How true stories of real heroines put nationality, freedom and humanity in perspective

The fact that I, as a Dutch woman, can travel (almost) anywhere with ease, a quick look at my passport and everything is ok, has always amazed me. Your place of birth largely determines your chances in life: health, education, work, happiness. Your nationality can even be a matter of life or death. If you are born in Afghanistan your chances of an early death are more realistic and all the more if you happen to be female.

An Afghan woman forced to marry a Taliban fighter and lead a life kept out of sight and practically invisible, can escape only by death, whereas the most pressing matter for a Dutch woman is that she earn the same as a man in her position.

Selective women’s rights

After watching the Netflix documentary In Her Hands about the fearless youngest mayor in Afghanistan, Zarifa Ghafari (26), who fights for the education of girls, forbidden by the merciless Taliban under whose terror girls and women must fear for their lives, western feminists suddenly become irrelevantly self-obsessed. The fact that women’s rights only seem to exist selectively, is every time a painful realisation in itself and the silence of western feminists concerning the terrible predicament of women under strict Islamic regimes even more so. Consider the deadly repression playing out in Iran at the moment.

As a husband and father you don’t want to reside in a country in which your wife awaits an existence without rights, and your daughters who wish to learn, run the risk every day to be murdered in cold blood by extremists.  The images at Kabul airport of thousands of desperate Afghans trying to flee, clinging to an aircraft, women and children trying to catch the last flight away from a home which will become a prison, leave you gasping for air. The mayor Zarifa narrowly escapes with her husband, mother and younger brother in a plane heading for Germany, where they are received as refugees.

Continuing the fight

Shortly before the Taliban had executed her father in front of his home and young son due to Zarifa’s public role, which she had refused to give up. Despite the threat to her own life, she travels back to Afghanistan on her own a few months later to continue the fight for the right of women and girls in her homeland. In Germany she no longer held a high office, she was an asylum seeker with a life on hold, and the control, again, out of her hands. All be it without the constant mortal danger, but for Zarifa not important enough to stay for.

When the bombs drop

Another such true story which burst into your safe life and rages on long after, is The Swimmers, a biographical movie about two Syrian sisters who are also talented swimmers, Yusra and Sara Mardini.  On the horizon you see the bombs exploding on the edge of town while the sisters let themselves go on the dance-floor at a party.  The start of the civil war in Syria.  The situation escalates and the sisters lives are in danger.  Their father grudgingly supports their decision to flee to Germany along with a cousin. A harrowing life-threatening journey awaits them. On their way they quickly fall into the hands of unreliable people smugglers.

The hellish journey, especially the chilling crossing the sisters make in an overloaded rubber dingy from Turkey to Lesbos is made by countless people every year.

Thousands never set foot in Europe but end namelessly in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Since 2014 more than 29.000 deaths have been registered along the flightpaths to Europe, including this crossing to Lesbos, most of the victims are from Syria. All the antics the sisters perform and the dangers they brave to reach this island where the inhabitants can’t wait to see the backs of them, seem surreal but are at the same time very real.

Salvation

The viewer gets a feel for the years-long beaurocratic process, waiting on stamps and signatures.  It feels like you are in a Kafka novel.  The endless waiting that slowly extinguishes the last remaining bit of life-force, but not so for the sisters.  Their crib stood in Syria and then going to Europe to establish yourself, away from the bombs and bloodshed, is far from matter of course.  The combination of their courage and daring with a clear goal is their salvation.  These make the difference in the end.  Although the goal for each of the sisters turns out to be different, it is what enables them to regain control over their lives in a foreign country.  The movie slung me back and forth between hope and despair, but more the first than the latter.  The Syrian sisters got me thinking. 

Fort Europe

I never had to supply stacks of documents to get government clearance to come and live in Spain.  My partner, cat and I just went, now some 8 years ago.  We can come and go as we please.  No-one ever asked us for all sorts of information, our Dutch passports were enough.  We did not have to wait eons on permission from the authorities to reside within the Spanish borders, because there is free movement of people within the European Union.  We are what you call “fortune seekers”.  And we were not even unfortunate in our country of birth.  And yet, that is what we are, because we wanted more.

Second-rate citizenship

The right to come and go as you please, in your own country and outside it, (freedom of movement) as determined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is beautiful on paper, but in practice far from reality. Especially for those with less desirable passports; those who have a high chance of becoming second rate citizens. Those men and women who will never feel equal to their compatriots who were born there.

For now, I really recommend watching In her Hands and The Swimmers, just like that they might awaken a humanity which I often find sorely missing when it concerns refugees and migrants.  A little more compassion won’t kill us.

It is too proud to think that the bombs will never fall here or that the water will never rise so high or dry up, making flight our only chance at survival. When it is us rattling at the gates or embarking on harrowing journeys to escape war or natural disasters, we will hope for some humanity instead of a lifetime as a second-rate citizen.  

As it was written some 2000 years ago: ‘Pride comes before the fall.’

Timeless wisdom which reaches far beyond all borders.

In her Hands and The Swimmers are now screening on Netflix.

Previously published in Dutch on Reporters Online.

Angelina Jolie’s speech says it all



These striking words from Angelina Jolie on the humanitarian drama of Syria I came across yesterday through a friend – thanks to social media – . Despite the poor internet we’re still having at our Ibizian home I just have watched the video of the speech (see link below). Some patience was needed.

This is on my mind. In the “bubble” of Ibiza where life is easy and this enormous human despair seems to be far, far away I will never stop caring. Compassion we all need to have. It’s a start.

Followed by unified actions of the UN-Security Council.

May I invite you to read with me?

The complete text as followed:

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On Friday April 24, 2015 – UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie Pitt appeared in front of the UN Security Council in New York to raise awareness on the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria. 

United Nations Security Council (7433rd Meeting), Open Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria, Remarks by Angelina Jolie Pitt, UNHCR Special Envoy for Refugee Issues. New York, 24 April 2015. Remarks at the UN Security Council.

As delivered:

Mr President, Foreign Ministers, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen: it is an honor to brief the Council.

I thank His Excellency the Foreign Minister of Jordan, the High Commissioner for Refugees, and my colleagues from OCHA, and the World Food Programme.

Since the Syria conflict began in 2011, I have made eleven visits to Syrian refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Malta.

I wish that some of the Syrians I have met could be here today.

I think of the mother I met recently in a camp in Iraq. She could tell you what it is like to try to live after your young daughter was ripped from your family by armed men, and taken as a sex slave.

I think of Hala, one of six orphaned children living in a tent in Lebanon. She could tell you what it is like to share the responsibility for feeding your family at the age of 11, because your mother died in an air strike and your father is missing.

I think of Dr Ayman, a Doctor from Aleppo, who watched his wife and three year-old daughter drown in the Mediterranean when a smugglers’ boat collapsed packed with hundreds of people. He could tell you what it is like to try to keep your loved ones safe in a warzone, only to lose them in a desperate bid for safety after all other options have failed.

Any one of the Syrians I have met would speak more eloquently about the conflict than I ever could.

Nearly four million Syrian refugees are victims of a conflict they have no part in.

Yet they are stigmatized, unwanted, and regarded as a burden.

So I am here for them, because this is their United Nations.

Here, all countries and all people are equal – from the smallest and most broken member states to the free and powerful.

The purpose of the UN is to prevent and end conflict:

To bring countries together, to find diplomatic solutions and to save lives.

We are failing to do this in Syria.

Responsibility for the conflict lies with the warring parties inside Syria.

But the crisis is made worse by division and indecision within the international community – preventing the Security Council from fulfilling its responsibilities.

In 2011, the Syrian refugees I met were full of hope. They said “please, tell people what is happening to us”, trusting that the truth alone would guarantee international action.

When I returned, hope was turning into anger: the anger of the man who held his baby up to me, asking “is this a terrorist? Is my son a terrorist?”

On my last visit in February, anger had subsided into resignation, misery and the bitter question “why are we, the Syrian people, not worth saving?”

To be a Syrian caught up in this conflict is to be cut off from every law and principle designed to protect innocent life:

International humanitarian law prohibits torture, starvation, the targeting of schools and hospitals – but these crimes are happening every day in Syria.

The Security Council has powers to address these threats to international peace and security – but those powers lie unused.

The UN has adopted the Responsibility to Protect concept, saying that when a State cannot protect its people the international community will not stand by – but we are standing by, in Syria.

The problem is not lack of information – we know in excruciating detail what is happening in Yarmouk, in Aleppo and in Homs.

The problem is lack of political will.

We cannot look at Syria, and the evil that has arisen from the ashes of indecision, and think this is not the lowest point in the world’s inability to protect and defend the innocent.

And I say this as someone who is proud to have been part of the UN system for 13 years.

I don’t think enough people realize just how many people are fed, sheltered, protected and educated by the United Nations every day of the year.

But all of this good is undermined by the message being sent in Syria: that laws can be flouted – chemical weapons can be used, hospitals can be bombed, aid can be withheld and civilians starved – with impunity.

So on behalf of Syrian refugees, I make three pleas to the international community:

The first is an appeal for unity.

It is time for the Security Council to work as one to end the conflict, and reach a settlement that also brings justice and accountability for the Syrian people.

It is very encouraging to see ministerial representation from Jordan, Spain and Malaysia here today.

But I think we would all like to see the Foreign Ministers of all the Security Council Members here, working on a political solution for Syria as a matter of urgency.

In the last few months we have seen intensive diplomacy at work elsewhere in the region: so now let us see what is possible for the people of Syria.

And while these debates are important, I also urge the Security Council to visit Syrian refugees, to see first hand their suffering and the impact it is having on the region. Those refugees cannot come to this Council, so please, will you go to them.

Second, I echo what has been said about supporting Syria’s neighbors, who are making an extraordinary contribution.

It is sickening to see thousands of refugees drowning on the doorstep of the world’s wealthiest continent. No one risks the lives of their children in this way except out of utter desperation.

If we cannot end the conflict, we have an inescapable moral duty to help refugees and provide legal avenues to safety.

And third, the barbarism of those inflicting systematic sexual violence demands a much greater response from the international community.

We need to send a signal that we are serious about accountability for these crimes, for that is the only hope of establishing any deterrence.

And I call on Member States to begin preparations now so that Syrian women are fully represented in future peace negotiations, in accordance with multiple resolutions of the Security Council.

And if I may make a wider, final point to conclude my remarks.

The crisis in Syria illustrates that our inability to find diplomatic solutions causes mass displacement, and traps millions of people in exile, statelessness, and displacement.

52 million people are forcibly displaced today – a sea of excluded humanity.

And while our priority must be ending the Syrian conflict, we must also broaden out the discussion to this much wider problem.

Our times will be defined not by the crises themselves, but by the way we pull together as an international community to address them.

Thank you.





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Link:

http://www.unrefugees.org/2015/04/angelina-jolies-speech-to-the-un-security-council/

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