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.