It was a cold spring evening, about exactly a year ago, and I was drinking over-sugary black tea in a Belgrade park with a group of young Afghans. They have been sleeping in the Belgrade parks or under the bridges for some days, some as long as a week or two, waiting for their connection to continue their journey towards the EU. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, we were talking about all sorts of things, joking and laughing.
And then a journalist with a recording device came by and he asked if I could translate a short interview with anyone from the group of Afghans. I was reluctant, but nevertheless asked the guys if anyone wanted to give an interview. One of them looked at me and asked, just to be sure he got the journalist's request right: "So he wants us to talk about the war in our country and how we fled? Or he wants us to speak about the difficulties we have been facing on the road coming here?"
I felt like what he was really asking was: which of the rehearsed narratives, reserved for "migrants, sleeping rough in a park" does this journalist want me to repeat?
The scripts reserved for the "refugees" in the media, known so well to the public, are also known to the people put in the category of refugees. If their perspective is included at all in these media reports, they are mostly included as "the poor refugees", the victims of persecution in home countries, falling pray to the smugglers and waiting to reach the safe haven of the EU.
In actual fact, people's stories are much more complex and nuanced than most media reports allow for. The reports focusing on "fleeing to save our lives" often simplify and obscure other, less geopolitically coloured factors. Stories of suffering on the way prevail and while reporting on the suffering is important too, there is danger that they contribute to the dehumanisation of "refugees". Accounts of solidarity, mutual aid and comraderie – perspectives that would underline our shared humanity – are often absent and replaced by dehumanising victimisation and sweeping generalisations.
I do not want to spend more time here commenting on the reporting of what has been – problematically – called the "refugee crisis". My point is that the dominant victimising discourses about refugees diligently reproduced in the media force people to repeat and get trapped in rehearsed narratives. These discourses impose on them expected roles (of being a grateful victim, for instance) which can be difficult to break out of and ultimately benefit no one.
To illustrate this, I want to mention a conversation I had with M., a comrade who later became a dear friend. He was staying in a centre for asylum seekers I have been visiting regularly with a group of volunteers: all wonderful, enthusiastic, mostly younger people, eager to help asylum seekers learn the language, become part of the society, and break the isolation that the camps they were accommodated in produce. M. usually avoided the activities of the volunteers, but on that occasion, he joined the gathering we prepared. When he realised I spoke his language, he approached me and asked me directly, skipping the usual polite questions: "Excuse me, I really wanted to know why do all of you come here to help? What's your motivation for spending your time in the centre for asylum seekers?"
The question and the genuinely puzzled, but also provocative, expression on his face, cut really deep: suddenly the expectation of gratitude, so often imposed on those who are recipients of help, was replaced by a questioning of the motivations behind those who come and help. And it struck me how crucial this questioning is.
We started talking about the motivations for help, whether it is really "help" or could it be understood as an exchange, an attempt to establish different relations and break the roles we were assigned as the "migrants" and "the rest"... And then during our conversation, I think I understood why M. really asked me this. Through talking to him it became clear that he feels uncomfortable when "volunteers" come to visit the centers for asylum seekers because, when they talk to him, he never really knows if they are interested in him as a person, if they truly engage with him, or if they just see him as a poor victim, "refugee", Flüchtling, panahande, izbjeglica... He certainly wanted to make new friends, but he was afraid of not being seen as a real person, but rather an object of someone's help, used so that some can feel better about their white privilege and the privilege of having an EU passport. He was afraid that he would be reduced to playing an expected role of a refugee and not being seen for all those other things he is besides being a refugee.
Breaking the isolation of the centres for asylum seekers and other manifestations of the camps people are often accommodated in when they first arrive, is crucial – but doing this in a way that challenges the dominant view of "refugees" as victims and talking to them as simply people is equally important.