Naturally they didn’t want their photographs taken because it was too risky. The father told us his story in Arabic with a kind volunteer interpreter helping out. There were three children who were clearly very tired. The lovely twelve year old daughter spoke some English, enough to say that her mother was still in Syria. The father looked haggard and shellshocked and I wondered if he was protecting the children from some terrible knowledge. They were cold and fearful. They were making their way to “Allemania” but realised that they would not be welcome but there was no choice but to press on. I returned to the station later with some warm cast-offs and the family was still sitting on the same stone step. The girl seemed to be trying to sleep but she was crying in quiet despair. There are thousands of people like this. What are we going to do?
Whenever I start talking to anyone about how Fiji has managed to slash prison recidivism, they interrupt me to talk enthusiastically about some fantastic rehabilitation program somewhere but that misses the point. This is about you and me, the public, the community, society , whatever you want to call us – the people outside prison. The Fijians have changed the way the public sees the freshly released ex-con because it’s the public’s attitude that has a massive impact on reoffending statistics. And while you’re reading this, you might ask yourself how you feel about interacting with ex-offenders…
When I was in Fiji for work recently, I couldn’t help noticing that the correction facility buildings (that’s Fiji newspeak for “prison”) displayed big yellow ribbons shaped like those other awareness symbols such as red for AIDS awareness, pink for breast cancer and so on. My taxi driver told me that this was the symbol of the prisoner acceptance program and I wondered if it had come from the seventies number one hit: “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” which was annoying to those around at the time as it was aired constantly and impossible to get out of your head.
The words are very relevant to the Yellow Ribbon scheme though: it’s a catchy little ballad about a man who is returning home on the bus after a spell in prison. He’s written to his wife to tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree on the road home if she is willing to have him back and give him a second chance. As he is singing at the top of his voice the whole bus is aware of his dilemma and when they all see that there is not just one yellow ribbon around the tree but a hundred, the whole bus cheers and the man happily returns home.
That’s the idea of the Yellow Ribbon Programme in a nutshell. I have my own yellow ribbon badge now. I was proud to have it pinned on me by Assistant Superintendent of Corrections Isireli Dausiga at the end of my visit with him. Mr Dausiga is the Community Liaison Officer and he received me in his chaotic but functional office and kindly gave up his time to give me a presentation of the Yellow Ribbon second chance Project. This was a man with a mission, passionate about changing attitudes and improving lives. He told me that the project had started in Singapore in May 2000 and aimed to engage the community in the rehabilitation of ex offenders. The Singapore slogan is “help unlock the second prison” and there was a great poster campaign.
With news of the Singapore Yellow Ribbon Programme’s success, the Fijians brought it to their island in October 2008 and have not looked back. Modern prison services all over the world offer rehabilitation to inmates so that they have new skills when they go back out and in this regard Fiji does not lag behind. But if we as a society refuse to give ex offenders a second chance, it won’t be long before they are back behind bars My jaw dropped when Mr Dausiga explained that the stats for people returning to prison had plunged from 50% in 2006 to 3.6% in 2014, following the introduction of the programme and I was eager to hear more.
Under the Yellow Ribbon Project, there have been massive information campaigns and new messages to educate the public about the deeper nature of the issue and make them see the part they have to play in bringing about change. The public have got to realize that the way they take back ex offenders into their communities will have a massive impact on the kind of society we all live in. Since 2008 the community has been involved, following campaigns in the media, on the television and radio phone-in shows in order to change perceptions and produce a deeper understanding of root causes, for example lack of adequate parenting leading to delinquency.
“We take a holistic approach here which includes referring to the inmates as “persons in custody”” said Assistant Superintendent Dausiga and went on to explain that the P word is generally avoided. I was fascinated by what the Assistant Superintendent himself shared about his own journey. It was no cakewalk. He comes from a family of correction officers going back to his grandfather. He explained that he was aided in overcoming his resistance to the program by his strong faith which has helped him see that in dealing with fellow humans who have fallen to the lowest point it is his spiritual duty to always remember the human touch rather regarding them as bad people who just had to be locked up and guarded.
A brutalizing prison corps or a enlightened service will make a world of difference to the kind of person who is finally allowed to return to their respective communities. The Yellow Ribbon (second chance) Programme starts with the Correction officers. They are urged to take the first steps in their own transformation so they can become role models to the inmates under their charge. Quoting from the Fiji Correction Services mission statement, “As Captains of Lives, we provide a safe, secure and healthy environment for persons in custody. Work in partnership with communities and other agencies for the rehabilitation of offenders and their successful re integration into society.”
I’ll leave the last word with Assistant Superintendent of Corrections Isireli Dausiga:
“The Commissioner of the Fiji Corrections Service Lt. Colonel Ifereimi Vasu is in the forefront of Change within the Fiji Corrections Service. He ensures that the promotion and awareness program for Yellow Ribbon Project is done in such a manner that will entice and win the hearts of the people of Fiji, he is always reminding the people of Fiji that they play an important role in the successful reintegration of offenders back into their families, community and society. This is wholly dependent on their acceptance and forgiving those who have committed the crime and done the time and are treated humanely and with dignity once released from corrections centers. The Fiji Corrections Service contributes to nation building, community safety and security through the rehabilitation of persons in custody, the training of its human resources, infrastructure development and through the Yellow Ribbon Project it invites and entices the community at large to help unlock the second prison within. “
This evening I went down to Keleti Railway Station in Budapest to see for myself the refugees who have been camping out there on their way to reception centers in Hungary before moving on to other countries where they will get asylum. Most are from Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan fleeing for their lives and the sight of women changing babies nappies on the floor of the station made me want to cry.
Since the beginning of the crisis, over 100,000 people have flowed over the border, to Hungary, first port of call in the European Union. This has meant that Hungary has been allocated EU funds to cope with the extra administrative burden of processing all the asylum applications of the desperate people who are transiting through the central European state. Rumors abound that this money is partially being used to fund the 4 metre high fence which is being built along the Hungarian border with Serbia in order to keep out “illegal migrants” , dirty words guaranteed to extinguish compassion and make good premier Viktor Orban’s promise that he will keep Hungary safe from assaults on its culture. There is the feeling amongst liberals that the choice to label refugees seeking asylum “migrants” is a calculated one. The official line is that of course the country welcomes genuine refugees but not illegal economic migrants. While there may be a handful of these among the sea of miserable travelers coming across the border, most are clearly desperate. What has escalated in the past year has been the turmoil in the Middle East, not the economic crisis. (An interesting article about why it may be in Hungary’s interests to accept more migrants here: http://hungarianfreepress.com/2015/07/29/its-in-hungarys-interest-to-accept-more-refugees-and-immigrants/
How things have changed since the Balkan war when Hungary opened its doors to those fleeing the war in imploding Yugoslavia two decades ago. The government also seem to have forgotten how the Hungarians seeking refuge from their victorious oppressors after the 1956 Revolution were welcomed in various western european countries as heroes although comments on the blogosphere are full of indignant Hungarians expressing shame for the actions of their government.
There have been “anti-migrant” hate groups appearing on Facebook which has resulted in attacks on refugees and sometimes on people perceived to be “migrants”. Last week in Szeged a couple of Hungarians, one of who had been born in Cuba, were harassed and then when the girl tried to explain that her boyfriend had Hungarian citizenship and had lived in the country since he was three years old, she was viciously beaten and had to be hospitalized.
On the other hand, when the government announced plans to build their fence and then ran a billboard campaign with slogans like “When you come to Hungary, respect our laws and culture and don’t steal our jobs”, (in Hungarian which the “migrants” are unlikely to be familiar with), civil society stepped up to to plate with a counter campaign in English and raised the necessary funds in record time. Food Not Bombs in Hungary have been offering meals to the refugees since the beginning of the crisis and other NGOs like Menedek (Shelter) have been very active, not to mention many individuals who have tried to help by offering food and supplies.
Ironically, the appearance of large groups of people from the middle east, very few of whom speak any English, has improved the attitude of locals towards the indigenous homeless who were considered to be breaking the law until the Constitutional Court deemed this unconstitutional but more about the treatment of the homeless in another post…
I was swimming at the local pool when I noticed a couple of fathers cuddling their sons after their swim. I got out of the water and ran to my locker to get my camera and asked if I could photograph them. I must have seemed very odd in my bathing suit and wielding a camera but they acquiesced. I just came across the print while clearing some space now and I’m glad I asked back then. I still like this picture. That was eighteen years ago. I wonder what has become of the boy.
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