First South American thoughts

I somehow ended up taking a work related week long trip to Peru – made the decision thursday, and here I am! This is exciting for me, as I have never been to South America, and I am beyond thrilled to discover this continent (or at least a tiny part of it). Working for CGSGI, I have been researching and writing about poverty in Peru and Colombia (where we work), but this trip will be an opportunity to get a much more holistic and real understanding of the dynamics at play. In Peru, the stats are staggering: over 40% of the population lives in poverty, and that in spite of strong and sustained economic growth – 9% last year, the highest rate among South American countries. In one of the regions we work in, Cajamarca, mining is the economic engine. Nonetheless, nearly half the children under 5 in that region suffer from chronic malnutrition…. Meanwhile, the central government collected nearly $2 billion in tax revenues from mining companies, but this has failed to translate into improved quality of life for impoverished Peruvians.

Anyway — I cannot wait to visit the sites of our project work, and to experience it for myself. It’s 2:20 am, and I am wired! 
In terms of first impressions, the Lima airport at midnight was chock full of American missionaries… There were probably 200 missionaries, mostly middle aged/older people. I have no doubt that they come and do work in good faith here, probably contributing to poverty alleviation in some way or another. Regardless, I have a fundamental issue with aid that is tied to religious proselytizing. Particularly in this part of the world, where Christianity wreaked such havoc. While I was waiting in line at immigration, I kept wondering how the Peruvians perceived this. Perhaps they are despondent, and this is just part of the landscape. Maybe they think Americans are mighty, mighty strange. Who knows. In the mix, we also had an enormous tour group of older Japanese people, most of them wearing those fancy face masks… 
To finish off, a collection of infuriating stories from this past week: 
Firestone and workers’ rights violations in Liberia (and their $30 million Superbowl ad…)
– This isn’t so much infuriating as disappointing – ECOWAS gives $100K to Liberia to fight the invasion of caterpillars which is decimating the country’s agricultural sector. $100K? Seriously? Not that ECOWAS should be giving more, but perhaps more substantial help should be making its way….
– And, of course, another story of refugee abuse. I long for the day when people fleeing tragedy will be treated with dignity and respect.  

Thinking Back

I miss thisI DO NOT miss this

I’m having some serious computer issues these days, and as I was cleaning up my hard drive, I stumbled upon something I wrote nearly two years ago, after my stint as a volunteer in Buduburam. At the time, I had no idea that CG and I were going to create The Niapele Project and that I would return there soon afterwards.

It’s interesting to see how my perception and understanding of the Liberian community has evolved – my little spiel on religion still holds true, although I’ve come to realize that while religious faith is essential to their “social contract”, it can also act as a hindrance… It’s very complicated to explain without sounding condescending – I’m not sure I can sound anything but – however, I really do believe that blind faith makes people hope and believe in unreal and unsustainable ideas. For instance, relying on God to “provide” sometimes leads to situations where individuals will not proactively seek to better their circumstances, leaving their fate in the hands of a merciful God… who, in the end, may or may not provide.

Karrus Hayes, the founder of Vision Awake Africa for Development, asked me to write this. I’m not sure if he ever ended up using it for anything… Anyway, here are some unfiltered thoughts about the Buduburam refugee camp and its community, from Feb 07:

Simply put, I am humbled by my experience at the Buduburam refugee camp. I have always cared about the fate of those less privileged than myself – that is why, throughout my life, I have tried to give back, share my knowledge and help, as best I could, people less fortunate than I am. My academic studies have been focused on international affairs, and African issues and the fate of that continent have always grabbed my attention. In 2003, I did spend 6 months studying, living and working with the disenfranchised in Cape Town, South Africa. I have also traveled extensively in the developing world, and thought I was mentally, emotionally and intellectually prepared to face the realities of a refugee settlement in Ghana. But none of my experiences prepared me for my time at Buduburam.

The first few days were dizzying. First of all, the Harmattan season was in full swing, and it made it all the more difficult to situate myself, in the physical sense, in this foreign world. Situating myself on the metaphysical level was also incredibly difficult – all of my usual socio-cultural markers were obsolete in this new world, and, in order to be able to fulfill my mission at the school, I was under pressure to quickly adapt. On so many levels, I felt challenged by my surroundings, by the people. Trying to communicate with friends and family at home was difficult, and even when I did manage to speak with them, I knew that they could hardly understand, let alone relate to, the situation at Buduburam. Quickly, I realized that the best way to integrate, or at least to feel more at ease, was to strip away all the layers of difference between me “me” and “them”, and to simply relate on a very basic human level. As difficult as it was, I found that it was only by going beyond the differences that separated us, and focus on our common humanity, that I could create a space for myself in the community. Deep down, we all share the same basic aspirations, the same fears and desires – it is only the way we lead our life which is different. And it is so not by choice, but because of circumstances.

One of the most striking dimensions of the Liberian refugee community is their unwavering, genuine faith in God. Had I been through the traumatic experiences they had been through, I would have found it very difficult to reconcile the horror that the world imposed on me and a belief in an Almighty, profoundly good, God. It was truly an intellectual conundrum for me, as well as the other international volunteers I discussed this with. In my life, I rarely use religious explanations for what is happening to me, or around me. Everything seems mechanistic, guided purely by human desires, whether good or evil. Still now, I find it incredibly difficult to understand this type of religious fervor, but I do respect it. I suppose that, in many cases, it is precisely this religious fervor that allowed people to move on, to carry on with their lives, to look beyond the past and into the future, with hope. Had I been exposed to such trauma, I don’t know if I could have continued on with my life – I would not have had the motivation, the desire or the strength. So while the religiousness of the Liberian community was – and still is – baffling, it commends admiration. The strength and hope that people have acquired through their faith is essential to their survival, to their happiness and to their well – being. For me, a jaded Westerner, understanding this is very difficult – the world we live in is a godless one, and I have always believed in the importance of separating the religious, spiritual realm of life from the political, social realm. But living among Liberian refugees showed me the crucial importance that faith and God can have in human life, and I while I do not always understand it, I respect it.

While my work at the Carolyn A. Miller School was certainly one of my most fulfilling professional and personal experiences, it was the personal relationships I forged at Buduburam which really captured my heart and soul. I met men, women and children, who had suffered trauma beyond anything I can imagine. Torture, death, loss and separation is common experience for them, and the pain which they had endured is something most of us can barely understand. Yet, so many of the people I met were generous and kind, with open hearts and minds. This is not to say that every person I encountered had a heart of gold and pure intentions – there were plenty of stories about parents beating or torturing their children, men raping girls, as well as accounts of petty crime, jealousy and gratuitous violence. However, some people I met there really showed me what it means to be a genuinely GOOD person. Mr. Karrus Hayes, whose kindness, generosity and emotional intelligence cannot be captured with mere words, was – and will remain – somebody who I look up to. This man’s compassion and true desire to better the lives of others is poignant. There are few people I have met in my life who give themselves so wholly to their causes. His dedication is an inspiration, and while I will not have the arrogance of saying that I hope to emulate him in my own life, he certainly sets the bar very high for the rest of us who wish to do some good in this world.

There are so many people whose exemplary humanity I could discuss – Regina Krangar, mother of 3 biological children and 9 adopted ones – is devoting her entire life to raising these children. Besides the admiration I have for her, she also taught me the true meaning of Love, and how this concept, which we all think to have figured out, is in fact so much more than we think. She does not raise these children simply out of moral obligation, but because she truly cares and Loves them, and strongly believes that it is her duty to bring up these children that nobody wanted. I have met so many people whose outlook on life, whose attitude and whose work really humbled me, made me begin to understand the meaning of the word “sacrifice.” From the teachers of Carolyn A. Miller who devote themselves to educating the future generation for little or no money, to the admirable work performed by the staff of the UNHCR – subsidized Catholic clinic, the people of Buduburam had a huge impact on me. I left feeling inspired and strong, re-energized, with a desire – stronger than ever – to work as hard as I can to help those who need it.

Upon saying good bye to my friend Regina, she left me with these profound and heartfelt words, which I hope you will find as beautiful as I did at the time: “A life without sacrifice is meaningless. True sacrifice requires courage and strength, it is not easy. But it is the only way to truly understand and penetrate human nature.”

Boon, or bane, or what?!

This is definitely one of these stories that slips under everybody’s radar: it takes place in Lampedusa, a small Italian island, does not involve violence and death, and concerns people that no one really cares about – groups of African refugees fleeing from their circumstances.

Just last week, 400 would-be immigrants ended their perilous journey to Europe in Lampedusa. These individuals paid people smugglers $1,000 to cross the Mediterranean. And on Friday, 600 migrants and refugees staged a peaceful protest — around 1,600 people were being kept in a center designed to accomodate 850.

This story is but one example of the enormous obstacles that migrants are faced with when they make the decision to leave their lives behind, in the hope of finding an “El dorado” in a richer country. In Ghana, often, I would speak with people whose understanding of Europe consisted mainly of money trees, jobs galore, and all around perfection. Even assuming that it’s all relative… Clearly, there is a huge misunderstanding, and dealing with the information asymmetry would be a crucial first step to keep these incessant flows of desperate people under control.

It’s quite a conundrum, really – because as much as European (and other Western) countries try to shield themselves from illegal immigration (and regular migration, too – it couldn’t be harder for my French friends to move to the USA), we have to accept the fact that migrants are a genuine economic force. I know I’m not exactly breaking the news here – what with declining birth rates, aging populations and crises of confidence in the “developed” world, it’s been obvious to many, and for a long time, that we need to harness the strength of migrant workers to boost our economies, to revive our countries. Instead, we continue to treat migrants as though they were subhuman — the above story in Lampedusa is repeated ad infinitam.

In Malta, the same sort of welcome awaits those lucky enough to survive the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean – from the Guardian:

Criticism of Malta’s detention policy is mounting. The island is the only EU nation to automatically detain all illegal migrants for a legal maximum of 18 months: there are currently 2,000 in ramshackle camps. The UNHCR has voiced concerns over whether the policy could violate the Geneva Convention, while other NGOs are urging Malta’s government to soften its attitude to migrants.

The Jesuit Refugee Service – which carries out advocacy work on behalf of migrants – estimates 98% of young migrants do not receive formal education.

About half of the 4,000 migrants who have been released from detention live in two cramped, unsanitary open centres which are effectively African ghettos. They take the low-paid jobs shunned by an increasingly well-educated Maltese population: portering in hotels, working in factories, as refuse collectors or builders. After eight years of migratory flow to Malta, there few signs of social mobility for Africans.

“The result will be a social catastrophe,” says Father Joseph Cassar, of the Jesuit Refugee Service. “In five years I fear we’ll see ghettos, social unrest and a rise of far-right politics.

“What is being forgotten here is that these people come from terrible places and are running from the extremes of human behaviour – torture, rape and violence – and deep poverty. It cannot be right to treat them with contempt, detain or house them in horrible conditions, in Europe.”

Railing rust bleeds down the once whitewashed walls of Marsa, a dilapidated former school converted into an open centre, which is now home to more than 1,200 migrants. They take turns to sleep in bunks and share putrid lavatories and showers.

Interestingly, on the other side of the world, in Japan: “Thousands of youthful, foreign-born factory workers are getting fired, pulling their children out of school and flying back to where they came from […] That situation — the extreme exposure of immigrant families to job loss and their sudden abandonment of Japan — has alarmed the government in Tokyo and pushed it to create programs that would make it easier for jobless immigrants to remain here in a country that has traditionally been wary of foreigners, especially those without work. “

It is quite fascinating to see that one of the world’s richest countries, and also happens to be a traditionally closed society, is among the first to bite the bullet and promote policies which provide incentives (INCENTIVES!) for economic migrants.

“The government’s decision will send a much-needed signal to prospective immigrants around the world that, if they choose to come to Japan to work, they will be treated with consideration, even in hard economic times.

There is a growing sense among Japanese politicians and business leaders that large-scale immigration may be the only way to head off a demographic calamity that seems likely to cripple the world’s second-largest economy.”

So perhaps, once European countries realize that they are essentially shooting themselves in the foot by not harnessing the economic potential of migrants, we will see some changes in policy – but for now, the EU is still obviously figuring out what this will mean in concrete terms. Malta was just awarded 3.7 million euros over 5 years for the integration of migrants – which is great, bravo the EU, but when you read that just the month before, they were granted 122 million euros to “strengthen their borders”, it puts the paltry figure for integration in perspective. (Also, knowing that we’ve been throwing tens of billions of dollars at zombie banks in West on a regular basis makes these numbers look ridiculous, but that’s another story)

Japan’s policy move is interesting, and I wonder if other countries will follow suit. In the mean time, people will continue to put their lives on the line in the hopes of a brighter future… I suppose this will remain a constant – there will always be more people fleeing than room available to welcome them in third countries. And so it goes… But let’s welcome the Japanese initiative as a sign that pragmatism is beginning to punch through the dogmatic straight jacket that holds that “immigrants = bad people”.

*****

Last June, I had the opportunity to work with Pierre Le Tulzo, a young photographer, when The Niapele Project hosted events for World Refugee Day. We displayed some of his work in a small exhibition entitled “Malta’s Castaways“. Through photos and testimonies, Pierre captured the essence of the island. I’ll let you see for yourself -below are some photos (of his work, and of the show at Sciences Po in Paris)

© Pierre Le Tulzo Mustafa, 19 , Somalian. « My dream is to solve all my problems, try to go to another country in Europe, if it is possible. That is why I wake up every morning to try to get some job. First I didn’t want to come here, but fuel problems made us come to Malta, we first wanted to go to Italy. » October 2007. © Pierre Le Tulzo

How to Make a Difference? First, Understand.

I am a firm believer that in order to be a truly effective advocate on any issue, it’s crucial to really understand the dynamics that you are contending with.

For The Niapele Project this means recognizing that we are in a constant state of learning – as we progress and deepen our involvement with the refugee community of West Africa, we are also attempting to truly understand what the issues are, at their core, so we can better serve the interests of the organizations we work with, and the children they serve.
We are continuously challenged in this extremely complex developing world environment – as a small NGO with limited resources, we try to position ourselves as open, flexible and willing to collaborate as knowledgeable partners.
In Liberia, we are beginning to collaborate with the UNHCR and the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (the government agency in charge of coordinating refugee issues) – in spite of our differences with these institutions in the past regarding the way in which Liberian refugees in Ghana were treated, we strongly believe that it will take the collaboration of all key stakeholders to create sustainable strategies for the effective integration of displaced people in Liberia.
(I only wish I was there myself…. sigh… maybe some time down the line!)
In any case, in order to bring deep expertise to the table, The Niapele Project has been working with some of the world’s best universities to develop our research capacity – we just released this study produced by Masters candidates at Sciences Po (my alma mater in Paris), which provides a critical overview of policy options for protracted refugee situations, and we are currently working with the Yale Law School on another study which will outline the international and national legal framework with regards to returning refugee rights in Liberia.
We are really looking forward to 2009 – in spite of the arduous fundraising road ahead, I am full of confidence that The Niapele Project will continue to have a positive impact in the lives of vulnerable refugee children.


Defining "refugees"

I’d like to preface this post by reminding you what the global “refugee context” is: 

I’ve mentioned before, in some posts here, how the legal definition of “refugee” has become obsolete in the 21st century. While on paper, the definition seems quite broad, it fails to include dozens of millions of displaced people, who, as a result, see their most fundamental human rights violated. There are 16 million refugees in the world today who fall under the mandate of the UNHCR or the UNRWA (4.6 million Palestinian refugees, out of the 16 million fall under the latter’s jurisdiction). In addition to these already staggering numbers, there are an estimated 51 million displaced people who do not fall under any international legal mandate. 51 million. And that is not taking into account the vast numbers of people who flee their homelands but are never able to register as a refugee or an asylum seeker, for reasons as varied as inability to read, write and understand the process involved or too much psychological trauma to handle complicated, inefficient bureaucratic processes. It’s most likely impossible to know exactly how many people fall into the latter category – but I would say there are easily a few million displaced people who have not been taken into account by the UNHCR statistics. 
Anyway, this leads me up to the story of the day, that of Pape Mbaye, a gay Senegalese man who was granted refugee status in the US on the basis of his facing persecution due to his sexual orientation. The article (unfortunately) barely touches upon the novelty of this type of refugee case, merely noting that only “a handful” of similar cases arose in the past, and is focused on the plight of homosexuals in West Africa (as far as my experience goes, I haven’t encountered a single West African who is tolerant of homosexuality…. sadly).
It is nonetheless noteworthy that Mbaye was able to receive refugee status on those grounds – and given that his well-being was genuinely endangered by conservative zealotry, I think it’s fantastic that the US granted him refugee status. However, for every Mbaye, there are 100,000 (or more) individuals who yearn to live in a different country, far away from the misery, oppression and persecution that pervades their daily lives. What of them? What of the hundreds of Africans who end up ship wrecked on the coasts of the small southern European island of Malta? Why must they languish endlessly in precarious conditions? What of the thousands of Liberian refugees in Ghana who cannot avail themselves of the inadequate amount of assistance that the UNHCR is able to provide them with? 
The fight for the rights of those who suffer is far from over….