‘I came here so I could talk,’ says Syrian NGO founder at Brussels III, despite limbo in Swiss asylum center


BRUSSELS: A longtime humanitarian worker and the founder of his own Lebanon-based NGO,
Ashraf Alhafny has spent the past seven months in a Swiss reception center for asylum seekers.

There, he sits among Eritreans, Somalis and Syrians, like himself, whose lives have been frozen in place by the borders they crossed for safety. There are people who have been stuck for years in "the camp," Alhafny said, waiting in the hope of refuge that may never come. One man he met has been in the camp seven years.

He doesn’t know what his own fate might be, Alhafny said.

“It’s very painful.”

Since 2005, Alhafny has worked to provide psychological support to refugee communities: first to Iraqi refugees in his native Damascus, then to fellow Syrians in neighboring Lebanon, after he fled there in fear of reprisals for his activism.

He found a semblance of home in Lebanon until one day last year when, after returning to Beirut from a meeting in Switzerland, he was stopped by Lebanese airport police.

“They told me, ‘You have two choices: either we turn you over to the Syrian regime, or you go back to the airport that you came from in Switzerland.’”

He’s been in limbo in Switzerland ever since.

This week, civil society actors and world leaders gathered at the "Brussels III" conference, hosted in the European Union’s headquarters, to raise humanitarian funds in response to the Syrian war.

Alhafny was skeptical at first when he received an invitation to attend. “I feel the European Union is trying to support reconstruction and renewing support to the Syrian regime,” he told Syria Direct’s Barrett Limoges on Wednesday morning ahead of a panel discussion.

But he came anyway, so that he could help “apply pressure” on an international community that he believes is turning its eyes from the plights of everyday Syrians—including those like himself whose lives and work are now hemmed in by the borders that keep them out.

“I came here...so that I could talk.”

Q: How did you get started with your civil society work?

Before I left to Lebanon I was working with the Red Crescent, with Iraqi refugees in a psychosocial support program in Syria. This was something very important to me. When there are constant crises and wars, people don’t always pay attention to the issue [of mental health].

I worked [in this field] from 2005 to 2011, when the Syrian revolution started. I took part in the civil activism and popular movements to the point that I actually had to leave Syria, and I moved to Lebanon at the end of 2011. There, I decided to work in psychosocial support programs for Syrian refugees.

I started to form a team and train them in psychosocial support techniques, until I founded a charity, which we named Lamsat Ward.

We were working with children and families in the camps: programs for them regarding civil rights, youth education and dialogue so that one day they could return to Syria as capable, stronger people.

Q: Can you talk about how you ended up in Switzerland?

At the end of June 2018, I got an invitation from the EU to speak about the topic of democracy in the region, and about my own experience. Afterwards, I went to Switzerland, where I had a meeting about Syrian civil society with the Swiss foreign minister.

When I finished, I flew back to Lebanon. At the airport in [Beirut], they stopped me despite the fact that I had legal papers and residency.

They told me, ‘You have two choices: either we turn you over to the Syrian regime, or you go back to the airport that you came from in Switzerland.’

I don’t have European or Swiss residency. The Lebanese police took me in the airport and accompanied me in the airplane until I arrived in Switzerland.

Because of my civil society activism in Lebanon, [the Lebanese authorities] banned me from re-entering the country. What could I do? My Syrian passport was about to expire, and in Switzerland, they told me that they wouldn’t be able to give me residency.

The only solution was for me to claim asylum. I had to stay in a camp, where I’m still living. I’ve been in this situation for seven months, and I don’t know my fate. It’s very painful.

Q: How were you able to come to Brussels for the conference?

I’ve been involved in civil society in Lebanon for a number of years, so I got an official invitation from the EU.

I wanted to come to the conference. That being said, the EU is trying to support reconstruction and renewing support to the Syrian regime. That’s what I feel. I hope that I am wrong.

So I came here despite the [visa] difficulties so that I could talk, to say that we want attention on Syrian detainees, that reconstruction under the Syrian regime is like giving the regime a prize for detaining people and making them homeless. This is a very huge shame on the part of the EU. I believe that at this conference we can try to apply some pressure.

Q: What are your thoughts regarding the fact that EU countries at this conference are discussing protection and rights, and yet you’re facing problems with your own freedom of movement in Switzerland?

There are many people stuck in the camp in Switzerland, and they come from many countries: Eritrea and Somalia and others.

There are people who have been given rejections. I know one person who, after four years of being stuck [in the camp in Switzerland], was denied [asylum].

I met someone who spent seven years here and then got rejected. He requested to return to Switzerland so that they could put him in prison. I hear many stories that make me feel as if I’m not really in Switzerland.

Q: Personally, what would you like to see come out of the Brussels III Conference?

What I’m hoping for is for there to be pressure on the governments, and to give protection to the refugees. Lebanon says, ‘There are some safe areas, let the refugees return!’ But this is terrible—protection [is needed] for refugees, as voluntary returns are not [necessarily] safe.

Yesterday, there was discussion on the topic of youth and their capabilities. I was trying to raise my hand to say something: ‘The youth are capable, but they need to be protected.’

Madeline Edwards contributed to reporting from Amman.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.