In the last two articles of the series ‘The Narrative of the poor Refugee’ we tried to understand how the narrative is constructed. There were different assumptions by different people, ranging from the one-sided representation by the media and a lack of education to a psychological theory that assumes that the complexity of displaced people’s situations are too complex for us to comprehend, so we choose either to see them as perpetrators or as victims. The people who choose to see them as victims are so overwhelmed by the adversity they are confronted with that they are unable to see other facets of people’s stories, experiences, and personalities. They forget to consider people’s resilience, skills, and capabilities. Instead they concentrate merely on the suffering, violence, poverty, oppression, and lack of freedom and opportunities they were affected by. It is most likely a combination of all these factors that constructs the narrative of the poor refugee in our minds – confusing complexity, a lack of education, oversimplifying media representation, western arrogance, and white guilt. But what can we do to change this narrative in our own minds and in society?

From an academic perspective the solution to the narrative of the poor refugee is ‘discerning complexity’. 

“‘Discerning complexity’ means appreciation that reality includes both polarised positions, and much more.”

Renos Papadopoulos

This requires the people who want to support asylum seeking people to overcome their confusion around the complexity of the circumstances of people on the move, the situations in their countries of origin, their experiences on their journey, and their current situation. Even though we might be overwhelmed by the suffering that causes us to help newcomers to our society, we have to recognize that the people who come here are individuals who have unique experiences. We have to consider their strengths, resilience, skills, resources, and capability just as much as the tragedies they went through. 

“Despite being exposed to the most devastating nature of the events, not everybody is crushed by them. In fact, the majority of individuals do not require professional attention because a great deal of their healthy functioning remains intact and unaffected by the devastation; that is, it does not change – either negatively or positively.”

Renos Papadopoulos

But how can this change be implemented in wider society? One way is a multifaceted representation of the people and their cultures. Europeans can only see what they are shown. Only if different facets of a faraway country are represented, can we appreciate the complexity of reality. OCC – like many other organizations that offer services to people on the move – is trying to do their part in starting a change of the narrative. While we do not provide widely consumed news and have the power to confront a big portion of the European population with the complexity of reality, we try to implement a change of thinking in our followers. As part of an Erasmus+ project, we developed a guide on ‘Constructive Communication about Migration’. Following our research, we try to tell authentic stories, represent their complexity and give migrant people the opportunity to tell their own stories. Additionally, we try to use a hope-based approach in our communication and avoid words that highlight the vulnerability of our community members.

Abode – who has written and directed several movies – is currently working on a documentary about his own experience crossing the Mediterranean sea. This part of the journey of many people on the move is presented as particularly dangerous and horrible. And for many people that is certainly the case. However, it is not the case for everyone who crosses the Mediterranean. Abode tells me that he and the people he was with had “the time of their lives” on the boat. 

“I want to tell the story with actual truth, rather than with a narrative of poor, suffering refugees. It’s hard to say what message it will have for the audience. However, I can say that the aim is to present the upside of being smuggled, the positive end results that are never shown in the media. The media changing the story angles is the most important factor to create change. But I would say, government or private local efforts, unrelated to the media, can also create change.”

Abode 1

Abode suggests that it is important to start a public discourse about locals’ expectations towards newcomers. While at the moment newcomers are expected to fully adjust to the local culture and customs, he would like the locals to adjust to the people who try to include into society to a certain extent. There should be a compromise between society and the people who want to become part of it.

The overwhelmingness and confusion of the complexity can probably not fully be avoided. But I believe that people’s ability to understand complexities without being overwhelmed as easily can be trained through education. A multifaceted education from an early age is necessary to create awareness of the complexity of reality. So what we need is a change in society’s thinking about ourselves and others caused by political decisions and a change of media representation. 

Sounds like a long process… But everyone of us can do some steps by ourselves.

In the next, and final, article of this series, we will reflect on what these steps can look like. 

Sources:

Papadopoulos, R.( 2007). Refugees, Trauma, and Adversity-Activated-Development. European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, 9 (3). Routledge Taylor and Francis Group

Papadopoulos, R.K. (2022). Therapeutic Complexity. In Maloney, C., Nelki, J. and Summers, A. (Eds.) Seeking Asylum and Mental Health. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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