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.