Day 1: Excitement

Today I arrived at one of the refugee camps near Thessaloniki, Greece, with excitement and a bit of fear.

The place is an old empty factory on the outskirts of the city. More than 150 families (mostly Syrians and some Iraqis) live there. But in spite of the number, the place feels soulless. After all it’s a factory not a big house.

After all….the people who live there do not seem to have enough motive to fill it with life. I haven’t talked to a lot of ‘residents’, but I have ran into some children randomly as they were playing. Today was mostly an introduction for new volunteers.

I arrived at the camp with 3 other people I was meeting for the first time, all of them in their 60s or 70s. Neda from Croatia and Yugoslavia , Sindie and Robert from the US. Robert and Neda are married. Robert is a surgeon and Neda teaches linguistics. Neda lived in a refugee camp as a child. Her father was a political prisoner. She hasn’t said much about it and I thought it wasn’t nice to ask all that when we only just met.

A large part of the introduction was about trauma, managing trauma. Trauma is a psychological scar that may never go away. People can cope with it but may not go back to who they were before. Of course most of the residents here are traumatized. They may not know it. They may act like their emotions are in the freezer.

Children too, children especially, are traumatized. It appears in different forms on different people. They can cry all of sudden, get aggressive all of a sudden, change mood all of a sudden. You may never know what triggers the trauma. For some people it could be a picture or piece of news. It doesn’t have to be something “negative” in the typical sense that triggers their trauma. And sometimes it can be as random as the smell of grilled meat that awakens the trauma, for it can remind them of how many neighbors and beloved ones they smelled their bodies burning!

They also warned us about having the trauma transmitted to us. The rule says “do not harm”. Well, this is not a situation of Emergency, but more like a transition from the state of emergency they’ve been through to a state of transit in pursuit and preparation of the next step -settlement. In this very situation, we are called the first respondents. In more emergent situations, first respondents can be fire fighters and doctors. In this situation, our role is much less important than those during the accrual disaster is happening, but this is rule of thumb -do not harm. As first respondents, while we should listen well, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be traumatized too. If we get too affected, we can mess up at a later point.

I thought “but I’m Egyptian, I am not like a fragile kid… It is not like I have not seen shit before. I certainly can handle this”. The guy who was introducing it felt it. He then resumed warning: “If you’ve been traumatized before, you’re more vulnerable than someone who has never been. You are more fragile when you might think the opposite”.

If you want to break down a support system during a time of disaster, you target first respondents. And this is why for example Al Assad’s regime targets hospitals and shelters of first respondents. This is how it can paralyze and cut the circuit.

I am having inner conflict that I can’t forgive but can’t transcend. When I came here, I found no tents. Refugee families stay in rooms behind closed doors. Many of them have lost a member or two back home or on the way. Sad… But the place is quite in a good shape and is ran well by volunteers. Soulless but ran well in terms of daily operations and stuff. But no tents? I was looking for a more sense of emergency. But wait….

Why do I underestimate the struggle of those people just because they don’t live in tents? Why has it become the default that I expect to see them in tents? Because they’re refugees? When did it become so fucked up to this extent? Is it because I wanted to feel my self-worth? Fuck it.

Those people left their homes and past lives, are putting their feelings in a freezer so they can function and worry about the mundane daily things. On one hand, they’re luckier they’ve survived. Most of them have family members in Europe waiting to be invited to join them. So they’re luckier than those who didn’t make it at all, or those who don’t have a family member waiting for them. But they, still, have been through a lot that no one should ever go through. This inner conflict of mine was not okay to happen but it happened and is a result of ugly reality.

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