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HOMEWARD - May 2018 Sarah Osei-Bonsu

The Siege of Eastern Ghouta: Crimes without accountability?

Photo by Cedric Dhaenens

Written by Sarah Osei-Bonsu, Staff Writer

For weeks following the chemical weapon attack Eastern Ghouta had been on the front pages and then there was silence…

On Wednesday, May 2nd the silence was broken in a panel discussion called ‘The Siege of Eastern Ghouta: crimes without accountability?’. The conference organised by the War Reparations Centre – Amsterdam Centre for International Law (ACIL), Amsterdam Students Association of International Law (ASA) and the Syria Legal Network (SLN). It sought to revive the Eastern Ghouta discussion with “facts, law and diplomacy”. The panel was made up of Hussam Alkatlaby the director of the Syrian Violations Documentation Centre (VDC), Robin Peeters from the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs, Joost Hiltermann, regional program director of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Middle East and North Africa and Kevin John Heller, professor of public international law at the University of Amsterdam. The discussion was hosted by Frederiek de Vlaming from the Syria Legal Network.

The conference started with a video. It showed, in horrible bluntness, brutal episodes of Eastern Ghouta’s five-year besiegement. The images were shocking but not surprising. I think all of us crowded into this room squinting at the screen asked ourselves: What now? What can be done? The aim of the conference was to answer precisely these questions by seeking accountability for the war crimes, by finding the individuals and prosecuting them. But the video showed a pandemonium of crimes and human rights violations, making the prospect of finding accountability look like an insurmountable task. Before giving the panel the floor, de Vlaming wanted us to know why she showed this video: “it is about facts […] the way Eastern Ghouta was portrayed in the media did not show the facts. If you don’t know the facts you can’t enforce the law. You got the idea from mainstream media that the siege ended and the war was over… this is wrong.”


The suburb of Damascus has been under siege by the Syrian government since 2013, and in 2018 the world was witness to the unspeakable horrors that occurred within it, an ‘alleged’ chemical weapons attack that killed 70 civilians on 7th April, 2018 ensured Eastern Ghouta dominated the news for weeks. The alleged attack sparked international outrage, but this was too little too late. During the 5-year siege thousands of people had already been killed and numerous war crimes were committed. As a result of the attack the Syrian government concluded an agreement with Russia as part of a UN ceasefire and forcibly evacuated over 50,000 civilians from the area – another legally contested action.  The siege was declared over, however, doubts have been raised on the validity of this pronouncement. For instance, humanitarian organizations claim they are
still blocked from supplying aid. The saga was followed up on April 14th by airstrikes on Damascus and Homs by the UK, France, and the USA. The airstrikes targeted sites associated with Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and were a direct response to the attack on Eastern Ghouta.  This attack was widely condemned, but now the dust is settling. Soon we will start forgetting how much has been lost in Eastern Ghouta, that for many people home turned into a graveyard and by the time this war is done the displaced might have nothing left to return to.

The war is far from over in Eastern Ghouta, and according to Alkatlaby, the town is still in acute crisis. The VDC he represents documents all human rights abuses on the ground, based on international human rights law, and human rights violations have not ceased since the siege ‘ended’. The VDC treats the conflict as an international conflict, not a regional one. Within this international conflict, Eastern Ghouta is specifically important, Alkatlaby argued. “What happened in Eastern Ghouta totally reflects the situation of [Syria].” Since the beginning of the Syrian war, which takes roots in the Arab Spring, Eastern Ghouta was an important hub for demonstrations. The besiegement of the town and Assad’s ‘starve and surrender’ tactic is symbolic of the regime’s strategy and force in the rest of the country. The use of chemical weapons here was a deliberate statement to the people of Syria, Alkatlaby argued: “The Syrian government is saying ‘we have the permission to do anything here’.” The international community’s outrage over this singular attack is duplicitous, it says ‘don’t kill your people with chemical weapons, but other methods are fine’ – is killing 150,000 people by barrel bombs not a threat to humanity?

Joost Hiltermann from the ICG explained that, indeed, chemical weapons are the graver of the two even if the casualties say otherwise. He waved away the notion of “alleged chemical attacks”, saying there are proven cases of chemical weapons. There are two decisive reasons the international community cares more about these chemical attacks than barrel bombs dropped. Firstly, there’s no danger of proliferation of barrel bombs. It’s simple: chemical weapons are a gateway to other biological weapons. It’s a different class of weapon. This is, of course, a meaningless distinction to people on the ground. However, the second reason there was such a foreign fixation on Syria’s chemical weapons is because the Syrian government can be held legally accountable for their usage. In dealing with an international conflict like this, and trying to consign accountability labels are very important. Chemical weapons are objectively not permitted under international law since the First World War. While investigative mechanisms such as the VDC’s essentially don’t work as a deterrent for the regime and rebel groups, this evidence could be used in future prosecution of the attacks. This is a likely outcome, because even Syria’s ally Russia has no interest in chemical weapon proliferation so there may come a time when this evidence collected will be of use to stop chemical weapons.

Chemical weapon attacks are of course not the only war crimes that have been committed in Eastern Ghouta. Other prosecutable crimes under international law include starvation as result of unlawful besiegement and forced evacuations or deportations. Yes, Eastern Ghouta was under siege for five years and siege warfare is in principle lawful, but the systematic criminality within this siege is not. Using a siege to starve a civilian population is a war crime; you need to allow for humanitarian access to food and care for the sick and wounded. That obligation applies to whoever is holding the siege. It’s a categorical obligation under international law and therefore the Syrian government can be held accountable.

So what forms of accountability are there for the crimes committed in Eastern Ghouta? The panel was split on this question. On the one hand, there were the believers in international organizations, and on the other hand, those who saw state-initiative as the only way. Robin Peeters, a Dutch representative at the UN Security Council, belonged of course to the former camp. Decisions at the UN level, he claimed, are always made on the basis of humanitarian considerations. The problem is that Security Council resolutions are often blocked. International rule of law on accountability is the ‘main priority’ – “We don’t think long-term stability is possible without accountability and justice”. According to Peeter’s, the most effective way to attain such justice is on an international level, for instance through a tribunal.

Photo by Joakim Honkasalo

Heller calls himself the “high priest of the futility of international law” and is accordingly pessimistic about the role of international institutions in holding the responsible parties accountable. According to him, the basic lesson of Syria, from an international criminal law point, is that international organizations don’t have access to Syria. An ad hoc tribunal “is simply not going to happen”. The Security Council as a legal body has almost no actual power. In his view, accountability is going to happen on a domestic level, any state in the world can prosecute what is going on in Syria under universal jurisdiction. If evidence collected by international mechanisms is ever going to be useful it will be because states used this in successful prosecutions. Our attention is focused on the wrong things.

I agree with Heller that accountability requires state action, but will France, the UK, and the US do more than authorize airstrikes? There are major issues under international law with this kind of interference. Russia has repeatedly been criticised for its involvement in the Syrian war, while we should be condemning France, the UK, and the USA. The states’ airstrikes on April 14th constituted a breach of sovereignty, whereas “Russia was invited there” (Hiltermann). It’s incredibly important to emphasize that there’s nothing humanitarian about airstrikes to stop chemical weapons. There are more and more efforts by powerful states like these three to make exceptions to international law, by cloaking their abuse of human rights with humanitarian language. That kind of rationale is extraordinarily easy to abuse.

The panel was in agreement that the correct response to what happened in Ghouta is not brute force, but instrumentalizing international law to prosecute those accountable. Although I agree this is the only viable option especially on a state basis, I couldn’t escape the prospect of the futility of finding accountability. It seemed I wasn’t the only one disheartened by this, as the conference ended on somewhat of a somber note. While we debate the possible ineptness of international organisations and the blunders of states, Eastern Ghouta is still a battleground. According to the VDC’s data, before the siege in 2013 there were 2 million people in living in Eastern Ghouta. Now there are less than 30,000. For those who have been forced to leave there is virtually no home to return to, and those that remain have lost any semblances of it. Something must be done to atone for this and the panel raised good suggestions of what this could be legally. I am grateful for their insights and this earnest push for accountability. Accountability is an important way of thinking about international law in the Syrian war. I hope Eastern Ghouta will be the case that finally brings retribution. What has happened in Eastern Ghouta and what continues to happen should not be forgotten or relegated to being a just another episode of the Syrian war.

Christian Hazes HOMEWARD - May 2018

Ilunga’s Game

Photo by Edgar Chaparro

Written by Christian Hazes, Staff Writer

Unintentionally, Zaire defender Mwepu Ilunga achieved football immortality during one of the group-stage matches of the 1974 FIFA World Cup in Germany.

Having lost against Scotland and Yugoslavia, Zaire had already been eliminated from the tournament. On the other hand, Brazil had already reached the second stage of the tournament after picking up two convincing wins. In other words, the final game between the two countries would be a mere technicality. While in the concluding minutes of that last game of group B, tournament first-timers Zaire were down two to nothing against reigning champions Brazil.

In these final minutes, Mwepu Ilunga succeeds in doing the impossible: leaving the divine team Seleçao flabbergasted. The Brazilians are preparing to take a free-kick, while Zaire forms a wall to attempt to block the shot. Shortly after the whistle by the referee that signals Brazil is good to go, defender Mwepu Ilunga breaks free from the wall, sprints towards the ball and before the Brazilians can blink, kicks the ball away as far as possible. Brazilian football gods Roberto Rivelino and Jairzinho looking on with their jaws dropped remains a unique scene. One of the strangest moments in football history just took place.

The fact is the reason for Ilunga’s action had nothing to do with ignorance concerning the rules of the game. No, Zaire’s players, nicknamed the Leopards, are perfectly aware of the rules. Instead, the daunting fear of going home is what drove Ilunga’s action. The clearance was simply a tactic to buy some invaluable time as well as an act of protest.

Zaire was a Belgian colony up until the year 1960, officially known then as Congo. As is the case for the vast majority of the exploited colonies on the African continent, the legacy left behind by former European rulers is far from convenient. Five years after gaining independence, Mobutu Sese Seko cunningly turned the precarious and inchoate Sub-Saharan state into a dictatorial regime. Mobutu’s Popular Movement of the Revolution dominated the one-party state that Zaire had become for over three decades, leaving the country devastated. Under the aegis of “the Father of the Nation”, the people of Zaire had been trapped in a totalitarian system dripping with Mobutism.

Mobutu’s influence also reached Zaire’s football culture by virtue of recalling players that had moved to Belgium, prohibiting playing abroad, and pumping huge sums of money in the game’s development. It must be admitted, though, that Mobutu’s intervention was highly fruitful, in addition to snatching the only African ticket for the contest after a grueling group-stage, the Leopards also became victors of the 1974 African Cup of Nations. As a sign of gratitude, the benign Mobutu awarded every team member with a house and a green Volkswagen car.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Zaire arrived at the World Cup ‘74 on a high. Some bookmakers even deemed the Africans potential outsiders.

The start of the tournament proved to be promising. Under the supervision of a vast Zairean delegate, including important ministers, high-ranking army officials and a battalion of witchdoctors, the team held up remarkably well against a strong Scottish equipe. Nevertheless, Zaire’s world cup debut culminated in a 2-0 loss.

Unfortunately, the close loss against the Scots turned out to be the apex of Zaire’s participation during that World Cup. Ahead of their next game, financial problems surfaced that proved to be the last drop to make pot boil over. The Zairean players did not receive their match payments.

In stark contrast with the present-day conditions, several decades ago football players often lived in financially uncertain circumstances. The fact that corruption was common in Mobutu-led Zaire made the players suspicious of the Zairean entourage. Mwepu Ilunga and consorts could assume the delegate had seized the match payments.

Photo by Jannik Skorna

The players of Zaire decided to strike back. Not merely because of the unreceived match bonuses, but also to address the larger problems of their home country. The World Cup would be the perfect stage to raise awareness concerning the fact that they were living in a full-blown dictatorial regime.

According to some sources, as a last resort to avoid a tarnished image of the tournament, the FIFA promised to pay 3000 Deutsche Marks per player as a means of compensation. All-out mutiny by Zaire was circumvented, but the tension didn’t fully dissipate.

The second match of Zaire with Yugoslavia as the adversary was amongst the worst in the whole history of the tournament. Exhaustion after days of arguing amalgamated with feelings of anger and resentment left the Leopards extremely demotivated. The result? Zaire experienced complete annihilation: 9-0.

This is when the situation really got out of hand. Mobutu was furious, Zaire had experienced humiliation on the international stage because of the players. Presidential guards were dispatched to threaten the team with a clear message: lose with 4 or more goals to Brazil and you better not come home.

The message surely resonated with the team. Knowing that their lives were at stake, the Zairean footballers gave it all they got against those Gods in yellow. In order for himself and his teammates to survive, Mwepu Ilunga was even willing to make a joke out of himself in front of the whole world.

The sacrifice made for survival is large. Abruptly breaking free from the wall of men in green, with a feral gaze that radiates determination, and hoofing up the ball across the pitch resulted in being universally ridiculed. But, when being able to see your family and home again are at stake, the “by any means necessary” mindset prevails.

When the final whistle had been blown, a score of 3-0 in favor of the Brazilians stood on the scoreboard. Mission accomplished.

Despite being allowed to go home, many of the ‘74 Leopards did not go home for the simple reason that they did not wish to live under a dictatorial regime which considered them pariahs.

After becoming aware of the true underlying motivations for Ilunga’s clearance, it might seem inappropriate to laugh about the incident. I do not fully agree. Obviously, the state of 1974 Zaire is not funny at all. Nor did Ilunga’s sudden action do much to increase the chances of not conceding a goal. But, the free kick farce is one of the best examples of political protest through sports. The metaphorical middle finger towards Mobutu is not only unique; at the end of the day, it is mostly very heroic.

And that is worth a smile.

HOMEWARD - May 2018 Laura Alexander

Portolaos

Photo by Aleyna Rentz

Written by Laura Alexander

Translation of the title of a book seen in the Benaki Museum:

“Portolaos, Namely book containing the seaports, the Distances between one place and another, and Other useful information for this Enterprise”

I was finally sitting down again to write after all the delicious laziness, in the dry heat where I fled the sun and moved like a sleepwalker, with things spread out so fine I only really did one thing a day, if anything. Hot hours drinking cold cappuccinos, sweet and strong with cold milk the texture of uncooked meringue, and later beer, on street corners, and then crashing to sleep naked in the heat. Crashing back into city life after a month of roughing it across the great scroll of Europe, a kind of self-hood had come back to me. Not a real self-hood of responsibilities and worries, still in the no-time of holiday, but my hitchhiker’s ghost feeling was melted away. I tried to look good, in clean clothes and the backless top I hadn’t worn all across Europe because it felt dangerous to be sexy while hitchhiking. I met people, and said goodbye to them expecting to see them again. I went to the café, and the bookshop, and the corner shop next to the cinema where the owner recognized me and spoke to me in Dutch because he’d once lived a year in Utrecht. Life was leafy and calm, easy to walk in, the streets patch-worked with graffiti and the cafes full of scruffy punks and gorgeous girls who sit with all the time in the world. At night, the open-air cinemas cast snatches of tinny dialogue in Greek or English over the walls onto the street like a football they expected to have tossed back.

Selves are formed by cities. Having discarded myself to travel through all that land between here and home I found a new self here, waiting to be slipped into like the red shoes I found waiting for me on a street corner in Paris once at two in the morning, neat and unexpected and precisely my size. In the same way, here in Athens I find a plausible version of myself, to be tried on and discarded, or to fuse so completely with all the selves I have been up till now that if I looked back in a few years it won’t be possible to make out the join, like with Paris, like with Amsterdam. Just like when you arrive in a new place, especially a city, how it feels like cognitive dissonance to remember that it was always there, that these streets were stretched out against the earth’s surface exactly as you see them now while you were still living for years before blissfully unconcerned with them, like Stephen Dedulus says, “there all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end” – anyway just like that you have to face the fact that the person you could be here is already within you, lurking like a seed, and ever more shockingly, a seed already shaped and formed by all that’s gone before. So if I’d come here a year ago I’d have been calculating how to find a job in a bar here, how to scrape by and wait for adventure, wondering how many places would let you get along with not speaking Greek at first. Now after months of slightly fancier work I was looking at the local British Council, and cultural institutions here and whether I could possibly persuade them to hire me. So the potential self I can taste around me comes from me alone.

In Athens time was thick and golden. From one day to the next I could hardly remember what I’d been doing – the opposite of tourism.  One day I dragged together enough energy to get to the Acropolis museum, bright and sleek. Another night we went to a free outdoor screening in the gardens of the French archaeological institute, and while we were watching a minor riot broke out a few blocks away. The film was a French one, with Jean-Paul Belmondo. It was subtitled in Greek so I could only follow about half the plot, which turned out not to matter as the plot was very silly and the visuals were stunning, all long slow shots of Niemeyer’s half-finished Brasilia buildings. The riot was over by the time the film was, and the restaurants were moving tables back out into the street. From the balcony of the apartment all we could see was a huge pillar of black smoke and the reflected orange light on a building about a block away. When I went down to the square to get more beer the fire was burnt out and I stood and looked for a while at the slightly smoking, twisted and blacked remains of two cars. It was the first time I’d seen a burnt out car, though in Paris I’d seen the melted tarmac remains of where two motorbikes had been burned then taken away.

Photo by Matt Artz

Hot night under the glow of colored bulbs, speed and slowness with hours passed in drunkenness and shouting and cicadas loud as sirens fading finally silent. Endless unremembered conversations jokes and absurdities, and above all movement and heat in stillness. The taste of beer and ouzo, the dirt under the feet, the smell of the pine trees in the bar on the hill with the hill looming black and the barely payable bill. Fuck roughly when we get home, beer-drenched four-in-the-morning cunts, and wake to a sunlight so clear and strong, the pinkness of flowers and their sticky-sweet smell on the street.

I finished the last volume of Proust a few days later, sprawled topless on a rock that was digging into my thighs, with my head in a girl’s lap and a picnic of melons and bread spread out. Me and the girl I’d been living with had gone out to an island to camp. We fucked on top of my sleeping bag in the forest of night and then come back down to the stony beach to sleep. In the sunrise by the cool clear water I felt the weirdness of finishing nearly a year with one great mass of book (about a week later back in Athens I came across where Anne Carson has a character say reading Proust is like having a second unconsciousness, a formulation of words which allowed me to give a shape to my sadness). By the end of the book all the tiny hundreds of fragments of story come together, and the outcome is that you can see how over time all those little fragments do become a life.

When we took the boat back to Athens and were sitting on the top deck of the boat, some hippy kids were taking turns throwing little bits of bread up to the gulls. Following along with the speed of the boat they seemed to be stationary above the deck. Every time a gull managed to snatch a scrap out of the air the whole deck would clap and whoop. By this point the clouds had come in, and everything around was soft shades of grey, different everywhere you looked.

That tremendous observation; that there is only one world and that everything you see and read exists inside it at the same time. These are many things, and it’s difficult to put them together in anyway that feels coherent. Like Proust and his fragments of life, all these othernesses, in a way so simple it’s a cliche even to say it, come together and form the fact of all the things that are the case.

HOMEWARD - May 2018 Jurek Wotzel

Moria: When Home is Neither Ahead, Nor Behind

Photo by Aladdin Hammami

Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer

It’s a regular day on the island of Lesbos, Greece in late March 2018. In the infamous Moria Camp, a young Syrian refugee sets himself on fire after learning that his application for asylum has been rejected for the second time. He would rather die than go home.

Home, that is where the bombs fall, where the sirens scream, where the relentless fire of the machine guns keeps you up at night. It isn’t for no reason that millions of Syrians have abandoned their home since the beginning of the war, five years ago. Many of them ended up in Lesbos, waiting for the authorities to decide their fate.

Since the EU-Turkey deal was put into effect, refugees arriving in Greece are immediately detained in Moria Camp. When the Greek state erected the camp in 2015, it was supposed to temporarily host 2,000 people. Now, that number has increased to 6,000.

Payman Shamsian, a former NGO worker at Moria camp saw many people arrive there. “They are so happy that they have made it to the land of freedom,” he says. “They think their life is becoming better and better from now on. They come to the camp with thousands of hopes and dreams. And wait. And wait. And wait. I witnessed the entire process of collapse and destruction for many asylum seekers, and how the reality hits them on their face over a course of even one week.”

About 2,500 asylum seekers land on the island every month. Most of them will soon be accommodated in sparsely equipped tents, providing just the bare minimum to keep them sheltered. Each year, when winter approaches, new headlines about the humanitarian crisis in the Greek camps appear in media outlets all over Europe. Still, no one really seems to be bothered.  

The conditions in what has earned the name ‘Moria Prison’ among refugees are horrendous. Not long ago, Greek migration minister Ioannis Mouzalas warned they are potentially life-threatening. Yet, detainees do their best to deal with homesickness, the fear of deportation, and the daily struggle to survive.

“I have seen or personally been in many situations that people in the camp talk about their traditions, their culture, and language with others”, Payman remembers. “Homesickness has a huge presence in the camp. Expressions of it range from the way people decorate their tents to strong hatred toward their tents because it’s not their home.”

The atmosphere in the camp is a pendulum between hope and frustration. “Refugees and asylum seekers mostly don’t want to accept that they don’t have a home anymore. They either think that one day they go back home or think they can make the new place they are moving to their new home.”

It’s not only the homesickness that causes hatred. Anger about being rejected, intra-group conflict, and simple overall despair spark violence and aggression. In 2016, a large group of refugees set fire to their tents in the french Calais camp, leading to outrage at the dinner tables of European families. In Moria, too, riots erupted several times. In the same year, a riot led to a fire resulting in the evacuation of 4,000 detainees. These incidents exacerbate the misery even more.

“The camp can’t be a humane place to have a dignified life, let alone being a home”, Payman tells me. “Every person has a different coping mechanism to face this reality. Some can’t cope with it, some can. It depends on many things. But one of the main problems is that your social status in the camp is totally different from the outside world. Coping with that aspect is the hardest part for people.”

Photo by Roman Kraft

Hannah Arendt, who lived as a Jew in Nazi Germany, was particularly concerned with the lack of belonging one experiences as a refugee. She saw the struggle of the refugee being no different than the struggle of the stateless person. The loss of legal protection of a sovereign state makes the refugee cease to have any social status at all; their actions become meaningless. They have no political community in which there is good and bad, right and wrong. Being stateless is essentially the loss of political identity.

Payman is less worried about abandoning your community of origin in general. “I personally believe that associating the concept of home to a country, usually your birth country, is very overrated. Home can be anywhere for various reasons and change over time for different people based on their life experiences. Even not having a place to call home is becoming very common among people.”

There is a difference, though, between those who left home voluntarily and those who were forced to leave. As Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes:

no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well your neighbors running faster than you breath bloody in their throats the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.

Obviously, this is not the story of voluntary migration. It is a story that should end with the possibility of permanent resettlement or the possibility to return home. Unfortunately, the realities of the Syrian war and European refugee policy continue to prevent both. The increasingly prevalent image of the refugee as the criminal immigrant who is nothing but a parasite to society is not a positive sign for change. It also isn’t making it easier for refugees to feel at home in a new country once they manage to leave camps like Moria or Calais behind.

“The only thing I want from any country hosting refugees and migrants anywhere in the world is to see and perceive refugees and migrants as simple persons living in a society”, Payman replied when I asked him for advice for Europe. “They’re not necessarily angels or hard-working and full of hope all the time. They are not necessarily evil and criminal. Let’s not romanticize them. Let’s not get shocked when one of them becomes successful or hate them because one of them commits a crime. Let’s just see them as what they are, and embrace them in our societies, as any other person in the society.”

Hence, what Payman and Hannah Arendt would agree on, is the need to include refugees in a new community. A community that allows to them to feel at home, that allows them to have a political identity and that allows them to live a purposeful life.

Moria does not do any of that. Instead, it puts refugees into a political purgatory situated between the hope of a new life and the fear of deportation. A truly humanitarian response of the all-so humanist Europeans would look different.

—-

Payman Shamsian currently works for the migration team of Samuel Hall, an independent think tank providing research and strategic services, expert analysis, tailored counsel and access to local knowledge for a diverse array of actors operating in the world’s most challenging environments. He has obtained two masters degrees before joining Samuel Hall. He obtained a joint basters degree on Global Studies between Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg and Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO Argentina) and he studied at Central European University in International Relations and European Studies program. Prior to working for Samuel Hall, Payman worked for the Danish Refugee Council as a Protection Assistant in Greece.

HOMEWARD - May 2018 Sarah Osei-Bonsu

White Masks

Photo by Trevor Cole

Written by Sarah Osei-Bonsu, Staff Writer

I grew up in the most religious country in the world. Ghana is a melting pot of Christian, Muslim and ‘traditionalist’ African beliefs. However, the dominant religion is Christianity and it is fundamentally at odds with the traditional belief systems. Growing up in the city of Kumasi, the cultural center of the Ashanti, Ghana’s major ethnic group, I witnessed this clash between our African spirituality and Christian colonial legacy first hand.

When I was little, I observed a traditional ceremonial dance at a funeral. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the man in the grass skirt kicking up dirt as he swirled in hypnotic circles, every inch of his body twisting, curling and contracting to each drumbeat. His entourage threw white dust as he turned and he was enveloped in white mist, his skin slowly turning grey. His face was already painted in the dust, like a white mask. This man was an Akomfo, an Ashanti priest, his dance a spiritual performance of the traditional belief system, Akom. There was a strangeness about this mystic man, yet one thing wasn’t all that extraordinary. Many Ghanaians today wear white masks. The only difference is that these masks are invisible. They are not symbols of our traditions, but rather tokens given to us by our colonizers.

The white masks conceal our identity, altering the way we saw ourselves. We first wore these masks because we had no choice, but in the centuries since, we forgot what lay behind them. Colonialism damaged Africa’s cultural integrity. One of the greatest and most damaging colonizing tools on the continent was Christianity. The Christian faith itself is not harmful, often it manifests itself beautifully. However, in Ghana it is rooted in the racism and subjugation of our colonial past. The Christianity we initially encountered was that of slavers and murderers. It was spread on the basis of our assumed inferiority and that of our customs. Because of this there is an implicit self-hatred in our history with Christianity, and this is a self-perpetuating system. Not only are we forgetting our culture, but we are actively demeaning and rejecting it.

Just like our colonial masters before, most Ghanaians view traditional religions, like Akom, with hostility and condemnation. These traditional belief systems in our popular culture have become synonymous with words like Satanism, fetishism, and magic. These all fall under an umbrella term: ‘Juju’, by which Ghanaians refer to anything that is neither Muslim nor Christian and is thus by default evil. This stigma is deeply embedded in Ghanaian culture and it directly descends from the colonial roots of Christianity in Ghana.

Today Christianity is a big business in Ghana. New denominations and ambitious pastors (or entrepreneurs) are making their mark across the country with churches overcrowding the cityscape. This is often an aggressive brand of Christianity. The problem with this kind of Christian gospel is that it condemns any other religious beliefs. Given the massive role of Christianity in Ghana, this perpetuates a cycle of self-hatred. Adoring the deity of our colonizers is in conflict with our local culture and tradition and demands their rejection.

Throughout Ghana’s cities you will encounter preachers, condemning everything satanic. Satanic meaning anything spiritual outside the realm of Christianity, such as Akom. In Akom, the belief is that the spoken word holds power. Every word spoken is an evocation. In Ghana, most of the times, that which is spoken and preached is hateful and demeaning of traditional spirituality. These evocations have clearly been realized in Ghanaian society.

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde

Ghanaians are very spiritual people. Pre-colonial beliefs, like Akom, assume that there is a spirit in everything: the earth, rivers, thunder, animals, blood. Our custom, music, and dance, passionately built on this conviction. Christianity in Ghana instrumentalized this spirituality and radicalized it. In modern-day Ghana ‘spirituality’ is seen as something harsh and overbearing, sometimes taking the form of ‘exorcisms’ during lunch breaks at school or, violent ‘possessions’ of my colleagues attributed to some vague spirits.

Akom, has been so misconstrued. Now it is merely juju. I used to believe this too, or at least I never questioned it. When Ghanaians are not actively perpetuating this stigma, we relegate ourselves to ignorance. This might be even more damaging. How have we forgotten the complexity and harmony of our traditions? Most of us don’t know that at its core Akom seeks balance between the physical and spiritual worlds. It claims the immortality and infinity of the earth and our ancestors. We have not only turned our backs on traditional worship, but in the process we have lost much of our identity. Beyond the beautiful rituals that are being lost, we are drawing further and further away from nature. Rejecting our culture builds on the assumption that we’re not cultured and we have filled this void, or rather covered it, with a new one.

Christianity, this religion we have tied all our hopes to is not an innocent faith in the African case. These masks we wear, have worn, and will continue to place on our children are harming our society. I want to remind you again, that my issue is not with Christianity itself, but with the denial and self-hate which afflicts our practice of it. Like Frantz Fanon explained:

“The Church in the colonies is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor. And as we know, in this matter many are called but few chosen.”

Christianity was a central underpinning of imperialism and the slave trade. How can we worship the same tool used to subjugate us? In the slave castle of Cape Coast, above the dungeons in which slaves were held stands a proud church. By the time the colonial era was over, the mask was already firmly in place. Just like Cape Coast, modern, independent Ghana, has built churches above its disturbing history with Christianity. Now Christianity is deeply embedded in the fabric of Ghanaian society. We once worshipped in nature and then we were herded into Churches. The community used to be a family, now we clash because we belong to different denominations. The business of Christianity is unnatural, and it cannot be sustained.

There is a popular symbol in Ashanti culture called Sankofa. It means ‘go back to that which you have forgotten’. I hope that as Ghanaians, and Africans, we can return to our roots. That Christianity in Ghana will no longer sustain itself on the suppression of our traditions and customs but can coexist with them. Religion should not be dependent on conversion and dominance, but should cohabit with spirituality and a pride in our traditions. I think of the Akomfo, his vigorous dance a memory of our traditions and the pride that once was. The white mask a reminder of where we are now. It is time to take off this mask.

HOMEWARD - May 2018 Issues

May 2018 – Homeward

Dear Infected,

All of you know what a home is. It’s the place you hang your hat. It’s where your heart is. It’s the place that you miss when you’re away, or maybe home is even a person. That longing to be back where you belong, or to find such a place, is the inspiration for Pandemic’s May theme: Homeward.  

For most, returning home is as simple as buying a plane ticket. For others, home is only a memory or abstract concept. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 65.6 million people are currently displaced from their home. Every day 28,300 more are forced to flee their home in order to survive, leaving behind the devastation of war, or persecution at the hands of their countrymen.

Violence and death are not the only reasons people find themselves without a home; economics and biased policies play a part as well. Redevelopment plans that aim to “beautify” or “revitalize” the city often push vulnerable members of society to the streets. The UN estimates that over 100 million individuals are homeless, and an additional 1 billion are inadequately housed. At other times national immigration policies can deny people the right to call their home “home” because of their “illegal” status.

For these people, the craving for a home, in whatever sense, still exists – though it may never be fulfilled.

This month we would like you to reflect on what the concept of Homeward means to you. We suspect that the results will be as varied as the four articles we have to start this month. The feeling you get moving towards home may be too difficult to put into words, so we’ll gladly accept your infectious ideas in whatever form they come be it a painting, song, or creatively coded computer program.

We look forward to hearing from you!

The Pandemic Team

 

Contributing Writers THE CITY - April 2018

Understanding Cities through Metaphors

Photo by Chuttersnap, Unsplash

Written by Max Muller

Although I have never been to an Alicia Keys concert, I imagine it must go something like this: first you excitedly wait in line, eagerly waiting for the moment you’re allowed to enter the sold-out stadium. After you and your friends have found your seats, you share some food and thoughts on her latest album. Then, the lights fade. The buzzing noise of chatting people immediately follows suit. A few seconds later, a roar from the crowd breaks the silence: she has arrived. You sing and dance your heart out to her classics, including “If I Ain’t Got You” and “No one”. You get a sore throat and you’re exhausted from the intense experience. And yet… something is missing. Until you realize she has saved her best song for the finale: “Empire State of Mind (Part II)”:

“Baby, I’m from…

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of

There’s nothing you can’t do”

You finally find closure, as she has put the cherry on the cake.

Well, at least that’s how I imagine the experience. To me, that’s her best song. Her beautiful voice and talented piano playing notwithstanding, there is another element of the song that appeals to me. It’s the lyrics: they’re clever. The comparison of New York with a “concrete jungle” strikes me as particularly insightful.

Transformations of Meaning

In 1980, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote their now seminal book Metaphors We Live By. Until their work, the role of metaphors in philosophy and linguistics had only been deemed of peripheral interest. Lakoff and Johnson made huge swathes of people realize that metaphors are not just stylistic devices to spice up a mediocre novel. They showed, on the contrary, that they’re essential ingredients for people to concoct an overarching view of reality. In other words: people largely understand the world through metaphors.

Consider, for instance, the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This conception of arguments or discussions is deeply entrenched in our understanding of the concept. Our language betrays it. For us it is completely natural to say things like:

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • His criticisms were right on target.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.

Chances are you haven’t even realized that we use ideas from wars to metaphorically speak about arguments. Moreover, Lakoff and Johnson point out that we do not just talk about arguments in terms of war. We actually win and lose arguments. The idea of war thus gives us an indispensable tool that allows us to understand the concept of having an argument.

Throughout their book (which I heartily recommend) they give countless other examples of metaphors we use to grapple with complex phenomena, including IDEAS ARE RESOURCES (“he ran out of ideas”, “don’t waste your thoughts on useless projects”), LOVE IS MADNESS (“I’m crazy about her”, “she drives me out of my mind”), and SEEING IS TOUCHING (“I can’t take my eyes off him”, “he wants everything within reach of his eyes”).

Perhaps that is why Alicia Keys’ lyrics stuck with me. Though I sympathize with her fondness for New York in particular, I think it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to view all cities as forests, or, within an even wider perspective, ecosystems.

Let’s confine ourselves a bit and stick with the metaphor CITIES ARE JUNGLES. Obviously, the buildings are trees in this regard. It is perhaps for this reason that the English expression “to climb up the stairs” exists. In addition, hints of organic perceptions of cities can be found in sentences like “these are the world’s fastest-growing cities” and “Beijing is expanding rapidly”.

The process of incoming and outgoing commuters bears some similarity to the rhythmic movements of lungs filling and releasing air. Just like photosynthesizing trees that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, the buildings of the city can breathe people in and out. Antonio Gaudi’s “La Sagrada Familia”, a church that seems to have grown organically from the ground upwards, epitomizes this conception of buildings.

Illustration by David Fleck, 1972

Baucis, the tree city from Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” , as illustrated by David Fleck. The motif of the city as a forest also appears in Calvino’s book “The Baron in the Trees.”

Modern man has thus linguistically incorporated cities as a natural place to live, just like early humans discovered that they could find a safe haven away from the savanna and into the forest. The trees provided shelter against the rain and their height proved very useful for evading predators. The higher and bigger the tree, the more protection it could provide.

Joseph Campbell in his book The Power of Myth, points out that one can tell what’s informing society by what the tallest building is. In medieval towns, it was the cathedral. In an 18th century town, it was the political palace. Whereas in modern cities, the tallest buildings are the office buildings. We attach great significance to our centers of economic life. This is consistent with the cultural value “Bigger is Better”, which in turn is coherent with Lakoff and Johnson’s metaphor GOOD IS UP (“we hit a peak last year, but it’s been downhill ever since”, “he does high-quality work”).

Another metaphor that pervades our languages and myths is that of Mother Nature. Thus we undoubtedly attribute nature with feminine characteristics. It is a bringer of life. The ancient Greeks, who coined the term “metropolis”, highlighted the nurturing character of cities as forests in particular. The word is a combination of the words mḗtēr (mother) and pólis (city). From their perspective, the city lied at the very heart of the origins of life. Since then, cities have only become more and more important. Nowadays, more than half of the world’s population consists of urban dwellers.

If cities are so important to us, it is perhaps not so surprising that the CITIES ARE JUNGLES metaphor is not the only one that has entered our collective subconscious. Concepts that are at once important to us and difficult to understand require multiple ways of viewing them.

This is because when we focus on one aspect of the concept, we necessarily leave out or ignore many others. Take love, for instance. Not only do we take the above-mentioned metaphor LOVE IS MADNESS into consideration when we speak and think about it. We also have the metaphors LOVE IS A PATIENT (“they have a healthy marriage”) and LOVE IS MAGIC (“she cast her spell over me”) in our mental repertoire. These other metaphors enable us to look at and think about love from different angles.

Berlin is, like, a pretty cool guy

So where does that leave us with regards to our beloved cities? Again, Lakoff and Johnson provide us with a hint, as they explain that personification is a widely employed metaphorical device. We could say, for instance, “his theory explained to me how tidal movements work”. In this case, the theory of tidal movements is personified. We conceptualize the theory as a person, or perhaps more specifically as a teacher.

Cities, too, are seen as people. Each of them has its own, distinct personality. Evidence of this is found in the adjectives to describe them. We use words such as “charming”, “rebellious”, “enterprising”, and “endearing” to speak about them. In turn, they reveal how we think of these places.  

Who wouldn’t agree with me that Amsterdam is a rebellious, free-spirited, slightly scruffy but also strong, experienced, and battle-hardened guy with a mustache? He’s a man of extremes: both a party-person and a sophisticated art-lover, at once a rich business man and a poor, single father with a kid.

On the other hand we have Chartres, the medieval French town with the beautiful cathedral. She is more of a charming woman with long, brown hair and an elegant ocher dress. Whereas Amsterdam is tall and heroic, Chartres is petite and endearing. If Amsterdam is bustling and vibrant, Chartres is calm and composed.

Of course, cities are often too big to be described as having monolithic personalities. Amsterdam, for instance, is composed of a mosaic of different neighborhoods, each with its own personality traits. Amsterdam Zuid is old, rich, cultured, and of high stature. But Noord is more like the Wild West: adventurous, enterprising and experimental.

Some neighborhoods harbor multiple personalities. As a result of the quick gentrification process, the Pijp is hip, upcoming, and expensive. Its trendy restaurants and cafés act as magnets to young urban professionals hailing from all over the country. But it used to be the true Amsterdammers who lived there.

A glimpse of Amsterdam’s topographically
distributed personality types, by Nomad List

A while ago, I saw the words “Alle yuppen de Pijp uit!” (“All yuppies – young, urban professionals – should leave the Pijp!”) sprayed on a wall on the Albert Cuyp market. Viewed from a metaphorical perspective, the words signified a clash of personalities to me. It was also an expression of frustration about what kind of personality or image the neighborhood ought to have.

I hope this description of metaphors gives you some insight in the way we perceive our cities, and that it can aid you as a conceptual tool for greater understanding of all sorts of things. Considering cities in particular, we might wonder where the branches of the trees are in cities, if they are jungles. And if they are people, how do they relate to one another? How do their personalities change? Are there any other metaphors that characterize cities? I leave these questions for you to answer.

Contributing Writers THE CITY - April 2018

Who you calling a bitch?

Photo by Julian Howard

Female rappers on the sexual dynamics of street culture

Written by Dorothy Carlos

“Instinct leads me to another flow

Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho

Trying to make a sister feel low

You know all of that gots to go”

In Queen Latifah’s Grammy award-winning song “U.N.I.T.Y.” off her 1993 album Black Reign, she speaks out against street harassment which is pervasive in cities. In the song, she responds to being groped by a man passing her on the street by punching him in the eye. Catcalling, as well as other acts of sexual harassment, are often criticized by female rappers from the late 1980s to now. In fact, the gendered experience of the city – a field of sexuation one has to navigate – has been one of the major themes of female rap since its beginning.

Everyone from Monie Love to Roxanne Shante has explored the mistreatment of women in the streets through their music. Salt N Peppa discusses the issue on the track “Tramp” from Hot, Cool, and Vicious, warning fellow women that if they respond to a catcalling they might become a “victim of circumstance” and be subject to harassment.

The cross-street proposition of the catcall communicates little else but a crude libidinal drive. What could possibly prompt someone to pursue a romantic/sexual interest via catcalls? One couldn’t possibly expect a positive reaction from yelling at a stranger on the street.

Female rappers articulate the fundamental antagonisms of social life, both gendered and class-based. They serve as a counter to what is going on in male hip-hop culture: a hypersexualization of women in order to gain social capital. Because of the way young men from impoverished neighborhoods, especially young black men, are forced to navigate a power structure which will be largely against them, they grasp at power by means of the social domination of others via catcalls and additional forms of sexual harassment.

Personally, I don’t know any rap songs about a love that isn’t broken or perverted. Slum Village’s “Fall in Love” from 2000 is exemplary of the way love is navigated in hip-hop music and in poor neighborhoods:

“Don’t sell yourself to fall in love”. Although one could argue that love in our society, in general, has been replaced with sexuality, the vulnerability of love is not easily found in rap music, which is often an expression of the hardness and resilience of an individual who comes from a broken environment.

Photo by Robert Katzki

While there are factors that are unique to our historical epoch, such as the building and subsequent neglect of segregated housing by the US govt, this is a broader issue of capitalist modernity. In the Metropolis and Mental Life, Georg Simmel discusses the blase attitude of individuals living in cities at the beginning of the twentieth century. The manifestation of this is the reduction of social interactions to capitalistic exchanges between city dwellers. For example, in smaller communities you might have a personal relationship with someone who produces a product for you such as a baker; in a metropolis, a personal relationship is unlikely to develop because of the fact that consumers are unknown to the producers. Interactions become matter-of-fact and people of the metropolis develop a hardness towards others.

Simmel did not live long enough to see the crushing effects Robert Moses had on the socio-economic landscape of cities all across the United States, but perhaps his essay was a prophecy of what is to come for modern cities. In the 1930s the imperious approach of Moses prompted a radical reorganization of cities; concentrating poverty in housing projects as a means to abolish it from the city as a whole. Areas with housing projects, such as the South Bronx in New York City, which was directly impoverished by Moses’ construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, are extremely underserved by the state and harassed by police.

In the aftermath of the famous Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, Northern states, where the biggest cities were located, believed the ruling did not apply to them and made no attempt to desegregate. Even though de facto segregation was just as prevalent in the North as it was in the South, there were no laws enforcing it. There were schools for black neighborhoods and schools for white neighborhoods and this was a just product of the city structure, making it easy to perpetuate the lack of support for poor neighborhoods.

In an environment where individuals with little social and economic power are constantly in survival mode trying to make ends meet, love is compromised, and sex gladly takes its place. This is obvious if one pays attention to the explicitly sexual lyrics that make up a lot of contemporary hip-hop.

Many of the more contemporary female rappers sexualize themselves as part of their rap persona—reinforcing this idea of sex as a means to gain social capital; consider rappers such as Trina, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B, to name a few.

When asked about how to gain self-confidence, Cardi B told Hypebae: “If you feel you’re ugly just walk around the projects or something and see how many niggas holla at you.” Cardi B herself is from the Bronx and her community most likely began to experience the effects of the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway decades ago. Although parts of the female rap community have accepted the culture of sexual harassment, I believe this to be almost inevitable if you come from an impoverished, urban environment.

Within the sexual maze of the metropolis, women are caught somewhere in the middle as men try to navigate their sexuality. Because women are not as bound to heteronormative standards, they aren’t controlled by the system in the same way as men, largely due to the fact that women as a whole are often oppressed for being sexual regardless of whether or not they operate within heterosexuality. Although artists like Trina, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B have succeeded in gaining power via their sexuality, they compromise their own identity by hyper-sexualizing themselves in order to do so. Ultimately the women caught in situations of urban poverty are oppressed by the state in the same way men are. However, when women try to grasp at power via sexual domination they are likely to face oppression from their own communities, as well.

Contributing Writers THE CITY - April 2018

The Reality of Mixed-Income Housing

Photo by Tom Thain

Written by Rosalie Lucretia Ekstein, M.Sc.

Over time the development and growth of cities has been largely organic in nature. People are drawn to other people and resources. Especially when there are lots of pull-factors, this can lead to large concentrations of people in one place. That this might result in problems is no new insight. In Medieval times, for instance, the elite often perceived the poor as a risk simply because they lived nearby. On one hand this was sometimes ideological and political, but on the other hand, there was an objective threat as well, due to their poor hygiene. Living together in impoverished conditions, allowed diseases to spread easily amongst the poor, with many of these diseases being life-threatening, it’s not hard to imagine that the elite was worried about staying safe. Further, the concentration of different social groups on tight space led the elites to worry about their valuables and upcoming criminal behavior amongst the poor. Early forms of urban planning and healthcare hence focussed on combating disease and crime to protect the elites. Later, with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution factories and housing for workers had to be built. This posed new challenges for urban planning as novel threats arose.

There are multiple ways to deal with a growing population and both the real as perceived problems that come with it. Urban planning is still very much alive. Gentrification, mixed-use development, and mixed-income housing are important concerns faced by urban planners today. Just like in the Middle Ages, one can question which individuals benefit from which forms of urban planning, as well as the motivations behind the plans that currently change the face of our cities worldwide. Mixed-income housing, the focus of this article, refers to the process of building an area with houses in different price ranges in order to attract people from different socioeconomic groups. Policy makers and public administrators seem to only focus on the sunny side of mixed-income housing. Let’s have a look at the motivations and the social reality of it. 

One motivation for mixed-income housing seems to be countering segregation. Segregation, on the other hand, refers to the process of people with a similar demographic and socio-economic background grouping or being grouped together, either willingly or forced. In the United States, for instance, this has happened to the African American community, who was forced into segregation through institutional racism.  Also in the Netherlands racist implications of certain housing regulations are slowly coming to the surface. Another factor that contributed to segregation is the “white flight” a term that originated in the U.S. during the 1950’s and 60’s and refers to whites migrating from the city center to the suburbs. The definition has evolved and can adopt different connotations depending on the context, but it always refers to a change of population from whites to people of color. These trends have led to the emergence of relatively homogenous neighborhoods in bigger cities around the globe.

Evidence shows that economically deprived segregated neighborhoods had higher numbers of crime, noise, and litter. Often only neighborhoods with people from low socioeconomic status are considered problematic, according to many policymakers, politicians, and people from high or even middle socioeconomic status. It is true that in those areas one will find a different situation than in richer areas. One of the problems is crime. Yet, the crime rates might be heavily influenced by structural forces, such as institutional racism, and hence shouldn’t be seen as an actual reflection of what is going on. For example, the rate of incarceration for African Americans is far higher than for any other ethnic group in the U.S. The reason for this is not an objective feature of African Americans that leads them to be more prone to commit crimes, but an implicit racial bias of American institutions, specifically amongst the police forces. Another problem is the neighborhood effect and the resulting lack of certain forms of social capital. The neighborhood effect is a concept introduced by William Julius Wilson in 1987, which supposes an effect on individuals as a result of the neighborhood they live in. There is quite some research that shows us that where you live, influences your chances in life, whether it be health, voting behavior, or chances for upward mobility, and plenty of research that criticizes this idea as well. Social capital, a concept introduced by sociologist David Émile Durkheim in the 19th century, can improve an individual’s position within a network, or neighborhood. Just like economic capital, can influence an individual’s well being, social capital similarly affects one’s chances in life through social ties, networks, knowledge etc.

Photo by Vladimir Chuchadeev

A quick anecdotal comparison might better illustrate this point: When I was at university, there was a young man in my class whose family moved here from Afghanistan. Nobody in his family spoke Dutch and there were few social ties to local people with resources. He made it to university, but struggled with financing, language, skills and even health. For me, my parents financed my entire education. When I struggled with math, they knew someone who could tutor me. When I was sick, my parents knew a specialist, while this young man, on the other hand, had great troubles simply being understood by his physician and was forced to miss classes due to health problems that in my case, would have been resolved the next day. Up to this day, I think he was smarter than me, but he didn’t have the chances that I was granted. He couldn’t pass the first year, while I received my master’s degree. After all,  living a segregated life can severely influence the chances of an individual in a negative way. Of course, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by social scientists, politicians, and policymakers who try to intervene.

But there’s another side to this story, which focuses more on the experience of people from outside. It has been suggested that individuals who haven’t lived in segregated areas, lack the first-hand experience and also might be biased in their interpretation of the existing problems. People often interpret the world from a value specific standpoint that they take as being universal. However, if one would take a look at other cultures, times, or meta-ethics, the conclusion would be that there is no such thing as a universal set of norms and values. Instead, it seems to be a pragmatic notion that enables a person to judge others. What I find ‘unacceptable’ could be totally fine for you, and I have no right to tell you that what you’re doing is ‘antisocial’. If you are in a rich area, it will tend to look tidy and be quiet. If you go you a less privileged area, you are likely to hear music, see more damaged houses or vehicles,  and people sitting outside, talking louder than what you might be used to, and perhaps even drinking. It never bothered me that much. However, it does bother other people a lot. Dutch people have all kinds of nasty words for inhabitants of areas like that, including some racial slurs. In the U.S. as well, for example Harlem and The Bronx, have had bad reputations not only due to objective criteria, but due to many subjective ones as well. The idea is that ‘deprived’ neighborhoods have more ‘problems’. I could write a whole paper on what these perceived problems are and why they might not be problems, what matters is that in the minds of policymakers and politicians these neighborhoods are problematic. The fact that there are complex social forces at work here which play a large part in this, is easily overseen or simply unknown (even though within social science, there is so much research regarding these topics!). Also, in these deprived neighborhoods, a term which in itself speaks volumes about this bias, social control, social ties, and cohesion still exist, but in different forms. Research usually doesn’t focus on things like the ability to get non-European hair done, or how residents might share food with each other, or how peers support each other emotionally. So the question here is determining which factors play a role in the life quality of inhabitants and which factors might be biased towards a subjective and value specific norm. The idea that these neighborhoods are just problematic and have nothing valuable in themselves and therefore should be torn down to make room for new houses and new people, might be crude. There’s a risk of tearing down social cohesion and ties, which still matter a lot for people and could even contribute to their welfare, well being, safety, and chances in life.

Mixed-income housing is an idea based on the exchange of social capital between groups, and the possibility for those problematically called lower socioeconomic groups to elevate themselves. This is the recipe: you take one piece of land, you put in some cheap flats, some nicer apartments, and some bigger houses. The first would be for rent and the latter for buying. What happens is that the people that used to live there, are being forced out of their homes. Only a small portion of them can move back, due to a significantly smaller amount of cheap housing. So instead of being surrounded by your peers, you will be confronted with different people for once. Then, of course, you will start to mingle with them. Friendships are formed and people can learn from each other (i.e. the rich will elevate the poor, by increasing their social capital). Sounds neat huh? Guess what: it hasn’t happened so far. It seems to be mere wishful thinking because the sad reality is that even if people live on the same street, they are still segregated. In the Netherlands, sociological research shows that the average income of the neighborhood does go up after establishing mixed-income housing, however, those individuals who came from a low socioeconomic status are not being elevated into said status.

Even though residents’ chances for a better income does not rise, many politicians and policymakers still believe in the supposed neighborhood effect. Between 2008 and 2012, the Netherlands invested hundreds of millions in neighborhoods which were deemed ‘highly problematic’. There was a top 40 of problematic areas, called the ‘Vogelaarwijken’. I have lived in number two on that list during my own sociology study, after growing up in quite a rich area, and I have never been in a warmer, friendlier, and yes even safer area. The people knew each other and took care of each other. Then the whole block got restructured and the prices doubled. The social fabric of that place has been torn down. In the U.S. as well, there is plenty of research pointing into this direction. For example, the work of Ellickson (2009) shows that mixed-income projects in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, did not bring about the desired outcome. He concludes that “the benefits of social integration are seldom as great as advocates of mixed-income projects suppose. The high costs of producing these project thus can rarely be justified on this basis”. Sociological research has not only shown that the neighborhood effect does not seem to exist, but that people with low socioeconomic status might actually be worse off after moving into areas characterized by mixed-income housing. Instead of exchanging social capital, people in the social housing are confronted with the social and economic distance they have from their neighbors.

It seems that there are many flaws in the assumptions underlying mixed-income housing policies and the results are by no means successful enough to justify the fact that these policies are still being used worldwide. The rise and continuation of these policies can be explained by the political influence of those who gain from supplying these developments, and not by positive results for the population inhabiting the area. Too often it seems to be the case that the underlying assumptions of policy and planning are ideological instead of factual, and only seem to represent the view and needs of the already privileged.