Self-determining refugees: a story of empowerment

BY HUMA SAEED. Europe in the last years has seen a refugee exodus unprecedented after the II World War. While one rejoices when a refugee makes it to a safe heaven, the Eurocentric, liberal view presents ‘the refugee’ as a victim who can only find hope within the borders of Europe, the civilized world. This is fallacious in several ways. Firstly: the overwhelming majority of refugees are hosted in non-European countries. Secondly, it’s not only Western countries that can rebuild a refugee’s life. There are countless refugees rebuilding themselves and their communities, all over the world.

Written by Huma Saeed, a doctoral student at the Leuven Institute of Criminology.

Huma Saeed

The main contention of this article is that the screen of oblivion cast over the great majority of refugees living further away in camps -and the fact that the refugee matters only when he or she, as individual or nuclear family, enters the European space- is possibly betraying softly condescending and ‘Eurocentric’ biases.

First, it is an uncritical and irreflexive confirmation of the liberal individualism, whereby individual choices are unquestionable while bonds, and responsibilities, of community or political solidarity are secondary.

Secondly, it is a reflection of the implicit view that life in refugee camps, the lives of the great majority of refugees, is an inferior form of life, a cramped desert of opportunities; thus an implicit moral encouragement is offered by liberal individualism that refugees reach a safer, freer life ‘among us’, whereby their potential can eventually be expressed.

A different model for refugees

In a twist of history, I was exposed to an utterly different ‘model’. As a young girl, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, drove me and my family to the neighbouring country, Pakistan. Like many Afghan refugees, we too lived in a refugee camp for a period. My parents and close relatives had the individual talent, education and capabilities to fully benefit from the liberal opportunities. In fact, some of them already had secured a visa and a flight ticket to the USA, following the same path of so many other members of their social class. But, as progressive and radical thinkers, they saw things differently. 

Camp girls primary school 1989

Dari class at a girls’ primary school for refugees in 1989. I am pictured here reading a book.

As a young girl, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, drove me and my family to the neighbouring country, Pakistan. Like many Afghan refugees, we too lived in a refugee camp for a period.

They felt they had a responsibility that went beyond their individual life project. The ‘political governance’ model of a refugee camp in those years and in that part of the world followed a common pattern: a fundamentalist faction would impose its political domination over the refugee population, enforcing indoctrination, religious observance, dress codes, etc., while Western NGOs and UN agencies would provide the basic humanitarian services.

My family members, together with other like minded friends and comrades, realised that life in the refugee camps was not going to be a brief interlude and that they had to organise themselves for the long haul. Whole new generations had to be educated, academically and politically, and they could not leave this task to neither the fundamentalists nor the Western do-gooders in a subordinated position.

The war and mass exodus of refugees had tossed social relations up in the air. They thus seized that fluidity as an opportunity to realise their ‘revolution one refugee camp at a time’. They had to organise their own self-defence, fending off the fundamentalists’ attempts to take over the camp and establish their influence there as well.


Female medical doctor examining patients at the refugee camp’s clinic (c) Afghan Women’s Mission

In the space thus ‘liberated’ they established a progressive form of democratic governance, with full equality of rights and duties (including self-defence forces) between men and women, universal equal access to health care and educational services that the refugees themselves organised and staffed, counting on some financial resources from like-minded solidarity groups in Europe, US and Australia. It was not a lot of money: effective democratic self-governance allowed for a very efficient use of funds and low corruption levels, if any, compared with other foreign funded humanitarian projects implemented by a local elite disconnected from the base of beneficiaries.

On the contrary, actual democratic participation and the security predicament arising from the constant threat of the fundamentalists cemented the organic relationship and political solidarity among refugees in the camp.

Camp women day event 2000

International Women’s Day Celebration by the Afghan refugees in 2001

The experience of this particular refugee camp was taking shape in a time and a place where religious fanatics were thriving thanks to the generous support of the host country – Pakistan – and many other countries, particularly the USA and Saudi Arabia that was matching every dollar of American funding for the Mujahideens. Those were years of political repression for progressive and radical elements who were being eliminated one after the other. Our camp also received many threats, but they continued nevertheless as my family and others in this particular community believed that this was the only way to change, to progress.

The refugee camp was turned into an active educational centre; for boys, girls, adult men and women.

Emphasis was specially placed on education (particularly considering what was the alternative on offer in other camps). The refugee camp, therefore, was turned into an active educational centre; for boys, girls, adult men and women. On daily basis, not only girls and boys schools were open for hundreds of pupils, but also literacy classes, poetry, painting, theatre, and music courses and workshops were offered for those with an interest to enrol.

In the midst of a situation where a woman’s voice must not have been heard in public, let alone engaging her in educational and professional opportunities, this camp established a library for all; held public events, including sports activities, where both men and women gathered and participated. This did not happen overnight, but gradually, after many years of struggle, perseverance, and yes, courage.

Above all else, it happened because there was a conviction behind it all, a belief in human potential and agency to change his/her own conditions and those of others. Moreover, this, certainly, was not any one individual’s endeavour, but a collective one, cemented in strong notion of solidarity.

And it bore fruit. The seeds planted in this refugee camp have today grown into strong trees. Hundreds of young men and women who graduated from high schools of this camp went on to higher educational institutions elsewhere, including this author. Many of them today are engaged in professional activities -often in the non-profit sector- back in their home country, primarily helping another generation to become strong, autonomous individuals. Like the refugee camp experience, they too rely on education, art, but above all else a belief in collective action and political solidarity to challenge and change.

Empowerment, not charity

Such is thus the other narrative. A narrative that believes change should come from within. It starts from education, from empowerment, from political conscientisation. A narrative that posits human potential can best be realized through its actions and interactions with others in a given community, through political solidarity, rather than relying on the notion of the atomized individualism.

Such is thus the other narrative. A narrative that believes change should come from within.

A similar approach to what I have experienced is being implemented by the Kurds in Rojava . And this struggle was also supported by the like-minded people from around the world, deeply rooted in the leftist traditions of internationalism and solidarity in the common struggle against fascism in Europe or against misogynist, jihadist fundamentalisms in Afghanistan or Syria. Through travels and other exchanges on both sides, we would come to see each other’s reality, to learn from each other’s experiences, and above all else, to express solidarity with a political dimension, among equals, not a benefactor-to-victim relationship.

Eén reactie

Reacties zijn gesloten.