Category Archives: Interviews

The younger generation of Syrian refugees in Turkey: Forced to be precocious, but where does their future lie?

The prolonged state of the Syrian civil war led to the huge outflow of Syrian refugees to its neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The registered number of the Syrian refugees inside Turkey is 1.5 million; however, the numbers could be more as most of the interviewees or Turkish officials told me that this number should be more than 2 million or even 3. The younger generation Syrian refugees not only been forced to leave their country, but also face the problems as drop out of schools due to security or economic reasons, lack of parenting, working illegally and got paid lower than the local average salary, and mentally and physically suffered because of their relatives or themselves’ misfortunes in and outside Syria. Even with their strong wills for surviving, how long can they stay on? And where are their future? The Syrian issue is not limited to the regional level, if the international society keeps on neglecting the refugees’ situations. The severe hatters towards the West and hopeless of their life in the minds of the Syrian people due to the careless of the international society may bounce back to the rest of the world. The following stories demonstrate how the younger generation of the refugees as Syrian youth living Turkey and their experiences reflect the iceberg of the hardship as an everyday experience.

Many Syrian youths went abroad by themselves or with few friends, because their parents either had passed away due to the cruel civil war inside their country, or are too old to travel. Muhammad and two of his younger brothers is a case of this. Muhammad is 21, Ala is 20, and the youngest Hisham is only 16, they fled from Darra to Istanbul in the beginning of 2014. All they had was 6000 USD which their father gave them. Without having any acquaintances in Turkey, they have none to depend on but themselves. From finding a place to stay to looking for a job, they can only rest on themselves and their luck in this totally unfamiliar land. Even though the two older brothers have diplomas in computer design Syrian institutes, due to the language barrier, they can only work as restaurant services for earning a life. Even worse, their salaries is half of what the Turkish worker gets in Turkey (the normal salary in Turkey should be above 1500 lira but they were getting only 800 lira).

 

Mahmoud’s salary of US$ 60 a month from a Lebanese fish factory helps to pay the rent for the underground storage room his family lives in.

Mahmoud’s salary of US$ 60 a month from a Lebanese fish factory helps to pay the rent for the underground storage room his family lives in (UNHCR/S. Baldwin / September 2013).

 

The thing perplexing me most is, why a 16 year- old-teen would like to travel to an alien land for job with his brothers? He told me: when I was in school in Darra, the police or intelligence service will come to school and arrest the school children without any reason. Some of them return injured, some of them just disappeared. We cannot attend the class anymore due to the fear from this suppression. My parents were worried about my safety so they have no choice but ask me to leave with my brothers. I need to find a job here, for sustaining the economic problem faced by our family in Syria, because there is no working possibility in Syria now.

Another 20 year old youth Muhammad from Aleppo, came to Istanbul with a few friends for finding a job. In Turkey, the Syrian people do not have the working rights, he worked as an illegal worker for construction. One day, he fell down from the second floor during his work, his back got injured and has to be bedridden for a week. I visited him with another friend in the hospital. When we entered the ward, we found three young men around his age were standing behind taking care of him, there were no adults to take care because all their parents are still in Syria. During his stay in Turkey, he got a call from his mother from Aleppo, the news from the other side of the phone was more painful than the injury on his back. His mother told him that his father has been arrested by the regime, and his brother has been detained by the rebels. Now he not only need to worry about his own situation, but also about his mother and sisters inside Syria: without any form of economic support and male members at home, how can they survive by themselves? He did not cry, not even a single teardrop, but unable to do anything he was just lying on the bed quietly.

 

Children clean up their classrooms in a school damaged during fighting in Kansafra on October 6, 2012 (Zain Karam/Reuters).

Children clean up their classrooms in a school damaged during fighting in Kansafra on October 6, 2012 (Zain Karam/Reuters).

 

In Gaziantep, I met two friends from the rebel groups, Abdullah and Mustafa, 29 years old and 24 years old. The reasons for them to come to Turkey is not as the same as the other two cases, but because during the time of their fighting their family ran out of money, so they need to temporarily stay away from the battlefield for earning some money. They told me that many people are in the same situation as them, because they did not get paid for fighting. Even though they are working in Gaziantep as carriers, but what they are carrying more in their minds is the everyday bombing near their house in Syria. Another day I met Abdullah, his face looked pensive. He told me that a few minutes ago, 100 meter away from his house just got bombed, and his wife and children are crying through the phone on the other side. Even worse, two of his cousins got injured and been sent to the Turkish hospital for recovery. He told me that he did not know what to do, but can just try to comfort his family through phone. “The living cost here is too high for us, I cannot afford to bring my family here.” The next day I saw him, his face seems to be more serious than yesterday, and he told me that one of his cousin just passed away in the hospital.

The Syrian war has lasted almost 4 years, millions of people got displaced, no matter overseas or domestic. The war not only took away the life of the people, but also damaged the future of the younger Syrian generation who are still alive. Imagine just in the Sultangazi area in Istanbul, thousands of Syrian students dropped out of class due to the war inside their country. Many of them have been away from school for 2 to 3 years. Where is their future? They have no choice but to leave their country for finding a job for earning life, while the same children in their age should go to school and learn knowledge for building up their future. There is no sign that shows the Syrian war will end soon, if the international community keeps on neglecting this huge population of Syrian younger generation refugees, after 5 to 10 years, the thousands of Syrian uneducated and illiterate people will become a misery for Syria, or even a threat to the whole international community. As a 20 years old Damascus young man who I met in a hotel in Turkey told me, “I’m going to participate in the jihad now in Syria, since the war have destroyed my family and make our situation worse than death. Even worse, all the countries in this world are not helping us, but just using the Syrian people. Only on the way of Allah can help us relieve.” Before the war, he used to be a student in the Department of Law in the Damascus University. These are just a few people I met during my stay in Turkey, and they are all urban refugees, not to mention about the people living inside the camps……

 

All the people mentioned in this article are interviewed by the author through his visit in the Turkish cities, Istanbul and Gaziantep during 2014 and 2015.

 

This post was written by Ching-An Chang.

Ching-An Chang is a PhD student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh,

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Feminist Initiative: A Conversation with Linda Hiltmann

Sweden, which has stood apart from the rest of Europe with its “progressive” economic and political position (it has managed to withstand the recession despite keeping its welfare policy intact, is the only country in the region that has formally opened doors for immigrants, has better representation of women in politics compared to other European countries…) finds itself in a crisis as it prepares for a re-election just three months after the country went to national polls. The crisis was triggered as the opposition right wing Swedish Democrats voted against the budget that would retain the country’s liberal immigration policy, among other welfare measures. Last time Sweden saw such a situation was in 1950, and as none of the opposition party seem to be in the mood to negotiate, an election in March 2015 seems inevitable.

However, this crisis opens up an opportunity to the country’s smaller parties to try their luck in getting into the parliament. One of them would be the Feminist Initiative (F!), Sweden’s first feminist political party, which has slowly increased its vote share in the national elections since it was launched in 2005. Linda Hiltmann, from F!, who was elected to south Sweden’s Malmo City Council this year, talked to Divya Rajagopal and Najma Kousri Labidi about the party’s strategy for the coming election, its approach to immigration policy, and the need for a feminist politics. Below is an excerpt from the interview. Part of this interview with Linda was conducted over email (about the recent election development), and the other part was conducted when both the reporters were in Lund University, Sweden for an academic course in Social Innovation in a Digital Context.

Linda Hiltmann, of F!

Linda Hiltmann, of F!

The budget fell through because of immigration “reforms” – do you agree with the PM’s decision to go for re-election over this issue?

Well that is not correct, the budget fell through as the liberal and right wing parties were not willing to make agreements with the government. When the parties form in two “blocks”, the Swedish Democrats (SD) get the tipping vote role – this could have been avoided if the liberal parties had been more willing to cooperate with the government in separate issues. This would also create a much more democratic climate. Also, SD said that they would overthrow any budget that did not take their demands on immigration. So yes, I think Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and [his] government made the right choice: Let’s call for [a] new election and ask the citizens which politics (budget- the one which calls for liberal immigration policy or the one which calls for restriction on immigrants) they would like to vote for.

What is F!’s position on immigration?

F! is the only party that understands and promotes the importance of open national boundaries (or no boundaries). We talk about the free movement of people. (Sweden this year announced “permanent” residency to all refugees from Syria.) None of the other parties promotes this, as they are stuck in the economic frame and ask “what would the cost be? Is this really possible[?]“. We don’t think that policies about people’s right to protection should be calculated in economic terms. Every human being has an equal right (same rights as the Swedish nationals have, which is right to work, to health, right to education) and equal value, so we should/will frame our policy proposals on those principles. If we don’t stand up for and implement fair policies that meet at least the basic human rights, we are directly responsible for the people who are dying on the way to Europe.

Now coming to F!, what was the need to start a political party with a feminist perspective, considering that Sweden has a terrific record (at least in popular opinion) when it comes to gender equality?

To gain access to power. If you are lobbying you are always connected to something or someone else. So Gudrun Schyman, Founder and leader of F! was one of the strongest advocates for a feminist politics and for clear gender-based analysis of issues. She realised that she couldn’t leave the leading (feminist) position, and along with activists and academia, she started this party.

And it seems to have worked, your shot at power, I mean. Your numbers have certainly gone up. How did you do that?

So this election our strategy was to reach out to groups standing close to us and when we gain them we move forward. We do not try to convince our complete opponents, but those who [are] sort of interested in our politics, so when they get it, they become our ambassadors. So a lot of young people are interested in working with a feminist perspective, which is a good sign.

Could you tell us about the wage gap between men and women in Sweden?

For 2013 the total difference in pay between women and men was 13.4% (men earned 13.4% more than women). But the figure is not absolute and correct for all sectors, and when we take into account differences in working time, we lose sight of the fact that women work part-time much more than men. In 2013, 30% of women worked part-time (men 11%). Women also stay home with children to a higher degree (women 75% and men 25%), which of course affects the development of career possibilities and level of pay.

In the last election how did you reach out to voters, considering you had limited financial resources for campaigning?

We organised something called the “Home Parties”. So we have been in existence for 10 years and we haven’t had any resources. People were asking Gudrun if she could arrange a talk about feminism to just raise awareness. So Gudrun was like “all we have is ourselves”. (It was only last year we got an office in Malmo, we have been sitting at homes and working on this. This is one of the challenges for the party,which has been expressed in the way it is, and expressed in a clear way that they are so short of resources that they didn’t even have a space to work!) So she went to people’s homes where, like, about 20 people would gather to know [understand] about our perspective. At first Gudrun’s visits to people’s homes were for a couple of days in a week, then it became twice, thrice a day in a week, she was giving talks in the evening, two times in the evening, so it was all across [the campaign]. Those home parties gave her access to a lot of people.

How will F! go into this election? Will your strategy be different than the previous ones? Any learning from the past election that you would reflect on?

We will have the same strategy for campaigning, where we will reach out through social media, home parties, etc. We have not decided on any other general strategies – the re-election has taken us by surprise. What I do know is that many of the candidates [for] national parliament also went for the city councils, and a lot of us (myself included) will not campaign for the national election.

We did a great campaign last summer, and set much of the political agenda. The new government called itself “feminist”, on basic grounds of representation, and they chose a foreign minster who declared the importance of feminist policy. Of course there are several things that we learn from and change, but in general I would say that the strategies we had are still valid, to meet people in informal settings to discuss feminism and politics. What we always need to do, and which is the hardest, is to speak of feminism and power in a way so people understand the interconnectedness of power structures and how they affect everyday life.

To sum it up, do you think that feminist movements across the world should consider being part of electoral politics?

It is really important to move into the sphere of politics to change it. We should reflect on the experience that we have with these political institutions. So they look different everywhere, and you have to decide if you want to enter electoral politics, or stay outside and lobby for change. So as a party/movement ask yourself whether you believe that you can change from inside? Is this good for me? Could I cope with it? And can we build an organisation that can cope with it?

How has the political situation changed since you entered electoral politics? How influential have you been in policy change?

Well in political context, [the] last eight years has become hard for us. The liberal parties have gained power and they have created sort of Americanised block politics, though that situation has gone now, but that has also made people weary of letting go of their votes to newer parties. Also parties are seeing that feminist issues are gaining interest. In our case we have seen the young people are eager to work for [the] feminist perspective. And this makes the other parties weary, especially the left and Social Democrats. In their mind, they think we are competition and that’s why in local politics, like in Malmo, the left parties are super sensitive to our questions and they pick them up as soon as we raise [them]. So in that sense, yes, we are influencing [policy].

Most of your votes have come from the urban areas. Do you get accused of being elitist or too urban centric? And have you explored expanding your votes to the non urban parts of Sweden?

What we try to do is keep the activists’ part of the party alive. We are aware of the elitist views of the party and the discussion around it, and this is one of our challenges – how can we reach out with feminism and understand it. So our party is an umbrella organization with fluid ways of feminism. For example, we have debated how we look at [the] transgender perspective; we have to change our way of analysis to widen it. [We] also tried to address the structural racism that is within ‘Feminist Initiative’ as well, so we believe that we should at least be aware of it. So both be self-critical and norm-critical and not be afraid of being wrong and [changing] our mind. At the same time we have to be a gentle organisation, that we take care of each other and not judge each other. And this is one of the anti-elitist approaches we have, besides keeping close contact with the activist community. So one of the debates that we are having is how to keep our soul as an activist organisation and also be in politics.

How different is your politics from the left-leaning parties like Social Democrats?

We have some similarities with the left party, but our outlook is different. They are driven by the class analysis, the economic analysis, and gender discrimination is ad hoc to this. But we have moved the gender analysis and power analysis into sectional field, which deepens how power structures our everyday life. We are for open borders, but for left parties it doesn’t make sense, they are still protectionist.

*Divya Rajagopal is a Special Correspondent with Economic Times newspaper based in Mumbai, India. Najma Kousri Labidi is a reporter with Huffington Post, Tunisia.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/newsoresund/14357204260

An excerpt of this interview was previously published at The Economic Times: http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-12-08/news/56839772_1_immigration-policy-opposition-parties-vote-share