Imagine taking four kids camping, they’re ten, seven, three and 6 months old. Imagine it starts raining and there’s a leak in the tent. Imagine everyone’s tired, because you actually had to walk to this campsite, for three weeks. Imagine there are no toilets, there’s no water, the kids are bored, and there’s nothing to eat. Imagine that you’ve been on this camping trip for two months. Can you imagine? Can you imagine that it isn’t just a bad camping trip but you’re in a refugee camp, having left your home because of bombs or social upheaval?? For many of us the answer is no.
But this is what struck me most about the month I spent at the UNHCR refugee camp in Leros, Greece. These ‘refugees’ and 'migrants’ that we hear about on the news are ordinary people. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They are mother’s, who showed me videos captured on iPhones of their children’s heads poking out of life jackets, on tiny rubber dinghies with water splashing over them. They were just as bewildered and alarmed at the absurdity of the situation as anyone else would be. OK, this is an obvious point to make? But the media narrative about this 'crisis’ has done rhetorical somersaults to remove any humanity from the lives of the people crossing the borders. I want to tell you some human stories.
Fatima is a ten years old and she’s sat across the coffee table from me. She’s from Syria and she hasn’t been to school for months. You would never know it, she is so articulate and so eloquent as she talks about the war in her country, her religion, and ask inquisitively about mine. We left the refugee camp in Leros on the same boat to Athens, to very different fates: she is still there, sleeping on the streets, with her Mum, Dad and sister. Saf is in his twenties, like me. He’s Algerian and has come to Greece with the hope of getting work in Europe. He’s trying not to laugh as I hack away at a metal pipe jutting out into the room that we are trying to transform into a quiet lounge for women. A few days later he was arrested by the Greek police, we are still in touch on Facebook. I have been back in the UK for a month now, he is still in prison. For what?
The setting for these very human interactions was the 'Women’s Lounge’. An old tool room that a group of us at the camp transformed into a quiet space that was just for women, who are disproportionately represented, and at risk, in the refugee camps. It was beautiful. We painted walls, carpeted the floor, set up a tea station and within hours we were singing and dancing, hijabs off, with women from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. It was so beautiful it even appeared in this months French Elle magazine!
Two weeks ago the camp in Leros was shut down, including the Women’s Lounge, and a prison was opened where people will be held awaiting deportation to Turkey. There is so much hatred and defensiveness in the media coverage of the situation that it is hard to remember that there are people behind the stories of 'refugees’ and 'migrants’. But there are, there are wonderful people that I will never forget.
You can find out more about how to help people at the borders via the Twitter account @SocialWorkWB, thanks to Lucie Kerley & Agent K. There’s something you can do right away- think and talk about 'refugees’ and 'migrants’ as people first, ordinary people, in extraordinary circumstances.
Words & photo by Dr Lauren Wroe
Want to know more?
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Are there any other topics that you think deserve covering on this blog? If so, please get in touch: info [at]luciekerley.co.uk. We’d love to hear from you.