Last year I participated in the 19th Nordic Migration Research Conference 2018 in Norrköping where I came to present about the experiences of undocumented HIV positive migrants in Russia.
I got impressed by the one of the speakers in the opening session. His name is Haqqi Bahram. He is a Syrian refugee living in Sweden and member of The Young Republic, a successful refugee-led NGO involved in advocacy of refugee rights on the European level. I got inspired by the confidence and clearness of Haqqi’s messages I immediately asked him for an interview. I want to share this new voice of community-led advocacy with my partners and community leaders in East Europe and Central Asia to get inspired and never stop fighting for our rights to health.
Haqqi, I wanted to ask you about your personal journey, how you became a refugee, to the extent you can share, of course.
I became a refugee because I could not stay back home. So for me it was not a kind of choice. It is not about push and pull factors, it is more about not having a choice at all. It more about not knowing where you are going tomorrow. It is something you have never planned for. You don’t plan like “ok, in five years I’m going to be a refugee”. The way that you cross borders – it is pretty much random. Although there are people who have the advantage of reflecting, of deciding where to end up but this opportunity is not available for everyone. Sometimes you will just stay where you feel safe. I went from Syria to Turkey, and from Turkey all the way to Sweden.
Ok, all those people – the politicians, the journalists, they are trying to put guilt on the refugees, they see their arrival as a threat. Does that corroborate with your personal experience in a way or another?
So imagine you are leaving your country in a moment when you are too much traumatized, you have left everything behind, you do not know what is going to happen to you, and then you find yourself in that situation when you are pictured as a criminal. So here comes the question how the EU views itself when a country like Greece, a part of the European Union, receives people like this and still it is accepted, and still can Greece stay as a member of the European Union. That was really a tough moment in my journey.
So, finally, you arrived in Sweden and it took you some time to have your refugee status recognized, right?
To be exact, 14 months until I got a decision on my application. And I did not get a refugee status, I got subsidiary protection. According to the new law in Sweden, there is no permanent residency for any type of status you get. With a refugee status or alternative protection, you get temporary stay in Sweden. The difference happens when you get a refugee status, your residency is for three years, while if you get it for protection reasons, you only get it for 13 months, which I got. After waiting for 14 months, I just got a stay for 13 months. And those 13 months, of course, expired, and then I got extension for two more years.
Ok. Now, tell me, please, this story about “The Young Republic”: why and how you decided to join it or you participated in the creation of this movement?
I was not a founder but I joint quite early. And the reason was that I lived in the cause, and I found myself in a place where I can work together with people who believe in the same principles, values and people who were working to include everyone. I felt myself included right from the beginning. This is the place where I can advocate for my rights and the rights of others like me.
Tell me a little about how this movement is structured and in what way you are a part of it?
The organization was registered in Sweden in 2015 as an NGO but we have members in more than seven European countries. All of us work on a voluntary basis. We are structured according to thematic focus. We have advocacy, education, research. These are themes where we have a lot of volunteers and members. And we have also started to structure specific teams: fundraising, administration and communication. We exist in Sweden and in Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, the UK.
Do you need to be a refugee to become a member?
We do not have these strict criteria that you need to be a refugee, but for us it is important that you share the same vision with us but it is not restricted only to refugees. We work with young refugees, we work with the local societies, and we work with decision makers. But for members and volunteers, we are open to everyone basically.
But does this give a sense of belonging when you are a part of the refugee community? It is important?
It is important that the NGO was started by refugees and it is led by refugees. So for me it is always something I can find support with. But of course, as I always say, I do not want my experience to be the exceptional experience of a refugee. I do not want to find myself shouting and shouting for my rights with my fellow refugees. I want to do it where everybody is. We need to work with the local communities, with decision makers if we really want the young refugees to be included in the whole society. It is not like we support one part but we ignore the other stakeholders.
How would you formulate the main objective of your work?
Our vision is that young refugees are empowered, they have strong civic engagement with their local communities, and the principles of democracy and human rights are strong in the society where these individuals live. This is our long-term vision, and we try to achieve that through education, through advocacy, and also through producing knowledge. That is why we have research going on right now.
Do you cooperate with universities or some research groups?
We do. For example, we had one workshop in April this year with Linköping university where we invited the Young Republic and another refugee organization. The purpose of this workshop was to make the bridges between the refugee-led organizations and the research about refugees. So we called it Let’s talk Inclusion bridging research and practice. Because we have a lot of good research that is being done but then it is not disseminated enough, it is not made visible, people do not know about it. Refugees who are trying very hard to show their cases they do not know about it because it stays inside the universities, inside the think-tanks. And on the other hand, you have the practice, that they have a lot of good lessons, good practices, but, again, they are not being a part of any research. When these practices do not appear in research, the refugee voices are not being represented in the research about them. So We are trying to make this connection, and we had this workshop with the Linköping university.
Second, at the Linköping university we also have something called the Linköping university Initiative for refugee questions, where they support student groups, organizations with any project that concerns refugees whether it is about their inclusion in the labor market, whether it is about doing a workshop, or any kind of social activities.
We create partnerships with those who share the same messages we advocate for. Our doors are pretty open I would say. Whenever we become part of any network or whenever we enter into any partnership, for us the principle of human rights is the most critical. We always have to make sure that their activities are done according to the full respect of human rights, not only refugee rights.
Do you work with political parties?
We work more with the civil society. We definitely work with decision makers but not under the brand of collaborating with a party. But of course, we have people who make decisions and are members of the parties, and of course, we share views, we talk together.
How do you empower refugees? I mean, those who come they tend to remain silent, even within the civil society. What are the tool you use to empower them?
We are trying to reach out to those who are, for example, need to get more education about human right and democracy. And then, they get the tools to talk about the rights. Because even if you know that there is injustice and you are not being treated fairly but still you lack the language, you know, to advocate for your rights. We try to reach to those vulnerable groups. But we do not want, as I said, to exceptionalize them or come with the conception that they all don’t know. Definitely some people know, may be, more than us. But, may be, they do not have the networks. Our job is more to create networks among the groups, among the people, to organize themselves, not necessarily become members of the Young Republic but to start these local initiatives. For example, we have now a program, called, The Change-Maker Academy. It’s a mentorship program for six months in the county of Stockholm where groups of young people come together and they work on a social initiative that will create changes in terms of social inclusion of more people into decision making in the areas where they live. For us these kind of programs are crucial because, it is not like we go there and we instruct people. Everything we do is through informal education. Our role is to actually facilitate the coming together of people. Then, they decide for themselves what kind of project they want to work on. We have two groups I know about right now: people who did not know each other before but they came together through the Change-Maker Academy and they received mentorship from an expert that the Young Republic provided. We just facilitate, we just bring experts who can work with these groups. And for us, we think, it is a really good experience because these groups are very diverse: we have newcomers, we have international students, we have migrants, and we have people from different nationalities.
Who supports you financially?
Because we are an organization, we can always apply for European funds whether it is Erasmus+ or it is another institution. There are calls for application and we apply with our ideas. And sometimes when we get the funding, of course.
Tell me about your advocacy initiatives, did you have any success stories so far?
We don’t do this only in the Young Republic but the Young Republic as part of the advocacy is part of other networks. And one of these networks is called the Network for Refugee Voices. This network was founded in 2016, in summer, and it’s a coalition of many refugee-lead organizations around the world. So our international advocacy in this network has been really focused on the Global Compact on Refugees. The global Compact on Refugees was discussed in Geneva and then there were state formal negotiations on the Compact which went through different phases of drafting and now by the end of the summer of 2018. The Compact was later presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations and to be endorsed by the member states. For us being present there in Geneva, being present for the first time in history, when refugee representatives can be present in such places – there was a great success for us. But it was not only for us to be there and be in the pictures because this is not our aim for our advocacy, we don’t want to be there just to be like – “yeah, we have refugees and we tick the box. No, we were there to have a meaningful presence to impact the drafting of the Compact. So we actually… every time we went to Geneva to these meetings we would present our comments on the draft to states’ representatives who would listen to us and try to include our suggestions, our notes or comments in their own interventions to the floor, because we did not have the chance but state representatives could.
I think this is the core of the problem, that it’s three years after the influx of the migration crisis in 2015 and it’s only now that it’s happening that the communities, the voices of refugees are heard on such a political level. So before that they tried to decide everything on their own, right? I mean without involving the refugees.
I think the refugee advocacy is increasing but that also indicates something that does not mean that refugees just felt like “Oh, yeah, let’s do something”. It’s more about, I think, the changes that are happening in many European countries for example and how the rights of asylum, how the rights of refugees are being set to the minimum accepted in Europe. You can take Sweden for example. Sweden used to be the pioneer of human rights and Sweden used to have very generous asylum policy, but now Sweden is just sticking to the minimum accepted standards from the European Union.
What is the reaction to your initiative from the Swedish society, is it mediatized, do you have interviews, what feedback do you get?
I think in Sweden usually no one will be against human rights publicly, so those initiatives like the training courses and Change-Maker Academy – and all the other projects that we work on, usually the reaction is quite positive. It’s not negative as you might find in some other countries for example.
I see. What recommendations would you give for an initiative group of migrants, say for instance in my country, who would like to do advocacy together and to have their voices heard?
I think it’s important that they get organized themselves, so it should start from themselves, if they feel the need to have a strong voice, but they cannot do this in isolation, so they should do this through the help of the existing and supportive Russian civil society. For example, it’s the same here in Sweden, you find many initiatives that have been started by Swedes themselves and they are supportive of groups of refugees and they help them to organize; so in countries where the right to advocate puts you quite in risk, I don’t know how far you can get organized and to what degree you can be allowed rights, but it’s important that you get the ball rolling, you know. You should start somewhere.
And you mentioned this role of the local civil society, who can cooperate them…
Of course, they can provide a lot of support. For example, in Sweden you don’t really need a lot of bureaucratic procedures to make an NGO but in other countries maybe the procedures are quite different, refugees might not be entitled to form NGOs for example, and in this case it is the role of the civil society to support, to register an NGO for example, but then let the refugees be the leaders of these initiatives. And allow the refugees to be advocates of their rights and not to be just passive recipients of any sort of policy and so on.
My last question, yesterday you mentioned… you touched upon this aspect of the identity of being a refugee, so it’s not a question of choice, of willing to become a refugee. How do you feel yourself today, I mean how do you identify yourself?
I identify myself as everybody else, who has multiple identities I don’t want to be locked with “Haqqi the refugee”. I’m more than a refugee. Yes, I’m a refugee, and I am not ashamed to be a refugee, because being a refugee is not something bad. But for me it is bad when I am only thought of as a refugee as if I don’t have any other capabilities, as if I don’t have anything else to provide for the society. When I’m thought of as a refugee, the image of the passive refugee who is sitting at home and waiting for the social security benefit every month is constructed, so this is kind of narrative we want to deconstruct being a refugee is not something bad, but thinking of people as just refugees is something very bad that needs to change.
Thank you so much!
Interview was taken by Daniel Kashnitsky.