Saturday, May 21, 2016

Spring time in the Balkans with Syrian and Afghan Refugees

So in April, I quit my job as the Regional GBV Advisor for the global GBV Working Group in Bangkok. I wanted to work on the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and I had a great opportunity to do so by working with the International Rescue Committee as the "Initiatives Director for Women and Children's Protection" - sadly, by the time I had resigned and got here, the EU-Turkey deal was in place and the large migration had halted so there are far fewer migrants moving through Europe. But the job is still great and super interesting.

I'm living in Belgrade, Serbia (a place I never thought I would ever go) and I'm working with a small nice team of people here. They just found me an apartment that overlooks the big park here and I can walk down to the Danube. The beer is good, the meat is heavy and tasty, and I had better find a gym immediately or I will become as wide as I am tall. My job involves going to the different countries in the Balkans and looking at the needs of women and children migrants and seeing if IRC should open up programming and how to do it to support them. So it reminds me a bit of my Refugees International life where I go someplace for a short period of time and do intensive interviews with refugees, NGOs, and government officials and taken in vast amounts of information trying to understand the situation. But I then get to help design programs to address the needs which is wonderful. 

First up: I went to Berlin for 2 weeks and met with local volunteers, the government, German NGOs, and toured many of the shelters where Syrian and Afghan refugees are living. It was both super heartening to meet the German volunteers who were devoting time and resources to helping the refugees understand the really intense bureaucracy of German life but also really depressing to see that all the same problems we see in camps in Liberia, Jordan, Sri Lanka, and Haiti are happening in a rich Western country - no segregation of vulnerable young women from the men, rape of children by "volunteers" and attacks in toilets because of lack of lighting or locks on doors. People who are interested in volunteering are also naive and soon become angry or depressed at the "ingratitude" of Syrians who are often middle class educated people who would like to just have a job, thank you, so they can buy what they need and get on with their lives rather than throwing off their veils, putting on ripped jeans, and becoming Germans. I interviewed young adolescent girls, lesbians, single mothers, and women with three children. Every single one of them discussed some aspect of groping, sexual exploitation, assault, and harassment on the journey - from the sex-starved young men of Syria and Afghanistan but also from the authorities along the route but mostly by the smugglers. The men who they had entrusted their lives with to make the dangerous journey.

For my next assessment, I went to Albania - a country that I really had very little knowledge about. I hadn't seen "Taken" in which Albanian mobsters apparently play a huge role. I had vaguely read some information about their terrible communism. But mostly I knew them from a Simpson cartoon.  I was blown away by the kindness, the beauty of their country, and the cultural heritage they have. i read a fantastic book called A Chronicle in Stone by Ismael Kadare and fell in love with his hometown of Ghirokastra. However, I did not meet nor see a single refugee. I did spend 2 hours stuck on the Greek-Albanian border and driving through some seriously high mountains and eating some good food. 

Now, I've just visited the third country for my assignment - It's been very interesting in Bulgaria - we were inside all the camps. Apparently the Afghan men (and its thousands of them) have been instructed by the smugglers to destroy the lodgings for them and take photos so they can show how discriminatory everyone is against Afghans and it will "help them in their asylum cases." It won't. All it is doing is making everyone think they are animals. I keep hearing all these terrible things about them. It makes me sad. I fight back and say I've been to Afghanistan and the people there are kind, have lovely homes, and show amazing hospitality. I remind them that its not safe there and the war still rages on despite the lack of interest from Western media. 

There are SO MANY OF THESE YOUNG MEN. Young men - ages 15-17 (some younger but lying about their ages) with no future in Afghanistan, climbing through forests, swimming in rivers, and sleeping in these old Bulgarian army barracks. they only stay for one or two days and then they are off - looking for the promised land of Germany. Where Afghanistan is considered "post-conflict" and safe so they will be denied asylum status and  will probably disappear into the "illegal" sectors living in the shadows. The same "smugglers" who lie to them and bring them across the continent also move the illegal drugs and traffic people into sex work. The young men are bored and restless, there is nothing for them to do in the asylum centers so they smoke and loiter around. Still, they are children - when you talk to them about sports or games or their favorite food - you see the young boy inside. there are still girls here too - and because they are fearful of all these young men, they are trapped inside the centers - not allowed to really go outside and enjoy the spring, kept inside for their safety. I will be pushing for women's centers where we can bring them together to chat, meet each other, possibly form some friendships or alliances where they can open up and find support for the troubles they have. And trying to think of ways to reach these young men. Because we know they are also vulnerable and there is a trade in sex trafficking for young men too. Behind their bravado and their male posturing, they are also vulnerable children. Some of the nights, after spending all day in the asylum centers and processing all the information, we were so tired.  But as I drove through the countryside and saw the poppies and waving fields of grain and mountains, and elderflowers and breathed in the fresh air, I also felt pretty happy. 

Back to Belgrade tomorrow after a weekend in Sofia, Bulgaria and next up - Macedonia? Greece? Hungary? Stay tuned. 

My contract is only til July 1 but I have the opportunity to do this for a year, I'm still mulling it over but it looks like a move away from Asia may be in the books. I hope Simon Le Bon likes beef and loud Serbian music!