REFUGEES: Time to Bridge Beyond Bans and Walls

The elderly woman, Rona, was hunched over as though her life’s experiences were weighing her down, pushing her straight into the earth. As I entered the shipping container, she offered me her warm hand to hold. “Salaam,” she said.

I reached down to kiss her on her cheek–she smelled like stale crackers and sugar. “Salaam,” I replied.

My friend Mohammed and I were visiting a family living in the Trikala refugee camp, which houses hundreds of refugees, primarily from Syria.

The family we visited, a mother and her four children, are Syrian Kurds who we met last summer at the Port of Piraeus. After spending nearly half a year living in a tent, they are now squeezed into a single container with Rona.

The bleach white container is meant to be a temporary accommodation; they’ve been there for nine months and only just received a small refrigerator and hot plate. The mother told us that she is happy to have these items–cooking your own meals is empowering.

Inside the container was a single toilet with a standing shower–the mother cleans it daily. She is good at making a home for her children and the elderly woman.

We sat together on the floor to drink tea and eat sugar cookies. Rona began telling us her story, Mohammed translated and I listened with tears in my eyes.

Last year, Rona arrived in Greece with the hopes of joining her only son in Germany. Shortly after her arrival, the European borders closed, leaving tens of thousands of refugees stranded in Greece. Rona applied for reunification with her son, who is married with children.

The day before we arrived in Trikala, Rona’s application for reunification was denied.

This elderly woman–who is no doubt on the last years or months of her life–was denied access to be reunited with her only living relative.

Mohammed and I sat quietly, both of us unsure of what to say. The mother broke the silence, poured more tea, and asked how long I was staying in Greece. I was leaving that following Sunday–my layover was in Germany.

Movement

Movement is a cruel contradiction for refugees–once a path to safety, it is now their ultimate limitation.

Without the freedom to move, choices and opportunities are restricted. For the refugees in Greece, crossing the borders to the rest of Europe has morphed from a floodgate to a diminishing trickle. Since last March, when the borders closed and the EU-Turkey deal was signed, refugees stranded in Greece have been applying for asylum and relocation across the continent.

Many of the refugees I met have submitted their applications and are in the process of either being interviewed, or waiting for word on where they will be relocated. This process is tedious and disheartening, leaving thousands waiting for approval to restart their lives.

The situation in Greece has changed dramatically since I volunteered last summer. When I arrived in May 2016, the urgency to provide food, clothes, tents, and humanitarian relief was central to our efforts. But now, almost 10 months later, the goal has shifted from urgent action to arduous waiting.

The refugees who are relocated often end up in a place they do not want to be. An Afghan friend of mine, Arash, was relocated to Serbia where his living conditions are worse than they were in Athens. He is in a remote area with no access to resources or programs that will support his future and he is sharing a room with nearly a dozen other men. Arash has no clue how long he will be there.

No doubt, this crisis still requires urgent humanitarian relief–access to long-term housing being among the most immediate needs–but, as the refugees see their time in Greece stretch on, it is becoming more imperative that integration and long-term solutions be on the forefront of humanitarian efforts and the Greek government’s agenda.

Integration

What we are witnessing in Greece is the beginning of generational integration. The children who were born in the last five years have no recollection or understanding of their homelands–they know the fear of fleeing war and living as a refugee.

Nearly a year since arriving, children ages 7 to 16 living in government sanctioned camps have been enrolled in local schools where they are primarily learning English and Greek. Though this is an essential step towards integrating the youth into the local society, I heard many parents say that their children should be learning German, since Germany is ultimately where they intend to go.

Since the crisis began, the army has been providing daily starch-packed meals to the camps, and donations for other items have been provided by individuals and organizations. In March 2017, the army meals will end. Instead, families and individuals will receive a prepaid card that allots a monthly budget for food, cellphone data, toiletries, and other essentials. The amounts are relatively nominal, so donations will still be needed.

These two efforts–sending the children to school and providing money cards (which feed back into the Greek economy)–are clear indications that the government and their NGO partners understand that many of the refugees will not be departing from the country any time soon.

With integration there is also a need to maintain the refugee’s cultural integrity and ancestral memory. It is imperative that the refugees, especially the young, are raised knowing their homeland’s language, food, customs, and rituals. Integration does not mean the refugees should adhere and assimilate to the dominant culture, but rather, they should be able to integrate their traditions into their new home.

To overcome these barriers, I look at Solomon, an Athens-based nonprofit paving the way for integration of refugees and migrants. Their innovative, inclusive and collaborative organization is focused on bringing refugees, migrants and Greeks together through journalistic projects.

The process of integration will take a generation, but the work to build a welcoming and diverse society for both refugees and Greeks starts now.

Long-Term Solutions

“Live while you are here, don’t just exist.” - Lisa Campbell from DoYourPart.org.

Large NGOs are slowly, albeit steadily, removing their refugee efforts in Greece. Many of the organizations are doing so because their mission is immediate aid relief. Still, they are departing their posts during a crisis that has yet to be resolved.

This is why small nonprofits, such as Campfire Innovations and DoYourPart.org, are essential to the long-term efforts. Both organizations are focused on providing solutions that support volunteers and refugees to become engaged for the long run.

DoYourPart.org currently runs the Oinofyta Camp outside Athens. The camp primarily houses refugees from Afghanistan, and a number of single men from Pakistan. Lisa Campbell and her team encourage refugees to teach, cook, clean and engage with projects that build their self-esteem and add value to their daily lives.

A monumental challenge in this modern refugee crisis is preparing and supporting the people who are most impacted. From the volunteers to the refugees, the long list of needs is seemingly endless. That’s where Campfire Innovations is stepping in with their SmartAid approach. They are taking the reigns of organizing the information about and resources going into this crisis. Their dedicated team sees that without full participation and a direct access to the laundry lists of needs, problems will be resolved sporadically.

While the larger system is putting the refugees in a holding pattern, these small nonprofits–run by exhausted and fiercely dedicated people–are encouraging the refugees to once again see opportunity and the potential to live full lives.

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On our train ride back from Trikala, I witnessed Mohammed staring at a photo of a woman with soft smile and a pure white hijab. It was his mother who is too old to flee Syria. Each day that passes, it becomes more and more apparent that Mohammed and his mother will never be reunited. In that moment, I saw him memorializing her as though she had passed away. I then realized that Rona’s story and his were eerily similar.

Human migration has and will always exist. For centuries upon centuries, we move to survive. With the inevitability of human migration, there is an increasing need to eliminate the widespread xenophobic reactions. Across the globe the fear-based narrative of “our land, our jobs, our country” is in violent opposition to the narrative of our collective humanity.

When we accept the bans, closed borders and walls, we are accepting the punishment of people fleeing for their own survival.

So this is when we decide–do we allow ourselves to surrender to the fear that builds borders and walls? Or, do we join together and build a bridge that goes beyond the divisions and limitations?

I know which direction I’ll be headed, join me.

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