At this point you may be thinking, “Michaela, you were studying abroad…did you learn anything? Because as of now, it just looks like it was all play and no work.”
While there was definitely a lot of fun to be had on this trip, our group did learn a lot and put in a lot of work at our various agencies. There is no way that I could conclude this “series” on my study abroad program in Greece and not talk about everything I learned – the world has a real crisis on its hands and it is all of our jobs to do the best we can to mend what is broken.
It is easy for those of us who live in the United States to feel removed from the tragedies and conflicts occurring across the ocean. These tragedies, conflicts, and wars occurring ever day across Eastern Europe and Africa are causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee for refugee. While we may not feel capable or empowered enough to create real change, we are each more able of doing so than one might believe.
I had the honor and privilege of completing my service learning at an agency in Athens, Greece called Babel (pronounced Vah-vel). Founded in 2008, Babel provides mental health and psychiatric counseling to migrants – which includes immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers – who flee to Greece from any and all countries. Even further, it is the only agency of its kind in Greece. Let that sink in for a moment.
Greece has a population of over 10 million people and over half of the country’s population lives in Athens. Babel is the only agency in Greece whose psychiatric and mental health services serve the migrant population specifically. While some refugee camps in Athens and on the islands have psychologists and counselors on staff, many do not. This means that there are tens of thousands of individuals who are scared, confused, and in need of psychiatric services, yet have almost no chance of receiving the help they need.
Now you may be thinking: “Michaela, it cannot be possible than every refugee needs mental health counseling. That just doesn’t seem statistically possible.”
Refugees, before they even flee their home countries, are often exposed the terrors of war and conflict; they are living in fear for their lives each and every day. When individuals or families decide that it is time to flee – that it is time to put their lives on the line to try and save themselves – these decisions are not made lightly. I think here it is important to note that it is never an individuals first choice to leave their home country, not to mention their homes, their possessions, and even other family members, behind. While I cannot speak on behalf of this population, I can imagine that the internal conflict one faces when deciding whether the fear of staying or the fear of fleeing is the lesser of two evils is nearly insurmountable.
Once an individual or a family decides that they need to seek refugee in a new country, the journey there is never easy. Out of desperation, families pay large sums of money to individuals who are essentially traffickers to either (a) move them across a land border or (b) “reserve” themselves spots on dinghy that will be overcrowded, unsafe, and potentially not make it to shore. There have been over 24,000 sea arrivals to the southern coast of Europe by refugees in 2019 and as of today, June 19th, there is an estimated 600 refugees who have died or gone missing during their journeys. The most devastating part of this is that it is only mid-June; these numbers are bound to rise over the course of the summer and into the fall.
Unfortunately, simply making it to a refugee camp is only the beginning of the battle. After years of facing an economic crisis and generally lacking funding and support, the Greek island hotspots are severely overcrowded. Conditions are so traumatic that it is has been proven that any refugee that spends more than four days in one of these hotspots should receive counseling for PTSD. Add this trauma to the trauma associated with fleeing one’s home, in addition to the trauma of war, conflict, or torture, and it is easy to see how refugees are not being served and treated in the ways they deserve.
Sadly, many refugees arrive to the Greek islands with hopes of making it to Athens or beyond, but many get contained at the hotspots for months, if not years, with no way out. The reason for this goes beyond a lack of resources or financial instability (which are by all means two very important factors to consider) – at this point, it gets political.
Since the refugee crisis of 2015, the EU has put on a positive front and a can-do attitude about how, if the countries of the EU all work together, progress can be made in resolving global conflict, changing the general population’s attitudes toward the refugee population, and getting the refugees back where they ultimately want to be – safely back at home. In reality, not much has changed. Wars are still raging, refugees are often still considered the lowest of the lows by society, and there are millions of refugees across the globe who are yearning to return home.
At this point, I will admit that I have painted a pretty bleak picture of the refugee crisis but honestly, I’m not sorry about it. The reality of this global refugee crisis can be easy to ignore, but these circumstances, and more importantly, these people, deserve so much more of our time, attention, and resources than we could ever provide on our own.
We – the individuals of this global community – have an obligation to serve as a voice for the voiceless. Somewhere throughout the course of history, the label of “refugee” has become associated with someone who is unworthy: unworthy of being treated with dignity and respect, unworthy of getting access to the life-changing resources, and unworthy of our collective voice. It is imperative that we change the narrative of what it means to be a refugee.
In reality, “refugee” is nothing more than a label, isn’t it?
You and I both know that humans are so much more than the labels we assign ourselves. The label of “graduate student” may accurately describe one piece of myself and my story at this present moment, but it does not define my whole existence. I was somebody before I was a graduate student and I will continue to be somebody after I have graduated. It is a chapter of my life, but it is by no means the whole story.
It works the same way for refugees.
You cannot define a person based off a single word. A refugee was someone before they became a refugee. They have lives, stories, passions, and a sense of self that lives outside of our understanding if we hear the word “refugee” and close off our ears to the rest.
Just as you and I are worthy of love, peace, nourishment, security, and safety, refugees are worthy too.
My hope for this piece is that it has helped you understand the refugee crisis a bit more clearly. I hope that you feel ready to rise up and make a difference because something in this world desperately needs to change. If all else, I hope you feel encouraged to reflect on this information and share it when and where you see fit.
Thanks for reading and check back soon for more.
Until next time,