Friday, March 30, 2007

My presentation at University of Toronto

United Nations Association in Canada (UNA-Canada)
50th Anniversary of UN Peacekeeping

Children and War

My name is Behzad Pilehvar. I was born in the middle of a devastating war between Iran and Iraq. My parents opposed against the war and dictatorship in Iran. They both were arrested when I was 2. The Guards took me inside the jail along with my parents. I spent around a year and a half in jail. They first released me and delivered me to my grand-father. A year later, they released my mother and after 2 years my father was released. The war was continuing. At the age of 5 I witnessed bombardments of Iraqi planes an soon after Saddam Hussein used rockets to hit Iranian cities, especially the capital where we were living. There was a shelter in our school. I never forget the horror I felt when there was alarming sound calling to leave classes and rush to shelter. I lost some of my classmates, among them Mohammad who was my play-mate as well. The war made many children orphans. Every day children bring pictures of their father who had been killed in the war-front. I saw may children, even below the age 8 who had left the school to work and help their families financially. I had lost two cousins who were killed in the war.

Both the Iranian and Iraqi governments used religion to drag people to war. In our school they repeatedly mentioned that they were fighting for God and Islam. They took children from the age of 10 as volunteer to fight in the war-zones. They were used as suicide bombers and hundreds of them were used to clear the minefields. They told children that they should be happy if they got killed because death would open the gate of paradise to them. According to a document published by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan. The government of Iran officially recruited 15-year-old children to fight in a civil war against Kurds who were called non-believers because belonged to the Sunni sect of Islam. The Iranian government belongs to the Shia sect. The war, according to the Iranian regime was Jihan – a kind of holy war for the victory of Islam, although it was against another Moslem country.

The war was ended in 1988 when I was 7. Before ending the war, the Iranian leader, Ayatollh Khomeini ordered the massacre of between 5 to 7 thousands political prisoners, among them some of our relatives and family friends. I never forget my friend Majeed who was 6 and they executed his father in his presence. The end of war did not end militarization of the country. They started giving children military training in school. Nobody could say no. I still feel fear when I remember those days. We had to face hunger and poverty because of war. Years after years I witnessed the negative impacts of war. Children of those days are grown up adults. I am one of the them. We still suffer from the after-effects of war. I call upon the whole world to work against the war and for piece, especially for children. Because all war are wars against children.

Children have been killed or made homeless or disabled by war. Still, many governments use them as child-soldiers. The best service to children is the prevention of war. It need lots of work by all of us with the involvement of youth and children themselves.

Have you ever asked yourself why there is war? In my opinion, it is because of global poverty, discrimination and dictatorship. Rich countries should help the poor and United Nation should be more active to make everyone enjoy human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child should be observed by all countries.

Following are some suggestions:

1. Governments and the UN must use political, economic and legal standards for the protection of children.
2. They must PROTECTION CHILDREN AND YOUTH who are already CAUGHT IN the war. They should give them all sorts of helps especially help for their health and education.
3. It is important to have a program for helping children after the end of the war.
Canada is a country famous for human rights. Our government must do its best to prevent war and help children who have become victims of conflicts. I hope that a day comes that all children enjoy the sweetness of childhood. What happened to me may not happen to anyone in the world.

The Plight of Northern Iraqi Refugees in Turkey

The Plight of Northern Iraqi Refugees in Turkey

By Behzad Pilehvar

As a government assisted refugee who has spent eighteen months of hard life in Turkey, I would like to share my concerns about the life and protection of Kurdish asylum seekers in Turkey.

There are thousands of asylum seekers living in a very difficult situation in Turkey. They have escaped to Turkey from many countries like Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Some are living in Turkey legally and others have to live an underground life. The focus of this article is on the plight of those refugees who live in Turkey legally and have been accepted by the UNHCR branch office there.

In early 2001, a group of Kurdish political activists (mainly Iranians) entered Turkey from Northern Iraq. They could not continue staying in Iraq due to lack of status and the fear of religious and political persecution by the ruling parties there. The kidnapping and assassination of Iranian opponents in Northern Iraq added to their well-founded fears. Despite the acceptance of a majority of these people as bonafide refugees by UHNCR, they have not yet been resettled in a safe third country.

In March 2003, before the outbreak of the war in Iraq, the UNHCR designated this group of refugees under the category of “People in Irregular Move” (See Agreement 1989, number 58 XL). The UNHCR branch in Turkey initially refused to accept them as bonafide refugees. It was a carte blanche for the police and the Ministry of Home Affairs to send these people to Iran, Iraq and Syria. There was great reluctance to provide these refugees with medical and psychiatric care, many of them needed greatly. After years of international lobbying and pressure from human and refugee rights groups, the UNHCR and the government of Turkey agreed in 2003 to let these people stay as foreigners in Turkey. This was with the condition that they pay ‘staying’ fees to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The fee was $250 per person for a period of 6 months.

On July the 2nd of 2003, Turkish security forces attacked a peaceful sit-in strike of a group of Iranian refugees and Turkish students in front of the office of the UNHCR. I was arrested along with two other asylum seekers and we faced the risk of deportation. It was not without effective pressure from human rights supporters and the Turkish media that the police released us. On August 20th 2003, the Turkish police arrested 20 asylum seekers, among them were 8 children. They were taken by the police to the border and abandoned in bad weather conditions. After fighting for their lives for three days, local people rescued them and they returned to the border city of Van. In November of that same year, the police in front of the UNHCR office arrested 53 refugees. The police decided to deport them from Turkey. However, they were released due to the intervention of human rights agencies.

In December 2003, the UNHCR branch office in turkey accepted these people as bonafide refugees from Northern Iraq. This came after they had been living in limbo for two years. In April 2004, Turkish police transferred these refugees to different cities. They were advised by the police to procure residence permits from the cities of their destination. The refugees faced lots of problems from local authorities in their bid to get the residence permits. The local authorities asked them for considerably high fees, in return for the permits. In June of 2004, the Turkish police gave the refugees a deadline to pay the fees by the end of the month. However, many refugees could not afford it. Therefore, on July the 8th, 54 refugees were arrested and forced to sign letters of removal from Turkey. They were given 15 days to leave Turkey voluntarily, to avoid being removed forcefully. In October 2005, Amnesty International asked the UNHCR to resettle these refugees in a safe third country.

The number of these refugees, according to UNHCR statistics of July 2005, is as follows: 1181 refugees (516 cases); This includes 62% men, 38% women, 277 children under the age of 18, 100 children under the age of 5 and two hundred single people. The average number of each family is estimated at 3.

There was a meeting between refugees and UNHCR officials in Turkey in September 2006. Unfortunately, the meeting did nothing to improve the safety of refugees in Turkey. In early December 2006, the Ministry of Home Affairs sent a communiqué to the refugees informing them that those with close relatives abroad and those who suffer from serious diseases (diseases such as cancer and diabetes), who were approximately 96 in number, can be resettled in a third country. Unfortunately, on the 15th of December following a meeting between the UNHCR and the Ministry of Home Affairs, this decision was cancelled.

It has been more than five years since the arrival of these refugees in Turkey. So far, there has been no attempt to resettle them in another country. These refugees suffer in Silence, as they are not permitted to work in Turkey. This is because, according to Turkish law, those employers who hire them, will be finding and criminally prosecuted. Also, their children are practically deprived of studying in Turkey due to the language barrier as well as the heavy cost of education there. At present, 277 children under 18 who have come from Northern Iraq do not have access to education.

According to one of the Iranian interpreters, in a two-year period from the time of the arrival of refugees from Northern Iraq till the end of 2003 there has been more than 50 beatings and wounding of asylum seekers by the agents of the Turkish government. I have witnessed two of these events.

Who is responsible for not resettling these refugees? The UNHCR authorities in Turkey have always rejected any kind of negligence with respect to their involvement with refugees from Northern Iraq. They have blamed the government of Turkey for not providing exit visas to these people. On the other hand, the Ministry of Home Affairs in Turkey blames the UNHCR for not finding a safe third country for the resettlement of these vulnerable refugees. Following a deep analysis of the cases of these refugees, one can easily conclude that both sides are responsible. From the practice of both sides one might infer that the UNHCR and the Turkish government use refugees as scapegoats.

Finally, I request all individuals and human rights agencies as well as those who cherish the hope of a better future for humanity, to take action and help these highly vulnerable refugees in Turkey.

Behzad Pilehvar entered Turkey in April 2003. He resettled in Canada in December 2004.

Interview with NATIONAL POST

Disarming the children
Three men who grew up in war zones have joined the fight to rescue 300,000 young soldiers

Stewart Bell
National Post
Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Behzad Pilehvar was still a schoolboy when Iran's Revolutionary Guards started training him for war. They taught him how to fire machine guns and make bombs.
"They told you if you go to war and die, the blood will open the gates to paradise," the 25-yearold Toronto resident said yesterday. "They're killing the minds of children."
Mr. Pilehvar is now fighting back against the Revolutionary Guards, Tamil Tigers, Taliban, Lords Resistance Army and every other armed faction that uses children as canon fodder.
He and two other young men who grew up in war zones were to speak about their experiences at the University of Toronto last night to bring attention to the plight of the world's 300,000 child soldiers.
It is not a new cause. Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, urged the United Nations to ban the recruitment of children back in 1996, and that was followed by a world conference in Winnipeg in 2000.
But child soldiers are now having their moment in the spotlight. The newly released A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier debuted last week at No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list. The author, Ishmael Beah, will be touring Canada starting on March 28.
Hollywood has taken notice as well. Benin-born Djimon Hounsou was nominated for an Oscar this year for his role in Blood Diamond. He plays a father trying to rescue a son kidnapped by rebels and transformed into a drug-induced killer.
Celebrity goodwill ambassadors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have also helped highlight the issue, visiting a jail for child soldiers in Haiti last year along with singer Wyclef Jean.
But has pop culture's acceptance as a worthy cause translated into action? "I would like to say yes to that, but I'm not sure," said Samantha Nutt, the founder and executive director of War Child Canada.
With so many issues competing for attention, the current favourite being global warming, it is not easy to be heard, she said, especially since many Canadians feel far removed from war.
Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, northern Uganda, Sri Lanka and the Darfur region of Sudan top the list of today's hot spots for child soldiers. While children continue to wage war, there is at least a growing recognition that it is morally wrong and a violation of international law, Ms. Nutt said.
Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, is now before a UN-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone charged with 11 counts, including conscripting children under 15.
"It is increasingly being seen as something that eventually you're going to pay the piper for," Ms. Nutt said. "I think it's lessened the appetite for recruiting kids. At the same time it's still a huge problem that we need to continue to address."
Romeo Dallaire, the Senator and retired General who tried to stop the Rwandan genocide, is writing a book about child soldiers, following upon his best-seller Shake Hands With the Devil.
And Western governments have been meeting to address the problem. France hosted a "Let Us Free Children of War" conference in Paris last month. The result: the Paris Commitments, in which governments pledge to "spare no effort to end the unlawful recruitment or use of children by armed forces or groups."
Winnipeg resident Chol Kelei, 27, one of the speakers at last night's event, said while governments are saying the right things, they are not doing enough. "People talk about it and they don't take action."
Mr. Kelei was six when war broke out in his native Sudan. His father was killed two years later. He fled to Ethiopia, then back to Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and eventually to Canada in 2003.
He was not a child combatant, but he saw enough of it firsthand to make him want to put an end to the wars that pit armies of children against each other.
"We have a responsibility to do something."
Kimmie Weeks, who also spoke last night, said there are a lot of things people can do -- such as lobby their governments and raise money for non-profit groups that help rehabilitate child soldiers.
His own activism almost cost him his life.
Born in Liberia, he led a children's disarmament campaign that ran afoul of the government for exposing Mr. Taylor's child recruitment efforts. He spent three weeks hiding in friends' houses until a foreign embassy helped him escape, disguised as a member of a cultural dance troupe.
He now lives in Philadelphia, where he runs Youth Action International, which gets young people involved in helping war affected children. In his experience, once war breaks out, it is too late to help the kids. The work needs to be done in peacetime, he said.
"People do have power over their governments, and governments do listen."
For a photogallery of child soldiers from around the globe, visit media
© National Post 2007

Interview with TORONTO STAR

Forum in Toronto told that Canada must play a role in ending the use of children in battle


At 2, Behzad Pilehvar became a political prisoner, jailed in Iran with his anti-war parents.
At 7, he lost his best friend to an Iraqi air-raid bomb.
At 13, he started military training, learning in school how to defend his country as a Basij youth guard.
"We learned how to use Colt pistols, AK-47s and landmines, just like we learned math and geography in class. I still have nightmares from hearing the thundering shots from training in a firing range on a military base," recalls Pilehvar, whose family came to Toronto in 2003 as government-sponsored refugees.
"We were taught to kill for God and Islam." He pauses. "And the Western world was our enemy."
Thanks to his peace-loving parents, Pilehvar didn't actually become a child soldier like some of his friends, brainwashed teenagers who were sent into the 1980-88 war with Iraq, some to be used as suicide bombers or "canaries" to clear minefields.
Last evening, the slender man, now 25, joined a forum on children and armed conflict at the University of Toronto, part of a cross-Canada panel series sponsored by the United Nations Association in Canada to mark the 50th anniversary of the first UN peacekeeping mission (a brainchild of then-foreign affairs minister Lester B. Pearson, who proposed sending a multinational contingent to the Suez region to defuse tensions there in 1956.)
While the issue of child soldiers has captured public attention, the problem hasn't abated. In parts of Asia, the Middle East, Chechnya, Colombia and especially in African nations, government forces, militias and armed opposition groups conscript kids as young as 9 to fight or provide support for those who do. The UN estimates there were 250,000 child soldiers last year.
"Some of these children are taken away from their families and forced to join. Others have lost their parents, and becoming a child soldier is the only way out," explained panelist Kimmi Weeks, who is founder of the Philadelphia-based Youth Action International, which offers post-war rehabilitation to youth in West Africa.
"There are those who look at it as a rite of passage that'd give them the power that they would not otherwise have."
Having grown up amid Liberia's civil war, which began in 1989, Weeks, 25, knows first-hand the traumatic impact on children, who often end up repeating the cycle of violence.
Chol Kelei left his home in Sudan at 8, trekking from refugee camp to refugee camp through Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya to survive.
"War started in Sudan in 1955. It stopped in 1972 and started again in 1993," said the 24-year-old, who managed to leave the Dadab camp with the help of the UN Association in 2003. He now lives in Winnipeg and travels as a speaker for children affected by armed conflict.
"Unfortunately, we all grew up in a generation of war and many of us don't even know anything other than war. No one knows what it means by peace."
Weeks said aid groups that appear in an emergency are often gone when the war ends. Little attention is paid to the mental health of the war children.
"When these kids become adults, they simply revert to war again," he explained.
While Pilehvar is taking courses at Seneca College to complete his interrupted civil engineering studies, he's pondering a switch to political science or journalism. He hopes to learn to use politics and media to bring about change in conflict regions.
"Canada is a country famous for human rights. Our government must do its best to prevent war and help children who have become victims of conflicts," Pilehvar said.