Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity.
I’m Akwe Amosu…with Episode 25 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used by human rights activists around the world… And this time – double standards in the treatment of migrants and refugees – how can they be better defended? Reflections from a long-time activist in Europe… And in the Coda, a muslim community organizer on “waywardness” and why it’s good for oppressed minorities.
Amosu: When war refugees started flooding out of Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in February, the world saw profoundly moving scenes of solidarity as Polish citizens spontaneously began arriving at the border to help their neighbors. Yet in among the warm, fuzzy feelings those scenes provoked, a colder and darker realization began to intrude – not all the refugees were made welcome. Black and brown people, Roma, those in the LGBTQI community suffered rough and sometimes exclusionary treatment. And just a few miles further along the border, those fleeing more distant wars – Syria’s, for example – were getting an even more hostile reception. Xenophobia and racism are not new phenomena but for those who work to support migrants and refugees, they represent a huge obstacle beyond exclusionary policies and laws, inspiring hateful treatment not only by bureaucrats and border guards, but by ordinary citizens as well. So is it possible to mobilize solidarity that is less easily disabled by hatred or incitement to hatred? What works? And what weakens efforts to defend migrants and refugees? Anna Alboth is a Polish human rights defender who works for the Minority Rights Group, particularly in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia. Eight years ago, she was the initiator of the Civil March for Aleppo, in which thousands of Europeans marched on foot from Germany to Syria to express solidarity with the victims of that war. Currently, having worked as a journalist, she focuses particularly on the media and its influence on migration issues. I was keen to hear what she has learned about building solidarity.
Amosu: Welcome Anna.
Alboth: Hi, thanks for invitation.
Amosu: Can you say something just about the practical reality of trying to support people who are crossing the border into Poland? Let’s start with the Belarus border.
Alboth: First of all, I have to say that this is something completely different, to face this kind of challenges in your own country. I used to work in the last years on many different European borders. I experienced difficult, not easy situations, but in the moment when all of this came to my own country, to the place that I understand very well, between the border guards that speak my language, it was something very shocking for me and for all other activists involved in the topic of migration but not experiencing it on our own border.
Amosu: Could, could you say something about what was shocking? What was it that you could see now in your own country and in your own language that you hadn’t been able to see before?
Alboth: Suddenly through the borders of my country from Belarusian side to Polish side, there were hundreds of refugees crossing and Polish state decided to act in the most awful way from the beginning, on legalizing pushbacks, not letting people cross and even introducing a special state of emergency along the border, which was kind of letting people die in this place. The policy of letting people die. And this is something that I have seen on many different borders of Europe growing step by step in years, all these practices were introduced but in time, and suddenly I had a feeling like Poland would jump on the elevator and go directly to the top with all these most difficult practices.
Amosu: Well, states do learn from each other and copy from each other. And so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, but I had a sense also reading your work that you were taken aback by the cruelty, not just in the legal provisions that were put in place to make it easy to reject those migrants, but at the level of the encounter between Polish officials and guards and migrants.
Alboth: I have seen terrible situations on the Mediterranean Sea before, or the Moroccan border. But I have never seen people in so bad state, so hungry, so thirsty, so put down, as freezing nights, than in the Polish forest, uh, and the cruelty of Polish border guards and Polish army who completely didn’t care if we, as activists or even international media, stand around them, see what is happening. They didn’t care. They would just beat up people, beat up kids, being sure that this is the right thing to do. And this was shocking, is shocking because the situation didn’t change until now. The help of activists is criminalized. We are not allowed to enter this state of emergency, this place where most of the people are freezing and suffering. For me as a person who for many years working human rights, going to the forest with backpack full of hot soup, and running at night, trying to hide from my own soldiers, and drones flying above us, this was something really surreal and all of this was not to do anything crazy. It was to give people food and drink. So to give people absolutely basic aid, you have to risk, not only your legal situation by breaking the so-called law, but also run through the dark forest in the mud where you can throw yourself into some swamps, which is itself dangerous. This was a really surreal situation that started in August 2021 and is going on until now.
Amosu: I think anyone listening to you describing that situation could not avoid contrasting the description you just gave with the people who left Ukraine in fear for their lives since the 24th of February. The pictures that went around the world of an open-armed embrace, the generosity, the warmth, the care, the empathy, was heartwarming and stunning for many of us to see. So it’s really hard to integrate these two pictures that you’re describing.
Alboth: If I should be very honest, for me this last week of February – I’ve been there on the Polish Ukrainian border too – was really very difficult. It was very difficult for me to appreciate all this amazing solidarity, amazing behavior of Polish society. I was watching how thousands of people just took their cars from all over Poland and came to the Ukrainian border, invited people to their cars, invited people to their homes, brought warm soup and water to the border. When I was looking around, I seen border guards, the same border guards, carrying babies through the border, helping mothers to carry their luggage. And you know I had tears all over my face because 10 kilometers, north, when the border is with Belarus not with Ukraine, the same border guards would treat people in so inhuman way.
Amosu: of course not everybody who crossed that border, fleeing the war was treated well. We also saw pictures of black and brown people, of Roma people, of LGBTQ people, receiving very different treatment.
Alboth: It was very painful to see. As beautiful as it was to see the solidarity and open arms behavior towards everybody else, suddenly when the international students or Ukrainian Roma were coming, the crowds would be going back and not exactly inviting them to their cars. I don’t see any other reason than racism and judging people by their look. This behavior was – it was so black and white here, you know. I could see that it’s not only about people crossing Belarusian border and all this strong propaganda built around it, but I’ve seen black Ukrainians with the same passports running away from the same war, having the same right to run away, being treated in such a different way. And it’s awful and it’s painful, it needs discussion on every level in schools, in public space. We need to talk about it because it cannot go on like this.
Amosu: And if that conversation were to ensue, how do you think it would go? Is there even the courage to have an open, honest conversation about it?
Alboth: I think in this kind of conversation, I don’t believe in this accusing somebody, saying, “hey, you are racist. Why, why do you invite Ukrainian home and you are not inviting Syrian running from the same Putin’s bombs?” I don’t think things like this work. I don’t think putting guilt and raising those expectations on people work. I don’t see around me, examples that this would bring anything positive. So yes, on the personal level, when I meet somebody who wouldn’t take Ukrainian Roma home but would take a white Ukrainian lady with a kid, I truly want to understand why. And I’m trying not to think that I know better, or I behave better in this situation. And usually, fear comes from lack of knowledge or experience or both. And I’ve seen many times situation that people were really just afraid, or people were really afraid of, for example, not being a good host, being afraid that they don’t know a culture – maybe for Ukrainians it is easier for us to imagine next days together. But for somebody coming from far away it is more difficult. And I heard people, honest people, good people, who had those fears. And I believe in taking care of those fears, of talking about them and getting to the basic questions that they have, as long as their questions is good. I think we can talk.
Amosu: I mean, it sounds so reasonable what you’re saying. I think probably for people who have been on the receiving end of the racism and the nativism and the exclusion, there can be some, both doubt and skepticism that this very respectful and generous impulse to really understand, yield good results. Perhaps it will do so in some proportion of the people. But I think perhaps the fear is that for some substantial remainder of the population, it doesn’t come down to an argument or a lack of information or even imagination. It comes down to an unwillingness to feel or to test the possibility of empathy, a resistance, a desire, in fact, to draw the line and not allow anything to cross it. I’m asking, I’m not stating. Do you think that’s a reasonable fear?
Alboth: But again, I would like to understand where this lack of willingness comes from. It always comes from somewhere. It’s never just like this. And I think understanding this could, could help us to open some other doors. You know I’ve seen now a lot of people, for example, inviting Ukrainians home; people who never, ever were active in the topic of migration, nor in any kind of activism. This wave of Polish solidarity woke up a lot of feelings and well, some people wanted to do it because others were doing it – doesn’t matter. Motives for me right now doesn’t matter. They invited somebody home. And now thousands of people in Poland, they had this opportunity. Of course, it also came with problems and with challenges and some had fights, and some said, “Oh, my Ukrainian didn’t like my kids enough,” and were bringing people back to train stations. Of course there was all of these negative experiences too, but there were also positive experiences, noticing that from differences, we can learn. That we might have different attitudes to whatever, cooking or bringing up our kids, but this is actually valuable. And I want to believe that maybe after this experience, they will be more open to differences in the future.
Amosu: we’ve focused so far on how a person reacts at the, literally at the first step of encountering difference but it’s not always just about individual reactions. Sometimes people are living in an environment in which the media, is very aggressive, very hostile, or very controlled. I think that there has not been positive, or even neutral language about refugees and migrants in the Hungarian press for many, many years. So could you just say something about the extent to which you believe that political manipulation, government pressure shapes the environment in which people are reacting in this way.
Alboth: Of course this matters a lot and I always try to remember about it when talking and thinking about countries like Hungary or Poland, that those societies were for years fed anti-migration, anti-Islam narration very actively, versus ? This was this – we call it in Polish, ‘the management of fear’. So a very well-organized machine And this matters, of course it matters. The songs that we hear in radio a hundred times, suddenly we like them. It’s the same with all this propaganda. We might be educated, but then if we hear from every side, all the time, same story, we might start believing in this. And I see it between families or friends of friends, living in smaller cities of Poland, how much the media narration influenced them in the last years. And an interesting thing you can observe on the east, close to the Belarusian border between the people who were, for example, watching the state TV for years and suddenly first time in their life, they had the chance to meet refugees in person, those people knocking on their windows at night, asking for something to drink. And of course it was probably very shocking at the beginning. I talked with some old lady who never in her life met a black person, and suddenly there was a black person at her window, in the middle of nowhere, I can understand that it’s not easy. But once they met in person, once they were asked to share water or food, suddenly all of this that they’ve seen in media in the last five years changed. I know families on the east of Poland who before August 2021 were absolutely against any migration in Europe. They wanted to close the borders. And now there are people who are hiding families in their garages from the border guards. I think it was easier in Poland and maybe in Hungary too, to run this anti-migration campaign when there were no migrants. And now we have migrants, we have refugees, we have war refugees from Ukraine. We have more and more people from the Belarusian border who, after months in the detention center, are now out. I think it will be more difficult to manipulate society.
Amosu: Yes. Um, you are right that having migrants and refugees living side by side with a host population does offer familiarity, does offer an opportunity for people to learn and shift perspective. But I suppose somebody thinking about that might well say, but wait, the European Union has been receiving migrants and refugees for decades now, and yet not all opinions are shifting. So it makes me want to ask what is the extent of the benefits of familiarity, the benefits of increased knowledge and understanding?
Alboth: I believe very much that it matters. I live in Berlin with my family. My kids are in a German school. I see how diversity is influencing their life and lives of kids the same age in Poland. You mentioned very different feelings in Europe. Well, migration is a political topic. We know that it can be used by politicians, but doesn’t have to be used. In Poland, 20 years ago, we had 90,000 Chechen refugees at that time when nobody was using it as a political tool, it was not a problem. Ninety thousand Muslims arrived to Poland. When I talk about it in Poland, people say, wait, wait, wait, let me check if it’s true. Migration doesn’t have to be seen as a crisis. It can be also seen as solution. It can be seen as the most normal in the world. It really depends who is steering it.
Amosu: So since this interview is largely to try and understand what methods of building solidarity with migrants and refugees can work, can we talk about where you’ve been able to see practical interventions have an impact? What do you find in your present-day advocacy and mobilization that really works to connect people to their compassion, to their empathy and to activism?
Alboth: Mm. I work now in Minority Rights Group – it’s a 52 years old organization. I value the structure and the knowledge and the experience but I’m trying to always implement those elements of the grassroots activism into every project I’m doing. So I would like to go on bringing journalists or leaders of communities to the places, like to the Belarusian border, this is what I’m trying to do. I know that once you go there yourself, you will see the world in different way. And when I have discussions in some public spaces, or, you know, in internet with somebody who just doesn’t believe me, or doesn’t believe the reports. I’m friendly, offering three days together and going to the field to ask your questions yourself – why this person is risking the life of his kid and crossing the Belarusian border? There are answers to this. And if somebody is really interested, he can ask those questions. So, yes, this is, this is what I’m trying to do.
Amosu: But just as I’m asking you what works, what fails, what doesn’t work?
Alboth: I think there is a lot of competition between activist groups and NGOs. And this is something I don’t understand. And I’m trying to understand why is it like this? Of course, sometimes it’s about funds because the funding market is limited. But I think it’s not about it. We all want the same thing. So why do we compete with each other? There are organizations that have bigger experience. There are those who have smaller experience, but I think all of them are needed. And all of them are doing a bit different job. It can be somebody doing more of the advocacy, more of the campaigning, more of the humanitarian aid on the ground, and it’s all needed. I think it’s because we all work in this crazy circle of emergency all the time. And if we work in this circle and if we are all tired and we just try to put down fires, it would be additional effort to call other people you work with and say, hey, thank you. You are doing amazing job at your weekend. There is just sometimes not enough time and energy to do that, but I think the world would be better place if we would appreciate each other more.
Amosu: I mean, disagreements on strategy are natural, they are to be expected. I suppose, I guess, you know, it makes me want to ask you, do you think that this is more than just disagreements or exhaustion and that in some way, some people are substituting good, useful action with this internal disagreement, because somehow that’s easier than the hard work of making progress on the actual problem?
Alboth: No, I think disagreements are fine. I think it’s more about trust in each other, that we do the right thing. I think trust is something very different than agreement and more important. I don’t know if we can find solutions together based only on agreement, but not on trust. And I feel that sometimes trust between activists and organizations is missing.
Amosu: One of the things that has emerged in this series of podcasts that keeps coming back is this question of who makes the decision about what work to be done, whether it is the people who are at the front line, who define what needs to be done and call on others to help them, or whether everybody gets to decide the strategy for themselves and they don’t have to refer to each other. Something in what you’re saying, reminds me of that. And I wonder whether you think that there is enough deference given to migrants and refugees themselves to be the leaders of this work, or whether that’s not an issue.
Alboth: There is definitely not enough space given to the refugees and migrants themselves. Mm, this is a very important point. I’m, I’m happy that you brought it up because there is a lot of ideas and solutions coming from outside without consulting it with the communities themselves, you know, organizations coming to refugee camp and saying, ‘now we will do this kind of activities’ without asking people in advance. Especially in those days, when we are all connected online and we have translators in our phones, we can communicate with anybody anywhere, and starting any kind of project or initiative without asking for the opinion of people for whom we are doing it, is a crime. We should never do that.
Amosu: And where is that frontline? Who are those people who need to be consulted and where are they?
Alboth: Depends. If you work on the border, if you work with people crossing the border, you should ask them in which way they would like to be helped. If they are fine with you coming with food and drinks, and if it’s okay to take a journalist with you to this place. The dignity in this kind of very critical situations is crucial. And I’m also aware of the fact that, for example, not showing those situations in media means that people will not know about it, people will not care about it. But still, we, as the bridge between – for example refugees and society – I believe we are in the position of protecting their rights and their dignity, for example, against media coming to cover those stories.
Amosu: Do you see that many migrants, refugees, people who become secure and become legal, enter this work, become themselves very active in this space?
Alboth: I know a lot of examples like this and I’m always very happy about it because I feel that those are the people who know the very best what is needed and how is it needed. On the other hand, I also wouldn’t like to expect from people to get into work like this. Many people who went through the periods of being on the migration route, they would like to forget about it as fast as possible. And I completely get it. It should be a temporary situation. I’m never, I’m never expecting from refugees to get involved into refugee work, but I like it. And I appreciate it if they do.
Amosu: And do you yourself feel, as you do this work, that you are able to be guided, to be able to defer to the leadership and views of migrants and refugees with whom you are in solidarity? Do you have places that you can see as a reference point?
Alboth: I do. I feel that I’m discussing a lot whenever I introduce any activity with refugees, for refugees, with refugees. We talk a lot about how it should be. Sometimes I can bring my opinion on things, for example, from the media perspective, you know, what is needed, what can be useful, what could make the coverage easier or better, but still they have the most important voice.
Amosu: And if they said, don’t do this, this is a bad idea?
Alboth: Then we don’t do this.
Amosu: Thank you, Anna.
Alboth: Thank you.
Amosu: Anna Alboth coordinates the Media, Minorities and Migration program, for the Minority Rights Group in Europe. She is based in Berlin. You’ll find a transcript of our conversation on our website, strengthandsoldarity.org
In this podcast’s regular feature, the Coda, we ask a human rights defender to give us some insight into their work – what makes it difficult, or painful, or possible, or inspiring… and this time we’re in London, hearing from Raheel Mohammed, director of Maslaha, an organization that works to support muslim communities in Britain, often typecast as radicalized and incubators of terrorism. For Raheel, the experience of muslims in the criminal justice system is particularly troubling. Reading the US writer and academic Saidiya Hartman, he came across the concept of ‘waywardness’ as a form of resistance.
Raheel Mohammed: So one of the stories that I think about a lot, because I think it encapsulates the denial of human rights within the prison system, is the story of a prison officer who had started work at prison. She had been given no training on the religious and cultural needs of any group of people but in this prison, she was looking after 80 men. And while she was there, she discovered that there’s a month called Ramadan, where Muslims fast. And she realized that there’s a time you start your fast in the morning and there’s a time that you break your fast, at sunset. And in this particular prison there were no clocks. So those who were Muslim and who were fasting relied on prison officers to wake them up at a particular time in the morning. And so she asked the other guards, you know, “well, you know, what do you do?” And the other guards said to her, “Well, we don’t think they’ll keep their fast so we don’t bother waking them up.”
RM: You’re isolated from your family, from your friends, and then you have this other layer of oppression which is: your identity as a black person, as a Muslim person is a threat and whatever you do, it still will never be enough to conform. It is incredibly lonely which is why I think it’s really important to say this – despite the violence and the loneliness, marginalized communities always find a way to survive. And that’s what religion does for a lot of people. It’s a way of survival, it’s a way of building community. And that sense of community, I think, is something that plays out in Saidiya Hartman’s work. You know, one of her chapters, is called “The Chorus Opens the Way,” in her book, Wayward lives, Beautiful Experiments. And it’s talking about how it’s the collective, in all of its noisiness and messiness, that is a way that we will find thriving futures from our collective, collaborative solidarity.
“Waywardness is a practice of possibility at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out, are foreclosed. It obeys no rules and abides no authorities. It is unrepentant. It traffics in occult visions of other worlds and dreams of a different kind of life. Waywardness is an ongoing exploration of what might be; it is an improvisation with the terms of social existence, when the terms have already been dictated, when there is little room to breathe, when you have already been sentenced to a life of servitude, when the house of bondage looms in whatever direction you move. It is the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive.”
RM: I think in relation to the prison system, an expression of your true self becomes an act of waywardness, becomes an act of rebellion. So if you’re within the prison system and your religion is viewed as a threat, the fact that you will still try and practice it, even though you know you will be punished, is a form of rebellion and waywardness – and that’s within the prison system. And you know, even within the school environment, because we have policies like Prevent – “spotting extremism before extremism happens” – a sign of being “too Muslim,” “too black,” liking music that doesn’t conform, you know, that is a form of waywardness.
It’s really easy, when you work with marginalized communities, when you are from communities that are marginalized, when you try and write about what is happening right now, to just write about the trauma, even in the most oppressive times. And she’s written about this in her other writings, in the Scenes of Subjection, which is writing on slavery plantations. We will always find ways to rebel. And those are the stories that we have to tell because otherwise we do just become, just objects of trauma and our full, complete lives are never recorded and that’s important for, you know, the people that come after us and it’s important for us now, as well.
Amosu: Thank you, Raheel for those reflections on Saidiya Hartman’s celebration of waywardness. We’ll post the reference to Hartman’s book and other links on the podcast web page.
Amosu: That wraps up episode 25 of Strength and Solidarity, thanks for your company. If you’re new to the podcast, please do visit the website and have a listen to some of our past episodes – we’ve had so many thought-provoking, insightful contributors and they continue to be very relevant. And let us know if there’s an issue or a guest you’d like us to include – the address is firstname.lastname@example.org. For now, thanks to Myka Carroll and Cate Brown for production help, and to our producer Peter Coccoma – see you next time.