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Q&A with Sana Mustafa: “We are all forcibly displaced under different labels by international law”

TIMEP speaks to Sana Mustafa, the Director of Partnerships and Engagement at Asylum Access, about hers and her family’s path out of Syria, settling in a new country, and the wide range of challenges that refugee must navigate to secure support in new countries.

TIMEP speaks to Sana Mustafa, the Director of Partnerships and Engagement at Asylum Access, about hers and her family’s path out of Syria, settling in a new country, and the wide range of challenges that refugee must navigate to secure support in new countries. 

TIMEP: Why and how did you leave Syria?

SM: I was born and raised in Syria in a small town called Masyaf, in Hama province into a lower class, very political family. My parents were extremely critical of the Assad regime ever since I could remember. I grew up seeing my dad organizing, despite the rooted censorship the Syrian regime imposed on Syrians. During that time, the one cause people were allowed to talk about in the public sphere was Palestine. Lots of activists in Syria who opposed the Assad regime were able to identify each other and have political discourse around this—we used to talk about Palestine itself, but it was also a way to connect with other activists. And that was relatively the okay topic we could talk about—and so I grew up protesting for that. The Syrian regime had always had their eyes on the family and eventually my father was taken in 2006 by the Assad regime for a couple of months before he was released. This was a major part, and a defining part, of my teenage years and time at home.

When the Arab Spring started in Egypt and Tunisia, I witnessed these moments with my father and with my family, my sister, and many other Syrians. For me, as a 19-year-old at the time, and more so for my father—the 49-year-old who never imagined he would witness something like this in the region, even as someone who has been working toward a revolution since he was fifteen—it was a really, really huge moment. As a result, when protests started in Syria, it was not a question of whether my family and I would be involved; we were immediately acting on it, mobilizing, organizing and protesting. As a result, my sister and I were detained in 2011; my father was also detained for the second time and we were all released at different times. We continued activism till 2013, when I left Syria and came to the U.S. for six weeks of summer school. 

A week after I got to the US, my father was detained by the Assad regime for the third time on July 2, 2013. At the time, things had changed in Syria and tension had really escalated—which meant there was no way to go back. My mother and my sisters fled immediately, they left our home in Syria and were smuggled into Turkey, as in many authoritarian regimes, women get weaponized in war and my sister had already been flagged for her political activism.  And I was told I can’t go back because of the fear of facing detention as well, so I stayed and sought political asylum in the U.S.

TIMEP: What were the biggest challenges you faced when starting over and moving to a new country?

SM: I think an important thing to highlight is that we are all forcibly displaced under different labels by international law. Under international law for example, I am an asylum seeker; my mother and sisters are refugees. My other sister is under protected asylum in Germany—these are all labels put by the system to differentiate people, but at the end of the day we are all forcibly displaced by the Assad regime only with different stories. Even though we, as a one family, had many shared experiences around force displacement, we also had many different experiences and circumstances—mainly because of the different geographies and circumstances of displacement. 

I am the first person who had ever left our family in Syria to anywhere beyond Lebanon, so it was big that I came to the U.S. to begin with. I was a 22-year-old at the time. I was literally uprooted from everything I had known, in a completely different environment with nothing, except for lots of trauma, uncertainty, and fears. I barely spoke English, I had no money, and I knew no one at the time. I didn’t even know I had an option for asylum. Gladly for me, immediately there was an amazing support system, but the challenges were very real. I moved around to over 13 couches in the first year just because the system here doesn’t provide help in that sense. This is one of the differences, if you come to the U.S. as a resettled refugee you come into an existing support system—even if it’s far from perfect; whereas as an asylum seeker here, you don’t even know you have the option of applying for an asylum. You then find out that you need $4,000 to find a lawyer before being able to apply for asylum—even after finding a lawyer, the big challenge is to make a case and prove that you can’t go back home. Navigating the legal system here was, and continues to be, very challenging for so many other refugees. At least in my case I was able to learn about the asylum decision in a few months. I have friends who applied in 2013 and their cases are still pending—that means their lives are pending. 

On the other hand, my family who fled to Turkey were placed under temporary protection—that being said, there was actually no process to which they could apply. There’s a lot of discrimination; they had no legal rights, no protection, and there was no social support system like that in the U.S.–I was one of a handful of Syrian refugees in D.C. The advantage, though, of being in Turkey for my family is remaining somewhat close to Syria, in a very similar culture and with many other Syrians around, who become their support system. Unfortunately for me here, it was completely the opposite. It was a completely different culture, environment, and language—the feeling of loneliness for me was very challenging. The U.S. also sets you into this dilemma of survival, you just never stop. It is a country, unlike Europe, that doesn’t provide you with significant social welfare. You really don’t have time to process any trauma; you don’t have access to therapy, to decent housing from the government—which means you have to work immediately.

Also,  as a forcibly displaced person, you come from a different culture and different academic credentials and you can’t immediately utilize your credentials from back home. You just have to do the “survival jobs” of being in the service industry. I did that for a year. I also wanted to continue my education–so I was able to get a scholarship, which was a lot of work. Access to education in the U.S. is very difficult and expensive. I was offered one scholarship by Bard College, NY  and it’s amazing that I got that. Barriers to education here are not only about money, but class and language. It’s very exclusive and so it leaves people stuck in the system of survival and doesn’t provide them with the opportunity to pursue something further. Gladly in my case I was able to do that, with lots of work and a support system. 

TIMEP: How has your experience affected your concept of what “home” is?

SM: The understanding of home is an evolving understanding for me. It is something that’s not fixed on certain understanding. Over the years, I have found different meanings of home; and I come to believe that home is really a feeling. There are moments where I am in a certain place where I feel complete and I don’t feel I want to be anywhere else—and that’s home for me at that moment. But there’s also that sense of home in terms of identity. And in terms of identity, home is definitely Syria. Home is the revolution, it’s Syria after the revolution, not before it. Before the revolution, home for me was my actual house, because it was in the private space where my family and I would have open conversations and be intimate with each other. And when the revolution started, Syria had become home because I was able to discuss things in the public sphere that accorded with my identity and the identity and beliefs of many other people. If I miss Syria, I miss that Syria, the revolution Syria.

TIMEP: How can the narrative surrounding refugees be reclaimed in a way that centers their voices and lived experiences?

SM: To reclaim the narrative, you basically have to start with the system. You have to center the people who have the experience of forced displacement at the heart of policy making and program design. And that all leads into the narrative. But unfortunately, because we live in a reality in which these spaces are super exclusive, we as a people of forced displacement can start with the narrative, the storytelling place. It should be the opposite, because usually when you are making something then you are shaping the narrative, but here we are not making any of these policies and programs on refugees. The only thing we have in our own hands is our stories, our own narrative. So we try to do that, we try to tell a different story about the work that others are doing. I believe we are utilizing what we have in our hands. And obviously storytelling is a very, very sensitive and dangerous tool because again it’s one of those tools that get politicalized and at the end, we get tokenized as refugees.

 In my work personally I have tried to reclaim storytelling. When I am invited to speak to an audience, I would totally take the platform and the opportunity to say my message; to give my opinion about forced displacement, about solutions and policy analysis. Considering the reality, there are things we can do as refugees to reclaim the narrative in a way that we believe is true to ourselves and what we stand for. In a way that’s a bit systematic toward reclaiming the seat. I don’t want to reclaim the narrative only; I want to reclaim the seat. The seat on the table that was never given to any of us.

The refugee response system, by design, is problematic. It was designed by white men in Geneva and New York in 1951, by people actually very distant from the experience, as an extension of colonialism. And that structure has never been questioned ever since. It has been operating for over seventy years, spending billions of dollars claiming to address the “problem,” and yet the average stay in a camp is 17 years. If you are looking at a business case, they have failed. I don’t know why we still give money to the same people for seventy years. If having agency and doing the right thing by giving refugees power is not enough of an argument, then look at it as a business case. If someone has been taking money for seventy years and failing, might as well try to invest in someone else.

TIMEP: You are talking about these huge challenges that span over generations, is there anything that you have seen recently that you think is a step in the right direction?

SM: Yes, so many! It’s been a movement. I personally co-founded with other refugees a number of networks that have started advocacy toward inclusion of refugees in policy making. When I started back in 2016, someone at Geneva laughed at me for even proposing the idea of adding refugees to the discussions around refugees. And now we are looking at a time where, because of that advocacy, refugees are now in the Globe Refugee Forum with a delegation of over seventy people. It’s a good step, it’s not enough. There were about three thousand attendees at the forum, so around seventy refugee delegates is not enough. However, before that, all UN meetings about refugees had no refugees. So it’s a step toward the right direction, but most importantly now is to put our demands into a concert action. 

In the past year, in my capacity with Asylum Access, we have convened a coalition of refugee-led organizations around the world and we’ve come together to try to shift power and resources to our refugee-led organizations. We have learned from the current refugee response system that the way to change things is money. In the Humanitarian Annual Report we read that of the humanitarian money that goes into the system every year—which is 30 billion dollars—less than one percent goes to local actors, or local civil societies. We are talking about refugee-led organizations, which is a sub-category of local civil society that’s even more generalized than local civil society because they don’t even have the right to exist legally. The people who are committed to their communities, who are already doing lots of work for their communities, get no money—money flows not meeting money needs. 

We applied for a big award, the Larsen Lam Iconic Impact Award,  that was recently announced. We won ten million dollars to literally shift power and resources in the refugee response sector to refugee-led organizations. This is the first investment of its kind on such a scale in this movement. I think this is an investment in the right direction and I can’t attribute it alone to the advocacy we’ve been doing for years, I would also attribute it to a lot of current movements such as Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, and  women rights– lots of movements in the past year made it clear for investors and donors that we are headed toward an environment and a world where people are not accepting less anymore. If anything, donors have to think now about how to localize more and the COVID-19 has proven that. For example, when the crisis hit, lots of big refugee hosting countries, lots of INGOs left and evacuated their staff for safety. Guess who was left behind? Refugee-led organizations, because they don’t leave their communities; they are committed to their communities and they were obviously left to do the work. INGOs had to contract refugee-led organizations to be implementers during the crisis because they would not send their staff. So COVID-19 withl all its disadvantages made a clear case that for sustainability and for the future, the solution is local. 

TIMEP: What needs to be done to support refugees and mitigate some of their challenges?

SM: I think actors involved in the refugees and forced displacement issues—those who are not refugees—have to listen to refugees and to think together about how to be an ally. This is a movement like all other movements that were created historically and systematically. And now it’s time for those actors who have benefited from the struggle for years to really listen and think about what they can do to shift the narrative and to shift power and funding to local actors. Everyone in their capacity can do something. Lots of funders could think again about their funding mechanism and how their funding mechanisms are exclusive by design, especially when you have a certain language and a criteria that by default prevent local actors from applying. It is money circulating within the system for itself. I invite all allies to think about what could be done on a personal level, interpersonal, and then systematic level. There are lots of resources now and we have been talking with lots of foundations and other peer organizations and governments about the importance of international transformation and representation within their own organizations for it to reflect on their external work. You can’t continue to talk about inclusion of refugees and working with refugees through consulting refugees. Consulting is such a tokenized way of inclusion. You can’t have organizations that want to work on the representation and inclusion of refugees when they are not willing to look internally first, on the staff and board level. And if you really want to do the change, then have enough representation in your own staff and they will lead the change and that by default will come into your project.

TIMEP: There has been recent pressure on some governments to implement policies forcing refugees to return. What should the international community do in response to such measures?

SM: These practices of forced return need to stop immediately, and they need to be re-assessed. It all goes back to the bottom lines of who are making these policies and how these domestic policy makers are making these decisions, to whom they are talking. The attitude is very strong and unfortunately, we are not as strong yet—this is why we need to empower this movement to have a louder voice because if we are able to engage more with policy makers, maybe these decisions will not be made. I do understand domestic politics. They always say it’s complicated. I honestly don’t think it’s that complicated. You are sending people back and choosing certain areas that you say are safe to send people back—that in itself violates international law. This should be a choice—the moment you become a refugee your agency is taken away from you. You literally have no agency of where you live, what you eat, when you leave the country, when you come back, what country you live in, what job you choose, to have kids or not—you have zero agency over any element of your life. And on top of it all, they send you back. 

 And in terms of going back, when we talk about forcibly displaced people, there’s always this connection to home and also this assumption that everyone wants to go back home. I think it’s an assumption that was created by political powers to navigate domestic politics around hosting refugees. The reality is due to political reasons, refugees never go back. The average stay in a camp is 17 years. I definitely dislike the politicization of the rhetoric that suggests everyone wants to go back home. That also takes away the agency of what we want and what we decide. I personally want to have the option. I want to have the choice. I want to be able to go to Syria when I want, to leave and come back to my second home when I want to. I want to be safe.  I want to be like any other Western citizen of having the option to be where they want to be—and that’s for me the actual meaning of going back home and how I think about it.


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