More than 20 million people have been displaced by war conflict in the 21st century, a figure larger than that of World War II. To understand the condition of refugees and documenting their wisdom, 24-year-old Deepak Ramola along with his team of Project FUEL, went on a 90-day tour of five countries to return with moving survivour tales. Sangeeta Yadav brings you a report on this yeomen effort
He is a lyricist of Majhi The Mountain Man, Wazir, Dear Dad and also acted in movies like Bodyguard and Isi Life Mein. But what’s closest to her heart is his organisation Project Forward the Understanding of Every Life-lesson (FUEL) which he founded at age 17 to document life lessons of people and teach others through workshops.
Meet 24-year-old Deepak Ramola, who as a part of Masterpiece Tour under his organisation, recently completed a 90-day tour across five countries in Europe — Sweden, The Netherlands, Germany, France and Hungry. He, along with his three teammates, heard some heart-wrenching life lessons and survivour stories of refugees across the globe.
“It was traumatic to see the photo of four-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi whose lifeless body had washed up to the shore near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. My research on refugees made me realise that it’s not really the refugees who have been displaced. Everyone has been displaced — be it due to work, better living or other life issues. During the tour, I met so many people who had migrated in the hope for a better life,” Ramola tells you.
Ramola spent 10 days with 7,000 refugees at the Calail camp in France which has been shut down by the new French Government, leading to large scale displacement. These refugees came because of the conflict in Syria and Sudan. Some were from Eritrea and Libya. There was hopelessness everywhere in the camp.
“I knew that if I could tap into a common stream, I would be able to pick on a similarity,” says Ramola who, last year, went to earthquake struck Nepal which devastated the Himalayan country. He taught 800 Nepalese at relief camps and “learnt a lot of life lessons from their situation.”
For him, the focus of the tour was to find a common thread and positivity.
“I didn’t want tragic stories. The focus was how you survived when all was taken and yet even at the retirement age at 60, one had the zest to start all over. I wanted to document human wisdom amid conflict. People need to have hope and faith in the concept of starting over,” says Deepak, who was recently in the Capital to speak at the Josh Talks.
He recalls meeting a 14-year-old boy at Calail who lost his entire family while escaping to France.
“This Syrian boy was on his way back home from school and had stopped at a mosque to pray. When he got back home, his entire neighbourhood had been bombed and his family of five killed. He managed to escape to France on a boat. When I asked him about what he had learnt from life, he said: ‘I’ve learnt that life is hard but being angry about it doesn’t solve anything.’ To hear this from a child, who had lost his innocence and seen so much at an early age, gave me goosebumps,” Ramola recalls.
Another refugee he met was a teenage boy who crossed the Mediterranean Sea with 17 other people.
“To watch 16 people die trying to swim for seven hours to reach the Italian shore was life altering. He survived the horrors of floating with dead bodies all around him and not knowing which direction to swim to in the vast sea. Another refugee, Farhad from Iran, said really makes him happy is the solid ground because when he was in a boat for seven days, all he wanted was to feel the soil beneath his feet.
The camps also have women, most of them wanting nothing more than getting their life back on track. Very few women are chosen to be refugees by their families as the journey is very tough. You have to cross the sea and walk for months. The ones who really make it are the ones who are very strong.
“I met Jada in Amsterdam who was from Syria. She had only been married a week before she was forced to leave the country. Since then, she has not met her husband. Once she reached Amsterdam, she enrolled into a volunteer programme for entrepreneurial studies. The pitch project which they had presented after the end of their semester was that if they won, they would get a free office space to run their entrepreneurial idea for a year. She won the first prize and is now working there as an entrepreneur,” he says.
Then there were women who came with their children and wanted nothing better than to escape to the UK to make a better life for themselves and their children. Ramola also interviewed specially-abled people at a refugee camp in Hamburg, Germany.
“I did a five-hour interview with a sign language translator. That showed me how important it is to cross those barriers and to be able to understand peoples’ stories,” he tells you.
Most stories are horrible. Refugees had to drink and eat whatever they found on their way. Some, while crossing the Sahara Desert, had no food and water for 12 days. A refugee recounted that since there was no water, he had to drink petrol just to keep himself hydrated. Then there were people who had walked from their country for nearly seven months through the jungles of Slovakia and Bulgaria in extreme cold with no food to eat for days on end to cross borders and reach to safety.
A lot of refugees Ramola met are no longer alive. Some died because they could no longer fight, others in the desperation to reach the UK were run over by trucks while crossing the border.
“One day, I would be sitting with them talking about their life, the next day I would be at their funeral. It was an emotional journey for me. But that proved all the more important for me to document their life lessons. The pages that I have written will be all the legacy that these people have left behind,” he says.
Things were not easy for Ramola either who would spend time teaching the refugees. He taught in camps which were earlier a prison in Amsterdam and now houses refugees from 16 nationalities. Each word that he taught had to be translated into eight languages which meant that each session was at least three to four hours long. People in the camps would get frustrated because they were yet to achieve what they had set out for. All that they could do was wait. They couldn’t cook their food. Since their journey was so disturbing anything could trigger them into emotional trauma. One had to speak to them in a certain manner. A lot of people had cultural sensitivities, especially women from the Middle East who would not touch another man or woman or lift their burqa even if it was required. But for many refugees in the camp, what Ramola brought positivity and made them believe that good still exists, it gave them the hope that they desperately needed.
Then there were risks due to political upheaval.
“There was violence and political unrest happening in all the five countries in Europe. There were attacks in Paris and Berlin when we were there. There was bomb blast in Hungry due to political unrest, a country where the Government runs an anti-refugee campaign. It was a risky tour but worth every minute of it,” Ramola tells you.
After his tour ended in September, he was invited for a programme Merit 360 by World Merit at the UN headquarters in New York. He shared the life lessons that he had collected from the tour where the Syrian Peace Ambassador was also present.
“That week, the Syrian ambassador had lost his best friend and fiancée and 40 other friends in Syria. When I asked him what his understanding was and how does he continue to live amid all the bombing, what he said summed up the entire tour for me and for the thousands of refugees that I met.
He said: “If you focus so much on losing, you will lose faith and hope, the two most important things needed for survival. I am choosing to not focus on losing anymore. I am choosing to focus on what is left and what can I build with that. Every refugee that I met, had some of that belief in him”.
Ramola learnt a lot about gratitude, hospitality and hope that the refugees carry in their heart.
“In our culture, we need a transition where we care about the humanity and where any problem that humans are facing is not just a Syrian or European problem. It is a human problem. Years later, we would be standing at one side of humanity and questioning which side we stood by,” he says.
Born in Uttarakhand and brought up in Dehra Dun and now living Mumbai trying to make his mark as a lyricist and taking Project FUEL forward, Ramola’s inspiration is his mother who wanted to get education but was pulled out from the school. Yet she never stopped learning and took life lessons as her teacher.
“I was raised by a woman who was pulled out of her school in Class V. But the learning never stopped. She learnt simply by living. She hardly ever travelled outside of Dehra Dun but she has knowledge of everything, a strong-headed woman who manages the house well and has different point of view on everything. The life lessons became her best teacher. So the idea for my organisation came from her. There is so much to learn from every human being. That’s the goal of my organisation — to be able to document the wisdom and experience of every single person. Through the exchange of these lessons, we will never be alone, confused or traumatised. We can use that wisdom to learn through,” Ramola philosophies.
The aim to remain connected with every human being and think that his talent should act as his responsibility.
“I strongly believe that your talent is not your gift, it’s your responsibility to make it feel like a gift for those who don’t have the resources and skill or time to have that talent or pursue it. If I am good with telling people stories, making them feel powerful in their vulnerability then I should use that tool to the best of my ability. Not just for my country but for humanity as a whole,” Ramola opines.
Ramola has recently shot an episode on The Dewarists 5.0 and his next release as a lyricist is Satra Ko Shaadi Hai.
Lessons well learnt
When I reached Italy after a difficult journey, the police didn’t take us to a hotel. They took us to a prison. They forcibly took our fingerprints. They tortured me — used livewire shocks so that I would give my prints. I want to go to the UK but the French Police won’t allow it. I don’t want to be a loser. Life in the jungle is all about waiting in line. Waiting in line for food, clothes, soap. Just waiting. I want to do more in life and become a rap artist.
Life Lesson: If you want protection, stay in your own country.
— Musab, 21, in France
I have five children, four are here with me in the refugee camp. The eldest daughter has been kidnapped by the ISIS. All my life, I’ve ensured that my children are happy. Even in this camp, my happiest moment is when my children are all together with me in the room. I pray that the eldest one comes back to me. I’m losing hope but somewhere I still believe that the Government will save all the abducted girls. Children are precious and pure.
Life Lesson: Every child in the world should be loved and protected.
— Naam, 55, in Hamburg, Germany
I left Sudan to come to France and the wait continues. My wife and I reached an agreement that we should separate as I don’t know how long it will take me to put things right. And she shouldn’t wait. I’ve left my two children behind and have learnt to cry. Life taught me how to miss my mom, how to miss joking with my dad, how to hug my brother, how to cry. But I’m learning how to deal with it. No one should ever learn how to miss someone.
Life Lesson: Never leave your family.
—Khaled, 44, in Calais, France
I am a Palestinian and been a refugee all my life. I grew up in a Syrian camp. Our situation was bad as we were very poor. But I got my education and became a Physics and Maths teacher. Life has taught me not to be arrogant. When the war in Syria started, I had to leave the country to look for a safer home. I came to The Netherlands and have been waiting here to be reunited with my family. I spend my time constructively by learning the Dutch culture and language. A volunteer whom I met at a camp here suggested that I write a book. So I wrote my autobiography. I’m currently translating it into English and Dutch. I get to learn something new everyday. Even when I’m writing the most horrifying parts of my journey, I’m not hurt or angry or arrogant. I’m just humbled by all that has happened to me.
Life Lesson: Be humble in all situations.
— Nabil Alaydi, 37
I was in a place where I couldn’t vote, couldn’t say anything to anyone. So I fled Eritrea to create a better future for myself in another country. I was on a small boat with 550 people and came to Italy. The engine stopped in the middle of the sea and then we were rescued. Of course, life is difficult. But it has taught me how to fight and how to survive despite all odds.
Life Lesson: Fight for yourself
— Yonas, 29
In my journey from Iran to Sweden, there were two tough moments. First, when I crossed the border on foot and then walked for over 12 hours without food or water. Second, when I was stuffed into a small tube in the Mediterranean Sea on my way to Greece. The boat had a limited space but there were more than 50 of us. I was so scared of drowning. Now, that I am alive, I am happy. I never cared about eating with my family or laughing with my friends. It’s small things like these that I never paid attention to when I was in Iran. Now, I miss everything. I feel I have lost it all. Yet, I have to hold on to hope.
Life Lesson: You must respect everyone and make sure they know that you do.
— Farhad Kazemi, 16
During my eight-hour trek when I was walking in absolute darkness, I felt I would die. The road was rough and I could hear the sea, smell it. So, I knew I was walking on a cliff road that was not paved and I could fall if I took a wrong step. And the human smugglers, they tell you, if you fall ‘we will leave you’. That really got me thinking about how any man can be in my position and not change. My mind for those eight hours became a grinder.
Life Lesson: Geographical borders are useless because they make you judge others.
— Jihad Asad, 35
After they jailed my father and two elder brothers, the responsibility to earn for my family fell on me. I have worked hard all day long since I was 12. There is not a single good memory I have of those days. My mother finally sold everything thing she had to help me flee Eritrea. I paid $2,000 to the smugglers and it still took me seven months to reach a safe place. In Libya, I was put behind bars for two months for lack of documents. No news of my release, made me polish my patience. All I would do is wait. I was 17 and hoping against hope.
Life lesson: Have patience. It’s hard but always worth it
— Medani, 18
Just To be alive
The father-daughter relationship is very different in Germany. In our culture, you maintain a distance from your father as a sign of respect. Even if my father was angry, he would tell my mother to tell me not to do certain things. If I would say: ‘I love you Abba’, he would want to know why I was saying such things to him. My father has always loved me but we never expressed that love. After the war, things changed. When I see him again, I will hug him and tell him that I love him. And this time, he won’t ask ‘why’?
— Sara from Syria
I was the lone survivour of a boat that drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. I swam for seven hours to save myself. The police did nothing but the Italian people helped me when I got to the shore. I miss my mother a lot because she would understand what it does to a person who has seen so much death and yet goes on living.
— A refugee in Calais, France
I walked for nearly seven months to get to Europe. Sometimes, we would get a train or a bus but mostly it was on foot. I came from Afghanistan to Iran to Turkey to Bulgaria to Serbia to Hungary to Austria to Italy and finally to France. We slept in parks, sidewalks but mostly in the jungles. I’m so angry about life as I never thought it would be this hard. But I can’t complain because I am alive. When they call, I lie to them saying I am super happy because life is more comfortable. The moment I get my papers, I will go to see them and tell them the truth because I miss the love of my parents.
— A refugee in Calais, France
Before I took the boat to flee, I used to watch videos of other people doing that on YouTube. I used to tell myself: ‘Oh that is so dangerous. I would never do that.’ But then I had to make the same choice. I wore my sunglasses all through the journey. When we arrived in Greece, my friend told me: ‘Hadi…take the glasses off you are a refugee’. But I kept them on because I wanted people to know we are people with dreams, desires and style, not aliens.
— Hadi in Berlin, Germany
I was not born deaf but very high fever when I was eight meant that I would never hear a sound. I had to flee Eritrea as it got dangerous. It took me seven days without food or water to reach Sudan. After staying in Sudan for three months, I left for Libya, travelled through the Sahara for 40 days with limited food and water. Sometimes, there was no water and we drank fuel to get liquid into our body. Finally, I took a boat to Italy. The sea was stormy and there were 800 people aboard with no rescue equipment. I was not just a refugee but a deaf refugee and hence communication at any point was not possible.
— A refugee in Hamburg, Germany
- Photos by Vibhor Yadav
(The article also got published in The Pioneer Newspaper – http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/special/of-home-and-hope.html).