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I am like you

Refugees: Identification and Inequality

While Europe's attention is fixed on the war in Ukraine, and millions of their citizens are fleeing to safer grounds, Gwendolyn Versluis, current Master Student Modern Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at University of Zürich, remembers the war in Syria and it's ensuing "refugee crises" in 2015. "What constitutes the basis for the large scale empathy, supportiveness and solidarity from Europeans with the Ukrainian today?", she asks. Convinced that identification is a major prerequisite, she remembers her activist engagement for Syrian refugees in Greece and her photographic street art project in 2016, "I am like you", aiming at creating identification with male refugees, a group that is often negatively connotated in public discourse.

Refugees: Identification and Inequality – A Personal Account as a Volunteer and Artist on Engaged Anthropology

While I'm writing this contribution to the Student Forum, the war in Ukraine is going on. The world, me included, is shocked by pictures of violence, destruction, and death. Unimaginable numbers of people try to flee their country and are reaching neighbouring countries, some travel further to remoter European countries. In the news, we see journalists reporting from the other side of the border, where Ukrainian, mainly women and children, receive an overwhelming welcome, and locals quickly organize humanitarian support. The European Union is discussing a generous and uncomplicated refugee policy for Ukrainians. The whole of Europe turns blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukraine flag, as a symbol of solidarity with the Ukrainian people. We have rarely seen such a large-scale empathy, solidarity, and supportiveness. It is touching and important.

The refugee crisis in 2015

The pictures of people fleeing war, destruction and death remind me of horrific scenes in 2015. The war in Syria was going on then already for four years. The killing of civilians had intensified; cities got bombed, people lost their houses and their lively hoods, and they lacked safety, often finding themselves in between fronts of multiple warring parties. I remember the pictures of masses of "refugees", as we call them, walking from Greece through the Balkan towards Western Europe. We knew that they had crossed the Mediterranean by small boats under life-threatening circumstances. Then, in September 2015, the world was unsettled by the picture of a young child lying dead on the beach of Bodrum, Turkey, drowned. In October 2015, Angela Merkel spoke the famous words: "Wir schaffen das!" (We can do it), referring to what had become a refugee crisis and expressing the will and determination to generously provide shelter and humanitarian support on German (and European) ground. Five years and five months ago.

Today, much of this is forgotten, though the situation in Syria is still precarious. We do not hear much about refugees in Greece simply because they don't get there anymore. The Turkey Deal, designed to keep refugees from reaching European territory, is functioning well. Those, who manage to cross the Mediterranean, are retained, detained, at the Greek islands before they can reach the mainland and continue their travel. They still live under challenging conditions in overcrowded camps, without any perspective for a change for the better. There is a short flash of remembrance when we hear the news of the horrible fire that burned down Moria camp on Lesvos in September 2020. Apart from that, it is awkwardly silent. We sometimes hear stories of ships filled with refugees that wrecked on their way from Libya to Italy, which has become an alternative route. Those seeking refuge continue to navigate their way through Libya, which holds them back,  in accordance with a deal the EU once more closed, to prevent their onwards journeys.  The saturated media turn their attention to more "recent" news.


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Obviously, we distinguish between categories of refugees: those who flee from war and destruction and those who leave for "economic" reasons due to poverty and hunger. We make a difference between those who are more familiar to "us", "our culture", and "our religion" and those who are less so. Then and now. Identification seems to be an important prerequisite for empathy.

I go back to 2008: Travelling gave me the possibility to identify with Syrians, as many Europeans identify with Ukrainian people today. I travelled through Syria and Jordan not long before the war started. It was just three weeks, but it was long enough to create lasting memories of the people there. Enough to identify.

When the war in Syria started, I immediately thought of people I encountered. I remembered the unknown woman at the bus stop, who spontaneously and generously handed over a bag of self-backed cookies as supplies for our five-year-old daughter and us. I remembered the student at the square inside the walls of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. He came over to us because he liked encountering people from elsewhere. Without any expectations, he started to tell us about the history of the mosque, and while guiding us around, he pointed at details that otherwise would have stayed hidden for us. Also, I remembered the silversmith in the Christian quarter of Damascus, who invited us inside his shop. Happy to see "Christians" and have a talk, he prepared coffee in a small pot with the gas burner's help, which he usually used to solder his jewellery. He felt it was a good occasion to combine socializing with selling. And last but not least, I remember the hotel owner in Tadmur, a small city generally known as Palmyra. He eagerly wanted his red-haired, blue-eyed, five-year-old son to meet our blond-haired, blue-eyed five-year-old daughter, as he wished for his son, to see by himself that other people, who look like him, exist. It was something that the hotel owner, red-haired and blue-eyed himself, hadn't experienced as he was a child. It was the humanity, the kindness and the generosity of the Syrian people I met that struck me, and there was a lot to identify with.

Materiality of migration – the beach as a crime scene

I felt agony and helplessness when I saw the hardships of many Syrian people. Even more in 2015, when they fled to Europe in big numbers. It took me until 2016 to figure out a way to become active myself, to "do" something in line with my possibilities. I heard about the opportunity to "help out" as a volunteer in short commitments in beach watching on Lesvos: Helping boats to land the shore safely, by providing lights and guidance – most boats cross by night -, and by supplying dry cloths, water, and light for its passengers. I went there first in May and spent several nights at the beach, south of Mytilene, without any boat arriving. The Turkey Deal had just been settled and seemed to keep refugees from crossing effectively. The shifts of beach watching were redistributed, and I found other ways to "help" on the island. Next to organizing activities with Henna for women and children in the camp Karatepe, it was particularly the "beach cleaning" that really shook me.













Return and return again

After two weeks, I returned home, filled with impressions but feeling unfulfilled in the wish to "do" something that "matters", with resources available to me. A major event on the mainland of Greece in the second half of May 2016 created new occasions for that wish. The unofficial, wild camp of Idomeni, at the frontier to Macedonia, housing over 10'000 people, who wanted to move on to Europe, but were stopped by a closed border, was unexpectedly cleared by the Greek authorities. At lightning speed, several new, officially and military supervised camps needed to be created around Thessaloniki to accommodate those involuntarily evacuated. And the small Swiss private organization, which also organized the safe landings and clothing on Lesvos, was invited by the Greek military to set up community management in one of the camps, aiming at improving life in it, by organizing activities and community building. After I introduced my idea to the organization, it was my chance to return. 

The idea was simple: My background in media and communication studies and my artistic background led me to the idea of influencing public opinion on the image of refugees. Particular ideas about "Middle Eastern men" strongly influenced the discourse on refugees in Europe by that time, as unfortunately still today. I was also informed that activities in all camps mainly focussed on women and children, obviously for identification reasons. Less so for men: There was a huge lack of possibilities for men to express themselves and give meaning to their daily lives in refugee camps. An existing worldwide street art project, Inside Out Project, had come to my mind. The artist, who launched it, had won a TED prize in 2011, and with it, he had opened his concept and invited groups of people throughout the world to stand up for issues of social (in)justice and participate in the project with one's ideas. As soon as my idea was approved, I returned to Greece. This time to the camp of Karamanlis, a twenty-minute car drive from Thessaloniki.

The Inside Out Project
"Trapped Inside –I am like you"







See pictures and the documentation of the project on the Inside Out Project Platform

I am like you, the slogan of the group action, aimed at identification, by underlining similarities between the men in refugee camps in Greece and men with a European cultural background, and by focussing on the similarities between us as humans. Similarities in who we are, what we need, and what we find important: Safety. Care for our children and family. Love. Peace. Being meaningful to our community and our society. The slogan also invited us to mirror ourselves in the situation of those of refugee men: What if it was us, being in a camp, waiting for Europe, to decide over our future? What would we need? What would we wish for?

Did my project change the world? No, it didn't. Nevertheless, there were some humble results: two national and one regional newspaper in Greece reported on the photo installation next to the camp of Karamanlis and its aim to improve the image of and discourse on Middle Eastern refugee men. On social media, where the project was published and communicatively managed on multiple channels, the project was shared a lot worldwide. But it stayed "inside", in the network of volunteers and social justice advocates. Likewise, it was shared among refugees in the region. The discussions were held among the like-minded.

Does this mean that the project was unsuccessful? No, it wasn't. The positive effect shaped itself differently than I had previously expected: Within the community of Karamanlis itself. Karamanlis housed 600 persons: Eighty per cent of them identified as Syrians, twenty per cent as Iraqis. Though sixty men had agreed on having their picture taken, other men were reluctant of being photographed. About six weeks later, when I returned to the camp, with the photos turned into large-sized posters, some men came over to me and offered me the possibility to take their photo. Unfortunately, it was too late for it by that time.

Even more, men started to ask about "their photo" as soon as the large-sized photo installation was completed. At that moment, all, including me, began to realize its impact: The photo installation had literally given the men visibility and a voice – something that they had lost while living in a camp out of public sight. They had felt unheard and unnoticed in their hardships. It had put them back on the map, giving them status and pride. Children repeatedly gathered in front of the photo installation and pointed at the posters of their fathers. Others remembered some of the men on the posters, who meanwhile had left the camp and had taken the risk to clandestinely travel further into Europe. Some women came over to me, grabbed my hand and thanked me. It made me feel uncomfortable: I wanted the inhabitants of Karamanlis to be in the focus of attention, not myself. At the same time, I realized what had really happened: The installation had become more than an activity for men in the camp; it had created a sense of community in Karamanlis and had restored some of the worthiness of its inhabitants as human beings.

Some critical reflections

The project has changed the community of Karamanlis, and the people there have changed me: This experience has motivated me to my current master's studies. Interface's Summerschool 2021 helped me connect the experience of Karamanlis with the wider context of engaged anthropology. Not just the project, but with everything I have seen and experienced there. It helped me reflect on my motivation to engage this way, my positionality as a volunteer, dealing with that role, and the need to learn to protect one own's emotional safety – something that is often overlooked while "engaging" with and for others. 

In Greece, I learned the meaning of borders, how they differentiate, create categories of humans, and how they eventually can kill. It was a strange experience to fly back "home" after my time in the camp: I had a home. I had money to pay for a flight. I had this specific passport that gave me the possibility to cross the border and leave Greece. The people of Karamanlis didn't have any of this. They were forced to stay in the camp under very difficult, unhealthy, and sometimes life-threatening conditions or otherwise become illegal and risk their life.

Today, I look critically at my role as a volunteer. Volunteers were badly needed since there were too few hands and money to manage the refugee crisis in Greece. On the other hand, volunteers do not offer stable relationships to the (traumatized) refugees. They rely on the volunteers, give them trust, even friendship. Volunteers (need to) go again after a limited period. I experienced that this "breaking up" was very painful for the people of Karamanlis, who had been left behind, and lost family and friends already. I think it is important to be aware of this position when being in the field, regardless of being a volunteer or when engaging with people for field research.

I'm also critical of the role of humanitarian organizations. Unfortunately, many of them focus on those being perceived as the most vulnerable: women and children. And we all identify with them. This translates to the help provided and resources spent on them, not so much on men. But not only women and children need "saving". With our focus on the level of the single individual or certain categories of individuals, we overlook the importance of the family system and community in the Middle East. In Middle Eastern countries, individuality is perceived differently in relation to others, as a collective member has responsibilities to contribute to this collective. I think it's time to realize that when we support men, we do not only help them on an individual level, but their families also -- women and children included -- and their communities will benefit from it too. Including men means having families integrated. Excluding men, rejecting them will have the opposite effect. 

Anthropology and engagement – Engaged Anthropology

Anthropology, as a discipline that studies social and cultural conditions of human life, and processes of interaction between groups of people, does not exclude us from our object of study. On the contrary, we interact with them, and they will not leave us untouched. In that sense, I think that anthropology is always more or less engaged. Personally, I think that anthropology is designed to create understanding and make cultures and people that are less close to us more familiar. Also, it is "engaged" and enables identification with others in that sense. To guarantee that this identification can be transported to the individual level of society, as budding anthropologists, we should find methods to make the knowledge that we create potentially accessible to the wider, common audience, so it doesn't stay in libraries to be used exclusively in academic discourses. 

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