ARC Team Shares What They’ve Heard From Refugees
In honor of World Refugee Day, we shared conversations we had with four of our team members who traveled across the globe to speak to refugees who are living in the reality of the Global Refugee Crisis.
The following is an excerpt from a conversation ARC President Daniel Wordsworth had with Tharangi Cumaranatunge, who visited refugees in Turkey. Tharangi is the Finance Controller at ARC and is based in Minneapolis.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned on this trip?
A: I was surprised at the contrasting lenses with which I saw this crisis unraveling. I didn’t anticipate the empathy and admiration that I would feel for host communities in Turkey who are trying to do the right thing by everyone. For example, we met a Turkish man in a seaside town called Bodrum whose livelihood in tourism had been badly affected by the crisis. Despite his reservations, he felt a deep empathy toward refugees and the struggles they’re going through. He, and other Turkish people we met, were stepping up and embracing the idea that regardless of the political complications, these are human beings going through great suffering, and that we can and should do what we can to help them. They were acutely aware that they were witness to something unprecedented, and how they responded in this moment in time would define their own humanity. I felt for this man and his community, and admired his resolution to retain his compassion for others. This is a complicated situation for everyone involved with often conflicting viewpoints. But, it’s less complicated if you see refugees as mothers, daughters, sisters, brothers, as people with stories of their own.
Q: Who was the most inspiring person that you met? Why?
A: Probably the most inspiring person I met in Turkey was a young Syrian named Mahmoud, whose resilience and courage was amazing. He’s the kind of guy who could make it anywhere. Mahmoud is the oldest of eight children – five of his siblings are with him in Turkey, and his two youngest siblings, are still with his parents, stuck inside Syria. He told me that he wakes up every morning gripped with fear of what might happen to his folks back in Syria. He is not frightened for himself he tells me. He’s tried to make it to Greece seven times by boat, each journey a treacherous one that has almost cost him his life. He persists because he feels responsible for his family, for helping them to survive. He has embraced his present life in Turkey and is busy making a living to support his family and is also actively involved with an organization that supports Syrian refugee families in Turkey, spreading hope for the future and extending goodwill to all those he comes across. He has figured out how to overcome disappointment and fear and to rise above it all, by serving others who’s needs are greater than his own. In this way he has made a life for himself. Despite all the uncertainties that the future holds, he gets back on his feet – for his family – time and time again.
Q: Assuming no barriers, if you could do or change one thing for the refugees you met, what would it be and why?
A: People feel like their voices are lost – like they’re part of a nameless crowd, not individuals. Like they’re just a number. I couldn’t help thinking, how might we change that? I would love to create a way where the abundance of people who want to help – like the Turkish people we met, the international volunteers, and the global community at large – could get connected on an individual, people to people basis to help those who need it most. The child, the sister, the brother – their needs are different, so it’s difficult to have one blanket approach. In a perfect world, I would create a smart and effective way to retain the individualism and humanness of each person and still connect people in a meaningful way.
The following is an excerpt from a conversation between ARC President Daniel Wordsworth and Reem Khamis, who was a part of a team that visited Greece and met with refugees in and around Athens. Reem is ARC’s Protection Technical Advisor, based at our headquarters in Minneapolis.
Q: What is it like to be a refugee in Greece? What are the obstacles that people face?
A: Refugees had high hopes that as soon as they reach Greece, a member of the EU, their suffering will end and they’ll be able to start a new life. The refugees we met were unanimously disappointed in how things turned out for them in Greece. “We didn’t expect to live this life in Europe” is something refugees told us quite often.
Refugees are currently hosted in transit sites across Greece with very poor humanitarian standards. In one of the refugee sites we visited, which used to be a military camp located in the middle of a forest, refugees were very afraid of snakes and wild pigs, both of which have been seen in the camp.
Q: If you could do or change one thing today for the refugees that you met, what would it be?
A: Refugees lack information about their status in Greece. There is much confusion around how long they will be staying in a specific transit site or in the country in general, what prospects they have in obtaining refugee status in Greece, or their ability to further continue their journey to Germany or Sweden.
If there is one thing I could change for refugees in Greece today, I would make sure that they have access to accurate, precise, and comprehensive information about their rights and options – whether it is seeking asylum in Greece, returning to their countries of origin, or being resettled in other European countries. I would also make sure that such information is provided in all refugee spoken languages including Arabic, Farsi and Urdu.
Q: How are Greeks dealing with the crisis? What kinds of responses did you see?
A: We had the chance to work closely with an amazing national Greek organization as well as different groups of international volunteers who were highly driven and motivated to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to refugees. Most of these individuals were responding to the needs of refugees alone, had no previous experience, and were introduced by ARC to international humanitarian principles for the first time.
The following is an excerpt from a conversation Daniel Wordsworth had with Curt Rhodes, who traveled to Germany, Greece, and Turkey. Curt is the Founder and International Director of Quetscope, ARC’s partner organization in the Middle East. ARC and Questscope underwent an official merger in 2015.
Q: How would you describe what you saw on this trip?
A: Shattered is the only way I can find to describe it – shattered communities, families, and relationships. The most overwhelming casualty for people forced to become refugees is to find themselves suddenly as survivors with everything familiar ripped away. Everything gone. Changed. Total dependence on others for food, water, shelter, safety. No choices. No friends. The shock of the gut-wrenching loss of relationships is absolutely devastating. Visible effects – homelessness, friendlessness, hunger – are compounded by invisible effects – fear, helplessness, emotions – that tear at their very sense of feeling that they are human beings.
Q: How did your past experiences with Syrians affect the goals of this trip?
A: I have a long history of relationships in Syria dating back to 1982. And now, hundreds of these friends are scattered across the globe. My goal was to be with them, to pick up relationship threads, and assure them that they are not forgotten. We believe in them, even if they find it hard to believe in themselves. As an organization, we’re in a unique position at this time. We did not appear only in this crisis – we have been there all along. And we want to be part of reweaving the relationship fabric that will sustain Syrians in the uncertain futures each of them face.
Q:Was there anything you saw or experienced that inspired hope?
A: In this crisis, there are countless tragic stories. But there are also countless individuals in whom we can invest. For example, we met with the most delightful Syrian refugee (a PhD from MIT) with whom we hope to design educational programs for the tens of thousands of Syrian refugee children and youth who will have no education otherwise. We’ve been connecting with so many individuals and groups like this. People who want to make sure everyone has water, food, and medicine. People who want to give special attention to women, girls, and boys who have lost all means of support. The more we can give support to these people and work alongside Syrians trying to rebuild – the more hopeful their future becomes.
The following is an excerpt from a conversation between ARC President Daniel Wordsworth and Stacy Barnes, who traveled with ARC to Jordan. Stacy is a human centered designer who consulted with American Refugee Committee, helping us shape the questions we asked, and understand what we might do with the answers we received.
Q: Can you tell us about a certain individual, story, or something that you saw that particularly moved you?
A: On one trip to Jordan I visited a man whose family had experienced extreme terror and suffering. Yet, I was incredibly moved that he insisted upon only engaging in positive uplifting conversation. Not because he didn’t want or need someone to hear his story but because we were his guests and with guests you talk about happy things and make sure they enjoy their visit. He and his family were dressed in their best clothes and offered us glass after glass of special tea reserved for honorable guests. He wanted nothing from us but to been seen and remembered as proud, upstanding citizens – not people to be pitied. He wanted us to remember his family as people filled with pride, care, and concern for others. I absolutely will.
Q: How has this experience changed the way you look at this crisis and your life back in the U.S.?
A: I have always believed people are people are people. Regardless of where you live or the background you come from there are fundamental truths that we all share. Talking with asylum seekers and refugees who had to leave their homes, their professions, and much of their identity behind, this truth has never been more clear. When faced with tragedy you need someone to feel with. When reduced to the memory of what used to be, you need a purpose to keep you going. And when you feel dependent on charity, you want the assurance and the ability to provide for yourself.
Q: What was the most inspiring thing you saw, or most inspiring person that you met?
A: I am inspired by the small things individuals use to make progress towards relief. A man offering to go to counseling with his wife, a woman who began a sewing business to make up the family income, a young girl finding a safe, trusted place to play outside of her home. These examples are achievable in the face of so many things that are not, and it’s inspiring to work with people to try and provide even more of those opportunities.