‘I don’t care who’s fighting who ... the end result is that I’m a refugee’

Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian comedian and satirist, with Aloush, seven-year-old boy and Syrian refugee. Courtsey UNHCR
Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian comedian and satirist, with Aloush, seven-year-old boy and Syrian refugee. Courtsey UNHCR

A year ago today an image of one little boy’s lifeless body swept across the world. Aylan Kurdi’s tragic death triggered the humanity in all of us. People sympathised, the media rumbled with support, governments spoke of generously welcoming refugees and public figures expressed their support in many ways. Yet, mere months later, it feels like that moment of collective outrage and compassion has passed and our collective humanity has not only dissipated, but has been replaced by fear and by hate. Suddenly – increasingly – the word “refugee’ has become a synonym for “potential terrorist”.

A few weeks ago I was privileged to meet Aloush, an adorable seven-year-old boy and Syrian refugee. Aloush held my hand, walked me through his neighbourhood, showed me his home and introduced me to his family. His home is a 20-square-metre shop, and his neighbourhood is the abandoned Al Waha shopping mall in northern Lebanon where he lives alongside 700 other Syrian refugees. All of them families from across different parts of Syria, who have been forced to flee their formerly complete lives that were filled with other neighbours and other friends; people with jobs; young people who had schools to go to. I met a father of three in the mall who told me, “I don’t care about who’s fighting who, the end result is that now I’m a refugee”.

But the horrific experiences they have lived through have not stopped them trying to make the best of the dire conditions they are now living in. At Al Waha mall these 700 people have created their own little community, with little shops and supermarkets and most impressively their own governing committee. A freely elected committee that organises all issues regarding the mall and is entitled to speak on behalf of the mall residents and deal with outside entities. But this life is not sustainable, with no jobs or source of income their savings are depleted and these people are just fighting to survive. They’re now waiting in limbo to go back home. When I asked what they need or wish for, the first thing every single Syrian I met in Tripoli said was that they wanted to go home.

I joined a conversation with the governing committee at Al Waha mall. These people are politically aware, educated and follow closely what is happening back in their hometowns. But they don’t care any more about who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s winning and who’s losing, who is telling the truth and who is misleading them. One of the committee members ended our discussion by saying: “The only truth I know is death.”

Last year when Aylan died at sea, more than 3,700 others died or went missing at sea as well. Those numbers don’t look like they will be changing this year. So far this year, over 3,000 more human lives have been lost at sea.

I find it very impressive that small countries like Lebanon are trying as much as possible to accommodate a refugee inflow that amounts to almost 25 per cent of their own population, while other well-developed countries are still reluctant and debating whether they can receive even a fraction of those numbers. What has been done by the international community is not enough; what is offered is not enough.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, with which I travelled in Lebanon, works hard with all refugee hosting countries to help refugees survive, live and ultimately go home. Aside from its extraordinary efforts on the ground UNHCR has been rallying support for the global #WithRefugees petition, which will be handed to the United Nations secretary general ahead of the Summit on Refugees and Migrants on September 19. The petition clearly demands that governments across the world take shared responsibility for the response to the global refugee crisis, and stand in solidarity to offer refugees their basic human needs, namely education, safe shelter and the right to work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community. I stand #WithRefugees. And I ask you to stand #WithRefugees too. The very least each one of us can do is sign the petition on www.withrefugees.org. The very least we can do is to rise above all the political differences and remember that we are all humans, with similar lives and families, with the same basic needs and aspirations.

Aloush didn’t know who I was or where I came from. He just wanted to hold my hand. Anyone’s hand; someone to make him feel like it’s going to be OK, that people still care about each other, that they haven’t forgotten about this tragedy, that their humanity is still there.

Dr Bassem Youssef is an Egyptian satirist and former cardiac surgeon. He is a UNHCR high profile supporter

Published: September 1, 2016 04:00 AM


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