Refugees’ voices need to be heard
During the summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Mouayed El Fallah through UH’s Language and Culture Center. He had recently arrived in Houston from Libya, where a civil war had been going on for three years. When most of the other students didn’t pronounce his real name correctly, he decided to go by Mike.
The 18-year-old struck everyone as an interesting guy; most boys his age could not hold a conversation that well, especially not a political one. He told me a little about himself and his life back home.
In 2011, when a revolution broke out in Libya against the leader at the time, Muammar Gaddafi, El Fallah’s life turned upside down. In his own words, “My life stopped when the revolution started.” These anti-Gaddafi manifests were part of the protests that later became known as the Arab Spring.
El Fallah is one of at least 16 million people displaced by the wars following the Arab Spring. These include refugees from Syria, Libya, Iraq and other figures of the Arab world.
But he doesn’t consider himself a refugee. Instead, El Fallah talks about his misadventures in the most optimistic manner.
“For refugees, it’s worse. They don’t have a home they can go back to,” he said. “At least I have my family.”
A Country in Flames, a Boy Lost
Libya’s civil war impacted Mike and hundreds of thousands of people who experienced the daily atrocities of the revolts. In 2014 alone, 100,000 Libyans were displaced by clashes.
El Fallah’s teen years were marked by dreadful sightseeing.
“I saw military people holding guns. I could see the anger in (their) eyes. I went back home, and my mom was crying,” he said. “People were dying, getting killed. There were snipers on the roof, they didn’t care. People with AKs shooting, my house’s rooftop filled with bullet holes.”
As high school started for Mike, the revolutions ended. As they ended, the civil war came.
“It was the people against the people. Everyone was armed, students killing each other. Kids shooting teachers, teachers shooting kids. My high school principal was stabbed.”
After a while, the war became the norm. Mike said that living in conflict simply changes everything about you, from your perception of the world to the way you treat others.
“You know there is something wrong with you when there are people killing each other and you can sleep at night.”
El Fallah says that the war kept from him more than just his beloved country. It took away part of his childhood and much of his sensibility.
“You guys laugh a lot here. In my country, if you laugh for no reason, you’re weak. You can die for that laugh. We don’t have time for childhood. I never did.”
Even Mike’s family, with whom he tries to maintain a daily contact, now remains in a far away dimension for him.
“After so long, you stop caring. If you’re going to die today, you’re going to die today. I stopped feeling a lot of things,” he said. “I love my family, but I don’t get those feelings of missing people anymore.”
The Broader Issue
Most recently, Syria’s refugee crisis has received more attention than other countries’. More than 8 million people have been displaced due to the current internal conflicts.
In September, the Obama administration said it would increase the number of refugees accepted into the U.S. yearly from 70,000 to 100,000, a measure that could open doors to many hopeful Syrians.
As much as it sounds like a big step towards solving the problem, it only masks the real issue: Syria’s problems, as much as Mike’s Libya’s, are happening internally. Sheltering these refugees only solves part of it.
“Over there (in Libya), you die, and no one will remember you. Here, you can be remembered. There’s opportunity. People appreciate education here, but not there,” he said. “People here take things for granted. This is heaven.”
As much as it seems like a long history to take in, one thing is certain: The thousands of people with experiences like El Fallah’s coming into the U.S. and other nations worldwide need to be seen, heard and welcomed.
They need to feel that. For them, this truly is a land of opportunity.
Opinion Columnist Luiza Braga is a print journalism senior and may be reached at [email protected]