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“I never thought I’d be a refugee”: From Aleppo to Belfast

“I never thought I’d be a refugee.”
 
So says Ahmad Alissa, a Syrian refugee now living in Belfast who volunteers at Oxfam’s shop on Botanic Avenue. 
 
Born in Aleppo, Ahmad is from a family of four brothers and five sisters who had a comfortable life thanks to their large olive grove farm and also from a business producing materials for the construction industry. 
 
“We had to leave Syria quickly, it took a short time,” he says. Now Syria is empty.” 
 
“When I first left Syria, I thought I’d be a refugee for a maximum of one year… maybe two years,” Ahmad continues. “But that dream is gone now. Now it seems Belfast and Northern Ireland is my home.
 
“When I was first a refugee, I had to learn Turkish, so I learnt Turkish. Then I had to learn Greek. Now I hope English is the last language I will have to learn.” 
 
Ahmad was speaking after the screening of a documentary called District Zero at the Belfast Film Festival’s Better World Fringe section organised by the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies (CADA NI), an umbrella group of large and small charities based in Northern Ireland, working to tackle poverty and its root causes around the world. 
 
 
 
The story of a Syrian refugee who begins a new life in Jordan’s Zaatari camp is the focus of District Zero, a documentary film co-produced by Oxfam and the European Commission. The film focuses on Maamun Al-Wadi – one of almost 60 million refugees and displaced people worldwide – who runs a mobile phone shop in Jordan’s Zaatari camp. Maamun fixes mobile phones and helps fellow refugees print off photos of happier times. Photos by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam
 
District Zero – a film co-produced by Oxfam and the European Commission – tells the story of Maamun, a Syrian refugee who begins a new life in fixing mobile phones and helps fellow refugees print off photos of happier times.
 
In almost five years Syria has become the epicentre of a massive humanitarian catastrophe, causing 4.6 million people to flee the country for their lives and 6.8 million more to be displaced internally.
 
While each refugee’s story is different – for example, unlike the film’s protagonist, Ahmad left Syria before the conflict because of political persecution, and was never in a refugee camp – the documentary does reflect some heart-breaking universal truths behind the refugee experience. 
 
“No-one wants to be a refugee,” says Colm Byrne, who as Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager has visited refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. “How desperate do you have to be to get into one of those boats looking to cross the Mediterranean? People want to thrive. In Zaatari camp, the people revert to doing what they do at home. They want to move forward, they want to grow.”
 
Ahmad agreed: “Nobody is happy to leave their home. When I was living in a peaceful Syria, I never imagined I would be a refugee. It’s a reminder that, in the wrong circumstances, anyone could end up as a refugee.
 
“Many of the people shown in the film come from lives not dissimilar to people I have met here in Northern Ireland – with families and friends, jobs and homes,” added Ahmad.
 
While Colm agreed with one of the audience members who suggested that the film depicted the best possible refugee experience – with good conditions and economic opportunities – he said: “District Zero shows the heart-breaking reality of refugees in the world. This is as good as it gets for refugees in terms of facilities. You can meet people’s material needs, but in a crisis people want a human connection and a connection to home.
 
“But this fascinating film does take us into the often invisible world of refugees: a world of chaos and uprootedness. It shows us the complex human realities of people who have been driven to extremes, but who, against many odds, still have hope.” 
 
The film gives a face to the daily drama of millions of people and shows that behind every number and every statistic, there is a story to be told. The title of the film evokes the idea of the lives of Zaatari’s inhabitants being suspended or stuck at a ‘Point Zero’ because of the ongoing war in Syria. 
 
“Conflict has forced people to live in these camps with an uncertain future. They remain stuck in limbo, unsure when they will be able to reunite with their families, or go back to their homeland,” Colm added.
 
Also on the panel discussion, chaired by blogger Alan Meban, was Monica McWilliams, a Professor of Women's Studies at Ulster University of Ulster and a renowned expert on women in conflict. Monica has been involved in capacity building of Syrian women's groups in Geneva to bring women's voices into the negotiation process. 
 
Monica told the audience: “When in conflict woman are thrown into extraordinary circumstances and they do extraordinary things. The courage, resilience and coping skills shown in the film touches your heart.
 
“When I saw the baby in the film I wondered, what life it will have in the next four years or the next eight years? Will it have a better life than its mother? Is its father still alive?”
 
 
Clockwise from top: From left: Blogger and panel chair Alan Meban; Ahmad Alissa, with his daughter Sara; Oxfam Ireland Campaigns and Advocacy Executive Christine McCartney, co-organiser and Chair of CADA NI; Monica McWilliams, an expert on women in conflict; Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager Colm Byrne. Photo by Kevin Doherty. Ahmad Alissa, a Syrian refugee now living in Belfast, spoke as part of the post-screening panel discussion. Photo by Conor Meikleham. Colm Byrne spoke as part of the panel discussion following the film premiere. Photo by Kevin Doherty 
 
 
To wrap up the event each panellist was asked to recommend a course of action for the international community on Syria and what we here in Ireland, north and south, need to do.
 
Colm Byrne said: “The concept of humanitarianism is one we hold dear yet we’re not responding to the crisis correctly. Europe’s response to the refugee crisis does not reflect a focus based on humanity, it’s a security response. The deal between the EU and Turkey deal is ill-thought through and illegal, contrary to the spirit of international and humanitarian law.
 
“Wealthy states only accommodate 10% of refugees. We have to accept our fair share. We need to directly engage with our politicians to find solutions, to physically open our arms. As communities, rights holders and voters we need to put pressure on our leaders to do our fair share.
 
“And we need to build on our experience of conflict here in Ireland and what we’ve learnt from that.”
 
Monica McWilliams added: “In the future my grandchildren may ask me, ‘Where were you when they were using chemical weapons in Syria? What did the world stand up and say?’
 
“So we need to keep working on a humanitarian and political response using the 1325 National Consultative Group implementing the UN Security Council Resolutions on women, peace and security. And we need to keep Syria high up on the media’s agenda.”
 
Addressing the audience, Ahmad said: “All of you here have seen now what’s happening in Syria. You need to tell your friends and family, everybody must know.”
 
Phillip Graham is a Media and Communications Executive with Oxfam Ireland.
 
The District Zero film is part of the ‘EUsaveLIVES – You Save Lives’ campaign by Oxfam and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), which aims to raise awareness on the lives of almost 60 million refugees and displaced people worldwide.
 
 

District Zero trailer

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Building back stronger in Nepal, one year on

Oxfam has provided water and sanitation in temporary schools in Gorkha, Nepal, after many were destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

On 25 April 2015, Nepal was struck by the first of two major earthquakes that left nearly 9,000 people dead and destroyed or damaged more than 850,000 homes.

I was in Nepal in the immediate aftermath of the first quake and saw first-hand the difference your donation made as we were able to provide clean water, sanitation, emergency shelter materials, food and other vital relief.

Your donation has helped not only provide immediate aid like shelter, blankets and clean water but also now the hope of a return to normality.

Critically, your support also means that Oxfam can continue to support affected communities throughout what will be a long road to recovery.

Over the last year, Oxfam’s response has benefitted 481,900 people in seven of the worst-hit districts of Nepal with:

  • 49,978 emergency shelters
  • 13,097 winter kits including blankets and thermal mats to provide protection in freezing temperatures
  • 54,365 hygiene kits to enable people drink and wash safely Installation of more than 150 large clean water storage tanks
  • Over 7,000 toilets or latrines
  • 2,300 cash grants, tools and training to help families rebuild their livelihoods
  • Cash-for-work programmes for over 20,400 families

Bimala, Gana and Netra are just some of the thousands of people supported at the most challenging of times. Their stories are powerful examples of how your support has enabled Oxfam to rebuild communities, restore livelihoods and help people return to normality, stronger and better prepared than before. 

BIMALA’S STORY

Bimala Balami can piece her life back together after participating in an Oxfam cash-for-work programme in Kathmandu Valley. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

Bimala Balami’s life was devastated by the earthquake, which destroyed her home in Dachi Nkali municipality, in the Kathmandu valley. Bimala recalls: “My mind went completely numb. I couldn’t think. I only cared about my baby. I just wanted to protect my child.

“After the earthquake people didn’t know what they would do or how they would earn. Oxfam came in and now the women in the village know they can provide for their families.”

On the hillside fields where her local community grow rice, wheat, mustard, peas, cucumber and other vegetables, the irrigation channel that provides water for the crops was badly damaged as a result of a landslide triggered by the earthquake.

Oxfam has responded with your support by paying groups of 30 women, including Bimala, to construct a new irrigation channel. This provides the women with an income and the community with prospects of a substantive harvest.

Bimala is part of the group working on the new channel. “I like the job that I am doing because I know it is for the welfare of my entire village. People do need proper irrigation for their fields and I know that. If I don’t do this work people won’t even be able to eat.”

For people like Bimala, trying to piece their lives back together after the earthquake, cash-for-work projects such as this make the critical difference between hope and despair. It creates opportunity to rebuild not only individual lives but also that of whole communities at the same time.

In all we have organised 25 similar cash for work programmes in the area where Bimala lives involving 600 people, including clearing debris and repairing roads damaged by the earthquakes and subsequent tremors. Across our response, over 20,000 households have benefitted from such schemes.

GANA'S STORY

Gana Butrai received livelihood support in the form of a small business grant from Oxfam. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

We have supported women across four districts with financial support in the form of cash grants to enable them to restart their businesses and get their livelihoods back on track, including shop-keeper Gana Butrai.

“The day the earthquake happened I was actually in my shop,” she recalls. “The only thing I was thinking was will I live or will I die. I didn’t look at my watch but it felt as though it went on for at least half an hour. The ground felt like it was shaking for almost an entire day.

“The building was damaged in the earthquake; it used to have a top floor but it fell down and the wall on the left fell down as well.

“I had to ask people to come and help me but I couldn’t retrieve all of the items and lots of them expired. So I had to start again, reconstructing the entire space. Things have become a lot easier since Oxfam has helped.

“The first help that Oxfam gave me was a grant of 4,000 rupees and since then they have helped me with material support. I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart.” 

NETRA’S STORY

Business is now booming for trader Netra Parajuli after Oxfam’s support. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam.

We are distributing vouchers so people can buy what they need to restart their farms, businesses and kitchen gardens – which is good news for traders like Netra Parajuli. Before the earthquake, Netra ran a thriving shop in Lamosanghu, but like thousands of others, his livelihood was destroyed in the disaster.

“Everything started moving and we all started running towards the door. Slabs of concrete were falling all around us. I thought they would kill me.

“I couldn’t breathe; there was dust everywhere. I tried to see someone around me but I couldn’t see anyone. I thought I was dead. Suddenly a wall broke and I saw light. I ran towards it.

“Everything was under the debris. We couldn’t even dig the dead people out. I started breaking the concrete so that we could pull people out. That day I pulled four people alive from the rubble. They were trapped and I could hear them crying. I had no idea how many people had died then.”

With the stock he salvaged, Netra has managed to set up a temporary shop, and thanks to Oxfam’s voucher scheme, business is now back on track.

“I’ve had almost 900 people come to my shop because of the vouchers being distributed. The most popular items have been the spade, then hoe and then the watering can. If people’s tools are damaged, I repair them. I make the hoes myself.”

Oxfam has distributed over 6,000 vouchers to help people buy agricultural tools and supplies, with each voucher worth 2,000 rupees (around €17/£13). The distribution supports not only the people receiving the vouchers, enabling them to restart their kitchen gardens and farms, they also support local traders and store owners like Netra and reignite the local economy.

A further distribution is planned to commence soon, supporting local communities with livestock and grain storage through cash grants. In addition to direct assistance, Oxfam is advocating with national and local authorities in Nepal for the roll-out of a recovery process and plan that ensures no-one is left behind – especially women and other marginalised communities with limited resources or opportunities even before this crisis and who are now only more vulnerable.

We are urging a reconstruction effort that builds back better, creating a fairer, more equal and inclusive society than before.

Colm Byrne is Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager.

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Europe’s shame: Hundreds more lives lost at sea exactly 1 year on from Lampedusa tragedy

One year to the day after 800 people drowned off the Italian island Lampedusa, news of another awful tragedy in the Mediterranean has emerged.

Reports of hundreds dead after four boats capsized underline how Europe is still failing to deal effectively with the migration crisis in a way that puts human lives first.

Today Oxfam published a new report ('EU hotspots spread fear and doubt’) which found that vulnerable people seeking safety and dignity remain at risk of death, torture and exploitation as they try to reach and cross the Mediterranean.

The EU’s response to the Lampedusa drownings this day last year and the Mediterranean crisis as a whole has yielded successive emergency summits, beefing up Europe’s border security and bringing in a ‘hotspot’ plan for Italy and Greece where asylum claims are expedited with a focus on swift rejections. 

Three hotspots have been functioning in Sicily since September 2015, but the European and Italian authorities in charge of them have yet to agree a clear legal framework for how they are to operate. This leaves a serious gap in clarity on how this system is ensuring respect for Italian, European and international law. The Italian parliament was challenged on this – with no response forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the system has failed to protect the numbers of people willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves and their families. Desperate and often already traumatised by what they are leaving behind, they face further anguish, fear and brutality on their journey to safety.

According to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, migrants detained in the country face torture, beatings and forced labour. Recently four migrants were shot dead and 20 wounded while trying to escape a detention centre. These are innocent civilians – mothers, grandparents and teenagers who simply want a better life, free from conflict and poverty.

Filsim, a 22-year-old woman who travelled alone from Somalia to Italy, said: “I spent eight months in Libya. We were imprisoned by a gang of traffickers when we arrived in the country. They would leave us for two or three days without food and water, and they beat us for fun. I have so many scars on my breast.”

Filsim was finally released when her family managed to pay an US$800 (approx. €710/£560) ransom to the traffickers. She then had to pay US$1,000 (approx. €885/£700) for the trip to Italy.

The crossing between Libya and Italy is the deadliest sea route in the world and the death toll for 2016 had before today already reached 219 people with nearly 10,000 people attempting to use this route to reach Europe in March alone. Total arrivals to Italy in the first quarter of 2016 are almost double the number of arrivals in the same period in 2015. This proves that the policies of deterrence adopted by the EU do not work.

A woman and child arrive in Lesbos, Greece. Desperately seeking safety and refuge in a new country, some are lucky enough to get to beaches where they face volunteer groups across Europe, others are not so lucky. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Many of those who survive the journey face a legal limbo once in Europe. The expedited approach of the hotspots is yielding faster decisions and more expulsions, but as a result many people are being shut out of the asylum system, left stranded and even more vulnerable.

Bakari, from Gambia, said: “After two days, they gave us the paper [the expulsion order to return] and they put us out on the street without any explanation. There were seven of us, and we slept at the train station in Catania for three months.”

According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, fear often prevents migrants from seeking help and means that those responsible for exploiting migrants can act with impunity – with women left particularly vulnerable to abuse – while people who seek to assist undocumented migrants can face criminal charges.

By failing to provide safe and legal passage, Europe has acted shamefully – putting political interests before human beings. 

Only by providing routes for people to reach Europe that are safe, legal and humane can we prevent further loss of life like today’s tragedy. 

Jim Clarken is CEO of Oxfam Ireland.

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‘If those corporations were paying their dues my friend would not have died’

Clockwise from left: Cecillia, Stella and Getrude - tax justice activists, campaigning to change the policies and structures that allow rich individuals and multinational companies to avoid paying the tax they owe. Photos: Mark Bushnell/Oxfam
 
Scandals like the recently released Panama Papers show the enormous lengths people, from government officials, big businesses, celebrities and the wealthy elite, will go to avoid paying tax. 
 
The whole world has been talking about the leaked documents and those named for tax dodging – often through perfectly legal loopholes that deny poor countries of billions needed for essential services like health and education. 
 
But there are also people going to extraordinary lengths to tackle the inequality that keeps people poor and to make tax fair for everyone. 
 
People like Ene Agbo from Nigeria, Cecillia Mulenga from Zambia, Gertrude Chirwa from Malawi and Stella Agara from Kenya but working in Malawi – four inspiring women who are taking on the tax dodgers and who we are delighted to be hosting in Ireland this weekend. 
 
The four activists are currently travelling around Europe meeting with the public, decision-makers and Oxfam supporters to share first-hand how tax dodging is harming people and communities. 
 
You are invited to join us in Dublin and Belfast to hear for yourself why tackling the global toxic tax system matters and to catch their contagious energy and passion for the fight against tax dodging.  
 
Cecillia told us: “You should be around in Zambia when we are doing campaigning – it’s one of the best days…!”
 
She has a very personal reason for getting angry about public funds lost to tax dodging. A good friend of hers died when she was eight months pregnant because there were no health facilities.  
 
Cecillia says: “If those corporations were paying their dues my friend would not have died. They would have built a hospital; they would have built a better road in that same area. That would have helped her and kept her alive.”

Meet Cecillia

Stella said the lengths some firms go to avoid paying tax in Malawi is mind-blowing: “It is the order of the day for small business to pay more tax than multinational companies, yet multinational companies are making billions out of Malawi,” she says. 
 
Stella believes that this corporate tax dodging is driving inequality in Malawi: “For me I have seen people enjoy very wealthy lives…and I have seen people who are very poor, who don’t ever put on shoes – that is when you have seen poverty.”

Meet Stella

Gertrude is 22 years old and raises awareness about tax injustice in the community, particularly with young people. She believes it’s down to ordinary citizens to do something about tax dodging. 
 
Gertrude says: “When I learnt about it, I got really angry and motivated at the same time…I need to do something about it, I need to make others also aware there are a lot of tax injustices happening in our country and that we can do something, particularly the youth.  
 
“What I say to the campaigners in the rest of the world is: let’s keep up the good work, let’s keep fighting for tax justice – if we don’t do it, then who will?”

Meet Gertrude

While the headlines and the hype can make tax dodging seem complex, it is refreshing to hear from real people with real passion about what is happening on the ground – and to realise we are all connected in a global push to take on the tax dodgers and make change for good. 
 

JOIN US:

 
 
 

LIVE STREAM:

 
If you can't make the events in Dublin or Belfast, we will be doing our first ever social media live stream talk and Q&A with these activists, on Facebook and Periscope, this Saturday (April 16) at 4pm. Keep an eye on our Facebook and Twitter for more info and to join our chat on Saturday.

Christine McCartney is a Campaigns and Advocacy Executive with Oxfam Ireland

Oxfam Ireland's tax justice project is funded by the European Union

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Talking tax – it’s anything but boring

Above: L-R Volunteer campaigners Lynsey Burrows, Grace De Bláca and Oxfam's Mary Quinn join activists in Amsterdam to call for action on tax-dodging and inequality.

Last month over 80 activists from Europe and across the world came together for a two day conference in the Netherlands with one shared goal: to change the way tax works. 

Lynsey Burrows from Northern Ireland travelled to Amsterdam along with fellow volunteer campaigner Grace De Bláca and Oxfam Ireland's Campaigns and Public Outreach Executive Mary Quinn. They joined the group working to tackle issues like tax dodging which robs countries of vital funds needed for essential services like health and education.

Lynsey shares her thoughts on the difficulty of communicating such an important but complex issue: 

In March, I was extremely excited to be able to attend the Tax Justice Together conference in Amsterdam with Oxfam Ireland. The tax justice movement is one of the largest social justice movements of the past few years and it is gaining momentum all the time. The conference was an opportunity for activists from all around the world to meet and discuss how best we can continue to work together to campaign for change to the global tax system. 

Within hours of arriving at the conference it became clear that there was one common problem we all faced when campaigning on tax justice in our communities: tax justice sounds boring. Unless you work in the financial industry or are a ‘tax justice nerd’ (the sort who is extremely excited to attend tax justice conferences...) anything to do with tax sounds dreary, dull and complicated. 

And it can be all of those things. Phrases like ‘tax treaties’, ‘capital gains’ and ‘bilateral investments’ are not the most easy to relate to when trying to talk to people about why tax matters. But there was also a very clear and urgent issue that any Oxfam supporter can relate to: 

Tax injustice sustains poverty – as long as there is an unfair tax system, there will be poverty. 

Without any jargon or financial knowledge needed, we can all understand that anything that maintains poverty or makes it worse is something we need to fight against. 

Developing countries are losing billions every year because of tax injustice. Tax injustice has many aspects to it and I am going to focus on just one of those. One of the main culprits is multinational companies avoiding paying tax – tax dodging. They do this through schemes such as tax treaties. Put very simply (because I don’t want to bore you but mainly because I’m not an expert either) tax treaties are an agreement between two countries to avoid paying double tax. 

So, if one multinational company (let’s call them WeLoveMoney) is registered in two countries that have a tax treaty, they will only have to pay tax in one of those counties. WeLoveMoney operates and makes an awful lot of money (which they love, hence the name) in one of those countries, the country that is developed and wealthy. But they are also registered in the developing country, where they don’t make much money but source or create their product. Can you guess which country they choose to pay their taxes in?

So because of perfectly legal loopholes, WeLoveMoney pays a very small amount of tax in the developing country where it is also generating profit and that country's government does not get its fair share of tax - money that is needed to help pay for healthcare, education and essential public services. Without the money they’re rightfully owed, poverty continues. 

The rights and welfare of the some of the poorest people in the world are being harmed by the current global tax system.  So if you hear me and other activists talking about tax, we’re really talking about poverty, about injustice and about inequality. 

And that’s not boring. 

#MakeTaxFair

Tax activists on tour | #MakeTaxFair

We've got four very special guests coming to Ireland next week - tax campaigners from Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia. These activists work tirelessly to change the policies and structures that allow rich individuals and multinational companies to avoid paying the tax they owe. You can meet them in person in Dublin and Belfast (details below).- Dublin (April 16): http://bit.ly/1USs2Me- Belfast (April 19): http://bit.ly/23u29DX

Posted by Oxfam Ireland on Sunday, April 10, 2016

 
#MakeTaxFair tour with Tax Justice Together: We've got four very special guests coming to Ireland this April - tax campaigners from Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia. These activists work tirelessly to change the policies and structures that allow rich individuals and multinational companies to avoid paying the tax they owe. You can meet them in person in Dublin (April 16) and Belfast (April 19).

Why tax matters?

The impact of an unfair tax system should not be measured in numbers and facts – but in its shocking human impact. 

When countries don't receive the money they are owed in tax, people suffer. Children can't go to school, parents work hard but it doesn't pay so their families still go to bed hungry at night, communities living in poverty don't have a say in the decisions that affect them. Inequality grows and poverty is made worse.

Clockwise from left: 1. Munni stands beside an open drain in Horijon Polli, the slum where she lives with her family. 2. Munni at work – despite working hard every day, Munni dreams of work that really pays. 3. Munni cooks breakfast with her two-year old son.  Photos: Adrian Lloyd/Oxfam

Munni Basfur lives with her husband and four children in one room in Horijon Polli, a densely-populated slum in Bangladesh that is home to approximately 6,000 people. Oxfam is working with partners there to improve public health facilities, rebuilding toilets and sanitation systems as well as building new bathing blocks. 

For people like Munni, the effects of inequality are felt on a daily basis. Munni works incredibly hard every day to make ends meet – as a cleaner in a company and then again in a local government office.

And yet still she dreams of job security: “I call my job a “one/two job”. One: today I have it. Two: tomorrow I don’t.”

Help make change happen for people like Munni. Take action today.

Oxfam Ireland's tax justice project is funded by the European Union

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