Let’s talk about migrants and refugees!

By Eleonora Spinella from Oxford Brookes University

I recently concluded this incredible experience in Athens at this NGO called Inter Alia that deals with advocacy on this issue and I would like to share my experience with you.

In the meantime, let’s start by saying that the fact that the course was held in Athens, in a very specific neighborhood, i.e., the one known for being the most politically active, catapulted me into a completely different environment from the one in which I am used to doing my job. I didn’t find data to analyze or newspaper articles to interpret but for the first time I found myself among people. People who either had lived the experience of migration firsthand, or who actively fight for the rights and protection of those who migrate or seek asylum.

People. This is the keyword. People who have a dream, that of every human being, to live in peace and be happy. Clearly, said like this it is very utopian and idealistic, as usual it is necessary to collide with the reality of situations, but for me it was an excellent starting point to start thinking. From this experience and from this environment in which I found myself living for a week, I realized that integration is not an algorithm and that every situation deserves an ad hoc integration model designed especially for it. In the meantime, it is very interesting to see how the approaches of states to migration change. In fact, in states such as Italy, Greece and Spain, countries geophysically more exposed to migration and which are the first port of arrival for migrants, they have a much more practical approach, while northern states, such as England or Germany, which receive an already filtered migration, i.e., they do not experience the landing directly, they have a more psychological approach and the management of trauma is they core interest.

The common aspect of both approaches is the attempt to create integration. It is useless to hide, whether one is for or against, it is objective that migrations are a phenomenon that has always existed and cannot be stopped, therefore one can only work to “manage” them, and my standing point is that the only way to create a true and healthy integration is to work on both fronts, that of those who arrive and that of those who receive and, certainly, the protection and help for those who migrate but also and with the same strength, the understanding and protection of those who welcome. Yes, exactly, let’s talk about who welcomes. The inhabitants of the states where the migrants arrive are not a negligible factor.

After this course, and living firsthand, it seemed clear to me how the cultural clash and how the media present the situation of migration influences the perception that the inhabitants of a country have towards migrants, and I don’t think this is a negligible aspect of our work, on the contrary, I think this area of the field is still too little studied considering that, if managed, it could lead to enormous benefits. But I do not deny that said this is very simplistic, given that as I said before, we are dealing with people, all different, all with different cultural backgrounds, with different political ideas, with different perceptions due to their past experiences. But I also believe that this is the reason that drives me to continue studying in this field, and like me my colleagues, we are fascinated by the fact that the human being is an extraordinary creature, capable of terrible actions and bordering on cruelty as well as gestures driven by an immeasurable compassion and love, and these two aspects are both present in the theme of migration and reception.

My goal in this article is not just to describe my seven-day course, but to convey a new point of view that anyone who reads can think about. And precisely in this regard I would like to tell myself the direct experience I had that touched me the most: I see this man, very shy, all covered up, but the cap with visor that he never took off was unable to hide the deep and evident scars he wore on the face, he was shy, he didn’t talk to anyone, he went out to smoke and while he was watching us… At one point I go out to smoke a cigarette, not finding the lighter, I asked him. He handed it to me and suddenly, seeing that I didn’t care about the way he looked, he started asking me where I was from and why I was there. I told him I was Italian, but I was a migrant myself as I live in England, and I was there doing this course about migrants and refugees. At that point his eyes lit up, who knows why he had a great sympathy for Italians, and so out of nowhere he began to tell me his story. He told me he had fled the war after a bomb, that fell alongside him as he was walking, seriously injured him and killed his father. He had survived by sheer miracle. And while he was telling me about it, he shown me all the terrible scars on his body. But after the story, he told me something that touched me a lot, he said “I hope one day I can go back to my country”. Despite what he had experienced, this man’s only desire was to return to his country of origin, to his home with his people. His national identity, his culture, what made him who he was, went beyond the horrors of a meaningless war… and I understood that.

This made me understand in practice that most people who decide to migrate, as in my case, do so because they are forced, for more or less serious reasons, and that nobody wants to leave their home, whether for such as war, economic difficulties or for study reasons. We are not all refugees clearly, for the most part, as it was for me, migration is still a choice, but up to a point. That’s what’s important to keep in mind when tackling this topic, and here we come full circle, People. People who do everything to be happy and have the best life possible, no matter what. It is important to understand that migrating is not easy for anyone, whatever the reason behind it, and that we must not lose our humanity in the face of these situations, but it is right that we also talk about legality and how this makes the people of the country which welcomes feel, so that everyone feels listened to, not judged, because remember that there are no wrong feelings, there are just wrong actions. In my opinion, doing so, we could open the door to the possibility of more just information and constructive dialogue that can only lead to a more efficient integration system.

To conclude, for me this experience was extremely important, not only for my studies and for my work as an international analyst, but for my growth as a person. Today, after this experience, I have matured emotionally, and I am more aware in facing my situation as a migrant and to better understand that of others. It also helped me to understand the point of view of others, and if this has reinforced many of my beliefs and opinions, on the other hand it has prompted me to think about many others. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes is always constructive, and I highly recommend anyone who has the opportunity, to do so. In all of this, I would like to remind you that dialogue is always fundamental. It doesn’t matter that you have different opinions or ideas, the important thing is always the respectful comparison, from which new opinions and ideas for reflection can arise, because in the end, the purpose is the same for everyone, to achieve happiness and live in peace.

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