Sixteen-year-old Amina will never forget the day that she had to flee from her home in Mogadishu in southern Somalia, where she was staying with her mother and sisters. There was a beautiful dawn, but the rest of that March day in 2007 was filled with fear and tears. The security situation in Mogadishu had been deteriorating for years, turning the city into a battle of warfare and devastation caused by fighting between Ethiopian and Somali government troops, and Islamistguerrillas. Hundreds of civilians were killed while the city was abandoned by at least half of its residents.
Despite Amina’s age her mother decided that she had to leave Somalia, hoping that should would find a more secure place to live. The journey to Europe was long, tiring, and frightening. When she reached her destination the smuggler told her she was in Cyprus, a place she had never heard of, she just hoped it was in Europe.
As an asylum seeker in Cyprus, Amina hoped that her troubles where behind her; but at times she felt helpless as she encountered obstacle after obstacle in her new everyday life, such as going through the complicated asylum process, finding a safe place to live, surviving on very little money, and struggling with a new language and culture.
As a young adult, when Amina became pregnant she had to confront the pain of the traditions of her homeland. As all girls of the Shanshia tribe she was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). A horrific experience that traumatised both her body and soul. She was unable to give natural birth and had an emergency cesarean. Her biggest fear however, was giving birth to a daughter, who would also have to undergo the horror of FGM if they were ever returned to Somalia. Some months after Amina gave birth to her daughter, she was granted refugee status.
A refugee is a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. They cannot return home or are afraid to do so. Oppressive regimes, war, ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries. The protection of refugees is not a choice but the state’s responsibility, which arises from its international obligations.
Like Amina, thousands of people are forced to flee their homes everyday and currently there are approximately 15 million people forcibly displaced around the world. A very small number of refugees live amongst us. One of these is Zaid from Iraq, a political activist and a musician, persecuted by conservative Islamists after the fall of Sadam, and Peter from Cameroon, who was nearly beaten to death by his neighbours for being gay, only to be then arrested and convicted by the authorities who were suppose to protect him.
Listening to the stories of refugees, one comes across a different narrative to what is usually portrayed to us through images of politicised propaganda and the media. This narrative begs us to think beyond the stereotypes that describe refugees and asylum seekers as a financial burden or a threat to our homogeneous national composition. Amina, Zaid, and Peter never planned to abandon their lives, nor did they want to live far away from their parents, friends, communities, and everything else that defines who they are.
If a refugee could speak to you she would ask you to respect her and treat her as a human being who has the same rights to life as you do. He would tell you that not finding a job is as hard on him as it is for you, and as a skilled worker and a university graduate he could, if he was given the chance, offer a lot to the Cypriot society. She would tell you that leaving her home to come to a country where she knows no one and does not speak the language was a life-or-death decision she had to take. He would ask you to walk with him at night when he tries to hide himself from fascists groups, the same way he used to hide from armed militias in his home country.
Today, only fifteen percent of the world’s refugee population is hosted in Europe. Besides popular belief, Cyprus is not a popular destination for people seeking asylum, a trend made obvious by the fact that there was no refugee influx during and after the Arab spring of 2011, nor is there a rise in applications with the current conflict in Syria.
With proper social integration refugees can bring an added value to our society. Integration however requires methodological planning and effective practises in order to have a sustainable impact on the individuals and the community as a whole. These practises can be implemented by programs funded by the EU, simultaneously creating jobs for the local population.
A brief look at the refugee patterns shows us that Cyprus needs to focus on more effective local integration schemes, while at the same time supporting host communities. What is more, we need to urgently address the growing hostility against one of the most vulnerable groups amongst us, and break the myths that block us from seeing a humanitarian challenge for what it actually is.