For my second interview with refugees advocating on behalf of other refugees I have reached out to Shaza Nabeel Al-Rihawi, a Syrian woman who now lives in Germany, where she works for the research institute LifBi. Shaza is also a member of the European Migrant Advisory Board and the co-founder of the Network for Refugee Voices. As World Refugee Day fast approaches, Shaza recalls the many challenges she has had to face to reunite with her family, rebuild her life from scratch and strive to improve refugees’ participation in the decisions that directly affect them.
Shaza, you are a refugee. Tell us your story.
I am a Syrian refugee living in Germany. Before leaving Syria, I used to work with UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] on women refugees and sexual and gender-based violence. As UNHCR staff, I worked with both sides of the conflict and ended up having problems with them. Many UN colleagues were killed. One side thought we were spies. The other side saw us as being pro-government. They [the conflict parties] even pulled the transmission of my car.
At that point I decided to leave my country so I applied for both a US visa and a Schengen visa to go to Sweden, where I had relatives who could help me. My US visa application was accepted while I didn’t get the Schengen visa. In the meantime, I had applied for a sociology program at Stockholm University and got accepted. As I had no more time for the paper work, I bought a flight ticket to New York via Stockholm. While in transit there, I asked for asylum. The authorities told me I had no other choice but to be deported to the US. This started a legal battle that lasted almost a year and a half. I appealed their decision three times. I was all by myself and really wanted to be around my relatives in Sweden. My lawyer tried hard to keep me in Sweden but after the third appeal failed, and my US visa expired, I decided to leave Sweden for Germany, where I submitted a new application with my sister’s help. I was moved from [German] state to state for another year until my application got accepted. I could finally work again, although it was volunteer work as a translator for just 1.5 Euro an hour. I did it anyway – I just wanted to do something. I would help other Syrian refugees who needed to go to hospital and couldn’t speak German. At the integration class I attended, my teacher encouraged me to apply for a job as Research Assistant, working on a sociology project called ReGES ‘Refugees in The German Educational System’. That’s how I ended up in my current role. It was hard.
Why did you decide to become a refugee representative?
Working with UNHCR in Syria already led me to take a humanitarian perspective on refugee situations. Then I became a refugee myself. That’s what gave me the motivation to fight for the cause of refugees – I am on the other side now. I can understand both sides of the problem.
In recent years there have been efforts to include refugee voices in global policy discussions. What do you make of these initiatives? What still needs to happen?
Just like Anila (see interview here) I sit on the European Migrant Advisory Board but, except for that, I would like to ask why we [refugees and migrants] are not asked for our advice. Often in these policy discussions, decision-makers plan without asking us.
Regarding refugee and migrant policies, they should take into account that refugees have a harder time adjusting. Psychologically, it can be difficult. Not everyone is the same and can learn a new language in the same period. Sometimes, they [the authorities] ask us to do that as soon as possible. They ask us to forget everything but we cannot forget our traditions, our culture and our language. As women, policies ignore us. In reality, integration is a two-way process; it is also about inclusion.
If you look at the statistics (for example here), European countries need workers. The Syrian community was forced to leave its country and come to Europe. If people are qualified for a job and Europe needs more workers, where is the problem? Let’s make the labour market rules based on merit and qualifications.
What do you reply to those who argue that refugee-led organisations do not or cannot represent all refugees and therefore have a legitimacy issue?
We are the affected people. We can’t represent all Syrians or all Syrian women but we are trying to consult internally [with other refugees] and get our voices heard by policy-makers. We ask refugees of all nationalities to talk about education, housing, etc. We also follow refugees on social media to learn about their daily struggle and their questions. The problem is that they [the policy-makers] use us to learn about something but if they don’t want to act on it, they pull out the legitimacy excuse. What we need to do is to work seriously [on representation]. We have the best access to other refugees. Tell us what consultation structures you want and we’ll work with them. Political will is key, not just for decision-making but also for implementing policies.
The international community has recently approved two historic agreements: the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Migration. Where do you see the greatest potential in each of these agreements? Where do you see the biggest risk?
The Refugee Compact was a good opportunity but participation is still missing. UNHCR invited us to participate only so much. We need a consultative approach and we need to implement refugee policies. Some countries did not agree to the Compact – how can we ensure they stop abusing refugees? We are working with Member States but have yet to see our work influencing their decisions. How can these countries be more credible? How can they treat us as humans? This was not clear. On the other side, I also attended the consultations on the Refugee Compact as a member of the Gender Audit team to call for a more gender-balanced approach to refugees. I think the text did improve over time. I will be again with the Gender Audit team at the first Global Refugee Forum [in December 2019].
More broadly speaking, we see what is going on around the world. There’s a lot of corruption in places like Northern Africa, people there are used as a product. They are kept off the [EU] borders for money. Where is the humanitarian approach here? Where are human rights?
Is there anything else you would like to say to policy-makers working on refugee situations?
Sexual and gender-based violence is often used for revenge. We need to hear more women voices to solve this issue. More broadly speaking, we need refugees of all genders to participate in policy-making, from design to evaluation. Work with us, listen to us, speak with us. There should be nothing about us without us.