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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tell Them, Mr Ali

Read the feedback to this post here.

I didn't have the intention to specifically write about some of the people I met this August on my trip through the streets of Nicosia. I wanted to meet those people seeking asylum in the Republic of Cyprus, who make up the large majority of the stateless or drifter, solely for personal reasons. Moreover, when I received some mails requesting that I share my experiences during this unique humanising holiday, I at first thought that it wouldn't be right to post the private lives of those people that have shared so much with me.

Although when I asked the people involved, I was surprised at their response.

Tell them, Mr Ali, they said, tell them of us.

Despite my objections and simply wishing to be known as Ali, for some reason most of the people on the street that have adopted me as their friend - young and old - have given me the nickname Mr. Ali.

You are good at telling, Mr. Ali. So, tell them...tell them of what we've seen. Make them see what we see.

So, I'm obliged to tell you what they have seen and what these eyes of mine have seen.

Pawns and Prey

There are two types of refugee or asylum seeker, those that come to a developed country by choice, and those that have no choice. When I came to Nicosia to live among them I decided to focus on those that had no choice; those people that have run from persecution and strife to re-build their broken lives.

I've met and listened to people who have been used as pawns and prey. Families decimated or utilised as perverted merchandise and bargaining chips, who were "legitimate targets" and "insignificant collateral damage" in some current conflict in our world. Victims when the rule of law did not prevail at all levels, in all places and in every circumstance, from those who had in their hands human life, human dignity and human security, and whom the world is so slow in calling to account.

A lack of understanding for our diversity creates conflict. The most dangerous conflicts in the world today are those that lie at the hinges of all differences; at the crossroads of continents, on the fringes of the three monotheisms, Judaism-Christianity-Islam, and of the two worlds; Occident - Orient, rich countries - poor countries.

Let us for one moment remember that the wealthiest countries became wealthy from the colonisation of the most poorest countries today, and that those of us who wage war do have a responsibility for the resulting victims of that war, and that all of us share a responsibility to accept refugees into our safe borders.

And I adhere to the view expressed by President Pöttering of the European Parliament, at the Euro-Mediterranean assembly in Tunis, in March 2007, when it was said: "Mankind and human dignity, the personality of the individual, have to be taken as the starting point of any dialogue." We have to become human to one another.

Tell them, Mr Ali, tell them of us.

Saïd Hussein

With numbers surpassing 2.2 million, the number of displaced Iraqis due to the occupation of Allied Forces in the divided region have no precedent in the Middle East. They dwarf the population dislocations prompted by the creation of Israel in 1948, when an estimated 750,000 Palestinians fled. Yet, no one pays attention to them in America, as it would mean admitting that US strategy failed. I paid attention to a few that have come to seek asylum in Cyprus.

I shall call my 41-year-old Iraqi friend Saïd Hussein, a thick set man with a big bushy moustache, as big as his heart. Although he has nothing, he is a man who shares everything. I've had the honour to eat at his sparse table many times; even when all he had to eat was plain rice he refused to eat alone. I would often try to eat as little as possible, but this would cause offence. This is your food, he would say, constantly prompting me to eat more. It is not I who give it to you, but Allah. After we had ate, he would tell me of the family he lost: of his young wife and little son and daughter killed by a bombing in Baghdad. His twins had been the pride of his family, a family that was reduced to one in about as many minutes. Sometimes to express his melancholy, he would sing old folk songs from his home village; unabashedly crying in front of me, and banging his chest in longing to go home. But I cannot walk that earth, he says, when my family lie beneath it without me. Tell them Mr Ali, to stop the killing.

Tell them, Mr Ali, tell them of us.

Hafza Ibrahim

International lawyer John Whitbeck, who writes frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and is author of the The World According to Whitbeck, suggests that the Arab world has the power to achieve Middle East peace with some measure of justice by reducing their petroleum oil exports five percent each month - month after month after month. Whitbeck believes that to reduce the conflict, to give Arabs much needed respect and to transform American thinking, whose unconditional support of Israel has made its continuing occupation of Arab lands possible, two things must be realised. Firstly that Palestinians are human beings entitled to basic human rights and secondly that international law should be complied by all, not only the poor, the weak and the Arab.

I shall call my 23-year-old Palestinian friend Hafza Ibrahim. He almost lost his right arm; nearly blown away in an Israeli attack at what was described as a "legitimate terrorist target" four years ago in the Gaza strip. Hafza offered that I stay a few nights at his small "apartment" in the centre of Nicosia on Ledra Street.

I don't exaggerate when I say that, at least in the summer weather, it is more comfortable to sleep outside in one of the city's parks than in Hafza's home. The room is no bigger than a lavatory, with no shower, toilet or basic amenities, and in the worst disrepair imaginable. In fact I'm sure had the entire building been in England, it would be marked for demolition. In some parts of the corridors the ceiling has fallen down. Rats and cockroaches are nightly bed partners. Sewage leaks from shared toilets in the corridors. His monthly rent for his room his £150 CYP (Cyprus Pound). His monthly benefits from social services is £300 CYP. When I stayed with him, he wouldn't let me sleep on the floor, but would insist I sleep on his single, cot-like bed. However, neither of us would get any sleep in those hot suffocating nights as he would constantly wake screaming, pleading at the dreamy visions not to amputate his arm.

But, don't let that fool you. Receiving no counselling to speak of, Hafza is still the most up-beat boy I know. He keeps up-to-date with the political situation in his home region and believes he will one day go back home. Even with the "resumptions" of the never-ending "peace process", which as Whitbeck believes is the antithesis of peace as it allows Israel to build more settlements, more bypass roads and walls and generally continues to make the occupation of lands outside its internationally recognised borders permanent and irreversible, Hafza has hope. He believes that the common Israeli person will one day realise that he is just a son from a mother like them.

Tell them, Mr Ali, tell them of us.

Osman a.k.a "Jackie"

The first person I had wanted to find was the African man I had watched sleeping on a bench, which had stirred me to search for these stories in the streets of Cyprus' capital city.

Comprised of a former British protectorate and an Italian colony, Somalia was created in 1960 when the two territories merged. Since then, its development has been hindered by territorial claims on Somali-inhabited areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. The most recent 2006 civil war in Somalia has caused large casualties with many humanitarian organisations making appeals to stem the conflict before it causes catastrophic civilian suffering. Years of fighting between rival warlords and an inability to deal with famine and disease have led to the deaths of up to one million people.

I shall call my 16-year-old Somalian friend Osman - although everyone on the street calls him "Jackie". When I first met Jackie on his regular bench, his eyes were already red, though you cannot be sure whether it is from the drink or from the crying. He showed me the marks of war all over his body. If I show you this one you will not sleep tonight he says, and pulls up his shorts to reveal a huge hole in his left thigh. I can't close my eyes, I see my mother being killed in front of my eyes. They cut off her head and made me carry it. It is almost certain he is a drug abuser, and that he has mental problems.

You are good at telling, Mr. Ali. So, tell them...tell them of what we've seen. Make them see what we see.

I wish I really was good at telling, to be able to tell so well all the things we need to know; so that anything I wrote had the slightest possibility to make a difference. But I'm not telling this because there is anything we can do. The sad reality is that often there is nothing we can do, except try to understand.

Yet, this isn't their true stories. Not the ones I want to really write about. I want to tell you stories of hope. I want to count the ways these people have helped me. I want to tell you about my Iraqi friend Saïd finding love again, and that we are getting ready for his wedding. I want to tell you about the time we all gathered to help my friend Hafza decorate his room to remind him more of home, and the house warming party was one that is still talked about among the residents of Nicosia. I want to tell you that we are going to get Jackie help, even if we all have to drag him off that bench kicking and screaming to some doctor who will at least listen to him. I want to tell you how in between generally being ignored by the society they have found sanctuary in, and being harassed by the immigration police, they find time to smile, dance and sing, to take pleasure in the small things of life.

Tell them, Mr Ali

And there is one last story I want to tell you about. I occasionally wear eye glasses, and three weeks into my stay on the streets I lost them in one of the parks I slept in for a while. I managed well enough without them, and due to my current situation there was no way I could afford to buy another pair until my excursion was over. All my friends kept saying that I shouldn't be without my glasses, that it wasn't right for Mr Ali to be without them. A week later one morning, Saïd, who is the eldest of the group, came up to me with a greasy brown paper bag. Before he gave it to me he said, You will accept this if I am your brother. If you take this you will get your eyes back, and you will allow us to look you in the eyes.

I didn't reply at first, but took the bag and opened it. Inside were a few bills of money. I protested, but my group of friends marched me to an optician's shop Saïd had found. The optician was very helpful, and I was able to purchase the glasses the same day. In Cyprus, buying glasses are every cheap the kindly Greek Cypriot doctor informed me. Cheap? The eye test was free, and the glasses cost a little under £30 CYP, but as Hafza was to reveal to me with pride some time later, that money was the donated cents of almost every asylum seeker in Nicosia, gathered in a week.

I was close to tears. I asked why they had done it. Surely it couldn't be because I helped with some translations or spoke for them in some interviews, or filled in a few forms? Hafza had tilted his head in a nod (which is the equivalent of shaking his head in his culture): No. It is because you are from big country, big education, but you come and speak to us as though we are big like you. We needed someone to hear us, and you listened to us.

Tell them, Mr Ali, tell them of us.

A friend of mine teased me once about my unshakable faith in humanity. It may sound strange, but this experience has reinforced that faith in humanity again. The goodness I've seen come out of extreme suffering shows me that even in the worst situations there are points of light, even if as distant as the stars in the night.

It shows me that even when there is nothing we can do, sometimes understanding can be everything.

And that no night is completely dark.

Read more: About my life | My say | the War In Iraq | About Cyprus >>

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