On July 25th 2012 an important day passed in the two year anniversary of the death of Osman Mohammed Rasul, a good friend. Having been on the move or entirely out of touch with the internet and computers for the past three weeks it is only now, having had ample time to consider it, that I have felt able to sit down at the computer and write something that will do it all justice.
A friend emailed me recently saying that she, too, had noted the significance of the day and recollected how Osman had refused to smoke cigarettes near her as he knew she didn’t like them. Personally, I recall many similar things that were an indictment of a kind and gentle soul; a small bird he befriended and looked after, his constant proclaiming that he did not wish anything but peace for people and that he did not want revenge on those who killed his family members, his politeness, his slightly bashful smile, his care taken in preparing rice, his love of bicycles and, of course, his awful capacity for bike maintenance.
Two years ago Osman died and his death was noted nationwide as an horrific tragedy, an unfortunate soul who had been failed by a system designed to help grant asylum and support to those in need. Osman’s life was peppered with emotional difficulties and burdens that most of us cannot really comprehend. He battled the eternal struggle to show uniformed and detached officials that he was not lying when he said he was scared to go home. With no evidence except your own body on arrival you have to go through the shame of having to prove that all the deep trauma you have been through is real, that in fact you didn’t just leave everything you love behind; your entire family (if they are not dead), your language and culture, everything you know. That you didn’t travel through hellish conditions; in a stinking hot metal cargo ship container, like Osman, or on the axle of the rear wheels of a lorry, for days or months with the fear of death ever present. That you didn’t do this just so you could arrive in our country in order to be able to have the luxury of spending an unknown period of time in a detention centre (some of which are, in fact, set up to class B prison standards). To prove that you are not going through all this just so you can filch £65 a week off hard working taxpayers, off us, us, who know what it is like to really work hard, who really understand what it means to have to get by in life. Us, who have been born by total chance in a country where there is not war or famine, but whose military and government have likely done a good job of taking the resources of your country in the first place. For asylum seekers this sort of journey is always a last resort, as it was for Osman, and his recounting of the trials and tribulations that he had faced inspire and horrify me still. And what happened to him stands out for us all on both sides of this illusory fence that is the UK asylum system and the enforced border of ‘our’ country.
In thinking of the issues in a general sense against the reality of what happened so tragically to Osman the individual, it can be difficult for me to cleave a boundary between the emotion; love and sorrow, and the political; outrage and outcry, when facing up to his death. I do not want to let the latter outweigh the former, ever, but a blurring of the lines there is bound to be. In a wider sense Osman’s death was undoubtedly triggered by the push factors he felt at home in Kurdistan (namely military unrest) and the deterrence factors implemented by the UK border agency in dealing with asylum claims (such as lack of benefits, draconian legal processes, detention, deportation threats). It is so sad because evidence suggests more and more that deterrence measures implemented by our government are not effective in mitigating against the number of asylum seeker claims annually. Many in the field now propose that an international collaboration that shares the support that needs to be given to asylum seekers would be a more successful approach to deal with the issue. To do this alongside programmes that help to limit factors that push people away from their home countries in the first place. What’s more, it is important to note that we in the West actually deal with a very small proportion of asylum seekers globally, most move to economically less developed countries. So from a political perspective Osman’s death shows us just how wrong and harmful our policies are. They need to change and we need to start engaging in more compassionate ways of helping those who are struggling to hang onto the bottom rung of the ladder of luck. A man from the island of Tanna, a tiny Pacific Island, once said, ‘The secret to happiness is sharing’, this is the edict that needs to become the predominant mantra of our asylum seeker system.
That is a little bit of the political side of things (and only a little), but I started by talking about Osman the man and that is what is most important to me.
A couple of days after his death I wrote a song for him and here it is below, hopefully a more tangible expression of the emotion that has been felt for him than text can really convey. His life and death directly or indirectly affected many people, some for short periods others for longer, but he will not be forgotten and his life stands as a beacon to many who are in his situation, and let it be known that there are many, near and far. We can all learn so much from him if we stop for a moment and listen, really listen, without having our counter argument or our prejudices already set in stone.
For Osman, with love, compassion, tears and a massive smile. You will always be our friend.