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Review: In the same boat

When she's not writing essays about globalisation and world order, student Sara Abbasi volunteers for Danish NGO Crossing Borders. Through this she recently helped to organise a panel discussion in Aarhus called In the Same Boat, which brought together refugees, academics and students to discuss Europe's ongoing refugee crisis. Here she profiles the event speakers and reflects on the integration of recent refugees in Denmark.

2015.11.27 | Hannah Spyksma

Image: Supplied

By Sara Abassi

Whilst visiting Istanbul recently with my mother, I experienced fright and apprehension after my mother was told that she was late for check-in and therefore couldn’t board the plane back to London. The uncertainty of her return home and concern for her safety was all I could think about as I flew back to Copenhagen. What would she do by herself? Would she be safe in a foreign country? Would she be able to get home?

But these are questions refugees are asking themselves every day as they leave everything behind – everything they have ever known – in order to find solace and safety in a foreign, alien land. It is safe to say that the fear and anxiety I felt is pitiful when compared to the sentiments of people fleeing their lands, often not by choice but due to the hopelessness of building a future at home or, worse, due to the fear of being killed.

A group of us at Crossing Borders recently organised an event in Aarhus titled In the Same Boat in order to raise awareness about the refugee crisis. Crossing Borders is a non-profit organisation that believes in building intercultural dialogue in order to promote diversity and peace in society. In doing so, it aims to bring together all individuals, regardless of their faith, nationality or background. Through this event, we hoped to give the people in question – the refugees – a platform where they could share their stories, engage with the people of Aarhus, and debunk the misconceptions that surround this crisis.

“We slept in forests. It was so cold that we wished the police would arrest us so that we could spend some nights in a jail. At times I thought I would die.”

Whilst the mainstream media focused on the statistics and the logistics of accommodating refugees, we wanted to shift the focus to discussing how Europe could live up to its international obligations and provide refugees with the protection and treatment they deserve.

For this purpose, we invited academic experts in the fields of law, human rights, and media, as well as social activists, all of whom made up our first panel; The Big Picture.

Nikolas David Feith Tan, a speaker currently undertaking a PhD concerning access to asylum in Europe, reminded the audience of how Europe and North America had come together to resolve matters during the Indochina refugee crisis, successfully resettling more than 2.5 million people. If this was possible several decades ago, why couldn’t it happen now?

Professor Sten Schaumburg-Müller, also on the panel, ended his talk on global law and the refugee crisis by leaving the audience to ponder over an important question: “What is your contribution to the refugee crisis?”

Unsurprisingly, it was most insightful to hear the stories of the refugees, who formed the second panel; Street Level.

Ahmad Al-Ali, from Syria, spoke about how he had made his way from Syria to Turkey by boat, and then from Turkey to Denmark, by foot: “We slept in forests. It was so cold that we wished the police would arrest us so that we could spend some nights in a jail. At times I thought I would die.” Stories of refugees risking their lives to come to Europe are often covered in the media, but hearing it in person from someone who had been in that situation was a disturbing reality check: “I often wondered – does anyone care about us?” He said.

Ghulam Haidar Hamidi, from Afghanistan, talked about the circumstances under which he had fled his country, and what he had left behind: “We don’t come to Europe for fun. I have a wife and a two year old child back home who I miss but I can’t go back to see them.” Ghulam was working as an interpreter for U.S. troops during the war in Afghanistan. When the troops were withdrawn, he went back to his village only to find that many people suspected that he was a spy working for the U.S.: “If I stayed, I would be killed. So I had to leave.”

 “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I just want to fit in, to learn about the Danish culture and be able to speak the language.

Khalil Mohamed Hamdouna, from Palestine, spoke about what it’s like to be born a refugee, and to live your whole life with this label, continuously being forced to move from one country to another, with an uncertain future. He told the audience about his aspirations of studying Engineering at university: “We need to be given a chance – that’s all.” He also addressed the issues concerning refugee integration in Denmark: “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I just want to fit in, to learn about the Danish culture and be able to speak the language. But the first phrase I learnt in Danish class was not ‘hvordan går det?’ [how are you?] or ‘jeg hedder...’ [my name is...]; it was ‘opvaskemaskine’ [dishwasher].” Khalil was grateful for the kindness Danish people had shown him, but it was evident that more work still needs to be done to better integrate refugees.

Ahmad, Ghulam and Khalil have had to leave their countries due to their lives being in danger as a result of global conflict. Their stories are just a few examples of the circumstances under which ordinary people – with a job, a family, a future – are turned into refugees. They might not share the same past, but their future seems to be in Denmark, where they are trying to build new lives.

In the Same Boat was a successful event in encouraging positive debate regarding the refugee crisis, as well as helping people to better understand the situation of refugees in Denmark. Amira Sakr, a student activist and one of the 80 attendees at the event, was inspired by what she had heard from both panels: “We have to plan more meetings and events of this sort, so that people can get more information on how to help. The more activism there is, the better.”

We may not be able to directly improve the situation for people who are risking their lives for a better future, but we can engage in relevant discourse – to raise awareness, to understand, to picture ourselves in the same boat.

With thanks to Mundus Journalism Board of Studies for sponsoring Crossing Borders for this event.

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