the interrogations of shamshouma

Archive for the tag “UNHCR”

The unbearable suffering of Syrians in Lebanon: Competing economies of compassion

We might now be beyond the point of wondering why there is no real political, economic and social solidarity with the Syrians in Lebanon, not even a solidarity of sympathy towards the suffering they were exposed to both in Syria and Lebanon. A compassion that is at a level which, arguably, does not reckon a strong political affiliation of some sort or even intellectual work, but more of a human ability, impulse or emotion to recognize, acknowledge and show solidarity with the other’s suffering.

Not only that there is no solidarity, which the national discourse justifies by providing the economic situation as an excuse (and yes, even with the absence of the state, we still manage to produce and solidify a hegemonic racist discourse against the Syrians that everyone buys into, sometimes to the extent of uttering idiotic statements like “It’s appalling how the Syrians break the traffic law all the time!” which makes me want to punch someone in the face), there is a daily structural minute forms of discrimination against and scapegoating of “the Syrian” as responsible for all the historical and existing Lebanese problems.

This hegemonic discourse erases all violent Lebanese state policies against workers and public state institutions, and provides the frame through which animosity, rather than solidarity, is produced. the Syrian presence in itself poses a threat to the Lebanese identity (which now everyone seems to know what it is) defined in complete opposition to what the other, the Syrian, is in the Lebanese imaginary; to Lebanese institutions, which now everyone seems eager to salvage and preserve their “efficiency”, from education (for an important article on racist educational policies against “non Lebanese” see this), economic rights, up to traffic laws violated everyday by the Syrians.The Lebanese “culture” itself is now under attack, from the influx of foreigners with a completely different cultural traditions, norms and ways of bieng. It seems that the Lebanese define themselves in relation to their “other”, the ever so essentially different creature called the Syrian.

But still, what is most striking, at least to me, is the overgrowing discourse of de-legitimizing the suffering of Syrians, especially Syrian refugees, and sometimes even failing to see this suffering at all. This, I believe, is also tied to, and disruptive of, a certain political economy of suffering that exists in Lebanon, which makes even the ‘Syrian suffering’ a threat to the national discourse around violence and suffering in Lebanon.

I will convey two recurrent stories here to make my point clearer:

We have suffered too/We have suffered more

The first story is quite a recurrent one. It is the story of a Lebanese encountering a Syrian. The Syrian is usually in this story silent, quiet and does not want to speak of what she has witnessed, what she has gone through, what she has seen. The Lebanese, by the mere fact of encountering a Syrian, say in a service car or in the lobby of a clinic, etc. , starts telling the Syrian about how and what she has seen is nothing compared to what he has gone through during the civil war. Story after story after story, from staying long hours in line to get bread, to hiding and running from shelling, to seeing dead bodies in the streets, to random massacres and losing loved ones, the Lebanese purges stories of his own suffering, stories that would probably not have been shared otherwise. Frantically, he recites his long and maybe hidden or forgotten stories, one story after the other, while the Syrian sits quietly, maybe not knowing what to answer, or maybe just appalled by the distastefulness of this recounting of the Lebanese suffering that gives it much more value and intensity than her own untold, but more imminent experience. I have heard this recurrent story numerous times. It ends with the Lebanese telling the Syrian that her suffering is nothing compared to his and what he has gone through.

Syrian refugee gives his e-card to the supermarket manager. photo by Dalia Khamissy

Syrian refugee gives his e-card to the supermarket manager. photo by Dalia Khamissy

No one ever gave us a stipend! : Economies of compassion and global recognition of suffering

The second story is a recurrent commentary on the stipends that the Syrian refugees get because of their suffering. These commentaries range from signaling that the refugees have money and keep exploiting the Lebanese economy to discussing in details what they are allowed to buy with this money. One person in particular was quite angry at the fact that a liquor store he saw had a sticker that says “we can accept refugee cards” (he is probably referring here to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)’s e-card system for Syrian refugees in Lebanon). “Do they get to also buy alcohol with their stipend”?! He says, in an angry tone, appalled that the stipend might cover something more than the refugees’ basic vital needs. Then he says: “no one ever gave us anything for our suffering in the civil war!..and we suffered so much more than them, but we got nothing in return”.

This “suffering envy”, or this jealousy over basically everything a Syrian possess from a story of suffering to a monthly stipend, is appalling, yes. But the point is that it also reveals a whole economy of suffering set by global humanitarian organizations that make suffering into a commodity that refugees have to perform, possess and show in order to get asylum and recognition. But also, this suffering envy reveals how unbearable the other’s pain is, and how it shakes and disrupts the Lebanese’s own narrative of violence and suffering.

Disrupting the Lebanese politics of suffering: The unbearable suffering of Syrians in Lebanon

The suffering of the Syrians is unbearable. It is a sudden reminder of the multiple layers of violence that the Lebanese have themselves gone through and that they have no national discourse or frame through which they are allowed to express, formally and to the world, how much they have and still suffer from injuries of violence. This absence of suffering has many reasons that I am still trying to understand. One of it is the dominant representation of Lebanon and the Lebanese as “naturally resilient to wars and violence”. These representations describe the Lebanese as indifferent to violence and war, tanning in a bikini while Beirut is bombed, where the geopolitical nature of Lebanon makes it “naturally susceptible to war and violence” (as if Lebanon naturally attracts violence and war which has genetically equipped Lebanese to become resilient and almost indifferent to war). Other reasons are of course post-civil war state ideologies of erasures through “reconstruction”, erasing all physical and semiotic presence of civil war violence form Lebanon, and with it any possible national discourse of suffering.

It is through these representations that the suffering of the Syrian is read. It is of course interpreted and appropriated by the Lebanese’s own narrative of suffering. This is how, I think, Syrian suffering loses any meaning in Lebanon, and does not register any kind of collective solidarity or compassion (of course people and individual sympathize but I am speaking her of a collective and political solidarity. Rather, it automatically signals the Lebanese’s own form of suffering, or to be more specific, its absence.

 The Syrian does not appear to be suffering in Lebanon. It is incredible how big a threat is this Syrian. Her suffering signals and threatens the Lebanese’s politics of suffering; her need for labor and work threatens to damage the whole Lebanese economic structure.

Stuck between humanitarian global market of suffering, manifested in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that UNHCR and hosting countries need to see and recognize in order to give a refugee status, and the Lebanese own privileged suffering, Syrians’ own experience of loss, violence and pain is left unrecognized, unaccounted for and forbidden to emerge in certain cases. If we think about it, the Lebanese and Syrian has gone through a lot of common experiences and have shared a lot of ordeals. It is quite sad to see that  suffering both shared and experienced by the Lebanese and the Syrian does not produce any kind of political solidarity or a political community that identifies this suffering as one.


For UNHCR, a Crisis is just another day in the office

I saw this amazing poster in one of the NGO offices I visited, I had to restrain myself not to burst out laughing while vomiting in my mouth

Hello, we are UNHCR, we take pictures of places of conflict and re-appropriate them to show how hard and tiring it is for us to work and solve these conflicts, because, you know, we are kind of like that movie with Nicolas Cage, The City of Angels. We are jaded angels who help humans when they suffer. We also juxtapose pictures of Angelina Jolie next to Dying Somali kids, Syrian refugees and any kind of African women, so that the image is bearable enough to look at in order to donate money and save those dying Africans and Arabs
We are amazing, except when we bully, racially harass and arrest Sudanese asylum seekers on strike in Lebanon to demand their right for refugee status, but we did that because these people do not appreciate our angel-like work, ma32oul?! Nice to meet you, what do YOU do to make the world a better place?l

Sudanese Asylum seekers in Lebanon: a battle for visibility and human rights

There are many ways in anthropology and cultural studies to describe an un-human, a person who does not fit into our category of humanity, someone that somehow is not visible to us socially as a human. My friend once told me a story that I never fully believed. It was about a man he used to bully. One day, his friends and him decided to treat this man as if he was invisible. When he called them, they would ignore him. If he came up to them, they would act as if he was not there. They acted as if he did not exist for around two weeks until the guy was crying so hard they had to stop. “He almost went insane”, said my friend.

It is hard to “talk” about and represent people who exist but don’t “really” exist, the invisible ones, those we ignore everyday and act as if they are not there. Beirut is full of these invisibles. When I was walking in Hamra the other day, there was, in the middle of the sidewalk, a woman talking to a man: “kifak, shoo akhbarak? Kif el madame? Kifak be hal shawbeit?” and between them, a man with his back twisted all the way to the floor, spreading his arm and hand between them, looking at them both and listening to their conversation. An invisible man, I thought.

We do that all the time, ignore certain people, try not to have eye contact with them, etc. On a more structural and institutional level, however, this is somewhat what the UNHCR is doing with the Sudanese asylum seekers in Lebanon, by acting as if they don’t exist as humans with rights and dignity.

These Sudanese communities are not refugees yet. Lebanon works as a transitional country between the refugee-to-be and the host country (in this case USA). However, in the waiting time between abandoning the Sudanese nationality and seeking refugee status in the States, Sudanese refugees-to-be become invisible, and are treated as such by both the Lebanese State and by the very institution that is supposed to help and protect them.

The story of the Sudanese asylum seekers, the invisibles, is both appalling and telling of the paradoxes and gaps in what is consider “human” and “human” rights by the international community.

(A spoiler alert: it should go as no surprise, unless you are a silly idealist and humanist (whatever that means these days) to you that structural racism plays a big deal in producing what is human and what is not in this story, and also what is “sexy” in terms of refugees right now, ie what does the dear donor himself acknowledges as refugee, as war, conflict and suffering.)

The Sudanese community in Lebanon who are seeking refugee status in the US (because, unlike other communities seeking refugee status, for some reason, Sudanese will only be received in the US and not Europe and have no choice in the matter) are claiming that they have been waiting for too long for their refugee status to become valid.

Although the reason for the delay is a “security check” that is required by the American State, the waiting period is unjustifiable and leaves these communities in a very exploitative position in Lebanon. In this liminal space, sudanese asylum seekers become incredibly vulnerable and invisible socially. They are exploited both by the UNHCR staff and by Lebanese society and state, who treat them both as non-humans, as less than humans, by depriving them of their basic human rights.

Living in Lebanon without any form of social protection or support, without any way to work except to rely on an unsystematic delivery of services from UNHCR, is only producing more exploitation and racism towards these communities:

“My landlord kicks me out of my house once every other week…He knows I have no papers so he takes advantage of that. When I get home I find my stuff thrown outside and I talk to him and he says: “I want you to pay 100.000L.L. more. I tell him I don’t have that much money. He tells me, go ask the UNHCR for more money” this is one of dozen stories of abuse and exploitation that these communities undergo without any protection from the UNHCR or the Lebanese state.

Many of these Sudanese communities agreed that they are being treated “like children” by the UNHCR. When they come to ask about their refugee status, or when they come and ask for aid, the staff laughs at their accent and talk to them “as if we are kids”. One of them said that “I went to ask for food and money, but one  staff asked me to get a job: “Why wont you get a job, he said, smiling. You look fit and healthy, go work and make a living . “You know I cannot work in Lebanon” I told him, why wont you give me what I am entitled to?”

Stateless and invisible to the International community, Sudanese asylum seeks decided to use their only available and last human trait to protest: their bodies. They went on hunger strike to become visible as humans in distress. Like Khader Adnan’s hunger strike, Sudanese refugees are asking for recognition that they are humans and that they deserve dignity. By their hunger strike, they are signaling the failure of UNHCR in protecting them in Lebanon and their distress over what goes on inside this institution.

some Sudanese asylum seekers talked about how they were ridiculed and mocked “like children” when they started their sit-in outside of the UNHCR building. “They will walk and laugh at us in our face. When they finally allowed us to meet them, they promised us all these unrealistic promises and gave us nothing concrete. Then they did not do anything. We tried to explain to them what our demands were and why we were protesting, but they seemed not to listen”

On August 4th, after 50 days of hunger strike, UNHCR seems to have had enough of this “childish” game. Sudanese strikers were arrested and detained in the Adlieh prison for daring to be too visible. 23 days later, 14 of them are still in detention. Ironically enough, one the Sudanese Asylum seekers  had said before that the only way to become visible enough to get a refugee status is for them to go in prison. He told the story of an asylum seeker who was beaten up by a Lebanese man and went to the police station to complain. When they asked for their papers, he didn’t have any so he was arrested and put into prison. Shortly enough, his refugee papers magically arrived and he left to the US. This Sudanese trouble maker made enough trouble to become a refugee.

However, the detainees will not receive any refugee papers. This time they became more visible. The arrested Sudanese Asylum seekers are apparently bullied and threatened by the UNHCR to sign a commitment not to protest outside of the UNHCR doors. Their very release is conditioned onto signing this commitment.

If this turns out to be right, UNHCR would be violating the basic right of any human being,  the right to protest for dignity and recognition of his or her humanity. This situation seems shocking and surprising. How can an institution that draws its authority from the International community and whose function is to protect and serve asylum and refugee communities end up exploiting them and endangering their very own human rights? Who supervises the international community and the United Nations, that supervises us all?

It is very crucial to show support for these Sudanese Asylums seekers and help them become more visible as humans with un-debatable rights to protest and complain. Join the solidarity protest this Wednesday for the immediate release of the detainees by the very own institution that claims to protect human right values and principles.

The demands of the Sudanese asylum seekers are the following:

-The immediate and unconditional release of the detained strikers/asylum seekers.

-The cessation of the UNHCR’s abuse of their power and position to violate the asylum seekers and refugees’ basic rights when they should be protecting and supporting them.

-A new memorandum of understanding between the UNHCR and the ministry of Interior stipulating mainly that asylum seekers or applicants to refugee status should not be arrested and/or detained under any circumstance; particularly and especially because they don’t have residence permits or legal papers (pending the UNHCR processing).

 “Refugees like Syrians and Iraqis are not treated like that, why are we?” good question, I thought. Have I heard other refugees complain? No, I thought to myself, as i sat listening to the Sudanese Asylum seekers tell us about their strike a few weeks before they were arrested.  But in the future, I will. I will witness other forms of structural exploitation of refugees and displaced communities from different communities in Lebanon, which will lead me to realize that there is something essentially flawed with what we refer to as “international committee” itself and its apparatuses.

But that is a story for another day. Our story today is about invisible ones.

Support the Sudanese Asylum seekers’ search for their humanity. We all seem to be losing our humanities very quickly these days..

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