It was 1994, in the middle of the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia. An average of 3,000 grenades fell onto the city, bringing death and destruction to every street. Meliha Varesanovic dressed up in an elegant 1960s dress, put on a pair of high heels, styled her hair to perfection, and finished off with her look with lipstick. Then she walked through Sarajevo with her head held up high, while grenades and sniper bullets showered nearly every inch of the city. Little did she know that Todd Stoddard, a British photojournalist, was only a few meters away, hiding in a bunker from those same sniper bullets and grenades. He managed to snap a few photos of her walking by him without her knowledge.
Was Mrs. Varesanovic in grave danger? Most certainly. Was she living in deplorable conditions? Absolutely. Did she have electricity? A vast majority of the time, no. Running water? No, she had to walk, sometimes for miles, to get water. In fact, she told Al Jazeera in 2014, “I remember that was the first morning that I went outside with short hair because there was no water and shampoo, I had to cut it; but I curled my hair and it came out really nice.”
Why, you might ask, would someone in such conditions and constant danger, even care and have the will to dress up and walk through the city like it was the most “normal” thing? A very simple reason, actually. That was just about the only thing she had left: her dignity.
This was an act of defiance.
During my childhood, age 7 and on, I lived in less-than-ideal, deplorable conditions. Water, soap, and basic necessities were scarce. My entire “wardrobe” was from charity. Until this day, I still have a hard time stomaching that, and today, I can’t even bear to contemplate getting something from a second-hand store (not that there is anything wrong with second-hand stores). However, despite all of that, there wasn’t a day my mother – or father, when he was reunited with us – didn’t comb my hair to perfection. Regardless of that, I, and all of my childhood friends, looked impeccably clean and put together. Was I wealthy? No. Was a “VIP refugee?” Very far from it. Why, then? It’s because that was just about one of the only things that still made me feel human, and “normal,” despite all the negativity around me. My appearance was something I had total control over.
Why am I telling you this? Because I feel all kinds of pain wash over me when I hear things along the lines of: “Look at those refugees with smartphones, nice clothes, and sunglasses, asking for help. They don’t need help!” Statements like these are not only factually incorrect but also inhumane and thoughtless. Technology has completely changed almost every aspect of our lives; humanitarian aid and awareness is no exception. Hundreds of Facebook pages and groups and Twitter accounts have been created to not only facilitate the fundraising process and volunteer coordination, but also to directly communicate with the refugees. Everything from first-hand advice to translation of instructions of local volunteers into various different languages to facilitate the resettlement are common things you can find on social media. Life-saving maps of Croatia’s leftover land mine fields from the 1990s took off by storm when Hungary closed its borders and the refugees were forced to go through the country. Activists, and some refugees themselves, scrambled to translate signs, print signs, and spread the word. Another aspect that many perhaps can’t fathom: families, sometimes accidentally or sometimes by force, get separated. Thank God some of them have cell phones! How I wish I had one, especially from 1992-1994, because that would have taken away so many worries, waiting months at a time to hear that my dad and older brother were alive.
Have you ever been in agony asking yourself if your loved one is alive or dead? I hope not. Before you comment again or stay silent when others do, please consider the things mentioned above. At the same time, keep something simple in mind: the “nice” clothes that you see on current refugees? It might be theirs, yes; or they could very likely be from charity, just like mine were.
What will it take for the world to see “these people” as humans? Isn’t losing their homes enough? Escaping war? Living in deplorable conditions? Risking their lives in every way possible to get to safety and a better tomorrow? Losing loved ones? Being tortured? Seeing their entire country leveled to the ground? Aren’t all of these and so much more enough? Should they throw away their smartphones? Should they make holes in their clothes? Would that make you “care?” Should they beg for help (which they actually have but to no avail), so that people can feel “important enough” and “dignified enough” to help?
They have lost literally everything they have: not only their belongings, but more importantly, their family members and friends, as well as their dreams and hopes. They have nothing else to lose. Why would you want them stripped of the last little bit of their dignity? Having a smartphone does not NOT make you a refugee. It also doesn’t give you back your home or protect you from barrel bombs. Having sunglasses doesn’t make them immune to chemical attacks, but it does hide the tears that have been provoked by all the inhumanity, humiliation and mistreatment that they receive.
It doesn’t hurt you to think a bit deeper before you say things like these. Sometimes, if you don’t, it can cause an enormous amount of hurt to someone who has already had enough pain to last several lifetimes. And then some.
Refugees are people; people who did not want to leave their homeland, but were forced to. They are human beings capable of great things. They are not here to “steal” anything from anyone. They are not a “burden.” All they are asking for is an opportunity… an opportunity to work hard and recreate some sort of normalcy for themselves and their families. As the Icelandic author and professor Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir said: “Refugees are human resources, experience and skills. Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we’ll never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.'”