Back in May of this year, Za’atar NGO celebrated its fourth anniversary. Four years through which we learnt and reflected a lot – on humanitarian work, what it means to volunteer, to empower, and more. That is why, on this occasion, we had the idea to share with potential volunteers and fellow NGO workers four lessons we learnt those past four years.
After finding the good balance and position towards the people you have chosen to inform, accompany and support, having reflected on the complexity of the relationship tied between volunteers and beneficiaries, time has come to think about the eventual unconscious biases one may have towards the latter and perhaps should question in order to fulfil their mission as a volunteer to the best.
Za’atar Summer Series 2020 – 4/4
Refugee, asylum-seeker and migrant people come from all walks and sizes, bearing their own story, each following their own path, facing their challenges while sharing the pain of one’s flight, the loss of one’s home and the will to build a new, safer, better life. However, once arrived in Europe, they may, depending on their origins and national public policies regarding immigration, find themselves in a variety of situations, and have a more or less easy access to resources. A great number of services aiming at refugee people offer a translation in Arabic and Farsi while French, which is the main language talked by people coming from Sub-Saharan Africa, is often forgotten, for example. The same can be said of housing policies, which favour some groups over others – based on an appreciation of their reasons for migrating, of course, those are not arbitrary decisions. Some similar or different forms of discrimination, more or less conscious, can also be observed within humanitarian organizations.
It is not rare to see volunteers spending some time and getting familiar with English-speaking beneficiaries – while English is not Greece’s national language. By doing so, however, they encourage people to learn and practice a language they themselves, foreign volunteers, speak and often have as a mother-tongue rather than those refugees and asylum-seekers’ integration into the Greek society, which cannot be possible without the tool of language.
Volunteers indeed tend to pay more attention to or be more friendly with beneficiaries who resemble them, exchanging with a young westernized English-speaker man rather than a middle-aged pious African woman trying to learn Greek, for instance.
All those behaviors are obviously not surprising considering humans, as social beings, are attracted to what looks familiar, known, and therefore, friendly. They, consequently, have to overcome mental barriers to exchange with individuals who appear or act in different, unknown, strange ways. However, when working as a humanitarian volunteer or worker, when undertaking a mission of support and empowerment of migrant, asylum-seeker and refugee people, it perhaps is of our responsibility, as human beings and social actors, to go beyond our prejudices and preconceptions, to overcome our fear of the Other, the unknown, the stranger-coming-from-far-away, in order to approach, exchange with and welcome them.
In this regard, progress could be achieved by simply raising awareness on those unconscious tendencies and bias one may have, through dedicated training and information. Because being willing to work among foreign people, volunteering with migrant, asylum-seeker and refugee people, does not mean one is completely emancipated from social constructs and prejudice.
And because empowerment begins with the eyes you chose to lay on the other.