What do you think of when you hear the word 'refugee?' Victim? Immigrant? Terrorist? A certain illustration has been transmitted by the Right-wing press, the seeds of xenophobia spread in daily gusts of fear. The press juxtapose this narrative with harrowing images of children dying and alien stories of torture and rape and beheading, creating a bizarre vibration of hate with the occasional splash of empathy. It is extremely easy to turn on the TV, feel pity, have dinner, go to bed, and get on with life, with the rationalisation of 'human nature is bad' and 'this isn't our problem' allowing this pacifist pattern to perpetuate.
Since the refugee crisis began, I've been wary of this moral conundrum: the fact that I feel terrible when I read about and see the atrocities that are going on, only to pop out to the pub and forget what I felt so tense about. And so I decided that in order to understand and internalise the issue, I'd have to see for myself. I was fortunate enough to be handed the opportunity to do so with the People of the Earth project, and returned to London late last night after spending a week in a refugee camp in Oinofyta, Greece.
The camp, run by a stalwart American woman named Lisa, is quite simply a microcosm of society. My presuppositions about the type of people I expected to see were complete falsehoods. Oinofyta houses 650 people (of which 250 are children) from a true continuum of backgrounds. The entire range of society is housed there: doctors, lawyers, carpenters, scientists, engineers, teachers. And heroin addicts. We were a group of 12 volunteers from London and were tasked with improving the living conditions of the camp, as well as helping out with the daily tasks of food distribution and clothing handouts. The demographic of the camp was predominantly Afghan (no, Afghanistan is not a safe place to live despite the UN declaring it so), as well as Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds and Pakistanis. Syrian refugees are kept in separate camps, owing to political tensions between them and other refugees.
Lisa's translator, Nasir, is a medical analyst who fled Afghanistan after questioning certain teachings in the Koran, only to receive death threats and have his property destroyed courtesy of the Taliban. I also connected with a woman who was about to pay a smuggler €11k (all of her family's money) to get her to the UK, where her sister lives. She is desperate to learn English but has been unable to take her education anywhere in Afghanistan because of the oppression of women. I asked her if she trusted the smuggler. "No," she said. "But it is my only choice."
I met countless more decent, hard-working, driven and intelligent people, desperate for a way of life that is without suppression and violence. But the borders are now closed, and thousands upon thousands of families are holed up in what are essentially large waiting areas, with no papers, no plan, and no dignity. I thought my compassion would centre around the children, but it was such a piercing experience to interact with the older men, reliant on daily food handouts and sleeping in an abandoned warehouse, their manhood stolen, completely powerless to provide for their family or give their children the life that we take for granted.
But not all was rosy. Although on the surface the air was calm, we quickly realised the gravity of the underlying darkness. Within a few hours of arriving, a fight broke out between two young men, with one of the lads running back to his room, picking up a blade, and charging at the other. We were told that violence is commonplace, and that there are myriad underlying racial and national tensions that contribute to it. Just before we arrived, a man was hospitalised after being beaten with a pipe. The reason? He was rounding up the children in the camp and trying to make them prostitute themselves in Athens. Other events of note while we were there include the arrest (and inevitable deportation) of one young lad, a heroin addict who was having severe withdrawal symptoms, which led to the kids of the camp taunting him with constant chants of "crazy," only for him to have a breakdown and threaten to kill them all.
Many commentators would jump on this as proof that "we shouldn't have these people in our country." But this dogma misses the point entirely. Violence and crime are natural symptoms of desperate times and despairing conditions. Thus these actions are merely the consequences of the situation. Most residents were there for an average of 6 months, and will realistically be stuck there for years to come - no job, no purpose, and for many of them, no family. Indeed, the heroin addict who was carted off was known by the volunteers to be one of the nicest, most agreeable people in camp but quite simply had an addiction he could not get help for. The uncertainty and the disempowerment would be enough to drive the most resilient of people insane.
I write this post as a descendant of Jewish immigrants with the intention of raising awareness about the refugee situation. Modern society looks back on the Holocaust as the worst genocide ever recorded, and we question why so many people turned a blind eye for so long. Why so many countries refused to help for so long. Yet here we are, history repeating itself with mass casualties and contempt for human rights, but we respond collectively with protectionist Western populism, reinforced yet again by the election result.
These people did not choose to be in this situation of torment. Just as we did not choose to be in our situation of privilege. And let us realise that it is only by chance that we were not born into these circumstances. Mere chance. Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot.