How to see invisible people.
In Europe, tens of thousands of displaced people are arriving each month. And in the United States, displaced people from Latin America continue to flow across a porous southern border. I witnessed the European migrant crisis firsthand. During the winter of 2015-16, I spent close to six weeks in Greece as a Fulbright Specialist. I was supported by the Fulbright Foundation in Greece, and was assigned to assist the municipality of Athens with its programming to address the daily flow of thousands of people into their city. Refugees (who are fleeing from war or other life-threatening danger) and migrants (who are not fleeing danger, but seeking a better life) were accumulating on city squares.
I spent most of my time in Athens but, on a weekend, took a ferry to Lesvos, the Greek island furthest east in the Aegean Sea, some 3 1/2 miles from Turkey. I also spent time in the Port of Piraeus, the largest Greek seaport in the Mediterranean Sea basin. Both places were entry points for thousands of traumatized, displaced people. I saw volunteers in each place from all over the world trying to help reduce these people's suffering.
Two people I met in the Port of Piraeus stick out in my mind. One showed me the true grit of these displaced people. The other showed me the heart of Europe.
Abdul is about 18. He and I picked up trash--the kind that accumulates when you have tens of thousands of human beings staying temporarily, laying on scraps of cardboard, discarding peels from fruit that accompanied soup, and disposing of diapers and other items without adequate trash cans. There was a lot of trash. Abdul walked near me for hours filling bag after bag. He told me his story. He and his family are from Horns, Syria. They saw horrific death and destruction. They spent a lot of time in basements during heavy bombing. They fled and ended up in a refugee camp in Turkey. From there, they were smuggled to Lesvos in a dangerously overcrowded, inflatable boat. They stayed in a camp on the island for two days. Then they came via ferry to the Port Piraeus.
Abdul had not been able to finish high school. He studied German and was hoping he and his family could make it to Germany, where he eventually wants to go to college. When I looked into his eyes, I could see trauma, but I could also see hope. When I saw how hard he worked, I saw true grit. I saw determination, a young man ready to sacrifice for the future. A young man who, I have no doubt, will help put bread on his family's table, probably in Germany. A young man who will be an asset to the European economy.
The other person who sticks out in my mind, Elizabeth, had flown into Athens from London that morning. She is a social worker there but chose to spend her weekend at what was arguably the hottest hotspot of the migrant crisis in Europe. There were no organizations working at the port when I arrived. There were three women wearing fluorescent orange vests, however, who looked official. One was Elizabeth. She is who asked us to pick up trash--a task that sorely needed to be done.
As we worked, the generous people of Athens--remember, many of them don't have jobs and Greece is in a deep recession--kept dropping off food. As the food mounted, Elizabeth asked us to move clothes from the cooking area to accommodate the accumulating bags of rice and beans, bread, boxes of fruit, and vegetables for soup. After we moved the clothes to an area behind the building, a Greek woman scolded Elizabeth, saying it was criminal to put donated clothes where they will get dirty or wet. Elizabeth did not seem offended, however. She spoke kindly back to the woman who had just yelled at her.
That's how Elizabeth showed me the heart of Europe, the essence of the so-called European experiment in which borders matter less than solidarity. Where relations stay calm despite the messiness of difficult situations. Of course, in the news, the British vote to leave the European Union has made the European experiment seem tenuous. But Abdul's determination and hope are not tenuous. Elizabeth's compassion and calmness amidst emotional and physical messiness are not tenuous.
I was touched deeply by Abdul and Elizabeth, and I was haunted by a question later that week. It was asked during a meeting with many of the mayor's staff. We were discussing what should be in a proposal to the European Commission for a grant to help the refugees. There was a difference of opinion about whether the proposal should also include funding to assist the migrants. People who were, technically speaking, in Athens illegally--labeled irregular migrants. There is a notion that these people will eventually be sent home. But everyone sitting at the table knew how unlikely that is.
While I was in Athens, the Greek government tried to send back fifteen Pakistanis. When they landed at the airport in Islamabad, the Pakistanis only let four of their own people back into the country. They sent eleven back. Why? Nobody really knew, but one explanation is that having Pakistanis living abroad (assuming they get jobs) can result in money being sent to their loved ones back home, which would benefit the Pakistani economy.
So the migrants who fled to Europe via Greece are, for all practical purposes, stuck. Even if they are fleeing oppression, if they did not originate from a war zone, they are in Europe illegally. Refugees fleeing war, in contrast, can travel north where jobs are plentiful (as long as they are registered with the authorities).
From top, left to right: Photos provided by Joseph Bock--A lifeguard truck on the Greek island of Lesvos; A boy stands in a temporary camp on the Greek island of Lesvos; Migrants and refugees waiting in line for food at Caritas, a charity of the Catholic Church, in Athens; Refugees and migrants wait in line to board a ferry from Lesvos to the port in Athens; Artemis Zenetou, executive director of the Fulbright Foundation in Greece, and Joseph Bock. Fulbright underwrote Bock's work with the migration crisis in Greece.
One of the mayor's senior advisers kept saying the most likely scenario is that the refugees will leave Greece while the migrants will stay. The migrants will be, and were being, turned back at the border with Macedonia. So, he argued --and I agreed with him--that we needed to design programs that will help the migrants. The only refugees likely to stay in Greece are older people not seeking jobs, we pointed out.
The rest of the staff said they couldn't propose programs for migrants who are in Greece illegally. They insisted the focus be on refugees. They did not warm up to the idea of pursuing a grant for refugees (officially) that could also benefit migrants (unofficially). My ally, the senior adviser, looked exasperated. And he looked sad. Then he asked this haunting question: "But what about the invisible people?. The invisible people will be here. The longer we ignore them, the worse the city's problems will be."
Irregular migrants will struggle for survival in Greece, unless they are deported to Turkey under a European Union-negotiated deal. But many of them will operate on the margins for years in the shadows of Athens--washing windshields, picking through trash, lying on cardboard in a city square, desperately turning to prostitution.
Each of us has invisible people in our midst--a disaffected worker, a homeless veteran, a student contemplating suicide, a child who can't figure out how to fit in, and, yes, a migrant. Will we see them?
We are called to be determined, filled with hope, like Abdul, and to be compassionate and calm, like Elizabeth. We are called to open our eyes and see invisible people.
JOSEPH G. BOCK (University of Missouri), is director of the Ph.D. program in International Conflict Management at Kennesaw State University. He also has served on the faculty of University of Notre Dame, the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, Eastern Mennonite University, Hebrew University, and William Jewell College. He has been a Fulbright Specialist in both Malta and Greece. He has twelve years of international humanitarian experience with both Catholic Relief Services and American Refugee Committee. His most recent book, The Technology of Nonviolence: Social Media and Violence Prevention, was published by MIT Press in 20
Migrant: (n) someone who is not fleeing danger but who is seeking a better life. It covers all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of'personal convenience' and without intervention ofan external compellingfactor.
Refugee: (n) someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, he or she cannot return home or is afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal, and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.
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|Author:||G. Bock, Joseph|
|Publication:||Phi Kappa Phi Forum|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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