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The wave of refugees that began flooding into Europe as early as 2014 as a result of massive unrest in the Middle East has shown no signs of ebbing. In the last two years alone, roughly 1.3 million refugees have passed through Greece, a country that, thanks to its geographical location, has become a sort of unofficial gateway to Europe for those fleeing war, famine and religious persecution.
Director of ASU’s master’s program in social justice and human rights Julie Murphy Erfani called it “the nexus of the largest humanitarian refugee crisis since World War II.”
Since 2016, she has directed an annual, two-week study abroad trip that takes students to the region, where they volunteer and engage directly with forced migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere as they await asylum application processing for residence in the EU.
Last May, Erfani lead a group of 19 ASU students from a variety of disciplines — including social justice, communication, psychology and political science — to Greece’s capital city of Athens. Dave Hunt, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences director of communications and marketing, accompanied them to document their experience on film.
The documentary “Seeking Asylum” takes us through the students’ days before they set off, their time in Greece and the close of their journey. We hear their expectations, their daily struggles and victories, and finally how it changed them in the end.
Criminal justice and international studies undergraduate Dania Kassab was excited when she first heard about the study abroad opportunity. Her parents emigrated to the U.S. from Syria 30 years ago, and she has always wanted to do something to help refugees in some way.
“I feel like it’ll be good for me too,” she said in the documentary before leaving for Greece last year. “I’ll come back with a different perspective and be more aware.”
In Athens, the students spent their time at one of three locations serving refugees: Caritas Refugee Program, a soup kitchen and clothing distributor; Hope Cafe, which also gives free meals and clothing; and Welcommon, a refugee community center providing families a place to live.
There, they witnessed firsthand the reality of life as a forced migrant.
“For the most part a lot of the people who are coming through here are pretty desperate,” said Tony Crowder, who graduated from ASU with a master’s degree in social justice and human rights in the fall of 2017.
“They look like they haven’t been fed, they’re wearing clothes that are torn. … These people aren’t fleeing because they want to flee. These people are fleeing because they have to flee. And they all want to go back home. Nobody wants to have this sort of life.”
Trailer; see the full-length documentary here.
The conditions faced by refugees in Athens are particularly harsh, Erfani said, because they’ve been waiting there, in some cases for years, for asylum applications to be processed. During that time, they’ve been unable to work and their children have been unable to attend school.
The psychological trauma they’ve endured, first as a result of violence and persecution in the home countries they fled, and then as a result of having their lives put on indefinite hold manifests in different ways. Sometimes parents withdraw, spending all day alone in their rooms. Many of the children express their frustration through aggressive behavior.
“From what I’ve just seen with the kids, there’s hostility but it’s because they’re in this survival mode, they’re trying to cope with what they’ve gone through,” psychology master’s degree student Julie Hurd said.
But there are moments of hope: “You can see with some of the kids … we’re building their trust. You see the joy in their face that someone cares.”
With the nation in the midst of an economic crisis and facing a 23 percent unemployment rate, the students were struck by the Greeks’ hospitable attitude toward the refugees.
“[They’re] very altruistic people,” Hurd said. “I’m in awe; I’m impressed, and I wish that more of the world could follow suit.”
Communications master’s degree student Thomas Jouganatos wonders if perhaps the Greek people's openness can be attributed to the fact that they remember a time when they were in the same situation — Jouganatos’ own family fled Greece roughly 100 years ago to escape violence and turmoil associated with the Armenian genocide.
“I can only imagine what my family went through,” he said. “They were fleeing their country and being killed on the roadside. … It’s kind of why I did this, just to give thanks to the people who helped my family.”
As conflict and chaos continue to roil the Middle East, Erfani is monitoring the situation closely in order to adjust the study abroad program’s focus for next year. In the spring of 2019, she plans to take students to Italy, where a new flow of refugees is forming from Africa, through Libya. There, she intends to focus their efforts on two populations of people she calls “involuntary migrants”: those fleeing war-torn regions and those who are victims of sex trafficking.
Erfani’s advice for those who don’t have the ability to travel overseas to help out?
“Welcome the stranger. And adjust your spirit and your heart to be prepared to respect and help restore the dignity of any asylum applicants or refugees who are arriving in your community. If you can pitch in through your local church or your local nonprofit, do it.”
For the students, although the experience is behind them, it will never leave them.
“At the end of the day, we’re all humans,” Hurd said. “We need to be humanitarians.”
Top photo: An image from the "Seeking Asylum" documentary featuring ASU students working with refugees in Athens, Greece.