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A world apart

October 26, 2015

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Refugees getting off the boat after landing at Kos, Greece
Refugees getting off the boat after landing at Kos, Greece

Journalist Isidoro Trovato was vacationing in Kos, Greece when he came across, what he estimates, were around 1,000 Syrian migrants stationed in front of the municipal office. An Italian journalist with Corriere della Serra, one of the major issues he noticed was that a lot of the migrants did not have passports and therefore found it difficult to continue their journey.

“There was constant friction between the migrants and the local police,” says Trovato. “At the time when I was watching, there were 1,000 or so refugees outside the municipal office. The police were called in to break them up, and when they were unable to, another force arrived to help them.”

The Syrian refugee crisis is perhaps the most well documented refugee crisis in history. According to the International Organisation of Migration, between January and August alone, around 350,000 refugees have entered Europe. While European countries did not bar the refugees’ entry, they were still received with some caution.


While European countries have received refugees with caution, it is their assimilation into larger society that is becoming problematic


“The major help came from the tourists,” relates Isidoro, “They’re the ones who would help the refugees find shelter, food, water and clothing.” It was a very strange contrast for Isidoro to see a tent on top of a flower bed near a resort housing a refugee family and “tourists passing by and snapping pictures with their camera machine.”

Non-stop footage has been broadcast on most international television networks showing thousands of people arriving in boats on Greece or walking across Europe to get to Austria, Germany and other countries. Then there are reporters, television crew and the constant flash of cameras on the refugees — mostly from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan — making their way to what they’re hoping will be safety.

According to the online resource syrianrefugees.eu that aims to keep tabs on the movement of these war refugees, “An estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, taking refuge in neighbouring countries or within Syria itself. Under 150,000 Syrians have declared asylum in the European Union, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while member states have pledged to resettle a further 33,000 Syrians. The vast majority of these resettlement spots — 28,500 or 85 per cent — are pledged by Germany.”

But in Greece, not every shelter has the capacity or the space to house more refugges. There were about 10 people living in each tent in Kos, Isidoro estimated. An entire camp could have as many as 100 such tents. But what struck him was the sheer number of unaccompanied children.

“There were many, many children, without fathers or mothers,” he says. They had arrived entirely on their own and were expected to make it to a friendly country on their own as well.

Greece itself is currently going through a massive debt crisis. Its citizens are finding it hard to make ends meet and may be unable to extend help to the thousands of refugees seemingly adding to their burden. This might be a cause of resentment for some segments of the population.

“For the refugees, their relationship with the Greeks is very difficult,” he adds. “The Greek population is poor, and they’re going through a very difficult time.”

In other parts of Europe, some groups have made sure the refugees know that they are not welcome. At the time of filing this report, a third refugee centre had been set on fire in Sweden with two in Germany. A mayoral candidate in Germany was stabbed for allegedly supporting the migrants (she won the election). There are protests by right-wing organisations in European countries with their members vehemently opposed to the ‘infiltration’ of a ‘foreign’ culture in their country that might ‘attack’ their values and way of life.

This brings us to the issue of integration. Multicu-lturalism brings its own set of problems but there are host countries that are trying to make this transition as easy as possible — for the people that they’re taking in, and for the people that are already living there.

According to Kinan Kadouni, a Syrian refugee in Belgium stayed in a shelter for two and a half years. During that time, he was provided lessons in Flemish (but ended up learning English!), introduced to the local culture, traditions and norms. In Germany, they’ve set up classes to introduce refugees to the German constitution, rights of their citizens and way of life.

The problem now is that in some shelters, the men are not allowing women to attend these classes, as they aren’t gender segregated. What is curious is that the same men were okay with women sharing space with other men on their boat trip to Europe, but not when attending classes.


“The major help came from the tourists,” relates Isidoro, “They’re the ones who would help the refugees find shelter, food, water and clothing.” It was a very strange contrast for Isidoro to see a tent on top of a flower bed near a resort housing a refugee family and “tourists passing by and snapping pictures with their camera machine.”


“It’s very difficult for some mentalities to accept these kinds of things,” says Kadouni. “I have recently been hearing a lot of stories about women who discovered after arriving here that they now have lots of rights. These women are divorcing their husbands. Their men have the mentality that ‘I am the man, you are the woman’ and so ‘I am stronger, you are weak.’ So now when the women see that ‘the police is behind me, I have rights, I am strong, my husband will not be able to do anything with me.’ So they file for divorce and start living their lives.”

Exhausted and tired, refugees sleep with whatever little belongings they have
Exhausted and tired, refugees sleep with whatever little belongings they have

We often hear that it’s very easy for women to get assaulted and harassed, for crimes to be committed in refugee shelters. Only recently a fight broke out between 200 refugees in Germany — mostly between Syrians and Afghans. Has he witnessed or experienced any of that?

“No,” he says, “But sometimes we have fights between various sets of people; Arabs fighting Afghanis or Iranian or Russian and so on. It’s just a clash of different cultures, different mentality. Some-times they don’t accept each other. We have this kind of problem.”

The same sentiment is echoed by Trovato, who says that he did not witness any kind of friction among refugees stationed in Greece.

What about the response from the local people? Are they welcoming?

“They are. But now they’ve become careful,” says Kadouni, explaining that there are lots of ‘foreign people’ from Arabic or Central and South Asian countries who are now living in Belgium.

There have been quite a few cases where they have befriended local Belgiums with an ‘agenda’ — with that usually being asking for aid/money, taking ‘favours’ using their names or trying to woo a local with the objective of marrying and/or getting a visa.

“That really was happening a lot. The locals became more wary in their relationship with foreigners and they have a right to that,” he says.

Over time, many refugee men began arguing that the host country’s culture was restricted and they didn’t have much space in it.

“When my friends, the Arabic or the Iraqis, tell me, ‘Kinan, the Belgium they’re very insular people, we cannot enter their culture,’ I only tell them that the key to entering this culture is to enter their life. The key for me was when I was in the refugee centre, I went to work as a volunteer. It was all for free.”

The resulting interaction would leave Kadouni with more friends, a better understanding of the culture, a greater fluency in the language and with the locals understanding him and where he came from.

“For me, the integration starts with the mentality of the refugee,” says Kinan, “If he is open-hearted, if he can accept others, then there will be the most amazing type of integration. But I saw my friends in the refugee centre; it was very difficult for them to integrate. Even now, five years later, they’re not able to.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 25th, 2015

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