Coming Home from the Refugee Crisis
Coming back was very strange. I struggled with Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, Vicarious Trauma, Emotional Exhaustion, PTSD or whatever you want to call it. Basically, I was very tired and struggled to engage with the world. I still felt very much involved and found it hard to let go, at the same time I also found it hard to take on responsibilities and get things done. I had many plans for writing documentation, articles, reports, maybe even a book but the blank page was always just too overwhelming. There were days when getting out of bed, walking the dog and making lunch took all my energy so I’d just go back to bed in the afternoon and rest. Sleep was unsettled and fraught with strange dreams, so even after hours in bed I was often still very tired.
I looked into getting a job again but even the thought sent me diving back under the bedcovers due to feeling so demoralised by the world. I couldn’t think of anything I’d feel comfortable doing. I was going through what can be termed existential despair and is pretty common for people returning from places of extreme suffering (for example aid workers, veterans, refugees and volunteers).
Thankfully my parents offered me the safe space I needed to unravel in and my kitten, who I brought back from Greece with me, offered me comfort and a quiet acceptance of whatever I was going through. My dog, Molly, needed walking every morning, which I was very grateful for as without her gentle encouragement, there were many days I don’t think I would’ve got out of bed at all. In many ways it was Molly who taught me to connect with nature again and enjoy the simple things like birdsong and cherry blossoms. I don’t know anyone who gets as much pleasure from just leaving the house and playing in the park as she does and over time some of that exuberance rubbed off on me and I also saw myself smiling at the ducks and getting excited by squirrels.
During this time of recovery, the one thing I did find energy for, and even got energy from, was giving and attending talks. I attended and gave talks in the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. This was/is a vital part of my healing process. Everyone has their own way of dealing with trauma, for me talking about it helps.
Here is a brief summary:
Reflections on a year in Greece — Stourbridge
The Refugee Crisis. What is it? What can be done? — Ilkeston
From Diversity to Integration — Stourbridge
In partnership with Odara a women’s Muslim network in Birmingham. Amy & Colin Pappajohn, my good friends and colleagues from Better Days, and I spoke about the situation in Greece, Hatam, a man who made the journey from Iraq to the UK with his family spoke about the journey and Aysha, from Odara, spoke about projects helping integration in the local community.
Elmfield School, Stourbridge
I spoke to class 8–11 (ages 13–18) about the refugee crisis in Greece. Following this I did a lesson with class 9 exploring some of the topics in more depth and answering questions.
Initiative Forum — Beyond Borders, Sweden
Initiative Forum is a week-long conference organised by YIP (Youth Initiative Programme) in Jarna, Sweden every year. This year the topic was Beyond Borders and I was invited as one of the lecturers speaking to 250 people as well as running 2 workshops. It was an incredibly inspiring event and not only did I get a chance to share some of my knowledge and experience but I also gained a lot from the discussions that ensued and the other contributors and participants.
Google Talk, Switzerland
I was invited to Google, Zurich to give a talk as part of the Talks at Google series. By a stroke of good fortune Ruha was in Zurich at the same time. I met Ruha in Lesbos back in February 2015 after she arrived in Greece together with her siblings, cousins and 96-year-old grandmother. After a very long process, she was finally reunited with the rest of her family in Sweden. She was in Zurich visiting Raquel a friend of mine and the co-founder of SAO (Swiss NGO working in Greece) who Ruha volunteers with as their cultural advisor and translator. Ruha and I are of a similar age, both went to school and university in a very carefree way with neither of us expecting to find ourselves in the middle of a refugee crisis in Greece. In this talk we tell our personal stories of what brought us to the island of Lesbos, what our experiences were and what we went on to do. It is the story of this crisis through the eyes of 2 young women, one who came as a volunteer and one who came as a refugee.
It is our gift to those who want to understand more. Watch it here (or bookmark for later).
As well as giving talks, I have also attended a lot of conferences, events and met with people to try and get a broader understanding of the migration situation so that I can better speak about the complexities as well as developing ideas and advising others on positive action that can be taken. I felt very confident speaking about the situation in Greece including the realities on the ground, legal frameworks, asylum procedures, governmental policies, agreements etc. but I wanted to also get an understanding of what was happening in the rest of the EU.
Here’s a summary of events I attended.
I spoke to the director of a reception centre in the Netherlands run by COA the Dutch asylum service. Unlike Greece, the Dutch procedure seemed to be very systematic, well organised and under control. When I asked her what she saw as the biggest problem she said ‘public opinion’. The election was coming up and there was a great fear that the far-right parties might gain influence and thus dismantle all the systems that had been put in place. She felt that they had everything they needed to deal with the number of people arriving and that they could easily take more, there just needed to be a will to do so. She had been working in this field for 10 years now and was very pragmatic about the whole thing.
In the election, the far right did much worse than expected which should hopefully be good news for Dutch asylum policy. I now know a couple of families that have been resettled from Greece to the Netherlands and so far, feedback has been positive. When handled well the process does not need to be fraught with pain and human rights abuses.
Rethinking Refugees Conference, Birmingham
A local event organised by Ashley Housing an organisation that has been working with refugee integration in the UK for many years, founded by a man who came to England as a refugee himself. It was an incredibly inspiring conference showcasing the progress they’ve made in not only providing housing to asylum seekers and refugees but also in widening the job market. They focus on education to bring people up to speed so they can take on highly skilled jobs like the ones they were doing in their home countries, thus filling the skills gaps in the UK labour market and not just be stuck in low paid jobs such as cleaning.
Child Refugees — How the immigration Act 2016 affects the present crisis, London
In a nutshell the focus of the seminar was discussing the safe guarding strategy for unaccompanied minors i.e how to make sure children are safe in the UK.
Here are a few points that I took with me:
There is a huge risk to asking children to prove their right to asylum as many might not know why their parents chose to flee so can’t answer asylum questions. Also many have had especially traumatic journeys which means such questioning is damaging and/or they might not be able to answer them properly due to their mental state.
It’s incredibly difficult to assess age based on looks that’s why the UK has the ‘Challenge 25’ law for selling alcohol as it is recognised that a 17-year-old can look as old as 25 and that’s not even considering the trauma and ‘early growing up and maturing’ that refugee children might go through.
The UK Asylum law is now longer than the entire works of Plato. Asylum Law is currently changing almost every day. The home office is struggling to stay on top of it.
Statistics from the home office are often not accurate. Must be extra scrupulous when reading statistics.
Some statistics, number of child refugees accepted by the UK:
2016: (first 9 months): 490
Significantly higher than previous years due to the global crisis in forced migration. Therefore, asylum claims have risen in UK but not proportionately to the increase in forced migration.
• Education about the situation in schools so important. Inform the next generation.
• Championing the story of the independent volunteer movement and that positivity. Empower normal people to get involved.
• We need patience. Progress can be painfully slow — thank you for sticking with it.
The End of the Deterrence Paradigm? Future Directions for global refugee policy, London
A very interesting talk at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies about how the EU has been following a policy of deterrence. This has led to a race to the bottom as each country tries to be less appealing to asylum seekers. Instead of working to improve conditions each country attempts to shift the burden to neighbouring countries. This talk looked at how this has not worked and the mess it has left us in as Europe turned its back on human rights and vulnerable people are forgotten in camps. More details here: jmhs.cmsny.org/index.php/jmhs/article/download/73/63
Islam in a Time of Uncertainty, Worcestershire
Fantastic talk by Tariq Ramadan who is the head of Islamic Studies at Oxford university. He spoke about the problems our world faces and the complexities of what causes them and how Muslims are being scapegoated for many issues that have absolutely nothing to do with their religion.
FES Angekommen, Berlin
This was a very interesting 2 day conference organised by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Berlin. I got a good insight into how Germany is handling the challenges they are facing trying to offer asylum to around 1 million people who they have welcomed in the last couple of years. It was incredibly encouraging to hear how well so much of it was going. There are still major challenges and much to discuss and improve, especially in relation to access to job markets and the growing number of people who are now being rejected and returned to their countries. It is definitely not an easy process but Germany is a good example of a country who has decided to meet the challenges and wrestle with the issues rather than avoiding them. The memory of the holocaust is still very present and there is a sense that people are striving to be the best they can be and uphold human rights and embrace the challenges that arise.
There were some very interesting discussions around the question of identity, citizenship, language, appearance and what makes a person German. The challenge of balancing integration with diversity and allowing individuality while also fitting in.
Research Discussion: making the asylum appeals process fair for women, London
The most shocking thing coming back to the UK has been discovering how absolutely terrible our asylum system is. There is very little transparency, it’s incredibly hard to get facts and the testimonials I’ve heard are deeply upsetting. This particular seminar gave me a deeper insight into the difficulties women face going through the asylum procedure in the UK and some of the shocking practices that are common place in UK courts. More info here: http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/2016/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/The-Way-Ahead-report-WEB.pdf
Danish National Museum
While we were packing up our camp in Moria back in March 2016, two curators from the Danish museum turned up and asked if they could take some of the stuff (charging station, signs and life jackets) back to Denmark for an exhibition they were doing. I referred them to Mathilde our Danish volunteer at the time (also my flatmate in both Lesbos and Thessaloniki and a close friend) and she helped them organise the transportation etc.
Following the initiative forum in Sweden I visited Mathilde in Copenhagen and we went to visit the exhibition.
It was incredibly surreal.
Firstly, it is displayed inside the war museum amongst all the cannons and other weapons of destruction. After the refugee exhibition, there follows an exhibition of the war in Afghanistan. The setting is very powerful. Seeing parts of the Olive Grove camp in a museum in Copenhagen was very very strange. My reality is now a part of history. Seeing it so neatly presented in a museum makes it feel complete, a relic of the past and yet it is a topic that is still such an open wound. It was an incredibly emotional experience as I reflected how lucky I was/am to be a part of this living history and yet also felt trapped by feeling like I no longer own my destiny as I can’t turn my back on this anymore.
Better Days handed our daily operations of Elpida to ERCI and then transitioned out of Elpida in December 2015. The core team spent Christmas apart and then reconvened in Ireland in January (it had to be outside Schengen due to visa issues — it doesn’t just affect refugees, Amy & Colin being American also have restricted freedom of movement in Europe. Read Colin’s story about that here.
Andrew’s family very kindly hosted us (Elena, Andrew, Amy, Colin and I) in their house in the middle of the Irish countryside near the sea. Our two weeks were a mix of talking, walking, sharing, cooking, eating and reflecting.
We decided that after 1 year of intense experiences and two successful projects many of us were feeling burnt out and in need of a rest.
Amy and Colin headed back to the US, after a short break Elena and Andrew went back to Lesbos and I focused on recuperation as well as raising awareness and learning more about the situation closer to home. It was clear to me that I was not in a healthy enough place to go back to Greece and that for now my work there was done.
Letting go of Better Days has been incredibly difficult for me as it has been such a huge part of my life. However Elena and Andrew have been doing amazing work with local partners and projects supporting ongoing work on the island as well as filling gaps in legal and medical aid to the thousands of people still trapped in Moria. You can read an update on current projects here and continue to follow Better Days work on facebook. Donations are also still very welcome: www.betterdays.ngo/donate
We are just finishing off the annual report which showcases the work we’ve done since founding in November 2015 as well as giving all our partners and supporters and insight into what has been achieved and plans moving forward. As soon as that is done my time with Better Days will also be completed, although I will remain an active supporter and friend.
Citizens of the World Choir — What can we do locally?
After attending the working group on Child Refugees at the parliament I was having tea with Lord Rogers and a couple of other volunteers who had worked in Calais and we were discussing what could be done in the UK. We felt that one of the biggest challenges is that almost all media coverage of refugees carries negative connotations so it’s not surprising that the general public is often weary or even scared of the notion of refugees in their country. We felt that the best way to counter that was to share more positive refugee stories and try and encourage more interaction between host communities and people who are trying to find their place here. Lord Rogers is a great believer in the power of music and had been toying with the idea of setting up a refugee choir for a while. As it happened Becky, who was sitting next to me, is a musical director and I was happy to get involved with admin.
Jump forward 3 weeks and the Citizens of the World Choir (COTW Choir) was born with an admin team of about 8 highly motivated individuals and the first rehearsal right around the corner. Having helped to kick-start this project, my role is almost redundant now as so many other motivated and skilled people have got involved. I help with communications, still attend rehearsals whenever I can and I look forward to being a part of the launch at parliament on June 20th. If you can make it to London for this event, let me know! The choir will then tour through southern England and Wales giving 7 performances throughout the summer and hopefully creating lots of opportunities for engagement and connection between people. So far the feedback has been incredibly positive and the rehearsals are lively events full of laughter, Arabic rapping, Indian dancing, hugs and friendship. If this pilot continues to be a success, we hope to expand to other cities across the UK. If you’d like to be involved in helping set up a COTW Choir in your city — get in touch! Read our story here or follow the facebook page.
As well as the talks, conferences, choir and general life education I have also been giving a lot of interviews to researchers, journalists and Masters & PhD students trying to make sense of this crisis. I will continue to share knowledge as much as I can and am always willing to answer questions as well as being open to giving talks or holding workshops.
There are many small organisations doing amazing work around Europe involving refugees which I’m supporting with pro bono consulting and advice.
Currently the big question I’m asking myself is where to next. With time, counselling, self-love and lots of support from family and friends I’m feeling much better and able to take on more again. I am not back to my old self. I will never be back to my old self but I am well on the way to making a new self that I am increasingly feeling comfortable with, though it is a big challenge and my success ebbs and flows.
Currently I’m still very involved mentally with the realities and struggles people are facing every day. I reach out to my press contacts when the hunger strikes in Moria reach their 4th day and they ask us to help spread their message. I get the updates when 23 people die off the coast of Lesvos in the first shipwreck in over a year. I hear about the Syrian man who set himself on fire on the island of Chios due to losing hope in the system. I follow the story of the stateless man who has been diagnosed with Hep C and is trying to get access to medication. I watch helplessly as people of many nationalities, including Syrians, are deported back to Turkey despite months of peaceful protesting and the belief of human rights watch dogs that Turkey is not a safe country. I feel angry and frustrated when I read the anti-refugee propaganda in mainstream news and the fear rhetoric used by politicians to win elections. I still feel very much connected. You can follow my updates here: www.facebook.com/lifeonthegroundgreececamps
In order to find my balance again and restore my strength I believe I need to disconnect a bit for a while. I am writing this from the very north of Scotland where the wind howls and there’s no phone signal or internet connection. A place where for a short time the only pain I engage with is that which I carry with me. Following this I will spend time with friends in Edinburgh and the rest of May and June I’ll be reconnecting with friends, family and nature. In June I’ll be cycling coast to coast across Northern England and at the end of June I will go back to Greece for a week to allow me to check in with the projects and my friends there and also to hopefully get some closure.
In July and August I’m off on a journey to get away from it all. My sister and I will be going overland from England to Hong Kong via Moscow, Mogolia and the transiberian railway which I am very excited about.
What happens in September I’m not totally sure about yet. I will probably go back to uni to do a Masters in the UK or Germany.
The other option is to find work but again I don’t know what I’d do.
The toughest thing is that I don’t want a career in aid work as it’s just too hard on the soul. In order to cope with the pain, suffering and injustice we see every day we have to normalise it in some way, detach, hide behind protocols, acronyms and procedures. However I never want to become numbed to the pain, detached from the suffering, justify the injustice and so I pull away, protect myself with distance. I can’t do this work anymore and yet I’m not sure I cannot do it either.
That is the conundrum I’m currently trying to solve.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported me this past year and a half. Both emotionally and financially. I could not have done this without the community of people around me who gave me the support I needed to stay upright amongst the chaos. Thank you to my family, friends, colleagues, donors and partners. This has absolutely been a group effort.
Financial update: The last months I’ve been living off some donations I still had left that have enabled me to do the advocacy work I’ve done. In many cases friends have sponsored me to come and visit them which I’ve combined with attending events and giving talks. My parent’s generosity has helped me pay for counselling and general life costs. I still have a couple of events I will be involved in but I have now stopped fundraising for my work and anyone who did set up a monthly standing order is invited to stop it now. I have transferred the last of my savings from my Swiss account which will pay for my summer travels and then from September I will start with a blank sheet, an empty bank account and probably a mass of student debt again. It’s a bit of a scary prospect but I am very privileged and grateful that I know I will be ok.
This probably won’t my last update as I will also share the Better Days annual report when it comes out and I hope that at some time I will find the time and space to share of the stories from my time in this parallel world. However in a way this is the end of a chapter and I thank everyone who has joined me on this part of my journey!