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“Refugees Welcome” is spray painted onto a building in the neighborhood where we visited one family of Syrian refugees. Photo by Paxtyn Merten

I’m still not sure how to feel about the stories I’ve collected for our coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis in Greece. It’s a strange concept: I go into people’s temporary houses, they tell me about some of their most terrible life experiences, I write it down, I ask questions and then I leave them. I will probably never see these families again, despite knowing intimate details about their lives and having spent hours in their living spaces.

I will also never be able to empathize with what they have been through. I can listen to their stories and I can try to paint a mental image of their hardships in Syria, journeys to Greece and months in camps and apartments. And I can write about these stories. But I can never understand what the families have experienced, nor can I feel the way they felt when they faced tragedy and hardship.

I can only tell the people’s stories in an attempt to try to make readers understand their realities.

Like the story of when one woman had a c-section as a refugee in Iraq to give birth to twin girls. When the doctor sewed her back up, he left the surgery scissors in her stomach. He had to perform another surgery to get the scissors out, and she had to spend a month in the hospital while her husband stayed at the camp and taxied between there and her hospital daily.

As the husband recounted this horrifying tale, he laughed. Most of the refugees laugh when they talk about the worst of what has happened to them. And so I laugh along with them, despite the fact that I would never even crack a smile if I read their stories in the paper. Their stories are enough to keep you up at night, wondering what butterfly’s wings could have possibly beat the wrong way to cause something so horrible.

I’m not yet sure how to feel, but I know that when I speak with the people living in refugee camps and government-funded apartments, I feel connected to them on a human level. They trust me to tell their stories, and I have a responsibility to share them and bear witness to their troubles. We have conversations that I will never forget.

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One of our photographers, Bridget, snaps a portrait of one of the Syrian refugee families that we visited in their Thessaloniki apartment. Photo by Paxtyn Merten

Guilt has become a close friend of mine as I age and gradually learn more about the world. I sometimes lay in my bed and stare at the ceiling, wondering how it could be that despite all odds, I was somehow born at this time, in this place, with this life. I ponder Lisel Mueller’s poem, Alive Together, which explores the concept that our chances of being born in any given situation are “statistically nonexistent.”

I feel guilty that chance brought me to a peaceful suburban life while others are born into war-torn countries or in refugee camps after their families are forced to leave the place of their ancestors. I feel guilty being a college student knowing that college won’t even be a consideration for many young adults living in war zones and impoverished areas. I feel guilty being among my friends and family when so many others are uprooted and have to leave their loved ones behind.

Our teaching assistant, Danny, also wrote about guilt in his blog post about visiting refugees, and many of his thoughts reflected my own. The families we talk to want their stories to be told, and as journalists and storytellers it is our job to show others the truth about what we are seeing, hearing and experiencing.

I have not truly felt any additional guilt while being here because I am doing my job and having organic conversations. I am but a pair of ears and scribbling hands. It would be selfish to let guilt impact my ability to function regularly while I am here in Greece, presented with this incredible opportunity to try to make a difference in the minds of others.

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Danny throws a ball with one of the children in a family of Syrian refugees, who live in an apartment in Thessaloniki. Photo by Paxtyn Merten

So, instead, I enjoy the company of those I interview. I listen intently to their (translated) stories, ask open questions, laugh with them and accept the tea and food they offer me. I express my gratitude for their hospitality and openness. And, when I leave them, I understand that I will return to my student apartments and eventually to my stable home, and they may very well still be in this limbo, and I will never see them again or even know how their story ends.

These will add to the stock of things that I think about on long walks, or while I lie awake feeling guilty for having a bed. But they will also add to my perspective on the world and my understanding of others. I will carry them with me everywhere I go, and I will simply hope that the experiences will bring something positive into the lives of the refugees, too.

This blog post also appeared on Northeastern University School of Journalism’s website, https://camd.northeastern.edu/journalism/

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