Weekly Photo Challenge: A Parable of Renewal

I practiced asylum law for the first seven years of my career, representing refugees who were fleeing persecution and human rights abuses in their home countries and seeking safety in the U.S.  These are people who are not easy to forget and whose stories shouldn’t be forgotten.  Many of their stories – the details of their lives, their losses, their dreams – have stayed with me over the years.  The remarkable thing about the refugees I have known is not only their ability to survive incomprehensible losses, but also the strength and hope and determination they have to remake their lives in an entirely new country.  To learn new skills, speak new languages, adapt to new cultures.  To me, the refugee experience symbolizes this week’s Photo Challenge theme:  Renewal

 The picture above was taken in Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana, which I visited three times between 2007 and 2010. Buduburam was home for 20 years to more than 30,000 Liberians who fled the bloody conflict in their West African country.  Officially closed this year, Buduburam was a small, bustling Liberian city in the countryside outside of Accra.  Life was hard on the camp, where refugees even had to pay for water to drink and for access to the latrines. To improve their opportunities, many of the refugees at Buduburam enrolled in skills training courses; the photo shows some of classes offered by the New Liberian Women Organization (macrame being one of them, as you can also tell by the colorful plant hangers).  Even in a time of limbo, the refugees at Buduburam were striving for renewal. Those refugees who could afford it sent their children to school as education offers a chance for a new life.

I still hold many former asylum clients in my heart. I’d like to share the story of one refugee family I represented.  For me, it is a parable of renewal.

 James and Julia (not their real names) had been politically active in their native Kenya. Julia, in particular, had been very active in speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a young son, who I’ll call William, who had huge, solemn eyes.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog bit William on the head. You could still see the jagged scar on his scalp more than a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.  

 In police custody, Julia had been brutally beaten.  She was also repeatedly raped in custody, including with objects such as the muzzle of a rifle and a Coke bottle.  This testimony was critical to the success of their asylum case, so we had worked with Julia to prepare her to tell her full story, with as much accuracy as possible and as many details as she could remember.  “Just tell the truth about as much as you can remember of those weeks,” I urged. We all knew it would be painful.

 Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears. Asylum officers are specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview.  During my time practicing asylum law, I rarely saw an asylum officer actually cry during an asylum interview. 

 I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Not touching her, not looking at her, but supporting her as she spoke. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.  I had to look away. Even in my role as their attorney, a role which requires a special intimacy, I felt the need to give their family some small space of privacy as they recalled those terrible days.

 Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them. In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school. William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had another child, too – a daughter born here in America. She was wearing a pink tutu.

It had taken a lot of hard work for James and Julia to get to where they were.  They had experienced many challenges and frustrations with adapting to life in this strange, new country.  But they persisted and, through sheer effort and determination and a bit of creativity, slowly but steadily they moved forward, finding healing for themselves and building a new life for their family.   It wasn’t easy, but James and Julia had managed to make something new out of nothing. 

The Other Greek Crisis: Xenophobia and Mass Detention

Landing at Elefthérios Venizélos in Athens, you can’t miss the sprawling blue and gold IKEA near the airport.  While tourists arriving  in Greece may recognize the siren call of cheap and trendy furniture, they are not likely to notice that there are also detention centers in Athens.  The brand-new Amygdaleza migrant detention center was opened in April in western Athens, shortly before the election. There are plans to build many more detention camps – and quickly.  Greek police reported this week that they have arrested thousands and temporarily detained more than 17,000 migrants, mostly from Asia and Africa, since August 4, 2012.

I traveled to Greece for the first time in May.  I was there briefly and only as a tourist. I stayed in tourist areas, encountering very few Greeks who didn’t work in the tourism industry. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard, but I can’t help but look for human rights violations – even when I’m on vacation.   So I listened carefully when my brother, who had been living in Greece for some months, mentioned that recently the government had started arresting, detaining and deporting migrants.  In fact, the first 56 migrants arrived at the new Amygdaleza migrant detention center on April 29 – only a week before the national election. Undocumented migration had become a major issue in the May 6 election, with several parties pledging to crack down on migrants. Based largely on this issue, the far-right Golden Dawn party gained seats in Parliament for the first time.

While Greece may be idyllic for the foreigners who are tourists, many migrants and asylum seekers have a very different experience.

Since the early 2000s, Greece has been a major entry point to the west and Europe for migrants and asylum seekers from Asia and Africa.  Many of them cross the border with Turkey, which up until August was fairly porous.  By some estimates, a million immigrants live in Greece, which has a population of barely 11 million.  Add to this demographic change the deepening economic crisis and rising social tension and you get a volatile situation in which undocumented migrants and asylum seekers have become the targets of xenophobia.  According to a July 2012 report from Human Rights Watch, “Xenophobic violence has reached alarming proportions in Greece, particularly in the capital city of Athens.”

None of this was apparent to me when I was a tourist in Athens in May.  Even the economic crisis in Greece was surprisingly – shockingly, in fact – invisible.  I tried asking a couple of people about it.  People seemed annoyed with the politicians, but unconcerned that Greece would leave the Euro zone.   The waitress at the take-out place where I got my Greek salad just rolled her eyes when I asked about it.  “Try a FIX Hellas,” she said, proffering a pale Greek beer in a clear plastic cup.  “You can walk around with it.”  So I walked around Plaka like I was on Bourbon Street, thinking about the ironic name of my beverage. Lots of people were shopping.  The Barbie store was doing a particularly brisk business.

Later, I walked over to the Parliament.  Even though it was the middle of a workday, it was as still as a tomb.  I started to understand the Greek frustration with politicians.

I followed the news on the “other Greek crisis” after my return.  In early August, there was a mass crackdown on “irregular migrants”.  Greek authorities deployed 4,500 police around Athens to arrest and detain more than 7,000 migrants in less than 72 hours.    In another example of ironic naming, the Greek authorities called the operation Zeus Xenios after the Greek god of  hospitality and guests.  The Greek office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern that legitimate refugees and genuine asylum seekers could be among those who are summarily deported, but the round-ups have continued.  On September 5, Greek police reported that 17,000 migrants have been temporarily detained in these round-ups, with 2,144 of them arrested. One of the concerns is that the ongoing sweeps target suspected migrants based on little more than their physical appearance; the proportion of temporarily detained to arrest numbers seem to bear that out.  In addition to the problem of arbitrarily detaining migrants, visits to some of the migrant detention centers have documented inhuman and degrading conditions. 

Of course Greece has the right to control migration, to set and enforce their country’s immigration laws.  But Greek authorities must comply with their international and European human rights obligations.  Above all, they should not arrest, detain, and deport foreigners based on appearance or ethnicity – in contrast to the the welcome received by an American tourist like me.  The left-wing main opposition Syriza party has been critical of the crackdown and claims that the migration issue is being used to divert attention from the more difficult and unpopular issues of the economic crisis and the spending cuts that the EU and IMF require in exchange for assistance out of the economic quagmire.  From my limited observation of the situation in Greece, I have to agree.