From Martha’s Vineyard, fighting for human rights in Germany


The Times occasionally publishes essays from Vineyarders at home and abroad who are doing important work or having noteworthy experiences. This is one of them.

Nine years ago, I graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, one of a small number of African-Americans to attend our high school.

As I walked across the Tabernacle stage on that hot June day I, like many, had no idea what life had in store. The world was large and I had one desire, to explore it. Explore I did, first attending the Maryland Institute College of Art, then Columbia University, until finally my feet landed in Germany.

In the summer of 2007, while protesting the treatment of refugees at an activism camp in Hamburg, I met a young beautiful woman named Rola M. Saleh. She had come to Germany, fleeing the persecution of her home nation. In Iran she is classified as homosexual and according to Iranian law homosexuality is a capital offense. International Human Rights groups report public floggings and executions of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals.

Both young and educated, Rola saw herself as a survivor, and she was hungry. She was hungry to do more, to make something extraordinary out of her life. But upon arriving in Germany, Rola was segregated from German society and placed inside a refugee camp outside Chemnitz. From that moment she has experienced denial. She has been denied a permanent visa, denied the status of citizenship, denied the opportunity of work, education, security and mobility. “I live,” she whispered, then exclaimed, “in a prison without bars.”

Rola’s story is not an uncommon tale. As the European Union has pulled down internal borders between member nations in the last few years, it has strengthened its external borders against immigration, creating what some people call Fortress Europe. According to Amnesty International, refugees and asylum seekers, especially those passing through Libya, routinely face abuse, torture, and indefinite detention as they attempt to make their way to Europe.

On May 23, 1949, not long after the end of WWII, West Germany passed a new constitution which contained a new law, which stated that persons persecuted on political grounds should enjoy the right of asylum within the nation’s borders. This law was then carried on into the newly unified German constitution in the early 1990s.

In theory, individuals suffering from political persecution should have the right to apply to Germany for asylum, and should be treated fairly within the process. In practice, however, the asylum process can take years pending the consideration of each application. Individuals are locked away in camps, sometimes miles from the closest town or hospital. Many have been attacked by local right-wing extremists, and some have died.

There are some situations in this world that we just find wrong. Many of us find it wrong that people must leave their homes because of pain, because of suffering, or because of lack of opportunity and yet they are given no safe haven. By law, every nation must look out for the well-being of its own nationals. But what then happens to the nation-less?

When refugees are allowed to stay in new nations, they are usually allowed to stay out of a sense of goodwill but not necessarily because of the obligation every country owes to their fellow-man. In many cases they are not allowed to fully enter into the new society because it will make it harder for them to be sent back. All of this is legal. All of this is done according to national and international laws.

However, as Martin Luther King once stated, we must ask ourselves which laws are just and which are not? Who makes these laws and for the betterment of whom? The current refugee situation overlooks the strength, beauty, and worth of every human, regardless of where they come from.

Rola’s words have never left me. They entered in beneath my skin and remained. I felt a need to do something, because there should be no one left alone in a prison without bars, there should be no one who is segregated. As a result, a year later I returned to Germany to live and to work with female refugees and asylum seekers, and break down invisible prisons, to break down the invisible walls that separate us and leave us feeling secluded and alone. This is what I have been doing as an Islander and a young African-American activist ever since.

An organization based in Berlin called Women in Exile, founded by women who were once in the refugee camps, is currently working to shut down the camps and integrate refugees into German society. If you would like to show your support for Rola or the thousands of other women currently housed in deplorable refugee camps across Germany, please send a message to me at and I will pass on your message to Rola so that she will know that she is not alone. Or contact Women In Exile directly at Women In Exile, Berlin-Brandenburg, c/o Refugee Brandenburg, Rudolf-Breitscheid-Str. 164, 4482 Potsdam, Germany. Email:

Asoka Esuruoso graduated from MVRHS in 2002. She now lives in Germany.