Twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi grew up surrounded by poverty in Tunisia. With the death of his father at the age of 3, and subsequent illness of his stepfather after his mother remarried, he was forced to work at an early age to help provide income for his family. His family’s situation prevented him from obtaining a college degree or pursuing life interests. He worked on the streets of Tunisia selling produce and goods from a cart. This was his livelihood; he did it with honor and pride because it meant supporting his loved ones.
As the case is in most third world countries, the majority of the police force, judicial system and municipalities are filled with corrupt individuals. Harassment and blackmail of the ordinary citizen is a common everyday occurrence that can only be avoided by bribery. On many occasions Mohamed would be forced to give money to local policemen to avoid having his cart confiscated and livelihood of his family destroyed. There was no recourse of action to take, there was no appeal and no way to lodge a complaint. One either paid the bribe or risked everything.
Every person eventually reaches their limits when it comes to abuse and mistreatment. That day came for Mohamed, after being humiliated and robbed so many times, the despair and anger led him to take his own life. He did not quietly commit suicide, he wanted to send a message, he wanted to spark the emotions of people and draw attention to the unjust life his government was forcing upon him. He lit himself on fire in the street market where his produce cart had just been confiscated.
People watched in horror as the flames engulfed his body, some tried to help but their attempts proved futile. A few weeks later, Mohamed died from the burn injuries he sustained. The entire country was outraged. People took to the streets in mass protests. Soon the entire country was staging a revolution that would lead to the removal of their corrupt president and pave the way for a free election.
Little did Mohamed know that his actions would not only spark a revolution in his own country, but across the entire region in what was to be known as the Arab Spring. Citizens in country after country began protesting against their dictators. Some dictators fell, others clung to power. In Syria, citizens felt that same duty — they too were fed up with having a corrupt government, so a revolution was under way in Syria as well.
Due to the cold relationship between Syria’s president and the United States, Western powers were very supportive of a change of regime in Syria. So unlike protests in other MENA countries, this was fueled with weapons and arms supplied by foreign countries. The situation in Syria quickly turned from a revolution against a dictator to an all-out civil war funded by foreign countries. While both the ruling dictator Assad and the foreign funded parties fought for control of Syria, the casualties of this civil war became the Syrian citizens. Neither Assad nor the West cared about the innocent lives being taken.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians died, millions fled and an entire nation rich in history was destroyed. The Syrian refugees became the living symbol of this civil war. They flocked by the millions to the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and even Iraq and Palestine. Some were fortunate to obtain asylum or legal immigration to European, Asian or North American countries but the over whelming majority were not. Cities built with tents began to rise filled with nothing but refugees unable to assimilate into the countries they fled to, due to restrictions placed upon them by those countries.
Life as a refugee in a country which feels you are a burden is a difficult life. You are not granted the rights of ordinary citizens to improve your life nor are you given an opportunity for self-improvement with employment. Refugees are forced to come up with any means to sustain their living. Camps are overcrowded and under funded. They lack the basic life necessities such as running water, food, roads and electricity. Often times families share living quarters with 10 to 20 people residing in a place intended for 4 or 5. Obtaining water and food is a struggle.
While organizations like UNRWA and others have attempted to assist, life in a refugee camp will always be a struggle. Some refugees smuggle themselves out of the refugee camps and into the major cities of the countries to which they fled.
I recently visited Istanbul, a Turkish city filled with Syrian refugees. Some old, some young but each with the same horror story of leaving behind dead friends and family in Syria. Their journeys to Istanbul are filled with difficulty and danger. Once arrived in Istanbul, most were not welcomed with open arms. Turkish people have a sense of pride towards their culture and history and many feel that the influx of refugees will change their identity. Many stores in Turkey refuse to speak to you in anything but Turkish for fear of their language being replaced with Arabic. Lots of Landlords refuse to lease apartments to Syrian refugees and most employers will discriminate against Syrians or not hire them at all.
One of the Syrian refugees I met was a young man in his mid-20s, married with two children of his own and supporting four other relatives. He worked 10-12 hour days, six days a week with no benefits for roughly $300 a month. This does not even provide the basic needs for his family, but they survive. His wage is less than a quarter of what his Turkish peers would make for the same job. When I spoke with him he told me he felt lucky and blessed to at least have some sort of income.
The children in the streets of Istanbul are plenty. All wander attempting to sell simple items such as napkins, pencils or candy. Some cannot afford to buy those items to sell so they just ask for anything from any passerby. They wear the expressions of children robber of childhood; their faces tell an excruciating story without uttering a word.
On a day strolling through the city, I stopped and talked to young girl selling napkins. She told me how she came home in Syria to find her family dead from a barrel bomb that destroyed her home. Along with her grandparents she was forced out of her country. They made their way to Istanbul where they live as second-class citizens. She kept a smile on her face while talking to me and even offered some insight to the political world in general and why she was forced to be a refugee. Her experiences had matured her beyond her years, more than what any child her age should face.
It’s easy to point out that Assad should have just stepped aside during the revolution to prevent this catastrophe, as he is responsible for the blood of many innocent people, but one cannot ignore the western imperialistic powers that fueled the civil war. Between two power hungry sides — Assad and the West — the Syrian refugees have paid the price for this greed. Once a great nation and the capital of “el Shaam” or modern day Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, it has been reduced to a playground for the power hungry and greedy.
No one has Syria’s best interests at heart. Neither the politicians in Washington who use the dead and refugees as talking to points to further their agenda, nor the current regime of Assad who blames the civil war on foreign entities. Both just want power and control. While we are helpless when it comes to the battle ground in Syria, it is our responsibility as humans to assist the refugees and help them in any way we can.
Long after we are all gone, history will one day write the chapter of these refugees and the injustice they received while the world turned a blind eye.
Content posted to MyMPN open blogs is the opinion of the author alone, and should not be attributed to MintPress News.