Two years after the world made a photo of a dead toddler into the image of mass forced migration, refugees are no longer front page news in Europe. If we want the next image to be a different one, we need to fill the insides of the newspapers with stories of our shared everyday life that bring us closer to one another. Great injustice and suffering is being inflicted every day – but the complexity of the refugee experience requires everyday stories be told as well.
As a volunteer at Solidarity Now in Thessaloniki, Greece, I am not confronted with stereotypical images of suffering. There are profound moments, when people share their extraordinary stories with me – a 14-year-old who says she always wanted to be a jet pilot, but now doesn’t really have a home to defend; a man who mentions it took him two years and eight months to get to Europe (during a Greek class on basic means of transport); a teenage girl who has just found out she will see her father after three years apart; a woman who lived in a prison with her husband and their baby boy.
Pretty much everyone can tell you something that will break your heart, and I am reminded that I’m surrounded by people whose lives have been turned upside-down. But, far more often, we talk about our everyday lives – housework, books and music, the impossible heat, and, of course, food.
Usually, I work in the Blue Refugee Centre, a space run by Solidarity Now in central Thessaloniki. There, we offer a variety of services – psychosocial support, language lessons, employment help – and create opportunities for refugees to socialise, to exchange experiences and tips on life in Greece, and to find out about the diverse programmes available to them.
There isn’t a single profile of a typical person who comes to the centre. We support people of very different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, levels of education and sexual orientations. Here you can meet a lawyer fleeing political repression, a man who worked in a family import-export business until the road they used for transport was blown up, a housewife who was famous in her village for her baba-ganoush, and a pre-school teacher who topped up her income working as a tailor. Those identities are again complicated by their experiences since leaving their homes, and the situation they encounter in Greece.
Some people commute to the centre from nearby camps (eg. from Davata – you can see a map with camps in Greece here), some stay in housing units managed by one of the many NGOs, some have already found homes in the city. But even some camps feel worlds apart. The infamous Softex camp, run by the Greek army, was meant to gather those considered ‘troublesome’ (which did not prevent many children from living there), leaving many people traumatised by the experience. The small Drama camp, meanwhile, inhabits a converted warehouse, so each family has a private space and life is relatively well-organised.
The situation in the camps has also been changing in the last few years. Many camps came under increased pressure after hotspots such as the Idomeni border crossing were evacuated, and the overpopulation and tensions have threatened the sense of security among many families.
Housing is allocated by UNHCR (the UN refugee agency), but the agency hires other NGOs to manage various accommodation schemes, and to communicate with refugees about their housing situation. This often depends on a variety of factors – from the individual’s intention to claim asylum in a specific country, to the relationships they develop with the community around them. Understandably, many refugees find the system too complicated, and feel that there is not enough transparency around housing.
I’ve heard a lot of those stories in the Greek lessons I take at the Blue Refugee Centre, as my colleagues and I learned how to talk about our experiences in the new language. But, as a volunteer, I am hardly at the forefront of such problems, and I mostly admire the patience of everyone involved and the dignity with which they handle those difficulties.It turns out the best conversation starter, when it seems like you can’t communicate at all, is coffee
I work primarily in the Women’s Safe Spaces. One of my main responsibilities is teaching English in the Mother-Baby Corner at the refugee centre, where I work with women who have never learned the language. Many don’t read and write in their native tongues.
I do not speak Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, or any non-European language. This means I do not share a single verbal means of communication with my students, but, often, the groups I teach are composed of so many different nationalities that it wouldn’t really make that much of a difference if I spoke one of those languages.
It turns out the best conversation starter, when it seems like you can’t communicate at all, is coffee. We might despise sugar for being a menace of modern society, but I am thankful the word is almost identical in a variety of languages. The most beautiful thing about the ‘do you like coffee? With sugar?’ chat is that it ends the ‘me no English’ one. And then it turns out communication is 80 per cent non-verbal, so you can start having a great time.
For certain practical arrangements, we sometimes turn to a form of ‘Chinese whispers’, as some women speak both Arabic and Kurdish, or Turkish, or Farsi. It can produce an unexpected result. Once, I asked my students to try to translate their favourite recipe, but my request must have got lost in translation, and some brought the prepared dishes instead. The food was fantastic.
My work is never dull. Students always ask to see pictures of my family, and to satisfy their curiosity about my life, I had to develop some acting skills. There are numerous surprises: when I met a new group of women, they expressed far greater enthusiasm in a deal that would involve me teaching them English for an hour and them teaching me Arabic for another. Another surprise was when I made Polish pierogi (it took me over four hours, and I was so happy with myself) and the overwhelming response of my students was something like: nice, but we make the same dish (surprise!), just better (well, no surprise!)
Then there are the touching moments: after a session, a student used Google Translate to tell me she ‘greatly enjoyed this activity’ – I guess she did not feel that the English phrases she knew were properly expressing her satisfaction. Or when a new student – the first Farsi speaker in the group – joined, even the shyest of my students employed their new English vocabulary to find out about her children.I don’t usually ask personal questions, and so was surprised and moved to find out that this was precisely what my students wanted to share
There is seemingly nothing extraordinary about those moments, but, as time passed, they allowed us to grow close. One day we were learning how to express our feelings, and someone said: ‘Today I am angry, because my husband in Germany doesn’t telephone.’ While I only wanted to teach the basics of expressing causality in English, that turned out to start our most incredible conversation.
Given the traumatic experiences of many refugees, I don’t usually ask personal questions, and so was surprised and moved to find out that this was precisely what my students wanted to share. It turned out that some of my students stayed quiet before because they didn’t know how to say the things that actually mattered to them – I miss my husband, I am lonely, I feel confused. There were tears, hugs, and words of comfort, all shared by women who just two months earlier weren’t sure how to say where they’re from in English.
That session was perhaps one of the most humbling experiences of my life. The stories we hear of refugees are usually a lot more eventful than those of the women I have the pleasure to work with. But I am amazed at their strength and resilience in a context they have found themselves in – the protracted uncertainty, the seemingly endless wait for the bureaucratic procedures to finally be completed so they can see their loved ones.
Currently, the waiting time for an asylum, relocation or family reunification application interview is at least half a year. For Syrian nationals (and stateless people who can prove residency in Syria), the so-called ‘Fast Track’ option is advertised as requiring a six-month waiting period. If you’re not Syrian, your asylum claim will take much longer, but at least you can work in the meantime – though this isn’t much of a consolation in crisis-ridden Greece, where the unemployment rate doesn’t fall below 20 per cent. This means that many people are forced to live in limbo, uncertain of their future, unable to begin rebuilding their lives.
At the same time, those who are waiting to leave Greece face an often-changing and increasingly complex situation. Germany has imposed a (unofficial and unlawful) limit on the number of people who can be flown into the country under the family reunification law. Families who believed they will soon see each other have been waiting since October 2016 for their flights. Perhaps some of the most depressing cases involve individuals who were mistakenly informed their reunification papers are ready, only to find out that the call from the ministry was meant for someone else.
In this bureaucratic nightmare, spending another Eid video-chatting with their families, people begin to see their life in the given Western European country as a new beginning. This is why many believe that everything will change, and that life will become easier once they leave Greece.
Someone here once told me that in Syria the system was corrupt, but at least you knew how to use it. In Greece, all you can do is wait for your future to begin. Renew your temporary permit card and try to focus on everyday life – the housework, the books and music, the weather, and, of course, the food.
If you want to find out more, social media profiles of NGOs and volunteer groups can be the best source of information. Solidarity Now is the organisation I volunteer at. On our profile, you can find individuals’ stories, opinion pieces, and updates on programmes available for refugees, although some posts are only available in Greek. Refugee Info is an Arabic and English language resource which posts reliable updates for refugees, and for those who want to have a more detailed view of the circumstances in which a refugee finds themselves in Europe. The Mobile Info Team is a similar resource, but focused on Northern Greece. For Northern Greece, you can also check out the page of the independent Volunteers Network. I also follow the UNHCR country-specific profiles, and major organisations like Help Refugees.