Refugees and the social contract: Why show gratitude for a system that abuses your rights?

Volunteer Words
November 5, 2020
4 min read
Tessa ven der Heijden

Tessa at the IHA Community Centre in Lagadikia (photo: IHA)

I come from a relatively small village in the Dutch countryside where there’s generally not much sympathy for displaced people. When I told people in my immediate surroundings about my plans to volunteer, the reactions I got were mostly of concern. Nobody really said it to my face, but I could also tell that they didn’t understand why I wanted to do it. To be honest, I have a hard time putting into words why I wanted to do it, but generally to better understand what was happening and make sense of everything I had heard about the so-called “refugee crisis”, to rebel against the notion that it was dangerous, and to show the people we work with that not everyone in Europe is against them.

I’m happy that I decided to volunteer; my time here has been eye-opening. Although I can understand to some extent why the people around me were concerned (we’ve all heard the stories on the news), the reality on the ground is very different. No matter what the news tells you, the people that I interact with here on a day-to-day basis aren’t in any way dangerous human beings. They are like you and me, with hopes, dreams and families. They have kids who they want to give a better life, and they want to be safe, healthy and happy. That doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for.

You also have to remember that when the news shows you aggression and protests happening that there is a reason behind that violence. It has nothing to do with them being more inclined to showcase aggressive behaviour. Trevor Noah’s sentiment on the Black Lives Matter protests in the US earlier this year also rings true in the context of Europe’s disregard for refugee rights and dignity. Noah argues that society is a contract in which we agree on common rules, ideals and practices that define us as a group. But what vested interest do refugees have in maintaining that contract when we treat fellow human beings the way we treat refugees fleeing war and persecution? Why should they display gratitude for a system that is actively abusing their rights, where they are made to wait for years with no end in sight, all the while living in conditions that you wouldn’t wish on an animal. Riots in camps and the fire in Moria in September are a reaction to years of hopelessness, frustration and feeling completely abandoned by society as a whole.

We as a society have become so desensitized that we expect them to be grateful for providing ‘safe spaces’ such as Moria and are insulted when we get called out on the obvious human rights violations going on in camps all over Europe. We pretend that we would be okay with being trapped in such a place if the roles were reversed, just to get a point across. No one deserves to live with the hopelessness of not knowing what the next day will bring, if they will still have a place to stay or if tomorrow could be the day that they will be deported back to the country they fled from. The countries we tell them are ‘technically’ safe to return to, ignorant to the part our own nations have played in the violence, war and corruption that plagues these places, and overlooking the persecution, violence, severe deprivation and environmental disasters that drove them to leave their lives behind and make the dangerous journey to Europe.

The necessity and importance of small grassroots organizations in countries such as Greece should not be underestimated. It gives refugees a place of belonging, provides access to services they are denied elsewhere, and restores dignity in otherwise inhumane circumstances. During the week, at Lagadikia community centre, we offer English and Greek classes which, together with our info hub – an initiative supporting people to find employment and connecting them with vital information – contribute to more sustainable and longer-term solutions to the difficulties refugees face trying to integrate into Greek society. Sundays at the centre are dedicated to the women of Lagadikia camp. They can drop their kids off at the child-friendly space and sing and laugh together, do some much needed self-care, a craft, or simply drink a cup of tea or coffee in peace. Above all, the centre offers a safe and welcoming space to relax, play games, and participate in activities, which is open to both camp residents and locals.

However, organizations such as IHA cannot fulfill their crucial role without private donations and dedicated volunteers (learn more). Even if you don’t have the time or money to support us, you can still help tremendously by raising awareness and talking with your friends and family about the treatment of refugees in Greece and all over the world. Let’s use our voices to speak for what’s right, and to end the inhumane treatment of our fellow human beings in Europe.

The IHA team in Lagadikia (photo: IHA)

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