8 February 2015, Sunday
To spare a thought...
As a mother, grandmother and full time lawyer, life is far from routine or repetitive, with new events and challenges each and every day, dealing with the endless issues that arise. But working with the Refugees Rights Association frequently pushes me to “spare that thought” for a specific group of “others” – millions of men women and children who have become refugees throughout the world. Their plight moves and haunts me more than any other form of human rights violation and misery that exist around us. In seeking the reason behind this, I realise that the answer is because, on a deeper level, they are not “others” at all – they are me, and mine.
Among the Cypriots, including my own family, there are at present several generations who have lived through conflict and displacement at different times. Some have been scattered against their will to other parts of the island – some to other foreign countries and continents altogether. How does that feel? What does that do to you?
One useful exercise in empathy for this situation is to think in terms of a small child, looking through their eyes, feeling through their emotions.
As a child of 5 torn from home and country in the early 1960’s because of conflict in Cyprus, thoughts and emotions of that time are still fresh and vivid for me even after more than 50 years.
· the shock and fear of being violently removed from your home and neighbourhood, grandparents, relatives, toys, school and everything else that is familiar and yours…
· the sadness and insecurity felt by watching the rock of your security and safety, your parents, cry in grief and helplessness
· arriving in a cold and miserable London in winter, a feeling of being thrown into the middle of the sea, alone
· adapting to a life in a foreign environment but always fearing authority, uniforms, police, immigration, inspectors, school-heads because you see them all as a threat – because you are the intruder, the unwanted, the one who should not be there in the first place
· a constant fear of “getting caught” and sent back against your will – to a fate that you have tried to escape – and one that is at best a dangerous uncertainty
· being a foreigner – the language, the roads, the buildings, the climate, the transportation, the culture and manners, all foreign – and mostly unwelcoming
· Wanting to scream:
“dont look at me like that, Im not here because I want to be, or to take something away from you…”….
“I’m not trying to steal your precious country – I have my own precious country and if it were not in a state of war, I would be there“
“I want to go home – I miss my family, my house, my toys, my sunshine”
· being in the new and unaccustomed status of “poor”, grateful for help and support but trying to maintain dignity,
· always having to defer the purchase of desired “nice things” to an indefinite time when “we have the money” – wearing others hand-me downs
· parents both working so hard and long – often in more than one job because the feel they have to “catch up”, to regain the standard of life for their family that they tragically lost
· body and daily life is in this new place, but soul and your thoughts are constantly “back there”
· nights around a TV or radio, trying to catch the latest news about your country and its conflict - are the loved ones you left behind safe ? – and if they are, not, how would you ever know or hear ?
· feeling guilty that you are safe and the loved ones you left behind are not, and that you have no means to help them
· and every time the sadness and the pining gets too much, the tearful question ”when are we going back home ?”….
But these memories are not the full story. For all the negative impressions and experiences, at least for my family, there were also people and institutions that embraced and supported, that showed humanity and compassion – and it was this that made such a trauma bearable.
For us at that time, there were other Turkish Cypriot migrants who had gone to London in the preceding decades and were established and familiar with the country. They brought us clothes, toys, a chair, a bed, a table for the bare lodgings that we could afford to rent – they helped repair the damp and the frighteningly shaky flooring. They helped us to get registered for health and education and to find our way around official places, find work.
The British school system did not ignore or isolate us, the children of the family, but gave us extra lessons and exercise books so that we could improve our English and follow lessons more easily.
It is not possible for a host community to eliminate the traumas suffered by refugees before they arrive. But once they are among you, any assistance and support that can be provided, all efforts to show respect for their situation and help them to deal with it in dignity, is going to make a difference to a life that you cannot even begin to imagine. It gives a person in misery the strength to deal with the present, and hope for the future.
The issue of refugees is not a temporary one or one that we as the Turkish Cypriot community can evade or ignore. The conflict in Syria alone has scattered millions of refugees to all parts of our region and beyond. There is no indication at the moment that this is going to cease in the near future. We have started to be more aware of the need to improve how we deal with refugees. Both state and civil society are working in this direction but we still have a long way to go.
The role of the public is paramount in many ways. We have to ensure that refugees, and all migrants in fact, are not subjected to prejudice and racism. We have to be aware that they have needs with which our current government structure and civil society is not able to cope fully. All donations and assistance from those wishing to contribute are very valuable. But this column is not merely a call for money for a cause. It is a call for empathy with a human tragedy that is so easily overlooked or disregarded, and to know that it is not “sparing a thought” for “others”. It is a reminder that disrespect for refugee rights is a breach of fundamental human rights. And when it comes to human rights, there is no “other”, but only each and every one of us who, as human beings, have both the right to be granted such rights, and the responsibility to provide them.