Recent Items

Seeking Refuge in Refugees

Posted on by

Originally published at Seeking Refuge in Refugees; cross posted from Open Democracy

Glimpses of life in a Greek refugee camp through the diary of a young volunteer

Day One: Excitement

Today I arrived at a refugee camp near Thessaloniki, excited but also fearful.

More than 150 families (mostly Syrian and some Iraqi) live in this converted factory. In spite of the number of inhabitants, the place feels soulless. I haven’t talked to the ‘residents’ yet, but I have randomly run into some children playing.

I arrived at the camp with three other people from Croatia, former Yugoslavia and the US. Today was mainly an introduction for us new volunteers.

A large part of the introduction was about trauma and managing trauma. The children, especially, are traumatized. Sudden crying, aggression, mood swings; you may never know what the trigger is. For some, it could be a picture or piece of news. It doesn’t have to be something “negative” in the typical sense; it can be as random as the smell of grilled meat. We were also warned about trauma transmitting to us.

The camp is in quite good shape and seems to be run well by volunteers; it’s soulless though. I was looking for a sense of “emergency.” But wait…. Why would I underestimate the struggle of these people just because they don’t live in tents? Why has it become the default to see tents? Because they’re refugees?

Day Two: Madness

All the volunteers at this point in time are white people who have gone out of their way to come help and spend time here at their own expense. They do not speak Arabic. I do not understand how they are supposed to run a camp for 150 families if they do not speak their language?

The anti-orientalist part of me is mad at these white-skinned hard-working kind-hearted volunteers. Who do they think they are to assume how these refugees want their lives to be run? Why do they think that a “fitness class” followed by dancing is such a brilliant idea? I despise them, pity their helplessness, but also admire their attempts.

Some women show up to class, but I cannot help but feel bad for them. How desperate do you need to be in order to show up to a “fitness class” given by a European when your family is either dead, in another country or waiting to be reunited?

But why am I, in turn, assuming and judging? Why am I so mad at these kind gestures? Maybe because I feel they are attempts to “civilize” or rather “westernize” the inhabitants of the camp? Turns out, I am sensitive about cultural invasion.

Some of the children were speaking to each other in English. They seem to have very quickly picked up the language. Smart kids they are. But speaking to one another in a language other than their own was scary. I am mad.

I am mad at the way the place is being run, but I know the volunteers are doing their best. I am mad at the very ugly reality. I am mad at every Arabic-speaking person who has not even thought of coming here to help.

Day Three: Startled

Today I briefly met Abo Abdu, who was very excited that I speak Arabic. The water has been cutting off for five days and he, like everyone else, is frustrated.

“Do you want the kids in schools to think that Syrian kids stink? We’re not like that, sister! We had everything in Syria and we lived like kings. We had homes, water, food and cars. We were something. We only fled our country because of the war.”

A juggler came to entertain the kids. They were very happy, laughing at his games and tricks. He was funny and patient, trying his best to speak Arabic. I thought he was French/Moroccan maybe.

During the show one girl asked “what’s in this bottle?” The juggler said “water, soap and a special powder from Israel” – (silence and moments of awkwardness).

But the silence and awkwardness only happened in my mind. All the children wanted was to play, they didn’t pay much attention to what he’d said. But I did and I wondered, “how dare he come to cheer Syrian kids up? Why was a juggler from Israel brought in?”

Wait, I am from Egypt. I come from a fascist, racist and oppressive state. He was born in Israel, like I was born in Egypt. None of us asked for it. It’s not where he comes from that matters, but what he chooses to do, and he chose to volunteer his time and energy to entertain these children. He’s Israeli like I’m Egyptian and that’s it.

Day Four: Dignity

One of the volunteers from the US, who’s been here for nine months now, pulled me out of the middle of a conversation: “Hey, I want you to come translate something for me. The women are mad and I must have a talk with them.”

They are mad at everything in the camp. The water has been cut. No hot water. They’re not happy with the food distribution – quality, quantity, everything.

The volunteer was furious too. Stuck in the middle – being yelled at and a target of anger – most of the time with little to do to make their lives better. I was quite scared and stressed. They were mad and yelling at both of us. They didn’t like the meat, the quality of the vegetables and wanted more “boharat” (spices) to cook with.

My first thoughts, which I kept to myself, were: “wait, what? Boharat? Are you people aware of the situation you’re in? Are you in denial? You guys live in an abandoned factory in the middle of nowhere… and you’re yelling because of the food quality and some spices missing!? I’m here volunteering and I don’t care about what I eat, because I’m aware of the situation I’m in. I don’t care about the quality or quantity, as long as it keeps me going.”

But wait! I’m judging them with my very narrow mind and shallow emotions. How dare I think that way! I’m here by choice, they’re not. I don’t care about what I eat because it gives me self-worth. To me this is temporary. For the refugees, not eating well means less self-worth. It reminds them of how abandoned by the world they are. The few who haven’t abandoned them are the volunteers on site. This is them being mad at the war, death, loss, and their unknown destinies.

The food, spices and water are possibly the only channels through which they can transmit their feelings without being told “it’s alright. It’s because you’ve been traumatized.” It is the only thing they can openly complain about. I admire how relatively picky they were. It told me they’re not entirely dead from the inside and that they preserved their self-worth and still had the strength to demand better.

Day Five: Shame

Two volunteers were chatting with three Syrian ladies in sign language. One of the ladies felt a bit ill, so they called me to ask her whether it was serious or not. The lady, Om Batoul, had a neck and back-ache. The volunteer, a yoga instructor, gave the lady a massage, assuming it must be stress. She then requested I ask Om Batoul whether something had been stressing her lately. I laughed. I truly laughed, like it was a joke! “Are you sure you want me to ask her that?” The volunteer then asked me “do you think it’s too personal to ask her?” Me: “not personal, but a lot must be stressing her, not only recently, but over the last six years! The volunteer said that she wanted her to open up.

So I translated the question and Om Batoul confirmed that nothing was upsetting her now. But the question did bring about the stories of all three ladies.

They all lost their husbands during the war. Two of the women came across the Mediterranean alone with their children. The third, started the journey with her parents and children, but lost both her parents and one of her children to the sea.

“One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths are a statistic”, I thought to myself.

At this moment, one of the volunteers was in tears, crying uncontrollably. The three ladies had tears flowing down their cheeks, but their voices steady. I am guessing that they have become accustomed to crying in silence.

Day Six: Hope

The children go from being energetic and happy to grumpy and moody. Their parents’ diminishing role in their nurturing and upbringing is noticeable. Demotivation, depression and feelings of uselessness – what is it they can provide? Warmth and love? No. Where’s the warmth in a deserted factory? Guidance and advice? No. How could they, when they’re in a country where they don’t speak the language and don’t understand the culture! Living and bread-winning? No. They wait for food distribution every day.

Men in particular seem miserable. The women have daily routines; cooking for their children and providing day-to-day care. So what are the men left with? Their role is marginalized. They’ve moved from being their own house heads to now being less useful than their own kids (who have picked up a foreign language quickly; have increased access to the new community, and more energy to learn new things).

They wait for the government (be it Greek or other) to decide the fate of their families. They wait for “some” organisation to carry out food distribution. This situation has made it very difficult to carry out their parenting role, as providers. The family dynamic is distorted. Children obtaining maximum exposure to this new society and parents stuck in the past.

Day Seven: Purification

Abo Abdu is leaving! Two families have just received news from the migration authority. They will go to Athens and from there they will be informed about the country that will receive them. Both family heads are called Abo Abdu.

Abo Abdu, from my previous entry, was very happy. He came to the shop to share the news with me. The shop is where we display donated clothes for residents to shop from through a point system; they get points at the beginning of each month to cover some of their needs. We agreed on a time for him to bring his family to pick an outfit for each member.

In three days they leave. So he told me “tomorrow we’re baking cake and konafa for everyone, and the next day is the big party. You must come.”

The next day, Om Abdu spent hours looking for something new to wear for herself. She was looking for a new dress, but couldn’t find anything. Although there are some new items, there are too few to choose from and not always appropriate and suitable to how she would dress. In the end, she only took clothing for her children.

The place is different, smells warm. The ovens are full of cakes and konafa made by the two families for the entire camp. This sweet warm scent can transform a place (of course only partially!). Plates of sweet warm konafa were being passed around to everyone.

Everyone was waiting for the big party. The music was heard from the warehouse and what I saw was thrilling. Everyone was either dancing or clapping. Abo Abdu took the lead in the dabka with a chain of men after him. The last man held his wife’s hand and then a chain of women and girls ensued. It was the Kurdish dabka, as one of the families is Kurdish.

The scene was holy. Seeing them truly happy for the first time since I arrived was incredibly moving. The Abo Abdu(s) were keen on making everyone happy before they left – to give them hope. They invested an incredible amount of effort, time and emotional energy during their last few days to leave the camp on a positive note and see everyone hopeful. They really did a great job.

Some of the volunteers wanted to say goodbye to Om Abdu. I was standing next to her. They hugged and kissed. I translated their best wishes of a bright future to Om Abdu. Om Abdu received their wishes thankfully, but then said: “I hope they forgive us if we’ve done anything unkind.”

I was shocked. The whole world should kneel in front of these people and beg for their forgiveness. And you, Om Abdu, are asking for forgiveness because you may have lost your temper at some point in time?! If only you knew how much your request makes me want to cry and ask for your forgiveness!

Last Day
On my last day, we decided to have tea together in one of the rooms. Sett-Awneya was at the shop. I told her I was leaving today. She looked at me and said: “Do you really have to leave today? Are you missing anything? What do you need? […] We are at the beginning of the month; I have all my points. Pick anything!”

I smiled and said I’m all set and only would like to have tea with her. She looked at my feet, investigated my worn-out sneakers and said: “You can’t leave with these shoes. I’m going to get you new ones. They have a good collection here, pick a pair.” It took few minutes of reassurance “wallah… wallah” to convince her that I truly have another good pair at home and that I’m flying with a completely stuffed backpack. She finally gave up and came upstairs with me.

Sitting on the ground in a circle, we laughed and cried. It started with chatter, but at a certain point it became very intense. They do realize that the label ‘refugee’ which they recently acquired is loaded with negative connotations. All of a sudden, people assume they’re ignorant and as if they never had a previous life. It assumes they’re desperate and that they should accept anything that’s been given to them. It assumes they’re a load no one wants; the world is too small to accommodate them. They do realize they’ve suddenly transformed from humans with full agency to a collective ‘thing’ – a burden that people and countries avoid.

Some of them have just got news that Germany (the top receiving country for the population of this camp) has reduced its quota from 500 entrants per month to only 70. It means more time here, waiting in uncertainty hoping to get admitted.

This piece of news made them very tense. Some of them haven’t seen their husbands or children for three years. As the conversation got heated everyone released a bit of frustration. After some of the women shared their horror stories of crossing borders and seas, quite a few were in tears. Moments of silence ensued, and the toughest silence! I couldn’t think of a way to break it.

Shortly after one of the ladies resumed: “My children often wake up in the middle of the night screaming because of nightmares. They wake me up horrified, and we all end up scared in a sleepless night.”

Fatima interrupted: “We often wake up to horrific news from our towns and are left wondering whether our families and loved ones are alive or dead. We wake up to news about children being massacred… We have left our towns, but our hearts are still there. Our memories are there. We can’t just forget and pretend nothing is happening, because we chose to leave.”

In my mind, I heard the completion of her sentence. “…just like the world has left us!”

It hit me. I realised what conflict she, and probably everyone else in her shoes, is going through. She sees how the world pretends this tragedy is not happening, and how everyone goes about their daily lives normally. It’s demeaning and frustrating.

Fatima cannot forget. She doesn’t want to. After all, she doesn’t have the luxury to even if she wanted to. She’s trapped with her fate being decided for her…

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Anonymous2

    Heartbreaking. My daughter worked in the Syrian refugee crisis. She spoke of school classrooms where every child had lost a limb. My daughter only lasted a year. The emotional strain even on the helpers is huge. What it is for the refugees escapes my imagination

  2. Bukko Boomeranger

    I didn’t find this piece all that edifying. What I got from it, especially the first five or six days’ entries, was “me, Me, ME!” Was this an article about refugees, or about a virtue-signaling Egyptian woman who feels she’s SO superior to those non-Arabic speaking volunteers and the refugees who don’t act the way the writer expects them to? It was more focused on Sarah el Sheikh (the author) than the people she was writing about.

    Sarah doesn’t think these refugees should be so concerned about the flavours of their food! Why aren’t these Muslim kids outraged about the juggler mentioning something about the Zionist entity?!? How can women take an exercise class led by Europeans when half their family is dead? I get the sense that Sarah realises this at some level, because there are a couple sentences such as: “I’m judging them with my very narrow mind and shallow emotions.” But that realisation doesn’t make her stop it.

    I don’t give a rosy rat’s (Australian colloquialism) about what Sarah el Sheikh thinks. She appears to be a relatively privileged university student with the same elitist mindset that many Westernised students share. I’d like to know what life is like for the people who fled a traumatising war and saw their loved ones die in front of their eyes. Sarah-world would probably be familiar to me; refugee-world is not. I do not learn much from reading about the inner monologue of someone who’s probably a lot like my own daughter. (Not that there’a anything wrong with such people. They’re good-hearted.) This article could have used an editor at Open Democracy to guide Sarah and tell her “Write about THEM, not about YOU.”

    I’ve worked with many people who have fled astonishing horror and have been mentally devastated by it. (I’m a psychiatric nurse.) The stories they tell are beyond what we comfortable Westerners can imagine, such as the Tamil Tiger bloke who would pull up his shirt and show the scar from the abdominal surgery he had after an 81 mm mortar shell exploded next to him, and the wound in his leg where he was deliberately shot by a Sinhalese soldier after being captured. He was in hospital after a serious suicide attempt when his final appeal against a deportation order to Sri Lanka was rejected. (He arrived in Australia as a boat person, and those refugees are shown no mercy by The System here.) The fellow made the point that when he was turfed back to his home country, the government would torture him and THEN kill him. All true! So he reckoned he might as well cut to the chase and avoid a lot of pain by necking himself. I couldn’t disagree with him. But he was a polite chap and agreed that he would not commit suicide on our ward because that would make us medical staff feel bad. Anecdotes like that are interesting. What Sarah el Sheikh believes refugees should act like is not.

    P.S. Here’s a clue about little things like spices and exercise, Sarah. When a person’s life underpinnings have been taken from them, they’re knocked back down a few pegs along Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They can’t control their fate, but they can control how their food tastes. So they focus on that. They are stuck in a strange place, and they get bored because they have to exist 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So they alleviate the ennui by taking advantage of recreational activities, even if it’s only a class put on on some linguistically clueless European. They can’t constantly bewail their losses, or they’d die from depression. These seem to be women who have made the choice to keep on living. hard as that is. Kids are kids, and they laugh at a clownish juggler’s antics, without thinking about the ramifications of Israeli bubble juice. Not that Sarah’s going to read comments on a website that re-posts her stuff, but if she’s writing about refugees, she should try to get inside THEIR heads, not just blither about what’s rattling around between her own ears.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Perhaps you would have found it more edifying if you’d read it more carefully. You write:

      Here’s a clue about little things like spices and exercise, Sarah. When a person’s life underpinnings have been taken from them, they’re knocked back down a few pegs along Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They can’t control their fate, but they can control how their food tastes. So they focus on that.

      The author writes:

      My first thoughts, which I kept to myself, were: “wait, what? Boharat? Are you people aware of the situation you’re in? Are you in denial? You guys live in an abandoned factory in the middle of nowhere… and you’re yelling because of the food quality and some spices missing!?

      But then:

      The food, spices and water are possibly the only channels through which they can transmit their feelings without being told “it’s alright. It’s because you’ve been traumatized.” It is the only thing they can openly complain about. I admire how relatively picky they were. It told me they’re not entirely dead from the inside and that they preserved their self-worth and still had the strength to demand better.

      Quite similar to “They can’t control their fate, but they can control how their food tastes. So they focus on that.”

      One may take issue with the author’s tone, station in life, Lady Bountiful tendency, and all the rest. However, I welcome the information and the author did, after all, go to the camp and do work as best they could. So I don’t see this as virtue signaling, at least as liberal Democrats do that here.

    2. Sarah Elsheikh

      Dear Bukko,
      Thank you for speaking out your mind in such a detailed comment. I found it useful and inspiring at points. You seem to have picked up quite much about me; a privileged-girl who relates to both populations at the camp; being Arab with westernized education. And yes these initial blog entries were my naked thoughts, inner-conflicts and emotions, which I kept in a diary that I sent to my close family and friends while I was in Greece. It was about me. Selfish, I know, but it was my way of keeping track of my thoughts and doing (kind of) healthy reflections (with all the ugliness of it). I admit I despised myself at times and thought I was harsh and judgemental at others, but these were me thinking out loud, with the least of analysis or rationale. Despite all this, when the editor of OpenDemocracy suggested we publish the blog entries, I did not think of neutralizing the harsh thoughts and times of narrow-mindedness, as they are themselves reflections of other conflicts and ugliness within myself, the history we are products of, and the world we live in.
      Thank you again :)

  3. Bukko Boomeranger

    Thank you for taking the time to read and think about my disgruntled screed, Lambert and Sarah. Usually, nobody pays attention to what I say, especially people who write the things that I nitpick.

    Sarah, it’s not what you DID that irked me. You went far out of your way at your own expense to try and make things better for some of the planet’s most beaten-down people. When I interact with refugees, or raging drug addicts and delusional schizophrenics at the various psych wards where I work, I’m getting paid to do so, which makes me less generous than you. It’s how you wrote about it that was “on the nose” (as the Aussie expression goes) to me. It came across as shallow. Such is the problem with first-draft writing of anything (such as intemperate comments on blogs, eh?)

    I’m always conscious that I am one of the fortunate ones in this world, a person with plenty of money who can choose what country I want to live in (my wife and I bailed on our comfortable life in the U.S. in 2005 due to our disgust about the war crimes of the Bush II regime). My story is nowhere near as interesting as the trajectories of the refugees I encounter. I wish I could tell the wider world about the almost unimaginable things they have gone through. (Except confidentiality rules and my fear of getting sacked limit that.) No doubt you heard some harrowing personal histories, Sarah. It would touch more hearts, and encourage more people to help refugees, if you broadcast that above your own reactions.

    I don’t expect the patients to be as dispassionate as me because their existences have been shattered. They don’t react in what would seem to me to be logical ways because they’ve suffered the emotional equivalent to multiple broken bones. Emotions drive actions more powerfully than cerebration. Part of my job is to get inside the heads of the mentally ill so I can figure out what’s making them behave as they do. I can try to suggest other ways of dealing with life, and offer pharmaceutical crutches such as anti-anxiety meds (shout-out to benzodiazepines!) when the mental turmoil is too much to bear at that moment. What seems to be most helpful is showing them respect, though. They’ve been kicked around by and powerful forces and wicked people who don’t care about the refugees. I can’t repair their lives, but in my interactions with them, I can demonstrate that someone in authority is concerned for them, is doing what I can to meet their needs. As you no doubt did, and in a language that they could relate to better than my patients do to my English. Small kindnesses, genuinely given, are like analgesics to emotional pain. I’d rather read about what’s going on with these unique, pained people than what a cosseted wanker like me is experiencing, though. (So says the guy who’s just blorted on for too many paragraphs about what he’s thinking…)

    P.S. Lambert, since you apparently read these comments, allow me to give an off-topic thank-you to Corrente for teaching me how to code hyperlinks. In the mid-2000s, when I didn’t know how to and stuff, your mob’s blog had a primer on that stuff. It lifted my game, mate. So cheers for something that you did for me a decade ago.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I am late to this, but your remarks were out of line. You are an employee operating in settings where the environment is vasty more orderly than in a refugee camp. Despite claiming that you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you abjectly failed to do that with Sarah. At a refugee camp, the priority is meeting refugees’ physical needs. Anything beyond that is gravy. Did you have any responsibility for organizing and overseeing the feeding of your charges in hospitals, for starters?

      Second, you miss that Sarah was the only Arabic speaker among the volunteers. That almost assures she was overloaded by regularly being asked or feeling the need to get involved in situations where the refugees were upset and the other volunteers weren’t able to communicate with them well.

      For a paid professional to sit in judgement of a person who volunteers to do what they can personally to assist in a large-scale human crisis is hubris. You ought to be ashamed.

Comments are closed.