 13th September, hundreds of us stood on Sandymount Strand to form the message ‘refugees welcome’ for an aerial photo organised by a coalition of prominent NGOs.

Given its grim history of emigration, Ireland should have a particular affinity with those who are forced to flee. The country still has many recession-related problems, but these can’t be used as an excuse. Accepting refugees is a moral obligation for any state which claims to respect human rights. Indeed, a humane response to this issue could be a significant step in Ireland’s social recovery. It requires a shift in policy – to focus on people, not simply on figures. This approach could benefit the nation as a whole. Especially at a time when, though economic indicators appear positive, levels of disadvantage have grown.

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On 5th September, evidence of this need for overall change could be found not far away from the Famine Memorial. To conclude the protest, the crowd spread out around the bridge over the Liffey for a minute’s silence in memory of all who have lost their lives in desperate attempts to reach Europe. We followed the other participants to the opposite bank of the river. There, a group of homeless people were sitting on a bench. They were understandably upset about this sudden concern for refugees while they remain deprived of the right to shelter. Their objections were largely ignored. But, as chance would have it, we ended up in conversation. Together – Irish citizens who this country has badly failed, Bosnians who’d come here as refugees in nineties and their families – we agreed that we were ‘on the same side’. Because everyone deserves a safe place they can call home. Whether they’ve been displaced by war or dictatorial regimes, or whether they’ve been dispossessed by inequality in Western ‘democracies’.

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Public pressure can influence political proposals, so we hope the current momentum can be sustained. On 10th September, the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, announced that Ireland will accept ‘up to 4000 persons’ over the next two years. This is an improvement on the government’s previous commitment to admit a mere 600 of those presently seeking refuge in Europe and a further 520 Syrians from outside the EU. However, it’s vital to ensure that all of these people are accommodated in hospitable environments. They will also require access to services, particularly in relation to health and education. Appropriate English language support must be provided and counselling should be made available. Communities must unite to welcome these new arrivals who have come from such appalling situations.

The implementation of these programmes cannot mirror the degrading system of ‘direct provision’. This has left people who seek asylum in Ireland trapped in debilitating and restrictive conditions – often for years on end – while they await decisions on their status. As numerous human rights organisations demand, this system must be immediately abolished. Survivors of trauma should be treated with dignity, not subjected to institutional abuse.

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Ultimately, the causes of Europe’s refugee crisis have to be addressed. Stopping the war in Syria, which has now uprooted over half the country’s population and claimed at least a quarter of a million lives, must be a priority. To date, there has been very little political or public engagement in Ireland in this regard. The Irish Syria Solidarity Movement will hold a protest outside the Dáil on Wednesday 23rd September to raise awareness as to why Syrians are refugees. It’s important that, although their plight seems almost forgotten, we think of those who are still under attack inside Syria.

All of these issues – tackling homelessness, welcoming refugees, respecting everybody who seeks asylum here, considering Ireland’s role as an ally of people affected by conflict – could be part of a new agenda for this country. They call on us, as individuals, to take whatever action we possibly can. For history will judge us on our humanity. In July, along with other members and friends of the Bosnian community in Ireland, we commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. As well as remembering this atrocity, we pointed out that we’re witnessing similar horrors in Syria today. We can’t just turn away – we must do something (please see links below). And forgive me if I sound shrill, but this stuff is personal. Because, reader, I married a refugee.

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Some useful links:

What you can do – via Migrant Rights Centre Ireland – including links to organisations bringing to humanitarian aid to refugees across Europe:

http://www.mrci.ie/our-work/international-work/news-international-work/refugeeswelcome-what-you-can-do/

‘Refugees welcome’ aerial photo – via Irish Refugee Council:

http://www.irishrefugeecouncil.ie/news/irish-people-spell-out-their-welcome-to-refugees-ahead-of-crucial-eu-meeting/4143

Reflections of a medical evacuee from Bosnia who came to Ireland in 1994 on the experience of Bosnian refugees – RTE Drivetime 7/9/15:

https://vodhls.rasset.ie/manifest/audio/2015/0907/20150907_rteradio1-drivetime-irelandspl_c20842389_20842392_261_.m3u8

Also see RTE Player – Six-One News 7/9/15 and The Week in Politics 13/9/15:

http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/

Letter to the Irish Times published on 1/9/11: 

http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/seeking-refuge-in-europe-1.2335262

Happy Xmas (war isn’t over)

The first anniversary of the abduction of Syrian human rights defenders, Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wa’el Hamada and Nazem Hamadi, was marked in Dublin on 9 December. A few of us gathered at the Amnesty International memorial sculpture, on a traffic island near Busáras, to raise awareness about this brave group of people known globally as the ‘Douma Four’.

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Lawyers and activists, the four have striven to protect the oppressed in Syria, both before and since the uprising began there in 2011. For over a decade, Razan has defended political prisoners. Her husband Wa’el is one of the founders of the ‘Local Co-ordination Committees’ which, among other vital functions, deliver humanitarian aid to communities affected by the war. Samira has worked to help women in the city of Douma and has written about her country’s notorious system of detention. Nazem is another lawyer engaged in activism – he’s also a poet.

These are just snippets from the profiles of those courageous individuals who were involved in human rights monitoring with the Violations Documentation Centre in Douma before they were seized a year ago. They struggled for justice against all forms of terror in Syria – from the brutality of government forces to abuses perpetrated by organisations such as the so-called ‘Army of Islam’ which is believed to have abducted them.

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In the twelve months since December 2013, Syria has been steeped in even more blood. The barbarity of ISIS, whose emergence was in no small part facilitated by world indifference to Assad’s torturous regime, has wreaked further suffering. According to a new report published by Amnesty International, approximately 4 million refugees have fled the war in Syria. 98% of them are hosted by five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. These surrounding nations can barely cope with the influx. They’ve started closing their borders. The World Food Programme for Syria’s refugees, which aims to meet their most basic requirements, recently faced suspension due to underfunding. Families are enduring yet another freezing winter in exposed camps. While, within Syria itself, millions more are displaced and in dire need of assistance.

The crisis is now apocalyptic. But the response of the world’s richer countries remains pitiful. Calls on their leaders to accept at least 5% of the refugee burden have been ignored. On 9 December, Europe committed to admitting a further 38,000 Syrians – about 1% of the total. In 2014, Ireland has taken 90 people from Syria through a very limited resettlement programme and has pledged to provide a similar number of places in 2015 and 2016. Another 111 Syrians, who have family members already resident in Ireland, have been granted temporary permission to come here. Although, in the cases of those qualifying for this provision, their relatives have had to prove that they can fully support them.

Such reluctance to resettle Syrian refugees compares poorly with Ireland’s acceptance of over a thousand Bosnians during the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s. This previous scheme included medical treatment for the injured and fairer criteria for family reunification. Sadly, however, the current Irish effort mirrors that of most EU states. With official channels so restricted, Syrians – like many others from regions of unrest – have tried to enter Europe by whatever means they can. This often involves crossing the Mediterranean at the hands of human traffickers. It’s a dangerous journey – an estimated 3000 asylum seekers have drowned en route in 2014 alone.

The tragedy of Syria has become so huge, it’s almost unthinkable. Ironically, this seems to ensure that we deny it any thought. But imagine if around 80% of the population of the Republic of Ireland had to flee as a result of war… Where would we go? What welcome would we expect? Or if your partner, sister, brother or friend was taken captive for defending human rights… How would you feel? What would you do?

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Our plan to light candles at the Dublin memorial was thwarted by heavy rain and gale-force winds. It was hard enough to hold on to our posters! Yet, from within the sculpture which was commissioned as a reminder of prisoners of conscience across the world, a gas flame burned behind us. That stormy night, the chains and bars enclosing it represented the fate of Razan, Samira, Wa’el and Nazem. The dim light inside signified our wavering hope that Syria’s detained and disappeared will, one day, be free. It leapt with the warmth that Ireland could offer vulnerable Syrians… if our country chose to shine as a source of refuge.

For further information please see:

Irish Syria Solidarity Movement (Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/IrishSyriaSolidarityMovement

Front Line Defenders – Syria: No word on four abducted activists; A year on, no information on Douma Four (9 December 2014):

http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/27770#sthash.cUz6zmh1.dpuf http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/27770

Amnesty International – Left out in the cold: Syrian refugees abandoned by the international community (December 2014):

http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE24/047/2014/en/f9a8340f-d247-4c84-b3b8-ce4e8cbebf0d/mde240472014en.pdf

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Ireland’s solidarity with Syria

Forgotten people die forgotten. They’re tortured, raped and shelled without anyone noticing. We’ve seen their unremembered faces, their dismembered bodies. They’re on our screens daily, but we’re not watching. After almost three years, gore becomes boring. The world has tuned out from the war in Syria. Victims of chemical weapons can’t compete with Miley Cyrus in the annual internet ratings. Who wants to recall hundreds of poisoned children? The kerfuffle over US intervention dissolved into anti-climax as the story just got bloodier. Devoid of any clear script, it’s now portrayed as extremists killing each other.

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An estimated 130,000 people have died since the conflict began as a popular uprising in 2011. While this peaceful revolution met brutal oppression from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, its spirit survives among many Syrians who strive for a democratic, tolerant state. However, in the turmoil of war, such aspirations have been hijacked and thwarted by fundamentalist groups with foreign links. Opposition forces are a disparate bunch, increasingly at loggerheads. The situation appears too complex to resolve.

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Of course, this has served as a perfect excuse to ignore it. Russia’s clever manoeuvres on behalf of its tarnished ally enabled Western leaders to sheathe their unenthusiastic sabres. Global powers selectively forgot the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ – a commitment to act against mass atrocities which was made by the United Nations after its failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia. Meanwhile, the crisis in Syria has continued to escalate. Agencies such as UNHCR are struggling to deal with its human consequences – over 2.3 million refugees, half of them children. The impact of the conflict on Syria’s youngest citizens has been severe. By November, it was reported that over 11,000 children had been killed in the fighting. Since then, more have perished. Cases of polio, particularly among infants have been confirmed by the WHO, while curable diseases have proven fatal due to lack of healthcare and sanitation. Children are now dying from starvation and freezing winter temperatures have taken their toll.

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The facts are tragic. But how can Ireland respond? Syria may have slipped from the headlines, but donations from Irish people to organisations providing humanitarian assistance have contributed to a relief effort of historic proportions. As individuals, it seems we haven’t entirely forgotten Syria’s plight. It must also be acknowledged that the government has given significant aid to help those living in refugee camps in surrounding countries. However, at state level, Ireland could do more. Millions are displaced within Syria’s borders, with many in desperate need of food and medicine. Donor nations should insist that aid reaches civilians most at risk, especially those trapped in besieged towns.

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Furthermore, Ireland, along with other EU members, must be prepared to resettle a substantial number of Syrians. Amnesty International has described Europe’s response to this immense refugee crisis as ‘pitiful’. Thus far, the Irish approach to it has been disappointing. Last year, Ireland accepted only 35 people from Syria with a promise to take 90 more in 2014. This figure is negligible compared to, for instance, the 10,000 places pledged by Germany or the approximately 15,000 Syrians admitted by Sweden since 2012. Contrasting present Irish policy with that pursued in relation to past conflicts, our official attitude seems to have lost any vestiges of ‘fáilte’. In the 1990s, more than 1000 Bosnians – refugees and injured people requiring urgent treatment – were brought to Ireland. My husband, who had been seriously wounded in Sarajevo, was one of those medical evacuees. In many ways, we owe our family to the resettlement programme devised for Bosnia and Herzegovina at that time. Two decades later, Syria holds personal reminders.

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That’s why we, together with our three daughters, went to the gathering to mark the Global Day of Solidarity with Syria which took place in Dublin on Saturday 11 January. Attended by people of diverse ages and cultural backgrounds, it was part of an international campaign to refocus the world’s attention. The military blockades imposed on areas under siege were highlighted, with some participants fasting in support of Syrians who are starving as a result of this tactic. Above all, the need for a speedy end to the conflict, followed by a just resolution process involving the investigation of war-crimes and prosecution of their perpetrators, was emphasised. A petition expressing these objectives was signed by many passers-by while a symbolic ‘refugee tent’ added an eye-catching attraction. The Irish event was inevitably smaller than the marches and manifestations held in larger cities but, in front of the Spire on a busy afternoon, it made a striking impression. It also issued a powerful statement – saying Ireland won’t forget the Syrian people. Now we must act on this message and encourage our government to do likewise.

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You can still sign the petition online at:

https://www.change.org/petitions/petition-for-the-protection-of-the-people-and-human-rights-in-syria?share_id=gXkcOQnRzC

For more pictures of the event in Dublin see: http://www.demotix.com/users/robin-english/profile

Opening our fortress hearts

My first real kiss – the fireworks and fairy-dust kind – was in Cherry Orchard. And, though the setting wasn’t too Chekhovian, the sky was rainbow over Ballyfermot. Planet Earth tilted on its axis as Venus skewed her orbit closer to it… OK, even if nothing cosmic happened, the walls of the former fever hospital heaved. But then, they had ears. Clearly, privacy hadn’t been high on the architect’s agenda. Other occupants of the building knew, no doubt, before the ‘official’ announcement. That I loved a man in a refugee reception centre, in a run-down part of Dublin… During the nineties, it was temporary home to several hundred Bosnians.

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Because this was how European states responded to the war. Their leaders dragged their well-heeled feet. They condemned atrocities while sweet-talking the masterminds of aggression. Humanitarian aid was provided but, overall, Europe’s inaction helped prolong the bloodshed. However, as the conflict in Bosnia worsened, the EU had no choice but to accept victims of ethnic cleansing and treat some injured people. For thousands of Bosnians, including many who’d been badly wounded, crossing borders was the sole alternative to the daily risk of death. So the resettlement programmes established by European countries in the 1990s offered lifelines. These schemes could never absolve international culpability for the loss of over 100, 000 lives and the suffering of countless survivors. Nonetheless, they were a significant aspect of what was, otherwise, a minimal reaction to a crisis on the continent. ‘Fortress Europe’, opened its doors a chink to the desperate at its ramparts. Then it quickly slammed them shut.

The Bosnians who came to Ireland (eventually numbering over 1000) represented a tiny percentage of those who found refuge in the EU. Compared to other states, whose intake was higher, their experience was relatively favourable. They were granted refugee status and were gradually able to rebuild shattered lives. Surely that’s the least a more peaceful and prosperous nation can offer those who’ve faced persecution, genocide? Sadly though, in Ireland, this chance of a new start in a non-hostile environment isn’t available to all arrivals fleeing from such horrors. Over recent weeks, serious injustices in the Irish treatment of asylum seekers have been publicised. People may manage to leave their conflict-stricken region and travel here via treacherous escape routes – the heartbreak of Lampedusa and other drowning tragedies in the Mediterranean have highlighted the peril of their journeys. But, once on Irish soil, they’re likely to be ‘welcomed’ with years of institutionalisation akin, in many ways, to detention.

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The Irish government’s system of ‘direct provision’ for asylum seekers confines them to accommodation centres which, unlike Cherry Orchard in the 1990s, are now mainly outsourced to the private sector. To businesses which, inspections have shown, frequently fail to meet basic health and safety standards. Adults are not permitted to work. They’re denied even the freedom to organise their own meals and forced to subsist on a weekly allowance of €19.10. Families are often crowded into single rooms and children’s rights are compromised. People must remain in this limbo until their cases have been processed. And this can take a considerable length of time – on average three years and eight months, although sometimes it’s much longer. But the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Alan Shatter, seems satisfied with this arrangement. He argues it’s cost effective and to adopt a more humane approach could create a ‘pull factor’ which would render Ireland too attractive a destination.

In contrast, the Irish figures suggest that we’re not doing our fair share. Presently, around 4,600 people are accommodated through ‘direct provision’. About 1000 asylum seekers came to Ireland in 2012. A marked reduction on the total a decade previous – in 2002, over 11,000 entered the state. Furthermore, the acceptance rate in asylum cases is extremely low (less than 10% result in positive outcomes). Compare this with the Swedish record. Sweden’s ratio of refugees per 1000 population is one of Europe’s highest at 8.81, while Ireland’s is 2.04 (UNHCR 2011). In Sweden, this looks set to increase, following the decision to admit all who arrive from Syria – already, since 2012, over 14,000 people. Yet few EU countries, Sweden and Germany being notable exceptions, have heeded calls from international aid agencies for Europe to accept more Syrians. Especially the most vulnerable – the young, the ill and the injured – who’ve borne the brunt of the anguish in what the UN has declared ‘the twenty-first century’s worst refugee crisis.’

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Neighbouring states can no longer deal with an influx of over 2 million refugees who’ve fled Syria since the war began in 2011. The majority of them are stuck in sprawling, under-equipped camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. For the 5 million people who are internally displaced inside Syria, conditions are even more horrific. Not only have children been killed and wounded in the fighting, they’re now starving in besieged towns, dying due to lack of medical supplies. In October, the WHO confirmed an outbreak of polio. The disease has re-emerged after years of eradication in Syria and is impacting most viciously on infants. Sexualised torture is also widespread, with rape being used as a weapon of war. UN resolutions on sexual violence in conflict, which deem such abuses war-crimes, are flagrantly scorned. But, in our age of information overload, we barely listen to this news. Similar headlines about Bosnia once breezed through our consciousness and, likewise, went ignored.

Hearing these stories from a Syrian activist, who’s been striving to bring the plight of her country to the world’s attention, makes them harder to forget. The words of Rafif Jouejati – director of FREE-Syria (the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria) – in her talk in Dublin on 30 October, are still prodding my conscience. Rafif spoke about The Jasmine Tent project which seeks to support women who’ve experienced trauma and to empower them with long-term skills that may prove vital in post-conflict Syria. Hopefully, Irish people will be able to contribute as much as they can to this grassroots initiative. Whether it’s by way of money or time – donations, campaigning or organising events – there’s a lot that we can do (please check out the link to Irish Friends of The Jasmine Tent). At this meeting and in her subsequent radio and TV interviews, Rafif also gave a thorough analysis of the complexities of the Syrian war (accessible through the RTE website, see below). The ‘onus’ she said is now on the international community to address what has become ‘a humanitarian disaster of almost unprecedented proportion’. Global indifference and the flip-flopping of power-brokers have allowed the death-toll to rise to over 115 000.

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Huge quantities of aid are urgently required. In this respect, it appears that Ireland is delivering. On 16 October, after returning from a visit to the Middle East, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Joe Costello, told a meeting of the Irish Parliament’s Joint Foreign Affairs Committee that Ireland has provided €14 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria. He said this means the Irish are ‘one of the world’s most generous donors to the Syrian problem on a per capita basis’. While this news is encouraging, it’s crucial to ensure that aid reaches the people in greatest need – particularly civilians trapped in towns and suburbs under siege. Also, it’s time Ireland accepts a substantial number of Syrian refugees. Organisations such as Amnesty International emphasise this as an EU-wide imperative. However, thus far, Irish efforts have been feeble. In September, Minister Shatter had nothing to boast about when he acknowledged that Ireland has taken ‘approximately fifty’ Syrians since the start of the war. Given the severity of the situation, a scheme of equivalent scale to that devised for Bosnians in the 1990s seems appropriate. But there’s little definite commitment. Beyond Minister Costello’s comment to the committee that next year’s cohort of ‘programme refugees’ – an annual (generally small) quota agreed with the UNHCR – will come entirely from Syria. The minister estimated this would comprise between 92 and 100 people. It sounds much less impressive than what he praised as the ‘outstanding job’ Sweden is doing in this regard.

Giving people a chance – perhaps of survival – is a point that’s easily missed or buried beneath an avalanche of statistics. As Rafif stressed in Dublin, figures can be overwhelming – too colossal to contemplate, too sterile to be human. The personal struggles of Ireland’s few thousand asylum seekers are erased in numerical arguments, which can be biased to construe them as a ‘threat’. Syria’s scattered millions blur into a faceless mass, so vast it’s unimaginable. But how do we, as individuals, reconvert these strings of inanimate zeros to people? To realise each one of them could be my lover, sister, brother, parent, child… They could be my friends or colleagues, or passers-by on the street – in other circumstances. Does life’s roulette mean that we, who’ve been spared the ordeal of war, can simply forget?

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We too belong to the ‘international community’, even if we don’t rank among its powerful members. So the ‘onus’ to take action isn’t just on our leaders. We must break the chain of apathy around our mighty hearts. This could be through getting involved with projects like The Jasmine Tent. Or appealing to politicians to reconsider the rules that control the gates of our gilded states… To see the man seeking asylum in Ireland, the woman deeply traumatised in Syria. And, here, I’m thinking of how I can respond. Knowing I’ve got no right to look away. Because the beginnings of my family trace back to meeting a Bosnian who lived, for a while, in a place called Cherry Orchard.

Useful links:

Syria and The Jasmine Tent:

http://www.free-syria-foundation.org/the-jasmine-tent.html also check out the FREE-Syria homepage for news of other projects

https://www.facebook.com/irishfriendsofthejasminetent how to help from Ireland

http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/10218424/ (1.04–1.08: until end November) RTE Morning Edition (TV 3/11/13)

http://www.rte.ie/news/morningireland/player.html?20131031,20463987,20463987,flash,232 RTE Morning Ireland (Radio 31/10/13)

Asylum seekers and immigrants in Ireland:

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/in-opposition-shatter-was-fiercely-critical-of-direct-provision-for-asylum-seekers-1.1587414

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/state-fears-reform-of-system-will-attract-asylum-seekers-1.1575210 and see other articles relating to asylum seekers in Ireland throughout October 2013 – series in the Irish Times

http://www.newstalk.ie/A-Migrant-State-of-Mind (link to podcast)

http://m.mixcloud.com/AthloneCommunityRadio/trauma-tears-hope-part-1/ (link to podcast) two excellent radio documentaries highlighting the challenges faced by asylum seekers and immigrants in Ireland

Of war and waves

Shortly after our wedding in 1998, my Bosnian husband and I decided we’d had enough of Europe for a while. I’d been offered a job as an English teacher in Japan and – knowing that, on our budget, we’d never have such a travel opportunity again – we seized the chance. So, instead of settling down, we embarked on an odyssey. We spent two years in what we affectionately called our ‘safe third country’. Where, unlike in either Ireland or Bosnia, both of us enjoyed equal status as aliens. From the furthest galaxies, it seemed.

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Telling people I was from Ireland was often met with an enthusiastic response: ‘Ah… Iceland!’ Initially I was miffed that much less populous outcrop could be mistaken for the Emerald Isle. However, I soon discovered that whenever Japan’s TV channels had any ‘global’ focus it tended towards themes of national relevance – a shared geographical phenomenon, for instance. Hence numerous re-runs of documentaries about plate tectonics in the vicinity of Reykjavik. Lacking active volcanoes, my homeland barely featured on the Japanese world-map. Ireland was an unknown entity to all but a handful of music buffs who’d heard of U2 and, weirdly, the Nolan Sisters. And as for Bosnia… ‘Boston?’ was the typical reaction. A whole country, with a poignant recent past, relegated in the fame stakes to below the rank of a provincial city!

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We put the misunderstanding down to American influence. From baseball to fast-food, we saw how this permeates Japan. From its conurbations right into rural regions like Aomori, the prefecture in which we lived. On the cusp of the new millennium, foreigners were still a rarity in this northernmost district of the main island, Honshu. Off the tourist trail, Aomori was a pastoral place, renowned for gigantic apples and harsh winters. Its most prominent non-natives belonged to the US military base in the town of Misawa – one of the largest of those established after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Civilians of other backgrounds were frequently presumed to be GI Joes or Janes. ‘Amerikajin ja nai,’ became our catchphrase as we clarified our European origins. Coming from such mysterious parts of our quaint patchwork of a continent, we proved intriguing. And, perhaps due to this strangeness, we made many Japanese friends.

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The welcome extended to us was genuine and warm-hearted. Our friends clearly relished their ambassadorial role as they explained their culture to us in diverse ways. Hospitality appeared to be a matter of immense pride and the stories they told brimmed with resolute spirit. Among older people, this could often be traced back to memories of wartime. We listened to recollections of those who’d survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the lethal incendiary raids on Tokyo. These were tales of bare existence, near-starvation, long-term consequences. But they were generally crowned with a patriotic ending – reminding us of Japan’s post-war success. Despite the fact that its economy was floundering by the 1990s, determination to achieve prevailed as a motto. Even my high-school students vowed: ‘ganbarimasu’ – ‘we’ll do our best’.

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However, some elders worried that the youth had grown pampered. Too westernised… in a country which had built its modern image on technology and material wealth, emulating its Euro-Atlantic rivals. ‘A nation of imitation’ my boss used to call it. Yet Japan was also a place of contradiction. Its Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples blended into an environment full of pachinko gambling parlours and ‘love hotels’ for privacy-seeking paramours. Tradition spanned the donning of ceremonial kimono and skinny dipping in sulphuric onsens (risqué for a former convent-schoolgirl but the ultimate in relaxation bliss). Trains ran fast and strictly to their schedules, life around hectic business hours had to be ‘convenient’… though the making of tea remained a timeless ritual. This land of Nikkei stock-brokers and paddy field farmers enchanted us. And gave us our first child.

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Meanwhile, back in the Balkans, conflict was breaking out again. The Japanese broadcasting networks, whose interests, we’d noted, were predominantly insular, began to report on atrocities occurring there. Things were bad when Kosovo was, news-wise, ‘big in Japan’. We watched with a terrible sense of déjà vu. This was just a couple of years after the Bosnian war. From the eastern edge of Asia we wondered what we could do – surely we could participate in the relief effort. But, being foreign and ignorant of the system, it was difficult to get started. Our city was somewhat less than cosmopolitan and public awareness of world affairs seemed limited. Also, the concept of fundraising for NGOs – especially those dealing with international disasters – wasn’t widespread. Japan’s contribution in overseas aid, drawn from its tax-payers, was regarded as sufficient. In Bosnia, we later saw evidence of this state-level support – it helped to restock Sarajevo’s bus fleet. Nonetheless, we managed to find two agencies which were running appeals for Kosovo – the Japanese Red Cross and the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan. Following a few phone-calls, we realised we could take action. Along with some dedicated friends, we launched into our campaign in Aomori.

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In spring 1999, we sold lapel badges that we’d made from silk cherry blossom. Attached to each flower was a paper leaf on which we printed the word Kosobo (the Japanese language has no phoneme ‘v’) in katakana script: コソボ. Next, we organised a ‘Balkan dinner’ in Aomori city’s cultural centre. This was indeed a gastronomic novelty. Nerve-wrecking too, as I had to instruct a group of far more proficient cooks on how to make burek from specially ordered filo pastry. It was all a bit surreal… though, according to our guests, very tasty. The historic town of Hirosaki then hosted our monster jumble sale. We weren’t sure if this idea would wash in a country where the sparkling new seemed so highly prized, but we were amazed at the positive response. Bargain hunting must be an innate human trait. For soon our stalls were empty and our collection boxes full. We talked at length about Balkan issues throughout this time, in particular, with my students at their school festival that summer. From their reactions, it was obvious that we’d taught them something of the world beyond the curriculum, something they might remember in future years. Finally, in December, we held a children’s Christmas party, with gifts from a beanpole Santa Claus who spoke with a suspiciously Bosnian lilt. Fortunately, he didn’t scare the kids!

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Altogether, we raised the equivalent of several thousand Irish pounds, or euro, guessing at the current exchange rate. The figure in yen – almost a million – was even more impressive. But the purpose of the venture couldn’t be measured in money. We were motivated simply by a responsibility to act, irrespective of distance, in relation to events that had personal significance. For us, the most valuable outcome was that so many people became aware of a situation about which they’d have otherwise known little.

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No-one involved in our Kosovo campaign could’ve envisaged that, twelve years later, Japan would be on the receiving end of international aid. On 11 March, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook the country – its epicentre at sea, only 130 km from the city of Sendai. Worse, it generated a devastating tsunami which inundated an extensive stretch of populated coastline. Aomori was badly hit. Although our city was sheltered by a peninsula, other parts of the prefecture were less lucky. Along its Pacific fringe, a wall of water slammed down upon towns like Hachinohe. Boats were tossed onto land, cars swept away. Homes vanished and their occupants were drowned. All this destruction near the sandy beach where our baby daughter had once splashed her feet in the ocean…

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Over the years, we’d lost contact with Aomori – moving and the demands of work and kids meant our links went neglected. But after hearing news of this catastrophe, we had to get in touch. Trying old-email addresses, most no longer valid, I got a reply from one of the teachers from my school. Then we found another friend on Facebook. While the enormity of the disaster, exacerbated by damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant, continued to emerge. Though better equipped for a crisis of this scale than the majority of nations and with a proud record of self-reliance, Japan requested outside assistance. The Ireland Japan Association (IJA) issued an appeal on behalf of the victims. From our village on the shores of the Irish Sea, where spring-tides are a warning of the savage force of water, we knew we had to respond.

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Our Aomori-born daughter turned eleven that April, so we used the occasion to make a contribution. She invited her schoolmates to a Japanese-themed birthday party held in the local community centre and, in lieu of presents, asked for donations to the IJA appeal. With karaoke, origami and an Irish attempt at sushi, the kids had lots of fun. There were games like a ’round Japan treasure hunt’ and a ‘chopsticks challenge’ – which required great dexterity to progress from picking up crisps and marshmallows to much trickier small sweets. For the adults, we also organised a pub-quiz which surprised competing teams with its Japanese twist! But the mental exertion was worthwhile, given the fine range of prizes we’d received from shops and businesses in the area. Their support was particularly generous as it came when trade was suffering as a result of the recession. Between these two events, we raised over €1800 – in cash donated to the Ireland Japan Association and a sterling draft made payable to the UK branch of the Red Cross. Again, it was just a tiny gesture – the only sign of solidarity we could offer the Japanese people from far-off Ireland. An arigatō for the concern they’d shown for refugees fleeing Kosovo.

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Two and a half years on, the legacy of the Tōhoku Earthquake still haunts Japan. The thousands of lives lost can’t be reclaimed. The chunks of coast swallowed by the killer wave can’t be restored. The north-east littoral is forever scarred. To this day, the Fukushima reactors remain unstable, leaking toxins in a radioactive nightmare that will likely last for decades. Yet our Japanese friends, in messages they sent us after the tragedy, emphasised their refusal to ‘give up’. Maybe it was a knee-jerk means of coping with collective trauma. Some might say it was merely echoing an official narrative readily absorbed in a place where group-think often stifles the individual voice. Possibly, to an extent, although there have been protests at the state’s handling of the nuclear fiasco and citizens are prepared to express their dissatisfaction.

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We read our friends’ comments as those of pure resilience. That strength in the face of adversity which we’d heard repeatedly when we were in Japan. Their words spoke their desire to reconstruct a broken country. Of course, it’s too soon to determine whether the Japanese authorities will honour their wish. And, no doubt, many people already feel disillusioned. But that attitude of striving together for the common good is one we Europeans should consider. It may sound naïve to cynical ears, including my own, though perhaps we could adopt a similar philosophy – telling ourselves: ‘let’s do our best’ to make things better. Ganbarimashō!