Who is a refugee?

Through her work as a campaigner and community volunteer, Fardous Bahbouh considers how she is taking back ownership of her refugee label.

-This article first appeared in the “Beyond Borders” magazine, by the Refugee Journalism Project at London College of Communication @refugeejourno

Browsing the library shelves while waiting for an event at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a book in the Syria section caught my attention: What is a refugee? The titled surprised me as I was taught in English to use who for people and what for things. Despite my initial irritation and resentment, I picked up the book and starting skimming through, wondering to myself what a scholar sitting at his desk in a safe office somewhere could possibly know about the plight of refugees. Reluctantly, I decided to read the book. At least I could use it to challenge the narrative.

Contrary to my preconceptions, Professor William Maley’s book offers a brilliant contextualized, comprehensive and humane insight into the refugee experience. He outlines the historic background – as forced migration is not a new phenomenon and it could happen to anybody. Then he talks about various definitions and some of the work done to help refugees, with examples from different countries. The most important aspect is the inclusion of the personal stories of individual refugees, proving that everyone has a unique experience and a personal story – something that is sometimes lost in reporting when refugees are often presented as nameless numbers.

I personally never like it when journalists use the expression the refugee crisis. For me, refugees are not a crisis. As Professor Maley articulates, refugees are products of failing systems: “When a particular state fails to protect its own people, they may look for protection to other parts of the system of states. Refugees are symptoms of a system of states that has failed properly to live up to its responsibilities.” Thus, society can’t blame the victims!

Refugees leave their homes, family, friends, businesses and achievements behind and flee for their lives. But reaching safety is only half the challenge. They then have to deal with loosing family ties, having to learn a new language, loosing social recognition gained by work or profession. The actual crisis is states’ failure to protect their own citizens, and other states’ failure to welcome and protect these individuals. To avoid the moral, ethical and legal responsibilities, politicians sometimes claim refugees are economic migrants.

While talking about refugees has become a very popular topic in the European media recently, Professor Maley highlights that in welcoming refugees, poor countries are as generous as rich countries, even more generous sometimes. Furthermore, the lack of safe routes to sanctuary means that, “refugees have been driven by governments into the arms of people smugglers”. This makes them further at risk at abuse, exploitation or slavery.

Professor Maley talks about the diversity of refugees and the different circumstances they go through. He identifies different categories: the acute refugee who finds themselves in desperate situations; the anticipatory refugee who is already outside their country when they realize they can no longer return; and the refugee sur place, by the virtue of being well off. My personal experience makes me both anticipatory and sur place.

In a discussion with a friend about helping refugees, when I told her: “I am a refugee myself,” she replied: “All my family are ‘actual refugees’ who fled their homes in one night leaving everything behind.” For her, I didn’t fit her definition of a refugee because I didn’t go through such dire circumstances. I came to the UK for a self-funded Master’s programme, or as I sometimes jokingly describe it: A daddy scholarship! My parents supported me to come to study here, and prior to the UK, they also supported me when I went to the USA for my undergraduate studies in political science. They have big hopes for me. My father used to tell me that one day I would become the Syrian Iron Lady or Benazir Bhutto. But he definitely did not wish for me to get assassinated, and because of my activism against the brutal Assad regime, I can’t return home. It is really difficult to be cut away from one’s own roots.

I go through a mix of grief and denial that I am stuck away from home while the country is burning. However, I am starting to come to terms with my new situation. Being a refugee now feels like part of my identity: a refugee welcomed and protected in another country. I want to give back and help other refugees reach safety, so I volunteer alongside many amazing people devoting their times and effort to make a difference. Through this painful journey and the volunteer work, I have found my real identity and a sense of belonging.

With my friends, I have started a community group to welcome refugees to London. We have called our grassroots initiative Ahlan Wa Sahlan – Arabic for welcome. We run English classes and social activities in a safe and comfortable environment.

AWS 9Celebrating the first anniversary of Ahlan Wa Sahlan work welcoming refugees and bringing our communities together @Syrian_AWS

I also volunteer with Citizens UK and the Refugees Welcome campaign. I see how ordinary people can come together to improve lives. Safe Passage, a project of Citizens UK, works to find legal routes to sanctuary for people fleeing persecution. I have experienced incredible happiness from helping child refugees reach safety and being reunited with their family members in the UK. Since Safe Passage started, 1,050 child refugees have arrived here safely. Through my work I have experienced extraordinary support from the UK public. For me, it symbolizes real hope and thought for humanity. It also represents glimpses of light during the dark times.

So a simple answer to the question Who is a refugee?  My response is that refugees are highly determined and resilient people who learn how to survive wars and establish new lives. All in all, for refugees, fleeing oppression and persecution can be life changing. But it can also inspire people to help and make a difference. Empathy and compassion are what make me feel I belong here. It has helped me to rediscover the value of life and to refuse to be silence or silenced.

As Rabbi Joachim Prinz said of his experience in 1930s Germany: “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

When I asked Professor Maley about his choice of the book title “What is a Refugee?”, he explained:

“My objective was raise a particular discursive problem. ‘Who is a refugee?’ indeed makes grammatical sense, but the burden of my argument is in part that no two refugees are the same, that the individuality of each refugee needs to be appreciated. Using ‘What’ instead of ‘Who afforded me the opportunity to look at the disjuncture between ways in which refugees can be legally defined and sociologically categorised, and the individual experiences that make up each refugee’s individual experience”


This article was updated to include comment from Professor William Maley


Fardous Bahbouh’s CV2017

A journalist, teacher, voice-over artist and an Oscar-winner documentary translator with excellent research and writing skills.  She has a solid background in the Liberal Arts and Humanities and takes an interdisciplinary approach to her education.  A UK resident since 2009, her clients have included Al-Jazeera, Channel 4, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office, Chatham House, King’s College, the World Bank, the British Museum and various production companies. She has also studied and worked extensively in a variety of roles in Syria, the United States and Turkey.

Fardous is passionate about working in the media and hopes to inform, educate and entertain a broad audience. She wants her work in media to be a platform to celebrate cultures, contribute to building bridges and establish more understanding. She is motivated to give a voice to less represented groups and to hold governments accountable.

Here is my full CV: Fardous Bahbouh CV 2017