This week, the people of Syria have again made the front pages of the news as President Bashar al -Assad continues to exert his control via military force and now chemical weapons. For most Americans, the discussion about these individuals is abstract as we don’t live next door to them. Their needs don’t impact our daily lives or finances. We view their stories in the newspaper but they are invisible in most of our schools or churches. Americans can debate whether the United States should become militarily involved in the Syrian civil war or whether we should continue to accept immigrants that have become displaced by the conflict. But what happens when you live in a country where those refugees come from just a few miles away and aren’t allowed to integrate into their new communities?
If you are a citizen of Greece, refugees are your daily reality. The Greek island of Kos is only separated from Turkey by 2.5 miles of the Aegean Sea. Migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and parts of Africa arrive on the shores of this island daily during the summer when the ocean waters are calm. 125,000 refugees have been relocated to camps in Athens and other Greek islands. Greek citizens cannot escape seeing, hearing and discussing refugee issues as the burden of caring for these people affects their daily lives.
I recently had the pleasure to interview two Minnesotans who have volunteered to work in Greek refugee centers and been witness to some of these difficulties first hand. Dr Dave Dvorak and Rachel Hovland, RN, have spent 2-3 weeks working in medical and construction projects on Samos Island and in Athens. They shared many of the same observations:
- Syrian men, often highly educated and previously holding middle-income jobs in Syria, exhibit a senses of hopelessness, depression, uselessness, boredom and anxiety. Women continue with their daily housework and childcare activities and tend to fare better psychologically.
- Housing is provided in many different forms. Before coming in contact with aide groups, refugees may only have makeshift tents. Some previously abandoned buildings that were part of the Olympic venue now house 200-400 people per building and separates the women and children from the men and older boys. This tends to exacerbate the problems listed in #1. Women care for each other and create a community structure within their building. Young men become angry and frustrated and often demonstrate and riot.
- Providing medical care/contraception to women can be challenging as husbands don’t want their wives to use birth control and their culture isolates them from healthcare provided by male health care workers.
- Many of the refugees have used up their entire savings to leave Syria as they are charged $750-1000 euros per person for boat passage. They have seen their family members killed and their homes destroyed and realize that they don’t have a country to return to even if the conflict is resolved. They will always be Syrians who live outside of Syria.
- Everyone is waiting for travel papers to get somewhere else in Europe while realizing that they will be moving away from other Syrians and their only remaining support system. Most of them will be taking jobs that are much below their educational levels and having to learn a new language.
- The children are the element that help to elevate the mood of adults as they play and live in the moment. More organized school classes are being arranged by outside aide groups, but the children are quickly falling behind in their studies and soon must learn a new language with their move beyond Greece.
- The surrounding Greek community, initially resistant and fearful of the refugees, has gradually become more accepting as the refugees spend their monthly food dollars in the markets and are seen as customers.
I cannot even imagine the horror experienced by Syrian refugees as they have watched the events unfold over the past week. Their neighbors and remaining relatives may have been involved in the chemical weapons attack or may be in the cross-hairs of retaliatory American military strikes. While worrying about the remaining Syrians in their homeland, they are barraged with headlines as to what the outside world thinks of their country and whether it is necessary to intervene. There are no simple answers but the problem is more than just about ruling a land – it is about the people who have called this land home.