The refugee crisis inside and outside of Syria has made its way into news stories and headlines on a daily basis as the U.S. has begun to admit refugees at a higher rate than in past years. Perhaps surprisingly, the U.S. recently reached the mark of 10,000 Syrian refugees admitted, the goal set by President Obama for the fiscal year. With a significant percentage of the world’s population displaced, the urgent need for action continues to accelerate. Most of us outside of the immediate zone of the crisis are not familiar with that space that seems to escape headlines: displacement, the space between ejection from one’s country and resettlement in another.
During the first half of 2016, Three Spinners Inc. had the opportunity to work with three interns who went on to spend time working with refugees on the ground in Greece. In an interview we conducted with Anne C., one of our former interns, we posed a series of questions that we hoped would be helpful for people who are interested in becoming more informed and more involved.
During her time abroad, Anne was placed with Arsis (Association for the Social Support of Youth, a Greek NGO), which she describes as “an organization that works with imprisoned youth, victims of trafficking, and refugees.” While there, she worked in one of their housing shelters for refugees located in Athens. She elaborated on some of the setbacks she faced as a volunteer for Arsis, the most challenging of which was the fact that, as she told us, “most of the staff was on strike because they had not been paid in eight months.” However, she used this as an opportunity to form bonds with the children in the shelter. As she describes it, she and her colleagues were told to entertain and care for the children, ages one to five, in the shelter until the assigned social worker came back from the strike. While this was not necessarily intended to be her assignment when she arrived, Anne stressed that it was wonderful to give their mothers a bit of a break, and that the language barrier did not prevent her and the children she supervised from having fun. In fact, leaving proved to be much more difficult than bridging a language gap. Anne reported, “When we left on our last day at the shelter, the children ran along the fence and tried to get us to come back, which made it really hard to leave. It was at that moment that I knew that our time at the shelter meant something to those children.” Over seven million children are displaced worldwide; it is crucial that these boys and girls continue to receive medical care and an education. These services, as Anne found, are sometimes dependent on international volunteers and the generosity of local staff, who often go unpaid because of the terrible lack of funding.
Arsis’ many components include a community center and the refugee shelter. Anne recounted, “The community center is composed of lawyers and psychologists. It also sends volunteers to areas heavily populated with refugees to create activities for the children and bring a mobile school. The mobile school has different panels to cover topics including math, hygiene, sex education, social skills, and games. In the refugee shelter, there is room for 12 families, with access to a computer, child care, and social workers.” If Arsis is not able to provide a particular service, they will gladly send people to another organization that can fit their needs, one of which is Vavel, which has mental health services that they do not offer. “I think that the fact that the organizations are so well aware of each other really helps the refugees, because they have someone connecting them to something that they need.” The residents of the camp were able to access doctors, dentists, gynecologists, clothing donations, and showers, but, she said, “The main flaw is that these services are not as readily available as most human beings would like them to be. For example, Praksis is another organization where an individual can make an appointment to shower. Families can only come once a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The same thing goes for picking up clothes or food. These needs can be met, but not in a timely manner.” What we can infer from Anne’s reportage is that while services are not lacking, there are simply not enough people able to provide them. In light of this conversation, perhaps mobility of volunteer work should be the next investment for organizations facilitating rescue and relief efforts.
Anne adamantly stressed that the families she encountered were no different from families here at home in Champaign-Urbana. “I can say that they are just regular people who have gone through some extremely difficult situations and just want a better life for their families. The only difference between me and them is that I live somewhere where I am fortunate enough to feel safe every day. They should be able to feel that way, too.” As Anne’s perspective on her time in Greece suggests, there is a thin but powerful line separating security from precarity and, unfortunately, it seems as though that line is in constant motion, expanding the zone of insecurity and displacement. Crossing that line, making it porous and poking holes in it so that we can see through to the other side, can help us take some of the power back. Anne’s experience in Athens emphasized many of the challenges faced by a country that has opened its doors to refugees, whether temporarily or long-term, but it is important to note the tone of the atmosphere surrounding the families fleeing persecution and violence. “In Athens, there is plenty of support for refugees. There are ‘Immigrants/Refugees Welcome’ signs all over the city. One of the workers at Arsis shared a story with me about how the Greek people treat refugees. He said that many people were living in a square, so the locals made hundreds of sandwiches and brought water and clothing so that they would be more comfortable. There were people who also tried to exploit them, but overwhelmingly people just wanted to help. I think it is easier to see refugees as humans when they are at your back door.” For those of us not on the shores of the Mediterranean, it is important to access that same sentiment: a shared sense of humanity that inspires an environment where people overwhelmingly just want to help.
The purpose of reaching out to Anne about her time in Greece was not only to reorient our relief strategies at Three Spinners Inc., but also to share an honest account of life somewhere in the middle space that we call statelessness. Refugees have always been and are always at our back door. There is a tremendous community of immigrants and refugees in C-U and many organizations, both faith-based and secular, are working to help provide the necessary services to support these communities. Three Spinners Inc., the Eastern Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center (ECIRMAC), as well as a growing number of local churches, mosques, and temples are all invested in collecting and lending our resources to refugee populations in need. What we must continue to focus on, as Anne’s experience shows, is maintaining and developing that sense of shared humanity and taking seriously our responsibility to care for our neighbors, whether they are local or global. Information on how to get involved is available at www.threespinners.org.