“I wish I was dead,” says 30-year-old Danyar Asefi, speaking through a translator, “living like this in constant pain is worse than death, I have nothing to live for.”
The pain that Danyar is referring to comes from the gunshot wound he sustained to his head last year in Syria. His face is disfigured, he has lost all sight in his right eye, and doctors have told him he may lose feeling in his entire right side altogether. Danyar feels constant itching in his head, he has trouble getting around alone due to his lack of depth perception, and he has lost control of his emotions, often snapping at people around him. “I need help, I need medical help!”
Danyar is one of the million plus refugees who have surged into Germany through the Balkans since last summer. Arriving in November, he has been living in a growing camp in Wittstock, about an hour and a half north of Berlin. Like many in this crowded, cold camp, he is awaiting a decision on his application for asylum. However, his story is a little different from the countless Syrians and Iraqis who have fled their hometowns as fighting rages on in the region. Danyar is a member of the Kurdish minority in Iran, where a brush with the regime during university, put him on a course to be swept up by the recent crises affecting the Middle East and Europe. The stakes in his asylum application are high, for a rejection would not simply mean a ticket back home to Iran, but could very well spell a death sentence.
While Germany initially carried out an open door policy regarding refugees arriving there, the government has since introduced legislation to speed up applications and subsequent deportations, as well as expanding the list of “safe” countries. Priority for asylum is being given to refugees fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq while others, even from Afghanistan, are having their applications denied. Iran does not top the list of war torn countries, though with its high rate of execution (Amnesty International reported 694 between January and July 2015 alone) it is definitely not a safe country for ethnic, political and religious minorities living there. The fact that a potential asylum seeker could face persecution, even death, upon being sent back to Iran does not seem to be a guarantee of asylum in Germany. In a September 2015 article, NPR mentioned one man who faced the death sentence for converting to Christianity, whose application was subsequently denied even though the judge knew the facts of his situation. Danyar could soon be in a similar position.
Danyar couldn’t have imagined how much his life would change in one decade. In 2004, he was a tanned, well-dressed engineering student at the University of Sanandaj in Kurdistan. Only a few months away from graduating, he was set to have a normal life going to work in his field. However, being Kurdish also meant Danyar was as passionate about equality for his people as he was for engineering. “I have always believed in justice and equality so I was very involved as a student activist.”
Like many human rights activists in Iran, his affiliation would cost him dearly. One night on his way home from university he was picked up by plainclothes police. They took him to the central prison in Sanandaj, where he was held in solitary confinement for almost a year, before being transferred into the general prison for an additional five months. During this time he attempted suicide on three occasions. Danyar’s family had to spend their entire savings and use their house as collateral to get him released on bail. Eight months later he appeared before a court, charged with crimes against the Islamic Republic, and was sentenced to 12-years in jail, exile to another city and deprivation of certain civil rights. While serving his first year, his mother and other family members worked tirelessly until they were able to get his sentence reduced to parole.
The problems didn’t let up when Danyar returned home though, “The security forces did not stop coming to my house… I had to report to intelligence ministry office every day, and I had to show up and sign their daily booking every day to show I was in the city,” he said. After months of harassment, the pressure became too great and Danyar decided to take action, “I decided to leave the country; they left me with no other choice.”
Danyar left Iran illegally, traveling throughout Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan for some time. When the Islamic State began taking major parts of Syria and slaughtering the Yezidi, he felt compelled to help his people. He made his way from Turkey to Iraq and then Syria, ending up in the besieged city of Kobani. Danyar hoped there might be an opportunity to use his background in engineering to eventually rebuild the city, but soon the reality of the situation set in, “little by little it became clear to me that there was no opportunity to work on the ground as an engineer so inevitably I joined the fight against ISIS.”
Kurdish forces like the YPG and PKK have been instrumental in fending off or recapturing ground taken by Islamic State militants. The brutal fight for Kobani resulted in a strategic victory for the Kurds, but Danyar was not around to witness it. One evening another soldier had asked him to help two young female fighters who had become frightened and were pinned down in a shallow ditch near the front lines. Danyar helped one of them out, put her in a secure position and then went back for the second. He was almost to safety when he stopped, feeling a sudden warmth in his face, “I did not think I was injured, because right then I felt no pain,” he said, “I touched my face and my hand was completely bloody.”
His next recollection is waking up in a hospital in Turkey, to a surprised doctor who had come to pull the plug on his life support. Danyar had been in a coma for several months, during which time doctors had performed multiple surgeries, however he required more complex operations. Left wondering how to continue with his life, Danyar again considered suicide, before deciding to join some friends to head to Germany where he hoped he could receive better medical treatment and start a new future. They paid a smuggler $1600 each to get them to Greece, where they crossed the border to Macedonia and made their way up the Balkans avoiding border patrols or passing as Syrian Kurdish when necessary. By this point it was October 2015, and the cold weather combined with constant travel was taking its toll on Danyar, who was without any medication for his injuries.
His arrival in Germany has not exactly provided the relief he had been hoping for. Arriving in late fall, the camp has been getting crowded as fast as the temperatures have been dropping in the unheated tents. He said last month alone the numbers nearly doubled from 400 to over 700 people. In addition, the medical services he was expecting have been slow coming, due to his current ambiguous asylum status. While he was allowed several doctors visits and even had a surgery scheduled, it was suddenly canceled by social services. In the meantime, his friends have set up a crowd funding website in the hopes of raising enough to pay for his surgeries. So far donations stand at $0.
More worryingly, Danyar described an atmosphere of “de facto racial discrimination” in the camp. He says everything is clearly geared towards Arabs, from the food being cooked, to the language being spoken by staff and healthcare providers. “Everyone who doesn’t speak Arabic is screwed,” he said. Fights have broken out along religious lines, a phenomenon which has been reported by German media as happening in camps throughout the country. Danyar says many ethnic Sunni Arabs will not interact with him, thinking that all Iranians practice Shi’a Islam, when in fact Danyar comes from a Sunni region. Even 3000 miles from Iran, the discrimination has not ceased for Danyar. For now, all he can do is wait for the status of his asylum to be decided. He would like to remain in Germany and even hopes to return to school for medicine. After his experiences fighting and seeing others injured in his journey, he hopes to one day be able to help others.
The choice, unfortunately, is not his to make. Thousands of refugees are arriving on European shores every day, with the German government reporting it could face a population of 3.6 million refugees by 2020. After widely reported sexual assaults by alleged migrants in Cologne over New Years, fighting in camps, and a rise in right wing nationalist groups, public opinion is starting to wane. The German parliament will soon vote on an even stricter set of regulations for asylum seekers, ever honing in on their preference for those from Syria. The odds are increasingly stacking up against Danyar, and he knows what a rejection means, “If I am deported to Iran they will
put me in front of the firing squad in less than a month.”
Depending on the decision of a German judge, he may get his original wish.
The Gjirokaster National Folklore Festival (Festivali Folklorik Kombëtar i Gjirokastrës) is one of Albania’s most important cultural events, held every five years atop Gjirokaster’s ancient fortress. The weeklong festival showcases traditional costumes, dance, music and songs from all of Albania’s regions, Albanian communities in other Balkan countries, as well as the diaspora. There is perhaps no better location to host such an event, with the castle providing jaw dropping views of the old city below, and the Gjerë mountains across the valley.
Gjirokaster was the first town I visited when I came to Albania in 2013, and I remember it being a sleepy city with people seeming surprised to see a foreign tourist wandering around. This year was a little different, with streets being jam packed with performers, family, friends, spectators, journalists and a handful of foreigners. Every evening crowds of people made the journey up to the fortress, vying for the best seat to take in views of the performance as well as the spectacular sunsets. Continue reading ›
I’ve started my trip of southern Albania in Pogradec, a relaxed city located on the shores of Lake Ohrid, bordering Macedonia. The city was a favorite hangout for Albania’s ex-king Zog, as well as communist dictator Enver Hoxha. When coming down the Thane pass, one notices the village of Lin, situated on a small peninsula jutting into the lake. I ended up spending a few days in this quiet fishing village. Wandering down the narrow lanes felt like stepping into the past. Old women sat in doorways to escape the afternoon sun, quietly chatting or knitting. Children roamed the streets playing football, while the distant drone of fishing boat motors mixed with the ringing of a church bell.
It was here that I first met Mihal Gjora, riding his donkey Marko, on his way to a plot of land outside Lin. I asked if I could take his photo and he laughed in a hearty way that I would become accustomed to during my time with him. Shy at first, he was surprised I could speak Albanian and invited me to come with him to feed his animals. We walked the trash littered lakeside, greeting farmers working in their fields and talking about life in America. America is like the promised land here, a place of opportunity, wealth, freedom to be who you want, and progress. I sometimes feel as if I see more American flags flying here than back home. Continue reading ›
Montenegro is currently home for around 16,000 refugees from the 1990 wars in the former Yugoslavia. Displaced Bosnians, Serbs and Croats are spread out in camps throughout the small country. Last year I read an article about Konik, a camp that currently houses around 1500 ethnic Roma who fled Kosovo during the 1999 war. Situated near a garbage dump on the outskirts of Podgorica, residents have been in a state of limbo for fifteen years, in increasingly deteriorating conditions. In 2012, a fire and subsequent flood made conditions even more appalling, leaving over 800 refugees homeless. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has described conditions at the camp as being “inhumane and hazardous,” and recommended the swift closure of the camp. Improving the situation of refugees is currently a key issue for Montenegro’s possible ascension into the European Union.
Now the Montenegrin government wants refugees to sort out their citizenship. They must apply for foreign residency status in Montenegro, go back to Kosovo, or remain as illegal residents devoid of any health, education or economic assistance. However, for many the options are not so simple. Many of the refugees lack their residency documents from Kosovo, a requirement to apply for permanent residence in Montenegro. For a family to return to Kosovo to apply for passports and the necessary documents would require hundreds of Euros, far more than most currently have. Their current non-resident status means finding legal work is impossible, making it difficult to even imagine saving enough money to return to Kosovo.
I’ve returned to Albania to start what I hope will be an ongoing project for a year or two. When I speak to people back in the US about Albania, most cannot even imagine what it’s like here, much less find it on a map. From my previous time here I have found Albania to be an incredibly interesting, culturally rich and beautiful country. It is also still one of the poorest countries in Europe, and very much in the midst of transforming itself from over 40 years of communist rule. So I’ve decided to work on my first book documenting modern Albania, it’s transition into modernity, and how it’s people are reconciling their tough past while trying to hold onto the traditions and customs that make this country feel so unique. I’ll be living in the town of Shkodër for a few months before traveling around the south of the country. Albania still seems to be a little known country, even in Europe, and it’s fascinating to spend time in a place that hasn’t been overrun with foreign investment, development and tourism. Unfortunately it is these very things that stand to improve the lives of the average person in this country, but will also be instrumental in vastly changing the landscape and customs here. I look forward to bringing you periodic updates and the eventual publishing of my book. Stay tuned.
Close to 90% of the terrain in Oaxaca state is mountainous and rugged. Three larger mountain ranges converge in the state, forming a complicated system of smaller peaks, valleys and ravines. Driving even short distances can take time, due to roads that hug the contours of these gentle green outcroppings. It’s this complicated terrain that accounts for the indigenous diversity here, with languages and customs changing from one valley to the next. From a distance it’s impossible to notice, and hard to understand, the unseen world that exists within these mountains.
To get to the village of San Pedro Leapi is simple enough. Head southeast from Oaxaca on Highway 190 for about 2 hours, until you reach the town of El Camaron Yautepec. Turn off here and follow the road towards the mountains, through ever smaller villages and shrines to Catholic saints, until it turns to dirt. From here you’ll either need a donkey or a sturdy 4 wheel drive vehicle. In my case, we had a late model Chevrolet pickup with a burnt out headlight, half the recommended level of motor oil, and an engine that sounded like it was running on a few less cylinders than usual. Perfect then, for driving the remaining 3-4 hours deep into the Sierra Madre del Sur.
I traveled to the mountains with workers from the department of Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, a bit of a local celebrity due to her fight for women’s and indigenous rights. Hailing from a rural village not far from Leapi, she successfully led a 2008 campaign to change the State constitution, giving women the same political and voting rights as men. She became Chair of the Congress of Oaxaca (the first indigenous woman to hold the position) and is currently Federal Deputy for the National Action Party (PAN). Her office is one of many working to support undeveloped communities, through government funded projects meant to stimulate productivity and self sufficiency.
The state of Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most diverse in terms of climate, geography and culture (there are 16 officially recognized indigenous groups in the state). It is also one of it’s poorest. Roughly 61% of the population lives below the poverty line, with 23% living in extreme poverty. In a 2005 report the United Nations compared conditions in some of Oaxaca’s pueblos to rural African villages. With almost half the population living in highly mountainous rural communities, providing health and education services is often difficult. Weaknesses in infrastructure, planning, development and implementation of services all contribute to the problem. Further, with 418 of Oaxaca’s 570 municipalities running on an autonomous system of “customs and traditions” (where selection of local officials, customs, and communal work obligations are dictated by ancient tradition), organization of a cohesive budget for services and infrastructure gets complicated very quickly.
Most tourists who visit will only ever see the city of Oaxaca or beach resorts like Puerto Escondido, where the economy thrives on their business. Life for people who live in the pueblos is different. Most struggle to find enough work to make ends meet and provide a decent life for their families. Many have left their hometowns to search for work in the capital or other states within Mexico. For most, the possibility of their situation changing or assistance from the government is slim.
Fundación En Vía is a non-profit founded in 2010 with the goal of supporting the development of income generating small businesses, within pueblos around Oaxaca. With interest rates for micro loans in Mexico being anywhere from 75-150%, they are completely out of reach for most people in these communities. En Vía offers a solution as simple as it is well thought out. They provide 100% interest free micro loans to support the growth of businesses; with the loans being fully funded by proceeds from tours to the very communities they help. In addition, they offer free English courses to anyone interested, taught completely by volunteers.
The smell of marigolds and candle wax was heavy, as I carefully tiptoed between graves in the town of Atzompa, early in the morning hours of November 1st. This was the third cemetery I had visited that night, and the atmosphere was something far removed from the first two. San Miguel cemetery, in central Oaxaca, and the Panteon Nuevo in Xoxocotlan had seemed almost like county fairs. Children screamed on carnival rides of varying quality. Venders sold tortas and tamales to drunk tourists who fell over each other, attempting to navigate the maze of families and dimly lit graves. There was too much noise, there were too many people. In Atzompa, there was relative calm. There were no tourists, no carnival rides, no rock bands. Families were diligently decorating the graves of loved ones, or huddled close together talking and sharing stories.
I reached a point where I could no longer move forward without lighting myself on fire from a bevy of candles, or stepping onto someone’s final resting place. In America, doing the latter would be a sign of utmost disrespect. As I contemplated this moral conundrum, a group of young locals came running up behind me, looked at me as if I were a huge imposition on their fun, and then ran passed me trampling over the grave. Death is a little different here.
After several months hiatus in the States, taking a few classes and doing some work, I’m back out into the world. I’ve come to the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, where I’m studying Spanish as well as covering the Dia de los Muertos festivities and trying to put together a reportage about poverty in the surrounding pueblos. I’ve been interested in coming to Mexico for some time, simply because I only ever hear negative things about it in the States. I don’t know much about Mexico, I’ve only ever been to tourist areas in Baja as a child, but I’ve gotten the impression it’s a very misunderstood and misrepresented place. That being said, the danger talked about back home does seem to be real, if not as widespread as people imagine. Police presence is huge, there is talk of murder and “disappearances” all over the news and in the streets. People have been more than candid in telling me these events are carried out by those in the government, as well as the drug cartels. I’ve been here in Oaxaca for about a week and there has been at least one major disruption, march or protest every day for a variety of issues. The tension in these dark issues seems to be balanced by the beauty of cultural and religious rituals. For every story of death I’ve seen on the news, I’ve seen something equally beautiful. For every look of fear I’ve witnessed, I’ve been greeted with a smile. Turn a corner after a police truck goes flying by to some distance crime scene, and there’s a massive, colorful parade for a saint. Mexico seems to be a place of intense forces of opposition with the general population straddling the line between light and dark, just trying to get by, pray, and celebrate in the midst of corruption, a fading drug war, and massive poverty. Just the kind of place I love to work in.