I volunteered to help refugees in Greece and nothing could have prepared me for the reality

This is a story of how make up became a voiceless symbol of resistance and protest

Illustration: M J Sulaiman

By Shahd Amin

Opinion 12 May 2018

After a very long day cooking for over 300 people, I see a fight break out between two refugees. It was intense and people had to intervene to stop the fight. I later understood that this commotion was over a biscuit. Two grown men were fighting over a biscuit. Not because they were hungry, not because they haven’t had a biscuit, but, because ‘how dare he get one more biscuit than me!’

I was not prepared for this. I was prepared to see and feel a lot of things. Ingratitude and greed was something I wasn’t anticipating. It was difficult to digest. I had just spent almost 12 hours sitting on the floor in the heat, cutting vegetables with a blunt knife in order to feed these ungrateful people. I was losing hope in humanity. But by the end of my trip, after hearing what people had reallygone through, I was beginning to understand the attitude that would lead one to fight over something as small as a biscuit.

People had fled their homes with their family to avoid death. They crossed borders to find themselves imprisoned in locations where human rights existed as a dream. After being wrongly imprisoned some people had escaped, through any means necessary to jump on an overcrowded, expensive and dangerous boat, which almost, always sank.

Fed faux fantasies, these refugees are then faced with the reality of a camp that can only be described as a prison. Military men with guns patrol the camps and treat people like they are criminals. The camp is nothing more than a plot of land with a lot of run-down looking nylon tents surrounded by large walls and barriers around the border of the camp. There are no heaters for the winter and no coolers for the summer, commonly leading to death due to pneumonia and heat stroke. Breakfast, lunch and dinner can be nothing more than white rice. They were lucky to get salt.

These people were treated less than human. Most came from a place where they lived a civilized life and war had torn that away from them. They lost their homes, been tortured, raped, family members murdered, have lived in a tent with no privacy in complete limbo. They are and feel dehumanized, dependent on the kindness of others in a country where they are seen as a virus. I’d be angry and fed-up. I’d want to be treated like a human. I would just want one more damn biscuit. And I’d probably fight for it too.

Many of the people I met were friendly. It was rare to come across anyone who avoided talking to me or even ignored me. This is why I was taken aback when I met Ameena, a young woman, who without failure had a full face of make-up on every day.

Ameena never took part in conversations, rarely acknowledged me, let alone spoke to me. This was despite the fact that I’d grown closer to her family and friends, as many of them also volunteered as a way to keep busy and help out. After many hard days of work and throwing a successful Eid party, I went out to play billiard with a handful of volunteers, one of which was Ameena. As I am terrible at any kind of sport, including billiard, I assumed a spectator role in the games, as did Ameena. This was the point that Ameena and I had an authentic moment. After speaking about generic topics, she opened up and told me her story.

I’d judged Ameena and thought that she was only interested in wearing make-up for vain reasons, unlike most women in the camps who were there fighting to survive. I assumed that she thought too highly of herself to interact with me. But I wasn’t prepared for the reality.

In Syria, where Ameena is from, ISIS were very strict about women wearing a niqab (a garment of clothing that covers the face). They were also very strict about women wearing make-up. It was completely banned. Women were expected to cover their faces when they were out and ISIS would conduct spot checks to ensure that women were not wearing make-up under their niqabs. So, not only were they required to cover their face, they weren’t allowed to wear make-up under the niqab otherwise there would be serious consequences.

Ameena also told me that ISIS were constantly trying to recruit people in Syria to join their army. Ameena, who rarely looked me in the eyes and was very softly spoken, almost delicate, was once engaged to a man who refused to join ISIS after they attempted to recruit him several times.

A day before Ameena’s wedding, ISIS came knocking at her home to recruit the men of the family. When the men refused, ISIS killed them. Ameena lost her fiancé and uncle that day. They were beheaded outside her home right in front of her. Ameena didn’t speak for four months and rarely speaks now. I was not prepared for this.

I believe that Ameena is just a little bit better off because she allowed herself to tell me her story.

Whilst listening to her story, I looked at her eyeliner drawn from her temples to past the inner-corners of her eyes. Her eyebrows were as thick as slugs and her lips overdrawn to give a fuller look. I understood Ameena then and some feeling shame for judging her quickly came over me. It was as clear to me that she now wore make up as a form of silent protest, a voiceless gesture of rebellion against everything ISIS stands for and took away from her. Make up became a flag against the oppression and control that ISIS had over her life. Ameena’s face belongs to her and it’s her choice to paint it as she wanted.

Prior to my departure to Greece from Dubai where I live, family and friends told me that the refugees where better-off if I donated the money I spent on the flight to the charities on the ground. They would spend that money accordingly. I did think about this before my trip and it did make me feel a little selfish. After a lot of research though, I found Humans 4 Humanity, an organisation founded and run by married couple who are of Syrian decent, Neda and Rafat. Humans 4 Humanity are dependent on volunteers and donations by people. I felt guilty that I was depriving this organization from the money I had spent on flights and accommodation. Yes, maybe sending money instead of donating your time would to some people seem more practical but my experience proved that theory wrong.

Of course it’s important to donate but if there is no one to use that money then how will anything get done? Who will buy the groceries for the dinners? Who will cook the dinners? Some people asked me what I took away from this experience and it is difficult to say other than I now feel more human. But it’s not what I got out of this experience that is important here. I truly believe that my presence and other volunteers have provided priceless support to the refugees. I believe that Ameena is just a little bit better off because she allowed herself to tell me her story. It possibly helped her heal a little.

I believe that running around the small island of Lesvos to procure and provide face painting and ice cream (with no freezer) on Eid for the children brought them joy and let them forget the horrible situation that they have lived most, if not all, of their lives. My assistance did not just stop there, voicing my experience and sharing stories helps bring attention to many issues reminding others that refugees are people not a virus as some people may view them.

I plan on going back and to give as much time as I possibly can. The need for assistance for refugees is a lot greater than we think and the reality of their lives is a lot harsher than we can imagine. This experience removed my rose-tinted glasses. I was, of course, aware of the refugee situation but it was something I viewed online, like many people I know. But being there and talking to people who are just like me, people who are doctors and lawyers, mother and fathers like mine, brought me back to reality. Now when I deal with people on a day-today basis, I know that everyone has a story that I know nothing of and that everyone should be approached with empathy.

Shahd Amin is a lawyer based in the UAE, who enjoys reading history books, listening to podcasts and has a secret obsession with reality TV. She hopes to be a philanthropist in the near future.

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