It’s an unfortunate truth that there are still negative stereotypes attached to the word ‘refugee’, and it is of the utmost importance that we reject these stereotypes and accept the truth that the refugee is a human. Those who believe that we who come to Europe are seeking wealth, profit or to corrupt the system, that we are uneducated or that we are inherently evil, these people are severely mistaken.
A refugee has left his homeland, his family and his life behind, and is forced on arrival to his new adoptive country to face these stereotypes. If you were to knock on his door one night, you might see his pillow crushed under the pressure of the pain he bears, and if you asked the walls about him, they could tell you the story of his agonising journey. Count the lines on his face to discover that the burden he carries has aged him, with each wrinkle carrying a thousand tales of loneliness and exile. If his hair is a shock of white sitting above a young face, don’t ask him what colour dye he used, it’s a brand you have probably never come in contact with, it might be difficult to appreciate if you don’t know it. It’s called pain.
I am one of these refugees. I arrived in Belgium from Palestine 5 months ago. And whenever someone asks me what my status is, I reply that my ‘status’ is self-determined, that I consider my ‘status’ to be ‘human being’, and that I cannot allow anyone else to decide my fate. To wait in the refugee centre day after day, awaiting someone else’s decision about who I am, as so many others do, leaving my life choices in someone else’s hands – waiting for that day I am lucky enough to be granted legal status – this is something I cannot do. I do not want to live with this fear, this worry that can develop into obsession; for that will drive me crazy.
I am young. I have hopes. I can still fight to become what I want, to decide my own fate. I choose to fight from this refugee centre where I live in a state of limbo, writing articles about our situation, about the right to freedom, about the human right violations happening in my homeland, about the issues facing Palestine and my fellow countrymen and women, and I write about hope, the hope for peace.
I am young. I have hopes. I am involved in various youth projects, and I believe I will get a grant from the European Union to realise my dream of a ‘Global Youth Parliament’. I want to go to university and write a doctorate on the subject of human resource development. I plan to master Dutch and French. I will remind people of the European experience and of the importance of using the unique blend of culture, philosophical thought and technology that exists here. I will remind them of the facts that good things have happened here which are recognised across the world. I will publish books. I will create a world from within these four small walls. I believe that hard times can inspire the greatest passion.
I am young. I have hopes. I am a refugee with dreams. I am not just a number. Asylum policies should be separated from the tactical games played by politicians. I believe that refugees should be considered as a strategically important resource. But why I hear you ask? And how can this be done?
1. We should focus our attention on the definition of the word ‘refugee’ and the emotions it inspires. We need a clear and consistent vision of the concept of ‘refugee’ and how this fits in with our values. We need clarity about the fact that to be a refugee is not fun, easy, or a state of being that is ‘deserved’ by some, and not by others.
2. We need concentrated development of governmental strategies which respect refugees and involve them in their adopted country of residence. International and local human rights organisations should be working together to guarantee this. It is essential to have the right people working with refugees, those working in this field must have experience, awareness, an educational degree, knowledge of different cultures, belief in the role that the ‘other’ can play, and creativity.
3. Receiving centers must be improved in order to invest in the people who come there, to harness their energy and direct it into positive channels. We refugees have an expectation that governmental projects will be put in place to help us survive, forget our misery and start a new life, but despite living with a constant mental whirlpool of problems that send our minds spinning; we do not expect the work to be done for us. I call this project ‘Self-development’ because there is no need for a large monetary investment, as simply by investing your belief in the potential of refugees as people, you can use the intellectual energy that resides in these receiving centres. Listen to their life experiences and the exchange of ideas that happens there and develop them for the benefit of all communities.
Asylum seekers currently receive €7.40 per week under the current system. If we link the receipt of this money to the obligation and opportunity to read a book once a week in a library, and then create weekend sessions for residents of the centre and workers to discuss the books they have read, what could happen? Perhaps the first time the refugee will only read one page. The second time, he reads two pages. The third time – well, you get the picture. By breaking the expected system of treatment, we can break the mindset of the refugee as being downtrodden and start people on the right track to integration. I believe that as long there is confidence in the success of such projects amongst workers, these policy changes can develop the bond between centre residents and those who work with them, encouraging the exchange of ideas and the harnessing of their intellectual potential. To me, this is the definition of self-development.
4. We should be working relentlessly to break stereotypes, to integrate both sides into a new community, to work together, person to person, human to human, because apart from a legal status – there is no difference between you and me.
There is a disconnect between the concepts of human rights and democracy and the practical application of these ideas. They should not be reduced to sound bites and slogans in the news. I pray that the European Parliament and European governments change their asylum policies to stop considering us just as numbers, to remember, that we too are humans. Everyone wants to be hugged, to be loved, to live with their family – but for some of us, there is no other option than to move abroad just to survive.
Finally, I say that if Europe finds itself troubled by the idea of an asylum policy that treats refugees as human, and that after evaluation, they find it to be the wrong decision – then it should be stated explicitly and honestly. Hiding disagreements in this area behind political doublespeak serves no one, and is an insult to Europeans and the refugees that seek asylum here. But I have confidence in the people of Europe, the value they place on humanity, and their respect for other human beings. If my hopes are realised, then we should see a brighter future, not only for those of us that seek refuge, but also for the societies that we wish to join.
Mohammed Alsaftawi is Palestinian, refugee and human being