What I Find Wrong with the Word ‘Refugee’
Based on my experience volunteering in Greece at a refugee camp and community center.
In the summer of 2017, I had just finished up working as an English Language Assistant in Madrid, Spain and was looking for a final European adventure before I headed back to the States to begin law school. I had long had an interest in human rights and had taken classes as an undergrad like Model UN, where we had to simulate a Human Rights Council conference on the worsening Syrian refugee crisis.
All this drew me to picking up A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival, by Melissa Fleming, former Head of Global Communications and Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The story follows Doaa, a Syrian girl whose life was disrupted by a brutal war. She and her fiancé decide to flee for Europe in the hopes of a life with more safety, stability, and access to education. However, four days into her journey, the boat her and five hundred other Syrians have chosen to sail away on is struck and sinks. The book documents Doaa’s true, raw, and revealing journey.
I was so moved by Doaa’s story, I changed my initial plans to hop around Europe for the summer and decided to head to Greece, where I would spend the summer volunteering at a refugee camp and community center.
I worked with residents on a variety of tasks including teaching English classes, setting up dental appointments, organizing a soccer camp, and drafting resumes. It remains to be some of my most meaningful work not just because of the relationships I built and aid I was able to provide, but also because of the new perspective I gained about how the world views these people looking for a new beginning.
I am the child of an Italian immigrant and I grew up listening to stories about how my grandma had to upend her life in Italy and transport two children on a boat, across the world, alone, all in the hopes of more opportunity. She was not fleeing a civil war or gender based persecution. She was not threatened by gang violence, nor was she persecuted because of her religion. She wanted better economic opportunities for her children and in 1972, that was enough to gain lawful entry into the United States.
Since then, borders, both in the United States and abroad, have become harder to seep through and the conditions on which entry is permitted has become increasingly more dire. As a legal professional having worked with clients on immigration matters, I know that it is often the case that the more a person has had to overcome and the more they have suffered actually increases their chances of gaining access to the U.S.
People looking for a new beginning are not treated with the same openness or empathy that my family once received. Instead, immigration applications, particularly in regards to refugee and asylum cases, are reviewed from a cold-blooded lens of seeing who has been persecuted enough to be deserving of relief. It forces lawyers to exploit their trauma because under the current refugee system, it is the specifics of your past trauma that determines whether or not you are worthy of safety.
From a legal perspective, I understand why we have to label things, even people. It is much easier for us when we are able to fit someone in a box, and then can apply certain rules to the people who fit into that box. It is systematic and orderly, making it easier for courts to administer.
But the labels are not just reserved for the courts and they seep into the society’s vernacular. So when we call people “refugees” we are giving them some other title. We are assigning them some type of otherness that isn’t quite human or citizen, but “refugee.” And when we start thinking of people as an “other,” it is easy to forget that what they actually are are humans.
I was victim to this thinking. Leading up to my trip to Greece I always told people I was going to volunteer with “refugees.” I used the term so much that I remember on my first day at the community center in Athens feeling nervous about the first refugee I would meet. I had convinced myself that meeting a refugee was somehow going to be different from meeting my fellow volunteers.
I quickly learned that “refugees” are so incredibly human. When teaching English, I learned that many already had a firm understanding of the language because of the education they received in their home country. When helping draft resumes, I learned that before becoming “refugees,” they had jobs. They were artists and teachers and athletes. They were not lifeless beings waiting to be admitted into a country, but active participants in society, often looking to serve as translators or coaches. At the refugee camp, the residents organized to create their own small society to stimulate normalcy. They created small “general store” type shops, falafel and coffee stands, and regularly gathered to play music, share stories, or pray.
They had an unlimited supply of kindness, often insisting that I didn’t pay for a falafel sandwich or inviting me into their caravan for coffee. In places where I expected despair and lifelessness, I found a permeating feeling of love and togetherness throughout the community.
These stories are not told through the word “refugee.” Their lives are reduced to a legal term that fails to grasp their individual humanity. It helps people see them as something other than human, as something that does not suffer, or love, or feel pain, or even happiness, in the same was we do. If we can’t relate to them, we can’t empathize with them, and if we can’t empathize with them, we are less likely to help them.