Forever in transit: New report highlights plight of Syrian refugees

For his reportage “Stranded. Refugees Between Syria and Europe” the writer Tayfun Guttstadt travelled to the cities of Turkey and along the Turkish-Syrian border. In conversation with Sonja Galler, he talks about the precarious situation faced by Syrian refugees, their legal status and Turkey′s lack of any kind of integration concept

Turkey is one of the most important transit nations for refugee flows en route to Europe. At the same time, Turkey has itself become a migration country in recent years: at around three million, the nation hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees worldwide. NGOs estimate the actual number of Syrians in Turkey is closer to 3.5 million, as not all refugees have been registered yet.

For the EU and the Turkish government, the six-figure number may first and foremost serve as an argument in a domestic and foreign policy game that both areplaying to serve their own political ends. But how are the refugees themselves faring? Those that are “stranded” in Turkey and decided to remain there for a wide variety of reasons.

The Hamburg writer Tayfun Guttstadt, who reported on the Gezi protests in his first book “Capulcu“, has resumed his travels and spent time talking to (among others) Syrian refugees between Istanbul, Hatay, Gaziantep and Diyarbakir about their lives, political views, hopes and disappointments.

Strong desire to return home

The resulting work is a densely narrated reportage, abundant with conversations with friends, casual acquaintances and people from all walks of life, sprinkled with observations and background information. It provides a manifold insight into the precarious social and legal situation of Syrians and other refugees in the country, people who fluctuate between staying and travelling on.

“Most refugees live in hope of being able to return soon. Others feel at home in Turkey, because for example the culture is quite similar, or they’ve found a job, or made friends. Others stay because they don’t know what else to do. Other reasons to stay are the fear of continuing illegally to Europe or doubts over whether things would be better there,” says Guttstadt.

Only a small percentage of the refugees are living in one of the camps set up by the Turkish government close to the Syrian border and from which only a few more than airbrushed images reach the public domain. Just as it is to other journalists, access is also denied to Guttstadt on his travels.

Poverty risk in the metropolis

The overwhelming majority muddle through in one of the country’s cities. There may be more opportunities here, but the risk of falling into poverty is also high: refugees often live in over-priced, cramped accommodation working without permits “for a pittance in industry or on a building site, fielding accusations that they’re taking work away from Turks and Kurds,” says Guttstadt.

Without a work permit – something that few employers go to the trouble of obtaining for their employees – access to welfare is barely possible. Child labour, in the textile industry for example, is also an issue. However, the authorities frequently turn a blind eye to illegal work or new businesses that haven’t been correctly registered.

But Guttstadt does include more positive biographies in his book and reports on wealthy individuals who have rented or even bought apartments and houses and who have relocated their businesses to Turkey. Artists, intellectuals and musicians gather in Istanbul, which has developed into one of the exile centres of Syrian intellectuals alongside Gaziantep and Berlin.

A peculiarity of the Turkish asylum system means, however, that in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention, the refugee status does not apply to Syrians for whom a special status was created in Turkey, which officially allows them to use the public health system and now the education system too. But there is often a lack of appropriate capacity to guarantee these promised rights.

In this context, the reportage also shines a light on civil society efforts: the local initiatives and aid organisations that offer support to the refugees, sometimes under makeshift conditions, trying to offer language courses and provide psychosocial support. Guttstadt also visits the controversial aid organisation IHH, predominantly active in the Sunni milieu – the offshoot of which was banned in Germany.

No integration concept

But we also hear the views of people on the street, taxi drivers and their highly subjective comments, which range from racist resentment through to understanding and expressions of empathy, show that in Turkey too, the issue is emotionally charged.

“First and foremost among nationalist AKP opponents, there is a commonly-held view that the Syrians are living the high life at the expense of the country’s citizens. The most vociferous supporters on the other hand are full of religious pathos, in which the needs and interests of the refugees barely play a role. Very few actors in Turkey recognise that the refugees deserve the same rights as any other person,” says Guttstadt.

Guttstadt also has unequivocal words of criticism for the Turkish government: “There is no discernible integration concept, the situation is characterised by emergency solutions. Always under the assumption that a few ‘guests’ have to be looked after just for a short while, because Assad will in any case be toppled tomorrow or the day after. None of the parties giving serious attention to the rights of refugees. The AKP uses a romanticised rhetoric, which barely conceals its political exploitation of the situation, above all in domestic and EU policy,” says Guttstadt.

The discussion concerning the naturalisation of Syrian refugees is also to be viewed in this context: It is “controversial because the AKP is doing all it can to fit the majority Sunni refugees – non-Sunnis only come to Turkey unwillingly – into its social model.”

Sonja Galler

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Misery memoirs: why is it different for Muslim women?

Samira Ahmed writes in this post why women writing about suffering in Islamic states are slated for supporting a patronising attitude towards those societies. The success of harrowing true stories of abuse and poverty led to a special label for books such as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It or Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. But while we can disagree about the literary merits of such “misery memoirs”, neither was accused of being a slur on Irish or American nationhood or the Catholic faith. When it comes to women and women who happen to be Muslim, though, there seems to be a different attitude the author contends. The emerging genre of memoirs about the suffering of women in Islamic states or cultures – which, in western publishing terms, may be described as “misery memoirs” – have been variously criticised for reinforcing “Orientalism”; that is to say, they support the west’s archaic and patronising attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies, rather than actually saying something important about the women in these societies themselves. The author suggests that according to the British publishing world Muslim women can’t write a credible memoir of suffering without it being wrapped up in the struggles of a nation. Yet even if as she suggests we ignore such attitudes, the uncomfortable reality is that the western publishing world is fascinated by such tales of female suffering and misery.

Religious leaders call for assault weapons ban, background checks on gun buyers

Religious leaders from across the country gathered Saturday at Washington National Cathedral to call for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as more attention to poverty-related problems underlying gun violence in inner cities.

The meeting, part of a four-day “gun violence prevention sabbath,” was broadcast via a live Web stream to about 400 congregations around the United States, including some that held similar events locally, organizers said.

Several leaders said they had a unique perspective on the gun issue from years of burying shooting victims and comforting their families. Others said their political strength stemmed from their diverse backgrounds — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus — that straddled party lines. Several compared religious leaders’ role in the gun debate to that in the civil rights movement.

Muslims and Evolution in the 21st Century: A Galileo Moment?

Early last month, a conference was held in London, entitled “Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution?” under the auspices of The Deen Institute, an organization which aims at promoting engagement between the Islamic tradition and modernity. The event sparked off a debate on social media and op-ed columns regarding the place of evolution in the Islamic worldview.

The conference, whose lectures were recently published online, brought together scientists like Prof. Ehab Abouheif and Prof. Fatimah Jackson with theologians like Dr Usama Hasan and the prominent Shaykh Yasir Qadhi. Also invited was Dr. Oktar Babuna, representing the hardcore creationist ideas of Harun Yahya, who is deemed by many Muslim scholars to be a charlatan. Sadly, by the end of the day, Babuna was reduced to such a laughing stock that even Qadhi distanced himself from him.

Some commentators have described this conference as marking a Galileo moment for Muslims. I would argue that this isn’t quite the case, as Islamic religious authority is decentralized, and there is no formal ‘religious establishment’ that has binding authority over Muslims. With even the historic center for Sunni learning, al-Azhar University, and influential scholars like al-Qaradawi accepting that Muslims could believe in evolution–though neither seems to–it doesn’t seem like this is a serious issue in theology. Rather it seems to be so only in the popular Muslim consciousness. As Muslims continue in the path of learning, as encouraged by the Prophet, I hope that a more nuanced attitude to this issue will emerge at a popular level, and then we can focus on more important discussions like that of climate change or alleviating poverty. This conference was an important step in that direction.

For France’s immigrant outcasts, despair leads to Islamic dogma

The Toronto Star – June 23, 2012

 

Clichy-sous-Bois, which most French people know only as the place where the worst wave of riots in contemporary France began; a place where young people from immigrant families clashed with police and started hundreds of fires among the dilapidated, overcrowded bunkers; a place few French recognized as their own country is undergoing a transformation.

Clichy’s startling makeover is part of an “urban renovation” plan worth billions. It appears to be France’s answer to the well-known plight of people in the banlieues, the infamously segregated suburbs, synonymous with poverty and France’s failure to integrate its immigrants. But walk five minutes to a part of town where the buildings appear condemned and people still live inside. You will see young people who don’t have jobs, who can’t access good schools. You will see that public transit is so scarce, it can take two hours to get to Paris, 10 kilometres away.

You will also see that makeshift prayer rooms are overflowing. There aren’t enough mosques at a time when a major study has found the difficult conditions — poverty, unemployment and lack of access to education — are contributing to a rise in Islamic orthodoxy. Youth unemployment stands at 43 per cent in Clichy (22 per cent in France as a whole), and the chance at finding a job is even worse for a dropout.

Nicolas Sarkozy made efforts to address the problems in the suburbs after his election in 2007. His 2008 Suburbs Hope program, a kind of Marshall Plan, sought to pair young people with jobs and improve access to education. More bursaries were created to send disadvantaged young people to prep schools for the elite universities. But for the most part, it failed, according to the former secretary of state who was in charge of it. Funding for programs didn’t materialize.

Queen’s University (Canada) Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) gives France an overall score of 51 out of 100, down slightly from 2007, and criticizes French laws that make non-European Union residents ineligible for about 7 million jobs in both the public and private sectors.

The lack of jobs and feelings of rejection, accompanied by poor political participation, is leading many Muslims to embrace stricter forms of Islam, said French academic Gilles Kepel. It’s “a piety,” Kepel found in a major year-long study published in 2011 (http://www.euro-islam.info/2012/02/06/gilles-kepels-new-book-quatre-vingt-treize-93-released/), “that seems exacerbated by the particular circumstances” in Clichy.

Occupy Wall Street Meets Tahrir Square

At the risk of being obvious, let us list the ways that Occupy Wall Street is not like Tahrir Square: no protesters have been killed, there have been no demands for the president to step down and no crowds swelling above six figures. The protesters are in far less danger, and seem to pose far less danger to the powerful, than in Egypt.

BUT it’s worth pausing for a moment on this point: Here in Lower Manhattan, and around the country, protesters have embraced a movement springing from the Arab world as a model of freedom, democracy and nonviolence.

“Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?” an initial call to action demanded. Now, newcomers to Zuccotti Park are given leaflets explicitly connecting the movements: “We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring occupation tactics to achieve our ends and we encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.”

Two blocks from ground zero — the same distance, though in a different direction, as the proposed Muslim community center and mosque that raised a ruckus last year — a subtle change in the Arab world’s image, wrought by the events of recent months, is on display.
In a place so sensitized, the big news, perhaps, is that the Tahrir references are taken almost for granted. A movement born in a Muslim country is seen neither as threatening nor as exotic but simply as universal.

“I think Tahrir is an Arabic word, but that doesn’t make it a particularly Arab or Muslim thing,” said Daniel Kurfirst, a musician, after Muslims held Friday prayers in the park for the first time last week.
Progressive Muslim activists, many of them born in New York, have been coming to the park from the beginning. They said they hoped the prayers, organized by the Muslim Leadership Council of New York, would get more Muslims interested in the movement.

But they face ambivalence from their parents’ generation, from immigrants like Mr. Sami, the falafel chef.
It’s good to see Americans recognize that poverty is a problem, he said. But while Tahrir could be summed up in a few words — “Mubarak, leave!” — he found Occupy’s diffuse causes “confusing.” His coworker, who did not want to give his name, said the protesters were “not serious.”

Are we making the most of what Abdulmutallab knows?

This opinion piece by Michael B. Mukasey criticizes Obama’s reaction statements to Abdulmutallab’s actions, challenges the relevance of Yemen’s “crushing poverty” in its terrorism problem, and connects the country’s insurgency with the Yemeni government.

It also supports lengthy detention time in military custody for Abdulmutallab, and criticizes taking a civilian law approach to his prosecution. According to Mukasey, this would foster better intelligence collection from Abdulmutallab, and position him as an information source rather than a criminal who must be punished.

Muslim/Christian interfaith efforts build a house for a homeless family in Longview, Washington

Muslim Americans and Christians came together to raise $45,000 for Habitat for Humanity in an effort to build a home for a homeless family, helping those suffering amidst the economic recession and express who Muslims “really are.”

The family is very excited and will be moving into the house in March.

“We’ve moved a lot, and trying to keep up with the economy. Things have been hard. So this is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Pakistani immigration to Britain is still rising

The population flows between the UK and Pakistan have remained high in the past years. Each year 250,000 Pakistanis come to Britain to visit, work or marry, and some 350,000 British citizens journey in the opposite direction, mainly to visit family. Links are reinforced by ingrained marriage customs: six of ten ethnic Pakistanis in Britain pick a spouse from Pakistan.

After a major police raid on April 8, in which 11 Pakistani nationals got arrested for an alleged terrorist plot, vigilance remains high on who immigrates from what region for what purposes. However, the largest migration flows are still within families, mainly for the purpose of marriage. British-born men are especially keen on marrying a Pakistani women, while their female counterparts would rather go with British-Pakistani men, but since there is a lack of such on the marriage market, they sometimes have to import a husband, too. The article argues that extremism is much less of a problem in this respect; it is rather imported poverty that might be a Pakistani threat to Britain.

Face to faith

The month of Ramadan and the virtues of generosity, sacrifice and sympathy that Ramadan emphasise are of enormous importance to me. Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection and prayer. The fasting is intended to help teach self-discipline, generosity and appreciation of what we have, while empathising with those who have much less. It is a time not just to remember the suffering of the poor, but to do something about it. Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam and during the month of Ramadan Muslims are also encouraged to carry out their obligations to one of the other pillars of Islam: Zakah. The Arabic word means to purify by giving to the less fortunate. Zakah is a sum representing 2.5% of your savings which each year is given to the poor to relieve distress, to the needy so they are able to earn a livelihood, or to those struggling with debt. Payment of Zakah is a form of worship and its main importance lies in the fact that it fosters in us the quality of sacrifice and rids us of selfishness and greed. As a minister for international development, Ramadan really makes me appreciate the work that my staff at the department do. For people like me who had a romantic notion growing up that one day, through our politics, we would help change the world, working for the Department for International Development is nothing short of a blessing, because in our own small but not insignificant way, we are changing the world for the better. DfID is tasked with leading the UK’s fight against global poverty. More than a billion people, one in five of the world’s population, live in extreme poverty, on less than 65p a day. Ten million children die before their fifth birthday, most of them from preventable diseases. More than 113 million children do not go to school. In a world of growing wealth, such levels of human suffering and wasted potential are morally wrong. Shahid Malik reports.

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