Thursday, 11 May 2017

Interview: Working with Refugees

Shree Patel interviews Pippa Hardisty about her work with Lighthouse Relief over the Easter holidays, supporting refugees (with thanks to Alex James for transcribing the interview). 


Shree Patel (S)  - Were you nervous at all during your preparation?
Pippa Hardisty (P)  - I wasn’t nervous about going to the refugee camp, but I was more nervous about driving on the wrong side of the road because I’d never done that before, and I had to do that from Athens to Chalkida where I was staying. I think I was just quite excited about going really, so not many nerves.

S               - What was your first opinion of the refugees and the camps, or the atmosphere there?
P               - It seemed very calm when I first arrived because everyone, I think, was still in bed, and not much happening. I had expected there to be tents, but there were boxes instead called “Iso-boxes” that everyone was living in, and that’s what is usually a shipping container. It’s hard to say what my first experiences were… I think I was maybe surprised at how many people would have to live in such a small space; there seemed like quite a lot of space around them, but where their actual living quarters were was such a small space for eight people to live in. I think that would be very difficult to do for a prolonged period of time.

S               - What were the volunteers doing at the refugee camps, and what difference do you think that made?
P               - In the refugee camp there were lots of different NGOs working together to co-ordinate a response that would help the refugees. So I was with Lighthouse – that’s the charity I was volunteering with – and I had been put in something called the “Child Friendly Space”, so I was working really with young children, so from the ages of, say, two. [It was] supposed to be to the ages of eight, but teenagers used to come along as well because they haven’t got much to do. And we basically gave them a bit of structure to their day; we did a bit of learning with them; we did some craft activities; some free play where there are toys and stuff that they can actually use, because they don’t have any of that at home. So I think that made a massive impact to the kids’ daily routine, and there are lots of other NGOs making the impact as well. So, for example, within the same organisation, there was a “Female Friendly Space” for women to go to and to socialise, and to get advice on breast-feeding and pregnancy and stuff like that. And there were other areas such as the Red Cross Red Crescent where people go to for medical care, so it really depended on what people needed as to which organisation they went to.

S               - You mentioned children; do the children really understand what was going on, or were they sort of in their own bubble?
P               - I think the young ones don’t really understand what’s going on; they know that they’re there obviously and that’s their life, and maybe they can’t really remember much before being in the refugee camp – some of them have been there for a year – and they seem to cope very well with how it is, but I do think that some of the young children have quite aggressive behaviour, perhaps, compared to what we see maybe here or maybe if they’re home in their own country, because they’re coping with some quite stressful situations on a daily basis which they probably don’t even realise are happening. So yes, I feel like they’re kind of in a little bubble, but it’s not a protective bubble unfortunately, it’s more just that they’re not really aware of what is right and what’s wrong and how life should be.

S               - What do you think the biggest problem is faced by the refugees, in your opinion?
P               - I think the refugees in Greece, for example, Greece is quite slow at processing the Asylum Applications. Some of the people who have been in the camp have been there for over a year, and being in the camp is very much in limbo. You can’t really do anything: you can’t work, you can’t have a normal life, and all of that is very very difficult and I just think if the Asylum Applications could be processed a bit faster – and even once they’ve been approved they might still be in the camp for another three to five months afterwards before they can actually move to their new country – if that process could be faster, then I think that would help the mental health of the people within the camp, and also the well-being of the children as well. So I think the main problem they face is getting a place in another country to go and live.

S               - As the member of staff who runs Amnesty International at school: in your opinion are there any changes that need to be made in terms of what the volunteers do or the conditions or treatments of the refugees?
P               - I think it’s important to educate people out there so they can actually understand what it’s really like to be a refugee in a camp, because one reason I did want to go – obviously I wanted to go and help out – but I also wanted to see what life is really like, because you hear so many rumours and you see on the TV and it’s quite hard to connect with it, I think, if you just see it there. Whereas if you go and you meet the people and you meet the children, it’s a much more individual basis and you can understand things better. So I think within the camp itself it would’ve been better if the different organisations that were there had co-ordinated better. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always done which sometimes meant that two organisations might be trying to do the same role within the camp, which isn’t really a productive use of money that’s donated, or time. Sometimes the wrong donations are given: so, for example, there were all these baby-carriers that Syrians basically don’t use, they don’t use baby-carriers, but there were over, say, two hundred brand new baby-carriers delivered one day which was a complete waste of time. But I think with regards to getting people to understand the situation, I think it’d be really nice if, in England or Britain, we had almost a volunteer opportunity for young people to have a placement somewhere like that, so somewhere where they could go, maybe for a gap year or for six months, that can be centrally organised for them to then go off to a particular refugee camp where they might well be able to volunteer… but I think that would take another company to organise that, so something that’s not really set up for in this country. But America has something quite similar that definitely increases the number of people that seem to be volunteering there.

S               - What were you expecting the camps or refugees to be like? Was the reality of the situation different or the same?
P               - I think I went with few expectations because I wasn’t really sure what I was going to encounter and I just kind of wanted to take it in as I went. I was surprised first of all at them living in the Iso-boxes which had also been converted so that every Iso-box had a shower and a toilet as well, and a little area to cook, so I was surprised about that. I was surprised about the fact that two people had set up food stalls within the camp to sell falafel as well, which I thought was very ingenious, and there was a little shop selling clothes, and someone had a chair and a mirror so they made almost like a barber’s out of that as well. So I think people who were there, they impressed me with how determined they were to try and live almost a normal life and try and make this place into somewhere that they can live. But also you could see that they were really struggling with the fact that they were there at the same time. I think going along I just wanted to absorb everything and see everything and then just kind of come to an understanding of it that way; I didn’t want to go with pre-judgements as to what I thought it was going to be like. I think it took me a little while, … it affected me as to how affected the kids were from having been there, because seeing how kids are normally, for example, at home, and then seeing how they are in a camp like this where they’ve got unwashed clothes and they’ve got nits and they’re walking around with no shoes on… and it might not be that the parents don’t care about them, it might just be that the parents are having a difficult time as it is living and a lot of them are depressed, for example, because they’re in a difficult situation. And then I think you really need to see that in order to be able to understand it, but I suppose that was something I didn’t really think about coming across.

S               - How has volunteering for this changed your perception of refugees?
P               - I think anything like when we think about humans, if you see it on the news it’s this mass group of people and people start getting angry at the refugees for wanting to come to our country and things like that… but these people, they don’t want to leave their own country in the first place, and if you speak to them, one of the guys who was working there, Matt, he even asked them: “Do you want to go to another country, or if it improved back home would you go back there?” and they all said they would much rather be at home than be going to another country, and I just think that you have to see it more on an individual person-by-person basis. And getting to know the parents, getting to know the kids that were there, I think gave me a lot more empathy with them and seeing how much they’re struggling and striving even to just go to another country and to survive here in this limbo – where they don’t actually know what’s going to happen in Greece until they get a place somewhere – I think it’s really difficult for them. So I hope it’s given me a bit more empathy with refugees than I had before, and a bit more understanding, and also I’d quite like to now start trying to find a charity here locally to work with refugees to help them integrate into the new culture because it must be a big culture shock coming to a completely different country again.

S               - Was there any moment that you were worried for your own safety or someone else’s safety?
P               - There was some, there was a bit of tension within the camp. Some of the tension was between the Kurdish refugees, from Syria, and the Arabic-speaking refugees, and there could be some aggression between those at times, and even the children would be aggressive towards each other depending on what part they were from. But also, we had times where the older kids – because they didn’t have much to do, so I think it kind of breeds aggression in a way, if they get bored – and they come and they disrupt things when you’re working with the younger kids, and they were throwing chairs across the room, they were throwing stones, unfortunately it was something that they did. But I think it was more a case of trying to get attention rather than anything else, but it could end up with kids getting hurt or people getting hurt. So there were times when there was aggressive behaviour shown and I think that is a bit difficult if you’re going there to volunteer or even if you work there, because people who work there, they’re really giving up a lot in their life to do that and the volunteers as well, and then feeling like that’s not really maybe welcomed or not looked upon in a good way by some people and then you’ve got aggression shown back towards you where you’re sometimes in a physical situation - at one point where one child was threatening to punch me… so I think that’s quite difficult and that can be a bit de-motivating, but I think you just have to keep in mind the fact that, on the whole, that’s a very small amount of people and that all the rest of the people there are really benefitting from what you’re doing.

S               - How easy was it to communicate, through if you had a language barrier?
P               - Yes, I definitely had a language barrier… I learnt very few words unfortunately; one of them being “no”, which is “la”, which you have to say quite a lot! The language barrier wasn’t too much of a problem with the younger ones because the young children, I find a lot of things are physical actions, eye contact, and to be honest I think the children are very used to English-speaking volunteers so they’ve learnt a little bit of English, but also on top of that they’re just really good at communicating with each other via their actions; some of them don’t even talk very much; the younger ones that are two don’t say much anyway - so I really didn’t find the language barrier a problem. And the older kids, like the teenagers that came in, they had quite a lot of English already so it was quite easy to communicate; I wasn’t too concerned with that.

S               - And, just to finish off, would you recommend this experience and opportunity for other people in the school?
P               - I really would, I really think that if people can be a bit more proactive about finding a charity that they’re happy with and that they’d like to volunteer with and actually go out and look for it, then I think things like this can change your life really – especially if you do them for a longer period of time; some people were there for three months – and if you do that, it means that you’re benefitting the kids there, you’re benefitting the adults there in the camp, and you’re learning at the same time. And I think, especially if you’re in Sixth Form or if you’re at the beginning of uni, it might actually influence your career choice that you want to go into as well, and it’s a good idea to get experience in that before you make those decisions.

To find out more about Light House Relief, you can visit the following sites:

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