This is Not Normal - Dawson Stout
You would not think it, but I find it relatively easy – too easy - to imagine I am just a typical, all-American, home-for-summer camp counselor again. Sure, instead of meeting at the community pool we sit in an abandoned olive grove, and the kids chatter in Farsi or Arabic or Congolese Portuguese or Cameroonian French, but we still sing those same, all too catchy songs and get sticky with glue crafting low budget toilet roll rocket ships.
However, that façade of normality quickly and often jarringly collapses at unexpected moments; when I am swarmed by children clawing for macaroni intended for their necklace but which will be eaten before it is ever thread; the violent and racially charged rock fight suddenly ensuing over the broken toy shopping cart considered trash in most other situations. Interactions like this serve as constant reminders of the severity of the situation on this tiny island in the far eastern Aegean.
Halfway through my six-week stay in Greece in one of Europe’s most ill-managed and overcrowded refugee camps, I am struck by the caution I have developed in navigating seemingly everyday encounters. I am volunteering with the non-profit Samos Volunteers (SV), which provides psychosocial support to asylum seekers traveling to the continent through Turkey to the island of Samos. It fulfills a variety of roles in direct response to the crisis, including laundry services; providing safe, comfortable spaces for congregation, language and skill-based education; supplemental pre-K classes; and aid in navigation of legal and bureaucratic institutions. They have established themselves in a flexible position able to respond to the direct needs of their beneficiaries and, in line with that mission, I too have participated in a variety of activities.
But, in every role I fill, navigating the dynamics of power and disparity in our lived experience with all asylum seekers has been extraordinarily complex. In helping us to process the situation, our supervisors often remind us “this is not normal”, and we should never pretend that it is. Our job is not to make this place good; it is to make this situation just a bit more bearable, so these asylum seekers have the best chance of moving on.
And in a place that is not normal, neither are the relationships and social interactions. I too often find myself instinctively applying the social constructions I use at home and leave all too reminded of the many comforts (even necessities) which I take for granted daily. At laundry, I may ask the woman at the door if she has more than one bag to drop off for her five-person family, to which she will explain how their clothes now sit on the bottom of the sea, abandoned four days ago when they made their crossing. Or when I ask a young man no older than me if he needs help finding a book: “Oh thank you, yes please, do you have any books about a boy who lost his parents? I cannot sleep because I see their death whenever I close my eyes and I would like help in that process.” Even asking a friendly “Hello, how are you?” can immediately spiral into discussion on the two years they waited for an asylum interview and that today they have received their first rejection.
The indignity of their situation cuts through like a knife, and the sting is never any less painful no matter how many times I hear their stories.
This is not normal.
This is not humane.
It really isn’t even human, but time and time again powers that be rush to silence those stories. They are reduced to statistics, to racist and xenophobic tropes, to rapist and criminals - all in a desperate attempt to justify their current treatment as fitting, as normal, even as it flies unabashedly in the face of those concepts at their core. And I find the world has become complacent in this tactic and disinterested in change. I do not claim to have a perfect solution to fix the issue of immigration. It is extraordinarily complex. But I do know that this tactic - complacency in treatment and ruination of their humanity - cannot be the solution.
This is not normal, nor should it ever be.