I listen to refugees and I hear my own story

The thoughts of a former European refugee on humanity, suffering, big NGOs and big failures.

A migrant reads a book outside his tent at the Souda municipality-run camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Chios
A refugee reads a book outside his tent at the Souda municipality-run refugee camp on the island of Chios on March 16 [Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]

On a cold Friday evening in February, I met Karima*, an Afghan physiotherapist, in Athens. We sat down in a cafe drinking tea and she told me about herself, her family and their ordeal as refugees in Greece.

She, her husband and their four children had arrived on a boat from Turkey to the Greek island of Samos 10 months earlier. They were accommodated in a small tent where they spent eight months, eating the same food – plain pasta for lunch and dinner, and croissant and juice in the morning for adults, and watery milk for the children. They had nothing to do but wait there.

For months, immigration officials collected evidence to verify that they are indeed in a vulnerable position and qualify for asylum.

They were eventually transferred to the mainland, where they realised that they had only escaped one nightmare to find themselves in another. They now live in a three-room apartment with 13 other people – three families in total. 

“It is still better than the camp,” Karima told me.

They recently started receiving monthly cash cards with which they buy food. “It is not enough”, she said. She explained that they still rely on donations from volunteers to meet other family needs. Big NGOs do not really help.

She is slowly losing hope that her living conditions will improve or that she will be able to leave Greece one day. “I am not that lucky,” she said. For now, the only thing Karima and her family can do is to sit and wait.

‘Listening to my own story’

For the past few months, I’ve heard many stories like hers. Every time I sit with refugees and I listen to them speak of their misery and hopelessness, I feel like I’m listening to my own story.

More than 20 years ago, I too was a refugee, fleeing the war in Bosnia. 

I hated, and still hate, every day of my life as a refugee. I lived in the basement of a house in Zagreb for several months. I was living there with three other girls, sisters, that I knew from Bosnia. The oldest one was 19 and the youngest 13 years old.

Just like me, they were sent away from Sarajevo by their parents who believed that they would be safer if they stayed far away from the war. Maybe we were safer, but as refugees in a foreign land, we were also lonely and afraid, so when we found each other, we decided to stay together.

READ MORE: Refugees in Greece – ‘We are living in a prison here’

As the days past, we found ways to take care of each other. We found ways to remember Sarajevo and our parents. We kept each other company, so we didn’t feel so alone. We found ways to not cry all the time.

But even when we were together, our lives as refugees were not simple. There were days when we were hungry, days we were afraid and most of the time we felt lost and desperate. Like refugees in Greece today, we were waiting.

We knew there was no one that we could rely on, since nobody really understood what it was like to be a refugee.


Surviving together

Back then the international community employed the same rhetoric on human rights and humane treatment of refugees that they do today. The same international organisations were pleading for funding to alleviate the “refugee crisis”.

But we, the refugees, saw no sign of human rights or humane treatment. We also did not receive anything  from the major international humanitarian players.

We survived by supporting each other.

When we needed food, advice on how to find a doctor, or just a little comfort, we turned to each other – because we didn’t have any other options.

Sometimes we were simply too afraid to ask people for help, but most times we did not know how to get help. We knew there was no one that we could rely on, since nobody really understood what it was like to be a refugee. This was the reality for many refugees that I knew back then.

After living as a refugee for a year and a half, I decided to go back to my hometown, Sarajevo, which was still under siege. I felt better living under siege than living in humiliation as a refugee.

Failing to make lives ‘bearable’

Today there’s a lot of talk from the international community on the Geneva Convention and there are many fund-raising campaigns for refugees by major international organisations. But European governments are not changing the way they mistreat refugees and international organisations are not actually providing any meaningful help on the ground.

Most of the 66,000 refugees and migrants in Greece have been living in inhuman conditions for more than two years. Meanwhile, the number of refugees in the country is increasing every day. According to UNHCR data, from January to mid-March, more than 3,300 new arrivals were registered in the country.

READ MORE: Are refugees in Europe facing a mental health crisis?

Different organisations and government entities spent billions, but the situation has not improved significantly. People are becoming desperate: The rate of suicide attempts and drug addiction among refugees has skyrocketed.

So far, Greece is the single biggest recipient of EU Home Affairs funding, with $1bn made available over two years in financial support. Greece has also received more than $330m from the UN’s Inter-Agency Appeal.

Part of the money has gone to big nongovernmental or intergovernmental organisations and part to the government institutions. But none of these organisations – according to volunteers and refugees – managed to do what is expected of them in order to make people’s lives bearable.

NGOs and the Greek government have traded blame over the worsening situation in the camps, but both are doing too little to change it..

The truth is that there is no political will in Europe, not  just Greece, to improve the situation. The situation in France or Italy, as well in many other EU member states, is also unbelievably desperate.

As I talk to refugees in Greece and remember my own experiences, it feels like we are part of one big story of the failure of the international community to respond to the crises they create. I do not see any solutions to the current crises.

‘Just numbers’

Currently, the volunteers and activists working with refugees are providing help and services in an effective way, but they cannot continue handling a humanitarian crisis of this scale on their own. They are constantly speaking out on how the current system is not working, that change is needed, and that the world should learn from past mistakes.

But those with the money, big organisations and governmental and intergovernmental bodies, are the ones making decisions and they have the power to shape the crisis. It looks like they do not listen.

I recently met a Syrian refugee, Halima*, and her two children in Athens. Two days before we met, they had been relocated from Chios, another Greek island where refugees have been trapped for months. When we met, they were hungry.

“We came with a box of biscuits. This morning I woke up and we had only one left for all of us. I tried to reach out to people who brought me here, but they told me that the person responsible for helping us is on vacation,” Halima said.

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They were put up in an apartment, but no food or basic supplies were provided. They didn’t have any clothes to change into. It was a cold day in Athens, but none of them had proper winter clothes.

They had to wait for the officer in charge to come back from vacation. Some volunteers from the Khora Community Centre in Athens supplied Halima and her children with food for a couple of days. Volunteers found clothes for them, they spent some time with them and listened to their problems. They cried with them and hugged them before leaving.

But for big organisations and governments, as well as for the EU bureaucrats, Halima and her children are just numbers. For volunteers, they are yet another case that proves that the system we are living in is deeply flawed and we need to change it.

*The names of the refugee women have been changed to protect their privacy.

Nidzara Ahmetasevic is an independent scholar and journalist from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and she was a fellow with the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability at Columbia University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.