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Sectarian tensions brewing in Luxembourg foyer

Sectarian tensions brewing in Luxembourg foyer

5 min. 01.03.2016 From our online archive
Sectarian tensions are rising between residents at a foyer in Weilerbach. looks at the causes and what is being done to find a solution.
In this Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012 photo, Amjad Al-Saleh, whose family fled their home in Marea 11 days ago due to Syrian government shelling at their house, is comforted by his mother as he suffers from food poisoning, as they take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz. Syria’s uprising was not destined to be quick. Instead, the largely peaceful protest movement that spread across the nation slowly turned into an armed insurgency and eventually a full-blown civil war. More than 130,000 people have been killed, and more than 2 million more have fled the country. Nearly three years after the crisis began, Syria's government and opposition are set to meet in Geneva this week for the first direct talks aimed at ending the conflict. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen, File)

When Malik's oldest son was shot in a Baghdad hospital for being Shia, he vowed at least one of his children would grow up away from sectarian violence and discrimination.

He travelled with his 15-year-old son to Luxembourg last October where he hoped to start a new life.

But, he was shocked when one of the first questions other residents in his new home asked him was "Are you Sunni or Shia?".

Living in Weilerbach's family foyer, housing around 200 asylum seekers of different religions, Malik said he feels persecuted by a small minority of Sunni residents because of his nationality and religion.

I am afraid that what happened in Iraq will happen again here

“They greet me in the corridor by saying, 'hi, terrorist'. They say they are just joking but it's not funny,” the 43-year-old said, adding: “I'm not comfortable, and I am afraid that what happened in Iraq will happen again here.”

Malik says he is among four families who are being discriminated against by about four specific Sunni families also living in the foyer.

I was shocked to hear what people were saying here

“I was shocked to hear what people were saying here...They never threaten me directly because they know I will go to the police,"  another Iraqi asylum seeker at Weilerbach, Rahim, told, adding: "It's just when I walk past them in large groups and they say they want to kill Shias. They say bad things. It's never direct, but they look at you when they say it."

“I cannot sleep at night because I'm afraid of what they might do,” he added.

Rahim came to Luxembourg with his wife, Amira, in October last year. The couple say they only feel safe when they lock themselves into their room at night. Amira, too, says she is being singled out. She says she is shunned by other women in the foyer and verbally abused by their children.

It's especially bad with the children

“It's especially bad with the children. These families tell their children this and that. Then children come out and say that all Iraqis are terrorists. They do it because we are Shia and Iraqi.”

Problems resurfacing

Upon arriving in Luxembourg, asylum seekers are told that discrimination upon religious or any other grounds is not permitted in the Grand Duchy.

But it seems it is not unusual for old problems to resurface. Asti president Laura Zuccoli explained that during the Balkan crisis, migrants moving to Luxembourg brought ethnic problems with them, many of which were exacerbated by a lack of distractions as they waited for their documents to be processed.

It's very important that we get people active so that they are not in the foyers all day

“It's very important that we get people active so that they are not in the foyers all day,” she said, adding: “If people just hang around all day they only think about their problems and their journey here.”

Malik agrees. “[These problems are] caused by stress. People have nothing to do all day but think and make problems.”

He said he would like to leave the foyer during the day, but the centre's rigid meal times and isolated location prevent him from going very far.

Malik said it would not take much to make a difference to the residents. Small things like offering free wi-fi (currently he has to go to Echternach to get onto a free network), sports and perhaps even some kind of training, would help.

Activities for residents are offered by volunteers in some foyers in Luxembourg, but mainly those run by asbls which have the infrastructure to train volunteers.

Volunteers in the foyer

Weilerbach's family foyer is managed by the ministry's reception office OLAI, which chose not to comment on this story.

While the ministry has responded quickly to last year's surge in asylum numbers, providing accommodation and food for each person applying for asylum.

It has come under fire for poor living conditions and questionable practices at the former sanatorium following an RTL investigation in 2011. The residents say that while conditions are not ideal, they would be more tolerable if they had something to keep them occupied.

But establishing volunteer-run activities takes time, as Max Pesch of asbl Konterbont, a volunteer-led organisation offering activities at Weilerbach's family foyer, knows only too well.

We cannot organise everything because we are volunteers, and it's too big for us

“The problem is there is not enough for them to do here,” he said. “We cannot organise everything because we are volunteers, and it's too big for us.” Max explained that the asbl's volunteers organise activities twice a month at Weilerbach.

Work is underway to forge partnerships with local organisations; for example, a child resident in the foyer is learning violin at the music school in Echternach. And the group plans to make a brochure with information for newcomers translated into Arabic and Farsi.

“Everyone wants to help but you have to manage these volunteers. There's still a lot of work to do,” Max said.

*Since the article was begun, has learned that Weilerbach family foyer has changed direction and relaxed the schedules for meal times.

*The names of the foyer residents interviewed have been changed.