Earlier this year I forced myself to look at photos taken of the current refugee crisis, or European Migrant Crisis. This crisis began in 2015 when more than a million refugees crossed the border into Europe, marking it as the biggest refugee crisis since World War II (BBC). I had seen the photos in passing, but only ever in passing. They are difficult to witness: photos of children on beaches who had drowned in their fleeing or people shielding their children from police beatings and tear gas at unwelcome borders. “Why should I look at something so heartbreaking that I cannot do anything about?” I would ask myself this question, to avoid the enormous pity and sadness that came whenever news stories about the refugee crisis popped up in my various social media outlets. I forced myself to look at photos taken of the refugee crisis, but all I saw when I looked at them were poor, unfortunate people who had no control over their situation. That is what I thought about when I donated to various charities that send aid to refugee camps, when I realized that I wanted to work for one of those groups in my future career, and even when I decided to create a project for local refugee children. All of the headlines I had seen painted a picture of poor, unfortunate refugees, so that is all I saw them as.
Then, one day in February or March of this year I received an email from a group I intermittently volunteered for which said that they needed help transcribing interviews from refugee camps in Greece and Lebanon. The first interview I transcribed shocked me, not only because of the story within it, but also because I was hearing it come from an actual refugee’s lips. It had never occurred to me, not once, that these “poor, unfortunate refugees” were individuals. It is common sense, of course, but it never occurred to me that each one of the millions were people with their own voices, perspective, skills, and desires. I felt ashamed of myself for being to adamant about defending and supporting them, but never truly understanding why it was so important.
Perhaps to shed some light on this matter I will summarize the first interview I transcribed; it came from a woman in the refugee camp in Greece. She was the mother of three; one of them was a mentally retarded child. She spoke of how her child could not receive treatment in Lebanon because her husband was Syrian, so they travelled to Syria, but soon they had to flee because of the war. She spoke of the bombs destroying buildings everywhere. The woman had to make the journey from Syria to Turkey on foot, alone with her three children, as her husband had gone to Germany to find work and a place where her child could receive treatment for his condition. The first time she tried to cross the border a smuggler ran away with all the money she had, so she had to go back and wait for her husband to send more. She and her husband had been separated for a months, and there was no way to know how much longer they would be, as she and her children were stuck in the refugee camp. She spoke of how she used to teach at colleges, and her favorite English novels. She spoke of how much she wanted to be reunited with her husband because she was terrified that if something happened to her, her child would be left uncared for.
All I had heard before I transcribed this interview was that these people were lamentable refugees, so it had become impossible for me to see them as anything but “refugees”; their hardship was the only thing I knew about them. The expressions of terror, the dirty hands and faces, the thousands of life jackets, the homes turned into rubble by extremist violence; these were the only things I knew of these individuals. It is easier to view them that way. It is easier to see them as these kind of phantoms we cannot hear or touch, with the label of “refugee” stamped across their foreheads. It makes it a little easier to go on with our days when those millions of people displaced by violence only to end up in places where there is not enough food, water, or medical care, if they make it at all. I know this by experience.
The news headlines and stories of the refugee crisis that I had seen/heard up to that point were from journalists who went home to their lives of comfort and safety after their story was finished. It is important to witness these stories to bring awareness, but by hearing a story from a refugee it brought me consciousnesses. While the term “refugee” accurately describes the situation those individuals are in, I think it is dangerous to forget that they are humans too. It makes it harder to look at the photos and stories written about them, but for me it bolsters my determination to make even the tiniest difference in at least one of those individual’s unique lives. When I look at those photos I remind myself to see the people captured as humans like me and my family, not just refugees.
News, BBC. “Migrant Crisis: Migration to Europe Explained in Seven Charts.” BBC News. BBC, 4 Mar. 2016. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.