Alek Wychódzki has been a volunteer in SCI Hellas from November 2018 to May 2019. This is what he has to say about his experience.
WHAT MIGHT CAUSE DISCRIMINATION?
By Alek Wychodszki – ESC volunteer at SCI-Hellas
Before I came to Greece I didn’t have the best opinion about refugees. I wasn’t aware of what was actually happening and my opinion was based mostly on mass media. What people around me were saying had also a big impact. In Poland never have I ever had a real contact with a refugee face to face. My approach wasn’t positive, I felt like I didn’t want to see them, meet them and that they should stay in their countries. They are just coming to live for free and get money from the government. That’s what my opinion looked like and I thought I was right. I felt very comfortable with this approach, and honestly I didn’t care too much, I didn’t have a feeling that I need to get to know more the situation, and learn more about the things that are happening – no. If you don’t see a problem, the problem doesn’t exist – I think it may have been the way how I approached it all the time. I also think that it was something that had a root in one of our primal fears – the fear of unknown. Which I felt and sometimes I still do. I consider it as one of the most common reasons why we are feeling anxiety and have a defensive guard towards foreigners that often can result in an aggressive behavior.
BACK THEN AND NOW
Imagine a situation. Let’s move a couple thousand years back in time. You are in the jungle, walking with a friend and you hear a noise from the bush. In a blink of an eye it grabs your attention, you start wondering what it is. You decide to stay passive, but your friend is a curious guy, he wants to check it. What if in the bush is something that he can catch and eat for a dinner? It would be nice, but… well, it wasn’t his lucky day. He goes to the bush and stumble upon a tiger. So guess what happened – it killed him. Fortunately you managed to escape. Few days later you are walking again in the jungle and you hear noise coming from the bush. First thought? DANGER! Your body is tensed now, if you are smart enough you won’t go to check it. You want to be safe, you decide to go back. If you have possibilities such as finding food in the bush or being eaten by a tiger you will probably choose the first option.
Now come back to present times. You are walking down the street. You see someone that looks unfamiliar, a foreigner. He looks different; his skin is not like yours. It is first time you see person like this in real life. He is the unknown, and he is going in your direction. What will you feel? Joy? Probably not. Nowadays we are safer, but our fears didn’t vanish. Surviving for our brain is the most important thing. This person that you just passed on the street could have been the best, the kindest, and the most helpful guy you might ever meet in your life. But does it matter? What is more important – getting into a nice relation with a stranger or staying alive? It might seem totally out of place, the probability you are going to die, because of some random person passing on the street is nearly zero. So how it can be a reason for behaving in such a way? This whole survival thing may sound just like an excuse to stay ignorant and discriminative. But our mechanisms and instincts didn’t disappear. I am not talking right now about being scared because of character or personality of foreign people right now; I am just talking about biology. A very long time ago, when we didn’t have medicine, it could be reasonable to avoid foreigners, they might be having diseases that organisms of local people weren’t prepared for. Contact could cost them lives.
But now it doesn’t. We developed. We have medicine and other fields. It is a lot safer. But we still might feel in a similar way. What’s more, a lot of information is being spread all around us 24/7 – through internet, television, radio and so on. The problem is, that mostly we only hear bad news, when someone committed crime – we see it. Hardly ever can we notice on mass media someone, because he was kind and made a good deed. I am not saying that it never happens, but it is much rarer. And from the point of how our mind perceives bad information – they are a lot more memorable. They stick with us, and after some time we forget the source, what we heard might become a belief. Now not only we could feel anxiety, because of differences in biology, but also we might think that refugees are dangerous. We become biased, most probably we remain with a negative attitude, and we rarely verify, whether this image goes in line with reality.
Is there anything we can do with it? Fortunately – yes. What I believe is, that the moment we become aware of reasons why we feel in a certain way towards certain people is the first step towards becoming more open as a person. Understanding is the first step to acceptance. It doesn’t change everything, but if we know what causes certain behaviors, we can counter this effect for example by reading and watching things, in which we can see positive sides of different people. People we might be afraid of. What’s more – we can’t blame others, just because they are negative and even sometimes aggressive for example towards foreigners; they are not bad people. It’s not their fault. For sure there are a lot of reasons why they are feeling this way. Of course we can’t tell it about everyone, there are always some exceptions. My mom is the best person that I know, and from long as I can remember she had negative attitude towards foreigners with a different skin color. She doesn’t feel comfortable when she’s near one in a workplace. She doesn’t see them like real people. Sometimes I had contact with people from different countries. I was telling her about it and my positive experiences, so slowly she started becoming more familiar and feeling differently. Some time ago I spoke with her, and I mentioned that last weekend I partied with guys from Africa in a club. She was surprised. She asked doubtfully: -Are they okay? When I said yes, and that it was amazing and I really like spending time with them I could hear in her voice that it is for her really hard to believe. But from what I can sense she’s slowly changing her mind.
Thanks to experience in Greece, I also changed my mind. It would be great to say, that now I am very open and all what I have are positive feelings. But… it would be a lie. I still sometimes feel uncomfortable or anxious while seeing refugees. The difference is that now I am aware why I feel this way, and that I shouldn’t always trust this feeling. I try to stay open. Real contact with refugees made me realize, that despite our differences deep down we are all the same. We have the same feelings; the same needs; we understand each other. From what I know, they are not here for pleasure, the lack of basic needs such as a need for safety made them change country. They simply want to live a better life. But instead, very often they struggle. A cultural shock, discrimination and being pushed aside makes their reality harsh. It’s impossible to change the system, it’s impossible to change all people’s minds. But we can start from ourselves, and after some time, attitudes of other people might change, as they will become more and more familiar with the situation. If you are already open and are willing to live together with refugees, that’s great. If not, that’s okay, as long as you keep in mind the possible reasons why you might feel this way, and while you don’t let this feeling take over and define your behavior and future acts.