The story of a Bosnian refugee

Foca - where it all beganThe town Foca

Zerina Karup is a Masters student at Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. She came to Ireland as a refugee when she was a baby. In March, she came to my school (Mount Temple Comprehensive in Dublin) to give a talk about her experience. This talk was organised as part of a series called Temple Tallks by the Mount Temple Amnesty International group.

Zerina was born in what was then Yugoslavia, a country which composed six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro) and two provinces (Kosovo and Vojvodina). She described her life in a Bosnian town called Foca, with family around, the river nearby…it was a very normal life, which is important to remember.

People don’t leave their countries – their friends and families, traditions and customs – because they want to. They don’t go to a foreign country where they don’t know anyone, and they don’t know the culture, for no reason. People leave because they have to.

She explained a bit of background to the war: “It started in 1991, when countries started to become independent. Slovenia started, then Croatia wanted to become independent. Serbia wanted to form a new country, Greater Serbia. In addition to these different countries, or states within a country, there were also different religions; there were Catholics, Muslims, and Serbian Orthodox. So there was a lot of potential for tension and conflict.” In April 1992, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina started, and that was when Zerina’s family decided to leave. Initially they stayed within Bosnia, moving from Foca to Gorazde, but quickly realised they still weren’t safe and moved on again. They left just in time; right afterwards, Gorazde became a Serbian enclave (nobody could enter or leave the town; there was no water, no electricity, no food.) They went to Montenegro, and then after a couple of days to Serbia.

It might sound contradictory to go to the country of the aggressors. But in the beginning there was no war in Serbia, so it was safe. Also, Zerina’s family had friends who could accommodate them, because they didn’t have much money. They stayed there for two months, but then Bosnians began to be deported back to Bosnia, into concentration camps. Zerina’s parents decided they were no longer safe, and her family got a bus to Macedonia. At the border, a Serbian soldier checked the bus. Bosnians were brought outside, lined up, and separated into groups of men and women and children. All those people were deported back to Bosnia, to concentration camps. The soldier let Zerina’s family through, telling them it was only because of the young children. They were incredibly lucky.

In Macedonia the family quickly ran out of money, and had to live on the streets. They they weren’t granted refugee status, mainly because there were already too many refugees. However they had met a very kind man, who owned a shop and he gave them milk and breakfast every morning. This man brought them to a house, in a forest in Macedonia, where other Bosnians were living. They stayed there for 25 days before moving on again. They got on another bus and went through Bulgaria and Romania, up to Hungary, to Budapest where they lived on the streets. If they got hold of any money, they went to hostels for homeless people, where their only belongings were stolen one night.

Luckily Zerina’s uncle, who lived in France, was able to send some money so they stayed in a hotel for a few weeks. They then managed to get train tickets to Austria. Despite having no passports, nothing, they made it to Vienna. They stayed in a refugee centre for a few weeks: a massive factory hall, with hundreds of beds next to each other. Horrible conditions to live under for a long period of time, but fortunately they discovered that Ireland was accepting Bosnian refugees, so that’s how they came to Ireland.

There was a lot of media coverage at the time. Zerina’s family lived in a refugee centre for a year or two. Every family had their own room, which was, compared to Austria, luxury. Her parents were really grateful to be looked after. There were medical services, and entertainment, and volunteers who would interact with the Bosnian population there.

In the talk, Zerina said, “In Ireland, I never felt like a stranger. I always felt like one of the other children. I went to school, I had loads of friends. My parents had loads of friends. There were free English courses for Bosnian people and our neighbours would mind me and my sister while our parents were at school, so there was a great support mechanism within the community. And our neighbours, and everyone, really wanted to support us…I always felt very welcome.” Bosnians were provided with social services, community services, and training so they could get jobs more easily. There were two components. On the one hand, the Irish did a great job of integrating the Bosnian community. But the refugees were also given the chance to interact with people from their own culture. This was really important for people with a lot of traumatic experiences, coming from a war.

Going back was not an option anymore

When the war ended, every Bosnian was questioning whether to return to their country or not. For Zerina’s family, going back was not an option. Bosnia as it had been was divided into two parts: the federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Serbian Republic. Since it was one country before, there were mixed ethnicities, so Bosnian-Serbs lived in the Republic, and everyone else lived in the federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And their house was in the Republic. Zerina described going back there as being like an Irish Protestant living in the Catholic part of Belfast right after the Troubles, or vice versa. It’s just not going to happen. In Foca, she said, when you go back today, you’ll see pictures of war criminals that killed many people being praised as heroes, and graffiti saying that Bosnia belongs to Serbia.

For Zerina’s family, going back was not an option. Bosnia as it had been was divided into two parts: the federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Serbian Republic.

It wasn’t the home they once had; so they had to establish a new one. Eventually they went to Germany because they had a lot of family there and Germany is also, geographically, closer to Bosnia. Zerina went to school there, and she began to travel a lot…

When she was 15, the American Field Service, an organisation, came to her school giving a talk, after which she was absolutely convinced she wanted to do a year abroad. She got herself a scholarship and went to Argentina for a year, living with a host family – an “amazing experience”.

She returned to Germany where she started her Bachelor degree in Political Science, Sociology and Media and Communication Science, and while there she took part in an Erasmus programme. Her Erasmus took her to the University of Cadiz in Spain, where she had a great time and made great friends.

On her return to Germany, Zerina got herself an internship with the United Nations World Food programme, the largest humanitarian agency in the world. Their target is to end world hunger. She worked there for seven months and it fuelled her passion for development and humanitarian aid. And that’s how she’s back in Ireland, because she found a Master’s programme that appealed to her, in the field of development. She’s now studying a course called Development of Practice. She says she’s really happy to be back in Ireland because going to Germany was a tough move for her. This summer she’s going to Kenya for three months, again with the United Nations World Food programme, to research her dissertation on the socio-economic impact of home-grown school feeding programmes in Kenya.

Kenya 2016

Zerina says she considers herself very lucky, because she doesn’t think the life she has now would be possible if she hadn’t had those support mechanisms when she came to Ireland.

“When I see pictures like this, nowadays, it really touches my heart because that boy has the right to the same opportunities we have. Just because he’s from a different country, doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be able to interact normally in society. I ask myself, will these children be able to reach their full potential, like I was able to? And if we continue doing what we’re doing at the moment, the politicians especially, I would say no. …These children can’t become the best versions of themselves if they don’t have the right support mechanisms.”

This talk demonstrated to me that support systems don’t merely allow people to survive, they allow people to thrive. They allow refugees to achieve their full potential, grow as people, and give back. It is a long-term investment.

Whether it’s in relation to the appalling Direct Provision system in Ireland today or the response of the world in general to the current refugee crisis, we need to up our game. As Zerina says, it’s our responsibility to implement a policy of zero tolerance towards intolerance.

born in ireland

About the author:

Carol McGillCarol McGill (17) participated in the “My Europe” workshop in Dublin in 2014. She is a student at Mount Temple Comprehensive and loves to write, mostly short stories, in her free time. Carol also enjoys history, drama and reading. Most of all, she would like to be a writer, but is also interested to be involved in promoting human rights and reducing discrimination. More…

Syrian conflict: what is it all about and why we should be interested in it?

syria-1151151_1920Most Europeans do not possibly remember when they last saw a news show where the Syrian conflict was not mentioned. It sometimes appears that we almost got used to hearing about renewed bombings, numerous casualties and fruitless attempts of diplomats to alter the course of events in the Middle East region. However, taking a closer look at the developments in Syria might help to understand many processes in the contemporary world starting with the refugee crisis and ending with the continuing hostility between the United States and Russia.

The roots of the Syrian Civil War lie in 2011. Following the Arab Spring movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, public uprisings against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began in Damascus. The peoples of Syria, however, were not as successful in forcing their leader out of power as the protesters in North African countries. A civil war between the government and the rebels began.

In a short time the conflict was no longer limited by the Syrian borders. Iran’s support to Assad’s regime together with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States declaring their support to the rebel forces followed by the involvement of the United States (on rebels’ side) and Russia (on Assad’s side) caused a polarization of all the countries having interests in the Middle East region. The situation was even more complicated by the Kurds (a national minority in Northern Syria) renewing their struggle for independence.

Finally, the conflict gave an opportunity for the emergence of the Islamic State (also referred to as Daesh). The terrorist state was formed after the Syrian al-Qaeda branch fighting against Assad’s regime bearing the name of al-Nusra Front merged with the Islamic State of Iraq and occupied large territories in Eastern Syria. Daesh’s ambitions of establishing a global caliphate and several terrorist attacks have brought the attention of every single nation in the world towards Syria.

What are the results of all this mess? According to Amnesty International, the number of victims of the conflict had reached 220 000 by the end of 2015 and is constantly growing. During the five years of the conflict the economy of the country suffered irreversible damage, numerous human rights’ violations occurred and a chemical weapon was used. At the moment about 50 per cent of the Syrian population is displaced and 4 million people fled their country as refugees.

The question that one may ask is why the conflict continues? Who is it beneficial to? The ones who win the most are, doubtlessly, the terrorist groups. The lack of order in Syrian governmental institutions makes any control of Syrian territory almost impossible, thus allowing the Islamic State to establish its own institutional and economic mechanisms in the east of the country. Uncontrolled Syrian borders also give the IS a possibility to perform international terrorism.

However, the Islamic State is not the main factor preventing either the reconciliation between the rebels and Assad’s regime or the decisive victory of one of the sides. In some ways the situation in Syria surprisingly resembles the local conflicts of the Cold War that took place in Korea or Vietnam. The involvement of Russia and the United States on different belligerent sides turns Syria into the arena of an international conflict between the two greatest military powers in the world.

This clash of the two Cold War enemies also leads any legal international intervention attempts to an impasse: both countries have the right of veto in the United Nations Security Council, which makes passing an effective resolution to solve the Syrian Civil War issue practically impossible. From this point of view the situation cannot be expected to change soon as the conflict remains a matter of influence in the Middle East region which both Russia and the US always sought for.

European countries played little role in the beginning of the conflict but are now being drawn into it more and more firmly. Europe’s role in the Syrian conflict mainly consists of two aspects. First, Europe becomes one of the main destinations of civilians fleeing Syria. Some countries of the European Union advocate the open-door policy while others oppose it, thus causing the internal division of the EU. The problem aggravated as the continuing flow of Syrian migrants gave a pretext to many economic refugees from Northern Africa to search for a better life in Europe despite the absence of any military threats.

The other way in which Europe contributes towards the developments in Syria is the fight against the Islamic State. Following the attacks in Paris France and Great Britain have carried out several bombings in the territory of the IS. However, it is always difficult for democratic governments to receive the popular approval for military actions, which makes it doubtable whether the European role will be significant in giving a decisive blow to Daesh.

The main interest of the European Union is, of course, finishing the conflict. This would sustainably solve the refugee crisis and the newly formed Syrian government would be able to regain territory from the IS. But as military intervention is hardly possible and hardly desirable the main role the EU should play here is that of being a diplomatic intermediary striving to reconcile the belligerent sides. Remaining completely neutral is no longer possible: the conflict taking place in Syria is no longer a local one and it is a duty of every single nation in the world to contribute to solving it.

 

About the author:

Picture Gediminas GodaGediminas (18) took part in our workshop in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2014. He attends International Baccalaureate course at Vilnius Lyceum and is dreaming of being a professor at university in the future. His interests are literature, politics and board games. More…

Refugee crisis

map-of-the-world-1005413_1280

“The number of people living as refugees from war or persecution exceeded 50 million in 2013, for the first time since World War Two” states a report by the UN refugee agency. Not surprisingly at all, the current refugee crisis has become one of the most widely debated issues due to its repercussion on a global scale. While everyone agrees that the origin of such crisis was the Arab Spring, a series of peaceful, pro-democracy movements that began in 2011 across the Middle East which, unfortunately, led to terrible wars in Libya and Syria, most people fail to have similar ideas regarding what should be done in order to tackle the problem of how to host millions of people.

The notion that Europe should take in a number of refugees as large as necessary has been backed up by many using the following arguments. In the first place, since the article 14 of the UDHR states that everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy asylum in other countries, the advocates of an open European border claim that it is the duty of all to host the refugees. Besides the fact that it is a basic human right, empathy makes people want to help to the extent possible to those exposed to inhumane situations; would a normal person not want help when he has been forced to abandon everything he knew, to live in harsh conditions in refugee camps, or even to attempt to cross seas with no safety measures risking his life and the lives of his loved ones? Secondly, developing regions hosted 86% of the world’s refugees. Taking into account that according to UNHCR, it would cost $20,537,705 only to finance the Syria Regional Refugee Coordination Office, it becomes clear that the costs are high. Developing countries appear to simply not be able to afford to invest the necessary money on refugee camps as opposed to European countries. Lastly, refugees have skills, talents and aspirations, and the ability to contribute socially and economically.

On the other hand, a number of European nations have made it clear they are not willing to welcome many newcomers, despite the current crisis, e.g., Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban built a barbed-wire fence along Hungary’s border with Serbia and introduced a new migratory law making any fence crossing a criminal offense. Those who agree with the Hungarian Prime Minister often argue that taking in all asylum-seekers would have a negative effect on European societies as well as economies. Refugees will not only be a “loss of capital” for the states but also a threat to their civic identity. People shudder at the sight of the potential change that the refugees might bring with them, something which contributes to the rise of an anti-immigration feeling. Illustrating this point, Orban stated: “Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?”

In conclusion, the EU has announced an emergency quota system that will spread out the influx of refugees across its member states, aiming to improve the situation and avoid irrevocable mistakes. I strongly support the opinion of having open European borders for all Syrians and Afghans and honestly believe that the European Union should be realistic about the number of refugees that will arrive in the near future to our continent as to handle the crisis appropriately.

 

About the author:

Photo Mónica Martínez Jorge is 16-year-old student from Spain who is interested in politics. 

Message to our world leaders

Professor Pohl

Today we stand at an era of major change, but we are also at a crossroad where we have to make decisions on how we want to live our lives in the future.

The terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 and the terror in many parts of the world today (e.g. IS and Boko Haram) illustrate in an extreme way that patriarchal structures are still very dominant in most parts of the world.

Not only have men invented religion but they also use religion to justify their actions. They want to decide on how people should live their cultural, religious as well as their social and professional lives. They misuse religion as a justification for their terrorist acts and want to create chaos, fear and a feeling of insecurity worldwide.

The consequence in western countries is not only the fear of more terrorist attacks but also an increase of right-wing extremism. In other words, liberal democracy is threatened from two sites: Global terrorism and right-wing radicalism.

We also know that the world has become more connected through modern digital communication systems that enable the sharing of information on a global level within seconds. Yet, at the same time terrorists are also using the same media for their own purposes.

Thus, the world has become more connected but also more vulnerable. What can we do about it?

  • We need a global territorial reform. The main world leaders, who are currently meeting at the G20 summit in Turkey have to send a strong political signal showing that they condemn the terrorist acts and that they do not tolerate war and terror. Moreover they need to demonstrate their will to solve current and arising conflicts between their countries. This means that state borders have to be determined and guaranteed. The use of armed forces will be necessary to carry out this task.
  • Furthermore it is indispensable to promote the inclusion and equal opportunities in countries with a high number of socially deprived groups and a high unemployment rate. It is important to create structures with equal access to education as well as economic and social help for those who need it, so that people get the chance to live in their own countries and are not forced to be refugees in the search for a better life.
  • Finally, the separation of state and religion is necessary for a successful global territorial reform. Moreover, the acceptance of every culture and every religion are fundamental requirements for a peaceful coexistence.

All of this might seem utopian. However, it is a project that is feasible if the powerful of the world today are willing to put it into practice.

 

About the author:

MP1Prof. Dr. Manfred Pohl is the Founder and Chairman of Frankfurter Zukunftsrat, the think tank that organises “My Europe”. more…

 

Worries of one born in Europe – part II

i'm worried II

I am worried that some of us who are for the traditional family, for honesty, loyalty, personal sacrifice, modesty and respect in marriage and relationships may be considered outlandish by those who just want to tear down frontiers for the sake of immediate pleasure, and “redefined” progress of society. I do not agree that those that are for full human dignity, for the right to life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death might be in any way diminished in their right to exercise their choices and to promote them in schools, media, politics, just because “progressive” laws have been approved that allow professionals to euthanase or make abortions to people in their care.

I am appalled that some people are so much in favor of the protection of animals (me too, I myself have a German shepherd dog, which I dearly cherish and value) but these same people can be simultaneously in favour of the abortion holocaust. Abortion is no contraception method. How can we defend an animal and not a human being? Euthanasia has become lawful in Holland, and not just there. It is allowed when infants suffer from sickness that causes stress and suffering to their parents… so, the decision is given: the child’s life is to be ended! I personally know a child that used to have breathing problems in his early years; this naturally caused suffering to his parents. He is now a healthy, lively eight year-old boy.
I am terribly apprehensive that only little action is taken against the persecution of Christians or to understand the why of the boat immigrants.

“Being a white person does not make you a person of less importance than a person of another race, the same if you are a Christian and not a Muslim, a man and not a woman, a hetero and not a homo”

I wish for a Europe where those that respect God, those that are for conservative or politically incorrect views, feel Europe is their home, not a foreign country where they have a smaller voice or become ghettoed in political decisions and law making. I wish we have a Europe where the concept of hate crimes against a specific group, be it of religious or gender or ethnic origin, has no place, because the common law against robbery, rape, damage of any sort, applies to everyone. The same crimes, the same penalties under the law. Being a white person does not make you a person of less importance than a person of another race, the same if you are a Christian and not a Muslim, a man and not a woman, a hetero and not a homo… Defamation is defamation, robbery is robbery, rape is rape, no matter who the victim was.

“The fact that someone disagrees does not give him/her the right to minimize the other person’s point of view or resort to mockery or ridicule”

Well, of course you can disagree. But the fact that someone disagrees does not give him/her the right to minimize the other person’s point of view or resort to mockery or ridicule as I see some people are doing because they are irreligious or too liberal to be tolerant towards minorities or unfashionable points of view.

 

About the author:

Teresa Fernandes is a teacher in Lisbon, Portugal.

 

 

Worries of one born in Europe – part I

i'm worried

I am upset with the sadness of parents who see their kids leave their homes in Portugal to study abroad, a consequence of the quotas at university level in some courses, of the few vacancies in professional areas or of steadily underpaid positions. The ones who stay have to work harder, depend on the good will and hopefully sound character of their bosses/managers because of tenure positions that, due to the economic crisis, are now few and difficult to get. Why can’t people be allowed to have security in their jobs so they may set mid- and long-term goals for family and community contribution?

I am upset with school and college graduates when forced to postpone their joining the workforce, their building a family early in their twenties (not in their thirties or forties), or buying an apartment and making themselves available to help others with their salaries, on a regular basis. Lonely mothers/fathers, widows, ageing people, homeless, addicted, the poor and other disfavoured groups need help, but we have just a few lobbying for them, with reduced government support. Who is going to voice their plights on a regular basis?

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Desmond Tutu

I am unsatisfied with government officials who perpetuate their high salaries, their privileges and perks forgetting those that still have basic needs unfulfilled: of food, shelter, health, help, security, dignity. Are cuts in wages/salaries, or stretching the retirement age or reducing the promised pensions the best policies? If people can’t get a decent pension, if their age to retire is stretched, how can posts be made available to younger people? Showing statistics of lower unemployment rates is easy for government officials: they just need to advise people to enroll in professional courses or training opportunities or get a second degree, one after the other, however not necessarily giving them assurance to get a vacancy afterwards.

I am seriously worried about the wasteland concerning the education of kids and young people in schools, homes, the media. Too much focus on intellectual capacities/academic results, too little on the paramount importance of character education, the need for excellent values to be taught and principles experienced, so that our inbred selfishness may be disciplined. You can fly a plane and still do not care about the lives inside. You can be an accomplished professional, but still care more about your own success and personal conveniences than about the needs and shortcomings of the ones that depend on you.

 

About the author:

Teresa Fernandes is a teacher Lisbon, Portugal.