It is easy for some to turn a blind eye to the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe, after what it has been seen and read in the media in the last couple of years. It is easy to hide our fears behind a discourse of entitlement, which directly affects a group of people who are considered as a threat to the well-being of an imagined homogenous Europe. Little by little, we’ve constructed a lexicon of terror as well as social, political, and legal categories to include or exclude those who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war or persecution.
According to the European Commission, more than one million refugees and migrants have arrived in the European Union in the last two years, in what has been labelled as the largest humanitarian crisis of our time. As reported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the large majority of those crossing the Mediterranean or other routes in 2015 were Syrians escaping from war at home. However, not just Syrians have undertaken perilous journeys to reach European shores. The conflicts in the Middle East and other parts of the world are causing large-scale displacement, which lasts for an average of 25 years in the case of refugees.
The rhetoric of integration, which has been so often repeated by politicians and the media all over Europe, places all the responsibility of adaptation to migrants and refugees, sometimes without acknowledging the stress and trauma that these individuals have been through. According to a study prepared by the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry, the most commonly diagnosed mental health difficulty for refugees in Western countries are Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders.
Refugees who come to Europe have experienced a wide variety of traumatic events, such as the destruction of their homes, violent acts perpetrated against loved ones, or have been victims of violence or life-threatening situations themselves. Post-migration challenges include acculturation and adaptation to changes, as well as facing isolation, hostility, and even racism in a new place. The chronicity of PTSD in refugees is enhanced by the multiple traumas and the significant time that passes before they can have access to help of any kind. As The Guardian notes: “A report last year (i.e. 2016) by the German Federal Chamber of Psychotherapists said 40 -50 percent of people arriving in Germany suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with half also suffering from depression.”
Every cloud has its silver lining, and these situations also generate new forms of inclusion and solidarity. Based in the heart of the German capital, a group of people came together to create Kreuzberg Hilft, an organisation that coordinates projects and activities with and for refugees. Germany played an important role in responding to the crisis in 2015, which is mirrored in the response of these small local initiatives. Convinced that art is a good way to cope with PTSD, the group organised an art exhibition showcasing the works of four young Syrian artists, in July 2017. Drawings, paintings, and photographs made mostly in refugee camps in Greece will be on display until October in a Berlin-based art space.
It is easy to misinterpret the suffering of others, especially in a world that is now more than ever obsessed with building walls between people. If we could only remove these barriers, we would be able to see others for what they are: human beings, of flesh and bone, with hopes and dreams, often as fragile as their lives.
Words: Astrid Scheuermann
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu