Aug 16, 2012

“Their future is the land… our future is the world.”

“Their future is the land… our future is the world.”
By Pat Thompson.

The air was hot. Thick with dust waltzing through the camp, billowing the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) branded tents like sails. The heat of midday beat the men and women back to the shade of their sailing tents. The children not knowing better ran about in the sun, gingerly climbing on the red hot, stainless steal climbing frames, trying not to get burnt, playing with the heat.

A dust Cloud blows through Domiz Camp
Children have their future. Their past is fleeting. Non existent in the grand scheme of the world, the memory of the land, they are forgotten, save for the lost shoe, the dropped doll that the dust swallows and digests, adding to the millennia of artifacts that become part of the rock. The layers of history waiting to be decoded by teams of archeologists and historians asking, “What was life like in Domiz?”

The Domiz refugee camp, one of many that dots the skirt of Syria’s current borders, currently houses some 4000 Syrian Kurds. It braces for more, those escaping the violence of failed politics, of civil war.

Khalil escaped Damascus three months ago, with the members of his family who could bear the weeks of traveling through the Syrian desert heat, through the snipers waiting at the border. He sat holding his youngest wide-eyed child, in his family’s billowing tent. Khalil and his family had offered what little they had to us “Westerners”, honoring a time old pillar of Islam, hospitality for the stranger.

“Where are your elders?” we asked, surrounded by young men and women nursing their fidgeting children. “Their future is the land,” Khalil mused. They will not leave home. Their parents, their elders, will accept their fate and die where they where born, where they have lived and loved, laughed and cried. Khalil and his family cannot find a reason to return, whether or not there is eventual stability in Syria, or its currently autonomous Kurdish region. After decades of oppressive dictatorship, plus the hundreds of years of Ottoman rule, the future is ominous for Syrian Kurds.
Khalil and his Son

Instead Khalil and the thousands of Syrian Kurds like him look “West”, to Europe, to the United States, for the future of their children. Their future. If we the “West,” open our doors, then Khalil’s son will have a good future. “Let him learn in any Western country,” he cried jubilantly. “In ten years, he’ll be educated, he’ll have his own laptop... Let him live there, and learn ten languages ... He’ll become a translator if he comes back here.”

A dream I thought, as I sipped the ice-cold water Khalil had handed me, one from the heart, one with merit, but a dream nevertheless.  The “west” is the land of dreams, of “freedom”, of peace; something I feel we all question in our own ways. But apart from their tent and their dust covered refugee status, dreams are all they have. Khalil smiled “Our future is the world.” 

Some times, In’shallah (God willing), dreams do come true. 

Aug 14, 2012

July 2012 Newsletter

On team:  Carrie Peters, Patrick Thompson, David Hovde, Garland Robertson

The team responded to continuing threats to the lives and families of persons who before had spoken in public about the need for governmental reform.  After being visited by another distraught individual the team struggled to find a way to do more than only referring these persons to UNHCR, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.  The team composed a letter with the intent of publishing it in the local press.   The article identifies dangerous and disturbing consequences being experienced by persons who participated in the spring protest of 2011. 
The article was published on the website of independent newspaper Awene.   The team has written a follow-up article that has been submitted to the newspaper.  Publishing is being delayed because of the need to refine the Kurdish translation.

The team visited Bilal, a prisoner confined because of a 20-year sentence following the verdict that he is guilty of killing a soldier during a protest demonstration in Halabja in the spring of 2011.  Several members of the team had followed the events associated with Bilal’s conviction by visiting with him in confinement before his trail and being present in the courtroom during the trial process.   Bilal, still limping because of the ankle bullet wound he suffered during the fateful protest, greeted the team with enthusiasm and visited for more than hour about his present circumstances.  Afterward he invited the team to join his family—mother, father, brother, sister, cousin and niece—for a picnic dinner in the prison yard.  The family and Bilal conceded their Ramadan fasting routine to enjoy this special feast together.  The hosts graciously received CPT members into their company.  

Team members accompanied by two journalists of Rudaw and Goran Radio traveled to Zarawa and Sunnah villages.  The journalists recorded the experiences of Mohammad, a once wealthy resident of Basta village now impoverished by the losses he has suffered because of border attacks and forced evacuation from his home and farm.  Kaka Bapir enjoyed a Skype connection with Michelle Naar-Obed, a CPT member previously onsite who is continuing to support Basta with their building of a new mosque as well as helping to arrange a Duluth visit for Bapir.  Following a huge lunch prepared by Bapir’s family the team and journalists traveled to Sunnah.  The village elder oriented the visitors to the three Iranian outposts overlooking the village and the journalists talked with residents about their concerns and feelings associated with being in a location so vulnerable to more attacks in their village.

The team participated in a series of gatherings intended to bring awareness to injustices occurring because of Iranian governmental policies: an individual conducting an extended fast because of unsuccessful requests that he be allowed to visit his ill son; and two meetings with Iranian citizens residing in Sulaimani who are in danger of being returned to Iran because of their past association with the editor of the newspaper Israel-Kurd and who have been directed by the Asaish (police) to leave the country because there is no protection for them here.  Some of the targeted persons have left the city for the Qandil mountains and others are planning a pilgrimage to Syria to aid in the struggles of Kurdish refugees there.   The team offered temporary sanctuary for them if that option would be beneficial.   The team also visited with the Iranian Consulate again to nurture relationship and to discuss concerns associated with CPT’s work in the area.

Aug 12, 2012

May and June 2012 Newsletter

The team had been writing monthly updates, highlighting day-to-day activities and things the team did that may not have been reported on otherwise. The purpose of these updates was to give non-team members, especially supporters at home and abroad, an idea of what it was like to serve on-team. 

Unfortunately, the last update the team published was from April. The team acknowledges that this was a very long time ago. But, in the spirit of "better late than never," curious individuals may read about some small adventures the team enjoyed for the months of May and June.

Aug 9, 2012

A visit to prison

On Sunday, 22 July, the team visited a prison just outside the city, to meet with an acquaintance, Bilal, who has been imprisoned there for nearly a year. In early May he was sentenced to twenty years for a murder he swears he did not commit. 

Sunday is visitors' day, and as a guard escorted us through the grounds, we saw men lounging under trees in a courtyard, children playing, and women, as well. It was a surprisingly cheerful atmosphere, and overall, it looked more like a schoolyard than a prison. Of course, that illusion required one to ignore the high fences topped with barbed wire, and the guards roaming the edges and corners of the facility. 

There were two large halls on one side of the courtyard, and low purple buildings on the other. As a prison employee walked us across the courtyard, Bilal emerged from one of these halls, leaning heavily on a cane and raising his other hand in greeting. He walked toward us. He was smiling so brightly I forgot for a moment that he was a prisoner here.

The prison employee then escorted all of us out of the courtyard, through the gate, and into one of the rooms in the low purple buildings. There were not enough chairs, but we asked Bilal to sit, because of his injury. He'd been shot last year through the ankle; he has a terrific scar. He said it is better now, but he still has trouble moving his foot. He told us he needs a second surgery, which he plans to have whenever he is freed.

As Bilal spoke, we moved to another room with seats for all of us. A prison guard sat behind a desk, listening intently. Bilal said he didn't mind, that the guard could hear what he had to say, too. I had the impression that he's told his story many times, and what he shared wasn't secret. Given what he's said, it seems an awful lot like he's been framed for a murder he didn't commit. The murder of a police officer, in fact. One thing he did say to us, even while the guard was sitting there, was that we were all unknown people here in the prison, and that guard there, he could take one of the books on the desks for himself, and then when the other guards ask, “Where is this book?” he would say, “Oh those new people took it!” And then we would get in trouble. He indicated that this is how things roll, around here, with the authorities. It was not encouraging to hear, especially given that he and his lawyer are working to appeal his “guilty” verdict. 

After that, we went back outside, back into the courtyard, and into one of the big halls, where Bilal's family was waiting for us. They'd prepared a big lunch, hosting us in a prison, during Ramadan. We learned that his family travels up from Halabja every week to visit Bilal, at great personal expense, and the fact that everyone was supposed to be fasting during Ramadan didn't seem to bother them. There were other families there visiting too, but I think we were the only ones with food. 

Bilal's mother and sister greeted me with kisses, when we entered the hall; this is a Kurdish custom. The men greeted each other with salutes and handshakes. "Ba'kheir beit, ba'kheir beit", everyone said. Welcome, welcome. "Ser chao, ser chao, zor spas", we replied. Thank you. 

His family was so warm, so full of smiles and considerate attentiveness. It was surreal to think we were meeting inside a prison, where their son and brother was sentenced to stay for the next twenty years. As far as prisons go, this one seemed decent - Bilal said that the guards treated him very well, because he never made trouble, and he said that they are fed well and have access to WCs and showers - but it's still a prison. Bilal still sleeps in a room with maybe 50 other men, in bunk beds. The authorities there still forbid anyone from reading newspapers or books that aren't published by the political parties, or watching TV that isn't state-run. There is an exercise room, Bilal said, but when he inquired about being allowed to use it, he told us they said it was only for prisoners who've been here for a long time. Maybe in five years he can use it, they said. 

He does have access to his lawyer, and together they are working on an appeal. He has great hope that the appeal will succeed, and that he’ll walk free by winter.

Finally the guards told him that he had to return to the bunkhouse, and we began saying our goodbyes. As I once more leaned in to air-kiss Bilal's mother's cheek in farewell, I noticed she was crying. I wished -- not for the first time -- that I didn't have this language barrier to work around, that I could say something that might give comfort. As it was, I just tried to pour all my lost words into my eyes, and my hand pressed against hers. 

"Khwa hafis," we said, back and forth, in parting. Go with God. 

It will have to be enough.

- Carrie Peters
To read the original, somewhat longer reflection on the team's trip to see Bilal, please visit Carrie's personal blog here.