About Walls, Poetry, Racism and Activism

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An interview with Parwana Amiri.

Parwana Amiri ist eine Autorin, Dichterin und Aktivistin. Ich bin durch mein Engagement für die Initiative Bildung für Alle auf ihre Arbeit aufmerksam geworden und vor zwei Wochen haben wir uns über ihren Aktivismus, ihre Ziele, die Kunst des Schreibens und Rassismus unterhalten. Als ich sie frage, ob sie sich für die Leser:innen die sie nicht kennen kurz vorstellen mag erzählt sie, dass sie aus Afghanistan kommt und seit September 2019 mit ihrer Familie in Griechenland im Flüchtlingscamp in Ritsona lebt. Zuvor hatten sie vier Monate in Moria verbracht. Dort hat sie ihre „Letters from Moria to the World“ veröffentlicht und teilt seitdem Gedichte und Texte über verschiedene Social-Media-Kanäle.

Luise: First, where is your activism rooted and when did you start writing?

Parwana: In Moria I started writing “Letters from Moria to the World” but of course the process did not happen suddenly. In the beginning I was just writing, and I was sharing my texts with members of Welcome to Europe and they encouraged me to publish my writings on their platform. I also became interested in writing stories and I wrote “A fairytale of the Olive tree and the old woman” which was illustrated by Marily Stroux and published. Also there is a short movie which has been cast and the main work was done by Marily Stroux as well. When we got transferred to Ritsona I was told that they wanted to publish my book which I felt very happy about because in Afghanistan I did not have a chance to publish, not even smaller articles but this may be the main reason why I was determined to continue to write and to speak about the conditions I experienced. In Greece I was able to write without being threatened, I mean, my family didn´t want me to get involved in any activities because they feared the authorities` response. In Afghanistan I avoided that risk myself but in Greece I feel safe and it was writing that helped me to share many things. I was also teaching at a local school in Moria called Wave Of Hope. Of course people wanted to stop me in many ways, especially when I started my activism and making people become aware of their rights. Still enough people outside and inside of the camp supported me along the way. The persepecitve of people has been changed in many ways, especially about the power of girl and youths.

Luise: So opposition seems to be an inevitable response to your activism. What fuels your ambition to keep going and what is your advice to people who experience resistance or opposition?

Parwana: So the opposition didn´t shock me and it didn´t stop me but also pushed me because it was the time to call attention to these questions. I want to use the opposition I experience to make our voices louder. By breaking the silence and using activities such as writing, sports, actions, communication and all the possible ways we are creating evermore ways. You get opposition if you want to create change, if you don´t, you should be shocked because it means that you are not doing it right. People before me were doing it and they encourage me to do even more.

It is exactly these factors which you may perceive to be limiting; the restrictions, the limitations, the silence, the suppression, the humiliation which I was living through which pushes me forward. By challenging that condition and underlying societal structures I want to make changes. It is not only a dream but my goal to see refugees live together with the local communities, accepting each other. Tolerance for me is to accept differences, to give people a space where they are enabled and encouraged to act, to speak and to live within these communities. This is what I want to see, not only in Greece but in all countries where divisive categories still prevail. Everyone needs the right to defend their rights. Being an asylum seeker does not mean that you cannot speak but if we are asylum seekers we have to speak without being afraid. Not only about authorities but also about the reasons why we left certain countries.

Parwana richtet ihren Aktivismus und ihre Briefe an alle, insbesondere an die europäische Regierung. Sie kritisiert den Stillstand der Flüchtlingspolitik und spricht mit mir über ihre Entrüstung über die Erklärung der Türkei als sicheren Drittstaat. Letztere ermöglicht eine Rückführung Geflüchteter aus Griechenland in die Türkei „which is totally unbearable“. In einem ihrer Briefe schreibt Parwana Folgendes:

Have you ever written a letter and been waiting for an answer? It does not matter what the letter is about. You write and you expect an answer; a simple answer would do. We, too, expect an answer to our letters to you. A small change in our condition, even vague distant attention truly directed to our appeals would be enough to give us hope, hope that, despite our being different, we are still accepted, that the dream of integration will not be achieved by forcing us to become and behave in ways alien to us, but by accepting to live with us, respecting us as authentic human beings.

Parwana Amiri, Letters to the World from Ritsona (No. 21)

Luise: Speaking of divise categories, you address the way we commonly think in categories. Why do you think it is important to cope with that tendency of labeling others? How can we challenge that inherent bias in order to subvert limiting or rigid categories?

Parwana schreibt auf ihrem Blog:

We are challenging the world to understand the complex ways race, class, nation, and ability are intertwined and how, only by addressing this complexity we can find the means to move beyond divisive categories, to understand the inter-relationships of ideas and processes that are presented as separate and unrelated and, together, fight for our common good.

Parwana: […] and there are different types of divisions which are reinforced. First, I experience the separation of local people from refugees. And also there are separate communities within the camps. Not everyone lives together but there are different parts. This separation has created many problems and the construction of walls exacerbates this situation. You know, groups of people are restricted and shown as different as possible. You feel this divide in many ways and in common spaces, in schools. Racism is not only directed towards people of color but there are many other notions of racism, among refugees, among Europeans and all over the world. It was a dear mistake to separate different communities in the beginning when camps were constructed.

A closed camp not only makes the goal of integration with the local society impossible, it also violates the most basic human rights of the inhabitants of the camp and deprives them of that minimum freedom of movement they have had. The people of Ritsona have not committed any crime for which they need to be kept apart from the rest of the world around them. The people of Ritsona need to be seen and acknowledged in their humanity and the rights that derive from their humanity.

Parwana Amiri, Letters to the World from Ritsona (No. 20)

Luise: How has the pandemic situation influenced your activism and has media coverage of the condition in Greek camps changed since Covid-19`s onset?

Parwana: So I think that the media is seeking the immediate attraction but they hardly show genuine interest. They report very critical emergencies but the attention doesn´t last. Suddenly lots of cameras come and shoot but then they disappear. This is how the media works and why it so important to see through it. People should not rely on everything which is being reported. We need an awareness that what people see on television in one or two minutes is an actual condition which lasts for several years or gets worse even. If you care to follow along and to take action, not only be shocked but step up. […] There is a strong hypocrisy related to the representation of refugees because we should use our own voice. For example, media reports about our situation but they do not use our own voice, they do not give us a space to speak up or to write. In many ways they could give us the microphone but they don´t although it is an essential part of the process. I am not saying that refugees are not being defended but they should be allowed to do it themselves. It further reinforces that notion of the silent dependent refugee but they did not ask us. We should have a say in negotiating asylum. And these notions are reinforced not only through media but by economists and education. Further fake news and populism are like a chain around refugees because they keep us from connecting.

Luise: Certainly it wasn´t on the news that fences are being constructed now and it wasn´t until students in my German classes told me that NATO-style walls were being built around the camps that I became aware of the situation.

Parwana: Yes, in many camps they have been building walls since more than three months now. But as I said it is not only about walls but also about the legislation about Turkey becoming a safe country. After waiting a long time in this condition people are being transferred back. So it is not only physical restriction through walls but also in the way of asylum procedures that people are being imprisoned.

Our all-day-life-world changed here for us, people could get back their normal moral state. Communication became much stronger than what it was before. But we are all under a huge pressure of a common problem – COVID-19 – that has a single solution: stay at home to keep your safety! That is almost impossible when you are a part of more than four thousand people, and live in a container with more than eight persons .

Parwana Amiri, Under Covid19 Pressure

Luise: When did you start writing poetry and why did it become so important to you, or to put it this way; what do you think poetry can achieve or even overcome as opposed to the objective account or spoken word?

Parwana: That is a really good question. I was interested in writing poems in Farsi and Persian in Afghanistan but I could not continue. When we went to Moria my only focus was to improve my English to appeal to more readers. I wrote a text once and many people were calling it a poem and at first I was shocked because in Persian it was way more complicated but I instantly became very interested in that difference and in English poetry. Poetry is a way to challenge the reader because of three elements. First, you don´t write text directly. You want the reader to think about it. Second, you want them to misunderstand, to provoke. I ask questions to my readers in my poetry and this way they engage more intensely. Third, you want to spark the reader´s imagination to create an image in his head and I think that image is really really powerful. So letters of a text can be seen directly but when it comes to poetry you create that image, so you also put your effort into understanding it. And I think this is really powerful because in this way poetry sticks with you more than other forms of literature. I think of the letters as images, you put your energy into deciphering the poem and that is why poetry appeals to people in different ways because some may find it rather hard and others rather easy to get their imagination going.

Luise: You can really feel poetry in that way, right?

Parwana: Yes, but some people refrain from accepting that challenge because they feel like their imagination is not valid but that is untrue. Understanding or recreating the world of the poet in your own way is perfectly legitimate.

My pen has been my power. Not only writing on things but also reflecting on reality so I always had an interest to use words in many different ways to create change.

I swear that I will never stay silent

I swear to smiling of displaced children

I swear to tears of injured mothers

I swear to million of hidden dreams

That, I will never stay silent!

I swear to death borders, we passed

I swear to our beloved ones we lost

I swear to dark windy nights,in fear

That, I will never stay silent!

Eine Fortsetzung Parwanas Gedichts findet ihr hier.

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