As a person who has been working with people who seek asylum  in different countries for a long time, I have seen different people interact with migrant people in different ways. One thing that I noticed more and more, is that there are mainly two ways in which Europeans typically interact with asylum seekers, both quite extreme. Firstly, of course, there are the racists who disregard the fact that people come here because the living conditions in their countries of origin are intolerable and who view them as a threat to their safety or economic well-being. On the other side, there are people who are in favour of immigration and who want to help newcomers to our society. They often decide to volunteer in their own or other countries, or aim for careers working with migrant people. As a volunteer at many different NGOs and initiatives who work with migrants, obviously, I am one of the latter and I have met many people who are part of that same group. And while I’m generally happy about every person who wants to support asylum seeking people, I have seen many behaviors that I believe to be based on a refugee narrative that is not much more dignified than the narrative that racists have. It is the ‘narrative of the poor refugee’, according to which migrant people are religious, conservative, uneducated, poor and helpless victims of their circumstances. I hoped that this was only my personal perception of things, so I asked some people who are affected by this narrative about their experiences.

Abode 1 is from Syria but he spent a big part of his childhood in England. He left Syria in the early stages of the civil war and is now a citizen of Sweden, where he works for a Swedish state institution. 

Abode agrees that there are two typical attitudes towards asylum seekers: 

“The two most common ways of being treated are either badly, because you are less. Or you get treated with sympathy. While this might sound kind, in some cases it’s quite annoying, as it puts you in the box of being uneducated, or dumb, or weak, or sexist, and so on. The third option is just being treated normally, which almost never happens.”

Abode

Abode was lucky, as he had very few experiences in which people treated him badly. But he tells me that he has a lot of experience being treated as ‘the poor refugee’. When he first came to Sweden, he had appointments with social workers who were supposed to support him in building the life he wanted to live in Sweden. Besides having written and directed several movies – one of which was awarded the best amateur film of the Arab world that year – Abode had studied medicine in Syria and almost finished his degree. He expressed to the social workers that he would like to finish his degree in Sweden. But the social workers didn’t know of any way he could do that. So Abode told them that alternatively he would like to follow a career in filmmaking. In the end – all these appointments led to was that Abode was signed up for a six weeks long workshop on how to write a CV. Upset about this, he called a friend who left Syria to come to Europe as well. The friend started to laugh and said: 

“You’re a monkey who speaks English. But to them you’re still a monkey.” 

Abode

He tells me another story that happened just shortly after this. He signed up for a buddy program in which asylum seeking people were paired with a Swedish person as a first step for them to be included in society. Abode was matched with a young couple. When they first met him, they spoke to him in broken English and it was apparent that they expected a conservative, uneducated, ‘poor refugee’ who needed their help finding his way in Sweden. When Abode turned out to be highly educated, speaking English as a first language, and being skilled enough to easily find a job in different fields, they never met with him again. He contacted them, but they did not show any interest in meeting again.

 “…as if refugees have no worth once they are no longer suffering.”

Abode

In my experience, Europeans tend to associate the term refugee with the Middle East, ignoring the fact that people from many other parts of the world apply for asylum in Europe. ‘Refugees’ – in the minds of many Europeans – are young men from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. These countries are perceived as poor and underdeveloped, and often as conservative and religious. While some of these assumptions – depending on what definition is applied to these words – might not be untrue, this does not mean that all the people who come from those countries are, as well, poor, uneducated, conservative, and religious. 

Varun is Kurdish and from Iraq. He has been living here in Greece for about five months, which he spent volunteering with OCC Greece. Pepper, from Afghanistan, came to Greece with his family when he was still a teenager, seven years ago. He went to school in Greece, which gave him the chance to be included in Greek society more. After finishing school, he started volunteering with OCC Greece, while waiting for the necessary paperwork for him and his family to move to Germany. I asked them about their thoughts and experiences interacting with people who dedicate their time supporting newcomers to European countries.

Pepper and Varun agreed that this narrative is attached to the term refugee. 

“People think that if you come from countries like Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria you must be poor. Because they are poor countries. And you probably had nothing going on in your life. You had no education, no money, no job. But how do they think we came to this country? People had a life back in their country. They had a place to stay. They had cars. They had a job. They had money. But they spent everything to get here. Now they don’t have money. But economical reasons were not the reasons why we came to this country. It was safety. It was security.”

Pepper

While Pepper is quite upset about the fact that people assume migrant people are poor, he does not disagree as strongly with the assumption that many people from the Middle East are conservative – at least when defining the word from a European point of view. Him and Varun tell me a couple of stories, in which other community members expected them to follow certain rules that were generally upheld in their countries of origin under the premise that they were rules of Islam. Talking about OCC Greece’s dress code for female volunteers, Pepper says: 

“People in our countries didn’t have the same freedom that we have here. They had to follow certain rules, a dress code. The women, especially, were not allowed to do and wear certain things. A woman’s eyes, nose, or even their nails cannot be seen. So, for these people coming here and seeing women without hijab, I don’t think they can really handle it.” 

Pepper

“When I say that I’m from Afghanistan, people immediately assume I’m a Muslim.” 

Varun

However, the two make it very clear that this does not mean that the assumption that refugees are religious is true. Pepper tells me that he is in fact not a practising Muslim and Varun, being Kurdish, does not even come from a Muslim community. And yet, Europeans tend to associate the Middle East and everyone from there with a conservative Islam. With this comes the assumption that people who seek asylum  are uneducated.

“Some people assume that you’re not smart enough to understand the simplest things. And they keep repeating, oversimplifying, overexplaining everything. For example, taking the bus to Thessaloniki. I’ve had people explaining this to me for like five minutes, despite the fact that I told them that I know. I’ve lived here for years.”

Pepper

That said, Pepper stresses that examples like these are rare instances and not a daily occurance. Nevertheless, my conversations with the three of them did confirm my supposition that even the nicest people who invest a lot of time and money into helping people from the migrant community, are not free of prejudice towards them. We are all affected by the narrative of the poor refugee. And sometimes it is the most apparent because we want to help. 

But where does this narrative come from? And how can we overcome it and still support migrant people? We will reflect on that in the following articles about the narrative of the poor refugee. 

  1. The names of the informants have been changed to nicknames, chosen by themselves. ↩︎

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