Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - Getting to know you ...
Refugees (113, 1999)
Europe wants to make newcomers feel more welcome
The European Union in 1997 launched a 10-million ECU campaign to promote the integration of refugees in 15 member states. The bulk of the funds were allocated to nearly 60 non-governmental organizations for integration pilot projects. UNHCR, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) were invited to develop various projects designed to increase the public's understanding of integration issues and to promote cooperation among NGOs. A few of the recent arrivals who have successfully built new lives in Europe are featured below.
Surviving the Killing Fields
When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in 1975, 20-year-old Muoy was evacuated from the city along with most other inhabitants. "The Khmer Rouge told us it was just for three days. For the next four years we had to do hard labour in the rice paddies." Her fiancé died, along with four brothers and sisters in the infamous Killing Fields of Cambodia. When the Vietnamese invaded the country Muoy walked to nearby Thailand but was returned to Cambodia by the army. One month later she tried again, but was jailed when she reached the Thai capital of Bangkok. "I thought I was in paradise," she says now. "Imagine, a jail felt like paradise after the Khmer Rouge years." She was one of three Cambodian refugees that Swiss officials plucked from her jail cell on one visit and chose for resettlement and she eventually arrived in Geneva. "My first job was to speak the language well. I had always planned to be my own boss, so I went to hairdressing school," she said. Today, she is a Swiss citizen, married with a local man with an eight-year-old son and her own hairdressing salon. "I still think about going back to Cambodia for my retirement if the country would ever really be at peace," she said. "But I'm proud of what I have accomplished and of Switzerland."
His mother, a doctor and outspoken opponent of Saddam Hussein, was tortured and eventually assassinated. His father, who came from a prominent Iraqi family of philosophers, theologians and politicians, fled Iraq and was sentenced to death in absentia. Mohammed was also arrested and tortured by Iraqi police as a teenager, but eventually escaped with his father and studied at Oxford University and the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. He became an Irish citizen 12 years ago and has lectured in pathology, worked in clinical medicine and pathology in Dublin hospitals and written and lectured widely on human rights and the care and rehabilitation of survivors of torture. "I am proud to be Irish," he says today,"and I feel I have contributed to the health of this nation. I also believe I have added "colour" to Ireland in more ways than one," he says with a smile.
Roger, a catholic Tamil, escaped the civil conflict raging in Sri Lanka at the time and arrived in France in late 1982. "It was an unknown country - a new language, a different climate. I had left everything behind and knew no one here." His wife and three children joined him three years later and after staying briefly in Paris and Dijon the family finally settled in Lyon. After obtaining a diploma in French, Roger worked as an interpreter and in a printing factory before establishing his own printing business. His first clients were several humanitarian associations and today his wife and one of his two sons help in the business which is flourishing. His children have a French cultural background and Roger laments that they speak their native tongue "with a funny accent."
An Ethiopian in Germany
Ethiopia was in a state of chaos and civil war in the 1970s. Many of Kimia V's fellow university students were killed in the mayhem and, fearing for her own life, she took the opportunity to go to Moscow to study medicine. When it came time for her to return home,"I still feared imprisonment, even torture." Though she hoped to go to the United States, she eventually found her way to Germany and was recognized as a refugee after one year. Her troubles were far from over, however. Her medical diploma was acceptable - in principle, but she was unable to find a job and then the curriculum for doctors was changed. Effectively that meant Kimia needed to complete a one-year hospital internship, but Catch-22, she needed German citizenship to start the course. After UNHCR's intervention, she was allowd to complete her studies. With the help of German friends, she eventually got citizenship, is now practicing medicine and has just started a family.
A Bosnian workaholic
"At the beginning I did not understand anything at school," says Vedran. "I noted down every word and learned it by the next day." It was a slow and laborious way to learn, but ultimately successful. Vedran is now 23 years old, studying at Vienna University and is writing his thesis two years earlier than most of his fellow students. He had fled, months before his 16th birthday, with his family to Austria from Bosnia during the conflict in that country. For the first several months he was unable to obtain any schooling and has been trying to make up for lost time ever since. He already speaks German with only the slightest slavonic accent, has given up parties and travel in order to complete his studies and begin earning money to support his family. His only 'luxury' is a game of basketball where he brings the same intensity to win as he does to his studies. His team's rallying cry when it is not scoring enough points is,' Play it the Bosnian way, Vedran.
Source: Refugees Magazine issue 113 (1999)