In the streets of Lesvos, September 18th
Back in Lesvos, I met with many volunteers and humanitarian workers.
The reality is: most of them were actually white.
Volunteer trips have always been popular, if one thing, it is because they are appealing to a broad audience; whether it’s people looking for a great boost on their cv; or a university student seeking a “life-changing experience”, or those looking for an exciting opportunity to feel better about themselves through helping others.
For most of them, the decision to volunteer is led by self-interest, with little or no experience in humanitarian work nor any prior understanding of the complexity and gravity of the situation for refugees and asylum seekers. Most of them are importantly unaware of their white privileges.
They won’t recognize themselves, or know, deep down, but will deny: the ‘white saviours of Lesvos’. Those volunteers who claim they are there to ‘save the refugees or to ‘bear witness to the situation’, and so on.
They do not identify with the refugee population, instead they place a huge gap between themselves and ‘those in need of their help’. They see them as people that need ‘saving’, not as humans who could be their neighbor, family member, friend.
Being a black activist on the island, fully identifying with the black refugee and asylum seekers population, I spotted the white saviours easily.
And as a black European on the island, I was constantly the victim of racial profiling (the act of suspecting or targeting a person on the basis of assumed characteristics or behavior of a racial or ethnic group) so I experienced first hand how these people act.
The discriminatory practice was coming from everywhere. From the police, the locals, and far too often from the white volunteers. In my presence, they would act mostly as if I was stupid, always in need of something from them. I often refrained from saying that I was not a refugee or an asylum seeker, I did this because:
- What would that say? That because I have a European passport, papers, I am better than the rest of my black communities or the refugee and asylum seekers population?
- Because if people were capable of acting with me in such a way based on someone’s skin colour – in this case mine – quite frankly I just didn’t want to have anything to do with them.
I saw no difference between black refugees, asylum seekers and I. They could have easily been my brothers or sisters.
I treated them like they were and even met a few that came from the same country half of my family was born in.
I was not there trying to ‘save’ anyone but rather engage with some of the most marginalized black communities in Europe and support these communities as much as I could using my own privileges as a Black European.
And since I was fully identifying with them, it also meant that the emotional impact of seeing people living in those conditions was somehow stronger on me, making my work more impactful and more honest.
The white saviours: they travel to serve the poor, hungry and sick. Though they think that they have the best of intentions to help, their focus is on the refugee community instead of facing the core of the problem created by those that come from their communities; white, Western and Christian. They are often driven by the idea that those they are trying to support are in need of rescue from people who look like them.
The embedded belief amongst the white saviours which is the most detrimental, racist and disturbing is: they also assume that refugees and asylum seekers are unable to do anything for themselves.
For Moria’s residents living in a camp, where the living conditions are dire, is not a choice.Nor is being trapped on an island where there’s no future and no opportunities.
However, for these white foreigners, Lesvos is a conflict zone. It is a dystopian reality in which they can opt-in and out with ease. Once the excitement desists, or the work gets too challenging, the white savior volunteer can go look for the next ‘humbling experience’. They can find other marginalised people ‘in need of saving’ in another exotic location. This mentality and their work often does so much more harm than good.
The problem with voluntourism
To be clear, I am not challenging voluntarism. But the way that volunteering is being misused means that is so often not done in a genuine way. Instead the person’s time is spent just perpetuating racism, white supremacy, and the white saviours complex.
When you are being praised for simply being in close proximity to marginalised people as a privileged person, regardless of whether or not you are actually helping them, then there’s a problem. And no, it does not make you a great person.
It’s a fact that not all heroes wear capes, nor do they take photos with refugees while they are at it. Some live inside the camp, and work every day to support their fellow community. Some are former refugees, who’ve been there themselves, and have started their own initiatives to help people. Some used to live inside the camp and now work every day to support the rest of their communities that are still forced to live there.
The image that the white saviour portrays is that refugees and asylum seekers are incapable of helping themselves, and not able to identify their own essential needs. And they also encourage these white savior attitudes, (whether it is through the ways they work as organisations, the comments they make, or just the way they act).
It is so important to ask the questions such as; why is Western documentation on life in the camp and the situation for refugees in the Aegean islands the only measure of reality there? It contributes to the narrative that refugees and asylum seekers can’t speak on their own behalf and in fact have nothing to say about their own reality. Many refugees living in the camp are trying to change this narrative. They are starting to use social media to expose their own reality inside the camp the way it should be heard.
The Unheard Refugees
The Unheard Refugees is a platform we started to help bring awareness to Black communities living in the camp and the dire conditions in which they are living. The platform is for Black asylum seekers and refugees to use and tell their own stories the way they want it to be heard, and a way for them to connect directly with people when looking for direct support. It also aims to provide general informations about Moria camp.
Yousif is a 22 years old refugee from Iraq, he arrived in Greece in February 2018. And after seeing many people coming to Lesvos to tell their stories of refugees and asylum seekers on the island of Lesvos, he decided he was going to tell the stories of his community from the inside. Everyday, he tells stories of the extraordinary people of Moria’s camp.
You can check is work there: https://www.instagram.com/yousif_alshewaili/
Now You See Moria is a self campaign made by an Afghan refugee living inside the camp for 1 year now. Trying to bring awareness to the situation for people in the camp but also to speak directly to the policy makers in Europe to demand a better solution to their situation. https://www.instagram.com/now_you_see_me_moria/