The narrative of the poor refugee and the narrative of the dangerous refugee are probably equally deeply anchored in society. According to Papadopoulos’ theory of confusing complexity, most people are not capable of comprehending the complexity of the stories and identities of people on the move. So we choose to view them either as victims or as perpetrators. But we only consider the former narrative as racist, even though both of them are fed by a feeling of superiority.

Here at OCC Greece –  as in my previous volunteering experiences –  I’m surrounded by people who want to do what they can to support asylum seeking people. And I can see that none of us is free from the narrative. I see Europeans treating community members and resident volunteers differently from ‘white people’, overemphazising cultural differences, expecting less from them than they would expect from any European, helping them with things they would never help a person with a different legal status with, or forgiving them for things they would never forgive a European for, and justifying bad behavior with presumed vulnerability, lack of education, or conservative religiosity.

The narrative of the poor refugee“…makes them believe they are helping people less intelligent or educated, hence those people don’t know what’s best for them, rather than understanding that they might be even more intelligent and educated than the helpers, and just are in a terrible war situation now. It combines people who are suffering from war into the box of being less civilised, rather than having multiple boxes within the box of ‘war victim’.”

Abode 1

All this is with good intention but that does not make it less condescending and patronizing. And it can have negative consequences for the people who receive this treatment. If you treat someone like a victim for long enough, eventually they will feel like a victim, like the ‘the poor refugee’. They will learn to be dependent on others and lose even more of their agency than they have already lost through their legal status. Of course, the legal status of the people we work with and the fact alone that they had to leave their home brings a certain vulnerability with it. But that is not an all-encompassing vulnerability. It does not entail weakness and helplessness. As much as we would like to help them in any way possible, we have to remember that they are capable. Some of them walked all the way from Afghanistan to Greece on their own. They had to make thousands of difficult decisions and go through so much bureaucracy in languages they don’t speak, but they succeeded. They are not helpless! If we really want to help, we have to connect to the “complexity, uniqueness and totality” of each person, see them as individuals, be their friends, and support them in the way they actually need to be supported.

In a way, OCC Greece is the best place to learn this. Volunteering here, you will be confronted with many people’s tragic stories and you will learn more and more about the pain some of the community members went through. But you will also learn about their resources, skills, resilience, and hopes. You will be confronted with the complexity of their stories daily and you will learn to see their identities more clearly than their ‘narrative passport’.

Many of the community members are our friends. We work with them and spend our free time with them. We connect with them as we would with any other person. We laugh with them and fight with them as we would with any other person. There are days where we completely forget that they are asylum seekers, that they have less freedom and power over their own lives than we do. And we only remember when they get a negative decision about their asylum process, or when they go to Thessaloniki to pick up their passports, or when they leave to finally move on to their country of destination. 

Forgetting that they are asylum seekers is the best thing we can do because it makes us treat them like anyone else at least until a situation occurs in which they need help as an asylum seeking person. To say it with the words of our site coordinator Alexis: 

“The most important thing OCC Greece does is not teaching people English, it is treating them like people rather than refugees.”

Alexis

And if you still have doubts about how to approach the community members when you come here, just remember Abode’s advice:

“Ask for what help is needed, rather than deciding what help is needed!”

Abode

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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