Building a school in the ‘dark hell’ of the Moria camp: A conversation about hope, politics and humanity with refugee entrepreneur Zekria Farzad

The interview was conducted in January 2021, but this text also incorporates some extracts from previous and later conversations. The text has been edited and amended for clarity by Heidi Mogstad and Zekria Farzad.


Introduction: In humanitarian (and some scholarly) discourses, refugees are often portrayed as passive and powerless victims stripped of political agency and opinions. However, those of us who have worked in refugee camps, or with refugee communities, know that this is very seldom the case. On Lesvos, where I conducted fieldwork intermittently between August 2018 and December 2019, there was a plethora of state- and non-state actors seeking to assist the asylum seekers stuck in limbo on the Greek island. Yet, the refugees they sought to help were not passive and helpless recipients. Nor were they reduced to the conditions Agamben famously described as ‘bare life’: life confined to mere bodily existence or a physical struggle for survival (Agamben, 1998). To the contrary, many of the refugees on Lesvos protested or spoke out against European asylum policies, the EU-Turkey deal and the unsafe and undignified conditions in the former Moria camp. They demanded that their rights as refugees and asylum seekers should be respected, attention and responsibility from European leaders and publics and, more than anything, to be recognised and treated as human beings. While living in a place notorious for its extreme overcrowding, violence and abjection, residents of the Moria camp also acted ingeniously and collectively, creating pockets of community and normalcy inside and outside of the fences of the former military base. Some built makeshift businesses including mini-markets, barbershops, religious spaces, food stalls and bakeries selling tasty falafels or bread made in home-made clay ovens (reputedly the best on the island!). Others volunteered for NGOs or formed their own teams and organisations to fill crucial gaps in service provision including cleaning, security, education and recreational activities. These refugee-led initiatives have been particularly important during the last year, after new government regulations, threats from local fascist groups and Covid-19 pushed many foreign NGOs to leave Lesvos. What follows is an interview with the Afghan-born journalist, father-of-five and humanitarian entrepreneur Zekria Farzad. After arriving with his family in what he describes as the ‘dark hell’ of Moria, Zekria decided to start a school for the children living in the camp. He later founded Wave of Hope for the Future (hereafter Wave of Hope), a refugee-led humanitarian organisation with a mission to support education for refugee children on Lesvos and elsewhere. In this interview, Zekria describes his family’s hazardous journey to Europe and the birth and trajectory of his school and humanitarian organisation. Zekria also shares views on European asylum policies and reflects on the dehumanisation and devaluation of non-white bodies on the move. The interview ends with Zekria reinstating his belief in a radical humanism.

Heidi: Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your background?

Zekria: I was born in Kabul in 1979 in a family of nine children. My father worked for several international organisations, while my mother was a housewife. I grew up mostly in Kabul, but my family lived some years in exile in Rawalpindi in Pakistan during the Taliban regime. After I graduated from Ansari High School in Kabul, I started to study journalism at a private university while working as a contractor of the US army. I loved my studies and dreamed about becoming a professional journalist or diplomat for my country, but the threat of the Taliban made this impossible. But I used my education and experience to start my own magazine: ‘Farda eZeba’ (‘Beautiful tomorrow’ in Farsi). The magazine writes about cultural, historical and political issues and is distributed in rural Afghanistan to inform and awaken the younger generation, and encourage them to be part of the resistance against the Taliban and other terrorist groups. I also established an educational project for children in Pakistan and was part of several civil society and activist groups mobilising for social justice in Kabul. In 2005, I met my beloved wife at a wedding party. She was a midwife, and I went to see her several times in her clinic before we decided to get married. We now have five children between the age of 4 and 12. My oldest boy and girl are very eager and talented students but regrettably, we had to flee from Afghanistan before they were able to graduate.

Heidi: When did you arrive on Lesvos? If you like, could you tell us a bit about your family’s journey to Europe?

Zekria: I left my beloved homeland in March 2018 with my wife and five children. The journey was extremely tough, especially for my children. The smugglers made us change vehicles many times, from small pick-up cars to motorbikes. We also had to cross some of the borders by foot. I was constantly afraid that we would be ambushed by the Taliban or thieves hiding in the desert. However, we did not face any problems before we reached the border between Turkey and Iran. There, we were kidnapped and held us hostage under a bridge for two nights. It was snowing, and my children were sick, so I ended up paying the kidnappers 5000 US dollars to let us go. After walking for ten straight days, we finally arrived in Turkey. However, our asylum applications were denied, so we had no choice but to continue our journey towards Europe. During the next eight months, we participated in ‘the smuggler’s game’ about ten times. We first tried to get on a large ship to Italy, but we were exploited and deceived by the smugglers on multiple occasions. During one of our attempts, we were kidnapped again and held hostage in a remote house in a forest along with several other refugee families. The kidnappers were armed and tied the hands of all the men. They told us that each family had to pay 40 000 euro, otherwise they would keep us here until we died. Of course, neither of us had that kind of money. However, in the middle of the night, I was able to help one of the other men in the group –a young single refugee from Afghanistan– to escape. I told him that he must run to the police and get help. I was so afraid that he would not keep his promise, or that the kidnappers would find out what we had done and hurt my wife or children or the other beautiful women and children that were held hostage with us. But thanks to the brave young man, the police showed up and arrested the kidnappers. After 12 days in police custody, they transferred us to refugee camps. I was placed in a closed camp for only men, while my family was sent to another camp far away. The authorities tried to convince me to sign a paper agreeing to be deported back to Afghanistan, but I refused. After 25 days of continuous refusals and negotiations, I was finally released and reunited with my family. The young man who saved us was deported back to Afghanistan, but has fled again, I wish him the best. We were all exhausted and scared, and my children had started to develop mental health problems, but we could not stay in Turkey. After three more failed ‘games’, we were finally able to get on a dinghy to Lesvos in February 2019. The hours we spent in that flimsy boat on the cold Aegean Sea was the worst night of my life. There were perhaps 50 people in the dinghy, and very few of us knew how to swim. My brave wife and I held our five terrified children as close as we could and prayed that we would arrive safely. Not long before we reached the North coast of Lesvos, the boat crashed into some rocks and started to sink. At that time, I was sure that we were all going to die and started to visualise our dead bodies floating in the sea. However, thank God, we were able to get out of the boat before it sank and got onshore. It was a very distressing moment: I remember I frantically counted all my children –1-2-3-4-5 – before I could finally breathe again. All of us had survived, and we were standing on European soil. But not everyone was as lucky as we were; a ten-year-old girl from another family drowned. We also lost all our documents and belongings including our passports, money, mobile phone and diplomas.

Heidi: You arrived on Lesvos in February 2019, nearly three years after EU’s deal with Turkey in March 2016 which intended to curb so-called irregular migration to Europe. The deal, combined with Greece’s overburdened asylum system and policy of geographical containment, made thousands of asylum seekers trapped on the Aegean islands under appalling conditions while awaiting decisions on their applications. You and your family had to live in the notorious Moria camp: Lesvos’s official Registration and Identification Centre (RIC) and the far biggest camp on the island. Before it burned to the ground in September 2020, the Moria camp was described as the worst refugee camp in Europe due to its severe overcrowding, lack of police protection and sanitation facilities, and high rates of untreated mental health problems (for a more detailed discussion of the history and structure of Moria, see Rozakou, 2019). The mayor of Lesvos and Pope Francis both likened the Moria camp to a concentration camp, while residents typically described it as a prison or living hell. In response to the permanence of the Moria camp, its worsening conditions and spillover-effects on the local community, both refugees and Greek islanders organised demonstrations and strikes, calling for immediate evacuations or ‘decongestion’ of the island. Yet despite this, and despite repeated warnings and appeals by UNCHR, MSF and other humanitarian organisations, the situation for asylum seekers on Lesvos only further deteriorated after you arrived in February 2019. In fact, the subsequent summer, Lesvos saw the biggest increase in boat arrivals since 2016, putting additional pressure on the scarce and inadequate facilities.
What was your experience of arriving and living in the former Moria camp with your family, and what made you decide to build a school for the children in the camp?

Zekria: When we first arrived in Moria, I was still in shock and just grateful that my family had survived. But I soon realised that, while we were still alive, this was not a proper life. The conditions were far worse than I had ever imagined. The official camp was full, so we were first allocated a flimsy tent in the ‘jungle’ [the informal spillover tent camp in the olive grove outside of the official structure of the Moria camp]. Apart from the obvious lack of proper shelter, food and sanitation, I also discovered another fundamental problem: there were children everywhere, but they had no access to education! When I asked the camp authorities about this, they said children must wait for at least 3 to 6 months to be enrolled in a school. I was shocked and dismayed. But I am not the kind of person who just sits back and watch when something is missing in my community –even if the community is only a temporary refugee camp– so I decided to do something about it. The next morning, I went to the city and bought a whiteboard and some markers. When I returned to the camp, I found a space outside under an olive tree and started providing basic lessons for my children and other children in the camp. This was the beginning of Wave of Hope.

Heidi: That’s such an inspirational story and I know it does not end there. Could you please tell us about the development of the school and your organisation?  I am also curious: why did you choose that particular name?

Zekria: The name has an important philosophy. Those of us who crossed the sea in one of those small dinghies knew with 100 per cent certainty that it was not a good choice. But we had to try. The waves were dangerous and frightening, but they also symbolised hope, because they could bring us forward, to safety. Personally, I believe it was God’s hand that saved us, but the point is that we survived and are now in a position to help others. Now we can bring others hope like the waves that nearly swallowed us.  

The school expanded very quickly. In the beginning, people walking around the camp saw me teaching under the olive tree, got interested, and started to bring their children. The parents were very supportive. Some of them let me use their private tents so we could have a quiet space and protect the children from the sun. After only a few weeks, I had seven classes and decided that I needed more help and structure. At the beginning of May, I thus gathered a team of refugee volunteers and together we started the Wave of Hope. We used our own money to buy materials in town and built three classrooms with wood frames, tarpaulin roofs and rugs on the floor. Rumours about our work spread quickly. We received more and more students and many refugees volunteered to be teachers. Before the old Moria camp burned down in September 2020, we had more than 2700 students and 44 teachers!

We worked really hard to fill the gaps in education, although we knew that it was not a substitute for formal schooling. While focusing primarily on providing education to children, we also offered various language classes, including Greek, Arabic, Farsi and English. We also opened a library and a community centre providing recreational activities like arts and music. As you know, many children and adults in the camp have mental health problems, so we tried to create a safe and positive space where they could learn, be stimulated and think about something else. I am very proud of our accomplishments. After only a few months, the simple school I started under the olive tree had become a humanitarian institution by refugees for refugees!

Heidi: What has been the best and most challenging part of running Wave of Hope? As far as I know, the school is run entirely by refugees on Lesvos, but can you also say something about your relationship to Greek authorities and other organisations?

Zekria: As a human being, I consider it to be my obligation to do something good in this world. But helping people also makes me feel joyful and relaxed. Being a teacher is a luxury and a gift in my life. When I stand in front of the class, I feel very happy. But starting a school and organisation as a refugee in a foreign land has also been challenging. In the beginning, we received many warnings from the Greek police and camp authorities; they told us we do not have the right to start a school in their country and asked us to stop our work before they did it. However, after several months of discussions and negotiations, where I explained the purpose and importance of the school for our children and community, they finally accepted it. While the majority of the people in Moria was very supportive, there were also bad people and bullies in the camp who threatened and attacked me, interrupted our classes and broke our whiteboards.

From the very beginning until this day, Wave of Hope has been an independent and refugee-led organisation. Eventually, we also started to receive some international volunteers, however about 80 per cent of my colleagues are still from our own refugee communities. I have never asked anyone outside of our community for help, but words about our organisation travelled fast. Many people have come to visit our school and subsequently offered to help or collaborate with us. We also have individual donors across the world. I am very proud of our independence, but I also happy that Wave of Hope has become a global family. And our organisation continues to grow. After some of our teachers were moved from Lesvos to camps on the Greek mainland, we started new schools there. With help from some of my dear friends and family in Afghanistan, I am also building a school for 800 children in one of the country’s rural area.

Regarding other organisations, I have mixed opinions. Some organisations, like Doctors Without Borders, are doing good work, but I do not like the UNCHR’s policies on Lesvos. I think most of the volunteer organisations act better than the UNHCR and provide good services for refugees, but some exploit the situation to make money.

Heidi: During the last few years, people from Afghanistan have made up the largest portion of asylum seekers on Lesvos. This is partly a result of the fact that Syrians have been prioritised: both by the Greek registration system and by the asylum policies of other European states – and in some cases, also by humanitarian actors and activists. The lack of attention and priority to non-Syrian refugees demonstrates how hierarchies of worth and deservingness in European refugee politics are not only based on factors such as gender and age but also nationality. In the case of Syrian refugees, nationality is also linked with racial- and class-based biases and assumptions (Cabot, 2015; Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2016; Rozakou, 2017). What do you think is the largest misconception people in Europe have about Afghanistan or Afghan refugees?

Zekria: It’s a good question, actually. I cannot generalise about all Europeans, but I think many European politicians believe that Afghan people are terrorists, or that we are not eligible for asylum because Afghanistan is a safe country. Neither of this is true. The majority of Afghan people do not support the Taliban, but are innocent people stuck in a war zone. And Afghanistan is a very dangerous country. Every day we are just waiting for news that our loved ones have died. But most governments in Europe do not realise how dangerous Afghanistan is, and therefore place Afghan refugees at the bottom of their lists.

Heidi: That’s very true. And this includes my own country Norway, which officially prioritises Syrian families, while frequently deporting Afghan refugees, including families with children who have been raised and schooled in Norway and speak fluent Norwegian. And which does this, I must add, without addressing the country’s own role or complicity as an active member of the NATO-led invasion in Afghanistan (Bangstad, 2019). Regarding misconceptions, I also think many Europeans are largely unaware of the rich Afghan and Persian culture. For instance, the poet Rumi has become very popular in the US and Europe, but I suspect that many are unaware that he came from Afghanistan.

Zekria: There are so many good poets from our region. I love Rumi, but also Sadhi, Hafez, Khaiam, Rodaki, Jami, Sanee, Bedil Dehlevi, Eqbbal, Ghaleb, Aasi, Parvern, Etesami, Shamlo and Khalili. We also have many talented singers and musicians like the famous Ahmad Zaher. Most refugees bring with them lots of talent and value from their countries, including music, food and entrepreneurship, however, for some reason this is hardly ever talked about.  

Heidi: You are right. Refugees are very often described as either burdens and problems or pure and abstract victims without personal histories and resources. I want to return briefly to your personal story. Contrary to popular perception, about 3/4 of Afghan refugees in Greece is in fact granted refugee status and some form of asylum protection. Nevertheless, your family’s application was rejected. Why do you think it got rejected, and what did you do when you learned about this? 

Zekria: I do not know why, but I sometimes think the rejection had to do with my work in Greece. We appealed once, but when our lawyer informed us that we would receive a second rejection, we were advised to leave Lesvos to avoid being deported back to Turkey and Afghanistan. We managed to get to Athens, where we had to live illegally without any identity documents. This was not a safe and good life for my family, so I decided to once again ‘play with my life’ to reach Northern-Europe. The journey was too dangerous for my children, so I left alone, hiding under a truck to Italy. From Italy, I managed to get to Switzerland, where I was granted a temporary asylum visa. I have now been alone in Switzerland for over a year.  Life here is better, but I really miss my family. I have been told I have to wait three years before I can bring them here. When my dear father died in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I could not even go to his funeral. It was hard to accept, but it is part of life when you are a refugee in this world. On the bright side, I can do some work from here and I have friends who help to support my family in Athens so my children can go to school.

Heidi: I want to ask you about the current situation on Lesvos, and how it has impacted the work of your school and organisation. For the asylum seekers stuck in limbo on Lesvos, the last year has been characterized by a several overlapping crises that have exacerbated existing vulnerabilities and rights violations. Crudely summarised, we might start with the Greek government’s announcement to establish closed camps on Lesvos and four other Greek islands in November 2019. The announcement exacerbated local tensions on Lesvos and led to a series of strikes and protests by refugees as well as Greek islanders. During February and early March, law and order collapsed on the island: locals fought riot police sent by the central government, police teargassed protesting locals and refugees (including young children) and local fascist groups threatened and violently attacked refugees, NGO-workers, volunteers and journalists, prompting neo-Nazis from other European countries to come to Lesvos (Fallon, 2020). Shortly after, Covid-2019 started to spread across Europe, leading Greek authorities to restrict the freedom of movement for the island’s refugee population (on the biopolitics of Covid-19 on Lesvos, see Jauhiainen, 2020) and issue further barriers and regulations for foreign NGOs operating in the country. As a result of these developments, most international NGOs either left Lesvos or scaled down their operations significantly during the spring of 2020. In my understanding, this made Wave of Hope’s work even more important. It also led to the establishment of other refugee-led organisations seeking to protect the refugee population from the virus including Moria Corona Awareness Team and Moria White Helmet. Despite these laudable efforts, managing social distancing in the overcrowded camp was impossible and the first cases of Covid-19 in the camp were detected in early September 2020. And then came the fire. During the night of 8th of September, the Moria camp –at that time filled over four times capacity– burst into flames, causing residents to flee in panic. It should be said that several smaller fires had broken out in Moria previously, causing deaths of both adults and children. Yet, this time, the entire camp burned to the ground. The Greek prime minister announced a four-month state of emergency on the island, while a new tent camp was built to re-house the residents of Moria. The new camp, which came to be known as Moria 2.0, is located at a former military shooting range and commonly said to have even worse conditions than the previous site. Not only is the new camp located right by the sea and thus more exposed to wind and flooding. There is also no drainage and sewing system, no showers, electricity and heating, and even less access to medical and legal assistance. Many humanitarian actors have complained that they have greater difficulties accessing Moria 2.0, and that a new ‘confidentiality law’ prevents them from publicly sharing information about the camp’s conditions and potential abuse. Can you say something about how Covid-19 and the fire that burned down Moria camp in September 2020 has affected the work of Wave of Hope?

Zekria: Part of what happened during this period was that our schools became important support platforms for community organisation and emergency aid. For instance, when Covid-19 started to spread across Europe, we established an awareness team to inform refugees about the virus and distribute life-saving protection equipment like face masks, disinfection gel, gloves and hand soap to the refugee community. After the old Moria camp burned down in September 2020, we also organised emergency food distributions. However, gaining access to the new camp has been very difficult. We have tried to negotiate with the camp authorities to get a space inside the new camp, and attended many joint meetings with UNHCR and other organisations, but we are still waiting for a positive response. While waiting, we built a new school outside the camp, at the premises of another organisation (One Happy Family), but because of the lockdown, the school had to close. At the moment, we are running some children activities and classes inside the private tents of people in Moria 2.0 and at the premises of the old Kara Tepe refugee camp. When the lockdown was lifted, we also managed to open an art exhibition and run some classes and an office in town with support from other organisations. It has been very frustrating to lose, not only our physical structures but also our access and independence. It seems to me as the Greek authorities are using the Coronavirus as an excuse to further restrict the work of NGOs like ours as well as the rights and movements of refugees on the island. Another problem we face on Lesvos is the local fascist groups which remain active on the ground and very intimidating.  

Heidi: The people of Lesvos was celebrated for their hospitality during the beginning of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, but many local residents are growing increasingly frustrated and angry with the situation. Regardless of their politics and attitudes towards refugees, many locals say they want ‘their island back’. Have you had many interactions with Greek people on Lesvos and do you understand their grievances? 

Zekria: Yes, I have lots of good Greek friends, and I understand why the local people are angry about the presence of refugee camps on their beautiful island. The problem is not the refugees or the locals, but the authorities and politicians who make life hard for both sides. It should be a piece of cake to relocate all refugees from Lesvos but for the politicians, our lives are just a political game. 

Heidi: Whose authorities and politicians are you referring to? Or, to put it differently: who do you blame for the current predicaments of refugees in Greece?

Zekria: EU and European politicians carry the heaviest responsibility; it is they who have closed their borders and criminalised refugees seeking asylum. After them, I think the Greek government is responsible for the lack of security in the camps. I believe Greek authorities are deliberately trying to make Moria a bad and dangerous place to attract financial support from other European countries. As a result, refugees are living worse than animals in Western countries. There are no human rights for us; refugees are treated as pieces in a game played by Turkey and European countries.

Heidi: That brings me to the next question: What ideas and hopes did you have about Europe before you came to Lesvos, and what are your thoughts and opinions about the EU and European countries today?

Zekria: Before coming to Europe, I always read about the continent’s development, stable economic growth, democratic system and human rights. Therefore, seeing what I saw in Moria was a big shock to me. I still cannot believe that from 2015 until this day, the big and powerful EU has not been able to improve Moria or assist the refugees in Greece. But I have come to realise that Europe is unable to bring change around the world and that all their human rights slogans are nothing but commercial advertisement.

Heidi: When you spoke earlier about the symbolism of the name of your organisation, it reminded me about the poem Home by the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. In this poem, she writes: ‘No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than land.’

Zekria: I agree with her 100 per cent. We were all trying to find safe land, and if we had a better option, we would never have risked our lives and the lives of our children getting in that boat.

Heidi: It is a brilliant poem. But what it does not address is why refugees like yourself and your family are forced to take this enormous risk in the first place. And the reason is, as you know, that European countries do not offer safe and legal routes for refugees to reach EU and apply for asylum (apart from family reunification which is an extremely slow and demanding process). As Mbembe (2018) puts it, this illustrates a central contradiction in liberal thought and politics: that some people’s movements are configured as freedom, while others are deemed improper and conceived as a threat. Rather than a contradiction, we can of course also call it European falsehood or hypocrisy as indeed you did earlier. Staying on this topic, I thought I should end the interview by asking you about some of the posts I have read on your Facebook page. In one of the posts, you wrote: ‘globalisation is a dream, not a reality’. In another post, you reflected on the hundreds of refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean earlier that week when attempting to reach Europe. You suggested that, if the people in the boats had been white, they would have been immediately rescued. You also asked why people –including those on the Left and those who have rightfully protested against the murder of George Floyd– were so quiet when hundreds of black refugees were let drowned while seeking refuge in Europe. You asked, very appropriately in my opinion: ‘do these black lives not matter?’ and said that you hoped your criticism would hurt.

Zekria: Yes, and I stand by what I said. As long as some people do not have access to human rights, and are not treated as human beings, we cannot speak about the world as a global village. The problem is not at the level of discourse or ideas, but rather that some people and countries do not practice what they preach: it is a discrepancy between people’s ideals and actions. Black lives, Afghan lives, Syrian lives, Yemenis lives, all lives matter –but politics, racism and discrimination divide us, and deny some people full equality and humanity. The result is what we see are seeing today, in Moria and the Mediterranean and many other places.

Heidi: In the introduction to his book, The Displaced (2018), writer and former refugee Viet Thanh Nguyen writes that for refugees, ‘the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss – the loss of loved ones, or countries, of identities, of selves.’ On the one hand, your story challenges this narrative of loss, as you have overcome multiple hurdles and reconstituted yourself as a teacher, political critic, and leader of a humanitarian organisation. In Arendt’s words, you have demonstrated that ‘refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples’ (Arendt, 2007:274[1943]; see also Horst and Lysaker, 2019). However, when we spoke earlier, you partly contested this reading, emphasising that your story is not simply ‘incredible’, but also ‘very tough’. It is not only that traumas endure, but also the fact your life is still on hold: so far you have only received temporary asylum in Switzerland and you have been told you have to wait three years before you can reunite with your family. What are your thoughts and dreams about the future, for yourself and your family? Do you think you will be able to return to Afghanistan, or do you prefer to build a new life in Europe? And how do you imagine the future of Wave of Hope?

Zekria: I’m very worried about Afghanistan and our people; the current situation is more critical and dangerous than ever before. About a year ago, the American government signed a peace agreement with the Taliban, but this was not a peace agreement with the Afghan government or people. If real peace comes, and the world wants Afghanistan to be a peaceful place, we will return to our beloved homeland Afghanistan/Khorasan. But until that day, I will work hard to create a future for my children in Europe. But my dreams are not only about my own family. In fact, I consider all of humanity to be my family, and contributing to the happiness of people as the true meaning of life. Regarding my organisation, I hope that the organisation will continue to grow and that my colleagues from different countries can be waves spreading hope across the word. As an organisation, we also hope that the politicians in this world will see our work as a symbol of peace and unity and take lesson.

Heidi: Despite all the inhumane practices you have witnessed and experienced, you don’t seem to have lost your faith in humanity? At the very least, you still say you work in the service of humanity, which you refer to as your larger family. This language resonates with that of many humanitarian workers and volunteers in Europe, including those I have worked with and researched. Yet I think there is a crucial difference. Contra the European citizens who seek to assist their ‘fellow human beings’, you and other refugees seeking asylum in today’s Europe cannot take your status as human beings for granted. Moreover, as you and other refugees on Lesvos have made very clear, your demands for change and recognition arise, not simply ‘in the name of humanity’, but in response to the violent denial of your humanity. As such, you expose the contradictions and limits of European liberalism and human rights talk as well the violent exclusions of political communities organised on the basis of xenophobic nationalism (see also Gilroy, 2005; 2019). Perhaps a parallel can be drawn to the anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon, whose humanism was radical and insurgent, yet still profoundly optimistic? 

Zekria: Yes. We know that political games, racism and discrimination divide humanity, treating some people, like refugees, like animals. But by taking matters in our own hands, we reclaim our humanity, while also fighting for others. I wish for a peaceful world for all: not just for the west, the east, the north or the south.

Heidi: As far as I know, the Quran also emphasises the unity or oneness of humanity, and the idea that it is human societies who have violated that principle by created divisions amongst ourselves. To what extent are your thoughts and values of humanity shaped by your religious beliefs?

Zekria: I am a Muslim, and Islam is the foundation of my thoughts and beliefs. However, the prophet Muhammad is not my only role model. I am also inspired by other people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, Ahmad Shah Masoud, Napoleon Hill and Charlie Chaplin. What Islam has taught me is to work for humanity and see no borders between people. I say, with Rumi, that I am ‘Not a Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen’, ‘not from the East or the West’, but first and foremost a ‘breath-breathing human being’. 

Heidi: Thank you so much Zekria for sharing your time and insight.


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