Reflections from Nobel peace laureate Jody Williams on Days 4 and 5 of the Opening Borders: #WomenRefugeesWelcome Delegation to The Balkans and Germany (November 19 – 20).
NEARING THE END OF OUR JOURNEY ALONG THE ROUTE OF REFUGEES THROUGH THE BALKANS, INTO BERLIN TALKING WITH WOMEN & GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS
On Thursday afternoon, our delegation had to split into several small groups because we had overlapping meetings with government officials. Nobody likes it that way, but we were somewhat fortunate that we had the meetings given everything that was going on in Germany itself and in the EU.
Some of the delegation members met with the Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, Mr. Christoph Straesser. I was only in that meeting for about ten minutes because we were running late on every thing. Those of us moving on to meet with one of Chancellor Merkel’s closest advisors on Foreign Affairs and Security, Mr. Christoph Heusgen were anxious because there was no way we’d be able to get to his office at the appointed time, and we were to only have 30 minutes with him.
I was feeling the anxiety and almost before we sat down I was apologizing that we were late and apologizing again that some of us would have to leave very quickly for the meeting with Mr. Heusgen. I then asked Mr. Straesser about the difficulties of ensuring that the refugees rights were observed given the tensions throughout the region and also what Germany could do to pressure Bulgaria, an EU country, to uphold the rights of those passing through that country instead of turning a blind eye at best and participating in the harassment of the refugees at worst.
The entire time I was talking, I was looking off and on at the clock on the wall and worrying more and more about the next meeting. When I finished the questions – which I’d viewed as an introduction of sorts and the delegation members remaining at that meeting could take notes on the answers to share later – I abruptly stood up to leave.
Thankfully, someone in our delegation pointed out that I could at least wait for the answers……sigh. So, there I was, apologizing yet another time as I sat back down and paid rapt attention to Mr. Straesser’s response. However, stress messes with short-term memory and I can’t remember much of what he said. Note to self (again) – think things through before responding inappropriately when a tad stressed out.
A few of us then rushed out the door, into the car, and sped off – late of course – to our meeting with Heusgen. The driver had assured us that he knew where he was going, but he didn’t and he tried to leave us at a completely incorrect government building. We asked the guard, got the correct address, piled back into the car and finally made it to the correct place. By the time we got there, according to our schedule, we would only have 15 minutes remaining of the half hour we were to have had there. But I guess it all worked out. He was late too and we ended up talking for about 45 minutes.
The first part of our message was to thank the Chancellor for her courageous and steady policy of accepting refugees when so many other EU countries only seemed to want to be part of a somewhat functioning corridor to get the asylum seekers through their countries as quickly as possible and on to Germany and other countries – any other country that wasn’t their own.
Heugsen said he’d deliver the message, which was much appreciated. He also talked about the intense pressure building on Mrs. Merkel, especially after the Paris attacks, which were serving as fodder for the growing xenophobia in the country. He said that when Merkel had spoken to the members of the Bundestag after the attacks, she refused to back down on the policy.
Everyone wonders, however, how long the country – and the other EU countries accepting refugees – could continue to do so if the if there were not a resolution of the crisis and a dramatic reduction of the flow of people out of the Middle East. This point led us to some discussion of how that could happen.
We all agreed that it was fundamental to address the root causes of the problem and fundamental to that was to end the war in Syria. We asked Heugsen what the probability of that was given that, in the analysis of many, that war has become a proxy war for many. The US/NATO vs. Russia and Iran. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia.
Of course, the situation is so fluid, who can predict. A key stumbling block, however, is Iran – which is what Shirin Ebadi has been saying over and over. Iran has a variety of interests in the outcome of the war in Syria not the least of which is being able to maintain the passage it uses through the south of that country to arm Hezbollah. As our delegation member Dr. Rola Hallam said, “There are many with interests in the war in Syria. Unfortunately, few of them are Syrians.” We stressed our belief that avenues must be created to the Syrian people in the determination of their own future.
Most would like to find a negotiated end to the war – the problem of course is the terms of such negotiations since the various powers don’t agree. Separate from that is the ongoing bombing campaign to try to destroy ISIS and efforts to step up the bombing and try to persuade Russia to join in a “grand coalition” toward that end.
Even if it were possible to find a negotiated solution to the Syrian war – and one that actually held – without major resources for a massive rebuilding of the country. We talked about the polls indicating that if the war were to end over 90% of those who have fled the country would want to return. But they have to be able to return to more than rubble. As Heusgen pointed out also, the longer families have to remain outside their country of origin the harder it is for them to return home. Their kids go to school, learn the language and ultimately don’t want to go back.
We also did talk about the situations we’d seen along the refugee path through the Balkans, which of course was no news to Germany. We brought up the horrors that those using the Bulgarian route face and pressed again that Germany and other EU states call Bulgaria to task and make the country end the gross violations of human rights of people whose rights have been trampled on for far too long.
After the various meetings ended we all returned to our hotel for a bit before heading out again for our meeting with the Yazidi women that I wrote about in my previous blog.
Friday was the last day of our trip. The stalwarts of the delegation were up again for a 7:30 departure to visit a temporary shelter for women refugees about an hour’s drive from the hotel.
I confess that although I really wanted to go, I couldn’t picture myself getting up at the crack of dawn again to ride for a couple more hours in a car. Anyone who I’ve traveled anywhere near (smile) knows that for three-plus years, I’ve been struggling with back issues and stress and travel – especially hours and hours in cars – makes it scream from time to time. I had the good sense to stay in bed but I still wish I’d been able to go with the group.
I didn’t hear every story that various members of the delegation heard while talking with different refugees as the shelter, which seems to be an intermediate place for the women to stay after registering for asylum and waiting to move on to where they will be placed. The ones that have stayed with me are those that Rola told me after she got back.
She had decided not to talk with Syrians this time. She wanted to hear about the experiences of other women refugees. She was part of a small group of delegation members who met with five women between the ages of 19-29 who had fled from Eritrea, across North Africa, to Libya, where they then were loaded onto smugglers’ boats to try to make the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Rola didn’t really understand why, because building enough trust for refugees to tell difficult parts of their stories is generally a matter of time and ongoing interaction as I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog, but after a while they told the group that all of them had been raped and some multiple times on their journey across North Africa.
They talked about their fears of being sent back because of rumors that only people from the Middle East would be granted asylum and their fears living in the shelter because there were no locks on their doors and they didn’t feel secure. They said that their level of stress was so high that they couldn’t concentrate on the language lessons they were being given to learn German or any of the other things they might be doing to try to get accustomed to life there.
Their stories are part of an unbroken chain of stories of trauma, disorientation and fear that have affected countless millions of people for generation after generation who had finally given up all hope in the countries of their birth and flee to what they hope will given them security and peace. All that misery can shake you to your core sometimes.
Around midday we held our final press conference of our trip. I won’t belabor the details here because you can hear it on this same site where you are reading this blog. Apparently, there was a lot of good coverage along the entire trip, including as a result of the press conference.
Our final meeting of the trip was lunch with a group of Syrian women activists. If the story of the Eritrean women was a low point, the meeting with the Syrian women was one of hope, determination and activism. They are another example of how women not only overcome adversity but also decide they will not be silent and they will work together and in networks to bring about change.
We met with about a dozen women of a range of ages. More than half of them had been political prisoners – some under the current Assad regime, others that of his father. The white-haired woman in the picture below had been a prisoner herself and her husband and her son were still being held in Assad’s prisons. All of them spoke freely and everyone except one woman was fine with having their pictures taken and used publicly.
The woman who declined was worried what might happen to family members still in Syria if someone associated with the regime saw her picture with a group of other Syrian women talking with foreign women. Frankly I was surprised that more didn’t share that concern, not even the woman whose husband and son are still in prison.
I’m not sure the varying lengths of time they had been in Germany, but they all spoke German. And all of them were part of the Syrian Women’s Network or organizations that were part of it. Some already knew each other and while all knew something about the various women we’d invited to the lunch, but some were meeting face to face for the first time.
One of the women who was speaking on behalf of the group said that the Network had honed its position over two years of discussions. She said they didn’t always agree on every detail but they were united in their call for a peaceful solution to the war in their country.
The young woman standing with the notebook in her hand in the picture below had volunteered to interpret for the group and it was her first time at it. It isn’t an easy task but she managed admirably. But that isn’t why I’m writing about her here.
By the end of the meeting, she wanted to say a few words and I don’t think any of us were expecting what she was about to say. Tears started rolling down her cheeks as she told us that she had given up on Syria. She’d lost all hope. But after spending the time interpreting for the Syrian women activists, everything had changed. The women’s determination to work together to help bring about change made her feel like she could do something too.
So, by the end of the meeting, not only had the Syrian women had the interpreting skills of the young woman, they had a new young recruit for the Syrian Women’s Network.
We never know what might be the spark that rekindles hope in a human heart and helps empower a person to take the first steps down a path of activism. It is a beautiful thing to witness and one hell of a swell way to end this delegation following the path of refugees through the Balkans and on to Berlin – and shining a light on the stories of the women making that journey and the women who help them.