The arts as treatment for trauma

By: Mary Siring

(Kera Tepe Refugee Camp, Lesvos, Greece.) —   Individuals from all parts of the world are building bridges and creating avenues of expression within Greek refugee camps with the arts.

Refugees waiting in Greek refugee camps are given food, shelter, and toiletries- the necessities. The next step in creating more humane conditions is creating avenues for expression and ways to pass the time for residents.

Refugees in camps are left in limbo awaiting their verdict. The 2016 EU-Turkey Deal has kept incoming refugees on the Aegean islands, which have, in turn, become a holding place.

Those seeking asylum from Syria and other middle eastern countries typically travel from their home and through Turkey to the Aegean Sea, and then across to a bordering Greek island in a life raft. From here they are picked up and brought to a camp, where the process begins.

The process to receive asylum is long and sometimes fruitless, resulting in rejection and ending in deportation. If deemed a refugee, they are allowed to stay or seek relocation. If not, they are deported.

Even if deemed an appropriate candidate for asylum, refugees can wait months, even years, for relocation to another country. Even if a refugee wishes to remain in Greece, the process to even receive asylum is the same and can bring the same results.

Farhad Rashid is a Syrian refugee at Ritsona camp in Greece and has been living there with his sister for a year and 8 months, awaiting approval for relocation. His uncle lives in Germany and he hopes to meet him there to begin his life.

“We are not coming here for food or money,” said Rashid. “Most of the world thinks that we are coming for work or food, not because my country is destroyed.”

Until a verdict, refugees like Rashid are simply left to wait for an answer within the camps.

Rashid’s story is common across the dozens of Greece’s refugee camps. They are forced to wait, seemingly without end, to find out the nest step in their lives.

“The process is too slow,” said Stathis Boularakis, a legal advisor for Doctors of the World Greece. “People can be waiting over a year.”

While providing the necessities are of utmost importance during their stay, providing activities and creative outlets are growing more important as the waiting period extends.

Besides a very slow paced relocation process and temporary sense within the camps, refugees have experienced and survived traumatic experiences- bombings, shootings, sexual crime, anything awful that an individual can imagine. Of course, these atrocities leave a lasting emotional toll on refugees. Without expressive activities, the trauma can not be processed and if it is, it will not be in a healthy way.

“We have seen rising mental health issues, ” said Boularakis. “Self inflicted wounds, suicide attempts, and panic attacks. Their expectations are dropped and there are non-adequate conditions in the camps.”

As these issues become more prominent, it has become increasingly important to provide activities for residents. Music and sports are becoming the forefront of this movement.

“For some people that really like to play football or really like to play music, we’re giving them something to do during the day that they enjoy,” said Jason Steinberg, the director of The International Sports and Music Project and guitar teacher at Ritsona refugee camp. “It’s an expressive outlet for people.”

Besides simply filling the time, these activities are providing emotional support and an avenue for expression, as well.

“There are too many people with psychological problems and they pick learning music because it fills the time and they start making new communities with guitars,” said Annita Matzourani, a local representative of Connect by Music and guitar teacher at Kara Tepe refugee camp. “They learn with each other and smile with each other and they get friendly with each other which is very important.”

Mary photo 1

Programs are inclusive of all ages and cultures, whether at set times or a block of time that allows residents to come and go. Whether an expert or a beginner, there are no walls put up between residents and volunteers, fostering a very inclusive and expressive environment.

These programs and classes are not just bringing activities to a once stagnant environment, but they are building communities within the camps.

“It’s like a big family here,” said Matzourani. “All of us, we are a big family.”

This connection is not exclusive to residents within the camps. Universal activities like sports and music are bridging the gap between citizens and refugees, as well.

“I think sometimes, especially with media and people coming in, sometimes the boundaries between people get propped up,” said Steinberg. “That’s not at all what sports and music are. We’re trying to be in the business of breaking down boundaries”

Unfortunately, as time passes and the end of the relocation program comes to an end, which without extension will end in September of 2017, these tensions are growing. Despite this looming fear and weight, the arts are still thriving and are making an impact on residents.

“I like to sing for myself, it makes me feel better,” said Rashid. “We bring speakers and we sing about our future and what happened in our countries. We get the negative ideas out of our heads.”

These activities are offered to all, but women have been extremely receptive to the emotional outlet that art and music offer. Generally women are the most suppressive with their emotions and trauma. Art and music give them a nonverbal outlet for their pain.

“For the women, it’s definitely something to express themselves and something to do. They often will stay in their room, cook, and sleep- and that’s all they do everyday,” said Miranda Palsson, a volunteer with Help International at Moria refugee camp. “For us to be able to get them out and have some sort of cathartic experience with art or music is great.”

Moria is a processing refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, where refugees are typically must wait months for word on their asylum applications with nothing but a cot in a tent.

Recently, in Moria, volunteers encourage the women not just to participate in crafting and drawing, but to paint murals on the once blank, gray walls. Many of the walls in the center of the camp, where the most vulnerable reside, has been made a mural.

For integration purposes, this positive response is the most important part of healing and becoming a part of society- regardless of the final destination.

“This is the most important part of resilience,” said Tassos Yfantis, the social services coordinator at Doctors of the World Greece. “You can continue to live here and be integrated in a proper way.”

While their work is far from over, these teachers, volunteers, and aid workers are continuing their work to create a more creative and pleasant experience for individuals that have already lost so much.

“If you give them love and you transfer love, you can take back what you transfer,” said Matzourani.


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