“Ah, poor things”: The mistake you must never make with refugees

The first time I ever saw a concrete and barbed wire border was this summer. I was trying to make my way into Greece from Albania by land and being a citizen of an EU country didn’t save me an hour and a half of strict migratory control, which included the temporary disappearance of my passport in the hands of the authorities and the inspection of my backpack. I couldn’t take my eyes off those blades, wondering what that process would be like for someone whose homeland was located in the Middle East, as the ramshackle bus I was travelling in entered the country which thousands of people try to reach every day, running away from horror.

I spent two weeks in City Plaza – a hotel in Athens that went bankrupt and was abandoned during the crisis, and which a group of activists brought back to life last April by cleaning, squatting and reopening it to give shelter to 400 refugees. I lived in this building during that time, sharing every day with people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Kurdistan, Iraq, Palestine and Pakistan.
I could never have guessed that, despite all the information I had on the refugee crisis and all the awareness I had worked on raising, I still fell into some clichés and small racist acts during my coexistence with these people. In fact, I think some of my slip-ups were caused, partially, by the way the western world articulates the topic of helping refugees. We mustn’t forget that two of the main pillars on which our countries were historically built are religion and imperialism, key factors that lead to charity – a very, very different concept from solidarity.

The first time I stumbled upon my own condescending racism was a few days after my arrival at City Plaza. I met a 24-year-old girl named Noor, from Syria. She was wearing a hijab and her eyes had a shy, smiling look. I sat down to speak with her and asked her what she wanted to do before she arrived here, to which she replied that she had just finished her degree in Mechanical Engineering. Her answer struck me.

It was me who had come to help her! Mechanical Engineering? A Syrian girl? Of my age?? I suddenly realised then the enormous condescension and ignorance I had held as I approached her. I already knew that many of the people who flee to Europe have prestigious studies and jobs (among other reasons, because they are the ones who can afford the boat passage from Turkey), but by taking the role of the helper, I had unconsciously put myself “over” them (which is also a pretty classist thought, because education is still no indication as to the worth of a person). As much of an activist as I was, I had fallen into the trap of acting in a charitable way, as opposed to embracing solidarity. This lesson was enough to eliminate the rest of my predispositions from my head and start observing the volunteers’ behaviours from a different perspective.

activities program for the kids living in the hotel, who didn’t have anything to do apart from running across the corridors and fighting over toys. We thought of ways to help them learn through drawing, playing and exercising, and we even started a film program every evening for them. Many people joined this initiative, but soon I started noticing that not everyone did it for the same reasons. While some treated the kids with pedagogical and respectful sympathy, I witnessed how many volunteers just came to hug them, kiss them, take pictures with them and then leave with a clean conscience – “Poor kids”, they’d say, as they would go back home without having made any contribution at all.

This paternalistic attitude turned kids, for a few minutes, into zoo animals, and it took all individuality away from them, as they became just a copy-paste concept taken out of that picture we’ve all seen in NGO campaigns, the helpless third-world child with tears in his eyes. And it makes sense, to some extent. It’s the prototype we all have in our minds, and these kids have obviously gone through unthinkable horrors at a very young age. However, when we turn them into contemplative objects, treating them with charity and not with solidarity, we situate them below us and identify them with their tragedy, instead of helping them overcome it. And we build, once again, a wall between us and them, the heroes and the poor things.

One of the most enlightening experiences I had as regards to humanizing refugees, which made me see them as individuals and not as a collective concept, was finding out that I didn’t like some of them. In the breakfast line there was a woman who would always try to cut the line and touch every piece of toast when she thought I wasn’t looking.

I really didn’t like her and I considered her to be very selfish. And when I discovered this feeling I felt somewhat guilty. How could I not like a refugee? She was a victim – I couldn’t just not like her. And yes, of course she was. They all are. But we are talking about two different things here. If tomorrow someone decides to bomb my neighbourhood, the guy who lives next door to me will be a victim too, and I will grieve in solidarity with him and we will help each other in that tragedy – but, as a person, I will still not like him. And that’s ok, because humanity and solidarity are above personal sympathies or antipathies.

Nasim, one of the coordinators at City Plaza, used to say that he is an activist, not a volunteer. To him, an activist is more than someone who just works for free, because she or he acts according to certain values of equality to build a better world. The first time I heard him say this I thought that maybe it didn’t make a big difference.

But it did. His message taught the same lesson I learned in my conversation with Noor: When we help a group of people struck by tragedy, it is very easy to let this experience boost our ego and come back home with the same racist concepts, only with a more paternalistic touch. Racism, just as sexism or homophobia, is deeply rooted in the collective thinking – and while aggressions and hate represent their biggest threats, condescension feeds and perpetuates these patterns. “That little black boy has such cute puffy hair!”, “I love gays, they are so funny”, “Ladies first” – these are still damaging concepts and are not helping anyone.

When society tells someone that they are worth less because of something they didn’t choose, the best thing we can do for them is to give them power on themselves – help them rise, show them that we are the same, that we have the same strength. We must stand by their side as companions, not over them as saviours. Because there is nothing as disempowering as “Ah, poor things”.