Romani Platni, Eating the Roma Way

Romani Platni (Romanian for Romani Stove) a Roma eatery that fights roma-related stereotypes and misconceptions by bringing Hungarians and Romas closer together in the intimacy of a mutual dinner.

When I first saw Malvin néni (Hungarian for Auntie Malvin as she likes to be called) she reminded me of my late Hungarian grandmother. Just like my grandmother, Malvin néni is energetic and loud, she likes to sing and starts dancing whenever the music is playing and most of all, she loves cooking. But unlike my grandmother, Malvin néni is Roma.

Malvin néni, chéf at Hungary´s first Roma restaurant

Malvin néni, chéf at Hungary´s first Roma restaurant

Although Malvin néni never faced any discrimination or atrocities because of her origin, she follows the news of discrimination against Romas in Hungary with concern (Accurate stats are hard to come by but according to a study by the Athena Institute the overwhelming majority of hate crimes in Hungary are committed with racist motivation). So she took it as her mission to ease this racial tension through cooking exquisite and authentic Roma dinners in Romani Platni, Hungary’s first Roma eatery. “My food is not for dieters!” she warns. While eating pork chops, hanuska (potato and dumplings) and the greasy bodagok (roma bread) among many other simple yet delicious Roma dishes, she hopes fear and stereotypes of her Hungarian visitors of the Roma as hostile people will ease too. “They eat a lot of bodagok, they like it a lot,” she says with a proud smile. “When they finish eating I tell them get on you heels, get out of here, time to dance… and they do, they enjoy their time.”

Romani Platni_photo by Szivák Fruzsina

Romani Platni_photo by Szivák Fruzsina

Romani Platni (Romanian for Romani Stove) was opened in February 2012 by a Hungarian social aid group in collaboration with local Roma women and a small grant from the Open Society Institute with the clear aim of bringing Hungarians and Romas closer together in the intimacy of a mutual dinner. The eatery occupies a small room in the aid group’s youth center in Budapest’s infamous 9th district, an area mostly inhibited by residents from minority backgrounds that many Hungarian mothers warn their kids from visiting at night for fear of robbery and violence. Yet, crowds of Hungarians visit the district on a weekly basis to try out the home-made foods of Malvin néni and her 3 other Roma mates. Romani Platni is a not a licensed restaurant that functions 18 hours a day. Rather, it’s a community kitchen where you have to book through email an appointment for a private dinner or subscribe to public dinners . The eatery has no phone number and its street number is not published on the eatery’s blog. According to Kriszta Nagy, the Hungarian Romani Platni project manager, this is done on purpose.

“We don’t have the capacity to manage a professional restaurant but that’s not the point anyway. The idea is for Hungarians to share an intimate and authentic Roma dinner and learn about the ways of the Roma,” Nagy explains. “We want to show them that Romas can do more than just live in poverty. Unfortunately, in the media, Romas are mostly associated with poverty and violence. The women´s attitude at Romani Platni is that I am a Roma and a woman, and I am proud of it.”

Romani Platni solely promotes itself on social media. “The Romani Platni project is aimed at Hungary’s intellectuals circles who live in a totally different world, move between offices and banks and probably never met a Roma. The only way to reach these people is facebook.” Nagy explains. ” and it works! I had to book one month ahead to get a free table.

Hungarians make up 60% of Romani Platni’s guests. The rest are social workers from foreign NGOs and Roma intellectuals who live in mixed families and miss the Roma food. While most visitors are sympethatic to Roma or just curious about the food, Nagy remembers a dinner with an anti-Roma guest.

”He told me he didn’t like Romas, but he came anyway to please his friends,” Nagy recalls. “He sat with a stiff back for the first one hour, then slowly he started to relax and I think by the end he actually enjoyed himself.”

Romani Platni_photo by Szivák Fruzsina

Romani Platni_photo by Szivák Fruzsina

Another source of pride for Nagy is that right wing media appraoched Romani Platni and published what, according to her, might be its first positive coverage of Romas. She also boasts a cooking event Romani Platni organized in collaboration with the Hungarian police to ease the forces’ misconceptions of Romas.

Some Romas like Béla Radics, the director of the Radical Civic Movement for Safeguarding Roma Interests are suspecious about the success of projects like Romani Platni.

”Romani Platni does not have the impact we wish for,” Radics says. “The majority of {Hungarian} society is racist. If they don’t like the Roma people, they won’t like their food.”

Malvin néni agrees that her guests are mostly sympethatic to Romas. “There are racist people, but it’s different here {in the eatery}. I don’t feel that the guests hate us. If they did, they wouldn’t have come to eat,” she says.

Still, Nagy insists that positive inititatives like Romani Platni are important. “Maybe racist people won’t come, but if someone who doesn’t know Romas and sees this aspect of Roma’s first and reads positive articles about them in the right wing media then maybe he/she will start to think differently. This project can’t impact extremists, but it can point those people who don’t have an opinon on this matter in the right direction.”

Check out this story on Storify. I wrote this as part of the World perspectives, minority voices study session organized in Budapest by the Council of Europe, the European Youth Press, Concordia International Group and the Minority Rights Group Europe. Find out more about the study session here and here. Twitter #minorityvoices.

Sad in Saudi

Syrians in Saudi Arabia encounter numerous social barriers but the financial reward of emigrating there can be tempting. 

Illustration by Ghalia Lababidi
Illustration by Ghalia Lababidi

Nothing could have prepared Mohammad Ghannam for what he witnessed at age 12. A drug dealer was beheaded in the courtyard of a mosque near his house in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. Ghannam, a 32-year-old Syrian who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said he could not sleep for days after the incident.

“Although executions are public, the Saudi authorities never inform people beforehand that a beheading will take place in the mosque. Since children in Saudi Arabia start going to mosques at age three, they often have to witness executions,” Ghannam explained. By the time he was 18, he said he had witnessed six beheadings, adding that they “become less shocking with time”.

Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict, Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia law and a conservative social code that prohibits interaction between the sexes. Thieves can have their hands cut off and adulterers can be stoned. Despite this stark reality, many young Syrian men move to the oil-rich country to save money to pay off the approximately SYP 300,000 (USD 6,500) fee for avoiding military service or to cope with the rising cost of living. Today, Saudi Arabia hosts 400,000 Syrian workers, thousands of whom are investors, he said.

With high unemployment back home, working in Saudi Arabia offers a better future for some young Syrians. Socially, however, life in Saudi Arabia can be stressful, Syrians living there told Syria Today.

“My job makes me financially comfortable, but, psychologically speaking, I am growing weary of it,” Moonzer al-Bitar, a Syrian who moved to Jeddah in 2007 to work for a medical company, said. The tradition of young Syrians travelling to Saudi Arabia for job opportunities goes back to the early 1930s, when oil was first discovered there. The country was developing rapidly and, with the lack of local expertise, it provided a job market for skilled workers from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt – many of whom eventually settled there.

Strict upbringing
Ghannam’s family moved to Riyadh in 1979, when he was one month old. The severity of punishments there teaches obedience from a young age, according to Ghannam. Missing prayer can result in lashes to the feet or detention by the moral police. Approaching unrelated women in public can lead to three days in jail. Ghannam said that as a teenager, he never spoke to women outside his family.

“It was too risky,” he said.

Ghannam’s family moved back to Damascus in 2007. While today he leads a liberal life, he said his family still practices the conservative lifestyle they grew accustomed to back in Saudi Arabia.

Anoud Souhail, a Syrian English literature student at the University of Damascus who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said that Syrians in Saudi Arabia often assimilate to the local culture.

“Some Syrian families I know in Saudi Arabia reorganised their houses to have two sitting rooms – one for men and another for women,” Souhail said.

Limited outlets
Life in Saudi Arabia has some enjoyable aspects, too.

Syrians living in Saudi Arabia enjoyed access to modern technology and fashionable cars. Even today, Syrian expatriates often show off their high-tech purchases when they come from the Gulf to visit their relatives in Syria.

“I had my first computer when I was in fourth grade in Saudi. Back then, computers, mobiles and internet, among other things, were not available in Syria. I used to feel that Syria was way behind civilisation,” Ghannam said.

In addition to his access to gadgets, Ghannam had a few social activities in Saudia Arabia that brought him enjoyment. For example, he enjoyed attending hunting trips in the desert with his school.

“Saudi Arabians are experts at hunting,” Ghannam said. “We used to hunt for jerboas (a desert-dwelling rodent with long hind legs), dhubs (a type of spine-tailed lizards) and locusts.”

Entertainment possibilities remain otherwise limited in Saudi Arabia, according to Syrians living there. Bitar said foreign embassies sometimes organise cultural events worth attending. Other than that, segregated visits to the beach, cafés and restaurants are the only social outlets. Women’s activities are restricted to shopping and to visiting female friends in their homes and they are prohibited from taking public transportation.

“Most Saudi women have a car with a private driver to take them around,” Souhail said. “As for Syrian and other Arab families, they mostly moved to Saudi Arabia to save money and cannot afford such luxuries. With no car at hand, women can only take taxis in groups or accompanied by a male relative or family friend.”

Foreign discrimination
While at an official level, foreigners are treated as equal to Saudi Arabians, Souhail said foreign workers, including Syrians, feel discriminated against by the Saudi society.

“In general, Saudi people never fail to highlight that you, as a foreigner, are working for them and they treat you accordingly,” she said. “My teachers at school used to think I was Saudi because I come from the Mushawwah family which is also famous in Saudi Arabia. When they found out I was Syrian, they treated me differently and started giving me bad scores at school.”

Ghannam, however, pointed out that only poorer school children face discrimination.

“Syrians who could afford to study at private schools did not face this kind of discrimination,” he said. Nevertheless, even affluent Syrians never fully assimilate. “Saudis are very loyal to their community. If there is an argument, they always side with the Saudi against the foreigner, regardless of who was wrong.”

A policy issued in 1995 capped the number of foreign workers and also limited certain positions to Saudi Arabians.

“No matter how highly educated a Syrian is, he will never be promoted to a leading position in his company,” Souhail, the student in Damascus, asserted. But, she added, the high salaries mean she may return to Jeddah after graduating.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

The Chance to Learn

Authorities are working to increase oversight of drought victims to ensure that children attend school. Challenges, however, persist.

Drought victims in Syria - photo by Adel Samara

Drought victims in Syria - photo by Adel Samara

Upon arrival at Sa’sa camp, set up by drought victims 50 kilometres south-west of Damascus, children ran from their tents, greeting outsiders with shouts of joy. They are used to posing for cameras and are well-accustomed to media exposure.

Away from the crowd of giggling children stood a 13-year-old girl with striking green eyes and tense features. Dalila al-Hamad said she was no longer interested in curious journalists. She had other concerns. School was in session, and for the fifth year in a row, she was not attending.

“I want to go to school and make friends,” Dalila said. Instead of studying, her parents instructed her to go and work on a farm, picking vegetables and carrying stones for a salary of SYP 250 (USD 5.43) per day.

Dalila’s parents would send her and her siblings to school if their poverty did not demand otherwise, her brother, Abd al-Razzak al-Hamad, said.

“We are a family of 10,” the 22-year-old Abd al-Razzak said. “Luckily, I managed to finish high school but my brothers and sisters couldn’t. Like all the other adults in the camp, my parents know how important it is for the children to study and get a diploma but they also know that unless the children work, we’ll all die of hunger.”

Loopholes in the Education Law

Education in Syria is mandatory through sixth grade and, if children leave school, officials are tasked with looking for them and returning them to the classroom. Parents who take their children out of school face penalties and even jail.

However, as the number of drought-affected families and immigrants increase, tracking the dropout of school children is becoming unfeasible. Loopholes in the law, bad planning and lack of awareness left hundreds of children out of schools in 2010.

As many as 60,000 drought-affected families have migrated from the Jazeera area to camps throughout Syria, according to a 2009 UNICEF report. Most families left their land in 2008 as a result of several consecutive years of drought.

According to Mohammad al-Masri, director of primary education at the Ministry of Education, the ministry’s branches in the Jazeera region of north-east Syria are responsible for tracking down children from drought-afflicted areas who have moved to Damascus and not the branches located in the capital.

“When the Hassakeh branch, for example, finds that children have dropped out, it is responsible for searching for them and then writing to other branches to take action,” Masri explained. If found, the children are enrolled in an intensive study programme in regular public schools, he said.

Divided families

Drought-induced poverty also breaks up family structures, another barrier to ensuring that children affected by drought are educated. Migrations make it difficult for the government to track the location of children and ensure that they are being schooled.

Aida al-Ali and her husband, who live in Sa’sa, own a 20-hectare farm back home in Hassakeh in the north-east. They abandoned it two years ago when it became too dry to grow crops. Because she has no means to support her children in the camp, last year she sent her two children, aged four and five, back to Hassakeh to live with their grandparents. Now, she struggles to feed her newborn baby.

“I want my children to go to school because I don’t want them to suffer the way I do,” Ali said. “The worst of all is that they are growing up away from me. I cry every day and pray for the rain to come and the diesel prices to go down so I can go back to my farm in Hassakeh and to my children.”

Educational barriers

Children living in camps who are able to attend school also struggle. Because they are displaced, the children have difficulties understanding their teacher’s dialect, Mohammad Ali al-Jadaan, an 11-year-old who moved with his family from Deir ez-Zor in the north-east to Sa’sa last year, said. Furthermore, school does not replace work. After they finish studying and on weekends and holidays, the children must work in the fields.

“I clear weeds with my brothers after school,” Jadaan said.

As he held his three-year-old brother on his hip, Jadaan explained proudly that his high grades at school earned him first place in his class. Yet when asked about his classmates, the bright-eyed boy’s face took on a look of concern.

“They don’t like me and they keep mocking me because I come from Deir ez-Zor and I live in a camp,” he said.

In addition to the language difficulties and an unwelcoming atmosphere, the living conditions in the camp cause health problems which prevent the children from attending class regularly.

“The tents are so thin that in winter children have flu every other day,” Abd al-Razzak al-Hamad said. As the only camp resident who can read and write, he said he is responsible for bringing the children to the hospital.

Aid Programmes

Attempts are being made to improve the lives of people impacted by drought.

On January 18, Tamer al-Hijeh, minister for local administration, put together a special group tasked with investigating the reasons behind the mass migration by drought victims and making field visits to camps and to the areas affected.

The Syrian government is also organising a special aid programme that provides food and water to farmers in the governorates of Hassakeh, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Qamishle.

Once families migrate, however, they are no longer eligible for aid. Press officers at the Ministry of Agriculture said the purpose of this stipulation is to dissuade people from leaving their lands permanently and settling down elsewhere. With no official body responsible for those who are affected by the drought, Syria Today could not obtain official comment on this issue.

Even though aid is provided in Hassakeh, Abd al-Razzak al-Hamad’s said that life in the camp is better for his family.

“Back in Hassakeh, we only had running water every five days so we had to buy 25 litres of water from tankers for SYP 250 (USD 5.43). We didn’t have sanitation facilities either and we couldn’t find work and we had so many bills to pay,” he said. “At least here all the family members can work and we can manage.”

The constant demand to make ends meet, however, leaves children with little hope for an education that will provide them with future opportunities.

“Even though children who leave school for more than five years can still enrol in an intensive educational programme until age 18, it’s seldom the case that children who leave school return,” a teacher at a public school in Damascus said. “Once children enter the workforce, there’s no way back to school.”

A modified version of this article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Trying to Fit in (Muslims in Denmark)

In 1971, Syrian writer Fahmy al-Majid moved to Denmark. Today, he is a published author, with several books and articles about Islam and Muslim integration in Denmark.

He now lives in a comfortable home in Copenhagen with his Danish wife. Inside, the décor is a mix of Bedouin tent carpets and IKEA-style Western furniture. On the walls hang a mixture of religious symbols, ranging from an adorned crescent to a smiling Buddha. Majid said he emphasises a variety of religions because he wanted his children to learn tolerance at an early age and be familiar with both their parents’ cultures.

“I’m Muslim and my wife is Christian,” Majid said. “All my children speak Arabic and are familiar with their origins. Religion and nationality have never been an issue in this house.”

Turn of events
Majid said he regrets that the same is not true throughout Denmark since the September 11 attacks on the US. After the event, Majid said he collected news reports on attacks on Muslims in Denmark and counted more than 70 incidents. When compared to the population of Denmark, this is a higher percentage than the attacks against Muslims in the US, he said.

Muslims in Denmark comprise about 4 percent of the country. The number of Syrians among them – or in the country’s Christian and other communities – totals 4,000 according to Christina Markus Lassen, Danish ambassador to Syria. Most arrived in the 1970s, in hope of better living conditions, and in the early 1980s and 1990s, seeking political asylum, Bilal Asaad, financial manager of the Scandinavian Waqf (an Islamic trust), said.
According to Naser Khader, a Syrian-Palestinian member of the Danish parliament, assaults on his community were exascerbated because it is small and insular.

“There are only 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, which has a population of 5m. Some Danes have never seen a Muslim,” Khader, who was the first Danish of Arab descent to join the parliament, explained. “They only see Muslims in the news. They see Muslim terrorists taking hostages and this causes Islamophobia.”

Latifa, a 26-year-old woman who wears the hijab and studied economics at university said she faced seclusion in both social and employment settings.

“Danes are open with you as long as you are not a practicing Muslim,” she said. “But if you are religious, as I am, then you feel excluded.”

A meeting held following September 11 by Hizb al-Tahrir (The Liberation Party) – an Islamic political organization that seeks to unite all Muslims in a caliphate whose Denmark branch was legally established in the Middle of the 1990s– to announce its support for Osama bin Laden only further strengthened the image of Muslims as terrorist. The group is considered radical and fringe and most Muslims take pains to distance themselves from it.

Propaganda against Islam
Majid said the Danish media helps to perpetuate misinformation and prejudice against the country’s Muslims. He said the press blames Muslim immigrants for economic problems and disproportionately covers extremist Islamic groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir, which openly supports Osama bin Laden.

Danish journalist and writer Kare Bluitgen disputed this claim, saying that the media distinguish between Muslim extremists and ordinary people.

“Most people say that’s ok. We know terrorists from Western Europe too. We used to have them, we have them. I don’t think the media is as bad as it’s common to say,” Bluitgen said. “You always find mistakes. I think in general they do a good job. You have to tell your audience that we are not talking about Muslims, we are talking about a very little minority inside the minority of Muslims in Denmark.”

According to Soren Espersen, a member of the right-wing Dansk Folkspartei and supporter of Denmark’s current conservative government, it is political Islam that he and his allies consider threatening, not all Muslims. But his party holds some of its own extreme views. It has called for a ban on all Arab satellite channels, which he claimed call for viewers to “hate the Western world”. It also voted to ban the niqab face veil in Denmark. Most extreme was his party’s proposal that Muslim immigrants be shown video footage of women’s bare breasts before allowing them into the country to make sure they are “moderate”.

Such prejudicial proposals have a deep effect on second-generation Muslim children, Asaad, the Waqf financial manager, said. “[Children] feel they are refused by the only society they know.”

To help the children better adapt, the organisation has created integration courses for 7- to 12-year-old children.

“Many Muslim immigrant children in Denmark feel torn and don’t know whether they are Danish, Syrian or Muslim,” He explained. “We are trying to help them work out that they are all three.”

Cartoon controversy
Any discussion about relations between Muslims and the wider Danish community must address the notorious cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005.

I interviewed Kare Bluitgen, whose failed search for an illustrator to draw the prophet for his children’s book The Koran and the Life of the Prophet Mohammad prompted the newspaper to publish the cartoons.

He said that Muslims in Denmark used peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the images’ publication. The event also prompted debate and better understanding of Islam, he added.

“The majority of Muslims were very calm,” Bluitgen said. “They just said don’t buy that stupid paper.”

Likewise, he added, other than some rogue politicians and journalists, average Danes are not prejudiced towards the country’s Muslim community. “”In Copenhagen every third of the pupils is Muslim. My daughter has almost only Muslim friends today. Daily life is different from politics,” he said.

Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council also believes people’s approach to Muslims is changing. “Statistics  show that the number of Muslims who feel discriminated against is going down,” Kamm said. “It is a private matter if you have one or another religion. If you have this kind of clothes or another kind of clothes. Who cares?  I would say 75 percent of the Danes do not care.”

Further, the cartoon crisis helped increase employment from 47 percent to 70 percent among Danes of Muslim origin, Syrian-Danish MP Khader said.

“I know an employer who before the cartoons never hired Muslims. For him a Muslim equals trouble. But after the crisis he realised that Muslims here are democratic people who respect freedom,” Khader said. “After the cartoon crisis Danish people realized that there are different types of Muslims. Before the cartoon crisis they only knew one type, the extremist one.”

In Syria, however, the Danish and Norwegian embassies were burned down by angry protestors, and the governments of both countries condemned Syria for what they called “failing its international obligations” to stop the arsen. According to Espersen from the right-wing party, however, the Syrian government was “a great help” at the time of the crisis.

“The government in Syria was not engaged in the boycotting of Danish products as they were in Saudi Arabia, for example,” Espersen said. “They [the Syrians] realized this is something that the Danish government or the parliament can do nothing about. That was a very difficult task to explain to many governments in the Muslim world but never to Syria. They knew if our prime minister had said these cartoons are now forbidden he’d be finished.”

While Syria restored calm towards Denmark internally, Asaad from Waqf said that it should do more to change the view of Syria and Islam abroad.

“A country like Syria should direct its cultural office in the embassy to organise lectures to try to bring points-of-view closer to each other and explain why Muslims reacted this way,” Asaad said, referring to the burning of the embassies. “All Arab countries neglected their duty to change the stereotype of our countries as a big desert filled with terrorists. Denmark is the one that made a move to change its image and better understand Muslims.”

Today, Denmark and Syria collaborate mainly on environmental and humanitarian issues. Denmark provides important support for Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Syria and the Danish Red Cross and Refugee Council are active throughout the country.

Though Majid said he feels second-generation immigrants from Muslim-majority countries such as Syria still face discrimination, he believes Denmark is his children’s home country.

“I’m Syrian and no matter how long I live in Denmark I’ll still be primarily Syrian and then Danish,” Majid said. “But my children were born in Denmark and they will always be Danish first and Syrian second.”

A shorter version of this article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A: Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council

Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council comments on the integration of Muslims in Denmark.


Andreas Kamm


Do you think it is harder for practicing Muslims to integrate into Danish society?

I am sad to say yes. Statistics, however, show that the number of Muslims who feel discriminated against is going down. Still, some Muslims say they feel that others have problems with them because of their religious beliefs and because they signal that they are Muslims.

How can Denmark change that?

I think that Danish politicians have a great responsibility. We need to work against creating a picture of the Muslim world as an enemy. Maybe 15 to 20 percent of the Danish people tend to say yes, [the Muslim World] is dangerous. So leadership from the politicians would be much welcome from our side.

What do you think of the right-wing Dansk Folkspartei’s call for a ban on the niqab face veil and all Arab satellite channels in Denmark which they claimed keeps Muslims’ focus on their own affairs and prevents them from integrating into Danish society?

It is counterproductive. You can not force people to change their minds from one day to the next. Why should they? It is a private matter if you have one or another religion. If you have this kind of clothes or another kind of clothes. Who cares?  I would say 75 percent of the Danes don not care.

Denmark has recently introduced a new immigration law with stricter requirements for would-be immigrants. What do you think of the changes?

Actually we do not like it because it is so restrictive trying to keep people out of Denmark. I think that there is a very negative rhetoric performed by some politicians in Denmark. Dansk Folkspartei, for example, has a very negative influence on the immigration process in Denmark. And the reason why the party is so negative is purely political. We are moving towards an election so they [the politicians] cook up a lot of strange things to prepare for the election.

Q&A with Journalist and Photographer Doha Hassan

I sat down with journalist Doha Hassan to discuss what motivated her to create an exhibition on drought victims at Cham Mahel art café in the Old City of Damascus.

How did the idea of the exhibition come about?

According to UN statistics, 60,000 families from the north-east have been forced [since 2006] by the ongoing drought to migrate to urban areas. A journalist friend from the Jazeera area suggested that I and two other journalists go and teach the children of this area to read and write. So we went. It was an individual initiative by us, so families there were sceptical at first. They didn’t allow their children near us because they thought we wanted to kidnap them and sell their organs. After going there several times and accepting cups of coffee in their tents, they finally began to trust us. We’ve been giving weekly classes to the children for four months now. They wait for us and run to greet us every week. I took a lot of photos and put them on Facebook. The owner of Cham Mahal art café saw the photos and suggested I make an exhibition in his café. My instinct was to refuse. I’m a journalist and not a professional photographer. But as we were planning to start a media campaign to raise awareness about drought victims in Syria, the exhibition seemed like an appropriate starting point.

Your exhibition, Temporary, aims to support the victims of drought and raise public awareness of the issue. Has it achieved its goal?

The exhibition attracted considerable media attention. In addition to all major Syrian media outlets, regional publications like Lebanon’s daily Al-Hayat and international ones like the BBC covered the exhibition. I sold enough photographs to cover the exhibition’s basic expenses and I will spend any profits to support the drought victims. I also printed postcards of my photos that were sold during the exhibition. I’ll continue to sell the postcards at Cham Mahal and Itana library after the exhibition.

How are you supporting the drought victims?

We are buying them basic food elements and notebooks and colors for the children. Apart from the exhibition, we also organized a facebook campaign and asked people to donate clothes. The response was huge and we got tons of second-hand clothes.

Why have you called your exhibition temporary?

Because I hope that the drought victims’ current refuge is only temporary. It simply can’t go on for long. Each of the drought affected families has 5 to 6 children. If these grow in poverty without proper education and a safe home, they’ll end up as criminals and thieves.

When attending an exhibition about drought victims stuck in the desert, you’d imagine photos that reflect the blazing sun and the hot colors of the desert. Instead you chose to print your photos in black and white giving a rather cold and old feeling to your works. Why is that?

I wanted my photos to resemble raw footage rather than art works. By that, I wanted to give a sense of documentation. I also believe that black and white brings out the details in a photo.

What is your next step?

We want to  provide greater media exposure to drought victims. We hope that the campaign will encourage more people to help. In the long run, we hope that government organisations will help us because, after all, we are only individuals. It’s not easy to achieve change alone.

How will you ensure the continuity of your campaign?

We’ve developed a moral commitment to these children. These four and five year olds run to greet us every week. They overwhelm us with affection. They haven’t seen anything in their lives other than tents, water barrels and scorpions. They regard us as their window to the world. Once you see that hope in their eyes, you simply can’t step back.

This is a modified version of the Q&A published in Syria Today magazine.

Sverige med andra ögon

Journalisten Nadia Muhanna från Syria Today Magazine är på Sydsvenskan för att studera opinionsbildning i sociala medier. Och ser på Sverige utifrån – med lite häpen blick.

Här är hennes intryck:
Nadia Muhanna_Sydsvenskan

It´s 25° in Damascus and I’m packing the warmest clothes I have, happy to get away from this hot weather to cold Scandinavian Stockholm. Getting there however, I’m all in sweat again and I meet Arabs all over the city. Syrians smile at me in the shops, Iraqi waiters greet me with “marhaba”, and a Lebanese couple, who I randomly meet in an Arab restaurant serving falafel and Kebab, invites me for lunch. I almost feel home.

I quickly discover that the Swedish-Arab population’s presence in Sweden is more than loud Arab greetings and delicious falafel. They are present in the country’s political scene. Photos of Abir Sahlani, an Iraqi Swedish candidate running for the European Parliamentary elections fill the streets of Stockholm as well as small posters reading “Boycott Israel”.

An exhibition by a Swedish Arab artist in Stockholm’s Moderna Museet also touches upon important Arab issues such as the Palestinians’ right of return and movement within Palestine. In her exhibition, the artist tells how she visited houses in Israel and paid bills on behalf of Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and some Arab countries because they are not allowed into Israel to do so.

Sweden’s cultural scene is no different. Museums like the Vasa Museet have flyers in Arabic, Arab artists give regular concerts and Swedish discos’ DJs remix Arab songs.

But despite of the Arab population’s presence in Sweden’s daily political, social and cultural scene, to what extent are they actually integrated into the Swedish society?

The growing popularity of the Sweden Democrats political party that calls for the restriction of immigration and encourages the repatriation of immigrants means immigrants are not that welcomed. In fact, many immigrants suffer unemployment and segregation in Sweden.

According to Quick Response, an independent part of the Swedish Red Cross that investigates how the Swedish newsmedia report on immigration and integration issues, even those immigrants who actually have the Swedish nationality are often perceived as “others” rather than Swedes. The best way to bridge this gap between immigrants and Swedes is by a better presentation of immigrants in the Swedish media. According to Quick Response, following the Caricature Crisis, only a small percentage of people interviewed by the Swedish media were actually Muslims or Arabs.

To achieve a better understanding between the two cultures, the best way is probably for the Swedish media not to talk about the immigrants. Rather, talk to them.

Published in Sydsvenskan morning newspaper’s blog on 4 June 2009. You can see a screenshot of it here.

Sewing for the Future

A report on how one woman’s love for fashion has brought hope to many.

For Heike Weber, the delicate and colorful stitching of traditional Levantine clothing was love at first sight. “I feel that the embroideries represent a letter from the past that I was eager to read,” says Heike, a German national fascinated with the individual story behind each article of traditional clothing.

Heike wanted to find a clothing business that fuses traditional Levantine styles and embroideries with contemporary fashions.   So in 1988 she founded Anat, which does just that.  But what she didn’t expect was the impact that Anat has had on the lives of many low-income families.

Under the financial auspices of Anat, Heike has created several programs to teach poor and uneducated women in the region the basics of traditional embroidery, giving them the means to develop their creativity while also offering them a steady flow of income. Beginning with just 20 employees,  Anat now employs well over 600.

Heike goes to remote Syrian villages like Jabal al Hoss, located north of Aleppo, teaching residents the secrets of traditional embroidery and giving them a chance to work on her trendy clothes, bags and shoes.   Then she sells the works that they help make.  Some of the works from Jabal Al Hoss, a village known for its poverty, were so special to Heike that she displayed them as art. They were showcased at the German cultural center and in “Ruaa”, a new art gallery in Jaramana. “What struck me most about their works were the vivid colors they used,” Heike says, “even though they live in a very harsh and colorless environment.”

Anat has also gone out of its way to help refugee children.   In 1994, Heike entered a partnership with a school in Norway, in which Norwegian students learning about the history of Palestine spent 10 full days with refugees, learning about their lives, living conditions and heritage, as well as donating money and gifts.   By the end of the program, firm bonds had developed.  “The Palestinian children really liked the Norwegian students a lot,” Heike says. “They felt they had friends to wait for every year.”

With these successes, Heike has taken Anat international. As a volunteer with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), she gave workshops for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which resulted in a fashion show in 1995.  With the help of GTZ, a German -owned company, Anat developed a handicrafts project in Jordan  in 2001. She visited several villages around the country and taught women to make handicrafts, which they then sold to make a living.  The results have had a lasting impact, she believes.  “Some of my students have continued the work after I left Jordan,” she says. “They are even giving courses to help other villagers.”

Heike has also held her own fashion shows in Europe, America, the Far East and the Arab world.  Tourists coming to Syria love stopping by Anat’s store which opened in 2006 near Bab Sharki. Her clothes have even attracted the eye of celebrities: word on the street has it that Asmaa-Al Assad, President Bashar Assad’s wife, has taken a liking to the organization’s fashions.

Despite the accomplishments, Heike has also encountered suspicion among locals.   Some have criticized her efforts to modernize traditional Levantine fashions and said that it distorts their heritage.  But she begs to differ. “I didn’t fundamentally change the traditional clothes,” she explains. “instead I adjusted them in a way that suits our daily lives and attracts young people.”

Regardless of these complaints, the project has been a tremendous success. As a result of Anat’s work in Jabal Al Hoss, for example, residents there were able to make a library with donated books. “The books give these people an opportunity to continue learning after they have finished school,” says Heike , adding that they wouldn’t have had such an opportunity otherwise. The tiny village is also currently collecting money to buy a bus to take the village’s children to their school, which is a long and uncomfortable walk from the village.

In the future, Heike hopes to expand the reach of Anat’s fashions as well as the philanthropic services associated with the business. “I hope to widen the range of our work and to give our knowledge to as many as we can,” she says with a smile. ” I hope that Syrian handicrafts in general become an international trademark that people are proud to wear”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Issue no. 26