Part V: The path to permanence
More than 85 percent of refugees and asylum-seekers are hosted in developing countries, many of which neighbor the countries being fled. In this episode, host Nelufar Hedayat looks at the role that local communities can play in hosting refugees.
Nelufar speaks with Rodaan Al Galidi, who talks about his experiences fleeing Iraq to start a new life in the Netherlands. UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and acclaimed Pakistani actor Mahira Khan tells Nelufar about her experiences meeting Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
During this season of Course Correction, we’re challenging you to reflect on different aspects of the refugee experience and share your thoughts with us.
For today’s episode: Tell us about a time when you had the choice to welcome someone else into your social circle, What were the criteria you used to decide whether or not to let them in? If you did let them in, what enabled you to empathize with them?
Course Correction, Season 3, Episode 5
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
This past February, the world watched in horror as things began to turn upside down for the ordinary citizens of Ukraine. One day, they could be out having a drink at a cafe with friends. The next, they’re fleeing for the border, trying to make it out before the advance of Russian troops.
CLIP OF FEMALE BRITISH NEWS REPORTER:
There are terrified civilians. Hundreds gingerly making their way across a bombed bridge, hastily patched together with a makeshift walkway. Most are women and children gripping each other’s hands, holding their pets close. Among them, too, many elderly, clasping the only possessions they’ve managed to grab. It’s all they have left in the world now.
NELUFAR: And while this scene may be new to some, for Mahira Khan, she’s witnessed the tragedy of displacement countless times through her work as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. In fact, she often draws on these experiences as a means to build empathy for refugees.
Every time I go and talk to people, I ask them to close their eyes, think about their homes, think about where they live, their bed, their little things next to their bedside table, their kitchen table, where they eat, everything. And then just in a split of a second, imagine it to all be gone. I mean, it is an unbearable loss, and something I think you can only feel to the fullest if you experienced it. The only thing I can wish, hope and pray for is that it all stops.
NELUFAR: If you’re listening to this podcast in the US or the UK, where I’m from, you might not know the name Mahira Khan. But if you’re from Pakistan or a fan of Pakistani television, you know she is a big deal.
This was the scene when she arrived for an awards show in Toronto a few years back.
[SOUND OF CROWD CHANTING “MAHIRA! MAHIRA!” AND CHEERING]
Khan has successfully leveraged her celebrity to bring more awareness to the plight of refugees. She’s focused her attention on giving them a voice, as well as highlighting the role host countries have been playing in supporting displaced people. Being in Pakistan, she’s seen the issue up close. The country hosts close to one and a half million registered Afghan refugees, as well as around the same number of Afghans who aren’t. So that’s what we’re going to focus today’s episode on: How refugees can best be supported and protected by the countries that they fled to. How countries balance the humanitarian and protection needs of refugees with the needs of their own citizens, and what can be done to improve the entire process. That’s all ahead on this episode of Course Correction, a podcast from Doha Debates where we challenge ourselves to change the world. I’m Nelufar Hedayat.
This episode is Part V of our special season, one where we’ve partnered with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, to try and capture the scope of the refugee experience. We’re calling today’s episode “The path to permanence,” and we’re featuring stories on what it means — not just to physically get into a country, but also to access full rights, to become accepted by others and to feel like you have a real future. Whether this is in a new country or returning back to your homeland, the goal is the same: Find a place you can truly call home.
Providing assistance to those fleeing violence is one thing, but offering long-term aid and care — well, that’s another. It’s often observed that as refugee numbers rise, so does the backlash. We saw this in Germany when it opened its borders to a million Syrians fleeing violence in 2015. Juxtaposed against a massive outpouring of support was a rise in right-wing nationalism and racism.
[SOUND OF CROWD CHANTING]
CLIP OF WOMAN NEWS REPORTER:
Some of the protests used Hitler salutes, according to the police, illegal in Germany, and there were reports of mobs combing the city in search of foreigners. This Syrian man says he’s afraid.
[FADING SOUND OF MAN SPEAKING]
NELUFAR: This vitriol against refugees is something I rarely experienced when I first came to the UK from Afghanistan. But in more recent years, I’ve witnessed a steady stream of antagonism, especially in communities that directly interact with refugees.
GROUP OF PEOPLE CHANTING:
“We want our country back! We want our country back!”
NEWS CLIP OF BRITISH MALE NEWS REPORTER:
The protesters are furious that record numbers of asylum seekers are landing on these shores.
UNIDENTIFIED BRITISH MAN IN SAME NEWS CLIPS:
These are invaders! You should be protecting us, not them!
NEWS REPORTER: One day this summer, more than 400 made it across the channel from France, 21 miles away.
NELUFAR: Even once refugees are admitted, more questions loom. How much access should they have to education, health and housing services? And then, the big question: What options are available for refugees to provide for themselves and their families?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN WITH AMERICAN ACCENT:
If you are formally registered, it depends on the country, whether you can, as a refugee, actually work and be a part of the formal economy. Now you will get support, you will get, you know, access to schools for your kids, you’ll probably get some sort of food allocation. But whether or not you can work, whether you have the legal right to work, differs from country to country.
NELUFAR: This is Erol Yayboke, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the US, where he runs a project on state fragility and human mobility issues.
EROL YAYBOKE: You can survive a few days, a week, on just kind of what you brought with you or what you can scrounge from where you are, but pretty quickly, these are smart people. They realize that they’re going to have to figure out what to do. And so this is where the informal economies come in. Lots of people make hourly wages in Bangladesh. One of the major issues when I was there was — the Rohingya were willing to work on sort of day labor jobs, you know, bricklaying and things like that, for a lower hourly rate than the Bangladeshis. And so that was creating some, some issues. But I think it just goes to show that the Rohingya and other displaced people are willing to do whatever it takes to make money for their families to survive.
NELUFAR: We should note that currently in Bangladesh, Rohingya have limited access to work legally, so there’s little hope for them to prosper through earning a wage for their family. UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Mahira Khan says she saw a similar issue in Pakistan, where Afghan refugees were hindered by their inability to access the local labor market.
MAHIRA: I remember them telling me that, you know, “We can’t really work, we can’t go out and really, truly get a job. Yes, we can go to school, we can go to college. But then what? After that, then what?” And that used to sort of break my heart, because that truly means that they’re displaced, right? Yes, they have a home — but do they have a home? Can they call any other country their own country? No, no matter how supportive, no matter how welcoming another country may be, it’s just sad that they will always be displaced.
NELUFAR: And beyond getting a job, obtaining citizenship can be truly transformational, says Palestinian Canadian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish. He recounted to me how getting a Canadian passport changed the way people treated him.
When I got my Canadian citizenship, the world started to see me differently, but nothing had changed. I am the same person with the same education, with the same credentials, with the same soul, with the same heart. Why did they recognize my humanity based on this document? It’s not the problem in me, it’s the problem in the system of dealing in human beings. And the perception about the human beings and judging based on the travel document.
NELUFAR: The pushback against refugees comes from a number of sources, including ones you might not expect. Rodaan al Galidi is an Iraqi refugee who became a writer in the Netherlands, and later obtained Dutch citizenship. He’s grateful to his host country for taking him in after fleeing from Saddam Hussein and conscription into the Iraqi army. He told me that as a refugee, he had to accept that his freedoms in the Netherlands had limits. But whatever those are, he says, it pales in comparison to the restrictions that he faced in his home country.
RODAAN AL GALIDI:
You was not allowed to go to school, but you was allowed to take shower in the building. You was allowed food three time a day. You have a television. You are allowed to go to the libraries. In Iraq, you are allowed to go to school, but you are not allowed to do nothing outside the school. In Holland, I wasn’t allowed to go to school, but they didn’t took my freedom to do what I want.
NELUFAR: Rodaan says as more refugees arrive in the Netherlands, many, he believes, shouldn’t claim refugee status — because, he says, they’re not fleeing danger. And he sympathizes with native-born Dutch citizens who may feel overwhelmed.
RODAAN: There is a big difference between, “I ran away from the dangerous. I am refugee,” or, “I want to have a good life. I am refugee.” “I want to have a good life. I am refugee” — it changed Europe, because Europe now don’t believe that you are run away, because your situation in your country bad is, but you are ran away to look for a good life. And this is the biggest problems now for us as refugees, because the people before, maybe 20 years, when I said I am a refugee, they said, “Oh, Iraq is very dangerous” — they do like that. Now, when I say that I am refugee, they say, “Yes, but you know, we are a small country. We cannot give job and home and things to the refugees.” It’s changed.
NELUFAR: How are things different now? Because obviously, you arrived at a time when people were very aware of the dangers in Iraq — they could see it. Now, people can’t see it every day. So what is it like for people now?
RODAAN: There are people in Europe, they are really — let me say, they get tired from the same story — the same war there, the same problem here — they get really tired, and they don’t know what they do with it. They closed the door, the refugees coming. They opened the door, the refugees coming. They bombing the door, the refugees coming. They don’t know what they do, and that is the problem. But we are coming — not with our problem, we are coming with nice music, nice poems, nice food. You see a lot of, now, who bring the post to the house? The refugees. Who clean the WCs? The refugees. Who are working very hard outside in this cold weather? We are doing 50 persons from did dirty job in Europe. We are the very nice slaves of Europe. And we cannot say, “Oh, we don’t want to be slaves.” No, we said, “Please, I want to be slave. Let me in.”
It is a wonderful situation. I will tell you something, I am sure about it. I working, I did all the kind of jobs — all the kind of jobs — the boss is Dutch, and we was all refugees. We must learn, and that is very impor— we must learn, we don’t put us in the wrong area. Now, I have experience. This cafe don’t like refugees — I don’t like them. But this cafe allows refugees — I go there. This restaurant don’t want to see me — it see me as animal. I don’t go to eat there. We must learn how to go to our area.
NELUFAR: But the experience I had — I came to the United Kingdom in 1994, a few years before you came to the Netherlands, and I was treated as though I was noble. You know, my mum — people respected her, they revered her. They thought she was a very, very strong person to do what she did. Ten years later, in the 2000s and 2010s, we were dirty, smelly, horrible people. Now people are not sure again, because there’s a large amount of Afghan refugees coming here. So I think people’s opinions in host countries changes all the time.
RODAAN: Yeah — no, because I will tell you, this is really the most important what I will say in this interview. Because if you say to me, “What is your experience more than 20 years?” I will say to every refugees, “Please discover your own area. You must know where you are welcome, where you are not welcome.” Even in the same family, you are welcome with this sister, you are not welcome with this brother. We must have the good feeling. When I walk with the dog now outside, I look to some people to greet them. I don’t look to some people, because I know they will greet me, but they don’t like me.
RODAAN: Now they feel comfortable, because they think, “Oh, he don’t let us in this situation that must greet them.”
NELUFAR: This issue of refugees and people needing safety in host countries isn’t going to go away. Rodaan, what are your hopes for this?
RODAAN: My meaning about this point is that we, as refugees, we must think about our own countries to make it possible to build it again, to go back. This once — we must see us in another country not as citizens, but because, you know, in this planet, you is welcome everywhere when you have money, or when you are tourists, or when you are a student. Three people are welcome: when you are rich, when you are a student, when you are tourist. We are not rich. We are not students. We are not tourists. That means we must not fight to be equal in the foreign country. We must fight to be human in our own country. When we believe in that, we will be relaxed. When we are relaxed, the people will love us very much.
NELUFAR: That was Iraqi writer Rodaan al Galidi speaking to me from his home in the Netherlands. And while I acknowledge his perspective comes from his sincere concern for the safety and welfare of refugees, I don’t believe that’s the way to view things. I found it really challenging to hear Rodaan say that refugees must not fight to be equal in foreign countries, and I would push back: I say that if a refugee cannot gain equality with a citizen of the country they call home, we all lose out. I believe the refugee will never get the chance to thrive in her new homeland, and the host country will never get to benefit from her full capability. They will both live in the absence of each other’s greatness.
As a British Afghan, the UK proudly accepted me as a citizen of this place I now call home. In return, I have loved becoming British Afghan. For me, it’s been a hard struggle, but a worthwhile one. I guess a lot of what Rodaan al Galidi is talking about comes down to this idea of debt. How much does any one country owe displaced people? What are the humanitarian calculations? And how does that calculation change if you’re in a country like Pakistan, a frontline nation, versus the countries in the global north, who face far fewer challenges and, frankly, far fewer refugees?
Again, here’s researcher Erol Yayboke.
EROL: The UN estimates that there are over 84 million forcibly displaced people around the world, and the Biden administration has signaled this year that they are wanting to go back up after the Trump administration admitted less than 15,000 people and capped, actually, the number of resettlement at 15,000. They want to go back up to 85,000. They want to even go above 100,000. Now that’s laudable, and we should, we should certainly applaud them, but do the math. That’s just a really tiny percentage of the overall number of people who are forcibly displaced around the world.
NELUFAR: More recently in the US, the Biden administration has discussed allowing in 100,000 refugees from Ukraine. But again, this is just a small percentage of those seeking asylum. As a whole, countries in the global north take in just a fraction of the overall refugee population. So where do most refugees wind up? The answer is much closer to their homeland. For decades, Pakistan has received displaced Afghans, creating one of the most protracted refugee crises in the world. As I mentioned, it hosts close to one and a half million registered Afghan refugees, as well as around the same number of Afghans of other status in the country. Actor and UNHCR goodwill ambassador Mahira Khan says her goal is to make sure these numbers have faces, ones that should never be overlooked.
MAHIRA: The goal is for us to make people aware of this crisis and that it’s not something that we can just sit around and be like, “Yes, we’ll take care of it.” No. It is an absolute present crisis that needs our attention, our time and our voices.
NELUFAR: As a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Mahira Khan brings awareness to refugees through hosting videos and speaking to audiences through a range of platforms. She’s also been a supporter of the agency’s Everyone Counts campaign, which uses social media to highlight the benefits that refugees can bring to their new communities. She told me how her interest in getting involved all started after one fateful meeting.
MAHIRA: It was in Karachi, where I met the refugee community. And that one meeting, I knew that I want to do something about it. I can’t stay quiet. You know, even if it makes a difference to one person who was listening to me. I’ve been given the platform. I have a voice that reaches millions. So I felt like I just can’t stand on the sidelines. We then went on to Peshawar, where I met more refugees, and it’s just been a really, really good and fulfilling journey since then. I’ve had so many people, you know, just small little videos that we made, which talked about the refugee plight, talked about the displaced people. So many people, so many of my own friends, so many people from my own industry have actually asked me about it, have commented on it, and wanted to know more about it. So I think it’s made a difference. I hope that it’s made a difference.
NELUFAR: Indeed, absolutely. Mahira, could you tell us maybe about a particular story of resilience, especially through children? Can you tell us about some of those stories?
MAHIRA: I know you’ve asked for a story of maybe a younger girl or a boy, but what comes to mind is this very, very old man. I don’t know why.
But I remember we were in Peshawar, and this really old man was sitting there, and he was very happy because he was, I think, finally going back home. And it was weird, because he had been here for like 30, 40 years, and he was still, he was talking to me and he was talking about how he’s looking forward. He doesn’t know what he have there. He said he’s lost everything. But all this time, he has lived and survived and worked hard and earned money and done whatever he could so that he could go back to the soil that he was born on. And it was something that really, really touched me. And he said, “You know, whatever happened to me, I am hoping that it will not happen to my grandchildren.”
So I think, you know — when we are young, I feel that we’re very hopeful. We are resilient, that’s how we are, because we haven’t seen enough in our lives. But for a man of that age — and he was quite old — for him to be hopeful, for him to be smiling and looking forward to a better life, to a life where he can live on his own soil, was pretty amazing. And also, he kept talking about how if it wasn’t for Pakistan and it wasn’t for UNHCR, he wouldn’t be here. He wouldn’t be at this point. So it was like, it was a mix of sadness leaving the country that gave him this home, which when he was displaced, and finally now going back to where he was born.
NELUFAR: So I am Afghan. I was born in Kabul in 1988, and I was a refugee to Pakistan for the first seven years of my life. And you mentioned Peshawar, which is actually where I grew up.
Back then, I wasn’t allowed to go to school, and there was a lot of tension between the local Pakistani community and the Afghan refugees. And in the beginning, I think when I tell people this, they’re like, “Oh, those terrible, you know, people, how could they not understand the plight of the refugees?” And my mum and me, we always say the same thing. “Imagine if it was you.” Do you know what I mean? It’s so easy to look down at people. I didn’t get everything I needed from Pakistan, but Pakistan gave me all she could. And it’s important to understand the disproportionate burden on the countries that immediately surround the border in the refugee crisis, when they’ve got their own problems to be getting on with.
MAHIRA: Absolutely. Firstly, I’m smiling when you said “she” for Pakistan. You said “she” — it was lovely.
You know, it’s so basic. We are all citizens of this world, right? If I prosper, you will prosper. I know it sounds philosophical, but actually it is more logical than it is philosophical, because all these children who are here — and I’ve met so many of them, and they have all these dreams and ambitions, and it’s the sweetest thing, right — if we do not nurture them, if we do not give them the life skills, education, they will eventually grow up to not be responsible global citizens. Whether they are in your country, whether they are in another country, when we nurture these children, what we are doing is we are building a generation that will do well for your country and the other country. It’s a very simple thing to understand. I’ve been in conversations where I’m like, “OK, so you’re telling me that if we educate a child who’s not from our country, that is bad for us? It can never be bad for us.”
You know, when your neighboring countries go through something which is terrible, like war, it affects you. And it could be in many different ways. One of them is the refugee crisis. So the idea is to nurture these children, to nurture these families, so that they can actually go back home and rebuild.
NELUFAR: Mahira Khan, thank you so much for talking with me for Course Correction. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
MAHIRA: Oh, thank you. It was a pleasure.
NELUFAR: So what does it look like when a host country gets things right? Well, there’s a lot of different answers to that question, but I think one thing most people would agree on is that it involves more than just aid. It involves giving hope and dignity to those who’ve asked for help. It also involves celebrating diversity and giving people a chance to repay their debt, if they owe one, and stand on their own. We asked Erol Yayboke for an example of a place he thinks has found this balance. He pointed to Jordan.
EROL: Jordan is a small country in the Middle East, and there are certainly groups of Jordanians — people who for generations, their families have lived in Jordan — but just an incredible percentage of Jordan’s current population is made up of people who are not from Jordan, weren’t born there, and maybe came there, or maybe their parents came there. This was the Palestinians during the Israeli-Palestinian series of conflicts. This is Iraqis after 2003. And most recently, this is Syrians. This is a country that has essentially been welcoming refugees for its entire modern existence. And that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t gone through its difficulties and had its troubles. But I think it’s, the international community has paid particular attention to Jordan, because in an otherwise, you know, pretty rowdy neighborhood, Jordan has been this oasis of calm for so long. And I think, in part, because they, they have been willing to not only accept but allow the international community to support all of these displaced people. They know that ultimately, those folks will benefit their local economy in Jordan. They’ll make the culture richer. And it’s, again — it’s not without challenge, I’m making this sound a lot easier than it actually is on the ground. But the people that I have talked to in Jordan and elsewhere that seem to have the most family stability are the ones who have found jobs, are the ones who — their kids are in some sort of regular schooling situation, and, and have some hope for the future. When you talk to refugees, a lot of times they’ll say, “I don’t care about myself. I only care about giving better opportunities to my children than I had for me.” I mean, that’s — no matter where I have been in the world, some variation of that conversation always seems to happen.
NELUFAR: While things in Jordan aren’t perfect, it’s provided a roadmap for other host countries on how to treat refugees. One thing I’ve noticed growing up as and living around refugees is that there are generations of us, all learning from the experiences, good and bad, of those that came before us. There’s a wisdom that refugees pass down, one wave to another. I’ve seen for myself the love and the care that an older refugee has given to my mother when she was at her lowest. And while it’s natural for refugees to empathize with others who have faced similar struggles, the challenge remains for all of us to feel the same compassion and obligation to the refugees who come to our shores, to show them that we are capable of grace and humanity, and to not be driven by fear or the unknown, to meet them somewhere closer to equality.
Time for today’s listener challenge — that means you. This is something we’re doing this season where we ask you to find a way to connect to the refugee experience and share your feelings with us on social media. For this week, tell me about a time when you had the choice to welcome someone else into your social circle. What were the criteria you used to decide whether or not to let them in. If you did let them in, what enabled you to empathize with them? Let us know how that experience went on our socials. You can tweet us at @DohaDebates or me, I’m @Nelufar. Or you can post on the Facebook page of Doha Debates or UNHCR, where we’re keeping this discussion of refugees going.
Next time on Course Correction, we wrap up our special season focusing on refugees with a look at the end of the journey, or what the UNHCR calls “durable solutions,” when a refugee is no longer in need of international protection. We’ll discuss how to reconcile things when the home that we left no longer exists and what it means to move forward. And also what it means to never give up on your dreams.
It was an honor to be selected, you know, to represent not just myself at the Olympics, but to represent displaced people, represent refugees. And, you know, the way I made it to the Olympics was quite atypical.
NELUFAR: Course Correction is hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Editorial and production assistance comes from UNHCR and Foreign Policy, with producers Manveena Suri, Maria Aragon and Claudia Teti. The managing director of FP Studios is Rob Sachs. The show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation. Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.