North Africa, West Asia

The violence of the word refugee

Words have power. The meaning of the word ‘refugee’ must be challenged to represent the experiences of the millions of individuals who have lost everything and yet wake up each day seeking to build a better life for themselves.

Karin Bashir
6 November 2015
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Demotix/Sahan Nuhoglu. All rights reserved.

Words define reality; they are the means by which we interpret our experiences and perceive our surroundings. This became especially clear to me this past year, when I spent six months living with a group of young Syrians in the chaos of Istanbul. Though I also visited and worked on the Syrian border in the Turkish cities of Suruc, Hatay, and Reyhanli, it was truly the time spent within the crowded and lively Şişli apartment that taught me the most about the weight of the word ‘refugee.’

A label is a defining factor of what opportunities are allotted to a person, and of the box that society forces them within—and the initial judgment placed on their entire being. Those I knew did not fit the media image of ‘refugee’; rather they were complex as we all are.

One, Mahmoud, a past FSA soldier, has colorful dreadlocks, studied economics, and happens to love baking. Another, Ahmed, is a Syrian Christian who at first glance appears to be a typical polite, well dressed, cheerful 25 year old. I later learned he was working in Istanbul for the sole purpose of sending money to Raqqa to pay the jizya tax imposed by Daesh (‘Islamic State’) the very tax that keeps his family from being executed. We listened to Arabic traditional music sometimes and the Crazy in Love Sofia Karlberg single at other times, danced to bachata music and watched Bollywood movies.

In contrast to the conservative and religious media portrayal of Syrians, the majority of the Syrians I met in Turkey were secular atheists with communist and socialist ideals. Never before had I been a part of as many conversations discussing the importance of feminism and the negative global effects of capitalism and colonialism.

Ignoring the many nuances, the term ‘refugee’ confines people who are full, complex human beings into boxes that direct and define their possibility. I saw the use of the word ‘refugee’ have real impact on those around me, especially in terms of their economic opportunities and treatment by locals. The hierarchy of value placed upon foreigners was evident in the job market. While it enhances appeal and value to have a western foreigner working in a shop, restaurant, or school, hiring someone labeled a refugee doesn’t have the same flair.

The discrimination extended beyond the workplace and was salient in housing discrimination practices, along with the harassment of Syrian tenants by Turkish neighbors. Due to fear of the economic vulnerability of refugees, landlords often require refugees to pay several months rent at the time of deposit, and even at times increase monthly rent in fear of refugees breaking long term leases.

Reem, a young Syrian woman, relayed her experience to me in which her landlord took her deposit and additionally forced her to pay three months rent prior to moving in. After a few weeks, she was ultimately evicted from her apartment because a Turkish neighbour claimed Reem had been walking around the apartment naked in front of the windows. The allegation was false but it didn’t matter; as Reem was an unregistered refugee and spoke no Turkish, legal recourse was unavailable. Reem’s story is not unique and such practices extend far beyond Istanbul and into the border cities of Adana, Hatay and Diyar Bakir, causing extreme housing insecurity.

This discriminatory usage and construction of the word ‘refugee’ is not only a cultural or media based concept: it is state sanctioned. In Turkey it is illegal for refugees to work and the Arabic schools necessary for refugee children to continue their education are nearly non-existent. When policy works to handicap a people, to take away their personal agency, the ripples can be felt throughout the society. When the government institutionally fails to protect and support these refugees, a very clear message is sent declaring to society that they are not worth protecting. If the government were to create and enforce policies which promote integration and reception, fair treatment of ‘refugees’ would not be an option, but rather an obligation.

The stigmatisation of the word ‘refugee’ by the media results in desensitisation.

Additionally, through my experiences working within various NGO settings, the expat vs. refugee dichotomy is often strong and works to create a distinct hierarchy. Within this separation, the degrading use of the word ‘refugee’ can play a major role in the silencing of the communities these NGOs seek to assist. The perception of refugees as ‘weak’ and ‘pitiful’ therefore creates a infantilising relationship in which NGOs become the parents and the affected communities become children seen as unable to make decisions for themselves.

The stigmatisation of the word ‘refugee’ by the media results in desensitisation to the suffering of the refugees and their experiences. It allows a label to be placed upon them that makes refugees unrelatable, their suffering acceptable, and allows the majority to remain at a comfortable distance while relieving the global consciousness of our duty as citizens of the world.

Refugees aren’t in their condition because they are inherently different. People fail to realise that the millions of refugees, even those living in camps, are rich and poor, farmers, students, and doctors. Though obvious, it must be stated: ‘refugee’ only means that for some reason a person’s life is in danger and therefore they cannot return home, forced to seek ‘refuge’ in a new place.

The 1951 Refugee Convention states it is someone with a "well founded fear of being persecuted” who is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself the protection of that country. Where do you think you would be if there was a war, yourself and everyone you know lost their home, place of work, sense of security and income? Especially when you’re made to find refuge in a country in which employment and education opportunities are severely limited. For example, even Syrian refugee doctors are unable to legally practice medicine on the Syrian population in Turkey.

The separation of making refugees into the ‘Other’ creates a hierarchy in which helping others becomes sympathetic charity. The condescending nature of the relationship ultimately spoils whatever form of ‘bread’ or help given. Painting the refugee population only as weak and pitiful contributes to the notion that refugees are a burden on the system, dependent, and an abuse of the benevolence of host countries.

I saw the people I lived with as artists, revolutionaries, photographers, writers, and their struggle as something that enriched their work, gave depth to their vision, and meaning to their words. Despite the difficulties faced as refugees in Istanbul, Syrian people have still managed to produce art, to create Arabic libraries and Syrian cultural centers, and have created platforms to raise awareness. The meaning of the word ‘refugee’ must be challenged to represent the experiences of the millions of individuals who have lost everything—family, friends, possessions, careers, education—and yet wake up each day seeking to build a better life for themselves.

As a global community we must redefine the word such that it opens doors instead of closing them. In order to help we must empathetically extend ourselves as comrades, a part of the same human community, rather than as charitable donors. It shouldn’t be a term to confine, restrain, or stifle opportunity. Rather, it should be a source of inspiration evoking the image of these courageous individuals who despite their extreme hardship and loss continue to paint, write, take photos, laugh and live each day in rebellion against their horrible circumstances.

The media must use their platform to report not only on refugee numbers and death toll, but also on the courageous human narrative. Additionally, the dilemma of integration into host countries should be portrayed as solvable if handled with proper policy, global effort, and local reception. While many Turkish citizens and organisations are working diligently to provide aid to these Syrian people, the lack of institutional support and resources impedes their ability to actually help all those in need. Articles should not serve merely as a record of tragedies, but should also provide information to readers on what they can do to help the Syrian people. Perhaps reporting on a Syrian library or clinic opening, the narrative behind it, and an address to which to send supplies.

As we have entered the fifth year of the Syrian conflict, it's more important than ever to work together as an international community to create solutions and show the Syrian people that we will not give up and their suffering has not been forgotten.

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