Forming a choir: making music with refugees in Athens

We no longer need English or French, because they are not our languages. We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from.
The Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

“When I make music, I forget everything, the dark thoughts go away,” says Ahmed.

It’s the December 11, 2017, and I am in the heart of Exarchia, an anarchist neighbourhood in Athens.

I’m staying at at the Orange House (“Zaatar”), an accommodation and cultural centre for refugees. At the moment I am running around Athens, struggling to find a guitar, and I’m becoming increasingly impatient. Tomorrow morning, I’m making music with the refugees.

My friend Marina, the Franco-Greek founder of The Orange House is currently on leave, hence I’m here to supervise the house.

The next day is a riotous affair. Twenty children, teenagers, adults and even old people show up. We don’t have enough instruments, but I expected this: the two guitars will go to the guitarists, and the others will sing. Those who can’t sing? They can keep the beat going.

Obviously, nothing goes as planned. When I ask an Afghan woman to sing the classical C-major scale, she sings the harmonic minor scale: the oriental scale. I audition the others, but she is the only one who can really sing. My dreams of a harmonious choir are short lived.

I improvise: the rhythm, that’s what we’ll focus on. But I can’t help lose hope – very few have a sense of rhythm, and those who do can’t help but speed up to a furious pace.

The first classes are tough. My choir keeps getting distracted, and after five minutes, they lose track. They get up, talk on the phone, and walk around the improvised classroom – all with good reason.

Ahmed has had nowhere to sleep for more than two weeks, and spends his nights in Victoria Square, the home of many refugees in Athens. As a 17-year-old Pakistani, his status as a “single man” does him no favours. No NGO can find him accommodation.

Fahed, a 19-year-old Syrian, is obsessed with Calais and England. He is desperate to join up with the English woman he married in a camp in Gaziantep during his journal, but his marriage is not recognised by the British government. To make matters worse, France has recently closed its relocation programme, deeming it to have fulfilled its goals.

Anousha is Iranian. She is 50 years old. Forced to marry a violent husband at the age of 15, she has born the brunt of insults, punches and humiliation that have marked her forever, decimating any self-confidence she might have had. Every five minutes she tells me she’ll never make it, that she’s not good at anything.

Anja, a 15-year-old Afghan girl, is extremely enthusiastic, despite not remembering anything I tell her.

Olivier never smiles. The 21-year-old from the Congo is always sad, and is not motivated enough to participate in the class. Despite that, he keeps coming back.

All of my students arrive looking tense. They are haunted by their past traumas: they mourn for their former countries and way of life, often succumbing to nostalgia. This feeling is compounded by the more concrete problems of finding accommodation, staving off inactivity, learning the new language and dealing with a painstakingly slow bureaucracy. Yet when smiles are drawn, the tenseness fades – we even laugh for a moment.

At the end of class, they leave whistling, and thank me: “the music is magic, it’s really good”.

“See you tomorrow, huh?” they insist. And the next day, they are there, at the ready – they even arrive early to make sure not to miss a session. Eventually the choir gets to know one another. I discover that some take a two-hour bus not to miss the six o’clock guitar lesson. The kids love to come and listen. I invite them to join in by clapping rhythm with their hands, but they opt for cooking utensils and standing on the tables. They’re not always in rhythm, but they laugh!

Olivier teaches Congolese rumba to Hassan, who spent a year in prison. Fahed starts again on a famous old American tune.

Anousha and Anja ask me to play the chords of a well-known Persian song by Salar Aghili – they sing it together.

We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from.

We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from. They look at each other and the music takes shape, and the melodies blossom with rhythm. Bonds are formed, and I see real smiles.

Fahed insists that I teach him to play “happy birthday”. I don’t like the melody, but I try anyway. He doesn’t quite get it and I lose patience, so he films me playing it with his phone. He tells me he would have liked to play it himself – it’s a gift for his wife in England from Athens.

I’m embarrassed, what does it matter if “happy birthday” is not my favourite song, I could have made an effort.

Ironically this is what I am thanked for. By not treating them as if they were made of glass, as victims, but for seeing them as equals. By forgetting, for a moment, their status “refugee” – this word that sticks to their skin, and is so hard to remove.

~

Emmanuelle Stein

Calais: understanding the ‘post-Jungle’ era

In October 2016, the refugee and migrant camp in Calais previously known as ‘the Jungle’ was destroyed and evacuated by French authorities. Despite being buried under layers of rubble, the Jungle has once again become a hotspot for people wanting to cross to the UK.

French riot police (CRS) look on as a tent burns in Calais, France.

Over the past year, trickles of refugees and migrants – primarily from Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea – have temporarily settled in and around Calais. As of today, there are roughly close to a thousand people in the area, and their situation has significantly worsened since the destruction of the camp.

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s changed?

  1. There are now 5 different distribution points for refugees.

Five relatively small clusters of refugee and migrant populations have emerged around Calais, loosely divided by ethnicity. Volunteers have called these sites ‘Old Lidl’, ‘Covoit’, ‘Jungle’, ‘L’hôpital’, ‘Norveige’.  After the demolition of the Jungle, it was easier for migrants to scatter given the constant police evictions breaking them up.

  1. Volunteers now have to provide drinking water.

There used to be several water points for the Jungle’s population of 12,000. These also doubled up as a place to wash. These no longer exist. Volunteers drive around with a water truck, providing water for everyone at the five distribution points.

  1. CRS burn and slash tents on a regular basis.

Officially, no structures of any form are permitted in Calais anymore. This includes tents. The CRS (French riot police) often forcefully evict people if they see any tents pitched. According to Human Rights Watch, police slash and burn tents, rendering them unusable .

A former Calais CRS officer of fifteen years openly discussed the allegations with Help Refugees, stating “I have destroyed many encampments, I have emptied canisters of tear gas to contaminate people’s sleeping bags…I [have] colleagues who set tents on fire so badly that the fire brigade had to be called.”

However, according to Help Refugees, French President Emmanuel Macron is threatening to take charities to court for “defamation” of the police force. Macron attributed the claims of police brutality to the “lies and manipulations” of these charities, according to The Guardian.

  1. Pepper spray, tear gas and excessive violence often interrupt migrants sleeping rough.

This includes children. The idea is to ‘evict’ people by any means and drive them away from Calais. There are countless reports of physical abuse every single day. Talking to the New York Times Michael Bochenek of Human RIghts Watch reported that CRS routinely confiscate and pepper spray donations so they are unusable, as well as disrupting food distributions.

  1. Women are so scared of sexual assault that they no longer sleep in tents.

For many women in the makeshift encampments, going to the toilet at night is too frightening. This is why in Dunkirk – where one of the camps has formed to the east of Calais – volunteers hand out nappies so women  don’t have to leave their beds.

In Calais, there is no such provision. It is actually safer to sleep rough, as very few people have the luxury of sleeping in a tent. According to long-term volunteer Sarah, tents are obvious targets for abuse, and women feel even more vulnerable in them for fear of attracting other migrant men or CRS officers. Sarah estimated that there are only between 5-10 women in Calais. Unlike in Dunkirk – where there is a large Kurdish population of women who have travelled with their families – the women of Calais are alone. They are primarily from Eritrea and Ethiopia – none are from Afghanistan – and usually have male friends from home who will ‘protect’ them, often pretending to be their husbands.

  1. Volunteers can’t distribute tents unless there’s enough for everyone.

Due to constant shortages, there are two effective distribution methods which are used to fairly determine who receives a tent:

1.) Individually according to vulnerability: This involves going to each community asking if people need a tent. This method is difficult to get right, though, according to long-term volunteer Beth*, as “you never really know if someone truly needs one”. For a migrant, a spare tent could be sold for money, or swapped for other valuable provisions.

2.) En masse: This involves a large distribution from a set point at a set time with a van full of tents. But there is never enough for everybody, which causes problems between and within communities that are exacerbated by criminal gangs and smugglers. Recent clashes in Calais leaving 22 in hospital and 2 fighting for their lives is a prime example of this, supposedly instigated by smuggler gangs as suggested by the French Interior Minister. People queue for hours and walk away empty-handed. When this inevitably happens, they are reduced to stealing from other communities, causing violence and an ‘alpha-male’ hierarchy. Volunteers are blamed for withholding tents.

Unpredictable police evictions makes this harder. Tents are sometimes distributed only to be destroyed the next day. Volunteers speak to communities every day, who alert them if there has been an eviction. Stock of tents and sleeping bags are counted for each of the five communities. The Help Refugees/L’Auberge des Migrants warehouse has emergency tents packed in case of an eviction.

…and what hasn’t changed

  1. There is still no government aid.

Not one of the numerous organisations based in Calais during the Jungle period was government funded. Today, most NGOs are gone, leaving few charities such as Help Refugees, Utopia 56, Refugee Community Kitchen and L’Auberge des Migrants as the only aid in Calais. Britain has put £100 million into Channel border security; funding CRS, building a 1km wall to prevent migrants getting close to the motorways and extensive barbed wire and CCTV around the port.

The Jungle Books building functioned as a classroom and library during the Jungle.
  1. Charities are still arguing over the best distribution methods.

As ever, there are ongoing tensions between charities. A number of volunteers from Help Refugees consider Care4Calais’ distribution methods “undignified”; blowing a whistle and handing out donations from the back of a van on a first come first serve basis. Meetings to re-evaluate the effectiveness of these methods and how to adapt to volatile situations are ongoing, new rules and regulations are introduced every day. Volunteers, on call around the clock, are still burnt out.

  1. Donations still aren’t enough

The lack of stock has forced charities to come up with distribution methods aimed at not making people feel undignified. There are ticketing systems, which seems like the fairest option; people don’t have to queue for hours only to be disappointed due to the inevitable lack of stock, instead their name is called and they come up and collect their item. But still, because there isn’t enough, it promotes a hierarchy where the youngest and weakest often end up with nothing unless they have a deal with someone to ‘protect’ them.

      4. There is still no guarantee that vulnerable children will be safe at night.

In the Jungle, ‘Salaam’ was a (relatively) safe place where unaccompanied children could go to sleep at night. It was built to keep vulnerable migrants – primarily women and children – safe at night, doubling up as a place for migrants to shower and receive legal information. However, space was limited, so Salaam tended to prioritise younger, more vulnerable children aged 14 and under.

‘There is temporary accommodation which opens subject to weather conditions, where there is space for 60 kids. There are well over 100 in Calais.’

This meant that unaccompanied minors between the ages of 15 and 18 were sleeping alone. Not only is this still the case, but children even younger are being forced to sleep rough. There is temporary accommodation which opens subject to weather conditions, where there is space for 60 kids. There are well over 100 in Calais.

  1. People are still risking their lives to get across the border.

Five children with a legal right to be in the UK have died attempting to cross the border over the past two years. Since December 2017, two people have been put in intensive care after accidents trying to get to the UK. One, hit by a train, has lost his legs. Three more people have died, including a 15-year-old boy trying to reach his sister in the UK. His 13-year-old friend had to call for an ambulance.

~

By Molly Whitmey

The Way Back Home: two accounts of life in Germany

Lavenir, a 27 year-old Cameroonian, has chosen a window seat on his flight from Germany to Cameroon. The world is small up here, and the towns, rivers and mountains pass by.

Dschang, Lavenir’s hometown.

Over the phone, Lavenir tells me that he is returning to Cameroon with mixed feelings: “I am happy to see all my friends, to eat my favourite dishes, to be back in my room where I was living throughout my boyhood.”

But there could have been a more joyful reason to take a flight to Central Africa. A couple of days ago his Aunt passed away. When Lavenir heard the news, he booked his flight within minutes, despite the cost. “She had raised me since I was ten years old. I was always close to her. She is also my mother. I could not stay in Germany in that sad moment. I wanted to be with my family back at home.”

Where do you belong when you have two homes? Lavenir has been asking himself this question for years. Since he arrived in the country of roast pork and Oktoberfest, his vow to return to Cameroon one day has never left his mind. “I will leave Germany after my studies,’ he says to himself, “I am sure about it!”

His family are waiting for him at the airport, and they welcome him with a bag full of fresh peanuts. They are curious: how is it, living in Europe?

His short stay in the grass fields of the Western highlands near the border of Nigeria is full of nostalgia. The air is pure, and the rainy season is about to end. Children play football at the end of the street, and young mothers hold their babies as they sell fresh fruit.  

But Lavenir must shortly return to Kaiserslautern, a modest, medium-sized town near the Vosges. “I am also happy to return to Kaiserslautern to have my normal life, my daily routine. Even though I miss my family and the delicious African food – that I still prefer.”

At the end of the week, his flight – via Addis Ababa – carries him back to his home away from home. It’s likely that he will experience the same journey in the coming years. At that point, though, there will be no going back.

Lavenir is one of numerous Africans who leave their country to study in Europe. In Cameroon alone, between one and  two thousand graduates apply each year to Germany, with only a few hundred eventually making the trip.

Germany enjoys a good reputation among young Cameroonians: at a time when millions of refugees are fleeing their homelands to come to Europe, the procedure to get formally accepted as a student  is complicated and selective. Alongside the requirement for a solid grasp of German and a letter of acceptance from a German university, applicants must also have a minimum bank balance of several thousand euros, as well as the contact information of people already living in Germany. In Yaoundé, the Cameroonian capital, it is not uncommon to wait up to 12 weeks to get an appointment at the German embassy.

“The question is to what extent young African students can give back to their home institutions,” says Dr. Cristina D’Alessandro, a senior fellow at the centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. “Policy investigations showed financial gaps for African countries caused by brain drain. These people leaving for Europe produce financial income but they pay taxes abroad.”  

Government revenue is not all that’s missing. “Professionals lack in certain disciplines like doctors. They are needed in their home countries.” But there are also those who prefer to return to their home countries after their studies, and Lavenir is one of them.

Unlike some of his fellow German students, Lavenir cannot benefit from a scholarship. Whereas other students will be busy partying, Lavenir spends his entire Saturday working in a factory

For now, Lavenir has settled down in Kaiserslautern. “On Mondays, I am doing some research about where I can work next,” he says. “I like to go my lectures at the university. But to be honest – my occasional jobs are even more important”, he says.

In contrast to many Cameroonians, he knows that life can be as challenging in Germany as in his home country. “I never had any too optimistic illusions about how life would be here,” he says.

Unlike some of his fellow German students, Lavenir cannot benefit from a scholarship. Whereas other students will be busy partying, Lavenir spends his entire Saturday working in a factory. The rest of his time he has to study, and so has little time with his friends. Though he never misses an opportunity to attend church on Sunday – a tradition that seems almost anachronistic in a mostly secularised western society.

His friends support him, and they are always ready to listen to his troubles: “It is not that easy to find jobs in this region. The neighbouring towns are small. Sometimes you only get temporary employment. With the money I earn I can’t help my Cameroonian family financially, as I thought in the beginning.”

Karim

Karim looks tired. He’s at a dead end. Unable to work in Germany, he now has no choice but to return to Benin. The 40-year-old has been living in a tiny town in the east of the Germany for almost 15 years, and hasn’t seen his children since he left Benin. His German is poor, and he spends the majority of time at home.

Karim’s asylum claim was rejected on the grounds that Benin has a stable government, and was therefore classified as an economic migrant: “Since 2004 I am living in Germany but I never got my permission to work. So I am just eating and sleeping. I really want to work.”

His children will soon be able to welcome their father back, as once Karim knew his decision to leave would be financed, it was clear there was no alternative.  “They (the German government) give me 2500 euros within the next months as soon as I’ll arrive in Benin. I take the money to start a motor taxi business. I want to help my family.”

In 2015, the Munich-based Institute for Economic Research (IFO) calculated that the total cost for the integration of refugees accepted into Germany was around €21 billion.

In Germany, social welfare organizations like Caritas are in charge of providing aid to individuals such as Karim, helping them return to their homeland. There are more than 150 such networks, all mandated by the International Organization of Migration. Though only one in seven returning refugees go to Africa or to the Middle East, while many relocate to Eastern Europe.

In 2016 the German state subsided both the Reintegration and Emigration Programmes for Asylum-Seekers in Germany (REAG) and Government Assisted Repatriation Programme (GARP) with €10 million – a fraction of what is spent by public and private institutions. In 2015, the Munich-based Institute for Economic Research (IFO) calculated that the total cost for the integration of refugees accepted into Germany was around €21 billion. In addition, the EU contributes to these programmes via its €3.1 billion Fund for Asylum, Migration and Integration (AMIF).

The way back

Individuals such as Lavenir who have been at least partly educated abroad have a strong chance of finding a job back home. For Dr. Cristina d’Alessandro, this is a reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future of Sub-Saharan Africa: “Cameroon universities are improving decisively; the question is raised how much they are capable to reabsorb the brain drain. But you have a variety of institutions that are more and more internationally competitive. As much as the political situation improves and also the quality of life, I am confident that the brain drain will come back to its country.”

Lavenir will most likely be a part of this group, but the time hasn’t come yet. “Five years after my graduation I would like to return to Cameroon. I think it would be good if I start working here a bit for a few years to acquire experience. But then I want to return. I want to start a project back in my home country.” Upon returning, he will belong to what he calls the “privileged ones”, those Cameroonians who have been fortunate enough to study abroad. In Cameroon, there is a belief that this privilege is followed by a duty to put into practice what you have learnt some thousand miles away.

Which was exactly what two other Cameroonians did after returning home. Morene and Chief Charles Morfaw concluded their studies in Germany in the 1990s, and when they returned home they started a business – the business of education. Their project, ‘Educate the Generation of Tomorrow’ began with a humble primary school, and later a secondary school. The institutions are based in Lavenir’s home town, Dschang, and are famous in the region for producing high-achieving students.  

Lavenir outside the Morfaw family’s house in Dschang.

In Dschang, everyone goes to Church on Sunday. The service can last up to four hours – life is different here.

Back in Germany, Lavenir turns on the television. He could not vote in the recent German elections, but he sensed a change: issues over immigration are causing tension and harsh divides in German society. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AFD) party in Kaiserslautern won ten percent, which worried Lavenir, but not enough for him to return home prematurely.

~

by Luis Nicolas Jachmann

Refugee crisis action plan enrico letta

Refugee crisis: EU proposes new ‘action plan’ to help Italy with record numbers of arrivals

The refugee crisis is back, says Politico, ‘and the EU elite fears it will ruin their summer vacation.’
refugee crisis action plan refugees migrants migration
Refugees from Syria and Iraq arrive on the island of Lesvos, Greece.

With the number of refugees arriving to the Mediterranean increasing once again, ‘Italy is frantic.’

‘It is all bringing back memories of the 2015’ refugee crisis, when over a million ‘desperate people streamed into Europe.’

Having closed the Balkan migration route in 2016 by striking a deal with Turkey, Brussels now hopes to ‘plug another hole.’ The Italian coast.

The European Commission (EC) unveiled an action plan on Tuesday after the International Organisation for Migration published a report stating that 85,000 people had landed on Italian shores in the first half of 2017, up from 71,000 last year.

“I am not saying we’re coming out with a silver bullet,” said EC Vice President Frans Timmermans, “but it would already make a world of difference if member states would just do what they agreed before.”

His comments were a thinly veiled criticism of EU countries – especially Hungary and Poland – who have flatly refused to accept refugees under the EU relocation program designed to ‘ease the burden for front-line countries such as Italy and Greece.’

“Everybody needs to do their part in this across Europe,” said Timmermans.

refugee crisis action plan refugees migrants migration
Refugees resting on the German-Austrian border, © Christian Michelides.

Brussels’ latest proposal is for North African countries to ‘take back migrants rescued in their territorial waters.’

They believe this would serve as a deterrent to those wanting to reach Europe.

The action plan also controversially calls for Frontex, the EU border agency, to take rescued migrants to ports elsewhere in Europe, not just in Italy.

‘There are also steps aimed as dissuading would-be migrants from leaving in the first place, and to help transit countries such as Libya and Nigeria patrol borders.’

Some Italian politicians have accused NGOs running search-and-rescue operations of running a “sea taxi” service for refugees.

And Brussels has called for a code of conduct for charities working in the Mediterranean.

Rome wants such NGOs to be ‘transparent about their funding and to let Italian coastguards board their vessels to check for smuggling activity.’

Vincent Cochetel – the UNHCR’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean – said NGOs are “singled out because there is the perception from some that they are part of the problem because they attract people, that they navigate too close to the Libyan shore, that if they were not there the Libyan smugglers and traffickers would not put people on those boats.

“We don’t think that’s a credible narrative.”

refugee crisis action plan refugees migrants migration
Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne rescuing migrants as part of Frontex’s Operation Triton.

EU interior ministers are meeting today in Tallinn to discuss the migration action plan and how to deal with the record numbers of refugees coming to Europe.

The refugee crisis “will not go away,” said Mr. Timmermans. “Not today. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Not for a decade, not for two decades.

“This is a global phenomenon that will be with us for generations.”

Refugee

Refugee Crisis: returning the narrative to the most affected

At the end of 2016, 15 disposable cameras were given out in the newly opened Porte de la Chapelle refugee camp in Northern Paris.

Refugee
The aim of the ‘Disposable Perspectives’ project was to allow those living in the camp to document their own experiences and thus diversify the media perspective of the refugee crisis.

Of the 15 cameras given out, 8 were returned.

Many perished as a result of police brutality – an issue often underplayed, yet often experienced. These lost photos tell as much of a story as the developed ones; the instability of these peoples’ lives reflected in the interruption of their participation.

The photos from the 8 developed films offer a touching insight into the lives and the individuality of people normally defined by their immigration status. It is clear those involved appreciated the opportunity to have their say, and the resulting series is one of friendship and resilience in the face of difficult circumstances.

Refugee

Each participant took a different approach. Some turned the lens inwards, upon themselves and their friends in the camp, whilst others took the opportunity to explore and photograph Paris landmarks.

Others experimented with composition, taking shots through fences and into metro reflections, with a creativity seldom explored in the homogenising media narrative on ‘migrants.’

Refugee

Refugee

Along with the cameras, each photographer was given a blank postcard to write an accompanying message for their photos. Those returned showed an acute awareness of the opportunity to send out a message, one read –

‘Police don’t respect to the asylum seekers! Guys asylum seekers not animals, asylum seekers are people!’

Another said –

‘Well maybe I’m not professional photographer but I know that what I done it means what I felt and I think photos is kind of art.’

Overall, the notes emphasise the heartfelt tone of the photographs, one entitled ‘good life in France’ with another ending ‘thank you for giving me hope.’

Refugee

Though these images offer just a small window into the daily lives of those involved in the project, it is crucial they reach as wide an audience as possible. The more people see these images, the better chance they have of dispelling prejudice in an increasingly fearful society.

The fact the project started in an adult men’s camp gives it particular potential, this group having suffered the most from the scaremongering of the media and certain far-right political parties.

The ‘Disposable Perspectives‘ project will be exhibited at the HIVE, Dalston, London, between June 2-9th.