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Three layers of understand

I usually say there are two different means of understanding something.The rational and the emotional. If a child melts a straw in the flame of a candle, it will realise on a rational level that it might hurt if it sticks its finger in there. This lesson might be remembered throughout the child´s life, but it also might not. Yet if the child sticks its finger into the flame and does get burned, the lesson will be leaned emotionally. It will be in the childs´ memory forever. With news it is similar. We will hear, see or read about them and relate to them rationally. Unfortunately the overflow of (negative) information makes us protect ourselves and almost numb things out in the pursuit to stay happy and sane in an already difficult-enough every day life. In the case of the refugee crisis -through people around me and myself- I experienced three layers of understanding…

By Andreas Klozoris, previous volunteer on Lesvos

The first layer: «Refugees» as a group of people

The first layer is one we all have when hearing or reading about something in the news.
We hear about the „refugees“ in some distant place suffering.


The very natural human reaction of categorizing people and objects directly takes over. The „refugees“. People who you have nothing in common with. You know how they look: dirty, old clothes, tired. Women with head scarves, children with torn sandals, men with beards and tough faces. You don’t think about all the ethnicities, cultural differences, backgrounds, educational status or anything really when thinking about «the refugees”.

But you dare anyone to call you and your fellow country men “the Greeks”, «the Germans”, “Norwegians” and so on when being critical about something…

“The refugees» are somewhere and the news tell you they suffer. If one is completely ignorant and self-absorbed he will only think about what their arrival might take away from him. From his life inside the cookie jar…

From relating to interacting

The second layer of understanding is breaking the big whole into smaller groups. It might be an ethnicity as you might have this friend who is from elsewhere and has opened your eyes about „them“. The Afghans. The Congolese. The Iranians. The Syrians… The proud people who might have so much in common with «your» people… Who have such a beautiful culture and country and you feel for them cause they had to leave it behind. Perhaps never to see it again.

We are leaving the rational part of the equation here…

The second layer gets emotional when you no longer just relate but interact. Now the group just might no longer just be an ethnical one. It might be „the English class“ you are teaching.

You understand the suffering of «them” by pulling back the homework task that asked the students to write about their home town. The sadness in their eyes was just too evident. You calm down many of them and ask them for forgiveness as they don’t feel comfortable to write a few sentences about their future… Practicing English is one thing, but you can’t write about your future if you feel you don’t have one…

You relate to them and their pain. And even though those small moments of evident sadness remind you just how horrific the situation is, what prevails is the happiness during that lesson. The smiles and laughter when you made that joke. And the immense gratitude for being treated like a human and not just a number or “a refugee”.

In that very moment -and forever on- you will feel the equation here is unfair. What you offer is one moment of normality, one smile and a few words that will widen the vocabulary. What you get in return is this warm feeling of gratitude that you will never forget. You are the one in the receiving end here…

The personal layer

The final layer of understanding is the personal one. It comes with distance. The interaction is over. The focus and self-containment on site diminishes and the memories take over.

It comes when the „refugee“ becomes a name or a friend even; when „they“ become Hamed, Soheil, Marwan or Nargis.

When you remember Hamed who was a student of mechanics in Syria and a fluent English speaker only to loose his entire memory after being beaten up by the authorities. And now you help him memorise the abc…

Or when remembering Soheil who despite being a victim of the situation himself, came to work every day trying to help out. He dreams of becoming a doctor in order to help all people regardless of their income or race.

The emotional understanding hits you even harder when you remember Nargis. She lost her parents and is now stuck in Moria with no papers. Nargis is only 3 years old.

It is then when you realise things in a different way.
You realise they could all be your friend, your brother and sister, your mother, lover or your child.

„They“ could just as well be you…

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Comments(3)

  1. REPLY
    Marc Zaller says

    This was heartbreaking, heartwarming and very honest.
    Thank you.

  2. REPLY
    Patricia Sweeney says

    Understanding any situation requires many components. Openness, compassion, equanimity and loving kindness. We are all members of the human race, sharing the same planet. Cause and effect. Those of us not bearing the burden these people are have just been fortunate. We must treat them as we would want to be treated if in fact we weren»t so fortunate.

  3. REPLY
    Maria Manuela Oliveira says

    I’m sure it is a difficult task to became a volunteer in a refugee camp. It will be impossible to realise all the different situations I can face in a camp.
    I intend to have humility to accept all different cases like «the case» that I must help.

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