Refugee Lives: Trauma, Celebrations, and Limbo

Photo by Alex Gunn showing graffiti art by refugees in the Zaatari Refugee Camp.
By Michael Murphy
Staff Writer

In 2011, the Syrian Civil War placed refugees on the global stage. Amid al-Assad’s barrel bombs, The Syrian Refugee Crisis was born. Videos depicting thousands of people fleeing their homes filled the airwaves. It wasn’t the first case of forced displacement, but European countries reeled from the sudden surge of humanitarian need all the same, with each country giving a kneejerk reaction on how to handle the hundreds of thousands of newcomers fleeing violence. Meanwhile, millions fled to neighboring countries–Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan—each already struggling with the refugees of the wars in the previous century. Before long, attention turned to North Africa. Images of rubber boats filled to the brim with desperate souls being tossed on the waves of the Mediterranean became unavoidable. Finally, in 2015, the image of Alan Kurdi, a young boy whose body lay on the beach after having drowned on the journey from Turkey to Europe, drew virulent international outrage.

Continue reading “Refugee Lives: Trauma, Celebrations, and Limbo”

CRISIS IN OUR CLOSETS: THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF FAST FASHION

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Veronika Michels
Staff Writer

It is hard to argue against the notion that the Western world largely revolves around consumerism. Every billboard and advertisement we see urges us to spend money. We  buy goods and throw them out a month later to make room for more, keeping the wheels of capitalism turning and the garbage industry alive. We live in a fast world, but we can’t do so forever. The planet simply cannot regenerate itself rapidly enough to keep pace with the exploitation of its natural resources. It is well known that the oil industry is currently the largest polluter in the world and is heart and scapegoat for our environmental issues. But as we argue over the need for renewable energy, we are ignorantly clothed in the product of the second greatest polluting industry in the world – fast fashion.

The term “fast fashion” refers to the speed at which clothes are consumed and disposed. On average, each American throws out 82 pounds of textiles each year. Large fashion companies such as Zara, H&M, Topshop and Forever21 release as many as 18 collections a year which results in consumers constantly renewing their wardrobes in accordance with the latest trends. Inefficient production practices and the exploitation of workers in developing countries with capital-friendly labor laws allow these companies to produce clothing on a mass scale and sell them at extremely low prices. Many consumers are ignorant to the transnational flow of goods, exploitative labor conditions and environmentally corruptive production practices that result in the cheap prices we see on our clothing tags. Mass supply and affordability, combined with the incessant craving for novelty bred by consumer culture, has created a mindset of expendability when it comes to clothing that the planet is unable to sustain.

The detrimental environmental impact of fast fashion begins with the production of raw material, which mainly consists of cotton and leather. Cotton is used in around 40 percent of clothes but it requires vast amounts of resources to even be created. The production of a single shirt can require up to 2700 litres of water. Uzbekistan, being the sixth leading producer of cotton in the world, has suffered great consequences as a result of the cotton industry. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world and the main source of water for 1.47 million hectares of agricultural land used for cotton production. Now it has all but dried up and releases toxins and carcinogens into the air which negatively affect the neighboring communities. As laid out by the English fashion designer Katharine Hamnett: “Conventional cotton (as opposed to organic cotton) has got to be one of the most unsustainable fibres in the world. Conventional cotton uses a huge amount of water and also huge amounts of pesticides which cause 350,000 farmer deaths a year [in Uzbekistan] and a million hospitalisations.”

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Satellite images of the Aral Sea in 1989 and 2014

Another main byproduct of the clothing industry is the chemical waste produced from dyeing practices. In Indonesia, chemicals from the textile industry are disposed of into the Citarum River and the water has been contaminated with toxins like mercury, lead, and arsenic. As a result, the aquatic life in the region has suffered greatly and the polluted water often remains untreated as its flows into the ocean. One chemical used in dyeing clothes that is especially dangerous is nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE). NPEs have been banned in the EU but can still be found in clothes imported to the USA, especially in brands like Victoria’s Secret, GAP, Nike, Calvin Klein and Zara. This chemical leads to the feminisation of male fish when it pollutes water and can lead to various complications in pregnant women such as the development of breast cancer cells and damage to the placenta.

Almost every fiber in the material used to make these garments damages the environment during its life cycle. The production of polyester and nylon release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that contribute to global warming 300 times more so than carbon dioxide. These cheaply made fibers eventually end up in oceans and streams as microfibers that come loose during washing cycles. Microfibers and microplastics are then ingested by fish and other ocean life that make their way up the food chain and onto our own plates.

The negative repercussions from production practices aren’t the only harmful output courtesy of the fashion industry. Since most garments are produced in developing countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan, they have to be shipped to large urban centers of mass consumption. The shipping industry is widely unregulated and it is estimated that a single ship can emit as many cancer and asthma-causing pollutants in one year as 50 million cars. Moreover, according to EcoWatch, “The low-grade bunker fuel burned by ships is 1,000 times dirtier than highway diesel used in the trucking industry.” Yet, the practices still persist without significant accountability for the damages being done to the atmosphere and oceans.

Unfortunately, just as with climate change, pollution and wasteful lifestyles have the greatest impact on those who contribute to the problem the least. In the Tiruppur district in India, the textile industry has become such a large source of pollution that it has completely destroyed the agricultural industry in the region. Unregulated dyeing practices have resulted in the pollution of the Noyyal river. Crops are now dependent upon rainfall, produce a much smaller yield and threaten the livelihood of local farmers. The primary consumers of these products are spared the negative repercussions that workers in the Tiruppur district must live everyday.

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Workers decontaminate cotton before it is processed at an Indian spinning mill

Fortunately, there is a way to make a difference with our own habits that can oppose the current state of affairs and the way that the fashion industry operates. When it comes to fast fashion, countermovements exist in two forms: quantity and quality of purchased clothing. Central power lies in the hands of the consumer. Quantity is controlled by one’s mindset. As consumers, we need to shift our habits toward investing in quality attire. We should buy clothing with the intent of wearing it for years to come and eliminate the desire to constantly renew the items in our closets. Each purchase must be backed by the consciousness of personal responsibility.

The likelihood of people following through with this on a mass scale unfortunately is not very high. Subsequently, the next solution lies in changing the production processes and business models of fashion retailers. Though some large brands such as H&M and Forever21 have launched campaigns to take in old clothes from customers to reuse, the truth is that only 0.1% of these clothes are actually recycled to be used as fibers in new clothes. This practice is referred to as “greenwashing” and is in no means exclusive to the fashion industry. Pumping money into reshaping a company’s public image to make it appear more sustainable and eco-friendly as a business, but not reshaping its damaging and exploitative business practices at its core, is a common technique used to take advantage of consumer guilt. Successful businesses based on ethical and sustainable models do actually exist though and cater to a range of fashion tastes. Patagonia, Noah, Organic Threads, Symbology, and Krochet Kids Intl. are just a few brands that pride themselves in their ethical and sustainable business models. They provide fair wages to their workers and use organic cotton and recycled polyester in their products. Even H&M is making a move towards sustainability with their new Conscious Collection, made from all recycled materials. It is clear that educating oneself on which shops offer quality items and choosing to invest in their products instead of cheap, short-lived alternatives can really make a difference in reducing the harmful footprint of the fashion industry.

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A thrift store run by the Humane Society in Vero Beach, Florida

We stand at a critical point in time where every decision on how we affect the climate can change the course of humankind’s future on Earth. Each day we get closer to the point of no return and there are certain damages which have already occurred that simply cannot be undone. The climate warms in a system of “amplifying feedbacks” where seemingly small changes in temperature and CO₂ levels create amplified responses that turn into a positive feedback loop. The earth is riddled with these feedback loops and complex ecosystems that are crucial to the overall state of the climate. It is crucial to remain educated and aware of our involvement with the planet’s finite resources. Becoming a conscious consumer within the fashion industry is a meaningful way to claim personal responsibility and is a significant step in combating the climate crisis that we are facing currently.

Images Courtesy of:
Bart Everson
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Commonwealth Scientific And Industrial Research Organisation

 

CITY OF CARAVANS: KEEPING CULTURE ALIVE IN A STATE OF UNCERTAINTY

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Veronika Michels
Staff Writer

Western media has long addressed the refugee crisis by the impact that opening borders for those fleeing turmoil in their homeland will have on domestic populations. We tend to overlook the fact that as we carry on in political debate and discussion on immigration policies, millions of Syrian refugees are living the reality that we often only comprehend as an occasional headline on our Facebook news feed. Since the onset of the civil war following the 2011 Arab Spring movement, 12 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes. Escaping to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, many have ended up in refugee camps and wait in uncertainty as they watch their homeland descend into further chaos. Looking through the onslaught of information concerning the crisis, it is important to remember the value of shared human experience, often conveyed through art, that is threatened on a daily basis due to the difficult setting that these refugees are forced to face.

Syrians began to cross the border into northern Jordan in 2012. The Zaatari refugee camp was constructed in just nine days as a temporary haven for those in need. It has been five years since and there is still no end in sight. In the face of uncertainty, refugees are doing their best to maintain their humanity within the camps through compassion and cooperation. They have created a small-scale economy by opening businesses and providing services for Zaatari’s many inhabitants.  Additionally, a craving for art and personal expression exists within the turmoil.  Many have taken it upon themselves to use their talents and passions for the good of the community.

Street art has been challenged in its widespread context as artists have decorated the walls of containers that make up camp facilities.  This is not the first time though that graffiti has played a role in this conflict. Amidst the Arab Spring in 2011, several Syrian boys aged 10 to 15 were arrested and brutally tortured after spraying graffiti in protest of the Assad regime. This proved to be the catalyst for the war.  Years later, children are using the same medium to spread color and images of hope in the barren terrain of the Zaatari refugee camp.

Leading the Zaatari Project, artists Joel Bergner and Max Frieder have worked together with local artists to give the children an outlet to share their passions and aspirations in a way that simultaneously builds the community. Together, participants paint murals throughout the camp on walls and caravans. Bergner explains that in addition to contributing to beautiful murals and art pieces, the children learn “about water conservation, hygiene issues in the camp, artistic techniques and conflict resolution [while exploring] social issues, their longing to return to Syria, their dreams for the future and their plight as refugees.” This project is especially valuable for the Syrian youth that have no access to education. Though local schools have made efforts to expand their teaching capacity, they cannot accommodate all of the children in the camp. This leaves 50,000 kids without some form of structure in their day. The Zaatari Project provides them with positive role models and a way to leave a personal mark in their temporary home.

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It’s not just the children in the camp who have turned to art as a way of displaying their longing for home. Mahmoud Hariri, a former art teacher in Syria, has connected with other artists in the camp to create models of well-known landmarks in Syria as part of the historical preservation project. Watching helplessly as their homes were destroyed, these artists wanted to create an outlet that could maintain the image of Syria as it once was. They mourn the history that is being lost and the cultural vibrancy of the cities that their children will never experience as they did. Without much access to internet or books, these models are one of the only ways the children can envision the country they left behind. Stressing the role that art plays in the maintenance of a society, Hariri stated, “Much of what we know about ancient civilisations or prehistoric people was preserved through their art – Egyptian hieroglyphs or cave paintings – so we feel we have an important role to play.”

There are several other art based initiatives, often supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), that have worked to give refugees a way to communicate their story to the world. Exile Voices, provides photography classes and workshops to children in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Skoun Project aims to maintain art therapy programs in schools in Beirut to help students express themselves in a safe environment. Another organization, Artists for Refugees, seeks to create artist collaborations between locals and refugees while working to challenge the negative perceptions of refugees in local communities.

These initiatives that focus on artistic expression and local involvement stress the importance of maintaining the human experience while preserving the cultural heritage of displaced communities. Finding a common thread through which to relate individuals is especially helpful for large groups of refugees. When masses of people are forced to abandon their established lifestyles and ambitions, their future plans remain in a haze of uncertainty and they find themselves living within foreign countries, art has the ability to powerfully communicate the terror, doubt and frustration they are experiencing. In the words of Ahmad al-Hariri, one of the model builders in Zaatari, “Art is a language that doesn’t need to be translated.” There is something both incredibly rare and valuable to have a medium that allows one to share an idea so purely.

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The current situation in Syria remains unclear. Amidst recent bombings in Damascus and Aleppo which killed over 80 people and injured many others, Turkey, Russia and the US continue to debate strategies and cooperate with local factions. Turkey views the Kurdish YPG, also known as the People’s Protection Unit, as terrorists while the US plans to support and advise them in future missions. Attempts of reaching a resolution to the conflict took place in Geneva on March 3rd. The UN will continue coordinating a series of further discussions that are aimed at outlining the restoration of order in Syria. As framed by Al-Jazeera reporter, Dylan Collins, the council has set the following four points as a guideline for future action in Syria: “Accountable governance, a new constitution[,] UN-supervised elections within 18 months, [and an anti-terrorism focus].”

Another meeting was recently held between the main Syrian opposition delegation and the Russian deputy foreign minister which suggested Russia’s help in promoting a political transition from Assad’s government.  However, sources in Moscow implied the unlikelihood of this actually garnering any serious consideration from Russia. Recently, 400 U.S. troops were deployed to Northern Syria as tactical support as they prepare to recapture the city of Raqqa from ISIS forces. Plans are also underway to bring in an additional thousand marines and army soldiers and are highly suggestive of U.S. participation in direct combat alongside Syrian and Kurdish YPG forces in the immediate future.

Despite the tragedies Syria has undergone in the last several years, hope and ambition still fuel its exiled people. Their love for their homeland and widespread care for the greater community is reflected in the way that the the Zaatari refugee camp has structured itself and continues to flourish. It is important to remember that humanity exists behind the statistics. The projects developed by artists like Bergner and Ahmad al-Hariri have had a positive impact on the community. They have created an engaging way for refugees to relate to each other and relay their lived realities to the world. The maintenance of the human experience within a prolonged state of uncertainty is invaluable.

Photos courtesy of Joel Bergner