Absolutely Horizontal

Olga lived in Mariupol for many years. Until February 24, she worked as a courier, while her husband worked at the Azovstal steel works, and their two children studied at school. Since early March 2022, due to the so-called special operation, Mariupol has been under siege, and fighting has been going on in the city. In the middle of the month, when humanitarian corridors opened up, the family was able to get to Donetsk, and from there they took a bus to Petersburg. Their bus tickets were bought by volunteers — ordinary people who are not connected with government agencies. They also met the Mariupol residents in Petersburg and housed them in their apartment for the night, and then took them to Ivangorod, where Olga and her relatives crossed the Estonian border. The family is now in Finland.

There are many similar stories. In Petersburg, hundreds of residents help transit refugees every day. There are so many people willing to help that all requests — from putting up a family of five people and two dogs to transporting a nursing mother with a baby to Ivangorod — are claimed by volunteers in a matter of minutes. Over the border, in the Estonian city of Narva, Ukrainians are also welcomed by volunteers. This is the story of how ordinary citizens sat and watched the news, feeling powerless, but then found an opportunity to help others and themselves.

How Volunteering Heals Witness Trauma
Alexander from Petersburg is an artist. If it weren’t for [the war], he would now be engaged in art making. “I won’t be getting around to art anytime soon, but there will be food for it,” he says.

In April, Alexander and other volunteers launched a platform on the internet where they coordinate requests for assistance in crossing the border with Estonia and (less often) Finland. For security reasons and at the request of the volunteers, we are not publishing a link to this resource. Currently, there are more people willing to help than requests for help: people span up the requests in minutes.

Here is an example of a typical request: “A family is coming from Mariupol: a grandmother, grandfather, their daughter, grandson (12 years old), and a pregnant cat. You need to meet them at the train station, feed them, provide overnight accommodation, chip the cat and put the family on the bus to Tallinn the next morning.”

“Society has been traumatized. People were watching the news and tortured by a feeling of impotence, so we created a platform where we try to cure this powerlessness. I have the feeling that any problem can be solved en masse. People are competing for the opportunity to help,” says Alexander, “and so [the campaign] has turned out absolutely horizontal. People find the requests on their own and fulfill them  on their own. In the past, I worked on the problems in my neighborhood, and back then it was several activists dragging the whole movement like locomotives, but now the wave rolls on by itself.”

We thought we were going to disappear inside Russia, the refugees tell local volunteers. People travel mostly in groups. Most of them are women, children, and the elderly. There are fewer men. “Many people are traveling with their pets,” says Alexander. In addition to Mariupol and the surrounding area, they come from the Kharkiv region, Donetsk, and Luhansk. They are going to European countries, but some seek to  return to Ukraine as quickly as possible because they have relatives there, they can speak their native language, and they don’t have to deal with the “refugee” label.

It is not only Petersburgers who have been helping them to make the journey to the Russian-Estonian border. There are also hundreds of volunteers in Moscow. The Petersburgers are now establishing contacts in Rostov, Krasnodar, and Belgorod, the [southern] Russian cities through which the refugees travel most often.

“The other day I came to my senses, looked up from the screen, and realized that nothing was hurting inside me. I haven’t watched the news for more than a week and I don’t know what is happening in the political space. I have a specific task, it is very simple and clean. Unlike everything else, I have no doubt that it’s a good thing,” says Alexander. “Everyone wants to do good, and helping refugees certainly satisfies this need.”

How Natalia Got from Mariupol to Vilnius via Petersburg
Natalia got from Ukraine to Lithuania thanks to the internet platform where Alexander volunteers.

Previously, she worked as a cook in the Shchiriy Kum retail chain. She has two daughters: one is a high school student, the other, a university student. On the morning of February 24, Natalia went to work as usual. “I heard that there had been an explosion somewhere. But in Mariupol this is so routine that no one paid it any mind. (Echoes of the fighting have been audible in Mariupol since 2014, and most residents were used to the sounds of distant explosions and shooting — The Village.) When I arrived at work, I realized that things were serious. I finished up by three o’clock, and they let us go home. I didn’t go to work anymore after that.”

Natalia and her family remained in Mariupol until March 23. There was no “serious fighting” in her neighborhood, so she and her daughters stayed in their apartment, not in a basement or a bomb shelter. “But our things were packed to leave at any moment,” she says. The electricity in the city had been turned off, and the water was also turned off, so the family went to a spring to get water. Then the gas was turned off, so they had to cook on a bonfire.

When the fighting got close, Natalia, her girls, and her eldest daughter’s boyfriend went to the outskirts of city, where “there were buses from the [Donetsk People’s Republic].” They went on one of these buses to her parents who live near Mariupol and stayed there for three weeks. Then all four of them traveled to Taganrog [a Russian city approximately 120 km east of Mariupol]. At the local temporary accommodation point, they were offered a choice: they could go either to Khabarovsk or to Perm. Natalia didn’t want to go to Khabarovsk or Perm. She needed to get to Lithuania, where a friend of hers lives. That was when a Mariupol acquaintance put her in touch with the Petersburg volunteers.

“The vbolunteers bought us tickets to Petersburg. We got to Rostov, where we boarded a train. In Petersburg, we were met by Ivan, who took us home to eat. We washed up and changed clothes, and he took us to get on a minibus to Ivangorod,” Natalia says. The Mariupol residents crossed the Russian-Estonian border on April 23. “At the Russian border, they asked [my daughter’s boyfriend] where he was going and why.” The Petersburg volunteers had put Natalia in touch with Narva volunteers, and so the family immediately boarded a free bus to Riga.

Natalia is currently in Vilnius. She has no plans to leave — she no longer has the strength to travel with suitcases. “We’ve rented a room. We’re going to look for jobs,” she says.

How to Help via Twitter
“It all started with the fact that I felt helpless and useless. I really wanted to do something,” says Katya from Petersburg.

You can find out about helping refugees who are traveling to Europe via Petersburg on various websites. The one on which the artist Alexander volunteers is the largest. There are others. For example, Katya saw such a request on Twitter. In mid-April, a friend of hers asked whether anyone could welcome a family (a mother, son and daughter) and an 18-year-old girl who was traveling with them for a couple of days. Katya responded. The family was put up by her friend, while Katya took in the girl. “She met the family she came with two weeks before [the war]. They went for a walk once with the boy, and he decided to take her with him. Her mother refused to leave, and so now the girl is all alone, without relatives here,” says Katya.

Katya met the girl at the Moscow Railway Station and they traveled the rest of the way to her house. The question arose: how to talk to a person who has country has been invaded by your own country? “Either we were a match, or the girl herself is this way, but it was easy to communicate with her, like with a sister,” says Katya. They sat down to drink tea, and the girl recounted in a calm voice how one day a tank drove up to the nine-story building in Mariupol where she was hiding in a bomb shelter, raised its turret, and began shooting into the distance. “I was bored, and I started counting. It fired seventy shots,” the girl said.

Before the girl left, Katya and her guest hugged tightly. The Mariupol family eventually stayed in Sweden, while the girl ended up in Germany. “I was constantly thinking about what is it like to live when your city is gone, when it has been wiped off the face of the earth,” says Katya.

What Ivangorod, the Transit Point for Refugees Going to Estonia, Looks Like
It takes two hours to drive from Petersburg to Ivangorod. At the outskirts of the city, you need to show the frontier guards a passport or a special pass for entering the border zone. Refugees are allowed through with an internal Ukrainian passport. A kilometer from the checkpoint, on a pole right next to the highway, storks have built a large nest.

Ivangorod is home to around nine thousand people. Its main attraction is a medieval fortress. In the six years that have passed since The Village‘s correspondents last visited the city, it has become prettier. The local public spaces have been beautified under the federal government’s Comfortable Environment program.

Estonia can be seen from the bank of the Narva River. To get to the European Union, you need to walk 162 meters across the Friendship Bridge. At the entrance there is a hut where insurance used to be sold, but now it is abandoned, its windows broken. People walk down the slope carrying bags and plastic sacks stuffed with things. The local children ride scooters. Closer to the shore, the children turn right onto the embankment, which the local authorities attempted to beautify in the 2010s with funding from the EU. The people carrying bags go to the left.

There are several dozen people at the border checkpoint. A heart-rending meow resounds from the middle of the queue. A woman removes a black jacket from a pet carrier: a hairless Sphynx cat stares at her indignantly.

“Maybe I should let him out on the grass?”

The people in the queue say there is no need, that they will get through quickly. But it seems that this forecast is too optimistic.

“Are they all Ukrainians?” a man with a reflector asks loudly. The people in front of him shrug their shoulders. “Are they Maidanovites? Refugees? Are they fleeing from the nationalists?”

Someone argues that the frontier guards should organize two queues — “for people and for refugees” — to make the border crossing go more quickly.

Under the bar at the border restaurant Vityaz hangs a homemade “Peace! Labor! May!” banner and an image of a dove. On the way to the Ivangorod fortress there is a memorial stone dedicated to “the militiamen, volunteers, and civilians who perished and suffered in the crucible of the war in the Donbas.” The Village‘s correspondents did not encounter a single letter Z — the symbol of the “special operation” — in Ivangorod. Nor they did encounter a single pacifist message either.

How Narva Helps Transit Refugees
At the border checkpoint, people are met by numerous volunteers from various associations, including the Friends of Mariupol. “These are all private initiatives,” says Narva volunteer Marina Koreshkova.

“We have been seeing exhausted people,” says Marina. “Many are in rough psychological condition, and they really want to talk. We listen to them for an hour, two, three — we empathize with them and share important information. People say that while they were traveling through Russia, they saw the Z, heard unpleasant messages addressed to Ukrainians, and were forced to put up with it and remain silent just to get to Europe. But I often see examples of Stockholm syndrome. Or maybe people are just afraid to say the wrong thing.”

Six years ago, Marina and her children moved to Narva from Petersburg, because she understood that the situation in Russia was getting worse. In Russia, she was a lawyer, working for ten years in a government committee on social policy, then as an arbitration manager. She started her life from scratch in Narva, and is now studying new professions. She is a member of Art Republic Krenholmia and Narva Meediaklubi, nonprofits engaged in civil society development and social and creative projects.

On April 10, Marina received a call from the manager of the Vaba Lava Theater Center, who said that they had decided to temporarily convert a hostel for actors into an overnight accommodation for refugees. Soon, the Narva Art Residence also let transit refugees into its hostel for artists. Then the Ingria House, located near the train station, equipped a room to accommodate Ukrainians. And on May 1, a Narva businessman temporarily vacated his office, located near the border, for daytime stays.

“For the first week, Sergei [Tsvetkov, another volunteer] and I tried to do everything ourselves. We quickly realized that at this pace we would burn out or get sick. Now about sixty local volunteers are involved, and people have come from Tallinn to help. The number of people helping out has been growing every day. Local residents collect the refugees’ laundry for washing, and bring them food and medicine.”

Almost none of the refugees remain in Narva. “The proximity to the border generates a new sense of uncertainty for them,” Marina argues. In addition, the region’s refugee registration office, which enables Ukrainians to gain a foothold in Estonia, has been closed. The nearest one still in operation is in Tartu [a distance of 180 km from Narva by car].

Narva is also “the most Russian city in NATO.” Only four percent of the city’s population is ethnic Estonian, and thirty-six percent of residents are Russian passport holder. “I don’t have time to read social media, but until April 10, I constantly observed negative comments [from Narva residents] about the refugees, although I have not seen any outward aggression in the city,” says Marina.

She believes that a welcoming station where refugees could get basic information and relax inside in the warmth should be equipped at the border. “It was quite cold in late April. People were freezing on the border outside in the wind, then thawing out for an hour and not taking off their outerwear.”

There is not even a toilet on the Russian side of the border, however.

Source: “‘An absolutely horizontal business’: How residents of Petersburg and Narva are helping Ukrainian refugees going to Europe,” The Village, 5 May 2022. Image (below) courtesy of The Village. Thanks to JG for the story and the link. Translated by the Russian Reader

______________

Umm Khaled hardly leaves the tent where she lives in northwest Syria, and she says she doesn’t pay attention to the news. But she knows one reason why it is getting harder and harder to feed herself and her children: Ukraine.

“Prices have been going up, and this has been happening to us since the war in Ukraine started,” said the 40-year-old, who has lived in a tent camp for displaced people in the last rebel-held enclave in Syria for the past six years since fleeing a government offensive.

Food prices around the world were already rising, but the war in Ukraine has accelerated the increase since Russia’s invasion began on Feb. 24. The impact is worsening the already dangerous situation of millions of Syrians driven from their homes by their country’s now 11-year-old civil war.

The rebel enclave in Syria’s northwest province of Idlib is packed with some 4 million people, most of whom fled there from elsewhere in the country. Most rely on international aid to survive, for everything from food and shelter to medical care and education.

Because of rising prices, some aid agencies are scaling back their food assistance. The biggest provider, the U.N. World Food Program, began this week to cut the size of the monthly rations it gives to 1.35 million people in the territory.

The Ukraine crisis has also created a whole new group of refugees. European nations and the U.S. have rushed to help more than 5.5 million Ukrainians who have fled to neighboring countries, as well as more than 7 million displaced within Ukraine’s borders.

Aid agencies are hoping to draw some of the world’s attention back to Syria in a two-day donor conference for humanitarian aid to Syrians that begins Monday in Brussels, hosted by the U.N. and the European Union. The funding also goes toward aid to the 5.7 million Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries, particularly Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Last year, the EU, the United States and other nations pledged $6.4 billion to help Syrians and neighboring countries hosting refugees. But that fell well short of the $10 billion that the U.N. had sought — and the impact was felt on the ground. In Idlib, 10 of its 50 medical centers lost funding in 2022, forcing them to dramatically cut back services, Amnesty International said in a report released Thursday.

Across Syria, people have been forced to eat less, the Norwegian Refugee Council said. The group surveyed several hundred families around the country and found 87% were skipping meals to meet other living costs.

“While the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine continues to demand world attention, donors and governments meeting in Brussels must not forget about their commitment to Syria,” NRC’s Mideast Regional Director Carsten Hansen said in a report Thursday.

The U.N.’s children’s agency UNICEF said more than 6.5 million children in Syria are in need of assistance calling it the highest recorded since the conflict began. It said that since 2011, over 13,000 children have been confirmed killed or injured.

Meanwhile, UNICEF said funding for humanitarian operations in Syria is dwindling fast, saying it has received less than half of its funding requirements for this year. “We urgently need nearly $20 million for the cross-border operations” in Syria, the agency said in a statement.

Umm Khaled is among those who rely on food aid. With her aid rations reduced, she has gone deeper in debt to feed her family.

Her husband and eldest son were killed in a Syrian government airstrike in their home city of Aleppo in 2016. Soon after, she escaped with her three surviving children to the rebel enclave in Idlib province. Ever since, they have lived in a tent camp with other displaced people on the outskirts of the town of Atmeh near the Turkish border.

Her family lives on two meals a day — a small breakfast and a main meal late in the afternoon that serves as lunch and dinner. Her only income is from picking olives for a few weeks a year, making 20 Turkish liras ($1.35) a day.

“We used to get enough rice, bulgur, lentils and others. Now they keep reducing them,” she said by telephone from the camp. She spoke on condition her full name is not made public, fearing repercussions. She lives with her two daughters, ages six and 16, and 12-year-old son, who suffered head and arm injuries in the strike that killed his brother and father.

The price of essential food items in northwest Syria has already increased by between 22% and 67% since the start of the Ukraine conflict, according to the aid group Mercy Corps. There have also been shortages in sunflower oil, sugar and flour.

Mercy Corps provides cash assistance to displaced Syrians to buy food and other needs and it says it has no plans to reduce the amount.

“Even before the war in Ukraine, bread was already becoming increasingly unaffordable,” said Mercy Corps Syria Country Director, Kieren Barnes. The vast majority of wheat brought into northwest Syria is of Ukrainian origin, and the territory doesn’t produce enough wheat for its own needs.

“The world is witnessing a year of catastrophic hunger with a huge gap between the resources and the needs of the millions of people around the world,” said WFP spokeswoman Abeer Etefa.

In many of its operations around the world, WFP is reducing the size of the rations it provides, she said. Starting this month in northwest Syria, the provisions will go down to 1,177 calories a day, from 1,340. The food basket will continue to provide a mix of commodities, including wheat flour, rice, chickpeas, lentils, bulgur wheat, sugar and oil.

Rising prices have increased the cost of WFP’s food assistance by 51% since 2019 and that cost will likely go even higher as the impact of the Ukraine crisis is felt, Etefa said.

Earlier in the year, before the Ukraine conflict began, a 29% jump in costs prompted the Czech aid agency People in Need to switch from providing food packages to giving food vouchers. The vouchers, worth $60, buy less food than the group’s target level, but it had to take the step to “maximize its coverage of food assistance to the most vulnerable,” a spokesperson told The Associated Press.

As the world turns to other conflicts, “Syria is on the verge of becoming yet another forgotten crisis,” Assistant U.N. Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Joyce Msuya warned in late April.

In northwest Syria, “a staggering 4.1 million people” need humanitarian aid, Msuya said — not just food, but also medicines, blankets, school supplies and shelter. She said almost a million people in the territory, mainly women and children, live in tents, “half of which are beyond their normal lifespan.”

Many fear that the situation could only get worse in July, because Russia may force international aid for the northwest to be delivered through parts of Syria under the control of its ally, President Bashar Assad.

Currently, aid enters the Idlib enclave directly from Turkey via a single border crossing, Bab al-Hawa. The U.N. mandate allowing deliveries through Bab al-Hawa ends on July 9, and Russia has hinted it will veto a Security Council resolution renewing the mandate.

A Russian veto would effectively hand Assad control over the flow of aid to the opposition enclave and the U.S. and EU had warned earlier they will stop funding in that case.

The result will be a severe humanitarian crisis, likely triggering a new flood of Syrian migrants into Turkey and Europe, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs warned in a report.

Umm Khaled said she has no choice but to endure her deteriorating living conditions.

“They keep reducing our food basket,” she said. “May God protect us if they cut it completely.”

Source: Bassem Mroue, “Syrians in desperate need of aid hit hard by Ukraine fallout,” AP News, 8 May 2022. Thanks to Harald Etzbach for the story.

Blame It on the Weather

kinderworld

Ask yourself who in their right mind and good conscience would want to cut off humanitarian aid and medical assistance to over one million people while simultaneously bombing them at will. Then ask yourself why these acts of homicidal aggression against innocent people have provoked almost no reaction either among the citizens of the country perpetrating them or among this country’s numerous well-wishers around the world.

I’ve asked myself these questions almost every day for the last four and a half years and, occasionally, I’ve asked you the same questions. I’m still waiting for answers, especially from the numerous citizens of the country aiding, abetting and perpetrating this massacre who, I am quite certain by now, watch me like a hawk on this infernal machine, and this country’s equally numerous well-wishers, who blame everything it does on history, other countries or the weather. \\ The Russian Reader

___________________

Russia scored a victory for its close ally Syria on Friday, using its veto threat to force the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution significantly reducing the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid and cutting off critical medical assistance to over one million Syrians in the northeast.

___________________


Lindsey Smith

Facebook
January 10, 2020

“What we saw today was horrible” ~ Nour.

Severe storms devastated our community partnership camp leaving a flooded disaster much more help is needed.

Updates:
* ALL tents re-enforced with wood and canvas
* Oil provided for all families for entire winter
* We have funds to provide jackets for all 91 children 0-18 years old. (Distribution planned 1/15)
* 64 Adults still in need of jackets. $25 each.
* Urgent priority need of gravel. $450 to make paths, $640 more to ideally cover entire camp

Fortunately our newly re-enforced tents withstood but could not prevent the ground from flooding and sewage to come into the camp. We’ve been asked to help provide gravel to absorb the damage. $450 will provide 45 tons of gravel to at least provide paths between tents. For $640 more, we can provide 135 tons which is needed to cover the entire camp. We will do what we can with what emergency funds we can pull together.

🙏🏻 Please share!

Designate KINDER WORLD in drop box option.

___________________

Kinder World
With love from Minnesota

The Project

Kinder World is a project that aims to create a sustainable support model for Syrian families seeking refuge through community partnership and solidarity.

Through the creation of this network, we will directly address the needs identified by camp residents and assist with solutions that empower the community.

Projects may include telemedicine services, medical and dental care, psychosocial support, nutrition, sustainable farming, education, language skills, parenting support, childcare, individual skill-building, team development through athletics, winterization, and access to clean water.

Minnesota Takes the Lead in Rethinking Aid

Minnesota and a settlement of 155 Syrians seeking refuge in Northern Lebanon are the first communities to partner using the Kinder World model. Our partner community in Northern Lebanon has identified their most prominent needs including winterization, clean water and proper sanitation, education for the children, and medical care.

We hope that the success of our project will inspire other communities to get involved and our outreach to Syrian families seeking refuge will continue to grow. Although our partnership US community is based in Minnesota, all are welcomed to get involved! All skills and all support are valuable.

Please contact us at kinderworldminnesota@gmail.com if you would like to be added to our email list for updates and opportunities to get involved!

Urgent Appeal for Winterization

Kinder World Minnesota Phase 1

Our partner community’s tents are dilapidated and won’t withstand the winter. This will result in flooding, damaging of their belongings, and illnesses from cold exposure. They need canvas and wood to rebuild their tents. Our community has also identified the great need for warm jackets and oil. They do not have proper attire for winter or the oil needed to keep their families warm.

Donate

For just $300, an average family size of 6-7 can be provided with:

– Warm jackets

– Wood and the heavy canvas needed to rebuild their family’s home

– Oil for heating

Select a one-time donation to support our community’s winterization.

You can also choose to select monthly recurring donations to continue to support Kinder World Minnesota and its ongoing projects.

Any amount helps! Click the donate button below and select “Kinder World” as the designation or include it in the comments!

Project Updates

Phase one is well underway in Lebanon as winter weather sets in.

Thanks to our partner community, new wood and canvas have been delivered for residents to reinforce their shelters for the winter weather and each family has received oil to heat their homes.

We would also like to extend a sincere thanks to our community leaders and our in-country coordinators who have made all of this possible in spite of difficult political and logistical circumstances in the country at the moment.

We hope to continue to work together to raise more funds to purchase the camp winter jackets and to move into the next phase of the project: sanitation.

About Us
In-Sight Collaborative is a registered 501(c)3 organization made up of a network of advocates with a shared vision for the improvement of the way we deliver humanitarian aid. Through partnerships and solidarity, we believe in promoting the empowerment of displaced populations and fostering self-sustaining growth through periods of adversity by supporting emergency interventions and long-term projects that aim to preserve dignity and independence while cultivating community. With nearly 70.8 million people displaced globally according to UNHCR due to factors such as conflict, natural disasters, and climate change, we recognize that modern displacement requires modern solutions.

Thanks to Ed Sutton for the heads-up. Images courtesy of Lindsey Smith and Kinder World. Read this article to find out fourteen more ways you can help Syrian refugees. \\ TRR

 

Refugees

“Everything There Is like a Horror Film Now”:
Young Refugees Talk about War, Fleeing Home, and Living in Russia

Filippo Valoti-Alebardi
Furfur
October 19, 2016

Armed conflicts in the Middle East and instability in parts of Africa and South Asia have led to one of the largest immigrant crises since the Second World War. According to Frontex, 1.82 million refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, and another 173,761 people arrived in Europe by sea in the first part of 2016. Russia has found itself on the sidelines in terms of most migrant flows. Only one route, which runs through Russia’s land borders with Norway and Finland, was used for the transit to Europe. According to RIA Novosti, around 6,000 people traversed this route between October and December 2015.

The Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) claims there are very few people with refugee status in Russia, less than eight hundred. Basically, people who seek refuge here can count only on temporary refugee status, which is valid for one year. But if a person manages to obtain it, no one can guarantee it will be renewed in the future. Furfur met with four young refugees and wrote down their stories of fleeing their home countries and living in hiding in Russia.

hasan

Hasan, a 20-year-old refugee from Syria

I left Aleppo three years ago. In 2012, the civil war came to our city. All the state institutions closed, except for some hospitals. I stopped going to school and almost never left my house. Everything was topsy-turvy in Aleppo then: government troops might be in one district, while the opposition was in the next. Life was hard but bearable. The financial crisis was not as bad as now, and my family had some savings. We were bombed, but not like during the Islamic State’s offensive. The electricity didn’t work, but we had a generator. The water was severely rationed, but it was enough.

Almost as soon as fighting broke out, I was forbidden to leave the house. I was not yet threatened with conscription, but my parents feared I could be recruited, killed or kidnapped, since I was the oldest son in the family. The other members of the family also tried not to leave our flat without a very good reason. We just sat at home and waited for it to all be over.

In the summer of 2013, an acquaintance of my father’s helped me get a work visa to Russia, and I left Syria. The person worked here in a sewing factory where there were many Syrians. He met me at the airport and took me to Losino-Petrovsky, where I still live. I immediately started worked in the sewing workshop. My father had been a tailor, so I already had some skills.

During the fifth month of my stay in Russia, I applied for refugee status. The [UNHCR] helped me prepare the papers for the FMS, where I had to have an interview. I was asked about my family’s financial state, whether I had served in the army, and about my political stance. A few months later, I received temporary refugee status, but it lasted for only a year.

I lived in Moscow Region and worked in the workshop. I tried to keep in touch with my family and friends. One day, a friend called me and said our house had been bombed and everyone had been killed. So only two members of my family, which had consisted of eleven people, have survived: my sister, who got married and lives in Istanbul, and I.

When my refugee status ended, I went to the FMS and asked for an extension. This time round, my case was handled by a different officer. He also asked me questions about my origins, financial state, and political stance, but then he asked why I had not gone to Iran, Turkey or Europe. I said I liked it here. I also told him that, over the past year, my mother,  brother, and all my brothers and sisters had died, except one. I was given a certificate, valid for one month, and then I was turned down. I was told the situation in Syria had normalized, that I was in no danger and could return home safely. But I had nowhere to return: my home and family were gone.

I was given three months to appeal against the refusal. I made four attempts to appeal it, but to no avail. Finally, I went to a Syrian man who said he had friends with pull. He promised to help me for 70,000 rubles [approx. 1,000 euros]. Ultimately, however, I was turned down once more, and never saw the guy again. Now I am in Russian illegally, and for the time being I have managed to avoid problems.

The police often stop me under the pretext of checking my papers, but they have a pretty good attitude to Syrians. Previously, when my papers were in order, they would haul me down to the precinct and take my fingerprints before letting me go. The situation has now become more complicated, and I often have to bribe them. It is usually not in Moscow where the police check my papers, but in Losino-Petrovsky itself. The local police are well aware of where the migrants live and work. They know our routes and when we get off work. So at least one or twice a month they detain one of us.

I rarely leave my own neighborhood. I work six days a week, twelve hours a day, and have almost no free time. But when I have the time and energy, I go play football with my friends, either in Noginsk or Moscow. I speak almost no Russian. At work, I get by with Arabic and a few words in Russian, since I work with Syrians, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. I sometimes chat on the phone with my sister in Turkey and with friends who have left Syria and gone to Turkey and Europe. I used to really miss my family and my home in Syria, but not anymore. I have lost my family and simply see no point in life. I even think it would have been better had I been with my family the day the bomb fell on my house. It would have been better to die with them than to hear about their deaths over the telephone.

yasmin

Yasmin, an 18-year-old refugee from Yemen

This is the second war my parents have fled. My father is half Vietnamese, half Yemeni. My mother is a Vietnamese Muslim. When the war between the US and Vietnam ended, they found themselves in a refugee camp in Yemen, which is where they met. My mom was seventeen then, the same age I was when I came to Russia.

Life in Yemen had always been hard for our family. Because my father speaks Arabic poorly and cannot write it, he could never count on a good job. On the streets, people would always point at us and say, “Look! There go the Chinese.” Everything got complicated after the 2011 revolution. Some government offices ceased to function, and foreign companies gradually left the country. A year later, the German firm for which my father worked as a driver closed its office, and he lost his job. It was hard to find another job. Ultimately, my older brother had to quit school to support us. He spoke the best Arabic in our family.

War broke out in Yemen in 2014, but we were affected by it only in 2015, when the heavy bombardment began. We lived in the city of Taiz, but our house was not far from a rebel camp, so the planes targeted our neighborhood. We took our things and left for Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, to stay with relatives. It was much safer there, and we livef peacefully for two weeks or so, but then the bombing recommenced.

In Sanaa, we lived near the Russian Embassy. After one of the bombing raids, we went there to ask for help. The embassy officials told us a Russian Emergencies Ministry (MChS) plane would be leaving [soon]. They explained where to go and when, but they did not promise we would be taken aboard. On the right day, we arrived at the appointed time at the airport, where we saw a team of [Russian] rescuers. They put our family on the plane. We had no visas, but we had passports. All the others who wanted to go had no papers and were left behind.

There were lots of Russian citizens on the plane with us, but there were also Yemenis, Syrians, and even a few Americans. We made a stopover in Djibouti, and there we were given the right to choose: stay behind or fly on to Russia. Since we had no family in Djibouti or other countries, we decided to fly to Russia. First, we were taken to a military airport, and then to a civil airport, where we had to wait for a consul. He gave us ten-day entry visas and ran off.

We did not know a word of Russian or English, we had no money, and we were hungry.  I don’t know what we would have done if it had not been for the Syrian who was on the plane with us. He spoke Russian and interpreted for us. Then he gave us two hundred dollars and ordered us a taxi to the Yemeni embassy. For some reason, the taxi driver took us to the Egyptian embassy, not the Yemeni embassy, and on top of that he made us pay him fifty dollars, not thirty dollars, as we had agreed. But it was a good thing the guard at the embassy spoke Arabic, since it was cold and we had no idea where we were. He called us a cab to take us to our embassy, and the next driver, an Egyptian, did not even charge us.

At the embassy, we were given a room where we lived for approximately two months. During this time we put together papers for obtaining refugee status, which we applied for at the [UNHCR] offices and the FMS. Later, the Vietnamese ambassador came to see us. He helped us get a room at the Hanoi Moscow Hotel, where we have been living ever since.

Our application for refugee status has been turned down twice. We have appealed the decision and are now awaiting the outcome. We need the status in order to be able to work and somehow organize our lives in a new place, because for over a year we have been living solely due to support from the Vietnamese. We have nowhere else to go. The war and bombing are still going on in Yemen, and there is almost nothing left of our home and neighborhood in Taiz. Everything there is like a horror film now.

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Didier, a 23-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Before leaving Congo, I lived in Kinshasa, our country’s capital, and was studying psychology. I left not because I was starving, but because I feared for my life. When my father died, I could not even go home to mourn and bury him. Instead, I am here, but I don’t know how much time I have left in Russia.

In 2015, I attended a rally against changes to the electoral system that would have enabled the president to serve another term. It was a major protest rally, for which a thousand and a half students and staff from my university showed up. The authorities responded by sending in the army, police, and large army trucks to kettle the protesters. The police and soldiers shot to kill. At some point, we were herded into a corner where nothing was visible, everything was covered in flames. Twelve people were killed between January 19 and January 25. Two of them were my friends. We were at university together.

The best thing that happened to many people involved in the protests was that they simply disappeared. I managed to hide from the police at the place of some acquaintances. I could not go back home or to the university, because secret service officers were surveilling the demonstrators. They were especially interested in the people who had incited university students and staff to take part in the protests. I was a ringleader, and at the time I was already a member of Congo’s second largest opposition party.  I did not want to leave the country, but my parents insisted. They were worried about me, since a lot of people were disappearing at the time.

Why did I leave for Russia? I knew people who had friends with connections and helped me get the necessary papers. This took a while, but the situation got worse and I had to leave urgently. I left Congo on a night flight after convincing the police I was somewhere else. In Russia, I had the contacts of the people who had helped me get a student visa. The first six months, I lived in the place of a friend who had gone home, and then I lived at the People’s Friendship University, where I met a lot of people and was advised to go to the Civic Assistance Committee. They helped me obtain temporary refugee status, which is issued for a year, and now I am trying to extend it.

There is a small Congolese diaspora in Moscow, but I do not communicate with them. I do not want to disseminate information about myself. I deliberately limit my dealings with other people, and I do not maintain contact with people from the Congolese opposition movement. I know that people in the Russian opposition are also detained, and I am scared my country’s authorities might send an official extradition request. In Congo, I would definitely go to prison.

Russia is a “white” Africa. People here live in greater safety than back at home, but you are also unable to assemble and protest. You fear the police, who help implement the policy of dictatorship. Nevertheless, in Russia, you can find a job easily, you can buy a flat, and get a loan. The government thinks about its people at least a little, but not in Africa. The regime has complete forgotten about people. The president works only to benefity his own family. He stuffs his pockets and takes holidays in the States and Canada, while the populace suffers. Only officials, the people who stuff his pockets, live well. They should all be in prison. God needs to descend and free my people.

People in my country continue to protest, but they are few and the police arrest them, including members of our party, which they are trying to bleed to death. Some of my comrades have left the country, while many have been arrested.

I would like to go back to Congo to fight for human rights and give people back freedom of speech and the right to vote. I want to give them the ability to speak their own mind freely. I can tell you that right now in Congo women are being raped, people’s heads are being cut off in markets, and people are being shot at.

More than ten million people have been killed in my country to date. It is the most dangerous country in the world for women: there are a huge number of rapes, and war is going on almost all the time. But if you dare talk about it, you are lost. Most of the people who can talk about it are in Europe. They upload short videos to the Internet and talk about the atrocities occurring in Congo, but if they went home they would be detained immediately.

And that is why I would like to tell Mr. Putin personally what is actually going on there. Our situation resembles the one in Syria right now, if it is not worse, but everyone talks only about Syria, and not about Congo. You white people in Russia, Europe, and the States, you are well aware of what is happening in Africa, but your governments would rather not doing anything about it. They only support the criminal regimes that rule our countries, getting money from them or investing in them. The whole world buys our diamonds: France, Belgium, and the US. Even you Russians are involved in diamond mining in Congo, which is always accompanied by war. Many people are afraid to talk about it, because they are afraid of disappearing. But I am not one of those people. I like telling the truth.

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Muhammad, 28-year-old refugee from Syria

I am from the city of Kobanî, on the border with Turkey.  I am a Kurd, and I left Syria five years ago, in 2011. I had just finished my military service when opposition rallies took place in Syria. It was all quite peaceful, and the situation in Kobanî was calm, but I sensed something serious was going to happen and decided it would be better to leave the country. I worked in the clothing industry, and a friend of mine invited me to Russia. I got help getting a yearlong business visa: that was how I ended up at the fabric in Noginsk. Initially, I came just to sit things out, but it has dragged on for five years, and there is no telling how much longer it will last. The first year I lived on a visa, and then I went to Egypt  to extend it. Subsequently, Egypt changed the rules of entry for Syrians, and I was unable to do the same thing a second time.

‏Meanwhile, Syria has shifted into a state of war. One of my little brothers was captured by Islamic State when he was traveling with other schoolchildren to take exams. He was freed several days later, but I lost contact with my relatives when fighting broke out in the Kobanî area. There were heavy battles near the city, and my family were forced to flee to Turkey. Some of my second and third cousins stayed behind to fight Islamic State. Ten of them were killed, and my brother was seriously injured.

‏All this time, I was working and living in Russia, trying to formalizing my status as a refugee, but I was not having any luck. I would come somewhere with papers, but I would be sent first one place, and then another. An appointment would be made for me, but then it would be postponed: I would be told to come back in fifteen days, and then in ten days. I was once told to come at nine in the morning. I came half an hour early, but to no avail. I was told the queue was already too long and I had better come the next day. But they could not see me the next day, since I had been in the previous day’s queue and had not shown up, allegedly. They toyed with me like this for several months. I decided to ask the [UNHCR] for help, but nothing changed. During the nine months I was going to the FMS, I was unable to file an application for refugee status. Finally, I gave up and stayed on illegally. ‏

I met a Lebanese man who promised to help solve the problems with my papers if I went to work for him at a construction site. I went, but my problems were not solved. Instead, the police caught us. They beat us up right at the construction site. There were even some reporters with policemen, but they were told to turn their cameras off. We were thrown on the ground and beaten on the feet. They beat us so badly I could not walk normally for five days or so. They wanted us to sign some papers. We did not know what was in the papers, because they were in Russian, but we were forced to sign. After that, they stopped beating us and took us to court. We were not provided with an interpreter and so we did not understand most of the proceedings. I do remember, however, that the judge tried to find out what was up with us. He could see we were in a bad way. But we were unable to tell him what had happened, and the policemen told the judge that we were just tired from working.

‏After that, I returned to the factory and started working night shifts, since there are fewer chances the police will catch you. However, I am still sometimes detained on the streets anyway. I always try and have money with me to pay the police off. Usually, I take a five-hundred-ruble note with me: that way they cannot take too much. But I rarely go outside. I work almost seven days a week, and I have no energy to do anything else after a shift of twelve to fifteen hours. I only sleep and work, and the money I send to my family: they need it more. I would like to be near them, but we Syrians now need visas to get into Turkey, and I cannot get one anywhere. Nor can I return to Syria. I have no one in Kobanî, and there is almost nothing left of the city.

Furfur thanks the Civic Assistance Committee and translators Igor Farafonov, Alexander Khodunov, and Muhammad Haled for their help with this article. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up

Read more about the treatment of Syrian and other refugees in Russia:

Olga Tseitlina: “Society Doesn’t Understand Why It Should Protect Syrian Refugees”

What Happens to Syrian Refugees in Saint Petersburg
Veronika Prokhorova
September 9, 2015
paperpaper.ru

A flood of refugees from Syria has swept over Europe. The refugees have been passing through Hungary on their way to Austria and Germany. The German government is willing to take in 35,000 refugees. More than four million people have gone to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. According to Amnesty International, Russia, as, for example, Japan and South Korea, has not officially provided places for refugees, although legally speaking, Syrians still have ways of remaining in the country.

Paper spoke with Olga Tseitlina, a lawyer who works with the Memorial Human Rights Center, about how things really stand in Russia with Syrian refugees.

The human rights lawyer told us how the refugees end up in Petersburg, why, because of legal conflicts, the refugees can neither stay nor be deported to zones of military conflict, and how Syrians who have lived in Russia for long periods become illegal immigrants.

A525E3E4-CA83-4A0B-87A2-2891FE71AD0D_w640_sOlga Tseitlina, human rights lawyer from the organization Migration and Law. Photo by Tatyana Voltskaya. Courtesy of RFE/RL

Why Syrians Go to Russia
Syrian refugees seek safe countries in order to save their own lives. Sometimes, smugglers deceive them, saying they are taking them to Egypt, bringing them instead to Russia. This is common. Some refugees themselves choose Russia because they have family or friends here (there is a diaspora of Syrian refugees in Petersburg), but this is the exception rather than the rule. They do not receive real help from the authorities, since the region lacks a center for receiving and housing displaced people.

It is important to know that only people who are seeking asylum are not held responsible for illegally crossing borders. Those with whom we work had not asked for asylum but were merely trying to get out of our country.

After the court has made its ruling, these people are sent to the Deportation Center in Krasnoe Selo [a far southern suburb of Petersburg], whence by law they should be forcibly removed to Syria, but that is inadmissible, because there is a war going on in their home country. If they are returned, these people might be killed, meaning their right to life would be violated. We cannot forcibly return people to military conflict zones: this is contrary to international law.

Our government agencies do not understand that people are in Russia illegally for long periods not because they are criminals and villains. Sometimes, because of language problems and lack of knowledge, they do not draft their claims properly. They do not know where to turn or how asylum is granted, since there is virtually no information either at the border or at police stations.

Often they turn to the police, who do not send them to the immigration authorities, but immediately cite them for an administrative violation or pass the citation on to the Federal Migration Service. There, the procedure for bringing them to justice and subsequently deporting them is immediately set into motion.

What Syrians Can Expect in Petersburg
Officially, Syrians are entitled to temporary asylum for one year, but that does not always work out, especially in the big cities like Moscow and Petersburg. In Ivanovo, for example, it proved much easier to receive temporary asylum. There it was possible for people who in Petersburg had been turned down even when they asked to start the procedure of granting asylum. In contrast to Ukrainians, no zero quotas for granting asylum to Syrians exist. [Not only have Ukrainians not been granted temporary asylum, but immigration authorities have also refused to take their applications, citing the absence of a quota for Saint Petersburg and Leningrad Region — Paper.]

Syrian refugees often come to big cities. Over a dozen people have turned to us for help in the last three months. In Petersburg, however, there are many more such people. It is just that people turn to our organization only when they are already going through the deportation procedure or cannot get asylum.

Asylum claims are rejected for many reasons. In a number of cases, the authorities refuse to accept claims because people have been in the Russian Federation illegally for some time. If people do not have a valid visa, residence registration, and a job, they are denied asylum and told they are violating Russian law. But here a contradiction again arises. There are refugees who because of the war have simply been unable to return to Syria and renew their student visas, for example. They were forced to break the law. The authorities also attempt to expel them, and the situation known as refugee sur place arises. Others are rejected because they reported false information or they failed to apply on time, although they might simply not have known when and where to apply.

Russian Laws and the European Court of Human Rights
We have managed to bring several attempts to deport Syrian refugees from Russia before the European Court of Human Rights. Only then did the Leningrad Regional Court overturn the decision to deport several people from Aleppo to a military conflict zone. Then, the ECHR asked a crucial question: whether the military situation in Syria had been taken into account when the decision was made. Typically, this issue is not discussed at all by courts either in the case of Syrian refugees or displaced people from Ukraine. It is necessary, however, to take into account the social and political situation in the country of origin and explore the issue of whether it will be safe for asylum applicants to return.

People awaiting deportation are placed in special facilities in Krasnoe Selo. The local conditions of detention were also examined by the ECHR as part of the case of Kim v. Russia. In June 2014, both the ECHR and the Government of the Russian Federation deemed the conditions of detention inhuman and in violation of Article 3 of the Europe Convention on Human Rights. However, they have virtually remained unchanged since then. Moreover, there are no temporary accommodation centers for refugees who have qualified for temporary asylum either in Petersburg, Leningrad Region or Moscow.

How Society Treats Refugees
Now Russians are negatively disposed even towards their “native” Ukrainian refugees, although earlier there was support for them. They say, What do we need these refugees for? We have enough problems of our own. They take our jobs and put an additional burden on infrastructure.

The attitude to Syrian refugees is even worse. These are people from a completely different culture and religion. They might look differently, and they speak a different language. People tend to associate Syrians with ISIL and suspect them of being terrorists. If people are afraid of the refugees from Ukraine, finding volunteers to work with Syrian refugees seems completely unreal in Petersburg and Russia generally. Some people manage to find shelter through churches, but this happens quite rarely. Society does not understand why it should provide protection to Syrian refugees and refugees in general.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Ripe for Exploitation: How Syrian Refugee Children Are Treated in Russia

Ripe for Exploitation
Oleg Pshenichny
August 24, 2015
Grani.ru

This morning, instead of giving lessons, the teachers at a school for Syrian refugee children loaded the school’s belongings into a car. Classes had suddenly been cancelled, and the school closed. The proprietor of the room in a private house where classes had been held showed the children and teachers the door.

This happened after local Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) officers had shown up on Saturday at the house on Rogozhskaya Street where the school was located to carry out a spot check, which had mushroomed into a full-blown search. The officers inspected not only the rooms and the grounds of the house but also the personal belongings and furniture of both the house’s owner and the school.

The occasion for the spot check had been information about a Syrian terrorist who had, allegedly, been registered under false pretenses at the house. As the school’s organizer, Syrian journalist and political refugee Muiz Abu Aljail, told Grani.ru, the reason for the search was contrived. The local authorities had simply wanted to get rid of the school.

Classes had begun in May of this year under the auspices of the Civic Assistance Committee’s Adaptation and Education Center for Refugee Children, with assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Around thirty Syrian children who had settled in Noginsk in recent years were pupils at the school.

Olga Nikolayenko, director of the Adaptation and Education Center, told Grani.ru that Muiz Abu Aljail had actively helped his compatriots in the Moscow Region by providing legal and other assistance. When he found out that many Syrian children in Noginsk had nothing to do and were simply roaming the streets, Muiz organized a informal study group, initially in Arabic, after which the Civic Assistance Committee got involved and recruited professional teachers.

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Muiz Abu Aljail and pupils from the Noginsk School for Refugee Children. Photo from Muiz Abu Aljail’s Facebook page

“We organized a Russian language summer intensive course to prepare the children to enroll in regular schools in Noginsk in September,” said Nikolayenko, “As you know, there is now a lawsuit underway against the Ministry of Education in order to force Russian schools to enroll migrant and refugee children regardless of whether they have residence permits. [The Supreme Court will hear the case on August 27 — Grani.ru.] We are counting on winning and wanted to get the children’s Russian up to speed. But now the owner of the house has been thoroughly intimidated. They summoned her for questioning and told her they were looking for an agent of Al Qaeda. Classes have been disrupted.”

According to Nikolayenko, the Noginsk authorities had immediately reacted with hostility to the idea of setting up the school. When people from the Adaptation and Education Center had come to Noginsk in May to secure the assistance of the local education department, a meeting was held at which Alla Artyomova, head of the local FMS office, had categorically stated that no classrooms would be provided for the school, because on paper there were no Syrian children in Noginsk and no one cared about what happened to them.

At the same time, in neighboring Losino-Petrovsky, a similar school for migrant children has received a lot of assistance from the local authorities, who found classroom space and promised to help the children enroll in school. In Noginsk, however, the school was left to its own devices and had to hold classes in a private home.

“The kids really liked it,” says Elena Drozdova, a teacher at the school, “and we managed to get a lot done. After all, teaching a person to read and write Russian from scratch in three months is a big deal. But now we’ve loaded our things in the car, and we don’t know what will happen to the school, what will happen to the children, and after this incident, whether the parents will let their children go to school at all.”

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Pupils from the Noginsk School for Refugee Children. Photo from Muiz Abu Aljail’s Facebook page. The placard reads, “We are not animals. Please give us the right to a childhood.”

Muiz Abu Aljail believes the problems are much more serious than red tape. Officials are not interested in helping the refugees to adapt since an unsettled community is a good source of bribes.

“There is a police and FMS mafia who have created a whole system of slave labor and extortion. I once published an investigation entitled ‘Slavery in Russia: A Special Dossier on Syrian Refugees.’ At every stage of the decision-making, the corrupt system gets tens of thousands of rubles from each person. For example, getting registrations costs twenty thousand rubles [approx. 250 euros at current exchange rates], another twenty thousand rubles for your wife, and another twenty thousand rubles for your children. It used to cost from sixty to seventy thousand rubles to get registration, but after the FMS ordered that asylum be granted automatically, the rate went down to twenty thousand rubles. But the price for being granted asylum has risen. In Moscow, a special business has been organized to this end. Getting into the queue costs fifteen thousand rubles. Getting a certificate stating your case is under review costs from three to fifteen thousand rubles. It costs forty thousand rubles to get temporary asylum. Without it, you will either not get a job or be forced to work illegally, which has led to the emergence of entire slave-labor enterprises.”

In September, Muiz Abu Aljail will himself be forced to leave Russia, because he did not pay bribes and was not granted asylum in Russia. And the Adaptation and Education Center for Refugee Children was evicted from its premises in Moscow in July.

Translated by The Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VZ for the heads-up. See my recent post on this same topic, “Why Migrant Children Are Expelled from Russian Schools.”