Monday, 5 September 2016

“I have refugenes” – celebrities share their refugee origins

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What do singers Rita Ora and Jamie Cullum, architect Richard Rogers and author and actor Ben Elton have in common?  They all have “refugenes” – they are either refugees themselves or have family members who were forced to leave their countries.

They took part of Refugenes, a short film launched today by the charity Help Refugees as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the number of people in Britain who are from refugee backgrounds and to highlight how they contribute to modern society and culture.

In the video, Ora, Cullum, Rogers and Elton join other prominent popular culture figures, such as Bella and Esther Freud, Noisettes’ frontwoman Shingai Shoniwa, singer Yasmin Kadi and model and blogger Naomi Shimada in discussing their own refugee origins and how these roots helped shape who they are today.

These people have all risen to the top of their fields, but each has a personal story or family history involving displacement from lands that were no longer safe due to war or tyranny – a fate shared by some 8.6 million people worldwide in 2015 alone.

The campaign is also encouraging the public to share their own #Refugenes  stories in order to paint a fuller picture of who are Britain’s refugees and how they  have contributed to the society we live in today.

Refugenes sets these stories against the backdrop of the current refugee crisis, which reached cataclysmic proportions in 2015 with the escalation of the Syrian civil war and unrest in the Middle East and Africa caused by the rise of ISIS. Since then over one million people have sought refuge in Europe.

The charity Help Refugees was created in the autumn 2015 in response to the needs of refugees in the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais. It has now grown into one of the leading humanitarian organisations dealing with the refugee crisis in Europe, having helped nearly half a million people with both basic amenities and quests for resettlement. 





Thursday, 4 August 2016

Countering violence in war-torn Yemen



Credit: Search for Common Ground



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“When you sleep at night, you just think: ‘Maybe I will wake up. Maybe I will not,’” says Shoqi Maktary, Search For Common Ground’s Yemen Country Director.

The war in Yemen is one of the most underreported humanitarian crises in the world todayThe small country on the Arabian Peninsula, packed with 27.5 million people, is suffering from a civil war that’s now a proxy for others. Over a million people have fled their homes. "People can’t access the basics they need to survive,” says Maktary. Millions lack water, medicine, or shelter. 

Beyond the immediate mayhem caused by the fighting, the war has also deepened existing divisions and created new ones between Sunni and Shi'a, refugees and host communities. "I worry the violence is creating a new generation of young people who'll grow up with this hatred for each other," warns Maktary. (You can read here a Reuters article on the war and what can be done.

In Yemen, most people accept violence as an appropriate way to handle certain disputes. It is common practice to discipline children at home and at school, using violence. War has exposed this everyday violence for what it is. 

Search for Common Ground, a charity which partners with people across African, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the USA to end violent conflict is trying to change this. Their team works closely with women, educators, migrants, young people and the media to develop a culture of respect, human rights and constructive problem-solving.  

They have launched a peace-in-school program last year, training over 900 teachers, partners and government officials to understand the effects on violence on children's development. Their ability to resolve conflicts without violence has increased by 50%. Teachers tell stories about how students once triggered them to resort to violent punishment, but now the same behavior prompts them to discover why the kids are acting out. They say that they are committed to "break the stick." One teacher, Khaled, explains: "This training comes at a time when the school environment and community as a whole are overwhelmed with violence.  We were in desperate need for such training."

Seeing the impact of the program, Yemen's Ministry of Education now wants their entire staff to take the training, which might lead to conflict resolution curricula in every school.

Maybe these children will build a better future for their country...






Sunday, 10 July 2016

Freedom is not easy - exhibition of refugees who found safety in London


Hodan Omar from Somalia/Credit: Caroline Irby @carolineirby




If you are in London July 12-18, come and see “Freedom is not easy” - an exhibition of portraits and interviews of refugees living in London. My friend photographer Caroline Irby represented 12 refugees in the various places where they first felt free or safe after arriving in this city. The portraits are accompanied by interviews I’ve made, capturing their stories of flight, readjustment to a new life, as well as the moment each refugee first felt safe or at home here.
There are an estimated 120,000 refugees in the UK, and last year some 32,414 applied for asylum. For most, life is not easy. Unemployment in refugee communities is above 50% (5.1% is the national average), and in 2015, the British Red Cross supported more than 9,000 who were destitute. Yet some keep striving and pulling through, and successfully make new lives here.
 

Caroline and I have worked together on a number of humanitarian stories overseas and in the UK. We have travelled widely with our work, particularly in Africa and Asia where we have seen some of the causes that trigger people to flee their homes, and visited the camps where refugees and displaced people find shelter - usually in their own countries or in neighbouring states. But some refugees move further: some cross the Sahara, the Mediterranean and the Channel, and now live here in London.

We wanted to meet some of the refugees who have settled here, to learn what propels them to move so far, and to hear about their experiences of seeking - and sometimes finding - freedom, safety and a home in this city.
At a time when politicians and the media too often dehumanise refugees by referring to them as an anonymous mass, we wanted in our small way to restore some of their identities by giving these 12 refugees a face and a voice. We also wanted to show how strong and resilient refugees have to be in order to make it here. The men and women featured in the exhibition also demonstrate that if they require some help to settle in the country, they also bring fresh energy, knowledge, talent and tremendous potential.
 

We also wanted to support Breaking Barriers, the charity which is putting together this exhibition. They are helping refugees to find meaningful employment, matching their skills. So many refugees told us that finding a "real" job was one of the main factors that helped them integrate and feel at home.
 

Here is what Hodan Omar, a young woman from Somalia, told us about the internship she found through Breaking Barriers:

"As a refugee, all you hear is negative: everything seems to conspire to put you down, so you think that maybe they are telling the truth, that you are never going to make it. But at Source8, I felt positive. They made me feel at ease. They trusted me with important things. I felt capable. It freed me of that negative cloud. Yesterday was my last day there, but I’ve gained skills, experience and confidence. Now, I am hopeful I can find a good job."


Some of the portraits/stories in this exhibition are featured in the summer issue of Positive News magazine and on their website. You can read them here.
 

“Freedom is not easy” at the Archivist's Gallery, 2-10 Hertford Road, London N1 5ET, 11-18th July 2016 from 10 am to 6pm.




Thursday, 30 June 2016

Edward Loure, the Maasai leader who champions indigenous land rights in Tanzania




Edward Loure/courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize



From the Andes to sub-Saharan Africa, indigenous groups are increasingly fighting for legal ownership of lands their ancestors have occupied for thousands of years – and in the rangelands of Tanzania, one activist believes he’s found a possible solution based on collective ownership.

Edward Loure, a Maasai leader and indigenous land rights activist from northern Tanzania, pioneered an innovative legal mechanism to preserve large expanses of ancestral lands in the Great Rift Valley, protecting both a traditional way of life and wildlife.  It is the first time tribal work has been linked to conservation in Tanzania - creating a model for other indigenous groups elsewhere in Africa and around the world to follow.

Up to two thirds of world's land held by indigenous people are under informal systems not legally recognised by states, according to a recent report by Oxfam International. Communities without formal title to lands where they may have lived for generations can be displaced by large-scale resource extraction projects, sold off to the highest bidder or seized by squatters clearing their land for illegal agriculture, according to the report, backed by 300 organisations worldwide who are pushing to expand land rights.

“Our land means everything to us. If we have no grass pastures, we will not have our cows, and without our cows, we cannot survive,” Loure told me, speaking via Skype from Dar es Salaam.

Loure, who is in his forties, grew up in the Simanjiro plains in the vast northern rangelands of Tanzania. Here communities of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers have lived off the land in harmony with migrating wildlife for centuries.  The savannahs and grasslands of northern Tanzania are home to an abundance of wildlife including gazelles, elephants, wildebeest, zebras, impalas and many other animals that keep the ecosystem in balance. Traditional communities are a vital part of that ecosystem, Loure says. “We depend on our lands and these lands have shaped our cultures and way of life.”

Edward Loure in his community/courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

But the pastoralists and hunter-gatherers’ traditional ways of life have been threatened since the 1950s when the Tanzanian government started creating National Parks. These efforts displaced thousands of indigenous people and jeopardized wildlife by destroying migratory corridors. The situation has been exacerbated in recent years by government sell-offs of ancestral lands to hunting and safari companies, and by the encroachment of unauthorised “land grabbers” seeking to use traditional grazing lands for large-scale farming.

Loure’s own community met a similar fate in 1970, when it was forcibly displaced to create the Tarangire National Park. This inspired Loure to join the Ujamaa Community Resource (UCRT), one of the first community-led NGOs in Tanzania, which has championed sustainable development and community land rights for the past 20 years.

Looking for better ways to secure land tenure, Loure saw an opportunity in the strong communal culture among tribes. He worked with UCRT to have a key legal mechanism called Certificates of Customary Rights of Occupancy (CCROs) – the primary mechanism through which land is protected under the Village Land Act – made available to groups, rather than only to individual land-owners. And that opened the door to a string a land victories. 

Over the years, at least 223,000 acres of Tanzania’s northern rangelands have been safeguarded through CCROs. Once their land rights are legally secured, communities can better access, manage and benefit from their natural resources, Loure says.

These communal land rights concepts, innovated in Tanzania, have the potential to have a global impact, says Matthew Brown, Africa Conservation Director at The Nature Conservancy.  “The notion that we need to secure local people’s collective land rights and have it officially signed off at the national level is replicable and is needed in other countries.”


For his innovative indigenous land rights work, Loure was awarded the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa in April, a sort of Nobel for grassroots environmental activists.
 
You can read more about Loure’s communal land rights scheme and its impact in this story I wrote for Positive News.



Thursday, 19 May 2016

Dementia Awareness Week - I am still there

On Our Radar's hand-held device giving a voice to people with dementia





This week is Dementia Awareness Week (15/05/16-21/05/16) and many charities and organizations come together to raise awareness about the condition, tell persons touched by dementia that they don’t have to face it alone and encourage people to remember the person behind the dementia. 

The person is more than the dementia. “Even whilst the 'wall of dementia' is in front of them, they should be held in the same regard, and treated in the same manner as they were, before they had this condition," urges the Alzheimer’s Society. "Even at an advanced stage, people with dementia can sometimes indicate they are aware of those around them; they are still ‘there’. 

 Paul Hitchmough from Liverpool couldn’t agree more. “…Suddenly because you’re diagnosed with this thing called dementia, in some shape of form you become an alien,” he said recounting how an old work colleague recently avoided him at the supermarket. “I really do think it needs to be opened up, this thing.…Just to let people know that you are still the same...” 

Paul’s words are part of the Dementia Diaries, a national project funded by Comic Relief, which brings together people’s diverse experiences of living with dementia as a series of audio diaries. I love this project because it gives a voice directly to people living with dementia.

The Dementia Diaries were launched in January 2015 by On Our Radar, a social enterprise which uses technology to give a voice to marginalized communities. So far, the On Our Radar team has trained 31 people living with dementia across the country to use simple 3D printed mobile phone handsets to record their thoughts and experiences as they occur.  The team then edits and transcribes the diary entries and uploads them onto the Dementia Diaries website, where they can be listened to and shared. 

In their entries, the diarists, who are all part of the Dementia Engagement and Empowerment Project (DEEP), document their daily experiences of living with different forms of dementia.  They talk about their frustrations and joys, what they have lost, what they can still do and what they want people to know.
You can read an entry’s transcript, look at the photo of the diarist and listen to the audio. It is a moving and very powerful.

You can read a story I’ve written about the Dementia Diaries for Positive News here.

And here is short extract from a diary entry by Anne McDonald from Glasgow:

“Why do you call me victim? No one attacked me. Many people live with this condition. We’d rather not have it, but we just get on with it. Language is not difficult…But please remember, this is real life for us. None of you know the shifting sands we walk on daily. None of us know what is ahead. Seize the day and be kind to each other. Thank you.”

If you're worried that you, or someone close to you, might have dementia, call the Alzheimer's Society's National Dementia Helpline on 0300 222 1122 or email helpline@alzheimers.org.uk for advice and support.

 

Monday, 9 May 2016

2016 World Press Freedom Index: Deep Decline in Media Freedom





This is great for censorship. Putin, Erdogan and other authoritarian leaders are celebrating.  We need to fight back the “deep and disturbing” decline in media freedom across every continent, at both the global and regional levels. 

The 2016 World Press Freedom Index, recently published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), shows that every continent has seen its press freedom score decline. The Americas have plunged 20.5%, mostly as a result of the impact of physical attacks and murders targeting journalists in Mexico and Central America. Europe and the Balkans declined 6.5%, mostly because of the growing influence of extremist movements and ultraconservative governments.  The Central Asia/Eastern Europe region’s already bad score deteriorated by 5% as a result of the increasingly glacial environment for media freedom and free speech in countries with authoritarian regimes.

This matters enormously because if journalists are not free to report the facts, denounce abuses and alert the public, how would we resist the problem of children-soldiers, defend women’s rights, oppose injustice or preserve our environment? In some countries, torturers stop their atrocious deeds as soon as they are mentioned in the media. In others, corrupt politicians abandon their illegal habits when investigative journalists publish compromising details about their activities. Still elsewhere, massacres are prevented when the international media focuses its attention and cameras on events.

The reasons for the decline in freedom of information documented by RSF include the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of governments in countries such as Turkey and Egypt, tighter government control of state-owned media, even in some European countries such as Poland, and security situations that have become more and more fraught, in Libya and Burundi, for example, or that are completely disastrous, as in Yemen. 






The survival of independent news coverage is becoming increasingly precarious in both the state and privately-owned media because of the threat from ideologies, especially religious ideologies, that are hostile to media freedom, and from large-scale propaganda machines. Throughout the world, “oligarchs” are buying up media outlets and are exercising pressure that compounds the pressure already coming from governments. 

Published every year since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index ranks 180 countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists. It offers a snapshot of the media freedom situation based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country. It does not rank public policies even if governments obviously have a major impact on their country’s ranking. Nor is it an indicator of the quality of journalism in each country.

You can find more about the report here


Wednesday, 4 May 2016

What drives young Syrians into ISIS?



Young Syrian refugees in Lebanon/Russell Watkins DFID




More than ideologies, it is poverty, desperation and desire for revenge that drive young Syrians into extremist groups.



A new study by the peacebuilding NGO International Alert shows that the key factors that push young Syrians into joining extremist groups are the need to earn a basic living, regain a sense of purpose and dignity, and the belief in a moral duty to protect, avenge and defend their people.



The study, titled Why young Syrians choose to fight: Vulnerability to recruitment by violent extremist groups, draws on interviews with 311 young Syrians, their families and community members in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, to understand what drives both vulnerability and resilience to recruitment by the groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria).



Adolescent boys and young men between the ages of 12 and 24 were found to be most at risk, along with children and young adults not in education, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees without supportive family structures and networks.



The findings suggest that radicalisation is not an explanation for joining a violent extremist group per se. For many young Syrians, belief in extreme ideologies appears to be, at most, a secondary factor in the initial decision to join an extremist group. 



Instead, vulnerability is driven by a combination of extreme trauma, loss and displacement, lack of alternative ways to make a decent living, the collapse of social structures and institutions including education, and the desire to get revenge against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. According to respondents, armed groups also provide a strong sense of purpose, honour and self-worth.



As one young Syrian man in Lebanon said: “People can find a new meaning to their life in extremism. Extremism opens a door to a new life where they are wanted.”


In Syria more than 6,000 schools are out of use, having been attacked, occupied by the military or turned into an emergency shelter. The collapse of the education system, with some two million children out of school, has also greatly contributed to young people’s vulnerability to joining violent extremist groups, who are filling this gap by providing their own forms of education, the report says. These ‘schools’ are highly segregated, exploit sectarian divisions and support divisive narratives.


UNICEF, which today unveiled details of a major new fund (Education Cannot Wait) to help get children back in class during emergencies, also stresses the crucial role of education in countries affected by wars and disasters.  


"Education changes lives in emergencies," said Josephine Bourne, UNICEF's education chief, in a statement. "Going to school keeps children safe from abuses like trafficking and recruitment into armed groups."


Yet, only 2 percent of global humanitarian appeals are on average dedicated to education.  "It is time education is prioritised by the international community as an essential part of basic humanitarian response, alongside water, food and shelter," Bourne added.


Offering comprehensive, inclusive and quality education, which also incorporates trauma healing and psychosocial support, was one of the four key factors identified by the report that can prevent recruitment.  The others were: providing alternative sources of livelihood, better access to positive social groups and institutions, and avenues for exercising non-violent activism.


The report stresses the need to integrate these social cohesion efforts into humanitarian aid projects, regional policy objectives and diplomacy aiming to reduce discrimination against refugees, which can also drive recruitment.


Note: The study was conducted five years into the conflict in Syria, which has claimed an estimated 300,000 lives, displaced 6.5 million people internally and prompted 4.8 million people to flee to neighbouring countries. 

You can find out more about International Alert's work in Syria here.