Refugees Aren't Different Than You

November 25, 2015 ~ Demetra Szatkowski

I am having trouble processing emotionally.

It is a total information overload inside my head. Story after story after story. I swing between extremes, from feeling totally full and happy and hopeful, to feeling my eyes tear up and having to stop myself from panicking.

Boats landed today. Maybe 60 boats? Maybe 3000 people? Nobody knows for sure yet; communication isn’t that coordinated. I worked 2-12 handing out tickets and information at a camp called Oxy. Basically, refugees get off the boats, soaking wet and freezing, and are transported a short distance to Oxy. There, they get a food ticket, a bus ticket, dry clothes, a blanket, and information. After that, they go to another camp. Buses only run during the day, so if people come at night they need to spend the night.

So many nationalities. Afghani. Iraqi. Syrian. Iranian. Moroccan. Pakistani. It goes on. They need to be separated into Syrian and non-Syrian, because of paperwork. That’s my job.

“Salaam. Hello. How many? 1, 2, 3 .. 6? Ok. How many children? Children? Uh.. Little? Little people? 1, 2. Four big two little. From? Iraqi, Afghan.. Iraqi. Ok. Here tickets. Bus. Four bus, 1, 2 little sit on lap. Six food tickets. Akil, food. Yes down there. Ok. Here is map, you are here, bus tomorrow here. Yes tomorrow. Ok. You’re welcome.”

And next. And repeat.

My mind is so busy with trying to translate and understand questions and figure out problems when people come back and want to change their ticket because their family has a different one and because they decided to want to say they were from Syria because that might be a faster bus (not allowed). I am patient and explain. We are constantly running out of tickets and have to make new ones. A bus only fits 50 and families have to stay together.

My mind is so occupied that only for a split second does it hit me, do I allow my eyes to tear up before a new problem arises and I stop my own emotions to fix it. It happens when I see one mother alone with four little children. It happens when I see two parents with six children. It happens when I see men totally alone. And I stop thinking and I move on.

After what seems like forever the constant flow of people stops and I am free to move around the camp. We have maps and papers and booklets with helpful information, in different languages. I take handfuls of each and decide to go hand them out.

There are two giant tents set up, which is where everyone has piled in to sleep on the floor. I start walking around, showing the map. I try to explain what is happening and where we are. I walk around and hand out booklets, too. “Arabic? Farsi? Arabic. Ok. You’re welcome.”

 one of the big tents, when people first started arriving

one of the big tents, when people first started arriving

This is my favorite part, because I can sit down next to people and give them helpful information. I can touch them on the arm and offer a smile. I hear crying babies and step over sleeping families and as soon as I start thinking I am blessedly interrupted with another problem to solve: “Excuse me? You have doctor? He has flu. Sick.” “Wet. Clothes wet.” “No food. Where food?”

While I’m handing out booklets, I’m stopped by three boys my age from Afghanistan who can speak some English. They say that Afghanistan is not safe, they cannot stay there, bombing and Daesh (ISIS.) They tell me it took them 23 days to come from Afghanistsn to Greece, and it was mostly on foot, so they are tired. They are amazed I have come all the way from the United States. They think the United States is the most powerful country in the world, the best one to live in. I feel ashamed and guilty and awful. I say, “The United States is nice sometimes. Sometimes they are not so nice.” The boys laugh. They call their friend and have him say hi to me on FaceTime. They talk to me for a really long time, and even though I’m just as engaged as them, they apologize a million times for “wasting my time.” I say you are not wasting my time. They say, “You are really very kind. People have not been so kind to us until now.”


A man from Iraq holding his baby takes a map from me and stands there while I try to explain it to him. His baby will not stop reaching for me and laughing and pulling my hair. I try to play with the baby while still explaining the map in broken English. The baby yanks my hair as hard as possible. I hold the baby’s hand. The man reaches for me and gestures to his friend and wants to take our photo. The baby pulls my hair again in time for the picture.
The woman I locked eyes with. The boy I hugged. The child I held. The gorgeous, unexpected blue eyes on some of the Syrians. The cold wet clothes. Hundreds of people on hard wooden floors. Pictures and moments flashing through my head nonstop.

The thing that kills me the most is how hopeful these people are. They have made it across the sea, risking their lives for some sort of freedom. Often, they want to take pictures and FaceTime and send things to people back home and show them that they made it! A girl with blonde hair! They are in Europe! And they are so excited and so grateful for everything.

But they do not realize that the rest of their journey will be so awful. That they still have to take the bus and wait and sleep in a shitty camp to get registered and then take a bus and a boat to Athens and then wait for maybe months and make their way to another country who has their borders open if that still exists and face extreme hatred and discrimination and what I want to know is how???? How? Thousands of people and where will they go? This woman with four little children, this woman who felt so unsafe where she was that she felt it safer to risk all of their lives in a plastic boat across the sea, how will she do it? How will she live?

How could I tell these three boys from Afghanistan, telling me that they are civil engineers and that them coming is good for Europe too because young boys can work hard, faces full of hope, how could I tell them, “Actually no, sorry, a lot of people I know are scared of young Muslim boys because they think they want to blow us all up.” ?????? How? Being one on one with these people makes that seem unbelievably ridiculous. These people that wait patiently in line for their turn. These people that are so grateful and just repeat “thank you thank you” because of some information and some rice. These people that let me hold their children. These people that laugh and smile so instantly. How could I ever say “people don’t like you. People don’t want you in our country.”
These are PEOPLE. People like you and me. People with hopes and dreams and a life to live. People who are forced to be stronger than we would ever want to have to be. They are not just “the refugees,” “the other.” They aren’t some group that is so different that they are impossible to understand. Different cultures, different language, doesn’t matter. They’re people.

I have never felt as entirely safe as I do in this country, surrounded by these people.

In America, I am hyperaware of my surroundings at all times. I am afraid when I walk down the street alone and a man calls to me. I am constantly worried about my safety, whether consciously or subconsciously.
And this idea I have had in my head of the people of the Middle East, the idea I’ve been raised with, is always “be careful, watch your passport, they want to rape you and steal your money and they do not care because they are raised to hate Americans.”

You know what? Fuck you.

I have never felt as safe as I feel on this island. I hitchhike everywhere and don’t care who picks me up. I spent all day long with refugees who have nothing and nobody even came near the pack I had around my waist. Nobody gave me inappropriate stares or looks (unlike the US.) Every single person I met has been extremely respectful of me, my personal space, and requesting to take up some of my time. The fact that it’s dangerous where they live doesn’t make them dangerous.

These people aren’t animals. They aren’t uncontrollable. They are people, and when you treat them with kindness and respect they treat you with the same. It requires a certain understanding, I think. The volunteers I’ve been working with have a really good understanding of people. It is constantly, “what phrasing makes people feel the most comfortable? How could this be taken the wrong way? How can I keep this entire really scary and confusing situation calm? How can I help them the most?”

As a Greek woman said to me the other day after I said I didn’t speak much Greek:

“it’s ok. Don’t have to speak same language. Speak language of the heart.”

Speak the language of the heart.