Madina Olomi Reflects On The Refugee Crisis

Madina Olomi and the children at the camp

As I prepare to take my fourth trip back to Greece, I'm struggling to find my purpose. It's been almost a year since I started working with displaced individuals living in a refugee camp there, and they've become like family to me. I'm feeling helpless about what to do next. 

For some background, I am Afghan by blood, American by birth and Arab through 23 years of residency in Saudi Arabia. I'm the daughter of refugees who left their homes in the 1970s searching for safety and a better future than their once-beloved homeland provided. In many ways, my parents were lucky. When they left Afghanistan, the term Islamophobia hadn't yet been coined. Terrorism wasn't a term that was associated worldwide with photos of women donning the hijab, or head scarf, people speaking Arabic or the word "Allah.'' My parents were welcomed into safety, shed themselves of the title "refugee" and built a life where both their children graduated from highly ranked American universities. 

Madina Olomi with Afghan refugees

I'm scared for the people I have come to see as family now. I fear this right to safety and a successful future will not be available to them. These are humans who have spent the last year in Europe, living in camps and fighting for an ounce of dignity, all because they were dealt a bad hand in a political poker game they never agreed to be a part of. A game which, over the past six years, has cost more than 400,000 souls their lives. A game where one player can annihilate the lives of hundreds with the disgraceful use of a gas bomb, while another can drop a Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb -- just to prove that neither one is bluffing.

While I can't speak for the individuals left behind in these countries to face these political monsters, I am able to shed light on the thousands of individuals who fled in hopes of finding safety and security in Europe only to have the borders shut in their face. They're stuck in a country that can't even handle their own surrounded by smaller players trying to get their share of the pot. We see these players -- the presidents, kings, queens, prime ministers and big non-profit organizations -- claiming to provide safety and security. But this is all a game. The people I have grown to love as my own are just chips being thrown around with different monetary values placed on them. 

Madina Olomi with a family

While I can't speak of the fear and suffering that our fellow humans are enduring from all the bombings and gunshots in their homeland, I have seen the tears a lonely elderly woman sheds every time she wakes up in the middle of the night feeling cold in a tent surrounded by rocks, animals and strangers. I've sensed the fear this woman confronts while walking across a dark camp to use the restroom and the helplessness she suffers when the storms are so strong she can hardly muster up the strength to keep her shelter from flying away. 

I can speak to you of the husband who built a makeshift bathroom in his tent for his disabled, elderly wife. Each day he searches for a way to dispose of the waste and asks every volunteer he sees to help him restore to his wife her dignity. I can tell you of the single mother of three who, unable to endure the harsh reality of life as a refugee in Europe, decided that returning home to a war zone was easier to tolerate. Or the little boy who took his first steps on rocks. Or the father who begged for a can of bug spray so that he could sleep in peace without fearing that he'd find insects crawling into his little girl's ears and nose in the middle of the night. Or the hundreds of community members who protested for safer housing so their children wouldn't have to suffer in tents through the cold winter. 

I can also tell you of the children who called me Anse (Ms.) Madina and gave me hell each day but also gave me life. The hundreds of people who invited me to share in whatever little they had. I can tell you about a faith so strong that humanity's worst could not break it. The artists whose work radiated through the rubble. The singer who gave a sound to sunsets I will never forget. I can tell you about the women that showed me the meaning of strength. The men who came together to build a school and community spaces to bring some life back in the midst of all the darkness. I can tell you about the volunteers who picked up shovels and worked hand in hand with the community to secure people's tents from the floods. Or the countless couples whose love stories inspired my own. The nights we all spent together playing UNO, learning how to dance the debka, or just simply being in each other's presence and sharing our stories. 

How could they not become my family? I see their faces in the men, women, and children I encounter walking in the malls, eating at the restaurants or playing in the parks back home. I remember their hope, strength and love whenever I lose my own. They gave me direction when I didn't even know I was lost. The world has pushed them to be refugees, labeling them as ``other,'' to divide us, all out of fear. The fear of the possibility that they could one day be in their shoes. The fear that they would ever have to experience a reality like their's. If there is one thing I learned walking through those rocky camps it is that it could very easily be me. These are mothers, fathers, students, grandparents, engineers, teachers, writers and well-educated individuals who were forced out of their homes and, in a blink of an eye, lost everything they built or had. They are starting from scratch and the world is failing them. 

The players of the game and the media are so busy portraying them as potential threats and using them as chips to be bought and sold that western societies have dehumanized these beautiful people. They are either labelled "poor refugees" or "terrorists." This allows people to become complacent, to disassociate themselves from their reality and forgo any responsibility in providing them safety and a future. This allows people to ignore that we have stood by and allowed our governments to use their homes as a political playground. Many of them are stranded in Greece with no hope of leaving, stuck in a long, drawn out asylum process or detained for the crime of leaving their homes too late and arriving to Greece after the EU-Turkey deal. 

Madina Olomi with the children at the camp

This is the source of my struggle. I refuse to believe there is nothing I can do, but I am faced with the reality that my day-to-day work, although helpful to the livelihood of many, is not changing the game. They deserve the right to live after having lost so many years they can't regain. They deserve the chance to set goals and achieve them. They deserve peace and I struggle with how to give it to them. I'm still searching for a way to give them what they deserve, but I need your help. 

I need you to stop reading about it on Facebook or seeing it on the news and then carrying on with your day like they don't exist. If more people take responsibility and stand up then we can change the game. Sometimes it's as simple as asking the right questions and making sure that people are being held accountable to their actions. Other times it means researching the truth and not trusting the media as your first resource for information. 

The only way I see for us to change the game is to unite as a human family as one against the players who try to tear us apart. We must speak up to the governments that are acting on their political interests in the name of public good. We must all see refugees as members of our own families and act accordingly.

As someone I love once said, "if you treat my child as yours and I treat your's as mine then, my friend, we will succeed."