Sunday, 10 July 2016

Freedom is not easy - exhibition of refugees who found safety in London


Hodan Omar from Somalia/Credit: Caroline Irby @carolineirby




If you are in London July 12-18, come and see “Freedom is not easy” - an exhibition of portraits and interviews of refugees living in London. My friend photographer Caroline Irby represented 12 refugees in the various places where they first felt free or safe after arriving in this city. The portraits are accompanied by interviews I’ve made, capturing their stories of flight, readjustment to a new life, as well as the moment each refugee first felt safe or at home here.



There are an estimated 120,000 refugees in the UK, and last year some 32,414 applied for asylum. For most, life is not easy.  Unemployment in refugee communities is above 50% (5.1% is the national average), and in 2015, the British Red Cross supported more than 9,000 who were destitute. Yet some keep striving and pulling through, and successfully make new lives here.



Caroline and I have worked together on a number of humanitarian stories overseas and in the UK.   We have travelled widely with our work, particularly in Africa and Asia where we have seen some of the causes that trigger people to flee their homes, and visited the camps where refugees and displaced people find shelter - usually in their own countries or in neighbouring states. But some refugees move further: some cross the Sahara, the Mediterranean and the Channel, and now live here in London. 


We wanted to meet some of the refugees who have settled here, to learn what propels them to move so far, and to hear about their experiences of seeking - and sometimes finding - freedom, safety and a home in this city. 



At a time when politicians and the media too often dehumanise refugees by referring to them as an anonymous mass, we wanted in our small way to restore some of their identities by giving these 12 refugees a face and a voice.  We also wanted to show how strong and resilient refugees have to be in order to make it here. The men and women featured in the exhibition also demonstrate  that if they require some help to settle in the country, they also bring fresh  energy, knowledge, talent and tremendous potential. 

We also wanted to support Breaking Barriers, the charity which is putting together this exhibition. They are helping refugees to find meaningful employment, matching their skills. So many refugees told us that finding a "real" job was one of the main factors that helped them integrate and feel at home.

Here is what Hodan Omar, a young woman from Somalia, told us about the internship she found through Breaking Barriers:
"As a refugee, all you hear is negative: everything seems to conspire to put you down, so you think that maybe they are telling the truth, that you are never going to make it. But at Source8, I felt positive. They made me feel at ease. They trusted me with important things. I felt capable. It freed me of that negative cloud. Yesterday was my last day there, but I’ve gained skills, experience and confidence. Now, I am hopeful I can find a good job."
  
Some of the portraits/stories in this exhibition are featured in the summer issue of Positive News magazine and on their website. You can read them here.


“Freedom is not easy” at the Archivist's Gallery, 2-10 Hertford Road, London N1 5ET,  11-18th July 2016 from 10 am to 6pm. 


Thursday, 30 June 2016

Edward Loure, the Maasai leader who champions indigenous land rights in Tanzania




Edward Loure/courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize



From the Andes to sub-Saharan Africa, indigenous groups are increasingly fighting for legal ownership of lands their ancestors have occupied for thousands of years – and in the rangelands of Tanzania, one activist believes he’s found a possible solution based on collective ownership.

Edward Loure, a Maasai leader and indigenous land rights activist from northern Tanzania, pioneered an innovative legal mechanism to preserve large expanses of ancestral lands in the Great Rift Valley, protecting both a traditional way of life and wildlife.  It is the first time tribal work has been linked to conservation in Tanzania - creating a model for other indigenous groups elsewhere in Africa and around the world to follow.

Up to two thirds of world's land held by indigenous people are under informal systems not legally recognised by states, according to a recent report by Oxfam International. Communities without formal title to lands where they may have lived for generations can be displaced by large-scale resource extraction projects, sold off to the highest bidder or seized by squatters clearing their land for illegal agriculture, according to the report, backed by 300 organisations worldwide who are pushing to expand land rights.

“Our land means everything to us. If we have no grass pastures, we will not have our cows, and without our cows, we cannot survive,” Loure told me, speaking via Skype from Dar es Salaam.

Loure, who is in his forties, grew up in the Simanjiro plains in the vast northern rangelands of Tanzania. Here communities of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers have lived off the land in harmony with migrating wildlife for centuries.  The savannahs and grasslands of northern Tanzania are home to an abundance of wildlife including gazelles, elephants, wildebeest, zebras, impalas and many other animals that keep the ecosystem in balance. Traditional communities are a vital part of that ecosystem, Loure says. “We depend on our lands and these lands have shaped our cultures and way of life.”

Edward Loure in his community/courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

But the pastoralists and hunter-gatherers’ traditional ways of life have been threatened since the 1950s when the Tanzanian government started creating National Parks. These efforts displaced thousands of indigenous people and jeopardized wildlife by destroying migratory corridors. The situation has been exacerbated in recent years by government sell-offs of ancestral lands to hunting and safari companies, and by the encroachment of unauthorised “land grabbers” seeking to use traditional grazing lands for large-scale farming.

Loure’s own community met a similar fate in 1970, when it was forcibly displaced to create the Tarangire National Park. This inspired Loure to join the Ujamaa Community Resource (UCRT), one of the first community-led NGOs in Tanzania, which has championed sustainable development and community land rights for the past 20 years.

Looking for better ways to secure land tenure, Loure saw an opportunity in the strong communal culture among tribes. He worked with UCRT to have a key legal mechanism called Certificates of Customary Rights of Occupancy (CCROs) – the primary mechanism through which land is protected under the Village Land Act – made available to groups, rather than only to individual land-owners. And that opened the door to a string a land victories. 

Over the years, at least 223,000 acres of Tanzania’s northern rangelands have been safeguarded through CCROs. Once their land rights are legally secured, communities can better access, manage and benefit from their natural resources, Loure says.

These communal land rights concepts, innovated in Tanzania, have the potential to have a global impact, says Matthew Brown, Africa Conservation Director at The Nature Conservancy.  “The notion that we need to secure local people’s collective land rights and have it officially signed off at the national level is replicable and is needed in other countries.”


For his innovative indigenous land rights work, Loure was awarded the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa in April, a sort of Nobel for grassroots environmental activists.
 
You can read more about Loure’s communal land rights scheme and its impact in this story I wrote for Positive News.



Thursday, 19 May 2016

Dementia Awareness Week - I am still there

On Our Radar's hand-held device giving a voice to people with dementia





This week is Dementia Awareness Week (15/05/16-21/05/16) and many charities and organizations come together to raise awareness about the condition, tell persons touched by dementia that they don’t have to face it alone and encourage people to remember the person behind the dementia. 

The person is more than the dementia. “Even whilst the 'wall of dementia' is in front of them, they should be held in the same regard, and treated in the same manner as they were, before they had this condition," urges the Alzheimer’s Society. "Even at an advanced stage, people with dementia can sometimes indicate they are aware of those around them; they are still ‘there’. 

 Paul Hitchmough from Liverpool couldn’t agree more. “…Suddenly because you’re diagnosed with this thing called dementia, in some shape of form you become an alien,” he said recounting how an old work colleague recently avoided him at the supermarket. “I really do think it needs to be opened up, this thing.…Just to let people know that you are still the same...” 

Paul’s words are part of the Dementia Diaries, a national project funded by Comic Relief, which brings together people’s diverse experiences of living with dementia as a series of audio diaries. I love this project because it gives a voice directly to people living with dementia.

The Dementia Diaries were launched in January 2015 by On Our Radar, a social enterprise which uses technology to give a voice to marginalized communities. So far, the On Our Radar team has trained 31 people living with dementia across the country to use simple 3D printed mobile phone handsets to record their thoughts and experiences as they occur.  The team then edits and transcribes the diary entries and uploads them onto the Dementia Diaries website, where they can be listened to and shared. 

In their entries, the diarists, who are all part of the Dementia Engagement and Empowerment Project (DEEP), document their daily experiences of living with different forms of dementia.  They talk about their frustrations and joys, what they have lost, what they can still do and what they want people to know.
You can read an entry’s transcript, look at the photo of the diarist and listen to the audio. It is a moving and very powerful.

You can read a story I’ve written about the Dementia Diaries for Positive News here.

And here is short extract from a diary entry by Anne McDonald from Glasgow:

“Why do you call me victim? No one attacked me. Many people live with this condition. We’d rather not have it, but we just get on with it. Language is not difficult…But please remember, this is real life for us. None of you know the shifting sands we walk on daily. None of us know what is ahead. Seize the day and be kind to each other. Thank you.”

If you're worried that you, or someone close to you, might have dementia, call the Alzheimer's Society's National Dementia Helpline on 0300 222 1122 or email helpline@alzheimers.org.uk for advice and support.

 

Monday, 9 May 2016

2016 World Press Freedom Index: Deep Decline in Media Freedom





This is great for censorship. Putin, Erdogan and other authoritarian leaders are celebrating.  We need to fight back the “deep and disturbing” decline in media freedom across every continent, at both the global and regional levels. 

The 2016 World Press Freedom Index, recently published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), shows that every continent has seen its press freedom score decline. The Americas have plunged 20.5%, mostly as a result of the impact of physical attacks and murders targeting journalists in Mexico and Central America. Europe and the Balkans declined 6.5%, mostly because of the growing influence of extremist movements and ultraconservative governments.  The Central Asia/Eastern Europe region’s already bad score deteriorated by 5% as a result of the increasingly glacial environment for media freedom and free speech in countries with authoritarian regimes.

This matters enormously because if journalists are not free to report the facts, denounce abuses and alert the public, how would we resist the problem of children-soldiers, defend women’s rights, oppose injustice or preserve our environment? In some countries, torturers stop their atrocious deeds as soon as they are mentioned in the media. In others, corrupt politicians abandon their illegal habits when investigative journalists publish compromising details about their activities. Still elsewhere, massacres are prevented when the international media focuses its attention and cameras on events.

The reasons for the decline in freedom of information documented by RSF include the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of governments in countries such as Turkey and Egypt, tighter government control of state-owned media, even in some European countries such as Poland, and security situations that have become more and more fraught, in Libya and Burundi, for example, or that are completely disastrous, as in Yemen. 






The survival of independent news coverage is becoming increasingly precarious in both the state and privately-owned media because of the threat from ideologies, especially religious ideologies, that are hostile to media freedom, and from large-scale propaganda machines. Throughout the world, “oligarchs” are buying up media outlets and are exercising pressure that compounds the pressure already coming from governments. 

Published every year since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index ranks 180 countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists. It offers a snapshot of the media freedom situation based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country. It does not rank public policies even if governments obviously have a major impact on their country’s ranking. Nor is it an indicator of the quality of journalism in each country.

You can find more about the report here


Wednesday, 4 May 2016

What drives young Syrians into ISIS?



Young Syrian refugees in Lebanon/Russell Watkins DFID




More than ideologies, it is poverty, desperation and desire for revenge that drive young Syrians into extremist groups.



A new study by the peacebuilding NGO International Alert shows that the key factors that push young Syrians into joining extremist groups are the need to earn a basic living, regain a sense of purpose and dignity, and the belief in a moral duty to protect, avenge and defend their people.



The study, titled Why young Syrians choose to fight: Vulnerability to recruitment by violent extremist groups, draws on interviews with 311 young Syrians, their families and community members in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, to understand what drives both vulnerability and resilience to recruitment by the groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria).



Adolescent boys and young men between the ages of 12 and 24 were found to be most at risk, along with children and young adults not in education, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees without supportive family structures and networks.



The findings suggest that radicalisation is not an explanation for joining a violent extremist group per se. For many young Syrians, belief in extreme ideologies appears to be, at most, a secondary factor in the initial decision to join an extremist group. 



Instead, vulnerability is driven by a combination of extreme trauma, loss and displacement, lack of alternative ways to make a decent living, the collapse of social structures and institutions including education, and the desire to get revenge against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. According to respondents, armed groups also provide a strong sense of purpose, honour and self-worth.



As one young Syrian man in Lebanon said: “People can find a new meaning to their life in extremism. Extremism opens a door to a new life where they are wanted.”


In Syria more than 6,000 schools are out of use, having been attacked, occupied by the military or turned into an emergency shelter. The collapse of the education system, with some two million children out of school, has also greatly contributed to young people’s vulnerability to joining violent extremist groups, who are filling this gap by providing their own forms of education, the report says. These ‘schools’ are highly segregated, exploit sectarian divisions and support divisive narratives.


UNICEF, which today unveiled details of a major new fund (Education Cannot Wait) to help get children back in class during emergencies, also stresses the crucial role of education in countries affected by wars and disasters.  


"Education changes lives in emergencies," said Josephine Bourne, UNICEF's education chief, in a statement. "Going to school keeps children safe from abuses like trafficking and recruitment into armed groups."


Yet, only 2 percent of global humanitarian appeals are on average dedicated to education.  "It is time education is prioritised by the international community as an essential part of basic humanitarian response, alongside water, food and shelter," Bourne added.


Offering comprehensive, inclusive and quality education, which also incorporates trauma healing and psychosocial support, was one of the four key factors identified by the report that can prevent recruitment.  The others were: providing alternative sources of livelihood, better access to positive social groups and institutions, and avenues for exercising non-violent activism.


The report stresses the need to integrate these social cohesion efforts into humanitarian aid projects, regional policy objectives and diplomacy aiming to reduce discrimination against refugees, which can also drive recruitment.


Note: The study was conducted five years into the conflict in Syria, which has claimed an estimated 300,000 lives, displaced 6.5 million people internally and prompted 4.8 million people to flee to neighbouring countries. 

You can find out more about International Alert's work in Syria here.


 

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Remembering Berta Cáceres

Berta Cáceres on the banks of the Gualcarque River in the Rio Blanco region of Western Honduras. The river is a source of water, food, medicine and spiritual identity for the indigenous Lenca people/Courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize


Berta Cáceres, the vocal and brave Honduran environmental and indigenous rights activist, was gunned down last week at her home in La Esperanza, Intibuc. Her murder has prompted a flood of tributes and an international outcry, as well as investigations supported by the United Nations and the FBI. 

Cáceres, who is a member of the Lenca indigenous group, the largest in Honduras, was one of the leading organizers for indigenous land rights in Honduras. In 1993, she co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH. For years, the group faced death threats and repression as they stood up to mining and dam projects that threatened to destroy their community.

Last year, Cáceres, 44, won the Goldman Environmental Prize, a sort of Nobel for grassroots environmental activists, for her work opposing the Agua Zarcao dam, one of Central America’s biggest hydropower projects.

Since the right-wing coup against Manuel Zelaya in 2009, activists have been  persecuted by the Honduran government, making Honduras one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an activist or community organiser.
 
This was certainly true for Cáceres.
 
Police said the killings occurred during an attempted robbery, but the family said they had no doubt it was an assassination prompted by Cáceres’s high-profile campaigns against dams, illegal loggers and plantation owners.

“I have no doubt that she has been killed because of her struggle and that soldiers and people from the dam are responsible, I am sure of that. I hold the government responsible,” her 84-year-old mother said on radio Globo at 6.

Cáceres stood up to corporations and helped delay the construction of the Agua Zarca dam, which, if built, would destroy her community's land and the Gualcarque River in Honduras. 

“She was a fearless environmental hero. She understood the risks that came with her work, but continued to lead her community with amazing strength and conviction,” said John Goldman, President of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.

“We mourn the loss of an inspirational leader, and will honor her life’s work by continuing to highlight the courageous work of Goldman Prize winners like Berta,” said Goldman. “She built an incredible community of grassroots activists in Honduras, who will carry on the campaign she fought and died for.”

I’ve been interviewing Goldman Environmental Prize winners for many years and, like Cáceres, they are truly amazing people. Most are ordinary men and women, full of energy and passion, who are totally committed and take great personal risks to protect the environment. The Prize amplifies their voices and affords them some protection, although sadly not enough in Cáceres’s case.

Cáceres’ death should not be in vain. You can join COPINH and call on the FMO (a Dutch Development bank) to withdraw financial support for this project immediately.  Pressuring the largest investor to pull out of the dam will encourage other backers to divest.

To support their call for justice in Honduras, you can donate to COPINH via their trusted partner, Rights Action (scroll to the bottom of the page). This fund will also support Cáceres’ family at this difficult time.


Thursday, 25 February 2016

Trouble in Paradise: Solomon Islands’ traditions foster inequality




Solomon Islands/ credit: olli0815 /bigstock.com
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Solomon Islands, the string of paradise-looking green islands tucked away in the South Pacific, is a place of exotic beauty where life flows at a gentle pace.  But it also a country with one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world.  And the violence is widely accepted as "the way things are".


A new report by the Equal Rights Trust shows that strong traditions, such as Kastom (Pijin for custom) and Wantok ('one talk') reinforce clan ties, but also emphasise differences and foster discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation.


In particular, the report highlights widespread discrimination against women, which is directly connected to Kastom - in this case, the patriarchal attitudes and gender stereotypes typified by the Bigman culture, whereby communities look to a strong male figure to provide leadership and consider women as inferior to men.


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Members of Solomon Islands YWCA march during International Women’s Day in Honiara by DFAT/Credit:Jeremy Miller


“We found that women are effectively second-class citizens in Solomon Islands; they are invisible in all areas of politics and government and do not participate equally with men in any area of life. Violence against women is alarmingly widespread and widely accepted by both men and women,” said Executive Director of the Equal Rights Trust, Dr Dimitrina Petrova.



Statistics highlighted in the report are startling: more than half of all women experienced sexual violence by an intimate partner and 64% of women between 15 and 49 suffered violence at home.



During a focus group discussion for the report, one woman summarised male attitudes towards women in these terms: “You women are here on earth to give birth and work for us men, and we are your bosses; so do as we say.”



In travel guides, the former British protectorate south-east of Papua New Guinea is presented as a friendly melting pot of cultures and traditions, but the report found serious discrimination between those of different Wantok, community groups based on shared linguistic and cultural heritage.  “Our research found compelling evidence of concern amongst Solomon Islanders that those in positions of power abuse their authority and make corrupt decisions in favour of their Wantok group,” says Petrova.



In addition, the report found that people with disabilities are perceived as “cursed” and denied equality of participation in education, employment and healthcare. And lesbian, gay and bisexual persons are subject to severe social stigma.



The report argues that if Solomon Islands is to move on from the civil unrest, which brought the country to the brink of collapse between 1998 and 2003, its people must stand up and fight traditions which exacerbate difference on the basis of ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation.