History and Racism: Why Language is Important

December 20, 2015 ~ Demetra Szatkowski
outside the squat in exarcheia

outside the squat in exarcheia

On our way to Athens, we took the ferry.

The ferry was weird. Walking in one direction, my friend and I entered a room full of white people. This consisted mostly of put-together adults, sitting properly in their seats. They stared at us as we walked by. I guess we were a bit of a sight – Sheri with her curly Irish-Jamaican hair shaved on one side; me blonde-hair, blue-eyed with a giant pack strapped on my back that I refused to part with after arguing with the luggage man.

Where are all the refugees? We wondered.

We walked the other way, and entered a different area, the same exact setup as the other side but with one really fucked-up difference.

This room was full of refugees. People sprawled on couches, people clutching their blankets and sleeping on the floor. Children crying. Sheri and I looked at each other in total disbelief.

We actually went back to watch the spot where everyone entered the ship to make sure the staff weren’t purposely segregating people. They didn’t seem to be, which made it even weirder, in a way. This is sad to me.

I don’t think I need to tell you which side we felt more comfortable on.

I went to order a beer. There were a bunch of Moroccan men in front of me. The man behind the counter was in the middle of taking their order and totally ignored them to ask what I wanted.

“Um, they were here first,” I said.

He looked at me. “Just tell me what you want.”

“No,” I said, “I’ll wait my turn, thanks.”

“Do you think that’s a woman thing, or a refugee thing?” Sheri asked me afterward.

I shook my head. “I don’t want to know.”

*****

We sat upstairs, at a table on the upper deck, open to the air.

This area was also full of refugees. I watched as a child ran by, making a gun shape with his hands, pretending to shoot.

There was another boy, maybe 5 years old, playing with a stuffed doll. He was swinging it around, slamming it into everything he could, throwing it at the ceiling and jumping up and down. He noticed we were watching him.

He ripped the back of the doll open, and laughed when we acted shocked. Sheri took the doll and cradled it in her arms, pretending to comfort it. He stole the doll back and put it under the leg of a chair, sitting on it, jumping up and down to hurt the doll more. He started pulling the stuffing out of the doll and throwing it on the floor. I stood and started to pick it up, pretending to lunge toward the boy, who screamed and ran away.

I heard him giggle, and looked over as he finished pulling the last of it out. He threw the empty doll at me. I pushed all the white fluff back inside and held the doll out of his reach. He jumped, grabbing my scarf, pulling as hard as he could. I picked him up and spun him around.

We played like this for a while. We ran inside at one point, which I think caught the attention of his mother, and she came out a short while later. She said they were from Syria and told us his name.

I know children can play violently anywhere in the world, no matter what they’ve been through. I just wonder what it is that these children have seen. What feelings are being expressed when you are tearing a doll to pieces and running all over the place.

*****

In Athens, there is an anarchist neighborhood called Exarcheia, where the police are not allowed to enter. There is an empty building the anarchists have occupied (also known as a “squat”) and have now opened for free housing for refugees. It’s super well-organized and clean, with ample supplies of clothes and food. No one is in charge, nothing is protected. People are free to come and go as they please.

Athens needs more places like this now, with so many nationalities being sent back away from the Macedonian border. The city is a confusing place to volunteer, because everything is so spread out and the situation changes daily – even more so than it did on the islands.

Volunteers are allowed in places and then they’re not. Places are open to house refugees and then they’re not.

“The thing is,” a Greek man said to me, “these are people. Not boxes. We are treating them like boxes.”

*****

Security at the camps in Athens was also one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced. It seems like procedures are put in place to satisfy someone, just so there are rules, but the procedures themselves don’t actually accomplish anything.

We wanted to volunteer at the Taekwondo stadium, where the government had agreed to allow refugees to be housed. I heard a lot of volunteers were turned away, so I managed to contact a girl who said she knew a group of volunteers inside. She said we wouldn’t be allowed in unless we registered first, and would have somebody email me an application.

The only information I actually had to fill out was my name and my age, and when I wanted to work. That was the entire application.

When we got there, there was a big fence all around the outside. Police were guarding the entrance. We had to be led to the group we were with, and another guy took us inside. Everyone was making this seem very important. The man took out completely empty notebook and had us write our name and country of origin.

So, just to recap: that was the whole “registration” process. Basically, giving our names. But without doing that ahead of time, you absolutely would not be allowed inside.

*****

A few of us helped put meals together at the stadium for a bit, and were actually impressed how refugees were being fed there, so that was good.

But we still hadn’t seen the inside of the stadium. It seemed like we were restricted to the outer parts of the building. When the food was done, we decided to ask another volunteer if we could see the inside.

“Oh, no, you can’t do that,” she said. “You don’t have a badge.”

“We can’t get in without a badge?” We asked.

“No, not without a badge. You wouldn’t want to anyway, especially not with girls. Especially not with the blonde.”

What? We said, looking at each other. We had all come from places where we were working very closely with refugees, often alone as women.

“What if we want to?” I asked.

“No, you don’t want to. You don’t want to go in there, it’s very chaotic. And anyway you can’t without a badge.”

This woman made it sound as if the inside of the stadium was this super scary, unsafe place, teeming with men ready to jump on women at any moment.

The conversation went back and forth like this for a few minutes. Not getting anywhere, finally we just said ok and walked away.

We walked out of the room and were looking for the entrance. “I think that’s it,” my friend said, gesturing to a totally open doorway where refugees were walking in and out.

That couldn’t be it. There was nobody guarding it, nobody to check a badge.
We walked through the entrance, into a totally calm stadium, with tents and blankets set up and groups of men sitting on the floor.

We were completely confused. It was the opposite of what the woman had described.

inside the stadium

inside the stadium

We walked around for a little. Some men waved hi, and one came up asking for help with something. There was no chaos. Nothing at all.

I don’t know if the woman had actually been inside or not.

This is why language is important. This is why the way we describe things to others is important. This is how the media has influenced us to see an entire group of people as something different than we are. As if they are wild animals. As if they are not quite like you and me. As in, “maybe they should be helped, but we cannot allow them into our country.” So much “them” and “us.”

We cannot condemn an entire group of people for the actions of a few. We cannot shut out refugees and Muslims because there are extremists. We cannot take one experience of assault in a refugee camp and say women are unsafe and cannot walk around by themselves, or distribute things without a man with them, because it’s not like we take the many examples of rape on university campuses and forbid women from going to school.

We can’t talk about the same situation differently with one group of people than we do with another. If that’s happening, it’s because the argument is rooted in racism. If an argument is racist, it’s invalid.

When white men do bad things, we say they are “mentally unstable” or “just being boys.” When refugees do bad things we talk about them like they’re animals and say we need to keep them all away from here.

We become very, very afraid. Check your fear. Check your privilege. Ask why.
I do not think anybody should be making decisions about these people without having met them in person, without having heard about their lives. Otherwise, it’s too easy to make up stories.

Our experience with the woman in the stadium was symbolic to me of the way the world is acting during this crisis. From the outside, it seems out of control, terrifying, unsafe. But when we are able to ignore those ungrounded fears and move past them, to go in and see that these are just normal people in a really awful situation.. It’s so easy. We have to help, we have to be human beings.

Part of me wonders if the fear is just easier to hold on to. If we face what’s really going on, we see that the world isn’t a happy perfect place. We feel different emotions and we get personally involved and we are affected. It’s harder. We have to help.

Remember learning about Hitler in school? Remember talking about the Nazis and about the Jews and being blown away by the fact that something like that could happen? Remember realizing that most Nazis were probably otherwise good people who were just doing what their government told them to do? That they just believed what their leader said?

I do. Because I remember wondering what I would have done in that situation. I remember thinking of course I would not have just gone along with everything. I would have spoken out, I would have helped.

The funny thing is, I remember everybody in my class saying the exact same thing.

I remember learning that history repeats itself and that the reason we learn history is so we do not make the same mistakes.