Refugee is Not My Name

By Rose Masset

 

I'm not really sure why it's taken me so long to sit down and write down my thoughts about what I experienced in Greece. Maybe because I started to compare my journey and my experience to others, in a way that made me feel like my experience fell short in some way. I know that’s not true, I know my experience didn’t fall short. But I do know that I left feeling like my experience was one I would have a hard time describing. I’m a very emotional and sensitive person. I wear my heart on my sleeve. When I thought about what to expect from this trip, meeting refugees and filming their stories, I thought it was be easy for me to connect, to hone in on their emotions, feel their pain like I so easily can in my normal life. We got to Greece and the whole trip was a whirlwind, fast paced and non-stop, we literally skipped lunch most days, and were sometimes sleeping only a few hours a night, working well into the night, transferring footage to our hard drives, backing everything up to make sure we didn’t lose a moment of what we had captured that day.

 

This was my first time shooting a documentary. Never before had I sat anyone down, let alone a complete stranger and asked them to open up to me, to tell me their story, and let me film it for the world to see. It was a little uncomfortable at first, but once we got the hang of it, we didn't think twice of it. And for a while I didn't think twice of it. However, after some time, I started to notice I wasn't having the sort of reactions to these people's stories as I thought I would. It was harder for me to connect, to feel their pain in those moments, even when they were sitting right in front on my camera. I realized it probably had to do with the fact I was viewing these interviews, and pretty much the entire trip at this point, through my lens. Somewhere between making sure the sound was recording, the background and lighting were as aesthetically pleasing as could be, that we were asking all the right questions and that I was even recording this interview, I was forgetting to stop and remember why I was here in the first place. To connect.

 

When I realized what had been going on, it shook me a bit. I wanted to be there, to be as present as possible. After all, if I as a filmmaker was having a difficult time connecting, would my audience feel the same way?

 

It wasn't until we got to Lesvos that I remembered exactly what I was doing here. And more importantly, why. We had teamed up with the awesome individuals at House of Humanity to help distribute shoes to people living in a nearby squat. For anyone who doesn't know, a squat is usually an abandoned building or unoccupied space where refugees live. We piled into a van with about 15 large boxes of shoes of various sizes. Today's focus was on shoes for grown men and young girls. We pulled up and started unloading boxes, while people from the nearby building slowly began to emerge. They formed a big circle around us, waiting to see what would happen next. As we began distributing, we’d occasionally and regretfully have to tell men that we didn't have their size. They'd walk away disappointed, but it wasn't until a young boy, no older than 10 walked up to us, that everything changed. He politely asked for his size. He spoke in Farsi, and Yassamin translated. We didn't have his size, and we only had girl shoes. We asked if he wouldn't mind wearing girl shoes, and they'd be a little big? A moment of hesitation swept his face, and I could almost visibly see an ounce of his dignity fall away before he shyly replied, “yes, that would be okay.” I didn't speak his language but I could tell he was slightly embarrassed. The men nearby patted his back, he was such a good sport. He took the shoes, said thank you, smiled, and walked away.

 

And then it hit me. In that one moment, I had seen a tiny example of what that young boy, and every refugee has had to go through. Everything is chosen for them, they consistently have no choice.  It takes away a certain freedom we take for granted everyday. The ability to choose. Even from the simplest of things.

 

You have to leave your home or else you and your family will die. You have no choice. You have to walk 30 miles to the next city or else you will be arrested. You have no choice. You have to get into the overcrowded boat or else you will be separated from your family. You have no choice. You have to eat this food. This is all we have. You have no choice. No choice. No option. No freedom. That isn't humanity. And yet, that is what being a refugee feels like. Every single day.

 

You would not believe what a lack of choice does to a person. We are drowned in choices in our world. What clothes should I buy, what restaurant should we eat at, what app should I download for my phone... but what happens when all those minute freedoms that we take for granted every single day are taken away. What happens to a person when we hand them a worn t- shirt and tell them, “this is all we have.” Or a plate of unsalted military grade overcooked rice and tell them, “this is all there is to eat.” “This is all we can give you.” “You have no choice.” How many times have we ever been presented with that situation? How many times have you ever been told, you have no choice? Imagine being told that on a daily basis. Imagine being stripped of the ability to choose. To have nothing.

 

You take away someone’s options of what to wear or what to eat. They suddenly become a number. A statistic. We cannot forget that they are people just like you and me. You cannot bunch them together because they are individuals. They are funny and smart and caring and loving. On such a deep level like you wouldn't even imagine. It's touching to be given tea or cookies from a woman who cannot even give her child a choice between what to wear or eat. They have nothing and yet they continue to give.

 

All of this became so clear to me in that one moment. Looking at that little boy’s face when we told him he’d only be given little girl shoes that were a size too big for him. This is why I am here. To remind people that it is more than bombs that dehumanizes a person. It’s more than death. It is the little things that make us feel human. The ability to pick out a pair of shoes. To be able to sit an a dinner table with your family. To order food off a menu. In a world where we are drowned in choices that it stops us sometimes from even wanting to make them at all, we have to remember that there are people out there that have been completely stripped of those freedoms. We cannot forget those people and we cannot take those freedoms for granted.

 

That is the story I hope to tell through the film. The resiliency of the people we met was astounding. After being stripped of every freedom they’ve ever known, and consistently denied and met with nothing but hatred, they persevere, and they push on. But there is hope. There are people working to try to make their lives a little better on the ground. Working to try to reinstill a sense of choice. Bringing humanity and dignity back into their lives. It inspires, and it does more than we can even imagine.



 

The Dignity of Choice

By Sasha Chebil

There is a sort of distance to the refugee crisis; a feeling of deep sympathy, but a lacking in empathy, as one tries to displace him or herself into that position. It was when I met Ahmad*, a 21 year-old Syrian refugee living in Athens, that the empathy finally outweighed the sympathy. He was not someone I was only sad for, but someone who I felt, if our situations had been reversed, could have easily taken my spot at Berkeley or in my flat in Berlin. He rattled off his favorite works of literature and delved into his dreams of studying philosophy if he finally received asylum. He told me about his family who had fled to Sweden, and like any other friend would do, flipped through the most recent shots of his siblings on his smartphone. He beamed when passing pictures featuring his parents and his adorable kid sister dressed up as a lion. Hardly breaking from conversation as the hours passed, suddenly the mood shifted, and reality set it. “I need to leave soon, I have a meeting with my smuggler.” It was as if he were talking about an old friend, or something as simple as not wanting to be late for dinner plans. At that moment I realized how similar we were, but how our lives were veering off based on the cards we were dealt. 

Ahmad is one of the lucky ones. A kind Greek woman houses him in her flat, while many of his counterparts wander the streets of Athens, in search of stability in an economically depleted capital. The majority in his shoes find a home in dilapidated, abandoned buildings throughout the city or take the alternative of the sometimes prison-like refugee camps. He dodges the shattered windows, floor-cooked meals and nonexistent privacy. However, he is still plagued with the hand of most refugees, seeped in boredom, depleted agency, and a daily push to escape the endless waiting. Although his English fluency allows him to help with translations to make enough for a meal, he is unable to work in his field or attend school, which seems like the only thing Ahmad wishes for- aside from reuniting with his family. In most realms, Ahmad stands with only a few in his luck; in others he is lumped with the plight of his peers. 

It’s been said before: refugees come from all walks of life. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers and musicians. They too tell stories of decadent weddings, intimate dinner parties and spanning childhood properties. They are neighbors, mothers, fathers, children—people who, on this field, are all equal. Refugee is not their title. They are simply humans who have been dealt a hand that is far from ideal. 

Unfortunately this title of human seems to escape refugees like Ahmad in most phases along their journey for asylum. They become a price tag of thousands of dollars to the smugglers who overcrowd their lifeboats and weigh them down with faulty life vests in their crossing to Europe. They have become a piece of paper to the government, as they wait in purgatory for an indefinite amount of time. And to some, they have become a burden on local economy and a reason to strengthen borders and diminish political ties. Stripping them of choice, dignity and the ability for agency has further diminished their status as human. Many unable to work or go to school, refugees are reliant entirely on government organizations and non-profit groups to provide their next meal, the clothes on their backs and a hope for a better tomorrow. 

This was the major reason I went to Greece in the first place, actually. I wanted to go further than providing the basic necessities. I wanted to move to restore joy and a bit more humanness let’s call it. To see that vision already being carried out by organizations on the ground was certainly one of the most rewarding parts of the journey. While EU organizations covered the basic rations and passable shelter, smaller nonprofits pushed for the need for sports and meditation, movies and music, literature and levity. I was seeing my goals unfold before me more and more as we continued the journey. 

Each stop along the way had a life of its own and was going through its own phase of restoring choice and what it means to be a human. Where survival needs were met, progression had begun to blossom. Once bellies became full, tents became some version of home and clothes found backs, refugees were able to start regaining this drive for humanness, found here in the form of choice. 

In Athens it was as if the foundations for choice were just being laid, as the refugees wandered in a city depleted by debt. We felt the weight of the refugee reality while in the primarily Afghan camp of Oinofyta. Housed in a worn-down factory and surrounded by industrial buildings, windows lie shattered and the plumbing overflows. However, with a roof over their head, they are surviving, and with that, they are trudging towards choice. School houses on the property act as an oasis for the children of Oinofyta and a means to restore a semblance of normalcy. They are given the opportunity to go to school, which, for a lot of refugees, is still considered a luxury. With daily classes in core subjects ranging from science to English, volunteers work to minimize the time these children are kept from school. Classes are most certainly rowdier and instruction is basic, but it is school nonetheless. This is coupled with the ability to work- another rarity for the displaced. In Oinofyta’s sewing workshop, the camp’s residents have the opportunity to create delicately adorned handbags from recycled tents and donations and in turn sell them online. Here again, we witnessed the upper hand of the refugee situation. Although the communal living is far from ideal for the hundreds of residents, the camp is peaceful and has broken from the tent housing of most institutions, so much so that they’re repurposing them into bags. Refugees in Oinofyta can come and go as they please, and police and gates do not line its borders. With that, these people can take a small step away from being a refugee and one towards regaining their own will.

Our time spent in Lesvos went one step further to close the gap created with the title ‘refugee’. We worked alongside the House of Humanity, whose founders aim to restore dignity to those who have found safety on Europe’s shores. Juxtaposed with the neighboring Moria camp that resembles a high security detention center with its border of barbed wire and surrounding line of police, House of Humanity turns donations into a chance for choice. When most organizations see a shivering refugee, they offer the first coat and boots on hand. House of Humanity, on the other hand, founded a space that allows refugees to pick that jacket, choose their boots, and even browse through aisles of food. Albeit deciding between Cheerios or Rice Krispies, between Levis or Wranglers, or coffee or tea is a small choice, it is a start at restoring human dignity. Refugees who survive the short but treacherous journey from Turkey to the quaint island of Lesvos are mandated to stay in Moria, a camp that couldn’t match less with its picturesque surroundings. They have no autonomy in where they live, making simple choices like this even more impactful. 

It was in Thessaloniki, Greece’s co-capital, however, where I saw my goals most reflected. The organizations we worked with- Eko Project and The Hope Project- were stretching for levity and escape from the trying circumstances by providing safe spaces for refugees. Back on the mainland, I was met with developments that I coveted as spaces for myself. Eko sits only steps away from a camp housed in a retired chicken coop. The contrast is striking: woven hammocks hang on the wooden deck, a ping pong table rests in their ‘dream room’, and a bonfire pit invites visitors to weekly parties. While the camp has a residual smell of ammonia, Eko has the scent of a hot meal wafting through the air. Where a police patrol lurks through the camp, wary of visitors, people from all walks of life open their arms to welcome newcomers at Eko. This is a center built past survival and restoring basic dignity; it’s built for pure enjoyment and as a space to learn, grow, and create. The library features plush couches where visitors can relax with a Kindle or bury their hands in language books. The modest Internet cafe allows refugees to learn skills for remote work or start the push towards online degrees. They have even built a dream space, entirely meant for escape through movies projected on the walls, music played through their speakers, or the crawling tunnels that span the seating area. Laying in a hammock towards sunset, I felt entirely at peace in this space, knowing that my aim for relief already had these sprawling roots. 

The same rings true for Hope Project, which focuses on refugee-taught workshops. They aim not only to teach English or math but to make that process enjoyable by educating through art and music. It was there I chose to donate the bulk of my donations, as I knew they would go far; the instruments I funded would not end up in a pile of disuse. Instead those strings, keys, drums and pipes would turn into nightly jam sessions, weekly music classes, and a future recording studio. Here, like the other organizations we chose to support, there would grow a glimmer of hope, and a chance for choice—a chance to shake the title of refugee for even just a minute. 

Every person who asks about the time I spent working with refugees in Greece gets a radically different answer. Some are met with varying versions of generality or a quick remark on the impact our team had made. And then there are those who receive a stream of consciousness reply on some aspect of the trip that happens to stand out to me that day. The answer is never particular to the person, but instead follows my current reflection on the experience. This alone is likely why I have taken a few weeks to put the trip onto paper and to finally make sense of these disconnects. Even with months of reflection, the situation continues to baffle me. I continue to picture my mother, my brother, my neighbors and my childhood teachers in this situation—living in tents or abandoned buildings, unable to choose their clothes, their next meal, or even their country. It could have been me; it could have been you. It happened to be Ahmad this time- displaced from his reality and thrown into circumstances that warrant an infinite amount of empathy. 

The Essence of the World is a Flower

Every single preconceived notion I had of “refugees” was thrown out the window the second I met one, and it got me wondering: from where am I getting these prejudiced ideas? These snap judgments and imagined qualities that I assumed of an entire group of people? As an American, I know it isn’t entirely our fault that we have these ideas in our head. Our exposure is so limited. These are people with problems on the other side of the world. Most of our empathy doesn’t naturally stretch that far. I thought I knew what to expect going into this, and as this adventure came to a close, I thought I knew what my role would be afterwards. Every text, email, Facebook message and call from my friends and family (“I can’t wait to hear about your trip!”) only had me thinking more: what is my message to all of you? To everyone who has no idea what to think or believe about the refugee crisis, no way of really knowing what it’s like, where do I even begin?

        For every interview we conducted, we ended each by asking “if you had one message for the world about the refugee crisis, what would it be?” We received a variety of answers. One was so profound it struck me to my core, and it went something like this: these people are your mother, your brother, your uncle, your friend, your coworker. They are just people—normal, typical, average human beings who have been forced into roles they never asked for. Before the war that destroyed their homes, lived normal lives. They went to public school, had unique hobbies, dreamed weird dreams, drove nice cars, watched Netflix marathons, tried new foods, drank good wine, danced at clubs; they had friends, had enemies, even had “frenemies.” They fought with their neighbors and bickered with their families. They liked all types of movies and all types of music.

Some of them have devout faith and some of them don’t believe in a God at all. Like any large demographic of people, some of them suck. They aren’t perfect. Not all of them want to be strong figureheads among this crisis but are forced to be. Understandably, so many have lost hope. Some of them really want to give up; they’re tired of running, tired of the names and the labels they’ve been given, tired of trying to guess what foreign governments will decide to do with them. They’re tired of being collateral damage. They don’t want to be refugees. They just want to be people.

        A few things I learned during these past two life-changing weeks:

1)   No matter how many news articles you read, NowThis Facebook videos you watch or statistics you learn: the reality of the life of a refugee is more surreal than you can even imagine. But, it’s real and it’s heartbreaking and it needs to change.

2)   Some non-governmental/non-profit organizations are better than others. It shocked me to see blatant hypocrisy in the way that many of the big-name organizations operate (I cannot count the number of times I heard that Save the Children fails to do anything for the children). We think it is safest and most effective to give our donations to organizations with full NGO status. We think because an organization is tax deductible, with employees and formal financial reports, it is reliable. This could be further from the truth. ALWAYS give to grassroots organizations. These are people who have given up their comfortable lifestyle, their life savings and their retirement fund. These are true humanitarians. They don’t care to climb a corporate ladder, they live to love others. They need our help.

2)   Refugees are just people—normal, typical human beings who have been forced into roles they never asked for. They aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t matter. They’re human, and only want to be treated as such.

3)   I cannot wait to spend the rest of my life alongside these inspiring beings. This trip showed me that this way of life is possible, is worthy, is fulfilling. It showed me that love overcomes and that there is good even in the darkest places. It showed me how incredibly lucky I am in every sense of the word. I cannot wait to share every ounce of this luck with some of the most deserving people I have ever met. I cannot wait to make this my life.

4)   Last, all stray animals (yes, even the cats) in Greece are perfect. This is a fact and not up for discussion or debate.

I realize that there is so much that needs to be said, and I plan on sharing more of my thoughts and experiences with the world in a series of blog posts. The amount of research I conducted before even boarding my flight would astound anyone, and the incredible strength I witnessed is more than I can describe. At least in one blog.

-Hayley Bosworth

Feeling Helpless is Dumb

Hi World,

My name is Megan Towle, and I recently traveled to Greece with the Refugee Relief Project to film a documentary on the refugee crisis. My primary role on the team was videographer, as well as feta connoisseur, electric fire putter outer, and speed talker (much to our English language learning friend’s delight.)

It has been almost a week since I returned to Minnesota, and in between the run around of getting back to my normal life, I wanted to write down a few things that I learned during my time in Greece.

Chapter 1: The Moral Debacle

Since its beginning, I have followed the refugee crisis closely. I watched films, shared angry articles on Facebook, marched in protests, and instigated heated discussions with anyone who gave me an opening in conversation to discuss how messed up it all is. When the opportunity to help make a film on the crisis presented itself, I didn’t have to think twice before jumping in. I was angry, I was passionate, and felt that through making a film, I could ignite some positive change. I touched down in Athens with an empty memory card and a desire to document history.

After our first few interviews, trips into camps, and genuine interactions with refugees, my passion for sharing their story started to feel a lot like shame. Who was I to show up fresh, fully fed and naïve to the reality on the ground and claim that I really cared. As one refugee, Sarah, so gently reminded me – I was going to get on a plane in 10 days, and return to my family, my job, and my freedom.

As the days went on, we filmed the good, the bad and the ugly. While attempting to capture the most honest, unbiased, and accurate story possible, there were moments that I felt truly icky standing behind my camera. One morning, we drove to the beach that boats land on after leaving turkey. I was so excited to finally be able to capture images of the journey.  Adrenaline immediately kicked in as we filmed washed up chunks of rubber boats, lifejackets caught on the beach, life jackets sunken lying underwater. “Now people at home will finally get it,” I thought – as I jumped from rock to rock trying to get the perfect shot. It only took a minute of reflection to see the irony in my actions. The waves of accomplishment started mixing with the waves of grief.  Someone wore that lifejacket. That boat carried real people.  My moment of success was made possible by someone risking it all, and likely losing a lot on the way.

I still haven’t quite found the answer to these internal conundrums, but I do know that this is a first step. I am grateful that this experience exposed me to the gray area in my own capacity to change and inflict change, and humbled me more than I could have anticipated.

Chapter 2: I Hate Gray Area

As a self-proclaimed social justice advocate, I have a tendency to see the world in black and white. A situation is either right or wrong, someone is good or bad, the answer is yes or no. As soon as we hit the ground, the injustices were clear. All refugees have fled violence and fear, in search of a peaceful existence. They are met with bureaucratic systems, overwhelmed aid organizations and exhausted resources. In 2017, human beings should not be eating food infested with worms. They should not be sleeping in snow covered tents. They should not have to convince a foreign government that the violence they fled was severe enough to warrant asylum. This is wrong. This is bad. The answer is no. But, as soon as we dove deeper, the mental lines I drew began to blur. We learned more about how aid organizations have to work within their means to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. We learned how the Greek government had to accommodate refugees with little to no preparation time or model to follow. We learned how refugees have to bend rules to be reunited with family or to receive medical care. Glimmers of good ideas and right intentions started to shine through, and pointing fingers became much harder.

At the end of the day, I have come to the conclusion that the great majority of people don’t want to see refugees suffer. If the answer was simple, it would have been done already. Each system has its flaws, but it also has its success stories. Seeing the world in black and white doesn’t do much to move the needle in the direction of progress. In my humble opinion, we as concerned fellow inhibitors of the planet need to listen as much as we can, learn as much as we can, and embrace the gray area with an open heart.

Chapter 3: Feeling Helpless is Dumb.

So far – we have established that an affluent, white, 23 year old with a camera has no business trying to change one of the most complex, multifaceted, human rights crisis’s of our time. BUT here’s where the hope takes root.

As I was mourning my own selfish ambitions, my perspective started to change. I started asking myself, so now what. If I accept that I don’t know the right answer and I don’t have the skills and expertise to change international law, do I go back to spending my weekends watching new girl re-runs, and posting angry articles to Facebook?

I turned this “what now” question into fuel for my soul flame. WHO AM I TO NOT DO SOMETHING? I was gifted with these stories, a rare glimpse into the human condition and the weight of the world. It is my duty to share these gifts. It would be more selfish to admit defeat, than it would be to admit my flaws but show up anyway. So here I am - one week out, and making a promise to show up for refugees. It starts with the film, but this is only the beginning. The refugees don’t have the privilege of giving up and neither do we.

So we embrace the gray area. We use our talents, skills, resources, connections and brute force to affect what we can. A refugee needs food, water, a bed, a safe place to be, an education, a job, an emotional outlet, to feel heard, to feel cared about, to have a place, to have an identity, to have dignity, to have hope for the future, to feel like a human being. We need the best and brightest minds from every walk of life to meet these requirements. If you are a teacher, nurse, beautician, engineer, artist, listener, leader, gardener, therapist, comedian, trainer, writer, lawyer, problem solver, connecter, giver, lover – your skills are needed. If you have any desire to get involved, please reach out and we will connect you to the right people and organizations.

Thank you to everyone who laughed with me, cried with me, educated me, and talked me through every element of this experience. But most of all, thank you to my Refugee Relief Project team for reminding me that passion, perseverance, and 7 girls in a four-seater car can go a long way.

 

All my lovin’,

Megan T.

A Child's Choice

We finally got to meet families.

You don’t typically see families in Calais, the women and children are separated from the men in the Jungle. But I love seeing the families.

All the little kids that run and jump on us. Or come up behind when we are sitting and cover our eyes with their little hands until we turned around and started tickling them. These beautiful little beams of light.

The mothers are often breathtaking; a very subtle pain is behind their eyes. The fathers smile at us, and ask us where we are from. Always excited when I reply “America.” But oh those children, their eager hands and questions in the bits of English they’ve picked up. When I say a few words in Farsi to the Afghan children (Pashto is very similar to Farsi) they laugh and excitedly pull their friends over to talk to me…and to make fun of my accent.

But what about the rest of them? The children that are too angry to play with us. The traumatized 4-year-old that has retreated from the rest of his community. The little girl who lost her older sister on the boat ride over to Europe.

The other day we were playing with two little boys when they started pushing each other. It began friendly enough, but after a little while one of the boys picked up a fist-sized rock. His eyes shining with tears and anger, he started walking – slowly and deliberately to the other boy about a hundred yards away. Thankfully one of the adults nearby stopped him before he had the chance to cause real pain.  

With a generation that has grown up with so much pain and violence, what can we honestly expect?

They are not in school. They have almost certainly lost someone they loved – and they likely saw it happen. They meet volunteers and new friends every day, they form relationships, and then the volunteers leave and their friends move away. They are forced to say goodbye again. And many of them are unaccompanied, alone with no one to take care of them.

My friends have a Eritrean foster brother. He is a refugee who made the trip from Eritrea to the UK with his two friends. Along the way both of them were killed, they were thirteen. 

That’s the generation that I am doing this work for. The children that will be the voices of the future. That will someday have an internal battle between choosing the dark or the light.

I don't know what they will choose. But I do know that the ones that have families are loved fiercely and fully. And if I am confident in anything it is the power of love.