Refugees as tweeted by trump, and in reality

When a federal judge in Seattle on February 3rd blocked President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Trump took to his preferred mode of communication and tweeted, "We must keep 'evil' out of our country." Trump's travel ban barred anyone born in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Syria from entering the United States. Most entries were curbed for 90 days, refugees were barred for 120 days and, if they are from Syria, indefinitely.

Officials from the countries on Trump's no-entry list said that while the United States has the right and duty to protect its borders and people, the travel ban displayed ignorance of what the people of the seven countries and Syria are going through. Take Iraq, for instance. "There have been many thousands of suicide bombers who have come from all over the world to kill innocent Iraqis inside Iraq," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in an interview with France 24 television. "Every country has the right to investigate, to look carefully into would-be immigrants, but to just place a blanket ban on a nation, I don’t agree with it."

"There are no data – none – which we have seen to reflect that Iraqis have engaged in international terrorism on US soil or elsewhere. On the contrary – we are the victims and we are being penalized for having this fight on behalf of the US and other countries... against Daesh."

Former Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, questioned "how these countries were bundled together. What are the commonalities?"

"There are a lot of other countries that have exported terrorists and takfiri ideology and funds for terrorist organizations that are not on the list. I’m not going to defend the list or the countries on it, but as an Iraqi I’m offended by it and certainly take it as being labeled as a terrorist until proven otherwise. There are no data – none – which we have seen to reflect that Iraqis have engaged in international terrorism on US soil or elsewhere. On the contrary – we are the victims and we are being penalized for having this fight on behalf of the US and other countries... against Daesh. For me, it’s a betrayal, a sign of a lack of understanding of what Iraqis are going through and aspire to."

Ghazal Marko, Camp Petra, Greece

Ghazal saw me as I left a nearby tent in Camp Petra. She guided me over rocks and tent pegs to her 'home', and prepared sweet Iraqi chai on a makeshift charcoal stove. In the back of the UNHCR tents, her three young children fought playfully over who should get to play a game on a mobile phone. Her two other children are grown-up and stayed behind in Iraqi Kurdistan when Ghazal and the rest of the family fled as ISIS closed in on Shingal -- also called Sinjar -- in Iraq's Nineveh governorate.

Ghazal and her three young children who were with her at Camp Petra in Greece. Two of her grown-up children are still in Iraq.

Like Ghazal, most of the inhabitants of Shingal in August 2014 were Yezidi, a religous minority that ISIS considers heretics. When the Islamic militants swarmed into the town, they summarily executed men and boys and took women as sex slaves. Some of the women are still in ISIS captivity or remain trapped inside ISIS-held towns where they are raped repeatedly by ISIS fighters.

At a briefing for volunteers at Camp Petra, an Israeli volunteer explained to newcomers that many Yezidis don't eat lettuce. Some say this is because the slaughter of the men and boys happened in a lettuce field, turning the leaves blood-red. But it was rare during my three weeks at Camp Petra that the slaughter of Yezidis at the hands of ISIS would be mentioned or even alluded to. Ghazal certainly did not speak of it. Instead, she spoke of her grown daughter, a doctor back in Iraq, and of her hopes for her younger children. She recalled the beautiful house she had in Shingal, the family car, how she loved to sew. Like all the refugees, she called me "maifren," the phonetic spelling of the way Kurds pronounce "my friend." It felt immediately as if we'd known each other for years.

A hand-drawn Yezidi flag flies over Camp Petra refugee camp in October 2016.

The Greek authorities moved everyone from Petra into the valley before winter hit. The winding mountain road would have been impassable once snow fell (and fall it did in 2016) and medical emergencies could have turned into tragedies. Ghazal and her family are in an apartment in a nondescript town in northern Greece. It's better than the tent in Camp Petra, but it's still not home.

"I can look in their faces and say 'You can't come'. I'll look them in the face." - Candidate Trump on what he would say to refugee children. Feb. 9, 2016

I woke on the first Monday of my stay in Camp Petra to children's voices chanting outside the window of my sparsely furnished room. "We want school! We want school!" they repeated in unison as they stood in front of the posh new building at the former psychiatric hospital where the Greek army had its camp headquarters.

A child at Camp Petra takes part in a protest, calling for notebooks, pencils, pens and books so that the hundreds of children at the camp can go to school.

I threw on some clothes, grabbed my camera, and ran down the hallway and the flight of stairs at the end, out the door and to the posh building. There were a couple of dozen kids, an Iraqi who was a teacher back home, several other grown-ups, and one of two Greek army majors who took turns being in charge of the camp. Off to one side stood another Greek soldier, watching me and, more specifically, watching my camera.

When I raised it to my eye, the soldier came over to me. Why did I want to take a picture, he asked. Because it was news, I replied. But why is it news, he persisted. These children have a schoolhouse. It was built specially for them. It's behind the posh building. Instead of going to school and learning, the kids throw rocks and bottles on the roof of the school. So disrespectful, he lamented.

The protest wound down and two dozen or so kids went round the back of the posh building to the school. It was a one-room building with a corrugated iron roof. There were a few bottles and rocks on the roof, but the school itself was well maintained, the walls free of graffiti and covered with a hand-painted map of the world and the word "School" scrawled the length of the wall on the north side.

Children at Camp Petra stage a protest outside the schoolhouse to call for better facilities and school supplies.

The kids filed into the one-room school, followed by a couple of volunteers who had driven up the winding mountain road to teach them. Kids scrambled for pens, a sheet of paper. A girl picked a fight with a boy. The teacher tried to restore order. No one listened. Vian, who I would get to know better in the next few days, told me not to worry about the girl who picked a fight with a boy. She was crazy, Vian said. The girl who picked a fight with the boy roamed through the rows of wooden desks, bothering other kids. The teacher again tried to restore order, and again failed.

Three boys use a sheet of paper on which they had written their protest message -- 'This bad school' -- during class at Camp Petra in Greece.

I gave the fight-picking girl my "mom is pissed off" look and told her to sit down so that everyone could get what they wanted -- school. Almost remarkably, she did. I took this as proof of something I already knew -- that kids everywhere are the same and have the same needs, including a need for structure. But in our lives, with no war, many of us don't have to worry about our kids not getting structure in their lives. They go to school or daycare, they play on a sports team in the afternoon or do theater, they have to do their daily chores or walk the dog every day. Refugee kids need those same rules in their lives, but at Camp Petra, they didn't have them. They offered the authorities in charge of the camp solutions to their quandary -- they could go to school in the valley or in the town 5 minutes down the hill -- but the local authorities didn't have the means to allow the kids to go to school outside the camp. There was no yellow schoolbus, like in America, and the teachers in the Greek schools teach in Greek, and the kids in the camp don't speak Greek. We'll learn, they said. And the next week, a Greek teacher showed up at the school building with bottles and rocks on the roof, and taught the kids Greek.

A month after I left Camp Petra, everyone was moved into flats and hotels in the valley. I asked a friend if his kids were going to school in the town they were in. No, he replied. Still waiting.

Words in English written by a refugee girl during class at Camp Petra in Greece.


Photos by Karin Zeitvogel

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