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Don't wait for the fire to reach your front door

Chavia and Afghani baby
One of the younger asylum seekers, a young girl from Afrghanistan, I helped during my time at the refugee centre

These last few weeks have been filled with the sad news from Ukraine and the flood of refugees escaping the war, seeking refuge across the world. In some places, they have found a warm welcome, open doors, empathy, and support. In others, doors are slammed shut, or desperate families find themselves ensnared in bureaucratic procedures designed to wear them down.

The crisis has also affected me personally. I have lost family members who had settled in Ukraine. Other relatives and friends have had to leave the country and are now trying to find refuge elsewhere. Talking to friends, I realise that the crisis is not only affecting Ukraine. Many people in Russia are not happy about the war and are feeling frustration about being involved in something they have had no part in deciding. They are anxious about their future. Here in Sweden, Russians are being targeted, even those who are in no way responsible for the situation.

Like many Syrians or refugees from other countries, the ongoing conflict has brought back my own memories. It has awakened trauma from experiences in the war in Syria, and from being forced to leave my home and trying to build a new life from zero in a foreign country. Travelling voluntarily can be wonderful and emotionally enriching, but losing your home and country are among the worst things anyone can experience. I think you could say that you are in a state of existential collapse. You have lost your sense of self, and somehow have to reinvent yourself as well as building an entirely new vision of the world. In that state of crisis, the way you are received in a host country makes a huge difference. I therefore find it disconcerting some people are now falling into a discourse of “us and them”, particularly when these comments come from those who have experienced the pain of exile themselves.

In my case, when I arrived in Sweden in 2012, I faced many difficulties but was also exceptionally lucky. At that time, refugee legislation and practice were still liberal, particularly for Syrians. When I arrived, I was even calling it “my elegant exile”. Amazingly, it only took three months to get permanent residency, and no special conditions were imposed. At that time, just being Syrian was enough to get residency. In practice, my challenges were mainly related to being a refugee with disability, since procedures to get even minimal support were long, bureaucratic, with many missing links in the chain needed to achieve a functioning life situation.

However, although this was an ideal time for Syrians, the situation was quite different for refugees from other countries escaping war or persecution. I was personally involved as a volunteer in trying to give free legal advice and administrative support to refugees from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Armenia, as well as Palestinians from Lebanon or Palestine, and even a Russian wheelchair user. I was the “camp lawyer”. It was an amazing opportunity to learn about the culture and the situation in so many parts of the world, but also incredibly sad to see how unfairly their cases were treated. I remember that a minister came from Iraq to Stockholm at that time and decided to give passports to all Iraqi asylum-seekers, so that Sweden could deport them.

Since 2015 the situation for Syrians has also deteriorated. Changes have negatively affected the practice and interpretation of humanitarian law. Additionally, it is alarming that a battery of restrictive guidelines, laws, and regulations have been put in place to hermetically seal Sweden’s borders to new asylum-seekers, as well as to rapidly deport or withhold settled status from those who are already here.

Many thousands of refugees in Sweden have now been living in limbo for years. There are people who have not been given the documentation needed to access any kind of service or move freely in the country. Young people who came as unaccompanied minors are living hungry in the streets, where they risk freezing to death or being exploited. Some are kept in detainment camps, waiting for deportation. Others are given short-term permits that constantly need to be renewed and are mentally worn down by the constant uncertainty concerning their future.

I have seen people here in Sweden who imagine that the conflict will soon spread to this country and are checking whether their building has a functioning nuclear bomb shelter or are investing in emergency supplies to help them survive for several days in the cold northern forests. For most people however, the scenes displayed in the media are abstract and unreal, something that could never happen here, and that they do not need to concern themselves with, besides a possible impact on energy prices. From their perspective, all Sweden has to do is deport foreigners and reinforce border controls. But the truth is that the devastating impacts of war are universal, and no one is immune, regardless of how close or far away they live from a particular conflict.

The truth is, that the anguish experienced by besieged residents in Ukrainian cities today - however strange or distant it may feel - is something that can befall any one of us. Ten years ago I certainly never imagined that I would be writing these lines today from a new home in Sweden. This is why, beyond emergency response to the current crisis, we all need to defend the principles of solidarity, and of international humanitarian law, which are designed to offer fair and equal protection to everyone. We must not wait until it is too late and the fire is already at our front door before trying to put it out. Instead when we see the flames, we should strive to extinguish it at the source, before it burns out of control.

Chavia Ali

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