‘I’m not a refugee, I’m a person’: Rethinking power and community in humanitarian contexts
GIOVANNI FONTANA AND DINA PASIC, in collaboration with ELEANOR PAYNTER | 26 MARCH 2023
A Second Tree twinning project paired newcomers with locals to foster friendships through cultural, social, and educational activities. Photo from Second Tree, with consent of those pictured.
Media and political responses to Europe’s recent ‘refugee crisis’ often portray refugees as either criminal invaders or vulnerable victims – in both cases, as inherently ‘other’. Refugees themselves perceive this dichotomy as damaging. As Mohammed S., who worked with the NGO Second Tree in Greece after fleeing Syria in 2016, told us, both views ‘are basically saying the same, but [one does it] in a nice way’, explaining that both contain ‘a reason to hate or look down on others’. In humanitarian settings, interactions based on the idea of refugees’ inherent vulnerability can foster forms of othering. Attitudes that view refugees only in terms of their perceived needs, or as embodying a kind of idealised or fetishised ‘refugeeness’, exist and can be difficult for refugees to challenge because of the inherent power dynamics: refugees rely on the services that humanitarian workers provide.
Second Tree provides educational programs for adults and children in refugee camps and urban areas in Northern Greece. We use ‘newcomer’ as a term of inclusivity to bring focus to the present and future lives of refugees and asylum seekers as new citizens in Europe, rather than their recent past as victims of war or persecution. Our aim is to enable them to advocate for themselves and others through the development of the skills and knowledge essential to rebuilding their lives in Europe. While skill acquisition is a means towards this objective, the larger question we address every day is: what approaches foster a sense of community where newcomers know their voices are heard?
The Refugees Are People (RAP) policy and training path is Second Tree’s attempt at answering this question in ways that uphold our key principle of rejecting otherness, and that support a shared sense of responsibility towards creating a community in which everyone has an equal voice. Our hope is for RAP to spark further conversation about approaches that make power more ‘porous’, and to help us rethink the dynamics of humanitarian work in settings of displacement and arrival.
The need for RAP
The RAP approach was developed through a ground-up process that includes ongoing reflection and discussion with newcomers. This process emerged in Katsikas refugee camp in 2016, as we sought to meet the basic needs of people who had been left to wait indefinitely in one of the most under-resourced camps in Greece. When we arrived, Katsikas Camp was a sea of floorless tents on a bed of rock, next to cow fields on the outskirts of Katisikas village in Epirus.
It was there that we witnessed how newcomers experience inequality and powerlessness – not only when major violations occur, but in everyday interactions that fall outside the scope of standard NGO safeguarding protocols. By interacting with people through a ‘refugee lens’, humanitarian workers were undermining the building of trust between themselves and the people they were trying to help. Their approach was often based on problematic assumptions about victimhood, reinforcing a hierarchy which sees newcomers as categorically ‘other’, inevitably reinforcing their marginalisation.
RAP reflects our experiences working with people like Saida, a young Afghan woman now in Switzerland, who participated in our activities over a four-year period. ‘There I’m not a refugee, I’m a person’, she said of the classes at our Community Centre. ‘They made me forget that I’m a foreigner’. This statement is a reminder that newcomers do not necessarily view their own identity in terms of their ‘refugeeness’; in fact, identifying with the refugee label is often considered extremely negative, as if in opposition to being seen as fully human.
Rather than focusing on the perceptions implied by the ‘refugee’ label, we approach the camp (or any shared space) as a community that functions best when there is a sense of collective responsibility and mutual trust shared between those who live and work there. Inadequate living conditions often exacerbate power imbalances and minimize people’s sense of agency. In such environments, suspicion, rather than trust, dominates interactions among newcomers, and between newcomers and humanitarian workers. Through RAP, we aim to develop a culture in which every person is seen both as a part of the general camp community and a unique individual, rather than as a representative of a subgroup (Syrian or Afghan, refugee or humanitarian worker, Muslim or Christian). Even when used with the intention to protect or support members of a specific group, these labels risk justifying cultural stereotypes and enabling patronising (all refugees are victims) or romanticising (all refugees are heroes) attitudes. In opposition to these forms of othering, our work is shaped through continuous reflection and practice of three core values: truly engage, be fair and build trust.
Agency as a matter of collective responsibility: Truly Engage
Through a scenario-based training and ongoing discussion of how these values are applied, we support staff in recognising and addressing attitudes that patronise or stereotype camp residents, or that romanticise their interactions. As we say in training, refugees have gone through difficult experiences, but they have not lost their humanity, and staff can expect to disagree, discuss, and joke with refugees as with anyone else, which often leads to an enriching exchange.
The RAP approach maintains that refugees, while occupying a position of need, are also capable, active members of the community who can and should participate in shaping the environment they want to live in, even if temporarily. Central to this framework is the role of discussions, both between staff and with newcomers, which encourage disagreement in pursuit of the best shared outcome and are seen as a form of real, engaged participation. For example, when a lack of toilets (less than 20 for over 1,300 people) led camp residents to use the school tent as a toilet at night, we stopped lessons and held a series of conversations with residents. Initially our options seemed to be either continuing to clean the space ‘for refugees’ out of pity, or closing the school completely. Discussions opened up another possibility: we jointly decided to build a more permanent classroom structure and work collectively to develop several other spaces, with refugees taking active ownership of the camp.
In five years of working in camps, we have seen that refugees overwhelmingly prefer this joint approach. As Ahmed S., a camp resident in 2016 explained to us in a recent conversation: ‘It felt like [the volunteers] were really trusting us, and so why shouldn’t we trust them… so we started to share also, and I felt like – like just a normal person.’
Agency through mutual trust: Be fair & Build trust
Discussions foster agency and a collective sense of responsibility, and also help develop and maintain a shared culture. Rules for participation in Second Tree classes, for example, are first reviewed with students, whose contributions shape them, and, once agreed upon, are expected to be upheld. Strict adherence by all is vital to maintaining fairness and building trust, and safeguards against perceptions of preferential treatment. As many refugees have experienced discrimination based on their race, ethnicity, sexuality, or religion, this can unsurprisingly be interpreted as a form of discrimination, therefore undermining trust. So if an aspect of the rules appears to stop working, we do not start making exceptions; we organise a discussion and collectively determine the necessary changes.
In training, new staff work through scenarios based on actual experiences in the camp. When emphasising, for example, that being on time is a rule for participation, we tell the story of Abdallah, who, arriving a few minutes late to class one day, found the door closed and asked if he could enter. We ask trainees to reflect on what they would do in this teacher’s position and consider possible responses. Eventually, we share what happened: the teacher refused to allow Abdallah in. He was upset and complained to Giovanni, whom he knew held a position of authority. Giovanni, aware that Abdallah was upset but not why, suggested they go to speak with the teacher, only to find the classroom door shut. Giovanni too, could not enter, and offered to come back at the end of the class. Abdallah, understanding that the rule applied to everyone, no longer felt aggrieved and said he did not need to talk to the teacher anymore.
We use this story as an example of what we mean by fairness, how by upholding the same standards for staff and newcomers, a culture of mutual trust can develop. In other words, we strive to create an environment in which it is clear that rules exist for the well-being of the entire community, and that within that space, everyone is responsible for upholding them or constructively challenging them. To that end, in bi-monthly feedback sessions, we ask our students: ‘how comfortable are you in disagreeing with us?’ What applies to our staff, applies to newcomers: it is engaging with disagreement that leads to transformation.
Second Tree operates in multiple settings in the Epirus region, including the Katsikas camp, which has changed form over the years. Residents consistently make the stark, supposedly temporary living space more livable, as with the garden pictured here. Photo from Second Tree.
Empowerment through rejecting otherness
RAP also attempts to address discrimination and stereotyping beyond the widely condemned vilification of refugees, in the problematic hierarchies that even seemingly positive portrayals can invoke, for instance when they patronise or romanticise refugees (e.g. as victims or heroes) – narratives that, like those that criminalise, can also damage newcomers’ reception and self-perception. These various forms of fetishization of ‘the refugee’ homogenise what are in fact an incredibly diverse set of experiences and identities, erasing individual agency and character. Portrayals that attempt to empower newcomers through stories of overcoming or by exceptionalising their abilities instead contribute to defining individuals through a monolithic refugee category, reifying an us/them binary.
The same othering dynamic can result from cultural stereotyping. While recognising that each newcomer and staff member feels connected to multiple cultures, and that many intersecting cultures shape life in the camp, RAP encourages humanitarian workers to avoid stereotypes when determining how they will interact with newcomers.
As Qazem, a 28-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, told us, while he was living in a camp on Lesvos, he helped as an interpreter at an NGO doing important humanitarian work. Female staff were instructed to ‘dress modestly’ in order ‘not to send the wrong message’ to refugees. While camp staff thought they were practising cultural sensitivity, Qazem explained, many residents viewed these assumptions about what might offend refugees as patronising, imposing a hierarchy, rather than resolving it: ‘I would go to the coordinators […] and tell them their rules didn’t make sense. They wanted the girls to wear long trousers and shirts and cover up even in August when it’s so hot. I told them that the refugees were not stupid […]. If they don’t understand it or complain, we can talk [with them].’ While Qazem exercised agency in approaching coordinators, he was troubled when these conversations led nowhere: ‘Even when I was raising these things, and I am a refugee, too, they would say they couldn’t change the rules because it might offend someone. They always made me feel like they knew best.’
This topic recurs in multiple forms in conversations we’ve had with newcomers about their experiences in camps throughout Greece, in which they complain: ‘we are not stupid’, ‘we are not disabled’ (sic; implying ‘and therefore “vulnerable”’) and ‘we are not all Daesh’. By training staff to approach newcomers as individuals, not representatives of a homogeneous culture, we aim to create an environment in which newcomers feel part of a community and are able to express their individual identities.
Broader applicability of RAP
The goal of RAP is not to complete a finite training that staff should apply in their work. Rather, the training initiates an ongoing process of reflection and discussion that enables us to hold these values at the forefront of our interactions on a daily basis and ensure that we’re engaging with newcomers as unique individuals and collectively creating a community where everyone feels they are an active participant.
Over the past three years, we have been interested in learning whether others working in similar contexts have reached similar conclusions on the limitations of humanitarian norms towards community engagement. We have travelled to displaced communities across Europe and the Middle East, spending time with grassroots and community initiatives, and discovering many creative approaches to the same issue.
Our findings led to the creation of a pilot project that has brought together actors with different approaches stemming from the same values. The EMBRACE (Empowering Migrants to Be Representative Actors in Community Engagement) project, funded by the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, draws on RAP and complementary initiatives from partner organisations, municipalities and academic institutions, seeking to federate these converging attitudes into a methodology to ensure the inclusion of newcomers in decision-making processes across European institutions.
When combined, they become a toolkit that engages both newcomers and local decision-makers (e.g. city council members, policymakers, etc.), and transforms community engagement through RAP-informed trainings and listening and co-projection sessions to change perceptions, understand problems and identify solutions, strengthening newcomer agency through self-efficacy and leadership. The immediate objective of the project is the co-production (by newcomers and decision-makers) of creative and inclusive migration policies in the 11 implementation territories of the project. Through this process, our overarching objective is to remodel the migration discourse and develop training tools that can be replicated in other contexts.
The creation of such a methodology is ongoing and collaborative and involves connecting with communities and organisations with like-minded approaches and practices that are born every day from experience in the field, and encouraging the open exchange of ideas between all stakeholders within the forced migration ecosystem. We have started what we hope is an expansive conversation on the way that agency can be fostered in generative, lasting ways through the recognition that self-efficacy and collective responsibility are truly inclusive. To continue and expand this work, further discussions with people across the sector are needed, and we invite you to join us in these efforts.
It is through conversations with refugees and practitioners that we noticed the insidious impact of well-intentioned and seemingly benign attitudes like treating refugees as vulnerable victims, heroes or representatives of their home culture. When we asked Ahmad S. to share one thing that every humanitarian should always keep in mind when interacting with refugees, he answered: ‘That refugees are normal, don’t show them that they’re in need. Show them that they’re the same [as you]. Help them not because they’re broken, but because they need something that you have. Don’t show them that they’re refugees.’
*All quoted individuals have agreed to their name being included, with the exception of ‘Saida’, who is 17, and ‘Qazem’, who requested we use a pseudonym.
Giovanni Fontana is the co-founder and president of Second Tree. In his early twenties, he worked in Palestine, Burkina Faso and several charities in Italy. After a decade of working in journalism, politics, government and think tanks, he went back to the field. He met the co-founders of Second Tree while volunteering in a Greek refugee camp, where they created Second Tree. He holds a Laurea in Romance Philology at Sapienza University (magna cum laude) and an MSc in International Relations Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was awarded the Fred Halliday best dissertation prize. Contact: email@example.com, @distantisaluti.
Dina Pasic is a co-founder of Second Tree. She holds an MSc in Human Rights from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Education in Emergencies from the University of Geneva. Prior to founding Second Tree, Dina worked at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), as Head of Programs. She currently manages migration-related projects at Seefar and is Second Tree's Media & Policy Director. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eleanor Paynter is an ACLS Fellow & Migrations Fellow at Cornell University’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, and a Research Advisor with Second Tree. Her work on migration, asylum and reception, testimony, and questions of ‘crisis’ can be found in academic journals such as the Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies and Contexts, and in outlets including The New Humanitarian and The Conversation. She holds a PhD in Comparative Studies from the Ohio State University and hosts the Cornell podcast Migrations: A World on the Move. Contact: email@example.com, @ebpaynter.