On the 30th September to the 1st October, UNITED, in cooperation with the Oslo municipality, hosted a virtual conference, covering the topics of youth, women, refugees and minorities, NGOs, and intersectionality. Concerning the circumstances organising it offline or online, causing a lot of delay, the conference was a success, with participants from all over Europe and Euro-Med region tuning in to contribute!
The conference focused on one central question: what can we do about the ways in which young people, and in particular minorities, have been impacted by the COVID crisis? How to counteract the rising hate, scapegoatism, the differences in access to healthcare, and the fact that this crisis affects minority communities the most – the very communities struck already by systematic racism and oppression?
We invited panelists and experts from Europe to weigh in on the issue. From Julie Ward, former Member of the European Parliament, to Anna Alboth, the woman behind Civil March for Aleppo, to Tatjana Peric from the OSCE, and to Pia SLogar, from Youth of European Nationalities.
The conference, which began with a welcome note from Rina Mariann Hansen, Vice Major for employment, integration and social services of Oslo. Other panelists included Evein Obular from the European Coalition of Cities Against Racism, Pia Slogar from Youth of European Nationalities, Eirik Rise from the No Hate Speech Movement Noraway and Stephen Adom Queer World Oslo, Juliana Wahlgren from European Networkj Against Raicsm, Youssefr Aroog from the Mediterranean Youth Foundation, Carima Tirillsdottir Heinesen and Ervin Kohn from the Centre Against Racism, Paulina Jalaksova and Mariam Tartousi from the UNITED International Preperatory Group.
What resulted was a lively day and a half, full of exciting, invigorating conversations where people not only shared personal experiences, but also discussed the possibilities for potential ways forward. How, if we are involved in the civil society sector, can we engage the public agencies? How can we engage the public itself? How do we do this for those of us in particularly challenging contexts – those under authoritarian regimes, for example, or those whose governments thrive off of discriminatory rhetoric?
It began with an engaging conversation with Julie Ward from the UK, former Member of the European Parliament. She detailed the disappointing way the UK had handled the crisis, and how, in its haphazard approach, this has worsened the impacts for communities that are already the most vulnerable. How little it has learned its lesson, and how young people, school going children, were the worst affected. One of the first things that happened in the UK was that there was a terrible rise against Chinese and Asian people. Roma people, a community she has worked extensively with in the past, have also been scapegoated, and had their mobility limited.
BAME were disproportionately affected because they were already bottom of the pile. The very first people to die were people of colour. Women were disproportionately affected – single mothers living in a tower block with small children, then lockdown was a nightmare, particularly if they were in a violent relationship.
This, Julie emphasized, was an opportunity for Europe to pull together and demonstrate the core value of solidarity. And yet many leaders couldn’t show that solidarity, and instead have chosen to use covid to be in opposition with neighbouring countries.
Julie left us with food for thought: We need to not live in fear but to build things that can protect us. We need to be proactive and constructive, what do we need to become stronger.
This led us to our breakout rooms.
In one of the rooms, moderated by Anna Alboth of Civil March for Aleppo, we discussed the situation in particular for refugees – especially those in the island of Lesbos, in Greece. Moria camp, originally designed for 2500 people, had over 25000 people, so social distancing was already a distant reality. The situation was so unbearable that two young refugees set fire to it, and now the camp is entirely destroyed, rendering thousands of people homeless in the cold.
We discussed, what do we know about the situation, and how do we keep informed? How have the people in the camps, already disproportionately affected by the pandemic, handled this situation now with the fire? Many admitted that they did not trust the media enough, and that they preferred being informed by staying in touch with people from inside the camps.
Another breakout room on LGBT during COVID, led by Eirik Rise form the No Hate Speech Movement Norway, had a lengthy discussion about how the pandemic has affected specifically the LGBT community across different countries in Europe. They discussed the need for counselling, specifically for those who have to live with families in less-than-welcoming contexts; and for those in countries such as Belarus, where the president has publicly said that it is better to be dictator than to be gay, and there is no open, registered LGBT organization.
Parallel discussions took place on how to engage with the media to create youth empowerment, how to engage with the youth in the Euro-Med region, and what tools can be used to influence decision and policy making.
These lively discussions continued well into the second day, which began with Tatjana Peric from the OSCE. She introduced the latest OSCE report on state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, which provides an overview of the impact of the emergency measures imposed by many European states, and how they may have been misused and top impact fundamental freedoms and human rights across the continent.
Breakout rooms on this day built on previous discussions, one conversations around anti-racism and in particular translation of the BLM movement into our various contexts; involving the media; involving the public sphere. One breakout room discussed the challenges involved with getting municipal institutions involved in particularly repressive or hardline countries, and an exchange of strategies took place on what the best way to frame these discussions might be.
The conference ended during midday. Several participants contacted each other privately, after having shared their personal experiences, feeling connected to each other despite the distance, promising to keep in touch and collaborate in the future. The entire event may have been virtual, but that did not diminish the quality of networking – in fact, as the theme of solidarity would suggest, it strengthened the connections further!
The day ended with everyone holding up a sign a that said “OXLO – FOR EVERYONE” in their respective languages. There was some cathartic laughter, and a round of applause, and we all switched off our computers feeling enthused over the conversations, inspired to do more, and optimistic about the future – despite the harrowingly uncertain circumstances we are all in currently.