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The media needs to diversify its coverage of refugees. And readers need to demand it.

“The media doesn’t do a good job covering refugee stories,” said journalism veteran and Executive Director of the Global Reporting Centre Peter Klein to the overflowing room at Vancouver Public Library, in September The crowd had gathered for a PeaceTalk panel, an ongoing series of events that Vancouver NGO PeaceGeeks started in 2011 to bring people together to talk about pressing issues of peace and unity.

Klein was joined on the PeaceTalks panel by Vancouver-based journalist Alia Dharssi, Representative for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Jean-Nicolas Beuze, and former refugee and refugee advocate Amir Taghini.

The crowd had gathered to hear stories of refugees, and understand the ways their portrayal in the media could differ from their lived experience. The first speaker, brave enough to share his difficult story, was Taghini.

Taghini echoed Klein’s sentiment—the media needed to improve their coverage of refugee issues. And he would know, as it was his story that had been told, and too often poorly told, as he spent five years detained at the hands of the Australian Government at their internationally condemned offshore detention centre on Manus Island, where he was placed for trying to seek asylum.

Amir pleaded for support to journalists, governments, and regular citizens from a homemade mobile phone smuggled in piece by piece. Access to something as simple as a phone and as complex as connection with the rest of the world are among the long list of restricted items on Manus Island.

Amir was required to share information via a smuggled phone,  as the Australian government maintains tight control over access to Manus Island, as well as  their alternative refugee processing facility on Nauru. Media is not allowed to visit either facility and supervised visits are limited to nearnone and journalists trying to enter have often cited having their visas denied.

Without a combination of Amir’s unrelenting determination and the reach of media, both traditional and online, Amir’s story and ultimately his connection with the five Canadians who privately sponsored Amir to come to Canada would not have happened.

The panel and audience shared their frustration in the too often sensationalized headlines and fast news that leaves little room to tell the complex stories of refugees. Today the world’s refugee coverage is littered with detrimental terms like “illegal arrival” and “border crosser”, while narrowly covering the world’s crises and making refugees  over represented in crime stories.

The media had their say as well in the PeaceTalk as journalists Dharssi and Klein shared their experience working for a range of media outlets. They shared insights into some of the reasons for the lack of in-depth, informative and non-sensationalized coverage of refugees’ experiences.

Dharrasi cited the changing media landscape and mass job cuts leaving limited resources resulting directly in less investigative journalism. And Klein explained that mainstream media is structured to want people to click on more pages to appease advertisers.

Klein reflected on the dark truth for both journalists and readers that the media covers plane crashes not plane landings.

In an over stimulated world, the “plane crashes”—the outlier situations as Klein explained them—get our attention. Outlier situations show the extremes, and while, as Klein said, they make great stories, they ignore the bulk of the issue. “

And if people’s only ‘interaction’ with refugees is via these outlier stories, then they are only seeing a small, distorted part of a much bigger picture.

“Outlier stories can do great damage,” Klein contended.

From Taghini’s perspective, there is also political agendas and government secrecy—like in the instance of Manus Island and Nauru. To this end, Taghini vouched for the journalists who are seeking truth from within the walls surrounded in secrecy by the Australian government.

“There are journalists putting their lives on the line,” he said, “to show the world the truth and to tell refugees stories.”

The panel reflected that many journalists and outlets are pursuing the full story and looking at new engaging ways to make sure it reaches more and more people. During his time on Manus Island, it was The Guardian and Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.ca ), he said, that were telling his story well. Dharssi is inspired by Netherlands-based outlet De Correspondent. They have a model similar to The Discourse (www.thediscourse.ca/), where she currently writes, which runs a member-based model that gathers information from its members and allows its reporters to dig deep and investigate and share refugee stories in the spirit of slow news.

Taghini reminded us that as readers we have a big role to play in this too. 

“Are we asking, Why is Amir leaving Iran? Are we asking, why are these countries being bombed?”

Taghini put the question back to the room and the panel. The urge was clear. Ordinary citizens, and journalists alike need to be more than curious. We need to be proactive in our efforts to find out more, and to get informed.

Taghini was passionate on this point, that action starts when the ordinary citizen steps in. He ultimately credits the actions of his five Canadian sponsors for his new life now. And, as he mentioned, we can all take action in many different yet powerful ways when it comes to media, like taking responsibility for our media consumption—writing to editors and being inquisitive in our search for more information

It is hard at times to comprehend what is happening to people all around the world. Although, that shouldn’t be used to justify inaction.

At the conclusion of his talk, Taghini reflected on his time in detention, on not only his own story but the stories of all the other families he met there, many of whom are still there. He somberly remembers being disabled by the stories I was hearing from Nauru.

“But I never gave up.”

Thank you to the incredible, informed and insightful panel. And to the inquisitive, passionate audience who joined this PeaceTalk on September 13, 2018.

From the panel and audience combined, we walked away with some insightful ways we can be more responsible consumers of refugee media coverage:

  1. Seek your news from multiple sources. See how different outlets will tell the same story. The panel’s recommendations included: The Guardian, Huffington Post and The Discourse.
  2. Pay for news you respect. Support outlets whose coverage you trust and help them continue to invest in slow stories and investigative journalists (as opposed to “fast news”).
  3. Write to editors. Dharssi called it “power of the readers”. Each of us can write to editors, we can tell them what we want to read more about and we can tell them when we aren’t happy with their coverage.
  4. Seek out more of the story. Don’t know why someone would be trying to reach Canada from Syria, Venezuela, or somewhere else from around the world? The UNHCR’s website do a great job at sharing current world crisis situations. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know all the details now, what matters is you work to find out more.
  5. Turn knowledge to power and action. Share what you’ve learnt with friends, advocate for refugees and help shift the narrative. Get involved in on-the-ground refugee resettlement projects near you. Check out what PeaceGeeks are up to with the new pathways app looking to connect new arrivals to Canada with services, mentors and more or join our #GiveItUp4Peace fundraiser this October.
     
Oct 5, 2018
Category: Issue Briefs

Interview with Mohammed Alsaleh: fighting oppression in Syria, building a life in Canada, advocating for refugees, and discovering Starbucks

A few weeks ago I interviewed Mohammed Alsaleh: a 27 year-old refugee from al-Hasakah, Syria, a new Canadian, and a powerful advocate for refugee issues. I met Mohammed in a busy coffee shop in Vancouver. His slight build and warm demeanor disguised the force of his personality, and the stories of struggle he had to tell.  

Mohammed fled Syria in 2014 after being arrested and tortured for his involvement as a videographer in the early days of the war in Syria. He works at the Immigrants Services Society of British Columbia (ISS of BC), helping refugees and immigrants to Canada resettle and adjust to their new home. His family members are currently refugees in Turkey, and expect to immigrate to Canada in 2017. During his time in Canada he has met both HRH Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. We talked about the early days of the Syrian Civil War, his escape from his home country, the many layers of the Syrian conflict, his hopes for the future, and what it’s like to work at the ISS of BC here in Vancouver. 


Q: What was your life in Syria like before 2011?

A: Before 2011, I was a completely different person. I was a medical student. My dream was to treat cancer, after losing two cousins to it. I dreamed of treating this disease.

Q: What was daily life like as a medical student under the Assad regime?

A: You know—Syria is a lovely place; an amazing place to live…living there, with the product of tens of thousands of years of civilization was quite an awesome thing. We had such a wonderful life, and although the Assad regime was cracking down in terms of political freedoms—other than that it was good. We had everything, a very modern, progressive society. The Assad regime took a more progressive approach than other governments in the region, so that produced a better, more liberal situation that I was a part of in Syria. This all changed after 2011, after we demanded our political freedom.

Q: Then they cracked down completely?

A: Any dictatorship would play this game with their people—they give them safety in lieu of freedom. “If you want your freedom, I’m taking away your safety, I’m sending the army into the streets, I’m opening 'Hell's Gates,' on you guys” — which is what happened.

Q: Were there some in the country who didn’t like the more progressive approach of the Syrian government before 2011, or was pretty much everyone on board with it?

A: Just to clarify one thing, Islamic State, ISIS, came to Syria in 2013. Because the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war, they crossed the borders to seize this opportunity to force their agendas on our people. Prior to the ISIS invasion, Assad was persecuting extremists, he arrested and detained them in his jails. But when Assad was facing a people’s uprising against his dictatorship, he let the extremists out of his prisons. Instead he began arresting the civil activists, the moderate powers, and started giving pardons to the Islamists, the extremists. He wanted the conflict to stop being a revolution against a dictatorship. He would rather have the whole world see him facing terror, facing extremism.

Q: He wanted ISIS to get stronger so the world could see him fighting terrorists instead of him fighting a liberal uprising in his country?

A: Yes, because he knows that if it were a conflict between him and his people, his people would win. It’s happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, all over the region. So he was smart enough to kind of be a step ahead of us, and to take the narrative where he wants. After two or three years, it stopped being just a people’s revolution against the dictatorship, there became a military component of it. ISIS saw this war and instability as a fertile environment for them, so they came to Syria. Initially, Assad and ISIS attacked the opposition—because they were weaker—with the intent to then attack each other once the moderates were finished.

Q: So, the picture that we have now of what’s going on in Syria is basically what Assad wanted us to see?

A: Exactly. His agenda, his plan…that he is conducting with the help of his allies — Iran and Russia.

Q: What is your ultimate hope for the region?

A: My hope is every Syrian’s hope: for this war to end. I watch the news, just like any other Syrian, feeling so bad, so down, so shocked by the scale of destruction and suffering. In Syria, before the war, we had 24 million people. Right now, less than half that number is still inside Syria. The others fled, were killed, internally displaced, and so on. Sadly, this is not coming to an end, this is just the beginning, and it's getting more complicated everyday. I hope for an end to the war, an end to the bloodshed. I hope for a tomorrow where we can wake up without hearing news about the death of any Syrian, regardless of their affiliation — with Assad, the opposition, even with ISIS. I’m not so optimistic to believe that the Syria I was born in will come back, because I don’t think it can. But, to have a realistic hope, I hope for my countrymen to stop dying.

Q: I know you’re not a political strategist, but how do you think that happens? How do you think the war does end?

A: Prince William asked me that too. I told him that I, on behalf of the Syrian people, want to let you know that I don’t think it’s in our hands anymore. It’s something that the international community has to stop. We need the whole world to come together, and specifically the US and Russia, to stop this madness. If they decide that this war has to end, they can, they have the means to stop military supplies to everybody, impose a no fly zone — it can be done. Until we see that, I don’t think anything will change. And, I am just wondering why the whole world is OK with this continuing.

Q: Apart from, perhaps, the US having a stronger [post-war] presence in Iraq, ensuring the government was in better shape, and including more Sunni in the military and government, what do you think could have prevented the creation of ISIS?

A: The whole concept of the American war in Afghanistan and Iraq are the reasons that we are dealing with this chaos. So, if there had been something that could’ve been done: it would've been not to go there in the first place. We had a stable pond, and the US threw a hundred rocks in and just ran away.

Q: Would it have made a difference if the early, more peaceful, protests against Assad had received international support?

A: At that time, early on? Absolutely. Also, the fact that the US made a deal with Assad and Russia to confiscate his chemical weapons meant that, in some ways, Assad had the “green light” for anything but chemical warfare.

Q: You had said you were in prison before ISIS had come because you were involved in the opposition against Assad. So, at that point, before the invasion of ISIS, were you already thinking that you wanted to leave Syria?

A: No, no, no. I’d been arrested a few times, first in April 2011, a month after the uprising started. I was taking videos of the demonstrations in the streets against Assad and uploading them on YouTube. A month later I was arrested during a demonstration for taking pictures. The soldiers arrested me and stole my camera, but I got lucky that time, because the soldiers greedily kept my camera for themselves, they didn’t give it to the other security officials. If they did, I would’ve been screwed. They kept me in the basement, tortured me for five days and let me out, that’s it.

Q: What was the breaking point? Was there a specific incident that made you flee?

A: Yes. After I was released, I kept on taking photos and video, trying not to get caught. But, they caught me again in November of 2011, and I spent about 20 days in jail. Again, I got lucky, they didn’t really have any evidence. I was just arrested for protesting, got tortured, and was let out. By that time, the protests against Assad started to shift to military actions and weapons, which is something I didn’t believe in, so I became less active. I kept taking videos during peaceful demonstrations, but that’s it. Then, in August 2013, they came after me again, for being critical of Assad’s regime on social media. The turning point was that this time they tortured me so badly I almost died. I was in a place where more than 10-15 people died a day, of torture, malnourishment, and disease. I witnessed the reality behind the photos leaked by the military police’s forensic photographer. Nobody knew what was happening before that. When I got out, nobody believed me. But after seeing that, after seeing death, I promised myself that if I ever saw the sunlight again…I’d go. I was released from jail the last time a few days before the end of 2013. I went to visit my family and say goodbye.

Q: How did you manage to get out of the country?

A: Luckily before being arrested the last time I applied for a passport and I got it.  I remember that I was shaking when the border guys were looking at my passport, going through their databases and stuff, but they stamped it and told me “OK go.” And we headed toward Lebanon, and the Lebanese authorities let me in.

Q: And from Lebanon you went to Turkey or you stayed in Lebanon?

A: No, no, I stayed in Lebanon. Right now if anybody in Syria wants to do the same thing, it’s impossible. The borders are now shut. I was lucky. One of the things about me, I’m always lucky.

Q: (Laughing) So, stick around you, ‘cause you’ve got good luck?

A: Absolutely. My story is full of lucky moments like this.

Q: You went to Lebanon, stayes in Lebanon, and applied for refugee status in Canada?

A: All I wanted to do was get out of Syria. I started trying to do something with my life in Lebanon, looking for a job…but it was very challenging, there are no jobs, there isn’t a welcoming attitude from Lebanese people—it’s a very small country and it has two million Syrian refugees, so it’s ok for them [the Lebanese] not to be welcoming. I came to realize that I couldn’t build a life in Lebanon. You can survive, but it isn’t a life. I started losing hope. In a hopeless attempt I approached the field offices for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). There are no travel applications, you just register with them as a refugee. So, just like all the other Syrian refugees, I registered and forgot about it. A month later, I received a call telling me I might be eligible for a resettlement opportunity in an unknown country. The next morning I was offered an interview, and that’s how it all started.

Q: Was this another instance where you got lucky? How many people got this opportunity?

A: In 2014, Canada welcomed 200 government-assisted refugees, 28 came to BC, I was one of them. I was among the 200 people who were helped by Canada, from the 5 million Syrian refugees. So, it was super lucky. It was like winning the lottery.

Q: Now you work at the ISS of BC. Tell me a little bit about working there. What are your responsibilities? What do refugees need most from you?

A: In the Welcome Centre we help thousands of immigrants and refugees every year. It is the first institution where refugees and immigrants can find all the services they need under one roof. There’s a section that works with refugees specifically, another section that works with any newcomer, we have a bank, a clinic, a food bank, and a daycare. We have everything. In my position I work very closely with refugees from day one of their arrival to their one-year anniversary of arrival. We help them apply for their SIN, for their health care card, open their first bank account, and find their first new home. I work with them on a follow-up basis to make sure the adults are going to English classes, the kids are going to school—my job is to make sure the basics are being met.

Q: As a person who was a refugee yourself, and went through all sorts of hell to get out, it seems like working at the Welcome Centre would be a very fulfilling job.

A: My dream was to treat cancer because I wanted to help other people, and to make this world a better place and I feel lucky that I am in a position to do something that is as rewarding as treating cancer, changing peoples’ lives, helping immigrants with their new future in Canada.

It’s really fulfilling to work with refugees, because the refugee population does not lack any motivation or ambition to succeed. They are so desperate for this opportunity. They have some barriers that they have to overcome, beginning with language, cultural shock, PTSD; it depends on everybody’s situation. But absolutely, the only thing that they need is time.

Q: What were your first impressions when you came to Canada? What did you think when you got off the plane?

A: Oh my god, my first day in Canada was a Tuesday. It was November 25th, 2014. I made it to Canada after a 20-hour flight. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, but I went through all the immigration procedures right there in the airport. I walked out of the plane as a refugee, but left the airport as a resident of Canada. I was sent by taxi to the ISS of BC’s welcome house, and I was greeted, given a bed, and told that I should rest…I was just thinking, “what did I do to myself?” I am all the way on the other side of the world, and I don’t even know the language a lot…these feelings of frustration changed the next morning when I had my first real conversation with a Canadian. I felt the warm reception; everybody was so welcoming and helpful.

Q: What were your first impressions of small things, stupid little things like your first meal, or seeing the city, what were some of the small experiences you had?

A: The first thing ever that I did in Canada was to get my coffee when I woke up in the morning.

Q: Did you go to Starbucks or did you go to Tim Horton’s?

A: I didn’t know about Starbucks, and I didn’t know about Tim Horton’s. Those are things I had to learn. That was the first time ever I went to Starbucks. One of the things about Starbucks is that Starbucks people assume that you know everything about Starbucks.

Q: That’s true; they assume everyone who walks in knows the whole menu.

A: (Laughing) I think that one of the things that newcomers have to go though is maybe a Starbucks orientation thing.

Q: Like what a Frappucuino is, what on earth a Caramel Macchiato is.

A: All of this variety…coffee is just coffee in Syria. 

Q: (Laughing) There’re no Pumpkin Spice Lattes?

A: No, no.

Q: So, getting back to Syria, what is happening right now? I know you distanced yourself from it once war fully broke out, but what's your perspective?

A: Well, I am sad to say that the dreams that we wanted to achieve and the goals that we had in 2011 and were hoping to achieve, are no longer there. I don’t think that any of the factional parties that exist on the ground right now represent the dreams of the Syrian people anymore.

Q: When we first started talking, you mentioned that it felt special growing up in Syria, in an extremely old and ancient place, where some of the buildings have been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years. I know that recently ISIS, and the wars in Syria have destroyed some of those buildings.

A: When they took control of Palmyra—that was just terrifying. Some people don’t really know this—but Assad gave them control of the city. Assad is smart; he knows how to play the game. He was controlling Palmyra. He retreated, and ISIS came. He knew that ISIS…

Q: …you think he gave them control because he knew they were going to destroy it?

A: …Assad knew that ISIS would destroy one of this most ancient of places. It’s a World Heritage site. Recognized by the UN. So, he knew to use this as a way for him to say, “I am representing civilization against ISIS.” After they devastated the area, he came back and took the city back. It was a political move by Assad.

Q: This is…and it’s a tough question for me to ask because I don’t know the implications of it, but, from what you’ve described, there’s obviously at least two evils…there’s Assad and ISIS. But, and this may be an impossible question for you to answer, but would you theoretically be OK with Assad staying in power if peace came again, and things went back to…

A: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think if I make the comparison between a single person’s death and the state of Assad I would rather see Assad stay rather than seeing that person dead. Even though it might be personal for me because the Assad regime almost killed me.

Q: That’s why I was afraid to ask that question.

A: …But no, the state of peace and the stop of bloodshed is more important to me, and if Assad was able to achieve it, absolutely, come on do it. But he can’t. He is the root, the source of the problem. If he wanted Syria not to go to war he could’ve done that. He took us that way. He played a big role in the establishment of ISIS, by releasing all the extremists, not fighting them when they were weak, allowing them to fight the opposition and fight the opposition side-by-side with ISIS. All of this has to be acknowledged. If we make just a very basic comparison between ISIS and Assad, of course Assad is better 100x more. But, if you take the context, I think what I’ve mentioned so far is enough reason to demonstrate that Assad is part of the problem, and not part of the solution.

Q: Returning to your life, you said that you’ve changed completely as a person.  Back then you were a young medical student, and I imagine through the things you’ve experienced you’ve learned a lot about yourself, your country, about people in general. What are the bigger things that you’ve maybe learned about yourself?

A: Well, I came to experience firsthand that the instinct of survival is the most powerful, on a personal level, and on a collective level. Five years of the worst crisis since WWII did not break us. We still love life, we work very hard to survive, and to overcome all of that. I see it firsthand with the people that I work with, and how even though they’ve seen the worst of the worst of the worst, they are still hopeful for the future. I think that I’ve come to know that nothing is impossible, and miracles can happen, and I found out that I’m the luckiest person alive.

Q: What are your personal hopes and goals for your personal future in Canada? What are your goals for 10 years from now? Would you want to be helping refugees still? Go back into medicine?

A: I hope to be in a position where I can help more people, not only refugees. I want to work more on being more active, more impacting to the community that is around me. I want to participate in so many other areas than refugees. I want to be able to have an impact in terms of making our environment cleaner and to be part of broader social changes for a better future. 

Q: Apart from PeaceGeeks, and the ISS of BC—I know you said you’re still in the process of moving your family here—but what does your personal community look like in Vancouver?

A: I feel lucky, again, that I was able to build a network of the most amazing Vancouverites ever. In my network I managed to meet a lot of wonderful people who are participating in a lot of advocacy, a lot of activism, a lot of social change work. I am personally focusing on the refugee advocacy awareness work and I do participate in trying to raise awareness about refugees. So, I’ve found my passion in activism, and refuge advocacy, representing the plight of Syrian refugees, which was the gateway to raise awareness about a lot of other related issues. Unfortunately our voice as a Syrian people was not heard from 2011, it was just heard now.

Q: To conclude, what would you tell people who are already Canadian citizens about what they can do to welcome the new Canadians from Syria and all over the world? What would you tell them is the most important thing to do?

A: To be informed, and to be aware of everything, to be considerate. I think Canadians are doing very well in terms of that. Canadians are very welcoming, very supportive.

I wasn’t welcomed as a refugee, I was welcomed as a new Canadian: and I acted like it. Here I am two years later, being a really active member of my new society, and it’s our responsibility as Canadians to make sure we give the same reception for the people to come.

 

 

Photograph: ISS of BC (Mohammed Alsaleh not pictured)

Dec 16, 2016
Category: Issue Briefs

The PeaceGeeks Services Advisor App - What It Means For Somali Refugees

The sudden displacement of over 300,000 people over a very short period of time is difficult to fathom, yet it is set to happen soon with the recent announcement by Kenya’s government that they will close the Dadaab refugee camp in North Central Kenya—the most populous refugee camp in the world. The camp is set to close by November 2016, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Somalis, back to their country of origin. To put the sheer size of the camp in perspective, it is just over half the population of Vancouver, and has enough people within its confines to be Kenya’s third largest city.

 

Kenya is citing security concerns as the reason for the camp’s closure, with claims that attacks on its soil have been planned there by the militant al Qaeda-allied group Al Shabaab. Al Shabaab’s plans to eradicate the Somali government to make way for a country under the control of Sharia law continue to destabilize peace in the region.

 

Originally set up as a temporary transit camp for those fleeing the horrors of civil war in Somalia, continuous conflict and violence in Somalia has forced the camp to remain in place for over 20 years. Many who live in the camp were born there, and have never set foot in their home country.

 

Somalia remains politically unstable to this day, and just last month Al Shabaab launched terror attacks in the nation’s capital of Mogadishu, targeting the peacekeeping efforts of the UN-backed African Union Mission. Nevertheless, at this moment some Somali refugees have already begun a voluntary repatriation process by returning home. Yet many are raising concerns about the possibility of involuntary repatriation in the months to come following the dissolution of the camp.

 

To add to the massive influx of Somali refugees coming from Kenya, there are 1.1 million internally displaced Somalis, which means that the implementation of urgent solutions addressing the needs of thousands of displaced people is essential, and meaningful resettlement projects are desperately needed. Resettlement efforts will need to address the complications associated with communicating important information about available services to such a large population of people at one time.

 

Since 2014, PeaceGeeks has been developing the Services Advisor app to help address the way refugees can access services. Initially employed in Jordan, the PeaceGeeks Services Advisor App works to improve the quality of life for displaced people in times of crisis by improving access to information on essential services, which includes everything from water and sanitation, to services for those who have experienced domestic abuse. Currently, services directory information is shared via traditional paper-based methods. PeaceGeeks has recently begun working with UNHCR Somalia to deploy Services Advisor to support the needs of Somali returnees as the closure moves forward.

 

The Services Advisor app increases the efficiency of sharing information by replacing current and largely defunct systems of manual record keeping, which are woefully inadequate when it comes to addressing the urgent needs of large populations in flux. The idea is to replace the old system with one that can be accessed by a wide variety of stakeholders simultaneously for improving services access and the coordination of services provision. This includes service providers, UNHCR, refugees and donors alike by putting all information online. By implementing Services Advisor before the mass resettlement process begins, UNHCR aims to make the process of resettlement a more dignified experience for returnees by helping them to get a better grasp of what services are available and where.

 

This will be all the more important to refugees who have been absent from the country for over 20 years, and to returnees who have never actually been to Somalia to help them make informed decisions about their return.

 

In order to create meaningful resettlement projects, web applications like this have the ability to improve communications infrastructure and streamline the process of how aid is distributed in times of crisis. PeaceGeeks is currently in conversation with UNHCR representatives in Iraq, Lebanon,Turkey and Greece about deploying the app in those countries as well, and is also considering the viability of deploying the app across all UNHCR initiatives.

 

 

Aug 28, 2016
Category: Thematic Issues

Services Advisor Continues Helping Refugees in Jordan

We’ve seen them on our TV screens and the covers of newspapers. They’ve been called migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, displaced people. Their situation has been described as desperate, a crisis, a diaspora the likes of which has not been seen since World War II.

As of June 2015, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) reported that over 61 million people worldwide were displaced due to conflict, discrimination and disaster - the highest the largest single year over year increase ever. UNHCR’s primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It supports host countries through refugee intake and the coordination of relief services.

For the 20 million refugees who cross into host countries, finding information on the specific support they need to get settled can be a significant challenge. In some cases, the issue is not lack of services but lack of awareness about where to find information on available services. In addition, while many refugees are aware of the existence of essential services such as food, cash assistance and shelter, many remain unaware of other services such a legal advice, support for survivors of domestic violence and psychosocial support. In a study conducted by UN Women in Jordan, 83% of women and girls surveyed had no knowledge of any services in support of victims of gender-based violence.

For example, Jordan hosts more than 650,000 refugees, mostly Syrians fleeing civil war. More than 60 organizations have provided services in hundreds of locations across Jordan, yet until recently, there was no single accessible tool where refugees and service providers could search on up-to-date information about these services.

To address this issue, PeaceGeeks and the UNHCR launched Services Advisor in the fall of 2014. Designed to connect refugees to information on the services they most need, this application enables users to search a map and directory of humanitarian services based on key filters such as service category, organization, proximity and GPS coordinates.

In April 2015, PeaceGeeks and UNHCR Jordan hosted a workshop with Syrian refugees in Jordan to collect feedback on the current prototype, assess the value of this tool to refugees and UNHCR Jordan, and solicit input on how to improve the app. While we learned that there is indeed a strong and persistent need for a tool like Services Advisor, the workshop also revealed several key areas for improvement. These include performance, user experience and analytics, which have been built into the Services Advisor 1.0 application version, which launched in September 2015.

Its impact is getting noticed. In the video, Skynews Arabia speaks with a representative of the UNHCR in Jordan. They discuss the UNHCR’s efforts to open communications with refugees and help them find the services they need when they first arrive in unfamiliar surroundings.

PeaceGeeks is committed to including refugee voices towards improving the Services Advisor Application. We look forward  to continuing to expand the capabilities of Services Advisor in partnership with UNHCR Jordan, in order to better serve the refugees who rely on humanitarian services to launch new lives free from of conflict.

Oct 14, 2015
Category:

Forging New Homes For Syrian Refugees

An unthinkable number of Syrian men, women and children have been forced to watch their homes burn to the ground. Metaphorically and literally, they have seen their houses, communities and nation burn for four long years in a vicious civil war. Many have been forced to flee and are currently waiting in desperate anticipation to be able to return, so that they can rebuild their lives. For now, they persist in a kind of limbo. They have lost that critical foundation which allows them to move forward. So they wait to have a home again, to live again. This is the plight of the refugee.

Today, almost half of the population of Syria is displaced. That is to say, in a country of 22.85 million, 9.5 million no longer have homes. According to Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, this has been the worst mass exodus since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Indeed, Syria’s civil war is commonly held to be the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

The Syrian civil war began in 2011 when peaceful protesters, inspired by the dawn of the Arab Spring, took to the streets in opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Government forces immediately responded with violence. Continued clashes led to an armed resistance and eventually, to the formation of a powerful coalition of opposition forces. The United Nations estimates that approximately 220,000 people have been killed since fighting began nearly four years ago.

Both government and opposition forces have been cited for crimes against humanity by groups such as Human Rights Watch and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect. This includes sexual violence, torture, arbitrary arrest, indiscriminate killings, raids against hospitals and medical personnel, targeted large-scale killing by government forces… even starvation is used as a “deliberate tactic of war by the regime,” according to ICRtoP. The worst stories coming out of Syria are the chemical weapons attacks perpetrated by Assad’s forces in Damascus and Aleppo, which left hundreds of civilians dead. Syria has become an image of rubble and suffering and death. For the half of the country who have been forced to flee their homes, they’ve left behind a place that no longer resembles itself. Until the fighting stops and the rebuilding begins, they no longer have a home to return to.

The most commonly cited reason for Syrians fleeing their home is to escape atrocities perpetrated on civilians. But fleeing itself is infinitely dangerous, potentially as high-risk as staying. Families must walk through the night to avoid sniper fire and coming across soldiers, who will abduct their sons to fight for the regime. Displaced persons in general face severely high risk of disease, violence, exposure, and death by leaving the safety of their homes and committing to the most dangerous journey of their lives. Still, the number of displaced Syrians has grown exponentially every year.

The vast majority of Syrians remain internally displaced, and thus less accessible to humanitarian aid. Those who are able to cross the border into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt are entitled to refugee status under the UNHCR. Of Syria’s 9.5 million displaced persons, 3.8 million are refugees.

At the beginning of a crisis, refugee camps are essential to help shelter, feed, and protect the mass influxes of refugees escaping disaster. But over time, a camp can become the stagnant setting of a family waiting to begin their lives again. Indeed, refugee camps are expressly designed as temporary shelters. For Syrians, however, the crisis is entering its fourth year. Many have languished for too long already.

According to the UNHCR, a “protracted” refugee situation is one in which the conflict lasts for at least five years. With two thirds of the world’s refugees living in protracted situations, the average time in exile is closer to twenty years. This means that generations of children have grown up in camps all over the world, never having known their homeland, or any kind of home which was not constructed on the foundations of transitory living.

Syrian refugees are already facing obstacles relevant to a protracted situation. Their needs have shifted from food aid and shelter, to the need for employment, self-sufficiency, and dignity. Children must go back to school and adults back to work. Homes must be rebuilt and communities reformed. What refugees face in camps are the ever-worsening conditions of disease, poverty, increased militarization, and violence, including sexual violence, along with high rates of despair, boredom, and low self-worth. Indeed, many Syrians have already left the camps in an attempt to forge a life for themselves in the local community.

In the border towns of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, Syrian refugees try to make a living. Yet many families end up sleeping in parks and relying on charity for food. Young boys are sent to work to support the family, and refugees are paid measly wages as local employers take advantage of their desperation. Many lack access to basic health care, partly because the country’s resources are seriously strained. Public services such as hospitals, electricity, and transportation systems are stretched to the limit, especially in countries like Lebanon, which struggles to support their own population. Cultural clashes and language barriers are significant impediments to refugees’ ability to integrate in the local community, not to mention religious and sectarian violence.

Humanitarian actors have attempted to shame the international community into resettling a greater number of refugees. Too often, the burden falls on low to middle income countries in the conflict’s surrounding areas to bear the cost of sheltering refugees. Recently, Canada committed to resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. In Sweden, 30,000 Syrians are already making a new home, and Germany has resettled 40,000. But overall, humanitarian actors are disappointed with the international community’s “pitiful” response (as put by Amnesty International) to the crisis by offering humanitarian admission to only a small fraction of Syrian refugees.

Moreover, the international community can help bear the cost of refugees by investing in local, long-term development. For example, Syrian refugees currently lack the long-term, preventative health care and health-related education necessary in any settlement situation. Investments in health services will benefit the local area by decreasing disease (and by extension, poverty), as well as by providing increased access to health services for local communities. Investments in education and other public services will likewise contribute to the well-being of both refugees and local groups. Indeed, studies indicated that a policy of local integration – whereby refugees can legally seek employment in the local community – will actually benefit the host country’s economy in the long term. Not to mention, policies of local integration, along with campaigns against refugee discrimination, go a long way towards encouraging solidarity, and decreasing the threat of regional and sectarian violence.

No matter the path to forging a new home – either through resettlement in a foreign country, or local integration – the solutions for long-term refugees must be long-term themselves. The international community and development agencies must direct their resources towards providing a space for refugees to make a new home for themselves. This is done through funding for housing, employment opportunities, health services, educational facilities, and so forth. These represent a shift from humanitarian aid, which aims to provide the necessary elements for life, to opportunities for self-sufficiency. As the saying goes: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. In this story, Syrian refugees already know how to fish. All they need now is access to the river.

Over time, the Syrian story becomes old news. International funding dries up, camps languish, and refugees are forced to rely on diminishing assistance. The way we think of and assist refugees in long-term situations needs to change. Humanitarian assistance that targets local development and community integration can provide long-term benefits for both refugees and local groups. Syrian refugees need the chance to live their lives again. They need to be able to forge new homes. Then, when the war is finally over and it is safe to return, they will know how to rebuild their lives – because they did it once before.

By Layne Carson

Feb 17, 2015
Category: Issue Briefs
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