Last year I participated in the 19th Nordic Migration Research Conference 2018 in Norrköping with a presentation on the experiences of undocumented HIV positive migrants in Russia.
I was impressed by the one of the speakers in the opening session and sought him out afterwards. His name is Haqqi Bahram and he is a Syrian refugee living in Sweden and a member of The Young Republic, a successful refugee-led NGO which advocates for refugee rights within European states. I got inspired by Haqqi’s confidence and the clarity of his vision and immediately asked him to do an interview. I want to share this new voice of community-led advocacy with my partners and community leaders in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. I hope that Haqqi’s example inspires you and reinforces your belief to never stop fighting for our rights to health.
HHaqqi, how did you become a refugee?
I became a refugee because I could not stay living in my home country, so for me it was not an active choice. No one thinks: “ok, in five years I’m going to be a refugee”. There are certain people who have the advantage of reflecting, of deciding where to end up but this opportunity is not available to everyone. Borders are often crossed for random reasons, and people stay where they stay because they feel safe. I, personally, went from Syria to Turkey first, and then from Turkey all the way to Sweden.
When you finally arrived to Sweden it took you some time to have your refugee status recognized.
To be exact, it was 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 only get temporary stay in Sweden. For the refugee status it’s for three years, for protection you only get it for 13 months. And that’s how much I got. After waiting for 14 months, I only got a stay for 13 months. And those 13 months, of course, have expired already, and then I got an extension for two more years.
Tell me about your participation in The Young Republic
I was not a founder but I joined quite early in its history. I was already an active participant in the cause, and I wanted to be able to work with people who believe in the same principles and values as I do. I was really drawn to their commitment to include everyone, and I felt welcome from the beginning. This is the place where I can advocate for my rights and the rights of others like me.
How is the organization structured?
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 focus, with advocacy, education and research departments. Those are the main ones, and they have a lot of volunteers and members. Recently we also started introducing specific teams for fundraising, administration and communication, and these departments are currently growing. We are represented in Sweden, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, France and the UK.
Do you need to be a refugee to become a member?
We do not have strict criteria for participation. You don’t need to be a refugee, but it’s important that you share our vision. We work with young refugees, we work with the local communities, and we work with decision makers. So it’s a pretty open access.
It seems like such an organization gives refugees a powerful sense of belonging.
It is amazing that the NGO was started by refugees and that is currently led by refugees. It’s easy to find support because everyone at the organization knows what you’re dealing with. But I do not want to limit my struggle to only those who understand. I don’t want to be preaching to the choir. I want to help spread the message of our organization to local communities and leaders. We want young refugees to become part of the society on the whole, and to do that we can’t just ignore the members of this society.
How would you describe the main objective of your work?
Our vision is that young refugees need to be empowered, so that they have strong civic engagement with their local communities. The principles of democracy and human rights will be 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’s the objective of our research department.
Do you cooperate with universities or research groups?
We do. For example, we had one workshop in April this year in collaboration with Linköping university both The Young Republic and another refugee organization participated. The purpose of this workshop was to build bridges between the refugee-led organizations and research being carried out about refugees. There is a lot of good research that is being conducted in universities but then it is not spread to the communities, and people do not know about it. Refugees who are trying very hard to plead their cases don’t know about this research either, it stays inside the universities and think-tanks, and can’t help them. On the other hand, you have the practical side of adapting in a new country: something that a lot of people experience, but that doesn’t get researched. The result of this is that refugee voices are not being represented in the research about them, and we’re trying to fix that.
We also have something called the Linköping university Initiative for refugee questions, that serves to help student groups and organizations with any project that concerns refugees: whether it is about their inclusion in the labor market, doing a workshop, or any kind of social activities.
We create partnerships with those who want to advocate for the same thing as we do. I would say that our doors are pretty open. Whenever we become part of any network or enter into any partnership,the principle of human rights is the most critical. We always have to make sure that the activities of our collaborators are carried out with full respect to the whole spectrum of human rights, not just 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, some of these community leaders can be party members and in this case, if we share views, we’ll talk to party members, as well.
It’s often the case that refugees tend to remain silent, even within the civil society. What are the tool that you use to empower them?
We are trying to reach out to those who are, for example, in need of education about human rights and democracy. We provide them with the tools to talk about their rights. Even if you know that there is an injustice and you are not being treated fairly, you will not be able to advocate for your rights if you don’t have the language for it. We try to reach to those vulnerable groups. But we do not want, as I said, to exceptionalize them or to burden them with things that they’re not familiar with. Some of them know more than we do about civil issues, some know less, but it’s not only about knowledge, it’s also about networks. And this is where we come in, to create networks among the groups, among the people, to help them organize themselves. They don’t necessarily need to become members of The Young Republic but they might start some local initiatives. For example, we now have a program called The Change-Maker Academy. It’s a mentorship program in the county of Stockholm that lasts six months, where groups of young people come together and work on a social initiative that will create change, especially 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 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 that have graduated the program: people who did not know each other before but met through the Change-Maker Academy and received mentorship from an expert that The Young Republic provided. And it’s not only helpful for them, we benefit from these initiatives, too, because these groups are very diverse: we have newcomers, we have international students, we have migrants, and we have people from different nationalities. It helps us see things from different angles.
Who supports you financially?
We receive various European grants and apply for funding, for example, through Erasmus+.
Did you have any advocacy success stories so far?
The Young Republic is a part of different advocacy networks, including the Network for Refugee Voices. It was founded in the summer 2016 and it’s a coalition of many refugee-lead organizations around the world. So our international advocacy in this network has been focused on the Global Compact on Refugees, which has been recently presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations where it was endorsed by the member states. For us to become the first refugee representatives in history to be present in Geneva was an overwhelming success. But it was not just about the publicity or ticking the box. Every time we went to Geneva to the drafting meetings, we were able to present our comments to the representatives of world governments, who would listen to us and try to include our suggestions, our notes or comments in their own interventions to the floor. This was a massive opportunity to spread our agenda.
I think this is the core of the problem: that the voices of refugees are starting to be heard on the level of world politics only three years after the migration crisis of 2015. Prior to that, they had been making all the decisions without having any refugees involved.
I think the refugee advocacy is definitely increasing. And I think it’s also connected to the European countries imposing the maximum possible restrictions on the right of asylum in many European countries. You can take Sweden for example. Sweden used to be the pioneer of human rights and it had a very generous asylum policy, but now Sweden is just sticking to the minimum accepted standards set forward by the European Union.
What is the reaction to your initiative from the Swedish society?
I think in Sweden no one will go against human rights publicly. So the reaction to our initiatives, like the training courses and the Change-Maker Academy, is usually quite positive. It could have been much harder in other European countries
What advice would you give to a group of migrants, say, in my country, Russia, if they wanted to do advocate for their rights together and to have their voices heard?
I think it’s important that they get organized. A strong voice is not possible in isolation: they should definitely engage the existing civil organizations in Russia. It’s the same everywhere. Here in Sweden we seek out the help of initiatives that had been started by the Swedes, and they offer us their support. But if the country in question makes speaking out a risk, I don’t know how far you can go with organizing, and whether an organization will be able to have the full extent of rights. Nonetheless, it’s important to get the ball rolling, to start somewhere.
There needs to be a civil society first
Of course, it helps a lot. For example, in Sweden you don’t really need to go through bureaucratic procedures to create your NGO but in other countries maybe the procedures are quite different. For example, refugees might not have the right to form NGOs, and in this case they’d need local civil organizations for that. It’s also crucial that the local organizations allow the refugees themselves to be advocates for themselves, not just remain passive recipients of help from the outside.
You’ve said that being a refugee is not a choice. But is it how you identify yourself?
Just like everybody else, I identify myself through a lot of things. I don’t want to be stuck with “Haqqi the refugee”.Yes, I’m a refugee, and I am not ashamed to be a refugee, because being a refugee is not something bad. But I’m more than that. And I don’t want to be reduced to just the one thing. And it’s also a matter of definition: for some, a refugee is just a passive person who sits at home and waits for social security. I want to deconstruct this kind of narrative, and show that one can be a refugee, and activist and many other things.
Interview was taken by Daniel Kashnitsky and has been edited for clarity.