David Charles https://www.opendemocracy.net/taxonomy/term/10951/all cached version 09/02/2019 03:57:37 en On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp https://www.opendemocracy.net/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/on-walls-of-zollamtsstrasse-refugee-camp <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>The refugees who once lived in this Austrian shelter left plenty of traces, their voices echoing off the walls through dozens of messages and murals depicting hope, strength, love, and language class.</p> </div> </div> </div> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/zollamtstr_tree.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">A mural on the wall in the Zollamtsstrasse refugee centre. Photo by author, all rights reserved.</p> <p>Our journey along the storm-swollen Danube threads through castle-and-schnapps country into Austria. The further we cycle on this ride across the continent, the more we see how urgently Europe needs a plan, not only to cope with the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, but to deal with widening social divisions that have little to do with migration. </p> <p>Two weeks before we arrived, Austria elected a new president. The two candidates were Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party of Austria, whose first leader was an officer of the Nazi SS, and Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Green Alternative party: far right and far left. The nation is split almost exactly down the middle: the far right lost the vote by 0.35% and have successfully won a legal challenge to force a second election, due to happen in October.</p> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/zollamtstrasse_mural.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">A mural on the wall in the Zollamtsstrasse refugee centre. Photo by author, all rights reserved.</p> <p>The two parties are irreconcilable. In Vienna, I speak to Daniel Aschwanden, an artist who has been working in a Red Cross camp for refugees set up in a former financial law court. He tells me that the first showing of the work he created with the refugees was attacked by far right groups, who themselves came under mortal threat. The result was that the Red Cross installed bouncers to protect both sides. Daniel shakes his head: “I watch people from the right and the left argue and I don’t want to get involved in that”.</p> <h2>Zollamtsstrasse</h2> <p>Inside the former financial court building on Zollamtsstrasse, the rooms now stand empty. The last remaining Red Cross workers clear away the children&#39;s toys, the chairs and tables of the schoolrooms, and the books of the library. The refugees were recently moved after eight months here, and the building will become a university&#39;s fine arts department – apt, I think to myself, as I wander around, admiring the colourful murals daubed on the corridor walls by refugees and volunteers.</p> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/zollamtstrasse_dancer.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">A dancer painted by a Syrian woman in her family bedroom. Photo by author, all rights reserved.</p> <p>Downstairs, a vast painting shows a woman&#39;s head on the shoulders of a flowering tree, messages of love and motherhood in among its leaves, while a golden phoenix soars overhead. Another mural is coated with flags and symbols of all nations, with meaningful words memorialised: security, hallo, freedom. Upstairs, a Syrian family&#39;s room is decorated with a beautiful woman in a blossom orchard dancing with a silk scarf, her skirts billowing in the gentle, petal-strewn wind. Similar flowers bloom around the electrical power outlets in the wall. An Afghani has drawn with coloured pencils two children, falling in love, playing music: <em>Ich komme aus Afghanistan, ich liebe Afghanistan</em> – I come from Afghanistan, I love Afghanistan. Another has drawn the crest of Arsenal Football Club. </p> <div style="width:230px;float:right;padding-left:10px;"><img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/The_rooms_of_Zollamtsstrasse_refugee_centre_460.jpg" width="460" height="818" alt="The_rooms_of_Zollamtsstrasse_refugee_centre_460.jpg" /><br /><span class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">The rooms of Zollamtsstrasse refugee centre. Photo by author, all rights reserved.</span></div> <p>Around 1,200 people were lodged here, mostly young men, but also plenty of elderly people, women and children, including unaccompanied minors. The doors to the bedrooms still bear the nameplates of the former tax inspectors, as well as the administrative chalk marks of the refugee centre. Room 421, formerly the office of Helmut Hummel and Magistra Regine Linder, was converted to accommodation for six persons. Office buildings aren&#39;t designed as living spaces, though: no showers, insufficient toilets, no clothes washing facilities, only the top-floor canteen for cooking – and no one was allowed to use the lift. At first, people were taken in small groups by mini-bus to municipal baths and might have one shower per week.</p> <p>The building at Zollamtsstrasse was acquired by the university last summer and was lying empty before the builders moved in to start the art department refit. A student-run arts festival called Urbanize was due to take over the vast space last October, as the number of refugees arriving in Austria reached 5,000 per day. The university and the festival opened their doors to the refugees and from that moment this former tax court became a mixed space of students, volunteers and refugees from all over the world. It was only after civilians had turned the building into a welcoming space that the Red Cross were charged with its formal management as a refugee centre.</p> <p>Zollamtsstrasse wasn&#39;t meant to be permanent, but the refugees liked being here because, unlike at other more institutional refugee centres, there was always something to do. German classes in one of the four schoolrooms and a kindergarten for the youngest children, regular clay modelling workshops and dance empowerment classes, games of table tennis, table football and chess, as well as other projects like designing and painting the murals. Students from the university also designed and delivered two metal container shower blocks. As one of the volunteers, Stephan, told me, the philosophy of the place was that anyone could just come and do anything. “There are no rules, no bureaucracy, just openness”, he says. “This is nice for students used to bureaucracy. They have the freedom to create”.</p> <p>But the heart of the building was the café, which ‘sold’ free cakes, cookies, tea and coffee, and hosted concerts, talks, films and art exhibitions. Every Saturday was women&#39;s day, when men were forbidden, the blinds were drawn and hijabs could be removed in privacy. Although not without its problems, particularly with regards to the protection of women, Zollamtsstrasse sounds like it was a brief interlude of freedom and real attempts at integration between refugees and residents in Vienna. My volunteer guide Patricia is obviously shaken that the hall where the café once lived is now dead. The serving bar torn out, the dishwasher ripped from the wall, the stage carted away. The only survivor is a chalkboard drawing of blooming flowers and a tree in blossom: the enduring emblem of Zollamtsstrasse.</p> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/zollamtstrasse_chalkboard.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">'I have learnt German!' on a chalkboard in a classroom. Photo by author, all rights reserved.</p> <p>The refugees have now been dispersed across Vienna to live in other camps – all converted, disused buildings, including the old offices of the <em>Kurier</em> newspaper. These makeshift camps are one sign, activists tell me, that refugees are not really welcome by the state. The resources are not being put into integration, but into moving refugees on, either further north to Germany, or back to the east. Patricia tells me about an Iranian who has been ordered back to Croatia, not because he had papers or a passport stamp from there, but because the bus he was on, commanded and escorted by the Greek police, happened to pass through Croatia. “And he was one of the supposed ‘good’ refugees”, she says. “He was a doctor”.</p> <p>Stephan and Patricia and the other enthusiastic volunteers of Zollamtsstrasse have found a new empty building, a former phone shop near the station. In stark contrast to the old financial court, the walls are still bare, whitewashed. Over the coming months, those walls will be filled with the imaginings of refugees and the local community, creating a communal space where everyone belongs.</p> <p>Back in one of the empty ‘bedrooms’ of Zollamtsstrasse, Patricia shows me a practice dialogue scrawled on the wall in pencil, first in German, then translated into Persian. It shows the linguistic preoccupations of the student, and illustrates the challenges that lie ahead for both refugee and resident in Austria. It’s headed Meine Fehler – <span style="font-size:110%">اشتباه من</span> – <em>My mistakes</em>. </p> <div style="width:230px;float:right;padding-left:10px;"><img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/mein_fehler-copy-2_460.jpg" width="230" /><br /><span class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">Photo by author. All rights reserved.</span></div> <p>Bitte zahlen sie Bar.<br />[no translation]<br /><em>Please pay cash</em>.</p> <p>Ich habe kein Bargeld, leider nein.<br /><span style="font-size:110%">متاسفم، من پول نقد ندارم</span><br /><em>I have no cash, unfortunately no</em>.</p> <p>Dieb.<br /><span style="font-size:110%">دزد</span><br /><em>Thief</em>.</p> <p>Ich bin kein Dieb.<br />[no translation]<br /><em>I am not a thief</em>.</p> <p>Ich glaube Ihnen.<br /><span style="font-size:110%">من شما را باور دارم</span><br /><em>I believe you</em>.</p> <fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/from-containers-to-computers-challenges-of-refugee-inte">From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/they-want-me-to-fly-like-bird-travels-in-belgian-asylum">&#039;They want me to fly like a bird&#039;: travels in the Belgian asylum system</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/sofiane-ait-chalalet-chris-jones/revealing-truths-talking-with-refugees-in-samos">Revealing truths: talking with refugees in Samos</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/pancakes-for-peace-school-bus-project-in-calais">Pancakes for peace! The school bus project in Calais</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> Mediterranean journeys in hope Mediterranean journeys in hope Transformation David Charles Wed, 10 Aug 2016 09:05:22 +0000 David Charles 104450 at https://www.opendemocracy.net From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany https://www.opendemocracy.net/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/from-containers-to-computers-challenges-of-refugee-inte <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>“The future of Europe depends on a fair situation for all weak people”.</p> </div> </div> </div> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/weissach_920.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">Dinner with a group of Syrians, Lebanese, and Iraqis in a converted sports hall in Weissach, in southwest Germany. Photo by author. All rights reserved.</p> <p class="mag-quote-right">Comparing the refugee situation in Germany with the refugee situation in the UK is like comparing a dinosaur with a gecko.</p> <p>Since leaving London at the beginning of May, we've cycled about a thousand kilometres through England, France and Belgium, talking to residents and refugees about how their lives have been changed by migration. It felt like France and Belgium (the less said about the UK the better) are socially and politically unable or unwilling to accept refugees wholeheartedly, but are trapped by international conventions into providing shelter and survival. The result is an embarrassment for everyone: refugees packed away into <a href="https://www.opendemocracy.net/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/pancakes-for-peace-school-bus-project-in-calais">buildings, containers or tents on the outskirts of towns and villages</a>, with some <a href="https://www.opendemocracy.net/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/they-want-me-to-fly-like-bird-travels-in-belgian-asylum">eking out an uncertain existence in the asylum system</a> for a decade or longer. </p> <p>But now that we’re in Germany, there’s a different problem. Refugees have been welcomed, at least politically, and at least in theory. Comparing the refugee situation in Germany with the refugee situation in the UK is like comparing a dinosaur with a gecko: yes, they are both reptiles, but that’s missing the point. The UK has “pledged” <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/07/uk-will-accept-up-to-20000-syrian-refugees-david-cameron-confirms">to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years</a>, in addition to the barely 5,000 already there. Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Germany has welcomed around 600,000. And that's just Syrians. </p> <p>If the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in the UK, France and Belgium is best described as a collective failure of moral courage, then, no question, Germany has a very different refugee crisis. The crisis here is one of integration.</p> <h2>Heidelberg</h2> <p>Heidelberg feels less a town and more a university campus. Arriving from the industrial north, we’re suddenly in the land of bicycles, scrubbed smiles and yoga mats. Heidelberg has a population of 150,000, a third of which are students. In the summer, they’re replaced person-for-person with tourists, gaggling in the cobbled streets, selfie-ing under the castle, and monkeying around with the Heidelberg baboon.</p> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/refugee_container_park_920.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">A container park in Garching an der Alz in southeast Germany. Photo by author, all rights reserved.</p> <p>Outside the town, lodged in a former American army base, is a holding camp for refugees arriving in the south west of Germany. We’re not allowed inside, but refugees come and go, with free buses shuttling into Heidelberg. A dual carriageway separates the refugees from the town, and only one bridge leads in and out. Leaning on the bridge parapet is Saif, a man from the Western Sahara in his late twenties. He's an optimist and talks easily about his plans for the future, how he will learn German and make German friends to help him through the shock he's felt in this alien culture. “I thought in Germany everything would be easy”, he says with a gappy smile, shaking his head in bemusement. “In Germany they do everything different. They look different, they talk different, they do different”. He smiles again: “even the weather different”! </p> <p>But, as he talks, it becomes clear that Saif's future is nowhere near as secure as his optimistic demeanour suggests: he's been here for two months already, and only has one month remaining on his temporary documents. He's far from halfway across the bridge dividing refugees from residents.</p> <h2><em>Einwanderungsland</em></h2> <p>Inside the Heidelberg railway station café, we meet Regine, who works for an evangelist church in their refugee and integration programme. Regine began her career working with refugees in the 1980s, and reminds us that Germany has welcomed migrants on a similar scale several times in the past, most notably after the fall of the Soviet Union and during the conflicts in the Balkans. Despite the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s long insistence that Germany “<a href="https://books.google.it/books?id=lk84q8loTIkC&amp;pg=PA525&amp;lpg=PA525&amp;dq=helmut+kohl+%22germany+is+not+an+immigration+country%22&amp;source=bl&amp;ots=BTCRB6AY-Z&amp;sig=paOmO9k0IyEb05Xxb1oixqXn8Q0&amp;hl=en&amp;sa=X&amp;ved=0ahUKEwjqqdHNhfHNAhXBuxQKHRsYCrsQ6AEIMjAF#v=onepage&amp;q=helmut%20kohl%20%22germany%20is%20not%20an%20immigration%20country%22&amp;f=false">is not an immigration country</a>” (<em>Deutschland ist kein Einwanderungsland</em>), Regine says that in fact “Germany is an immigrant nation” and that – remarkably – this is enshrined in law.</p> <p class="mag-quote-left">Regine’s church alone is dedicating over €10 million over the next three years to their refugee integration programme.</p> <p>Germany is the second most popular migration destination in the world. I hadn't realised that 12 million refugees displaced after the Second World War were forced to move into the new Germany, nor that invitations to immigrate were extended to Russian Jewish communities, to the million or so Kazakh Germans, and to millions more <em>Gastarbeiter</em> (guest workers) from Turkey and elsewhere. Germany acknowledges the indelible debt she owes her immigrants, who rebuilt the country from the ground up and helped fuel the ‘economic miracle’ of the post-war and cold war years. </p> <p>Part of Regine’s job is to support the thousands of volunteers who have taken an active role in welcoming the latest wave of refugees by becoming mentors and friends to the newcomers. It’s not just German volunteers either: in Mannheim there are over a hundred clubs and associations for all nationalities – Iraqi, Turkish, Macedonian, Eritrean, Italian. What’s interesting is that so much of the support work for new immigrants is done by such volunteer groups: Regine’s church alone is dedicating over €10 million over the next three years to their refugee integration programme. </p> <h2>The integration lottery</h2> <p>In other towns we visit, such as the Bavarian spa town Bad Tölz, we see how a single volunteer refugee organisation can mean the difference between newcomers ending up among the state-supported unemployed or as working taxpayers. This means that, for refugees, who are randomly sent to this or that town, their new life becomes a lottery. In Bad Tölz, we enjoyed a pot of tea with Muafeq, a Syrian family man fortunate enough to find an '<em>ein Euro</em>' (one euro) apprenticeship at AsylPlus, a small organisation set up to deliver online German language instruction to refugees. As the organisation expanded, Muafeq was able to transition from his <em>ein Euro</em> wage to being a fully paid member of staff. </p> <p class="mag-quote-right">These young people want to work, and their work will pay for our pensions.</p> <p>The founder of AsylPlus, an indomitable Bavarian grandma called Frau Haase, is passionate about the need for refugee integration and evangelistic about the power of computers to do the work of a hundred thousand teachers. But mostly she is frustrated with her countrymen who don’t see the benefits brought by the new arrivals. Yes, the state supports refugees financially, but where does that money end up? “Check your pockets”, Frau Haase says. “Refugees spend their money, in shops, on accommodation – not like rich Germans who keep their money in the bank”. Frau Haase sees the state support for refugees as a form of financial redistribution, benefiting everyone in ways that are perhaps hard to see, but are there nonetheless. “Germany is old”, she adds, “these young people want to work, and their work will pay for our pensions”. She smiles mischievously: “not for me, of course, but for many people refugees are big business”.</p> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/Frau_Haase_920.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">With Frau Haase (back left). Photo by author, all rights reserved.</p> <p>The big business of integration, however, has largely been left to private individuals and organisations like Regine's church and AsylPlus. Despite their fine words, the German state has taken a back seat role, reluctant to commit too far in one direction and risk angering the growing numbers who believe refugee support has gone far enough. Towns like Leipzig and Dresden in the east of Germany have seen constant protests and counter-protests by far right and left groups. Even in the wealthier west of the country, anti-immigration parties like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) have been winning seats in recent elections. </p> <p>Back in Heidelberg, Regine blames this trend on radical reductions in social services since the 1990s. These reforms, she says, have made life very difficult for the poorest and have frustrated those on middle incomes who see their financial situation moving backwards. Part of Regine's work in the church is to try to make sure that vulnerable Germans don’t feel excluded amid the outpouring of support and concern for refugees. In Mannheim, for example, the church hosts a mixed choir of refugees and the unemployed, where all nationalities sing and perform together.</p> <p class="mag-quote-left">How can the state expect refugees to become independent of them if they don’t have the resources to learn German or find a job?</p> <p>As we prepare to leave, Regine looks up to the television that plays in the café. Angela Merkel is speaking from a lectern, about reforms to the integration law. The law’s aim sounds reasonable enough: to stop unlimited financial support for refugees who fail to find a job or learn German. But Regine is worried that the law will only make things worse. She’s sceptical that the state will support their programme of integration with enough money. How can they expect refugees to become independent of the state, if they don’t have the resources to learn German or find a job? They can’t expect the church and volunteers to pick up the slack forever.</p> <p>Now that refugees have been accepted, the state’s reluctance to commit has only exacerbated the challenges of integration. Without full integration, refugees will find it impossible to contribute effectively in their new society and will become the drain that the far-right accuses them of being. The government's exaggerated effort to avoid angering those who criticise their open door policy to refugees is, tragically, only adding ammunition to arguments against immigration. As she shakes her head, I ask Regine whether she’s still an optimist. She dodges the question: “The future of Europe”, she says instead, “depends on a fair situation for all weak people”.</p> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/AsylPlus_computers_920.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">An AsylPlus computer room in a container park in Bad Tölz. Photo by author, all rights reserved.</p> <p>But the lesson from Bad Tölz is that, with application and appropriate support, Europe can make it. Three years after arriving in Germany, Muafeq speaks fluent German and has a full-time job. His kids are settled in school and getting good grades. He and his family live in their own house in Bad Tölz and they no longer receive any social support from the state. He is the proud owner of a German-made family car. He pays taxes. He has integrated.</p> <blockquote> <p>Follow David's journey through his <a href="http://davidcharles.info/join-mailing-list/">mailing list</a> or on <a href="http://davidcharles.info/">his blog</a>. David is also raising money for The Bike Project in London, which takes second hand bikes, fixes them up, and donates them to refugees. <a href="https://localgiving.org/fundraising/cyclingsyria">Please consider a donation!</a></p> </blockquote><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/they-want-me-to-fly-like-bird-travels-in-belgian-asylum">&#039;They want me to fly like a bird&#039;: travels in the Belgian asylum system</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/pancakes-for-peace-school-bus-project-in-calais">Pancakes for peace! The school bus project in Calais</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/Mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/moving-europe/long-year-of-migration-and-balkan-corridor">The long year of migration and the Balkan corridor</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/sofiane-ait-chalalet-chris-jones/revealing-truths-talking-with-refugees-in-samos">Revealing truths: talking with refugees in Samos</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> Mediterranean journeys in hope Mediterranean journeys in hope David Charles Wed, 27 Jul 2016 06:00:00 +0000 David Charles 104251 at https://www.opendemocracy.net 'They want me to fly like a bird': travels in the Belgian asylum system https://www.opendemocracy.net/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/they-want-me-to-fly-like-bird-travels-in-belgian-asylum <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Syrian refugees are in the news, but Europe is full of other refugees. They languish in centres while they wait for decisions, then trying again after they are almost certainly refused.</p> </div> </div> </div> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/12637062514_868c74f9a5_k_920.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">A group of Afghan refugees in Belgium. GUE/NGL/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)</p> <p>A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is cross-legged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. Their father Andrei, scruffy beard filling out his gaunt face, offers us tea. We’re squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room this father and his two sons temporarily call home.</p> <p class="mag-quote-right">It’s like a great game of Snakes and Ladders, except there are snakes on almost every square.</p> <p>Fedasil Sint-Truiden, a Belgian government asylum centre, hosts around 550 refugees in a former military barracks: concrete block buildings inside a secured compound. Outside, a dusty playing field has a set of swings and monkey bars, as well as a couple of football goals on an unfair incline. Inside, anonymous doors with a Kafkaesque numbering system lead off the echo chamber hallways, punctuated by mouldering shower and toilet facilities.</p> <p>The family&#39;s mother and two daughters live in another room of the complex, where they have access to cooking facilities; father just has a kettle. After pouring the tea, he pulls a folder from the metal locker that holds the family possessions, and takes out an identity card, issued by the International Red Cross, when he first left his home country in 2004. It bears his name, his date and place of birth: Chechnya.</p> <p>In the twelve years since that card was issued, Andrei has been travelling, searching for a new home for the family that he has raised on the road. He shows us a passport for an independent Chechen Republic that does not exist and tells us that his lawyer made a mistake in his latest claim for asylum. He has two weeks to leave Belgium.</p> <p>Andrei is phlegmatic. He and his family have been bumped around Belgium for the past two years and, after this latest decision, Andrei intends to appeal the judgement or reapply for asylum under a different part of law. When they&#39;re lucky, they are given a couple of rooms in an institution like this Fedasil centre. When they&#39;re unlucky, they sleep on the streets. Life as an asylum seeker is precarious: weeks, months, years of waiting for a letter that could change everything, but probably won&#39;t.</p> <p>When Andrei fled to Europe from what he calls a Russian ‘concentration camp’ in Chechnya, he was a strong, hopeful young man, about my age. He is now in his forties, lost in a system he can’t escape. His young children will likely inherit his limbo: born in Belgium, but without Belgian citizenship.</p> <h2>Nursultan</h2> <p>Sitting at the small square table with us is Nursultan, another refugee who has ended up in Belgium for no particularly good reason: he&#39;s just running out of options. Nursultan, also in his forties, is a bearish man with a smile that creases up the softness of his cheeks. His family isn’t with him, but in Turkey, the second country in which they claimed asylum. Nursultan is on his fifth.</p> <p>Nursultan is an ethnic Uzbek born in Kyrgyzstan, where he was once a successful businessman. But since the 1990s there have been tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks and in 2010 the violence came to Nursultan&#39;s town. During the riots, he moved into his business premises to protect them. But, after surviving three days, and several attacks by local Kyrgyz with petrol bombs, Nursultan ran out of food. When he left the building, supposedly under the protection of the town elders, he was knocked unconscious, kidnapped and taken to a gymnasium, where he was tortured.</p> <p>After refusing to pay $100,000 in exchange for his freedom, Nursultan was badly beaten and left for dead on the side of the road near his house. He tried to take the case to court, but the investigator took the side of his kidnappers. Nursultan returned home from court to find local police waiting for him. When they recognised him, they fired bullets.</p> <p class="mag-quote-center">They want me to fly like a bird.</p> <p>Nursultan escaped in his car. He drove cross country to Kazakhstan, then flew on to Uzbekistan, where he claimed asylum. Despite being an ethnic Uzbek, after two months he was told he and his family had to leave. While the local Kyrgyz authorities tried to launch a bogus international police investigation against him, Nursultan applied for asylum in Turkey. </p> <p>The Turkish asylum process dragged on for four long years with no discernible progress, but when Nursultan launched a protest with other central Asian refugees the Turkish authorities ordered him out of the country, saying he should be thankful they weren’t deporting him back to Kyrgyzstan.</p> <p>By this time, Nursultan had written to all the embassies of Europe, begging for refuge. Only Sweden replied, with what he calls an “invitation to claim asylum” – but he had to apply in the country. So Nursultan left his family to make the dangerous crossing into Europe alone, hoping that soon he would be able to give them a home.</p> <p>After three months in a foetid Greek prison, Nursultan finally arrived in Sweden. Invitation in hand, he stomped triumphantly up to the home office building. But once there he was told that, because he had been fingerprinted in Greece, he could not apply for asylum in Sweden.</p> <p>Nursultan laughs at the absurdity of his situation. How could he possibly arrive in Sweden without going through some other part of Europe? “They want me to fly like a bird”, he says with a despairing shrug.</p> <h2>The forgotten refugees</h2> <p>These are the forgotten refugees of Europe. In all the coverage of the refugees fleeing Syria, we overlook others. In the emergency Fedasil centre in Lubbeek, opened by the army in December, there are ten different nationalities. Most are not Syrian; most do not receive favourable asylum verdicts.</p> <p>The way the international asylum system has been created causes tensions between claimants of different nationalities. Syrians are often successful in their asylum claims for good reason, but even Baghdad is now considered ‘safe’ and, despite a decade of war, Iraqis are turned away.</p> <p>There&#39;s certainly no refuge here for Chechens or Uzbek-Kyrgyz. The Fedasil centres feel more like vast transit stations, where people wait for their plane or bus ticket back to where they started. It’s like a great game of Snakes and Ladders, except there are snakes on almost every square.</p> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/Fedasil-Lubbeek_920.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">Fedasil centre in Lubbeek. Photo by author. All rights reserved.</p> <p>One Fedasil employee looks pessimistic when I ask what chance these people have. Even those whose claims are successful, he says, have the odds stacked against them. After a positive result, those granted asylum have two months to leave the centre and to find an apartment. After that, they have only another two months to find steady work before their financial support is cut off. Those without children stand a chance, Andrei reckons, but he sees little hope of being able to support his family.</p> <p>The International Red Cross Centre at Sedoz sits on the banks of the Amblève river near the pretty village of Nonceveux. The late evening sun breaks through the tall trees and the air is filled with the shouts and screams of a group of boys playing a boisterous game of football. Thirty different nationalities live here, an accidental United Nations of the unwanted.</p> <p class="mag-quote-left">To wait without knowing whether positive or negative, my whole life is on pause.</p> <p>The two friendly Red Cross employees I meet are happy to talk. “I love my job”, says one middle-aged woman. “I meet people from all over the world”. When I ask what the difference is between the Fedasil and Red Cross centres, she reacts almost in horror: ‘Fedasil is government!’ she exclaims. “We are independent, we are the Red Cross”. Basically, she explains, this means that the police have a harder time gaining access to Red Cross centres. Legally, the Red Cross have different obligations and they can afford to be a little more free with their charges.</p> <p>In a gorgeous rural setting, shaded by tall trees, with the sound of the river running past, this centre certainly feels very different to the institutional concrete block buildings of Fedasil in Sint-Truiden – and couldn’t feel further from the emergency container-shelters of Lubbeek. But the problems are still the same.</p> <p>Outside in the late evening sunshine, a young Somali tells us his story, confirmed by the Red Cross employees. He’s been living in the centre for about a year since he had his asylum application interview. Every morning he’s checked the post for the result of his claim. Every morning for a year. In the last few days, he got his response: negative.</p> <p>Things are particularly difficult for people from Somalia because they often lack official documentation proving their nationality. Instead, during their asylum interviews, they’re asked questions about Somali politics, geography – even the weather. Like some absurd quiz show, where a single wrong answer will end your claim. </p> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/Red-Cross-Centre-Sedoz_920.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">The Red Cross Centre at Sedoz. Photo by author. All rights reserved.</p> <p>But at the centre the refugees’ anger is directed more at the agonising process rather than the result, positive or negative. A former security guard from Baghdad, who used to work with the British and Americans in the Green Zone, has already been here for eight months without even having his first interview. “I don’t mind to wait even one year for a positive result”, he says. “But to wait without knowing whether positive or negative…” His words trail off. “My whole life is on pause”.</p> <p>Like us, he has a bicycle. “Sometimes I cycle in the mountains here”, he says, “20, 30 kilometres, all alone. I cycle and I sit and I smoke. It clears my mind”. It’s certainly beautiful biking country, roads curling through steep sided valleys. But would I be happy cycling any road, no matter how beautiful, without knowing it had an end?</p> <h2>Making room for welcome</h2> <p>Further down the road, on our last night in Belgium, we’re hosted by Anita, an English teacher who volunteers at the local Fedasil centre in Elsenborg, right on the border with Germany. Like Sedoz, this too commands a gloriously bucolic setting: cows lazily grazing, grass gradually growing. Imagine, then, 500 refugees suddenly mooching around the quiet village. But most of the local community have overcome their understandable fears to make their temporary residents as welcome as we feel in Anita’s big old farmhouse.</p> <iframe width="460" height="259" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/z36XEpQufug?rel=0&amp;showinfo=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">Conversation with Anita, who teaches English to refugees in Elsenborg, Belgium.</p> <p>It is people like Anita who bring a little relief to the desperate stories of Andrei, Nursultan and others. While politicians do all they can to close the doors to Europe, ordinary folk open their arms. Anita’s walls are filled with photographs from a life spent travelling the world, and she only repays the hospitality that she has herself received. “I try to keep an open house”, she says as she pours us some more tea. “It’s better that way”.</p> <p>It’s not always easy to see the way ahead. Some of the people we have met will forge a new life in Belgium, helped by Fedasil, the Red Cross, and people like Anita. Others will appeal their negative claims, or get bounced along to the next country: Uzbekistan, Turkey, Greece, Sweden, Belgium… Trying to find a new campsite every night is one thing; I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to find a new country.</p> <blockquote>Follow David's journey through his <a href="http://davidcharles.info/join-mailing-list/">mailing list</a> or on <a href="http://www.davidcharles.info">his blog</a>. David is also raising money for The Bike Project in London, which they take second hand bikes, fix them up, and donate them to refugees. <a href="https://localgiving.org/fundraising/cyclingsyria">Please consider a donation!</a></blockquote><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-anoth-sidebox"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p><a href="https://opendemocracy.net/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope"><img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/MJIH-icon-140%402x.png" alt="" width="100%" /></a></p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/pancakes-for-peace-school-bus-project-in-calais">Pancakes for peace! The school bus project in Calais</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/glenda-garelli-martina-tazzioli/warfare-on-logistics-of-migrant-movem">Warfare on the logistics of migrant movements: EU and NATO military operations in the Mediterranean</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/sofiane-ait-chalalet-chris-jones/revealing-truths-talking-with-refugees-in-samos">Revealing truths: talking with refugees in Samos</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> Mediterranean journeys in hope Mediterranean journeys in hope David Charles Wed, 06 Jul 2016 09:59:25 +0000 David Charles 103672 at https://www.opendemocracy.net Pancakes for peace! The school bus project in Calais https://www.opendemocracy.net/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/david-charles/pancakes-for-peace-school-bus-project-in-calais <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Sharing food and mutually teaching each other can help bring people together. In the Jungle camp of Calais, one woman from Brighton has started a new project to demonstrate this truth.</p> </div> </div> </div> <img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/PA-25582270_920.jpg" width="100%" /> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">The Jungle refugee camp in Calais, France. Anthony Devlin/Press Association Images, all rights reserved.</p> <p>This summer I am cycling across Europe, following the routes of migration back towards Syria, trying to learn as much as I can about how the current crisis is changing the lives of both residents and refugees.</p> <p>One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable, Kent, we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to migrant camps in Calais and beyond. She told us that we must visit Kate McAllister while in Calais, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.</p> <p>Kate usually lives in Brighton with her husband and their three-year-old daughter, a quick blue-eyed blonde called Matilda, who excels at the preparation of tea and pancakes. In these precious pre-school years, Kate saw an opportunity to up sticks and move the family across to France.</p> <p>Now Kate sits in the Darfuri compound of the Calais camp, surrounded by sunshine and numbered tents. Beside us is parked the eponymous School Bus, a red minivan that seems to give Kate a free pass with the police who guard the camp entrances. At our backs is the new school building.</p> <p>I was last here in July 2015, teaching in the school that preceded this one. It was a low ceilinged dark box, coated in sheet plastic like so many buildings here. It was torched and burnt to the ground the night after a camp fight between Sudanese and Afghans. Its successor is a bright wooden structure, built by Kate’s Portuguese carpenter husband, complete with windows and painted with glorious technicolour flowers and chickens. There is a kitchen and herb garden beneath the front windows, good for teaching the names of lettuce, mint, and strawberries rising from the ashes.</p> <p>I remember sharing a fast-breaking Ramadan meal with Sudanese on this very spot, seated around on a rug, at the end of another long, hot, summer’s day. Today, the sun shines as strongly. Sudanese sit around playing cards, or reading books from the swap shop that operates out of a cardboard box in the middle of the compound. Matilda helps make us tea. “How do you like your tea, Matilda?” – “With strawberries.”</p> <p>The Sudanese who live here are in transition, many buried in the process of applying for asylum in France, waiting to find out where they will be transferred, and what kind of a life can resume. Not many of my former students remain from 10 months ago, but Kate tells me of one who has found a flat in Calais, but still returns to visit the camp often. “It is not enough that you are alive”, Kate says, “these people are looking for a life”.</p> <p>I watch Matilda plopping sand castles out of a bucket, soaking up with her pre-school brain the new normality of her sand pit education. It’s a long way from Brighton – but only metaphorically. Kate talks about when she will have to leave Calais, in July. “I can get on a train to Ashford, be here in two hours”, she says, “and still teach a full day in the school”. Commuting to Calais: easier than we might think.</p> <p>Kate talks passionately about the small things that keep communities apart, and about how those gaps can be closed with the mildest effort, like a two hour commute – or a well-stocked backpack. Closing those gaps is the aim of The School Bus Project.</p> <h2>The School Bus Project</h2> <p>The School Bus Project is a teaching initiative founded by Kate and a small team of education and refugee support professionals. After several iterations, the project needs only one week to build and start a school: from nought to taught in seven days (a catchphrase I’m pretty sure they won’t adopt…).</p> <p>School Bus teachers are trained in the UK and, armed with a backpack filled with flashcards and pens, are ready to hit the dunes teaching. “It’s first aid for teaching”, Kate says. “We’re there even before the paramedics!”</p> <iframe width="460" height="259" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/MD8-1zvTVeA?rel=0&amp;showinfo=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">Hear Kate McAllister speak about The School Bus Project.</p> <p>On their first day, the teachers go into a community and offer to make pancakes together. Pancakes are an international food: but only crazy westerners put lemon and sugar on theirs. It’s an instant connection. The next day, the teachers come back and offer to cook a full meal together with the community. The communal cooking is an opportunity to learn English, share stories, and build trust. After three days of this, a bond has formed and the school can begin in earnest.</p> <p>The idea is that the model is highly flexible, highly mobile, and easily shared. Teachers should be able to seed new teaching communities by the time they have finished their service in Calais. But the virtuous circle does not only breed English teachers. Kate believes the larger share of her work is now in the UK, connecting existing communities with incoming communities of migrants.</p> <h2>Forming connections at home and abroad</h2> <p>The work is the same as here in Calais: bring people together, learn how to cook each other’s food, share a meal, and along the way, pick up smatterings of a stranger’s language and culture. Kate ran a first trial in Brighton. Syrian refugees, who had been stranded in Dunkirk only a few months before, shared their recipes with locals, and the two communities cooked and ate together. Nourishment for stomach and soul.</p> <p>Kate has been in Calais since last October, the end of a slow movement towards radical action. She shrugs when I ask what the motivating moment was. “It just came to the point where I couldn’t keep on shouting my anger at the television any longer”, she says. She had been involved in collecting donations for displaced persons in Iraq for many years, but when I ask her where her interest began she only laughs – “I don’t know”, she says. “Perhaps when I was five and didn’t want to pull the legs off daddy-long-legs!”</p> <iframe width="460" height="259" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/BKkJDRjBYYI?rel=0&amp;showinfo=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe> <p class="image-caption" style="margin-top:0px;padding-top:0px;">Making Sudanese Halla (beef stew) – The School Bus Project, Calais.</p> <p>After a career spent in the corridors of state schools in the UK, Kate took some time adjusting to the lawlessness of Calais. It gave her the confidence to step out and try her ideas. She originally came here to assist whoever was on the ground, running educational projects. But there was no one to help, so she had to do it herself.</p> <p>Last Christmas, while she and her family were spending the holiday with her in-laws, Kate handed over her house to a family of newly-arrived Syrians. Lots of her friends thought Kate had gone too far this time – “You won’t get your house back!” But, of course, she did. “The only thing was that they ate all my son’s special honey”, Kate says. “But they did leave us a honey cake, so maybe that was fair!”</p> <p>Kate knows she is not like everyone else, that not everyone will close gaps quite as wide as that. But Kate shows that even the widest gaps can be closed, and she has convinced me that perhaps our first step is making pancakes together. Make mine goat’s cheese and honey.</p> <blockquote>Follow David's journey through his <a href="http://davidcharles.info/join-mailing-list/">mailing list</a> or on <a href="http://www.davidcharles.info">his blog</a>. David is also raising money for The Bike Project in London, which they take second hand bikes, fix them up, and donate them to refugees. <a href="https://localgiving.org/fundraising/cyclingsyria">Please consider a donation!</a></blockquote><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-anoth-sidebox"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p><a href="https://opendemocracy.net/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope"><img style="padding-top: 10px;" src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/u555228/MJIH-icon-140%402x.png" alt="" width="100%" /></a></p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/janina-pescinski/common-humanity-of-nuit-debout">The common humanity of Nuit Debout</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/martina-tazzioli/concentric-cages-hotspots-of-lesvos-after-eu-turkey-">Concentric cages: the hotspots of Lesvos after the EU-Turkey agreement</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/v-ronique-saunier/entrepreneurs-of-idomeni">Entrepreneurs of Idomeni</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/brad-k-blitz/from-refugees-to-prisoners">From refugees to prisoners</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> France </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-city"> <div class="field-label">City:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Calais </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> Mediterranean journeys in hope Mediterranean journeys in hope Calais France Build Bridges David Charles Tue, 07 Jun 2016 05:00:00 +0000 David Charles 102686 at https://www.opendemocracy.net Tunisia: martyrs' day violence, why and what's next? https://www.opendemocracy.net/david-charles/tunisia-martyrs-day-violence-why-and-whats-next <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>How much support is there 'on the street' for the protesters?</p> </div> </div> </div> <p>Last Monday, <a href="http://www.davidcharles.info/2012/04/tunis-police-attack-peaceful-martyrs.html">I followed a protest in Tunis</a> that was violently dispersed by police, using tear-gas and baton-beatings.<br /> <br /> It is a delicate thing to comment on political protest in a country you have only been in for a month. But we all have eyes to see (except under tear-gas attack) and we all have brains to interpret for ourselves. <a href="http://www.opendemocracy.net/david-charles/tunisia-police-attack-peaceful-martyrs-march">My previous post</a> demanded further explanation, so that is what I attempt here. <br /> <br /> Since Monday, I have spoken to Tunisians, in person and online, to&nbsp;find out more about the background to the protests and&nbsp;to ascertain how much support there&nbsp;is "on the street" for the protesters.<br /> <br /> First, though,&nbsp;the official explanation for why the protest was broken up by the police. The government ruled a month ago that no protests were to be&nbsp;allowed on the main street in Tunis, Avenue&nbsp;Habib Bouguiba. The reason they gave for this ruling&nbsp;is that repeated protests and counter-protests (including one by radical Salafists in which they attacked the national theatre) were damaging commercial activity on the street and interrupting the flow of traffic down one of Tunis' main transport arteries.<br /> <br /> It should also be added that protests are allowed in the rest of Tunis (so far as I have been told) - and, indeed, our little march was politely escorted by police through the city to the union building, where it officially ended. That such a demonstration&nbsp;was&nbsp;permitted is certainly a step up from&nbsp;the days of&nbsp;Ben Ali.<br /> <br /> So far, so reasonable.</p><p>(An obvious, although not necessarily relevant, counter-observation is that Habib Bourguiba is plenty wide enough to accommodate both traffic and protest. There is a vast promenade running down the centre, between the two vehicular lanes, that would be perfect for a leisurely march -&nbsp;were it not obstructed by barbed wire, soldiers and military vehicles...)</p><p>That is the official line, but what did my proverbial man on his hypothetical street say?<br /> <br /> To tell the truth, in all my conversations, interviews and casual chats, I am yet to meet a Tunisian who whole-heartedly backs the protesters (aside from the protesters themselves, naturally). <br /> <br /> One man, when I asked him why the police attacked, said simply that the protests were forbidden. I pressed him further, asking him if it was political, but he waved an irritated hand at me&nbsp;and reiterated:&nbsp;it was forbidden. His closing of the topic reminded me of the political silence under Ben Ali. Not a good start to my information-gathering.<br /> <br /> Others, thankfully, were happy to talk politics - and this freedom of speech is another genuine joy of post-revolutionary Tunisia.<br /> <br /> One of my new Tunisian friends, a charismatic fruit-seller and fine art photographer,&nbsp;told me&nbsp;that he was sad to see photographs of the protests on my Facebook wall. He said they were ugly (I can't disagree). But he also disapproved of the protesters. He told me that they&nbsp;were&nbsp;friends of Ben Ali and that they had started the fight by throwing rocks at the police - so of course the police attacked back. <br /> <br /> I did see people throwing rocks at the police, but they were kids - teenagers - certainly nobody who would ever have been in the pay of Ben Ali. And nor did they start the fighting. The first rocks I saw thrown were a good half hour after the protesters had been set upon with batons and tear-gas.<br /> <br /> Others said that these protesters have no idea what freedom is, that they are drunk on the power of revolution, that stability and patience is needed now, not more chaos. Every time there is a protest, they say,&nbsp;it is followed by a counter-protest and&nbsp;then a counter-counter-protest and on and on and on.<br /> <br /> Another very wisely pointed out that these protesters are giving the government just excuses <em>not</em> to change anything, <em>not</em> to make things more liberal, <em>not</em> to give the people more democracy. In other words:&nbsp;their confrontational stance is counter-productive. He told me too that there have now been demonstrations in support of the right to demonstrate on Habib Bourguiba - "A demonstration for the right to demonstrate! Pff!" His frustration was palpable -&nbsp;and understandable, given the many economic challenges facing Tunisian society.&nbsp;Not least of which is the fact that, since the revolution, foreign&nbsp;tourists are going elsewhere,&nbsp;draining&nbsp;away the&nbsp;7% of Tunisian GDP that tourism contributes.</p><p>On reflection,&nbsp;it makes sense that the average man on the street would disapprove of the protesters. <a href="http://www.davidcharles.info/2012/04/cycling-to-sahara-tunisia-after.html">I have written before</a> about Tunisia's relative social stability, compared to neighbours Algeria and Libya and their relative prosperity in comparison to Egypt and most of the rest of Africa. These combine to give Tunisians a sense that they have much to lose by disrupting life further. My school-teacher friend told me that they have enough freedom for the moment. There are more important things than petty matters like more rights for actors:&nbsp;jobs, for example.<br /> <br /> On top of that fear of loss, nearly 40% of Tunisians voted for&nbsp;the leading party Ennahda in the elections. It's natural that they would largely support the government over anti-government protesters. Then there are&nbsp;the people who are simply tired of the conflict, tired of the constant protests and counter-protests, tired of the disruptive&nbsp;strikes, tired of abnormality. Together these groups must make up over half of the population, so it's not unexpected that the average man on the street&nbsp;disapproves&nbsp;the protests. <br /> <br /> Perhaps, then, the protesters should not have our sympathy. Perhaps their message is not shared by most of&nbsp;Tunisian society.&nbsp;Perhaps, even, the police were justified in using force to disperse the illegal demonstration - particularly as protests in&nbsp;London frequently face similar obstructions from both government and police (note: I&nbsp;have never&nbsp;been&nbsp;tear-gassed in London).<br /> <br /> But against this conclusion, I would put that the protesters I marched alongside&nbsp;were a diverse group. They were not all angry young men. That was the reason I joined them in the first place, when they were just fifty or so people happily chanting and marching&nbsp;near the central market on Monday morning. They were young and old, women,&nbsp;men and children.&nbsp;I was particularly taken by a&nbsp;group from the Organisation for Women and Progress: I recognised myself in them and they won my sympathy.<br /> <br /> I set against this conclusion also that&nbsp;I SAW plainsclothes thugs climb out of a van and start chasing and beating civilian protesters with cudgels of wood.&nbsp;Ennahda strenuously denies&nbsp;that they had anything to do with these cavemen, but nevertheless it happened.&nbsp;So no matter what the man on the street says, no matter whether the protesters&nbsp;should or shouldn't be on Habib Bourguiba, no matter&nbsp;whether their protest is justified or not, even: the running battles that took place down side-streets, far from Habib Bourguiba -&nbsp;so reminiscent&nbsp;of the actions of Ben Ali -&nbsp;prove to me that there is something in the protesters'&nbsp;grievance. </p><p>Rumours abound concerning the violence. I have been told that some of the trouble-makers on Monday&nbsp;were ex-government (Ben Ali's government, that is) and some were from&nbsp;the Ennahda party. There are rumours too that there was&nbsp;an explosion at the Hotel Africa&nbsp;on Habib Bouguiba. Almost certainly we will never fully understand the sequence of events that ended in violence on Monday.<br /> <br /> What we do know is that, since the&nbsp;broken protest in Tunis, there has been a wave of sympathetic protests in Kebilya, in Sousse, in Sidi Bouzid and in other towns across the country. What it will lead to, we shall discover in due course.</p><p> <br /> The above is all I&nbsp;learnt about the protests, talking to friends in Tunis and online. Now,&nbsp;<em>my</em> impression of why the protest was attacked and dispersed using violent means. <br /> <br /> My impression was that the protesters went one step too far.&nbsp;They had rolled over three police lines already, each progressively more aggressive - the first linking arms, the second with riot shields, the third unfortunately had tear-gas. The crowd was so large (thousands, according to some counts) and so&nbsp;optimistic that it&nbsp;could have carried on rolling through those lines all day, if the police hadn't used their weapons. <br /> <br /> If the protest had been small -&nbsp;perhaps restricted to the fifty people I joined near the market -&nbsp;and if&nbsp;they had behaved in an acquiescent manner, instead of insisting on marching, then perhaps the&nbsp;police&nbsp;would have allowed&nbsp;us to remain in a kettle at the edge of Habib Bouguiba. Perhaps we could have&nbsp;stood on the steps of the cathedral, a noisy -&nbsp;but static and merely symbolic&nbsp;-&nbsp;protest.</p><p>But the protesters&nbsp;pushed&nbsp;too far. The police couldn't keep rolling back and retreating -&nbsp;they had to counterstrike. And once the first shot had been fired, that was it.&nbsp;The tragic but&nbsp;inevitable outcome&nbsp;was running battles in the streets. <br /> <br /> (A side note: I don't think&nbsp;you can ignore the part played by pride in the actions of both the police and the protesters. It reminded me of the Orwell story <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_an_Elephant">Shooting an Elephant</a>. The police couldn't accept defeat, for pride in their position. The protesters, once committed, couldn't back down either.)<br /> <br /> But supposing the police&nbsp;<em>had</em> let us march to the Ministry of Interior -&nbsp;what would have happened then? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the crowd&nbsp;would have gathered there awhile, chanting, singing, making speeches. Then perhaps they would have dispersed of their own accord, their protest heard, their point made, the martyrs remembered. <br /> <br /> But the police couldn't let that happen. They couldn't allow themselves to be defeated, even for the sake of injured civilians&nbsp;and widespread panic. <br /> <br /> I am not naive, however.&nbsp;There is a strong chance&nbsp;that the protesters <em>wouldn't</em> have stopped peacefully at the Ministry of Interior. There is every chance that&nbsp;the protest&nbsp;would have escalated and swelled beyond control. <br /> <br /> But perhaps therein lies the <em>real</em> reason why the protest was broken up with such force. Perhaps&nbsp;the government and the police fear a <em>second</em> revolution to follow the first, as&nbsp;happened in&nbsp;Russia and in France. This second revolution, of course, would not be patient with the current hierarchy.<br /> <br /> I cannot say I support a second revolution or not: it is none of&nbsp;my business. But I believe one thing is certain:&nbsp;the actions of the police on Monday&nbsp;- and let's not forget the government, who provoked the violence by making the march illegal - have made a second uprising only&nbsp;<em>more</em> likely. <br /> <br /> Repression does not breed acquiescence in the Tunisian people - you would have thought&nbsp;2011 had shown that eloquently enough. </p><div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Tunisia </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-city"> <div class="field-label">City:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Tunis </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Conflict </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> </div> </div> Tunis Tunisia Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government David Charles Revolution Wed, 11 Apr 2012 22:47:44 +0000 David Charles 65295 at https://www.opendemocracy.net David Charles https://www.opendemocracy.net/author-profile/david-charles <div class="field field-au-term"> <div class="field-label">Author:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> David Charles </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-au-firstname"> <div class="field-label">First name(s):&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> David </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-au-surname"> <div class="field-label">Surname:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Charles </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-au-city"> <div class="field-label">City:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Tunis </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-au-country"> <div class="field-label">Country:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Tunisia </div> </div> </div> <p>David is cycling 5,000 km across Europe, following the routes of migration back towards Syria. Along the journey, he is documenting the effects of migration on refugees and residents alike. Follow David's journey through <a href="http://davidcharles.info/join-mailing-list/">his mailing list</a>.</p><div class="field field-au-shortbio"> <div class="field-label">One-Line Biography:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> David has been writing, researching and travelling full time in the Middle East since acquiring his Masters in Middle Eastern History in 2008. </div> </div> </div> David Charles Mon, 09 Apr 2012 19:34:07 +0000 David Charles 65259 at https://www.opendemocracy.net Tunisia: police attack peaceful martyrs' march https://www.opendemocracy.net/david-charles/tunisia-police-attack-peaceful-martyrs-march <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>A peaceful protest in Tunis turned violent as police attacked marchers. David Charles, a Briton, who was visiting Tunisia's capital witnessed the chaotic scene as the small group of non-violent protesters were set upon with gas canisters and batons.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p>I was walking around the central market in <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunis">Tunis</a> this morning, when I passed by a peaceful march. They carried banners proclaiming: "Never forget why they died - Freedom and Dignity". The marchers were young and old, women, men and children, wearing smiles with their flags. So, being in full support of marches in general and this sort of march in particular, I joined them.<br /> <br /> We marched on past the central market and across <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habib_Bourguiba">Habib Bourguiba</a> - the main street in central Tunis. There, the police carefully chaperoned us across the road and to the headquarters of one of the unions, where we stopped.</p><p>That, I thought, was that. The chanting stuttered and ceased. Some people left the crowd, which was only ever about 50-60 people, others stood around amiably, chatting and smoking, leaning on their signs, wrapped in their banners.<br /> <br /> I asked one of the men what this was all about. He explained that today was <a href="http://www.travel2abroad.com/TopEvents/267/TopEventDetail/Martyrs_Day_Tunisia">Martyrs' Day</a> in Tunisia and that these people were unhappy with progress after the revolution. That seemed fair enough and I was about to leave when a journalist tapped me on the shoulder. He added that the group intended to march down Habib Bourguiba street, but that protests there had recently been banned. This sounded more interesting.<br /> <br /> Still, though, the protest didn't look like much. There were no angry young men - from their dress, I reckoned it was just a small group of liberal middle-class Tunisians. Then, without a signal, we started from the union building to Habib Bourguiba, in defiance of the police presence and the banning order.<br /> <br /> But our fifteen minute pause at the union building seemed to be a tactic because, when we got back to Habib Bourguiba, the police didn't seem to be expecting us. No one stopped us until we got to the cathedral, where a hasty line of police barred our way. Our small, timid group was kettled and, as always in Tunisia, <a href="http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/04/09/ennahda-party-commemorates-martyrs-day-as-tension-mounts-in-downtown-tunis/">a crowd gathered to watch the events</a>. I slipped outside the kettle, to look on with them.</p><p>The crowd around me grew and grew, curious Tunisians come to watch the action. Or so I thought. Then, suddenly, as if a sprint-race starter's pistol had sounded, a great chanting rose up from the crowd of bystanders. They turned as one and started to march towards the clock tower that marks the centre of Tunis. These were no bystanders - this was the march! I cackled with glee when I realised that our small, timid group of kettled friends were merely a decoy for the police.</p><p>And with whistles and chants and defiance, we marched on and on. The protesters broke through three lines of police, the first barred our way with linked arms, the second with riot shields and the third with batons and tear-gas canisters. Or at least, we broke through until the tear gas was fired and the batons were beaten. Then we ran.<br /> <br /> Men, women and children burst out around me, staggering under the clouds of gas, stampeding at the cracking of the <a href="http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/2/8/38849/World/Region/Tunis-police-fire-tear-gas-to-disperse-rally-for-m.aspx">batons on helmets and the canisters' explosions</a>. Down the street and around the corner, people hacked up poisoned phlegm into the gutters and damped their eyes with handkerchiefs. The shops and restaurants hurriedly pulled down their shutters, dragging customers and bystanders inside for shelter.<br /><br /> <center><iframe align="center" src="http://www.flickr.com/slideShow/index.gne?set_id=72157629414640092" width="400" height="300" frameBorder="0" scrolling="no"></iframe><br /></center> <br /> We could hear the shouts from the police, hear more gas canisters fired, hear more baton cracks. I saw a mini-van of plain-clothed thugs arrive with white cudgels to beat and maim, to disperse the crowds with fear. Police, all in black, wore balaclavas - to protect themselves from their own tear-gas, or to hide their identities?</p><p>Gradually, Habib Bourguiba cleared of protesters. All that was left were shopkeepers peering out behind shutters, dazed, angry civilians and bewildered tourists. The occassional running police, the occassional beating. But the real action had shifted to the side streets, where kids were throwing stones at police, getting tear-gas in return. The kids then flee, chased by the cops, hopelessly.</p><p>But what is the meaning of all this meaningless violence? What does this demonstration of freedom mean for the protesters? What does this demonstration of force mean for the police?<br /> <br /> I spoke to one young Tunisian school-teacher who was frustrated with the protesters. He said that they had freedom now, but they didn't know how to use it. He said that people were asking for rights that were not important - like people with jobs asking for better jobs, or people with salaries asking for bigger salaries - when there are people without jobs, without money, without homes or food. This young man said that Tunisia needed security and that the current government couldn't provide it. He stopped short of saying that Ben Ali could, but it was implied. He looked forward to going to London, to get a job there.<br /> <br /> But the marchers are not merely gluttons for freedom. That much was demonstrated by the very nature of the government's response to them. Some of these people had walked for six days from the <a href="http://www.davidcharles.info/2012/04/cycling-to-sahara-tunisia-after.html">town of Sidi Bouzid</a> to commemorate the dead of the 2011 revolution. Today was Martyrs' Day and any free country would accept and commemorate with the marchers the tragic loss of life under the old, despotic regime.<br /> <br /> But instead they were met by a banning order that made their march illegal, then found their way blocked by lines of police and finally were brutally attacked with tear-gas and batons.<br /> <br /> So much has changed in Tunisia? </p><p>David keeps steady record of <a href="http://www.davidcharles.info/">his travels on his blog</a></p><p> <span class="post-comment-link"> </span></p><div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Tunisia </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-city"> <div class="field-label">City:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Tunis </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Conflict </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> </div> </div> Tunis Tunisia Civil society Conflict Democracy and government David Charles You tell us Mon, 09 Apr 2012 19:33:48 +0000 David Charles 65258 at https://www.opendemocracy.net