asylum · asylum seekers · human rights · interview · investigation · Investigative

Australian government concedes evidence against asylum seeker was obtained by torture as featured in The Guardian

Sayed Abdellatif
 Exclusive: Sayed Abdellatif is still held in detention in Sydney even though immigration minister Peter Dutton was briefed 18 months ago that evidence used in Egypt to convict him was discredited

Where once he could wave to his family through a wire fence, he has been told by guards – without explanation – that the behaviour was a security risk and prohibited.

Now the only time he has with his wife and six children are the crowded hours spent in the overfull and noisy visitors’ area of Villawood detention centre in Sydney; a cavernous and impersonal room where guards wearing black vests and body cameras with listening devices quietly loiter to electronically eavesdrop on conversations. His children must wear brightly coloured wristbands to see him. The wristbands mean they can leave. His wrists are bare.

Abdellatif has watched hundreds of asylum seekers pass through and out of detention: granted bridging visas, protection visas, some deported. He has seen people set themselves on fire in detention, hang themselves and stab each other. Sniffer dogs invade rooms without notice seeking out drugs.

Abdellatif doesn’t count the days – 1,643 – he has been in held immigration detention. He knows broadly it is four-and-a-half years and he knows he remains no closer to a resolution of his case than the day he arrived in Australia.

In that time, he has seen four Australian prime ministers come and go. He follows politics closely and jokes darkly he may see many more. He has not been charged, nor accused of any crime in Australia.

His detention has been condemned by the UN human rights council as illegal, a “clearly disproportionate… deprivation of liberty” from which he should be released and for which he should be compensated; excoriated by the Australian Human Rights Commission as “arbitrary … and unjustified”; and criticised by the Australian government’s own inspector general of intelligence and security for its “lack of coordination and … urgency”

Four times the department has recommended to successive ministers that he be allowed apply for a protection visa. He remains in detention.

Now, new documents obtained under freedom of information legislation reveal the government has known for nearly 18 months that the evidence used to convict Abdellatif in absentia in a mass show trial in Egypt in 1999 – the basis for his detention in Australia – was obtained “under severe torture” and is discredited.

A briefing paper read and signed by the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, in April 2015, two months after a Guardian story, states documents in possession of the department “raise concerns about the legitimacy of the trial”.

“Translations of supreme military court documents and signed statements from witnesses indicate that the evidence used against Mr Abdellatif in the Egyptian trial was obtained under torture.”

But the same document also shows the immigration department seeking to assure the immigration minister that Abdellatif can still be kept in detention without charge or trial, regardless of the legitimacy of his claim for protection.

Department officials recommended that Abdellatif be allowed to apply for a visa, so that it could then be denied to him and the process used to force him out of Australia.

“If Mr Abdellatif was permitted to lodge a valid TPV [temporary protection visa] application, it would be refused as he would not meet the criterion in the new subsection 36(1B) of the [migration] act (which refuses a visa to anyone judged by Asio to be directly or indirectly a risk to security).”

Officials recommended that Abdellatif be allowed to apply for a visa, so that it could then be denied to him

An asylum seeker cannot legally be removed from Australia before their claim for protection is assessed. Therefore, bureaucrats argue to the minister in the briefing, allowing Abdellatif to apply for a visa, only to then reject it, “provides the strongest basis for effecting removal as it reduces the risk of successful litigation and, therefore, is the proposed mechanism to assess Mr Abdellatif’s claims”.

The briefing contemplates approaching Egypt – the only country of which Abdellatif is a citizen or has a right to enter but also the country from which he seeks protection from persecution – to ask that country to request his extradition.

Egypt has made no effort to reclaim its citizen and the briefing notes “securing adequate diplomatic assurances cannot be guaranteed … until thorough consideration has been given to Mr Abdellatif’s security concerns and his specific claims including the risk of harm on return to Egypt”.

On 19 May 2015, the immigration minister granted the Abdellatif family leave to apply for temporary protection visas in Australia.

Abdellatif undertook 22 hours of interviews over four days with department officials in February and March 2016 but nearly a year later is no closer to finding out the outcome of his application.

Abdellatif has no recourse to any appeal while he is detained and while his case remains before the department. It has barely progressed, save for the growing mountain of paperwork that only serves to confirm the Kafka-esque stalemate he is in.

A spokesman for Asio – the agency that gave Abdellatif an “adverse security assessment” on the basis of the flawed Egyptian trial – told the Guardian: “Consistent with long standing practice, Asio does not comment on individuals.”

A spokeswoman said the department “does not comment on individual cases”.

Exile and detention

Abdellatif fled Egypt in 1992, having been tortured under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. In that year, he was arrested from a mosque by the state security investigations service as part of a crackdown on Islamic political opposition to Mubarak’s rule. Since fleeing his homeland, he has remained in exile from his country, living as a refugee in Albania, the UK, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia and – finally – Australia. All of his six children were born during that exile.

Abdellatif and his family arrived in Australia by boat in May 2012. The Australian government assessed his claim for protection and found that he and his family had a prima facie claim to refugee status.

The Egyptian supreme military court had sentenced him to 15 years in prison, for “membership of a terrorist group” and “providing forged travel documents”, relying on evidence obtained under “severe torture” including electric shocks.

The trial, criticised by rights groups at the time, was later found to have been fraudulent. A three-year Guardian investigation has shown multiple flaws in the case against him and Australia’s handling of that case.

But, beyond the arcane legal machinations, Abdellatif’s case had the misfortune to become a political firestorm at the height of 2013 pre-election debate over boat arrivals. The then opposition leader and later prime minister, Tony Abbott, labelled Abdellatif a “convicted jihadist” and a “pool-fence terrorist”, in reference to the low-security perimeter at the Inverbrackie detention centre in South Australia. George Brandis, now the attorney general but then the shadow attorney general, said he was “plainly a convicted terrorist”.

The Abdellatifs were moved to Villawood. There, Sayed Abdellatif remains. His case has hardly progressed and the systemic flaws in his detention have never been addressed by the department.

Separated

In a narrow booth in the visitors’ area of the detention centre, Abdellatif’s two eldest daughters fuss about him, spreading out cake and ma’amoul – a Middle Eastern date pastry – as he sips distractedly at a weak, milky tea served in a polystyrene cup.

His eldest son, now 13, bears a striking resemblance to his father. A child when he came to Australia, he is a young man now, sporting a stubble on his chin and quiet, defiant eyes. A younger brother, now six, can barely remember what it is like to live with his father.

The children are “doing very well, I am very proud”, Abdellatif says of their lives on the outside. But they carry the burden of their father’s incarceration too. School graduations, speech nights, Abdellatif has applied – and been rejected – to attend them all.

A life of exile – all of his children know only displacement – has bound the Abdellatif family tightly together: throughout their incarceration in Australia, members of the Abdellatif family have resolutely insisted they not be forcibly separated. But a bureaucratic sleight of hand saw the family’s situation transmogrify yet again.

Earlier this year, Villawood detention centre’s family compound – where Abdellatif’s wife and six children were housed – was overnight redefined as “community detention housing”.

While the security cameras that had watched them were disabled, and gates unlocked, the Abdellatif family remained in the same house but the change to their detention regime allowed the immigration minister to declare there were no longer any children in immigration detention in Australia.

Now ostensibly free, the change has, perversely, forced Abdellatif’s family further from him. The 10-minute internal route within Villawood that joined the family and the high-security compound is now sealed, forcing the family to thread their way through Villawood’s suburban streets on foot to see their husband and father, now a few hundred metres but an hour’s walk away.

Even in their brief moments of communion, there is a weariness about the Abdellatif family, a resignation that, even as they try to enjoy the few hours they have together as a family, they can never wholly forget their cloistered, confining surrounds.

Abdellatif’s is life spent in limbo, at the mercy of a bureaucratic caprice he can neither question nor predict. Still, after four-and-a-half years, he holds hope.

“I came to Australia not to fight with Australia but seeking protection,” he says. “I am a friend, not an animal.”

The indefinite nature of his detention wears on him, he explains, grinding down his spirit and triggering crushing bouts of depression that he must fight to pull himself from. Abdellatif’s treating psychologist and psychiatrist have both recommended to the government he be reunited with his family in the community “given the significant impact separation from his family in a held detention environment is having on his mental health”.

“I’m wasting my life in this place,” he says of his incarceration. “If I was sentenced, if I made a mistake, I’d pay the price. But I have done nothing wrong, I have nothing to hide.

“Even in jail they have a time, they know how long … but this system is killing hope.”

Abdellatif spends most of his days alone, in his room, a tight, airless cell with a toilet, a single bed and a chest of drawers, and from which, if he stands on a stool, he can see the outside world through a high sealed window. But the view is only of the detention centre’s water tank and the steel fences that hold him in.

Abdellatif speaks haltingly these days. His English, once strong, is getting worse with the isolation of his existence.

Now, he can barely be heard above the din of the visitors’ room. He leans in to speak, first glancing over his shoulder to see who – the guards wearing cameras can appear at any time – might be listening.

Here, we are nowhere, he says. And there are no rules.

“We are out of Australia. We are out of the world.”

 

ASIO · asylum · human rights

Sayed Abdellatif’s daughters realise HSC dream but have university hopes dashed- as featured in the Guardian

Front page of the Guardian Australia site.
Front page of the Guardian Australia site.

The immigration department refused to allow Sayed Abdellatif to attend his two eldest daughters’ graduation ceremony.

The contest to arrive at the Year 12 formal in the most spectacular “wheels” is happily embraced by students at high schools across Australia.

For Sayed Abdellatif’s two eldest daughters, it was no contest at all.

The girls arrived at their school formal in a car driven by their very own Serco guards, “like minor royalty”, as the running joke among classmates went.

“Nothing,” the older Abdellatif daughter says, “could be further from the truth”.

“The formal was a struggle,” she says. Special permission was required, strict conditions and curfews imposed; celebrations held under the watchful eye of the omnipresent security detail.

But at least they were allowed to go. “Simple things that are normal for everyone to do, for us it is a struggle.”

The girls are the first students to graduate from high school while incarcerated at Villawood detention centre, a remarkable achievement for two young women who have spent their childhood in the shadowlands of societies all over the world, or held in immigration detention.

Sayed Abdellatif in 1997, aged 26. Supplied.
Sayed Abdellatif in 1997, aged 26. Supplied.

The local New South Wales government school they attended, each day under the gaze of their guards, was the first they had ever set foot in in their lives.

For the two eldest Abdellatif daughters – whom Guardian Australia has chosen not to name or photograph because of their age – school was a dream, a chance at a future, and an escape from a fractured past in which they had known neither peace nor stability.

“It made me angry to see kids who had everything … but they didn’t appreciate it,” the older daughter says. “But it was really challenging, especially learning a whole new language and studying in that language.”

The girls are in Villawood because their father, 44-year-old Egyptian national Sayed Abdellatif, is being held in indefinite detention on a historical Interpol red notice issued in his name, dating from a 1999 mass show trial of 107 men in Cairo. The trial has since been discredited as politically motivated and based on evidence obtained by torture.
The girls are in Villawood because their father, 44-year-old Egyptian national Sayed Abdellatif, is being held in indefinite detention on a historical Interpol red notice issued in his name, dating from a 1999 mass show trial of 107 men in Cairo. The trial has since been discredited as politically motivated and based on evidence obtained by torture.

The girls’ HSC results will arrive imminently, but any hopes of furthering their education at university have been dashed.

The eldest daughter says she put in a request, through the immigration department, to go to university. “But immigration said ‘no, you can’t go to university, it’s a personal choice’ [the request is outside the department’s remit]”.

You have no freedom. Your life is on hold. The more you think about it the more powerless you feel.
Elder Abdellatif daughter

The girls are in Villawood because their father, 44-year-old Egyptian national Sayed Abdellatif, is being held in indefinite detention on a historical Interpol red notice issued in his name, dating from a 1999 mass show trial of 107 men in Cairo. The trial has since been discredited as politically motivated and based on evidence obtained by torture.

A Guardian investigation in 2013 found the major convictions made against Abdellatif – in absentia – were erroneous, and that the allegations were never even made against him in court. That investigation led Interpol to take the extraordinary step of removing those charges from the red notice.

The remaining lesser offences, of membership in a terrorist group (Egyptian Islamic Jihad) and providing forged travel documents, were secured using evidence obtained by torture, court documents show. Abdellatif denies the allegations.

Abdellatif, his wife and six children, the youngest of whom is five, have been in immigration detention in Australia since 2012.

Abdellatif, his wife and six children have been held in detention for more than three years without charge.
Arbitrary detention of Egyptian asylum seeker and his family is ‘clearly disproportionate’,  UN human rights council tells Australia. 

 

In 2014, the immigration department recommended to the minister that Abdellatif be granted a visa and released into the community; in the same year, an assessment by the inspector general of intelligence and security made clear he was not a danger to national security; and in June this year, the United Nations said his detention was illegal, indefinite and arbitrary, and directed Australia to release Abdellatif and compensate him for his wrongful detention.
However, while Abdellatif and his family have been allowed to submit paperwork in application for visas, there has been no known movement towards releasing them.

Despite repeated questioning from Guardian Australia over several months, the immigration department has consistently refused to comment on his case.

Abdellatif’s wife and six children have been offered community detention, but they have refused to leave Villawood without their father and husband, fearful he will never be released.

They will endure detention together until it is over, they say, with all of its indignities and deprivations.

 

Sydney's Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images
Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

Sayed Abdellatif cannot leave Villawood.

For his family, every move outside of its high steel fences – to school, to buy groceries, to doctors’ appointments – is made under the conspicuous escort of Serco guards.

This includes their daily visits through rings of security to see Sayed, housed in a separate high-security compound in Villawood.

The eldest daughter says the stress of separation, and the ongoing uncertainty over their futures, has cast a dark shadow over their school year.

She says she almost had a breakdown in the middle of her HSC trials.

“It’s like a rollercoaster. You pretend that everything is OK. Other days you lose it [and] just cry and scream.”

The girls say they can feel their family fracturing under the stress of their detention. Tempers flare often, and sometimes the children scream at each other, or sullenly retreat to their rooms.

“It’s just hard when everyone is in the same situation. [If] one of the family is feeling down, the whole family will follow,” the older daughter says.

The family survives by making jokes to lighten the burden but it doesn’t change the grim reality of a life in limbo.

“We make fun of everything. If you can’t really change it, then no point crying over it. But detention is still detention.”

The contrast between the relative normality of school – notwithstanding the ever-present security detail – and the capriciousness of secure detention is a daily struggle.

“It’s like you have two lives. When you come here [back to the compound] it’s like you are a different person.”

Villawood detention centre.
Access to computers and the internet has been sporadic. Picture: Flickr.

Motivation for school was often difficult to summon, the older daughter says.

“I always thought ‘don’t give up because it will pay off’. But some days I think ‘if it doesn’t get resolved, what’s the point of studying?’. ”

And studying in a detention centre was difficult: the girls had only sporadic access to a computer or printers.

The handful of desktop computers that sit in the communal area of Villawood’s family compound – among the young children running noisily amok and the ceaseless blare of televisions – are shared among dozens of detainees, and heavily restricted.

The younger daughter, who studied economics, says some websites she needed for her schoolwork were blocked, including her student emails that allowed her to access her marks and notes from teachers.

“It’s like a rollercoaster. You pretend that everything is OK. Other days you lose it [and] just cry and scream.”

“All economics websites are blocked. The RBA and the Australian banks are all blocked. That was very frustrating,” she says.

But school was an escape from those frustrations too, a release from the suffocating pressures of life in detention, and the uncertainties beyond. The two sisters say that often they found solace in schoolwork.

The Abdellatif family’s proudest moment this year was the girls’ graduation ceremony. But the occasion was bittersweet: the immigration department refused to allow Sayed Abdellatif to attend.

villawood
The girls’ exhilaration at graduating has been tempered by uncertainty around their future. Picture: Moyan Brenn/Flickr

“Since my daughters were young, I’ve always dreamed of seeing them wearing graduation gowns,” Abdellatif told Guardian Australia from detention. “I’m very proud of my daughters for their achievements, but I was also so disappointed that I was denied [permission] to join my family to see my girls graduate.”

The girls’ exhilaration at graduating has been tempered by the uncertainty around their future. Even after their HSC, the sisters have been regularly returning to school, seeking the routine and stability it provides.

They dream of going to university next year. The younger one knows already that she wants to be a lawyer.

But their continuing detention makes that an impossibility.

The young women watch their friends make plans for the future: for study, for travel and adventure.

“It’s like you can’t do anything with your life. You can’t plan your life and what you want because someone is controlling it,” the older daughter says.

“You have no freedom. Your life is on hold. The more you think about it the more powerless you feel.”

asylum seekers · human rights · journalism · media · politics · religion

Syrian refugee crisis: This is about humanity, not religion- as featured in ABC’s The Drum

My latest in ABC’s The Drum on the death of little Aylan Kurdi and government’s reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis. I haven’t reprinted the image- I think everyone has seen it already. Also here a great discussion on the debate around the publication of the distressing images.

To donate check out Bina Shah’s excellent blog and her latest post- In memory of Aylan Kurdi where she has links to organisations you can support.

Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria. Picture: Flickr/ Freedom House
Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria. Picture: Flickr/ Freedom House

The fact that the Government would pause in light of such a visceral tragedy to suggest that Australia should prioritise Christian refugees from Syria speaks volumes, writes Sarah Malik.

It was the picture that shocked the world.

A little boy lies face down on the beach. His still, lifeless body caressed gently by waves. His sandals are still strapped to his little feet. In his neat red shirt and little blue shorts, he could be sleeping or resting.

A Turkish police officer stands to one side, his shoulders hunched as if in prayer.

The discovery of Aylan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach last week cut a searing image in the conscience of the world. It tore through the ballast of politics, rhetoric and racialisation that continues to obscure one of the great humanitarian crises of modern times.

The little boy who perished along with his brother Galip and mother Rihan, one of 12 Syrian asylum seekers trying to reach Greece when their boat sank, represents the many thousands seeking safety and asylum as their country is torn apart by war and conflict.

The picture of the doll-like three-year-old on the beach has galvanised public opinion around the world, forcing even the Australian Government to outline its commitment to Syrian refugees. But the racialisation continues, with Barnaby Joyce calling for Syrian Christians to be prioritised in any asylum intake, a motion that has been echoed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Australia was recently criticised in the New York Times for a military response to asylum seekers which is shrouded in secrecy. This has been combined with bizarre border security campaigns including thefarcical ‘Operation Fortitude’, a proposal quickly scuttled after widespread ridicule.

The campaign purporting to subject Melbourne residents to random visa checks underscores a Government that will take advantage of any opportunity to represent itself as the strongman protecting us from the ‘illegal’ hordes threatening to destabilise Australia.

The fact that the Government would pause in light of such a visceral tragedy, blasted into public consciousness in such horrific fashion, to make a subtle distinction on the kinds of Syrian asylum seekers it would be willing to consider is callous.

It speaks to the depths it will go to in order to stoke fears of the brown Muslim hordes threatening our pristine white borders.

It doesn’t take much to read between the lines of random visa checks and the prioritisation of Christians. People like us only, please.

The image of Aylan underscores the vulnerability of those fleeing, their powerlessness in the face of a political and military machinery that punishes and paints them as threats. It is a powerful image that threatens the curtain of abstraction, silence and othering that has come to characterise the rhetoric around refugees.

This otherising of refugees, the destruction of their humanity, allows travesties such as our detention regime, regularly exposed as rife with reports of sexual assault, violence, suicide and depression to continue with impunity.

When it becomes a crime for employees to talk publicly about what happens in detention centres with the passing of the Border Force Act, when refugees live in fear of speaking to journalists, with access a constant issue, the result is an abstraction. It is an easy to demonise an abstraction.

Aylan’s picture has blazed onto the soul of the nation the reality of the human. This child’s death must inspire us to look beyond categories of race and religion and towards a common humanity.

The most powerful threat to an abstraction is the power of the singular. A child just like yours, with blue shorts and sandals.

As Persian poet Rumi said:

Not a Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen, Not any religion… first, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human being.

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-07/malik-syrian-refugees/6755696).

asylum seekers · human rights

Ramadan in Villawood- as featured in ABC’s The Drum

My latest feature in ABC’s The Drum.

Villawood detention centre.
Villawood detention centre.

Surviving Ramadan in Villawood

Feature: For many asylum seekers who experience a sense of hopelessness and isolation inside Villawood Detention Centre, Ramadan is a source of spiritual sustenance.

It’s iftar time in Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre.

Plastic containers bursting with hummus, tabouli, garlic sauce and kebab snake their way through security and are picked up by hungry fasting asylum seekers in the visitor’s centre.

In the open courtyard around 30 asylum seekers, mostly men, gather around tables piled with the food, exhaling plumes of smoke as they rub their hands together for warmth and wait for sundown.

As Muslims around the world sit down to huge feasts at Ramadan surrounded by loved ones, it’s a lonely and fraught affair for asylum seekers inside Villawood.

Street iftar in Turkey. Picture: Flickr/ Alper Orus
Street iftar in Turkey. Picture: Flickr/ Alper Orus

Asylum seeker Iqbal* says being away from family and friends has been tough. “It is very painful. Nothing is like home when it comes to Ramadan,” he said.

Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims who abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours, with an increased focus on devotion and prayer.

“It is a very holy month for us,” Iqbal said. “People who are not practicing other months, they become practising this month.”

For many asylum seekers who experience a sense of hopelessness and isolation inside, Ramadan is a source of spiritual sustenance.

“It is as important as seeing a mental health counsellor,” Iqbal said. He says many of the men who are reluctant to express themselves will openly cry during prayer.

“This is how we are still coping. That’s what’s keeping us alive, keeping us going, faith and belief in God.”

The asylum seekers are grateful for the delicious food delivered from outside, a welcome relief from the standard issue dinner.

The nightly deliveries facilitated by the Lebanese Muslim Association are funded by a rotation of private donors from the Muslim community.

Earlier in the month, food was not delivered because of limits around amounts allowed in, to be accompanied by a certain amount of visitors, Iqbal said.

“Sometimes we asked why there is no food came today. We found out later they were stopped and refused entry,” he said.

A LMA spokesperson said there were difficulties delivering food to the centre during the first few days of Ramadan.

“By now after all this time they (authorities) should know about this (Ramadan),” he said.

A recent rule change meant food was not allowed to be brought back into the private rooms of asylum seekers from the central visitors area, Iqbal said.

The rule fuelled wastage as fasting asylum seekers struggled to finish their allocation in a short period.

“(The idea being) we’ll let you bring in food but we won’t let you enjoy it,” Iqbal said.

“Little people have a little authority and they are just abusing it.”

In the centre, the men munch the food in the cold before returning to their rooms for solitary prayer.

Iqbal says a petition has been made for a room asylum seekers can gather in for congregational prayer.

“To cope in this situation we need that. When they make us pray alone in our rooms, we feel even more lonely and the toll becomes hard on us,” he said.

“They should provide a good facility because we are not criminals. We are not inmates.”

As night falls in Villawood, food containers are hastily packed as visitors say their final goodbyes and exit the mesh of wire and steel.

For those remaining, there is hope that someone, somewhere is listening, hoping, praying.

“We are the silenced ones. People don’t know about us,” Iqbal said.

A copy obtained of Villawood detention centre general manager Susan Noordink’s response to an official complaint made by fasting asylum seekers says standard conditions are being enforced.

“In regards to Ramadan food from the community, Islamic detainees have been advised that all standard conditions of entry will be in force,” Ms Noordink said.

“All community groups must abide by approved visits policy as provided by management and posted in notification in the Gatehouse and the visits area.”

The statement also said arrangements will be made to facilitate prayer areas for asylum seekers.

*Name has been changed at the request of the asylum seeker

RELATED LINKS

CHECK OUT: At work inside our detention centres: A guard’s story 

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-15/malik-ramadan-in-villawood/6621034).

Jordan · media · travel

Jordan reflections

Friends of mine have been curious to know what the people are like here and the political issues (besides the amazing food and stunning natural beauty, see video by my very talented friend The Graphical Baker ^).  I’ve been wary because  I don’t want to make generalisations. So disclaimer- here are some observations based on my limited experience and interactions here.

Money /The Government/Wasda

There’s a huge divide here between those who have means (who live in West Amman) and those that don’t (generally East Amman). It came to a head when the Mercedes- driving son of a minister went on a tirade on facebook about his argument with a Kia driver, raging against the ‘backward xxxxs’ in Jordan. A local I met recently, Ali*, told me this was particularly galling because most people in Amman drive cheap Kia cars. Everything is expensive here, due to import taxes. I was flabbergasted to see a toaster with a tag of 25 JD ($AUS37) at the local shopping centre. I’m told the minimum wage with tips will get you around 250 JD a month, which is roughly half the weekly rent for a roomy apartment in central Amman. High employment combined with the rising cost of living and the perception of widespread nepotism and corruption has created a powder keg of discontent.

For young middle-class educated Jordanians, the aspiration seems to be to go abroad. Ali, a languages student who speaks Russian and Spanish, wants to work as a diplomat but says nepotism means plum postings are generally reserved for the connected elite. There’s even a term for it: ‘wasda’.

Rabia*, a young teaching student at Jordan university, says it’s so bad you’ll have guys who will not turn up to class all semester, but will show up at the end to  be ‘passed’. I asked how that works for professions where you could actually kill someone, and she said in med school you have some professors who will tell the class straight up, there’s no ‘wasda’ here, so don’t even try.

While Jordanians I spoke to are not entirely happy with the status quo, they are grateful for stability and safety in a region where Jordan seems to be the only safe harbour. They are wary of the unrest revolution in nearby countries has created. One of my teachers said that whilst we’re not entirely happy, we don’t know what the alternative would be. Ali says Jordanians don’t want a revolution but they want change. Any discussion of the ruling Royal family is done in hushed tones and in private.

Palestine

In a country where most people are of Palestinian background, the conflict with Israel is central. It’s the recurring issue in personal stories and in the news. Pretty much everyone has a story of being denied entry into Israel (especially young men), of a grandparent losing everything and migrating but dreaming of being able to visit again. Many won’t recognize Israel as a country and say Palestine instead. There’s a perception that US is not an unbiased mediator. It’s the cause of a lot of anger and disbelief and there is pessimism there will ever be a real solution to the conflict.

Refugees

Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler
Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler, Flickr

A lot of NGO workers I’ve met here are working on building camp infrastructure for the thousands of Syrian refugees flooding in over the border. A conversation between two Jordanians I met reminded me of the debate around asylum seekers in Australia.

A: It’s costing us a lot of money.

M: The UN is paying for everything. I’m really worried about the camps. I heard people are dying there.

A: The problem is people coming here without passports and papers. You can’t have open borders.

A: I feel sorry for them. They’re fleeing for their lives, they might not all have papers.

M: Also Syrians are willing to work for less than Jordanians creating problems for locals.

A: They contribute. I feel sorry for them.

M: So do I. I hate the situation not the people.

The difference of course is that M has loads of Syrian friends and a great deal of sympathy for the plight of those fleeing, generally reflected in the public mood towards refugees with numerous fundraisers and events dedicated to Syria (in Australia, the right-wing view features mostly hatred, hysteria and racism). I think the fact that Syrians, like Jordanians, are Arab Muslims, probably makes a big difference.

Gender/Religion

Jordan is generally a conservative country but I think liberal by standards in the region. A local tour I went on (where we were the only foreigners) and a group of artsy liberal Jordanian students I met recently seemed like hanging out with a group of 20-somethings back in Australia, down to justifying my abstention from alcohol (which is freely available). The men love to dance, openly hug and kiss each other and seem really to know how to have a good time (that was just on the tour bus). Most women wear hijabs with fashionable western clothing but many don’t. You can walk around safely pretty much anytime of the day or night, and will not be bothered except for the occasional hooligan, though I have heard of foreign looking women being hassled. Like Pakistan it feels like you have a divide between two groups -those who are liberal and irreligious, mix freely and party and those who are religious and conservative. But I think there is hope for that rare breed- the religious liberal – bucking tradition but staying true to their Islamic roots. One of my teachers is a single hijabi and practicing Muslim who works, lives out of home and travels abroad despite societal and family disapproval.  It will be interesting to see if it is people like this, who can successfully reconcile tradition and modernity within themselves, can pave a navigation of those forces within society.

*Names have been changed.