Kids art class at Kalachori camp

I visited Jonny who is helping at one of the new camps – a daily art class for kids at the Kalachori camp.

Their drawings show their experiences. A young mother I spoke to drew her journey over the mountains in Syria, and how they came to the border of Turkey. You can see the barbed wire, and the security guard in the tower with his gun pointed at them. She was happy to show them to me and explain the journey that was behind her.

Another drawing showed the boat ride over to Greece from Turkey. Some people fell in the water. Two of them didn’t make it. You can see that the kids are sitting in the middle of the boat while the adults are sitting around on the edges, trying to protect them. On the beach there arfe volunteers waiting for the boat.

Another child drew the camp in Idomeni where he lived with his family lived for the first four months in Greece. Despite all their tough experiences the kids were really happy top paint and draw together and talk about everything that had happened.

Notes from an airport

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”We are not terrorists” Graffiti left at the old camp at Idomeni that has now been cleared of almost any traces of the 20,000 refugees that were there.

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Now I’m sitting at Munich airport on the way to Northern Greece for a short four-day volunteering trip. Among other things, I am going to see the family Abdi and give an kiss from all of you who have helped to little baby Joanna, which I am looking forward to immensely.

I am also going to drive out west to see my dear 17-year-old pen pal, Faten, who is stuck in one of the the refugee camps. It’s going to be great and probably very emotional to see her again. We’ve been chatting with each other almost every day now for the last six months. It feels like we know each other well, despite the fact that we have only met face to face once in the port of Athens, when I arrived from Lesbos with the night ferry.
My friend Jonny is already in Greece to volunteer for a a longer period of time, and we will follow up on some other projects that our little group ‘Share the magic’ is working with right now. Jonny went back to Idomeni last night. It feels scary to see how empty the place is and that almost all traces of the camp are gone.  There were more than 20 000 desperate people camping there on the muddy fields and between the train tracks. They have all been moved onto other camps now.
As usual, I will write about my experiences here in the group of you who are interested to come with me 🙂

Now I’m going to boarding my plane

Joanna

New talent from Syria at Garbergs ad agency, Stockholm

Now I have to tell a good story.

Six months ago, 24-Year-old Najeb Albakar started to work as an intern with me as an image retouch artist. I sent out a request here on Facebook if anyone could imagine having him stay as a house guest during his internship when he was living in Hanover in Skåne. Very quickly I got reply from three wonderful people; Ka Widebeck and her husband Pelle, and Tulle Durling. They said that he was welcome to stay with them at home in their respective houses.
Already after only a week working with me, he got the chance to go to a meeting at the advertising agency Garbergs to see their Creative Director Petter Ödeen, thanks to Karin Roberts. The idea was that he might be able to continue his internship with them, after that he had been with me at my firm Mirage. Petter quickly realized what talent had walked through the door that day and nabbed him directly from me!

After the first paid month as an intern, Najeb got an extended five-month probationary period, and last week he signed a contract for a year as studio assistant at Garbergs- one of Sweden’s largest and most prestigious advertising agencies. I must say that it is quite a remarkable achievement! Najeb escaped the Syrian war only two years ago, and came to Sweden and a completely new country and culture. He has only been studying Swedish at SFI (Svenska för Invandare/ Swedish for Immigrants) for eight months, but he is already almost fluent in Swedish. Above all, he’s flying into one of the toughest competitive industries, and lands a very attractive job based on his own ability.

Najeb – I am very proud of you and your amazing accomplishment! Mabrouk Habibi and good luck – you will sail through this with flying colours! Congratulations also to Garbergs for building this fantastic team. Hold onto him tight now, it may happen that some competitors may open their eyes to him. A big giant thanks also to Ka & Pelle and Tulle for opening up your home. I get really warm in my heart when I think that there are people in this world as generous and kind as you.
This is surely what integration means – that it is up to us citizens to help newcomers to our country start the lives they choose – in the best possible way.

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New ‘temporary’ law in Sweden

It is a very sad day for Sweden.

Today Sweden passed a ‘temporary’ law restricting who can get stay in Sweden. The law is retroactive and reduces the possibility of obtaining a residence permit in Sweden for asylum seekers. It shall apply from 20 July 2016 and the next three years. One of the changes is that all those who are granted any form of asylum will only be given temporary residence permit. It downgrades people into a new sub-status. A person is deemed to be a refugee used to receive a residence permit for three years.

The deemed “subsidiary protection” (fleeing wars and conflict) now receive a residence permit for 13 months.13 months. In that time they need to get a permanent job or prove they can support themselves (money in the bank). In addition, people in Sweden will not be reunited with relatives, even children. So if a father has gone ahead in a rubber boat to find safety for his family in EU, he cannot bring his child here in a safe manner any longer. The new law creates a subsidiary protection status – and this in itself could be against international law. The law can be said to be retroactive and affects those in Sweden who have not yet received an asylum decision.

This law has real effects on children from today. It is retroactive. There are very good reasons that all the aid organisations, Amnesty, Doctors without borders, Red Cross, Save the Children, and the Swedish Church are against this law, that goes directly against human rights conventions and all child protection conventions.

I can’t understand that it is actually the Sweden of all countries who have been through these disgusting laws that severely goes against the humanism which we have been long fought for and been proud of.

Now it’s gone in the grave and we are no better than all the other countries who hide behind Fortress Europe’s high walls. We’re abandoning people in distress, breaking up families and hoping that the problem will just go away, or in some cases, trying to pay ourselves out of the problem. As long as it’s not in our back yard! It’s crazy and I’m feeling so incredibly sad and powerless right now.

I haven’t really had a chance to understand what this really mean for tens of thousands of families who have been torn apart because of war and conflict and persecution, and who will not be able to be reunited for a very, very, very long time- so long as this “temporary law” exists.

I have a knot in my stomach when I see my friends in front of me, those who are on the run and who are stuck in Greece, and knowing that yet another glimmer of hope has been put out for them. For the people like the 17-year-old Faten and her younger siblings, who so desperately are longing for their Dad. He was compelled to leave his family during the war in order to get to Europe and seek asylum- in the hope of finding a safe place for them. It was their only hope to give the kids a secure future. He slipped through the wall before it closed. Now the family is stuck in two different countries, desperate, and I wonder when they’ll get to see each other again. He hasn’t even got to see his youngest daughter, the day she was born, after he had fled Aleppo. Sweden has just done this to families like this, who may never get to meet again – or not for many, many years.

What if it had been our own family, our children who were torn away from their parents when they needed them the most, when everything else in your life has been torn apart by war, bombs, trauma, and death? How would we make it?

I’m ashamed of Sweden right now. Our government will do anything to keep the right-wing extremists out of power. How sad. Even where there is not outright prejudice, there is so much ignorance about refugees and asylum seekers.- and so much ignorance about the rest of the world. Even that carelessness dehumanises people who are in pain and who are seeking safety.

The myth that immigration is expensive is just that – a myth. Without immigration Sweden would be a much poorer country. Of course immigration has to be carefully planned and considered- but this law- it is neither of those things:

  1. Families will be split. Some groups will not be reunited with their families at all. At least not as long as this law applies.
  2. More fleeing across the Mediterranean. A great risk is that the families who are still in the war in Syria and neighbouring countries will now embark on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean instead of trying to get reunited through a relative. More families and more children, in more boats.
  3. Integration hampered. Temporary residence permits create an enormous insecurity, and security is fundamental to achieving a successful integration. It is pure torture for people fleeing the horrors of war to be told they might be sent back to face war and persecution. This only increases the need for specialised care and decreases the chances of them finding work in such a short time span. Its simply inhumane.
  4. Waste of talent. Employment is now important than the degree of protection. It is extremely problematic that employment will be more significant for a permanent residence than the degree of protection. Its also a complete waste of talent – we’d rather have a doctor washing dishes to keep their permit within the short time frame rather focussing on taking a fast track to begin working as a doctor in Sweden.

– Joanna

 

A short trip back to see our friends

Now we are home again after a rather short stay in Greece.

The main goal of the trip was to see that the family Abdi are fine. What a joy it was to see sweet baby Joanna! Muhammad told me that in Kurdish, Joanne means beautiful. Of course I liked that! It feels good that she has a good start in life despite everything going on around her and she didn’t have to come into the world in a refugee camp.

The family is so happy and grateful for everything that everyone has done. Mohammad told me that they are so touched that we have given them the chance to feel human again. It means a great deal. Thank you to everyone who has helped to make this possible with your amazingly generous donations which will help them to stay in the apartment for many more months. What an effort!

There are many people who have been helping Abdi’s in purely practical terms. There are the Americans, Lisa and Mel, and my friend Jonny from England, as well as our Greek hosts Maria & Dirk – You are all real supermen! Maria & Dirk have helped to find housing for at least six different families, including the family Abdi. The volunteers collect contributions, find projects that families can work with, and help them with everything from the asylum application to other official matters. Without volunteers, none of this would be possible.

On this trip, my husband Tomas and I also worked a couple of days at the camp in Idomeni camp on the border to Macedonia. There are still about 14,000 people at the camp. Some people we talked to told me that they had been there for 4 months. First in the rain, snow and mud. Now in the oppressive heat, insects and dust.

The positive thing is that the camp is more organised than the last time I was there. There are more volunteers and finally there are aid organisations on the ground.

An amazing project that moved me to tears was seeing a volunteer friend I had met in Lesbos, Spanish David. He has started an organization called the Ekoproject. Among many other activities the Ekoproject has started a school in the camp. I will write more about the Ekoproject soon. After the donations to the Abdi family, Tomas and I decided to give the rest of the money to help the Ekoproject in their efforts to give the children in the camp an opportunity for a much missed schooling.

It is magical to see happy kids sitting in the classroom learning English words and counting in their maths class. I am very glad that we can support them. The school is an important part in getting these children to feel a degree of normality in what is otherwise a terribly hard everyday life, on top of all the hard experiences they carry inside.

I have received so much positive energy of witnessing how people from so many different countries in the world come together to organize themselves and spontaneously and selflessly help others.

The grass roots has rallied together and started various volunteering projects without any politics or bureaucracy, managing to be amazingly effective and do a really good job under tough circumstances. Very often, their efforts are better than the large aid organisations. Both are needed, of course, as the heavy players can reach out with larger quantities of supplies, but they are also slow to start and many times, they are not present where they are most needed – in my opinion.

What has struck me – and makes me humble – is that I have seen so much kindness and selflessness, both in those who contribute to the way they can at home, with the volunteers on the ground – and in the hearts of the people who are fleeing. It shows me, people are basically good and wish each other well. See this clearly helped me to handle all hell I have witnessed on my travels, the indescribable misery I have witnessed at close range, the children who are hurt and all the extreme grief in people’s eyes.

The forces of evil, racism and right-wing extremism exists, of course, but these evil forces and mislead opinions take way too much space in the media. It is easy to think that the world is crazy. But I am convinced that the humanitarian movement that arises when people need help and support is so much bigger than those forces. To see that gives hope and a joy and an energy to continue to help.

If you would also like you to continue to help us, and are in Sweden, please Swish me on: 0736800444. Every penny really does make a huge difference.

I would like to thank each and every one of you personally for all your generous donations and support. Please know that you are not forgotten.

If you are outside Sweden you can donate here: http://gogetfunding.com/together-we-make-a-difference/

 

Going back to Idomeni

Hello again everyone!

On Thursday 11th May I will go to Greece with my partner Tomas for a short stay to visit family Abdi and their little baby Joanna.

Those of you who followed my previous volunteer trips in Greece may remember the family that was close to seeing the birth to their fourth child in camp at Idomeni; the camp by the border of Macedonia.

We were able to move them to an apartment so the baby could come into the world in peace and quiet. It was lucky for them that they were out of the camp, because it Mrs Abdi had to have an emergency caesarean section. Had they been left in the camp there would have been no help available.

We all thought that the situation in Greece would resolve itself after a few months, but it now turns out to be a long drawn-out game of waiting, and many speculate that it may take over a year for any change to happen.

We are trying to see what we can do to help the family and their four children avoid having to move back to hellish misery of the camp again. The money we raised to help them with food and bills is running out. The reason for this is that they can no longer queue for food in the camp distributed by volunteer organisations. The family ran out of their own money when they paid smugglers to get them across to Greece.

Would you like to help the family with a small contribution? I can promise that the money will be well managed. Please mark your donation “Family Help” We are also helping two other families who are in similar situations. If you would you rather make a contribution for the Baby Formula Milk that we will buy and take to the camp, you can mark your donation “Baby milk.”

Any contribution, big or small, makes a big difference for us to be able to help some of those poor people stuck in Greece, for a very long time to come.

Together we make a difference!

If you are in Sweden please Swish: 0736-800444

If you are outside Sweden please see:

Donate in Euro here

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It’s a girl!

It’s a girl!

Happy news!

On Monday the 28th the Abdi family welcomed a new, beautiful little girl into the world. Nalin had planned to give birth at home, but she got such sharp pain that she was rushed to hospital by kind volunteers and the wonderful Maria who drove her there. Everything went well and two hours later the little girl was born.

It feels great to see how so many volunteers have been involved in ensuring that the family has a safe home and did not have to give birth to their daughter in the camp at Idomeni.

Now they can take care of each other in peace and quiet. Mohammed and Nalin send their gratitude to all of you.

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The news that I feel extremely honoured about – the little girl’s name is Joanna. I can’t describe how touched I was when Mohammed told me that. I now hope and pray that little Joanna will have as many opportunities in life as I have had! 🙂

 

 

One family’s journey from Syria

Mohammed Abdi and his family wanted to share their story with you and thank everyone who has so kindly helped them. These are his words.

Good morning!

I am writing this from the apartment that lovely Maria and Antonia found for us. It belongs to the Vaggeli family, who have so generously let us stay here free of charge, in a village near Idomeni.

I cannot express the relief I feel that my wife, Nalin, can give birth here and not in the camp at Idomeni; the relief that my daughters are now safe, away from bombs, away from dangerous people and away from the camp. We both want to express our deepest gratitude to everyone who has helped us. You are so many!

This is our story about our flight from our village in Syria; the Kurdish village of Hasaka. It was a beautiful place before the war. I had a good job as a satellite technician, and I could provide for my family.

We left Syria because it was becoming more and more dangerous day by day to stay there. The bombing was happening daily when we left, the infrastructure has broken down, there is no work, no future, and you do not know who is your friend and who is your enemy.

My brother-in-law, Azer, was a mini-bus driver and a very lovely and kind man. Daesh (Isis) made a road stop and said they wanted to check his bus. Instead they put a bomb inside so that he would drive back to our village. The next day strangers came to our house. They had so kindly gathered up all the small pieces of his body in a bag to return to us. I am sorry to describe this. I just want everyone to understand the situation in Syria.

It was a difficult decision to start on this journey, because my wife, Nalin, is sick and pregnant. The doctor in Syria said she is at risk of developing cancer. At the end of the day, we just had no choice. My wife and I were also scared for my daughters’ safety and future. My daughters, Hewler, Helin and Ruken are 11, 9, and 7 years old.

For all these reasons we sold our house for less than half of what I paid for it, and we left Syria just in time. Every one wants to leave Syria but all the borders are closed now. Many are stuck there. It’s so dangerous there it is hard to describe. Between Syria and Iraq the border is also closed now. Between Syria & Turkey the border is closed too now. Syria now like a big prison for everyone there, believe me. There is no future. My sister’s daughter made it with us to Turkey. She is still stuck there. We are worried about her.

We packed our bags and drove by car to the Iraqi town of Erbil where we met with smugglers. We drove for about one and half hours with them to a village on the border of Iraq and Turkey.

From here we drove about four or more hours to a river. We had to change jeeps 4 times because the smugglers were very scared about being caught. They said their work is very dangerous and there is a lot of security check points around the border.

The last jeep we were in broke down three times in a difficult area in the mountains. They fixed it temporarily so we could continue, but the car was not safe on the road, which was muddy and snowy and very slippery. So we begged them to stop the jeep and not continue as it was getting dangerous, but they refused. We all cried, I swear even I did. I felt so frustrated and angry. My family’s safety was at risk. I said to Nalin that I wanted to punch them, but she wisely told me to stay calm as they would probably just kill us all if I caused any problems. She said to me: ”Look Mohammed, they are three men with rifles and you are just one!” It was horrible. Thank god we finally reached the river.

airbox sketch
Sketch of crossing the river in an ‘Airbox’

We waited to cross the river with other people the smugglers were helping. There was a rope across the river in a large ”air”box that could hold one person at a time. It’s a sort of closed box that you climb in and then a lid is secured on top. So you are stuck in the box. If it falls into the water you are stuck inside. The river was not wide but the current was very strong. A young boy drew the box to the other side. The whole set up was very, very dangerous. We were all extremely scared.

IMG_7684At night the mountains are not safe.

When we got across the river we start walking up a mountain. It was very cold. It was snowing. My girls were incredibly tired. Nalin, my wife, is pregnant. So many times she said to me: “Please, please Mohammad I am very tired, I have to stop.” But I answered that she must not stop because there are very bad people and wolves in these mountains. It was terrible walking in the darkness after the sun set. It made me cry in my heart to see my wife and daughters so tired. But we couldn’t stop, we had to stay as a group, and pass the mountain. We just could not stop. I will never forget that moment. We walked for 15 hours without stopping, carrying a few belongings with us.

At last we arrived at a bridge where there were Turkish police. They took us all into a big room where they wrote down our names. There were about 75 Syrian people. We were allowed to sleep there the night. We were all very exhausted.

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Basket ball stadium in Shemdinli, Turkey.

The next day we were taken to a basketball stadium in another city, Shemdinli. There were about 400-500 people there. We stayed here for 7 days. Finally, after waiting for 7 days, not knowing how long we would be there, the police brought papers and called our names one by one, and let us go.

We went to Izmir by bus. The bus from Shemdinli to Izmir takes 23 hours (46 hours return), and we took the bus every time we tried to get on a boat in Izmir, to go to Greece. We had to go forth and back three times, it was only the third time we got on the boat. The first time the police caught us but let us go the following day. The second time we went to Izmir, the smuggler did not answer the telephone when we arrived, as promised. The third time we finally got across the sea to Samos, in Greece.

I can’t describe what it was like in the boat. We know that so many people have drowned, but we were really lucky to make it to Greece. The smugglers crammed 109 people in to a wooden boat that was probably made for just half as many passengers. They said that we were only 75 (which even that was too many) as they did not count babies and children up to 11  years old. Can you believe it, the young children don’t count! They only charge half price for them as well.

Until today we have been travelling for two months since we left our village, on foot, by car, in busses and jeeps- and on that small boat. My girls have been very brave. It has not been easy. We arrived on the shores of Greece so exhausted but just glad to be alive and had made it that far. We had to leave our belongings in Izmir when we got on the boat, so we had nothing left with us. In Greece, we went to Idomeni, which is next to the Macedonian border, with the hope of continuing our journey to the EU to apply for asylum somewhere.

idomeniSome of the tents in the camp at Idomeni

The Idomeni camp is very difficult. My wife was nine months pregnant when we arrived at Idomeni. We were very scared that she would have to give birth there, with no shelter, and no help.

We had run out of money to move elsewhere.

The smugglers took 850 US dollars to get us from Iraq to Turkey. From Turkey to Greece it cost us 7 600 US dollars. It cost loads more for other transport. I got some money from selling our house. Only 5 600 US dollars, a fraction of what it was worth before the war, and less than half of what I paid for it. Now we have no money left at all. No house. No country. No family. And nowhere to go. We don’t know when this tragic story will stop and when EU will find a solution for us. We are not tourists, not terrorists, just refugees who were forced to leave our country. We are just people like everyone else.

This is the story of our journey from Syria to Greece. I hope that everyone will know that the people who have fled Syria are normal citizens.

We are so happy that you have helped us. You are a group of angels – all of you. Because of you all we now feel like human beings again. You have made this possible for us. We don’t need much. Just to feel human is important.

Mohammed

coiple day of leaving
This photo was taken in Syria

IMG_7689The whole family – out of the camp at Idomeni and safe in the new apartment!