Refugee Week 2016

I was struck last week by two very contrasting images from the same country. The first was the bombing of a Syrian refugee camp close to the Turkish border, by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The al-Kammouneh camp housed 450 families, 2500 people, who had sought refuge there. The scene was brutal, with tents still on fire, human body parts strewn across the ground, and women and children buried under the rubble. A middle-aged man cried to the camera, “Where is the world?”

That same day, in a different part of Syria, a Russian symphony orchestra was playing a concert in the ancient city of Palmyra, which has recently been liberated from Islamic State by Syrian and Russian forces. Syrian soldiers and Russian officials were in the audience, along with UNESCO dignitaries and invited journalists, listening to the sounds of Bach wafting round the famous amphitheatre as the setting sun turned the historic ruins a golden yellow. President Putin thanked the musicians by video link, saying that the performance gave “hope for Palmyra’s revival, as the heritage of all mankind.” It was as though the terrors of Sunni controlled IS, as effected on both people and places, had been wiped clean from Palmyra’s recent history, and enlightened culture had taken its place.

But of course it hasn’t. Whilst there have been significant gains against IS controlled areas, their brutal campaign continues, with three car bombings in Baghdad today alone, killing over 90 people. One of the bombs went off in a crowded market in a predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhood, killing mostly women and children. And the fighting continues in Syria’s 5 year-old civil war, despite the increasingly beleaguered efforts of the 17 nation International Syria Support Group, with America and the United States on opposite sides.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m delighted that Palmyra is now saved, at least for the time being, from further destruction. I would far rather hear the universal language of music than the hate-filled diatribe of IS. But the man in the bombed refugee camp was asking the right question. The same part of the world that authorised the bombing of the refugee camp, also arranged for the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra to be flown into Palmyra for what was, basically, a PR exercise.

I am guilty of doing something not altogether too dissimilar, when my part of the world allows me to befriend refugees, support aid agencies and donate clothes to refugee charities. But this is from the comfort of my own, intact, home in Scotland. My world has not been turned upside down by events outside my control. I still have a roof over my head, food in the fridge and a TV to watch the latest episode of Peaky Blinders. I can hear the calls from children playing in the sunshine in the park opposite; I have time to admire the unfurling of new, translucent green leaves on the trees and the deep pink flowers covering the camellia bush in our garden. My part of the world bears no resemblance, whatsoever, to the world faced by the six and a half million internally displaced people currently in Syria. In the second city of Aleppo alone, there are 1.2 million, just short of the 1.3 million seeking asylum in the whole of the EU during 2015.

It’s Refugee Week next month. Between 20th-26th June, there are events taking place right across the country. Here in Scotland, the theme for this year’s Festival, is Solidarity. Now, more than ever, we need to stand together with people who’ve had to flee their homes and are trying to build new lives here. I hope that our worlds and theirs collide in the best way possible.

Click here to find out more about the Scottish Refugee Festival.

(Image c/o The Guardian)


Liz Leonard