[The Independent] Refugees held at Lesvos detention centre resorting to self-harm to escape
Janice Dickson & Chantal Da Silva
Refugees on Greece’s Lesvos island say they have turned to self-harming, in the hope that their actions will lead to a faster release from the poor conditions inside the detention centre.
Known as the “pre-removal centre”, the compound is in a gated section of the Moria refugee camp and holds refugees who are expected to be deported.
Eighteen-year-old Mirwaf Mansour*, who came to Greece as a refugee from Egypt, says he began cutting himself in a bid to get moved out of the detention centre, where he was held for 30 days after arriving at Moria camp in November 2016.
He pulls up his shirt, revealing a deep scar on his back, before pointing out another gash on his wrist.
Mr Mansour says poor living conditions and freezing temperatures made the detention centre unbearable.
After waking up one morning to find one of the men he was sharing a room with dead, Mr Mansour says he became too afraid to even fall asleep during his detention.
“I was living there with six people from Egypt and one from Syria,” he says. “The one from Syria died.
“I woke up at seven one morning and went to wake everyone else up... but he didn’t wake up. I think maybe it was because of the cold. It was freezing. After that, I didn’t sleep for three days,” Mr Mansour continues. “I was so scared that if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t wake up.”
A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Greece, Boris Cheshirkov, told The Independent the UNHCR has heard from refugees who have turned to self-harm in detention.
“Some people who are in the pre-removal have told UNHCR they have resorted to self-harm in the hope of being released,” Mr Cheshirkov said.
“But the strain on their mental health should not be discounted,” he added.
Mr Cheshirkov explained that in the pre-removal centre, “UNHCR has observed poor hygiene conditions and overcrowding”.
“When this is coupled with the frustration of people, it contributes to mental and psychosocial problems.”
The “pre-removal detention centre” is a closed section of the Moria refugee camp operated by the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy.
Under Greek law, it is designated as a “special detention premises for the detention of third country nationals that have been issued with deportation or return decisions”. Refugees who end up there are detained until the completion of the deportation or return procedures.
Sahar Mallah, Oxfam’s Protection Manager on Lesvos, explained that as part of a program called Pilot Project, refugees from certain countries are detained upon arrival – often these refugees are from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan and several African countries. They often don’t have access to a lawyer and live in worse conditions than other asylum seekers.
Mr Cheshirkov said the Hellenic Police may detain asylum-seekers of countries with a “low recognition rate”, like the countries Ms Mallah mentioned. While several dozen nationalities are accommodated in Moria, the highest number of people are Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan – who have high recognition rates, he explained.
Asylum-seekers from countries with a low recognition rate are surprised to find themselves in detention in a country where they were hoping to find freedom.
Saami El Mahdy*, 26, arrived at Moria in 2016 after being rejected entry by Turkey, but because of his Egyptian nationality, he spent over a year in detention where he says he was physically and verbally abused.
Mr El Mahdy explains through a translator that he repeatedly asked officers and aid workers to explain why he was being held in the detention camp for so long, but he was never given an answer.
It was in the detention centre that he started cutting his wrists. Asked what life was like in the detention centre, he turns over his arms, revealing a string of scars on both sides.
“I thought about dying,” he said. “They deal with humans like they’re animals.”
Mr El Mahdy said in detention police officers “hit him and said bad words”. He says officers would beat him for no reason and call him words like “Motherf***er”.
Oxfam says there have been rising rates of suicidal behaviour across refugee camps in Greece, with evidence of people burning themselves with cigarettes and abusing drugs like Vicodin, Trazadone and alcohol.
Ms Mallah said in the summer months, when Moria becomes even more crowded, living conditions worsen. A container appropriate for five people living in it could house as many as twenty. The more people, the worse the conditions get.
“A lot of people say they want to ‘end their lives’...‘I end up crying when I smile’ or ‘Death would be better than this,’” Ms Mallah said.
Rafat Zaghloul*, a friend of Mr El Mahdy, was also held at the detention centre when he arrived at Moria. He says he understands those sentiments.
“Why do they put us in prison? What’s the reason? They’re crazy,” he says, shaking his head.
“I should have rights like anyone else.”
Mr Zaghoul says he was forced to flee Egypt after receiving death threats from Muslim Brotherhood when he refused to join the militant group.
“A lot of bad things happened. They said they would kill me, kill my father and my brother.
“Here, they tell me it’s safe to go back to Egypt. Yes, Egypt is safe, but the Muslim Brotherhood is not.”
Mr Zaghoul says that while he does not feel it’s safe to return to Egypt, he is desperate to leave Lesvos after being forced to stay in the detention centre.
“I wouldn’t stay here,” he says. “I can’t after the bad memories.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the anonymity of sources
[The Independent] Migrant women help female refugees build new lives in Athens
Chantal Da Silva & Janice Dickson
Tucked away on a busy street in the heart of Athens, the door to the Melissa Network is always open. Today the women’s refuge is buzzing with activity.
Recently arrived refugee women are being taught how to code, speak Greek, develop leadership skills – and even how to decipher fake news.
In one room students sit around a table speaking passionately in a symphony of languages: Greek, Arabic and English.
“It’s a class on women’s rights,” says Andrea Borja, a staff member at the Melissa Network.
The not-for-profit opened in July 2016 and has become a home away from home for women from the Middle East and Africa. Most of the women here have made difficult journeys from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia and a host of other countries.
Melissa is known as one of the few organisations in Athens catering specifically to refugee women. It’s also run by women who came to the Greek capital as migrants themselves.
“For us, integration and empowerment had to be the focus,” says Nadina Christopoulou – a Greek anthropologist and co-founder of Melissa Foundation. She hesitates before adding: “We see a high rate of divorce here.”
Melissa means “honey bee” in Greek, says Christopoulou. In beehives, the worker bees are always female so the name is a metaphor for women’s empowerment.
Few organisations in Athens have the resources to address sexual and gender-based violence that can affect female refugees, Christopoulou adds. As a result, victims are failing to receive the support they need when they arrive in Greece.
“You see women coming in here with broken wings. They have faced so many challenges. But within the span of one or two weeks here you start to see new personalities emerging,” the organisation co-founder says.
Christopoulou says many Melissa members who attend the centre’s women’s rights classes are shocked to learn that some of the experiences they have endured – in particular, sexual violence and physical abuse – have been in violation of their own rights. Many, she adds, end up wanting to take cases of abuse to court.
“Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime,” the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees has said in a report. “Refugees and internally displaced people who do not enjoy the protection of their own governments, are among those most vulnerable to acts of violence, including sexual and gender-based violence.”
One woman, who fled violence in Laos and arrived in Athens almost exactly one year ago says Melissa has been a lifeline.
“It was terrible,” she says. “I came here by myself. I felt so afraid.” A gynaecologist by training, she now helps provide care to other women who visit the organisation.
She had few contacts in Athens when she arrived and felt isolated after having to cut off contact with her own family Laos – but at Melissa, she’s forged new connections and has been able to help women in the local community.
“Here, I’ve met so many people. We are like a family,” she says.
A group of teenage girls chatting after a lunch the centre offers to all of its members say they couldn’t agree more.
Sita, 14, and her older sister Gita, 17, met 14-year-old Fatima at Melissa six months ago.
The girls lived in Iran where they were refugees fromAfghanistan but were faced with barriers to education – and socialising.
“I couldn’t have any friends, or relationships [in Iran],” Fatima says through an interpreter. “I was tailoring clothes.”
Iranian authorities have made efforts in recent years to connect Afghan children with education, but many families continue to face obstacles that prevent their children from attending school, according to Human Rights Watch.
In Athens, Fatima says she has been given a new chance to go to school and make friends through Melissa – an opportunity she says her parents are grateful for.
Gita and Sita say after making the difficult journey from Iran to Turkey by car and then travelling by boat from Turkey to the Greek Islands before finally arriving in Athens, they no longer care about where they are, as long as they are safe with their family.
“I don’t have different feelings,” Gita says. “My feeling is the same as when we decided to come to Europe.”
All three girls, however, are optimistic about their future in Greece. Fatima says she wants to be an actor – and if that doesn’t work out, she’s also interested in becoming a nurse. Gita wants to own her own tailor shop, while Sita hopes to pursue her dreams as a singer.
Melissa Network aims to encourage girls and women to pursue employment opportunities and follow their ambitions. The network itself employs more than 15 refugee women to help them gain work experience. It also runs regular CV workshops and helps to connect women with work in Athens.
“They come here with so many skills, talents and dreams and you can tap into all that as an organisation and as a society – but first, you have to provide the basics,” says Christopoulou.
That’s why the organisation is also going one step further by launching a new entrepreneurship programme to help refugee women start their own local businesses.
Nigerian chef Maria Ohilebo, a co-founder of Melissa came to Greece more than 20 years ago. She cooks traditional lunch dishes for the women and girls every day. Ohilebo plans to open a pastry and cookery shop through the new entrepreneurship programme that will employ refugee women through Melissa.
She says the programme’s success still depends on funding, but that she is optimistic. While Melissa does work closely with the Athens municipality, it does not rely on state support, which its organisers say allows it to be more “independent”.
Ohilebo said there are opportunities for newcomers to Greece – but that they have to be patient – because often migrants want to flee to “the big names like Canada or England”.
“I believe there are opportunities here and I believe the Greeks are beginning to open up more and are welcoming people,” she said.
Nearly 45,000 refugees and migrants are currently living in Greece, according to the UN – and that number continues to rise, with nearly 3,700 refugees having arrived in August alone.
Melissa co-founders say they hope to see more services and support for the specific needs of refugee women hoping to build new lives in Greece.
“We have zero drop-out rates here. They only leave [Melissa Network] if they have to leave Athens. And the number keeps on growing higher,” says Christopoulou.
“It’s a challenge... but it’s also something that makes us very happy.”
[IPOLITICS] Prisoners of the desert: Inside Jordan's Azraq refugee camp
AZRAQ REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — Sitting cross-legged on a thin UNHCR mat covering a concrete floor and nursing her 14-month-old, Yasmeen Al-Alow was glad to be out of the jail that is Village 5 — Azraq’s notorious camp-within-the-camp.
Surrounded by barbed wire, Village 5 and Village 2 are where new Syrian refugees were taken before Jordan sealed its borders. Those inside the villages haven’t been allowed outside the wire for months. The Jordanian government fears the new arrivals pose a security threat to the other refugees in the camp. Containing new refugees in the prison-like camps is one way to decrease the chance of ISIS infiltration, authorities say.
Those living in Village 5 and Village 2 are virtual prisoners; unlike Syrian refugees who live in Azraq’s other villages, they are not allowed to walk through the streets, to the supermarket, or anywhere at all.
The Azraq refugee camp, located in a remote, sweltering desert landscape southeast of the capital Amman, is home to nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war. Half of Azraq’s residents are children.
Most of the Syrians living in Villages 5 and 2 arrived from a desert region surrounded by sandbanks along the Jordanian border. The United Nations estimates that more than 85,000 people are stranded in Ruqban — a camp near the point where Jordan, Syria and Iraq meet — and Hadalat camp, 80 km to the west, where Al-Alow and her family were stranded for months.
iPolitics asked to visit Villages 5 and 2. A government official at the camp said it’s forbidden, citing security reasons. Photos were not permitted, either.
Since November, the Canadian government has welcomed nearly 30,000 Syrian refugees. King Abdullah of Jordan told the BBC in February that his country is at the “boiling point” because of an influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The king said the international community has to offer more help if it wants Jordan to continue taking refugees.
The Jordanian government compromised, however, and set up Village 5 in March. It was a move intended to help international aid agencies trying to expedite the admission of thousands of refugees, like Al-Alow, who were stuck waiting at the border.
Al-Alow, 21, and her husband Muhammed, 26, had been living in their new caravan in Village Six for just over a week. Two jugs of water and a small kettle sat atop the small table at the front of the caravan that serves as a kitchen.
Al-Alow said she and her family are refugees by accident. They left their home in Syria a few months ago with the intention of visiting family in Jordan — but when they arrived at the Syrian border, they had no choice but to live in the berm while they waited to get into Jordan. That wait took four months; by then, the smugglers who drove them to the Syrian border could not take them back home.
“My family came to visit from Kuwait and they were on the other side of the barbed wire,” Al-Alow said via a translator. That visit lasted five minutes.
“We didn’t talk. We just cried.”
Kuwait has also sealed its borders, blocking Syrians from joining family members there.
Najwa Al-Shaikh, 32, and her four children arrived from Syria a few months ago; her family also lived in Village 5. Al-Shaikh’s mother arrived beforehand so their caravan is quite homey. Her mother has set up a little convenience store where children come to buy candy.
Despite the 35-degree heat, Al-Shaikh offered me hot tea and sugar on a silver tray, a display of Syrian hospitality found in every caravan I visited.
Al-Shaikh said she and her young children waited in the desert for months with little food or water in harsh conditions before they were granted permission to enter Jordan.
Her husband was arrested by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, she said. Sometimes, regime authorities tell her that her husband is still alive — other times they tell her he’s been killed.
She gestured toward her 11-year-old daughter Ala, who pulled up her pant cuff to reveal a thin leg covered with scars.
“One of my daughters was killed by the regime, and Ala was injured by the rockets,” she said. All Ala remembers is playing in the playground that day.
The situation in Azraq is “very bad,” the young woman said. Her mother shook her head and suggested that in a month or two, her daughter will adjust.
Aecha Mohammed Shaban, 29, and her four children are thankful for the safety the camp offers.
“In the beginning it was very difficult to live here, how can we live here?” said Shaban, sitting on a long cushion which doubles as a bed for her and her children at night.
Suddenly, the sound of gunshots coming from a nearby military base shattered the desert silence. The children — who had been smiling by their mother’s side — covered their ears and began to cry.
[IPOLITICS] Children of Zaatari: Refugees, brides, mothers
ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan – In Jordan, the legal age of marriage is 18 but it’s up to a judge’s discretion whether to grant marriage permits to couples who are as young as 15 — a loophole many young Syrians are taking advantage of in Zaatari refugee camp. Some skirt the law entirely.
Thirteen-year-old girls are engaged. Some are eager to wed, others are victims. Either way, child marriage is ubiquitous in the camp. In a society whose institutions have been decimated by war, one of the few institutions that hasn’t been damaged or destroyed and doesn’t rely on infrastructure — marriage — has been booming in what many believe are all the wrong ways.
The United Nations defines child marriage as a human rights violation. “Child marriage threatens girls’ lives and health, and it limits their future prospects,” reads the UN Population Fund website.
Figures from the Chief Islamic Justice Department of Jordan cited in The Jordan Times show that early marriages represent about 35 per cent of all marriages of Syrian refugees in 2015, up from 18 per cent in 2012.
Young brides — and their mothers — in Zaatari cite a whole range of reasons for early marriage, some of which have to do with where they’re from in Syria. Not surprisingly, those who lived in villages may be accustomed to early marriage, unlike those who fled cities. But in the camp, the reasons for early marriage range from protection, economic factors and family influence to the worry that once a girl reaches 18 she’s too old and will run out of options.
Those options decrease even more for young divorcees. One mother said that only older men will marry women who have been divorced, or divorcees can become a second, third or even fourth wife to a man.
A lawyer in Zaatari, Mohammad Hamdan, said he oversees around 300 divorces a year in the camp and while some couples are older, many of them are under 18.
Israa Al-Atmah, 14, knelt beside her fiancé Zeyad Henawi, 18, in her family’s caravan in Zaatari. In a rare display of affection among the young couples I met with, she stroked his hand.
The couple is set to wed in five months when Al-Atmah turns 15. Henawi tried pushing the court for an immediate wedding agreement but was refused.
Henawi described the first time he saw Al-Atmah in the bustling and dusty street, eight months earlier.
“When I saw her, I was in love with her,” he said. One week later, Henawi’s family asked Al-Atmah’s family if he could marry her — and that was it.
“When I saw him, I trusted him, I like him,” Al-Atmah said of the street encounter through an interpreter.
Al-Atmah completed grade eight in Syria three years ago and hasn’t been back to school since. She said in Syria she wanted to become a teacher – and didn’t think of marriage until moving to Zaatari.
After some convincing, Henawi agreed to allow his fiance’s photo to be taken.
At the beginning of the civil war, the fighting came and went, Al-Atmah’s mom Fawzia Kalesh, explained. Then the fighting lasted all day long. Unknown militias, speaking a language they did not recognize, moved in and started killing people.
They beheaded women and children.
Al-Atmah’s older sister returned to Syria after getting married in Zaatari and was shot five months ago outside her home.
Kalesh, changing the subject, echoed her daughter and said she wouldn’t be getting married at 14 if they were still in Syria. She would be in school.
Life in Zaatari is difficult, said Kalesh, and that’s why people are married at a young age.
The rationale varies, however, depending on whom you ask.
Heba Al-Mgeez, 16, married her cousin, Khaled, 23, two weeks ago. Smoking a cigarette inside the caravan lined with cushions, and surrounded by friends, Khaled said he decided he would marry Heba years ago. For Heba, she knew they would marry the day they got engaged. Khaled refused to allow Heba to be photographed for this piece.
“There is no reason except love,” he said. Heba’s mother piped in and suggested that once girls reach 18 they are “overage.” Heba’s mom was concerned with the options for men once she reached this age — maybe they would be older, or already married.
Like Al-Atmah, Heba doesn’t go to school in Zaatari. She completed grade seven three years ago. When asked about her new responsibilities as a wife, she shrugged. She’s still a kid.
When pressed about going back to school, her aunt interjected, “She studies the Holy Koran.” Her hopes? To be a mother.
Most of the girls say getting married is a big mistake, said Isra Shakbun, 30, a counsellor with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Zaatari. Shakbun, alongside caseworkers with UNFPA, works with young girls who are being forced into early marriage or who are married — and also young mothers.
A big part of their work is encouraging girls to stay in school until they’re 18.
Most have anxiety, depression, and fears about the future. “I don’t want to be a victim,” is a phrase caseworkers hear often.
“They are victims of marriage,” said Fatimah Setan, 27, a caseworker. Setan said girls as young as 13 will attend their recreational programs — baby in tow. They don’t know how to take care of themselves, or their baby.
Majdoleen Mahmoud, 17, will marry her cousin Mohammed next month. Mahmoud said her parents talked to her about marrying Mohammed and she agreed.
“Mohammed was in love with her…we are one family…that’s why I agreed to let her marry at 17,” said Mahmoud’s mother Amneh.
Like the other young brides, Majdoleen also gave up school when she arrived in Zaatari and won’t return.
At 17, Majdoleen knows she will have a lot of responsibilities after she marries Mohammed, like taking care of him and their caravan.
“I’m happy and comfortable,” she said.
Fifteen-year-old Omaima Al-Hoshan has been campaigning against child marriage since she was 12. Her best friend was preparing her paperwork to get married and Al-Hoshan told her, “You’re crazy, you’ll lose all of your rights.” Al-Hoshan did everything she could to stop her friend from getting married.
“Her father wanted it. He decides,” said Al-Hoshan. Shakbun, with UNFPA, said that some young brides-to-be ask her staff to intervene when they’re being forced to wed. Shakbun said they will approach the girl’s father and say that their daughter doesn’t want to get married. Sometimes they listen. Other times they tell them to go away.
“I felt guilty because I couldn’t stop my friend from getting married,” Al-Hoshan continued. Al-Hoshan heard that her now former best friend, 14, has a baby.
Al-Hoshan has made headlines around the world for her work in advocating for education and delaying child marriage in the camp.
She said her teacher was supportive of her work, and now Al-Hoshan runs workshops and gives talks across Zaatari in which she urges girls to wait. her advocacy was inspired by Malala Yousafzai after her mother gave her a copy of the education activist’s autobiography, I am Malala.
Al-Hoshan, who wants to become a lawyer, said she won’t stop her advocacy work until the whole community knows that early marriage is wrong.
[IPOLITICS] Out of Aleppo: Three Syrians take stock
They were all from Aleppo. Three young men, their 20s interrupted by war. Violence forced them each to leave. Now, 900 kilometres away, they meet on a quiet outdoor patio in Istanbul. They look back at what it meant to leave home. For at least one of them, leaving meant never going back.
More than three million Syrians are living in Turkey. A large majority are not in tented refugee camps run by the government but on the streets begging. Most beggars are children. With the world’s media increasingly focused on ISIS and its atrocities, the stories of lives interrupted by an intractable, and barely understandable, civil war have often fallen silent.
On the far left side of the table is J, an undeniably handsome young man with dark and determined brown eyes that smile as he speaks. Wearing a colourful t-shirt and shorts, J orders a glass of juice and smiles at his friends, who are busy drinking beer. J is a well-known photojournalist who freelanced with Reuters until they stopped accepting his photos, he’s in Istanbul to find work. He spoke on the condition that his name would not be used. The photograph accompanying this story was the last photo he took before leaving his home in northern Aleppo, just one month ago.
Sitting to his right is Amin, who’s broad smile matches his friendly eyes. Removing his small black backpack and placing it on the side of his chair, Amin straightens his white shirt and folds his hands neatly in front of him. From time to time, he breaks his clasp to take a sip of beer. Amin is a physiotherapist who is working for an NGO in the border city Gaziantep. He fled his community in eastern Aleppo after ISIS arrived in 2014, and agreed to be quoted on the condition that only his first name be used. He is in Istanbul with the hopes of acquiring a Syrian passport.
Looking through dark aviator sunglasses, running his fingers through his long beard, is J and Amin’s friend. He leans casually on the end of the table, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. A former member of the Free Syrian Army, he’s asked not to be named. The Free Syrian Army is a group of Syrian Armed Forces founded during the Syrian Civil War in 2011 which acts in opposition to Syria’s regime in an effort to protect Syrian civilians. He’s in Istanbul visiting his mother who he has not seen in four years.
J, who has been travelling regularly between Turkey and Syria, is the first to offer his story. He begins by explaining that he’s made the decision over 70 times not to return Syria, but he keeps going back. Even now, he has not made the final decision to stay.
“Everyday Aleppo is becoming more and more dangerous with the bomb shelling,” he begins.
“It’s not being courageous to say this, but while I was in Aleppo, I wasn’t feeling the danger, but when you see it from the outside, you really feel it. It’s the most dangerous city in the world. But I feel the danger and the risk when thinking about my family.” J’s wife and two children, five and three, live in Gaziantep.
He says Reuters may have stopped accepting his photos because a lot of photojournalists were taking risks in Aleppo, they were getting injured and killed. Many of the photojournalists did not begin as professionals, they were media-activists, he explains, and often didn’t wear the bulletproof jackets provided by Reuters.
He says the reason he is in Istanbul is not because he lost his position with Reuters, because he didn’t take photos for the money and he could have stayed and worked on documentaries.
“The people who are still there, they are used to everything right now, it’s different for people who come and go, and stay a period outside Syria and then go back to Syria. It’s more intense psychologically…you ask yourself what was I living? Where was I living? It’s different than people who are living in everyday danger.”
“The people who are staying in Aleppo, their income is so low that they can’t even imagine living elsewhere,” he adds.
Because of his income as a photographer, J was able to bring his family to Gaziantep where they would be safe from both President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS.
“We consider ISIS and the regime the same, the regime used to cut the heads of people – what ISIS is doing is not new – the regime burned people and they drowned people. ISIS took the matter of horrific torture from the regime. It’s like they are defying together who is more horrific,” he says.
J knows people, even old friends from before the revolution, who have joined ISIS and some who died fighting with ISIS. While he doesn’t talk to any of them anymore, he does receive threats online from ISIS fighters.
“I had threats when I worked with Reuters, just because I worked with Reuters, with Reuters we are ‘kafir’…’non believers.’ For them it’s proof I worked with a Western group.”
“There were online threats ‘if we get you we will kill you, we’ll cut your throat.’ It’s normal. Even on Facebook there are comments, sometimes there are common friends from ISIS, and they’ll go to your Facebook and they post threats on there, they have their digital army,” he says.
Imminent threats led Amin to flee his life in eastern Aleppo, he explains, joining the conversation. Amin was working as a physiotherapist treating civilians and members of the Free Syrian Army when ISIS arrived before New Years Eve last year.
“Death. Death for everyone,” says Amin, describing what it was like when ISIS arrived in eastern Aleppo.
“When ISIS arrived all I wanted was to leave. Leave, leave, leave, I felt like my life was threatened and I knew they would condemn me for treating Free Syrian Army people because they had already killed some of my colleagues and medical staff because they used to treat Free Syrian Army, who they consider the enemy.”
He says if he stayed, he would be killed, “so I wouldn’t be able to treat anyone. Where do I treat them – in heaven?”
Amin says his parents and sisters are still in eastern Aleppo and he and his brothers are in Turkey.
“If I stayed it would be a threat for my family because ISIS would come to my house and ask for me, to take me, because I helped ‘the enemy.’They would look for me and threaten my dad and mom and torture them until they tell them where I was, but I left.”
Unlike J, Amin can’t return to Syria. “I won’t be able to go anywhere near my parents.”
“Everyday I’m on the phone with my parents for hours,” he says.
“I have three sisters in eastern Aleppo. They can’t go out. Women in ISIS regions cannot go out. That’s just life,” he said, explaining that his father would have to accompany them if they wanted to leave their house. Because ISIS controls the border area between eastern Aleppo and Turkey, it’s impossible for them to escape.
Upon being asked if he wanted to share some of his experiences, the recent member of the Free Syrian Army shrugs. He says he’s only been in Turkey for three months and it’s difficult to imagine not living in Syria.
“For me I am better there than here, I’m feeling comfortable in Aleppo, it’s been just three months since I’ve left Aleppo but I’ve been there since the beginning, my life is there,” he says, adding that this the first time in his life that he’s left and came to see his mom, but he plans on returning to Syria.
J said the most difficult question to ask is what led people to join ISIS and to think like ISIS. He said Assad’s regime had a strong role in creating ISIS.
“In August and July 2011, the regime used to have in its jails lots of politicians who were free thinkers, communists and leftists. After the revolution, when people were asking about detainees, al-Assad said ‘ok, I’m going to free them.’ He freed the extremists and he kept all the intelligentsia in jail.”
“He opened the door to all the extremist Islamists that became ISIS,” explains J.
Now, explained the photojournalist, the regime and ISIS are supporting each other when it comes to controlling oil and gas in northern Aleppo.
He says liberated areas are obligated to get their oil and gas from ISIS because there’s no country that offers any support. ISIS controls oil and gas because it’s northern Aleppo.
The U.S.-led coalition could bomb ISIS in certain areas, muses J, but are afraid to because of the oil and gas. He says if the international community supported the Free Syrian Army from the beginning, ISIS wouldn’t have formed.
He also pointed to western media as a source that’s indirectly helping ISIS by repeatedly showing its propaganda in the news, and by neglecting to show the efforts of the Free Syrian Army, and the impact on civilians in Syria.
“ISIS will give one statement and people will watch it 10,000 times in the media, and everyday hundreds of children are dying in Aleppo and nobody is talking about it.”
“It’s ISIS did this, ISIS did that, everyone is forgetting what the regime is doing. They are forgetting that thousands of people are dying, not just because of ISIS,” he says.
“Do you think people ask how people are living in Aleppo right now?” he asks.
He says the media shouldn’t shouldn’t be repeatedly showing ISIS’ extreme acts.
“If they didn’t show the extreme acts of ISIS, they wouldn’t have attracted extreme people in every country and invited them, indirectly, to enrol with ISIS and kill people with them.”
“The 200 Canadians (who have joined ISIS) don’t know what’s happening in Syria but they know because of the media what’s happening with ISIS,” says J.
Amin says he saw the impact of the regime and ISIS while working in a refugee camp in Syria. He noted that the camp, while in Syria, was not close to his parents’ place and he went with the NGO he works with from September 2014 until January.
“It’s a disastrous situation. You feel powerless because the devastation is so much bigger than you. You feel hopeless because you can’t offer them anything,” says Amin.
“Some people adapt to the situation but many are mentally traumatized. Some would tell me they prefer to go under the barrel shelling and bombs of the regime than stay in the camp because you have to take turns, wait, even if you want to go to the toilet, or shower, everything,” he says, remembering.
“Kids, there are lots of kids,” he adds.
Amin says he is in contact with many Syrians living in Turkey, and their situation is also “very bad.”
“Their every day life even in Turkey is disastrous. There are 300,000 in Gaziantep and this is the number the government gives but there’s more than that and it’s a very bad situation. Parents have to put their kids on the street to become beggars. I deal a lot with people with mental illness and physical handicaps and they ask for rehab schools and there aren’t any.”
Amin concludes with a smile, “I hope to get my passport tomorrow, it would probably be easier to seek asylum than to get a Syrian passport.”
[THE INDEPENDENT] Graffiti city: The rise of street art in Athens
Chantal Da Silva & Janice Dickson
From stunning murals to streets covered with personalised tags, there’s hardly a corner left untouched by a spray can.
But it isn’t just the walls: vans, street signs, benches, dumpsters, bustling restaurants and cafes – even the ancient rocks surrounding the Acropolis are plastered in paint.
“I don’t like it,” our taxi driver says. Still, he says he understands why there’s been a rise in illegal graffiti across the city.
“There’s nothing for the people.”
Street artist and tour guide Nikolas Tongas, known locally as “Rude” says that while the graffiti scene in Athens started in the late Eighties, the art form has become a way to express widespread unrest following the economic debt crisis Greece suffered in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crash.
“After a decade, you have much more graffiti around the city. Nowadays, there are areas like open galleries covered with a blend of paintings and tags,” says the 35-year-old, who gives regularAlternative Athens tours of the city’s local street art.
“Athens is always inspiring people to create... the financial crisis was a huge inspiration for artists who wanted to show from their own perspective an artistic representation of the current economic situation.”
Much of the art revolves around Greece’s economic instability, as the country continues to struggle under the weight of crippling debt. “Blood money” drips down the wall right beside an ATM in one of the capital’s busiest shopping districts. Begging hands stretch out towards the crowds at a busy intersection.
Much of it is stirring but in some areas, the sheer volume of the tags, at times overlapping with one another or covering an otherwise moving mural, feels stifling.
Tongas says that graffiti is rarely removed in the city, despite the fact that most of it is illegal.
“[That] makes it an easier target for artists,” he adds.
He says that while local officials and police “don’t support” illegal street art, the government has started sponsoring more graffiti projects, including a festival called Urban Act.
The annual event sees famous graffiti artists decorating public spaces all around the country.
Tongas says that while not everyone appreciates the graffiti, for young artists, Athens’s walls are a canvas for self-expression.
“I prefer to see a nice painting rather a tagged wall. My philosophy is to decorate the city and the space.”
[IPOLITICS] Obamas welcome Trudeaus for White House state dinner
WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau were greeted at the White House Thursday night by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for a glittery state dinner after a day of public bilateral affection described as everything from a love-in to a bromance.
In a 21st-century, lefty spin on the indelible Canada-U.S. relations gala scene of the Reagans and the Mulroneys singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” in black-tie in 1985, the Trudeaus and the Obamas embraced beneath the White House north portico on a remarkably balmy Washington evening as the last of a guest list of cross-border politicos, business titans and Canadian comedians made their way past the media gauntlet inside.
The guest list included “Saturday Night Live” creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels, comedian Mike Myers and comic actors Michael J. Fox and Ryan Reynolds.
Justin Trudeau’s mother, Margaret, who made headlines for the length of her skirt at a state dinner in 1977, is also in attendance.
The evening’s entertainment is being provided by American singer Sara Bareilles.
Thursday’s dinner marks the first time a U.S. president has hosted a Canadian prime minister for a state dinner since Bill Clinton hosted Jean Chrétien 19 years ago.
Grégoire-Trudeau was wearing a fuschia Lucia Matis dress with a matching evening clutch and Zvelle shoes. Her accessories included John de Jong earrings and a Dean Davidson ring.
According to the White House, it takes about six months to prepare for a state dinner and the elaborate, bilateral-themed menu is an indication of that.
Guests are feasting on a multi-course meal that features a combination of American classics and Canadian flourishes, including duck poutine canapés. The first course is an Alaskan halibut casserole, followed by a roasted apricot galette with Appalachian cheese and baby lamb chops with Yukon potatoes drizzled with Canadian whisky.
For dessert, guests will indulge in a maple pecan cake with a cocoa nib wafer. The White House pastry chef has also fashioned a Rocky Mountain diorama that includes Nanaimo bars and a chocolate bear.
[IPOLITICS] Trudeau feted by Kerry at Foggy Bottom
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a man known for both his facility in French and his fondness for hockey, seemed to revel in his role as natural host to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today during a luncheon in the Benjamin Franklin dining room at Foggy Bottom.
During his introduction of the PM, Kerry joked that he and Trudeau have much in common. “He is young, hip, good-looking popular – and a hockey fan.” Kerry pointed out that one of the three Stanley Cups was on display in the next room.
“It’s an honour to be in the presence of the most influential Canadian…Lorne Michaels,” Kerry cracked to a gathering that included Canadian cabinet ministers and US dignitaries from former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the Canadian-born “Saturday Night Live” creator and executive producer. Montreal chef Spike Mendelsohn, who has become a well-known D.C. restaurateur, catered the affair.
Kerry, more familiar to Canadians as a carefully calibrated, patrician diplomat, loosened up the crowd like a comic, playing up the adoring coverage Trudeau has received in the US.
“[Trudeau] has a favourability rating that is equal to that of Wayne Gretzky and Rachel McAdams, and well ahead of Justin Bieber,” he quipped.
He also referenced the threat that some Americans intend to move to Canada if Donald Trump wins the upcoming US election. He acknowledged the size of the press contingent at the back of the room and said he can’t think of any other reason why Google hits for the search term ‘moving to Canada’ have reached an all-time high.
Kerry said the reason the U.S. And Canada’s friendship has endured is not a matter of geography — it’s because we share interests and values.
Kerry commended Trudeau on his decisions regarding the fight against the so-called Islamic State, Canada’s efforts in welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees, and the signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Both Kerry and Trudeau toasted and Trudeau said, “may we continue to show the world what friendship between neighbours truly means.”