By Mai El-Mahdy
Syrian refugees in Greece. By now there are thousands of blog posts, newspaper articles and eyewitness accounts that tell the stories of entire families drowning in the ocean, in desperate hope for a life free of warfare and poverty. I’m sure there are even more on those who eventually survived the ferocious waves, only to move into inhumane, “temporary” camps where they end up spending years. But for better or for worse, I’m not going to talk about the refugees, the lives they left behind in Syria or how they ended up in Greece. I want to talk about the current conditions and the role—or lack thereof—of those of us who try to help them, in bringing an end to this humanitarian crisis.
Recently I spent a couple of weeks at Greece’s Ritsona camp, a hub for five different humanitarian NGOs, alongside the UN operations. Ritsona is an old military base located outside Chalkida, the chief town on the island of Euboea, about an hour’s drive north of the centre of Athens. Its population is roughly two-thirds Syrian, with the remaining third made up of Kurds, Iraqis, and Afghans.
One of the harsh realities about life in the camps that is hard to fathom, let alone survive, is the absence of self-respect—dignity that has dropped so low it’s as if it was eaten up by the fierce waves before sinking to the bottom. It’s the dented sense of dignity that makes a person happy to move out of a tent into some makeshift caravan container box that becomes your “temporary” shelter for months and months. It’s the type of dignity that is all but lost when your entire livelihood is at the mercy of NGO workers who, through their authority and the decisions they make on people’s behalf, teach the refugees to accept the little they get, and be happy. Why do this, when these people are already broken? Do we volunteers always know what’s best for them? Would we allow others to make similar decisions on our behalf?
It’s not about freedom of choice; it’s not about allowing people the space to make their own decisions and mistakes. It’s about self-determination. Refugees take every single imaginable risk, relying on factors way beyond anyone’s control, only to arrive—miraculously—at a camp and submit to someone else’s decision-making, regardless of how good or bad those decisions are.
“Let’s teach English!” Everyone needs and wants to learn English, right? “Let’s buy toys for children,” overlooking the desires of parents, and the children themselves. Queuing up for food or clothes is part of the harsh reality of accepting that, due to circumstances beyond your control, you have become less valuable of a human being.
Refugees don’t want to queue for ages for food or clothes: they want to be treated as human beings, just like a black man in Apartheid South Africa, a Palestinian in the face of the Israeli occupation, or a woman anywhere in the world today. Part of the pain is acknowledging, while you stand in line, that few outside of your war zone would ever have to endure this or even entertain the thought. It is the frustration of being offered the non-choice of either being grateful that you’re in a queue with food at the end of it, or of being featured in a photo shared on social media that makes people feel sorry for you.
Perhaps we should look at the treatment of refugees as a right they have earned for themselves, not as charity that we choose to give to them. Perhaps we should focus our efforts on allowing them to fight for themselves. Perhaps it is simply about paving the way for their self-emancipation, regardless of where it leads them, and especially regardless of where it leaves us. We need to focus on educating them about their rights based on the country they are relocated, caring for their health, providing education for them and their children, etc.
Perhaps we should look at them the way we want them to look at us: with dignity and self-respect.
Are we really helping?
It’s funny how, as volunteers, we’re expected to arrive on the scene and push, along with everyone else, to get the wheels in motion. As though we’re not part of the story, but instead temporary outsiders brought in to perform a specific mission. But whether we like it or not, we are part of the narrative and influence it, significantly.
As individuals, we struggle with our egos. It’s one thing to recognize that—and in fact, very few volunteers are strong enough to do even that. Suppressing our egos, however, is a totally different story. It’s probably inevitable that volunteers find it easier to feed their egos than feed the needy. And the reward is so tempting that many forget to stop for a minute and ask themselves: are we really helping?
It’s no wonder so many volunteers pay special attention to children, who become quickly attached. But how does that help?
Volunteers can’t help but feel superior. In the camps they stand out like a sore thumb, and that’s not always unintentional. Volunteers often see themselves as providers of a valuable service, as making a great sacrifice of time and expertise. And they expect others to be gracious and remind them what great human beings they are for doing what they do.
But it’s not a service—it’s the refugees’ right. And this shouldn’t be debatable.
Once, at one of the stores where we shopped for the people of Ritsona camp with donated funds, I tried to bargain with the cashier to get more for my donated buck. The cashier, a fellow Egyptian making a living across the Mediterranean, agreed to “hook me up.” But instead of reducing the cost, she offered to write me an invoice for a higher sum. According to her, many volunteers and NGO workers accepted the fake invoices and pocketed the difference, so it was clear to her that I was new to this. And no, she did not budge on the price.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Some volunteers finance their travel out of the donations they receive. In spite of pleas for greater transparency, few NGOs actually publish the details of their finances. And even fewer donors ask for the details. If it’s change we’re after, this is probably a good place to start.
In my opinion, the best way to help refugees is by bypassing the NGOs altogether. It’s not difficult for us to connect directly with refugees. They’re human, just like us, just with different circumstances that suck. Treating them as patients with some disease or disability doesn’t help.
A friend of mine has a different take on this. He relates the story of a German doctor, an older gentleman, extremely professional and meticulous about his work. It’s his job to treat patients to the best of his ability given the facilities provided. From morning till night this doctor receives patients, diagnoses them, treats them. He doesn’t speak the language of the country where he works, and is very distant, almost cold. But he treats every single person he comes across, and he sets up and develops the medical facility and trains the workers so that the project can sustain itself after his departure. Many might not know him, care about him, or even remember him, though he is the one who directly helped and advanced the community. No credit. No showiness. No emotion. Just pure problem-solving.
I don’t necessarily disagree. NGOs impose strict rules on volunteers, one of which prohibits staying at the camp past 5pm. I hated this rule, so after a couple of weeks, I moved out of NGO housing and into the camp. I stayed with a refugee friend and her two daughters in their container. I would never argue that I was living their life, but I will say that I was observing it through a sharper lens.
While I agree that being distant and professional may be highly efficient and effective, I think that closeness also helps. Yes, we eventually leave; and sure, we may invest more time and effort in forming emotional bonds with the refugees than in providing tangible deliverables. And I won’t deny that I’ve learned more from the refugees about the Syrian cultural and political context than I’ve shared my own knowledge.
But by establishing close bonds we remind others—and ourselves—that they are human. And we become more human in the process.
Hospitals Don't Always Speak Your Language
The day to-day medical needs of Ritsona camp residents, of which there was an abundance, were left pretty much unattended. In emergencies, however, the Greek National Emergency Medical Services (EKAB, Ethniko Kentro Amesis Voitheias) would transport residents of the camp to and from the nearest hospital.
No one likes to go to the hospital, but when you’re a Syrian in a foreign country, it’s even worse than you imagine. Refugees are immersed in a sea of loneliness and fear of the unknown. You can see it in their eyes. And the harsh conditions of the journey to the camp leaves the majority of children, especially, with severe respiratory problems.
Many of the Greek doctors, however, didn’t even speak English nor did they have translators, and most patients could express themselves only in either Arabic or Kurdish. Often, residents would spend hours awaiting emergency care at the hospital, only to lose hope of ever understanding what they needed to do to get treatment, and leave.
At the camp my Arabic came in handy, as my job was to accompany the patients. Last May one of the NGOs at Ritsona pioneered a unique initiative dubbed “Hospital Runs”; that was the team I worked with. It’s a program organized in collaboration with the Red Cross that operates under the license of the Greek Army. They provide medical transportation, English, Greek and Arabic interpretation, and intercultural and medical assistance. The team also helps with bureaucratic procedures.
I was proud to be a member of that team. Each day we’d hop over to Chalkida or trek all the way to Athens, returning in the evening after having handled whatever problems, cases and complications had been thrown at us.
Sometimes the hospital staff made us feel unwelcome, scolding us about coming in with muddy shoes, indifferent to the fact that the camp is basically built on mud. I remember arriving at the hospital one day to find a young woman, clearly Arab and most probably from the camp, all alone, with nobody attending to her. She had clearly given up on trying to communicate or to save herself from whatever pain had piled on top of everything she had brought over to the continent. She gave me her details and the number of a loved one, so that I could communicate to them in the event she didn’t make it. Thankfully, and against the odds, she survived.
I guess I just can't fathom how borders and bodies of water can ultimately decide who's granted the opportunity to climb to the top, and who will be left to drown, and sink to the bottom.
Hi Mai, I like your story. A lot of the things you have written have resonated with me. I’m just about to volunteer in a Greek refugee camp, on a flight to Athens tomorrow in fact. If it’s not an inconvenience for you, I’d like to speak with you about your experiences, or with your permission, could I quote some of your thoughts? I’m writing my own reflections of my experiences after having traveled/worked/volunteered for a period of time. All the best, Sophia