Argus title : How the human spirit can prevail against an unjust exercise of power
The Pope recently travelled to Turkey. While he was there he visited the site of the ancient city of Ephesus, now known as Selcuk.
In classical times, Ephesus was the location of the famous Temple of Diana, one of the most sacred monuments of the Great Goddess of the Mediterranean and second of the Seven Wonders of the World. The city was home to one of the earliest Christian communities.
According to the Gospels, as Jesus hung dying on a Roman cross, he called out to the disciple John and told him to take care of Mary as if she was his own mother. Ancient legend has it that after the crucifixion of Jesus, Mary went into exile accompanied by John and settled in Ephesus.
The house in which she is believed to have lived is a shrine to Christians as well as Muslims, who venerate her as “Mother Mary”.
At this time of the year – which Christians call Advent – the name and figure of Mary or Meryam appear everywhere – on Christmas cards and in Nativity plays and carol services. Mary is universally portrayed as joyous or demure. There is little will to understand just how difficult her life must have been.
Mary was Jewish and lived under Rome’s brutal imperialist occupation. She was a very young girl who at an early age became pregnant in mysterious circumstances. Many Christians believe she was a virgin who became pregnant by God.
Others speculate she may have been raped. It is a compelling theory – for rape is one of the most common activities of occupying armies.
We have only to look at the situation in Darfur to see how the brutal mass rape of women and girls is used with impunity by the government-backed Janjawid as a form of torture and ethnic cleansing, a means to force victims into exile.
Rape is a particularly potent weapon in patriarchal societies, where male “honour” demands female chastity. This is why the sexual abuse of young Muslim women in occupied Iraq is often not reported by families. They fear exposing their daughters to further shame and themselves to dishonour. A woman such as Mary would have lived under similar constraints.
According to the Gospels and Christian legend, Mary was forced from her home at least three times in her life. She was heavily pregnant on the first occasion and homeless when she gave birth, given sanctuary by an innkeeper.
Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Mary and her husband moved again, fleeing the country in order to safeguard the baby from slaughter by Herod.
The third exile, following years of traveling with Jesus, was after his imprisonment, torture and execution. Despite terrible danger, Mary stayed with Jesus, but later fled the country once again. Her life, like that of all refugees, was marred by instability, fear and danger.
Mary would have understood the people of Darfur and Iraq. She would have understood the suffering of failed asylum seeker Ekrem Ovunc (41) who was seized in a terrifying dawn raid from his home in Brighton and taken away for deportation. She would also have recognised the terror of Ibrahim, Ekrem’s 17-year-old son. It would not have escaped her attention that this Kurdish father and son have fled torture and assassination in Turkey – the very part of the world to which she herself fled for safety.
Ekrem awaits deportation at Colnbrook Detention Centre at Heathrow Airport. Ibrahim, a conscientious A level student at a local Sixth Form College, has disappeared. His friends and teachers are deeply concerned for his safety.
Ekrem is reported to be deeply depressed. He is in no doubt that he will be tortured or killed if he is sent back. He is on suicide watch.
Ekrem fled Turkey 6 years ago after being tortured for his involvement with the Kurdish independence organisation PKK. He says his father, grandfather and uncle were all killed by Turkish authorities.
Dominic Lafont, an Asylum Project Coordinator in Brighton, who has been working with Ekrem, said he had “received medication… and counseling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, following 4 separate arrests and periods of torture (electric shocks, cold water torture and solitary confinement)….Doctors have confirmed that he has physical injuries consistent with torture.”
Amnesty International confirms the existence of torture and other human rights abuses in Turkey and reports that there have been several cases of Kurds being imprisoned and maltreated after being returned. Despite this, the Home Office has refused the asylum applications of both father and son and insists they can safely return.
Ekrem’s deportation has been delayed following representations from Brighton Pavilion MP David Lepper and local campaign groups.
David Lepper said: “I would be very concerned for any Kurds being returned to Turkey, particularly for one who has been involved with the PKK and especially in view of recent EU reports, which have raised questions over the country’s human rights record.”
Mary-Jane Burkett, of Brighton Voices In Exile, which is based at the Chapel Royal in Brighton, also worked with Ekrem. She said: “Ekrem was terrified of being deported. The situation for Kurds in Turkey is getting worse and he has every reason to be fearful.”
The Refugee Trust is a Brighton charity which provides weekly cash payments for destitute asylum seekers, and money for other costs. It has set aside £1,100 to help fund medical and legal advice for Ekrem Ovunc.
Tony Greenstein of the Refugee Trust said: “We need to ensure that Mr Ovunc receives good legal advice and a medical examination from the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture… the Home Office’s only concern seems to be to deport him before such an examination takes place.”
He added: “One of the reasons for invading Iraq was an apparent concern for the fate of the Kurds yet here is the British government trying to hand over a Kurdish refugee into the hands of the Turkish government. The Home Office should stay all deportation proceedings pending the outcome of a medical examination.”
Amnesty International recently reported that in Darfur, when the Janjawid come to rape and torture their victims, they taunt them with the following words: “Why isn’t anyone here to protect you?’ It is a haunting question.
In Darfur, genocide is in progress and the world does nothing. But here too, nearer to home, the same question could be asked. It could be asked of the poor souls locked up in Harmonsworth Detention Centre, who lacking any other redress, used sheets to write the word “HELP” on the Centre’s courtyard. For a short while their cry for help was blazoned across the world – until the Home Office imposed a ‘no-fly’ zone over the Centre.
It could be asked of Ekrem and Ibrahim Ovunc, as of so many asylum seekers who have experienced abuses at the hands of the British state. Why is there nobody there to protect them?
There are good people who try to protect them – such as other asylum seekers, charity workers and concerned individuals – but it is an uphill battle. In the twilight days of the Blair administration officials have been given free rein to bully asylum seekers. It’s what newspaper editors demand. Fear sells their newspapers just as much as it sustains immoral governments.
All too often asylum seekers who have witnessed appalling treatment by British authorities are too scared to report it.
It’s hardly surprising that suicide and suicide attempts are frequent. Too many asylum seekers, already traumatized by torture, are worn down with despair. Workers are beyond exhaustion. Against the power of the state their task must often seem impossible.
The human spirit can prevail against unjust exercise of power. Courage, compassion and simple love for other people can triumph over oppression – provided that people work together to effect change.
An appeal has been launched to fund medical reports and the family’s legal costs. In addition to the £1,100 earmarked by the Refugee Trust, Brighton Voices in Exile has raised £400. Another £500 at least is needed.
The Refugee Trust urgently needs donations to replace funds allocated to the Ovuncs case. It gives away all its money and currently has funds for another 5 weeks only.
Please make cheques out to “The Refugee Trust”, and send them c/o Mary Jane Burkett, Chapel Royal, North Street, Brighton. Please specify whether you wish your donation to be used for the Ovunc family or others like them.
Express concerns by writing to the immigration minister Liam Byrne at the Home Office, 3rd Floor, Peel Building, 2 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 4DF or by faxing 020 7035 4745.