Head of Iraqi migrant relocation project: We cannot see into the heads and hearts of refugees

Iraqi family which is returning to Iraq on a train from Brno to Prague, photo: CTK

The relocation program for 150 Christian refugees from Iraq suffered a bad blow last week when it emerged that 25 of the 89 refugees already here had given up their asylum status and hired a bus to take them to Germany. Interior Minister Milan Chovanec promptly suspended the program on the grounds that the Czech Republic would not serve as a travel agency for refugees on their way to Germany.

Jan Talafant,  photo: archive of Generation 21
Jan Talafant, the head of Generation 21 which organized and financed the relocation, visited our studio shortly after to talk about what happened and how it has impacted the project.

“Of course we are sorry, we are not at all happy about what is going on now, on the other hand it is not the end –there are still 56 people who want to stay here, who are studying the Czech language and who are also unhappy about the departure of 25 members of the group.”

Well do you actually know what happened –why did the 25 people leave for Germany?

“I do not know exactly, we are not sure, but I am firmly convinced that they did not plan this. They came to the Czech Republic to live here but then certain things happened. A refugee who spends a long time trying to get to safety, who flees from their home and spends time in a refugee camp is under immense stress. And suddenly, finally they are in a safe place. They have maybe one week of intense happiness and euphoria before depression comes. They realize they are in a foreign country, they have to learn a new language, they miss their homeland and have many negative thoughts. The group were undergoing this process when there was an unfortunate interview with one TV station and the result of this interview was that these people started to think that they are not welcome here, that the locals consider them ungrateful and their demands excessive. They did not feel good here and at this point someone came and said “well, you do not have to stay here, you can go to Germany or Sweden and have a better life”. We do not know who it was, but we knew they were in communication with somebody, they told us it was some lawyer in Sweden. They shared their feelings with us many times, but the situation changed every day and we were trying to address each of their complaints from one day to the next. But it was really very emotionally-charged. For instance, one of the things they told us is that one of the social workers became their friend on Facebook and took them out on an outing. But afterwards he did not post the pictures with them on his Facebook page which they saw as proof that he did not like them. Emotions were running high. You cannot blame anyone for this. We really did not know that they sent a letter to the Interior Ministry giving up their asylum status, they quit communicating with us and suddenly left.”

“They have maybe one week of intense happiness and euphoria before depression comes.”

On the other hand, one woman in this group had a husband in Germany who had filed for asylum there. Was this not obvious that there was this risk when you were selecting them?

“We knew about this and we discussed it at length. The husband said he would join his family in the Czech Republic – that was the plan. But then, almost every Iraqi Christian has relatives somewhere –Germany, France, Sweden, Canada, so we cannot set down such a condition. Everyone has someone somewhere.”

The Czech interior minister has suspended the program. Do you understand his reasons for doing so and where would you like to see this go – because there is a danger the project could be cancelled altogether.

“We understand that. We knew about the risks involved –and we cannot see into the heads and hearts of the refugees. What we are hoping for is that the government will say OK, let us suspend the project for six months and after that time let us meet again and make a final decision on whether to renew it or not. That is what we hoping for and that is what we would be happy to accept.”

There are 60 other Iraqis waiting to come over – what happens to them now that the program has been put on hold?

“There are two families who were meant to come this week. They took their children out of school, sold their property, let go their apartment so it is a big problem for them. So we are planning to help these families materially, because they suffered a loss and moreover they were really looking forward to coming. The others were due to come at the end of May or the beginning of June so for them it is not so big a blow. If they can still come six months later it would not be such a problem.”

Iraqi family which is returning to Iraq on a train from Brno to Prague,  photo: CTK
What we haven’t mentioned is that another group – an eight member family – are returning to Iraq because they are homesick and were not able to settle in a different cultural environment. Is that right?

“It is actually only one person who had a problem –a 63-year- old man who already felt homesick on the plane. He says he is dying and he wants to die in Iraq, that he wants to go home. And in Iraq family bonds are so strong that his wife and two daughters with their families are going back with him. We can see that they are not happy about it, but they say it can’t be helped, we have to do this. They say everything was good here and they felt welcome and are very sorry to have to make this decision but they simply have to go. So that is somehow understandable.”

How have these departures impacted those who are staying? What is their frame of mind?

“They are unhappy about it, because some of those who were still due to arrive are their relatives, so it is difficult for them. And they say they really want to stay in the Czech Republic. On the other hand if Germany receives the 25 refugees then these 56 people who may not have considered such a step could start to think about it.”

So you are not ruling out that this incident could trigger a bigger exodus?

“We hope not, but this could be an example for them, that it is possible. And it does not mean that they came with the idea in mind. It is a natural thing. They fled from the war and are now thinking about living a better life. But we know that many of the refugees are working hard to learn Czech, they have lessons every day and every evening the father assembles the family for them to practice what they have learnt. They are really trying hard and that is the strongest sign that they want to stay here. Most of them do not speak English, they only speak Arabic, Aramaic and now some Czech. So they will want to stay here because they do not want to start again somewhere else.”

”I think that if we could go back a year there would be very little that we would do differently.”

When you were planning this relocation program –was there something that you did not anticipate, were there problems along the way that you did not expect or that were beyond your control? Such as the fact that the refugees did not get a positive reception everywhere?

“We tried to prepare them for the fact that not everyone will welcome them, but that there are people who are welcoming them, Christians who want to help them and who are preparing accommodation for them, but of course if an attack is personal it influences them. I think that if we could go back a year there would be very little that we would do differently. ”

What about the psychological problems involved? Were you able to deal with those?

“We knew about that and they were in the care of social and integration workers. We are not professionals in this, but these people are and they know what to do. Even those who want to stay may need psychological help. They have to deal with bad memories and build a new life. They have post-trauma stresses and we see that in some cases they so much want to avoid talking about the past that they say – it was good, we had no problems– and this is from a family that experienced the killing of their relatives and had other very harrowing experiences. But it is not the same for everyone. Some people are just happy in a new country and do not appear to have any problems.”

So what happened now with this group of 25 was an unfortunate incident. You do not have doubts regarding your selection process?

“I do not think so because such things would be almost impossible to predict. This group which left for Germany they seemed very grateful and assured us they wanted to stay. They went through all the interviews and screenings and things. And the other thing is – it is not all of them who made this decision. It was probably two of them with the strongest voice and the others followed. Some of the locals spoke to family members and they said we like it here, we have no problem, I was looking forward to being a truck driver once again and the apartments they offered us are very nice, we want to stay there but the family is leaving so I have to go. I will not stay here alone.”

Photo: CTK
Czech society has not been overly migrant-friendly. Do you think this incident will do even more harm in influencing people against migrants?

“I don’t know, but from the reactions of people it seems to me that it has not changed anyone’s mind. The people who were against tell us that what we are doing is wrong and those who were supportive say we support you anyway, we knew it would not be easy, so do not give up, continue, there is still a lot to be done.”