Debate/ Night of the Dictatorship
MAASTRICHT. "Refugees don’t exist.
There are only people blown away,
people blown by the wind all over the world."
With this poem, the drama group Het Geluid closed the Sphinx debate on Thursday 10 September in De Brandweer. Over the course of the evening the audience had listened to fascinating anecdotes about life in a dictatorship like Syria, and how refugees are building new lives in Europe.
“I wasn’t free. I didn’t dare to stop and chat with anyone on the street, not even about the prices in the supermarket, let alone about politics”, says Ayham Mardini, who in 2013 fled the Syrian capital Damascus, where he worked as a stockbroker. “Even with a trusted neighbour, I’d cut off the conversation after five minutes with adrenaline rushing through my body, afraid that he’d pass something on to the secret service or that someone was listening.” Mardini now lives with his wife and two small children in Vlodrop, Limburg. He works as supervisor in the Maastricht refugee centre.
The other speaker this evening is Marcel Kurpershoek, former UN envoy to Syria. He lived in Damascus from 1979 to 1981 and, despite his protected status as a diplomat, experienced first-hand the “culture of fear and control”. “One day from our balcony we took photos of President Hafiz al-Assad, the father of current president Bashar, who came past in a procession. A fairly innocent thing to do, we figured. But not long after the Moeghabarat, the secret service, came pounding on the door. They grabbed my camera and pulled out the film. They thought we were spies.”
The Syrian dictator, according to Kurpershoek, is not reticent about making use of the secret service and torture. “One evening when we were in Aleppo a friend of ours, the journalist Harm Botje, went out to buy matches. But the curfew was in place, so he wound up in jail. He saw how some prisoners had blood gushing from their wrists from being tied up with wire. Pulling nails out there is routine.”
Syrian children are confronted daily with the glorification of al-Assad, says Mardini. “His photo is on all notebooks and transcripts. Pupils spend a quarter of an hour singing to him every morning. And you have to join the Ba’ath party in tenth grade, otherwise you don’t get any grades and you can’t pass.”
How did Mardini escape the dictator, asks Dutch moderator Bahram Sadeghi (of Iranian descent). “Once I got to the Netherlands, I decided I had to build a new life, to not look back anymore. But occasionally I still have nightmares.” Many of the refugees Mardini meets in the refugee centre have trouble shaking off a lasting sense of suspicion. “They don’t know who to trust.”
Law student starts campaign for refugee children
Would you bring a refugee child home? This question got Bianca Buzbulas thinking. The answer was no, but the master’s student of Tax Law realised that she did want to do something for the refugees. “I’d often talked with friends about how awful the situation is, but those were just words. We weren’t actually doing anything.” So Buzbulas decided to start a collection. “Not for clothes; those have already been donated in abundance. I wanted to do something for the children. I asked friends of mine who themselves were once refugees what they would have liked to have.” She then went out and bought as cheaply as possible things like footballs, notebooks, stickers and crayons. “I want to give the children something new. Each package is wrapped as a little gift. It’s something entirely for them, and easy to take with them if they have to move to a different reception centre.” So far she has been able to put together 150 packages at a cost of around €2 each. They will be picked up next week, along with other goods collected in Maastricht, and taken to the reception centres in Budel and Apeldoorn.
Buzbulas is still accepting donations; for more information, see the Facebook page of the Law Refugee Week. Refugee issues will be in the spotlight at the law faculty all week. Blogs are being posted daily, Amnesty International Maastricht Students is present at the faculty to raise awareness among students, the proceeds from hoodies sold this week will be donated to the student refugee agency UAF, and a debate will be held on Thursday.