While attending last week’s San Fransisco Freedom Forum (SFFF), I had the pleasure of getting reacquainted with Marina Nemat, a political dissident from Iran, prolific author and an international human rights activist. Nemat was born in 1965 in Tehran, Iran. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, she was arrested at the age of sixteen for speaking out against the regime and spent more that two harrowing years in prison. While imprisoned, Nemat was brutally tortured and almost killed. She recalled her story in a speech to the attending delegates of the SFFF and provided graphic details of the brutality of her experience. We can save that story for another time. For now, Nemat is highly concerned about a current situation entirely – the forced segregation of refugee school children from their French peers in Valbonne, France. In addition to segregation, these children are actually living in in France without their parents, which presents additional trauma to an already highly stressful situation. While at the SFFF, Nemat recounted the details of this forced segregation, and how it is completely counterproductive to the effective repatriation of innocent children who’ve already suffered enough. I got in touch with Nemat after the SFFF concluded, and requested more about her views of the situation. She replied immediately with the following piece:
For 6-7 years, either in May or September, I have been invited to go to Centre International de Valbonne (CIV), an international high school in southern France close to Nice. Every year, I have spoken for hundreds of students about my experience as a prisoner of conscience in Iran when I was a teenager and also about my recent work as a human rights advocate. My memoir Prisoner of Tehran is on the students’ summer reading list, and they always delight me with their thoughtful questions and their desire to make the world a better place. I always tell them that goodness doesn’t need to be complicated, that they need to begin helping others in their own school and city before moving to faraway places.
My advice and encouragement bore fruit this year and let me in on a huge problem in southern France, a problem that has been brought about by the refugee crisis and the way the French government has chosen to deal with it. I acknowledge the serious and complex difficulties that European countries, especially France, face with the waves of hundreds of thousands of refugees; tsunamis of distress and suffering washing over Europe. Many Europeans, including the French, are terrified that the huge numbers of newcomers endangers their way of life.
Fear is the strongest human emotion. It is primal and overrides logic. People who are scared might lash out and hurt others even when it’s not necessary. We see this kind of reaction often; sometimes it stems from our fear of “others”, of those who are “different”, and it can easily enter the realm of racism, as we have recently witnessed, for example, in the United States: the attacks of police on unarmed African Americans, the shooting and killing of innocent civilians because of their colour of skin. George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq supported by a few Western countries was another example of when fear leads to hatred and hatred to violence. The Iraq war took hundreds of thousands of lives, a terrible situation that could easily have been prevented with some sober, logical thought. I understand fear. I have lived it as a prisoner of conscience, and I also survived the 8-year Iran-Iraq war. But I learned from it, I learned that fear needs to be overcome with logic—or innocents die.
The local government in Valbonne has placed about 50 refugees, all minors who are in France without their parents, at the boarding section of the CIV. The CIV is beautiful, and these kids get clean beds and food. They are safe. France has a law, from what I was told, that it cannot turn away refugees under the age of 18 who enter the country without their parents and has to “protect” them. The problem began with the way the local government interpreted the word “protect”. These young refugees are not at all allowed to speak or in any way communicate with the “regular” students of the CIV. Not a word can be uttered between the “regulars” and the refugees. They cannot chat. They cannot play sports together. They cannot eat together; the refugees have a different lunchtime in the cafeteria from the “regular” students. The refugee kids have been entirely isolated, as if they have something worse than the plague. It’s sad, very sad, and frustrating to watch. When I asked, the school authorities told me that this was not their decision but it was the one of the local government; the school had to follow the rules. I was told that these rules were to “protect” the refugees who were minors.
Do you remember when you were a teenager? What do teenagers crave more than anything? I believe it is to belong. What happens when teenagers—any teenagers, not only the refugees—are isolated? They get angry, feel hated and abandoned, and then they become perfect recruits for gangs and terrorist organizations. With this divisive policy, the French government is shooting itself and the rest of the world in the foot.
Some of the “regular” kids from the school came to me and told me that they had broken the rules and played sports like cricket with the refugee kids. But the “regulars” were worried that if the school administration discovered this, they would get in trouble. There were other “regulars” who wanted to befriend the newcomers, but they were scared of breaking the rules. I had to shake my head when I heard the story. I work with refugees in Canada through the private sponsorship program and the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, in addition to PEN Canada. I have seen, first hand, how the involvement of the civil society can ease the pain of refugees and the societies that accept them. People won’t feel at home if they are isolated and cast aside; segregation will never lead to successful integration.
Co-Chair, Board of Directors, Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture
Chair, Writers in Exile Committee, PEN Canada
Member, International Board, the Human Right Foundation (U.S.)
Member, Vigdis Freedom Foundation (Norway)
After reading the above, it is clear that only pressure from both within and outside of Valbonne will affect the change needed to save these children from any additional trauma to that which they have already suffered. I will be in touch with Mrs. Nemat in the near future to get continuing updates on this story, which will hopefully include contact information to officials within the Valbonne school district who have the authority to reverse their unfortunate policy of segregation.