«Your perspective changes when you empathize«
Pablo Sánchez is an international volunteer and co-founder of the NGO The Health Impact.
His work in different international non-governmental organizations helping refugees in the Balkans, Greece and Lebanon provided him with enough experience to see the shortcomings migrants confront on a daily basis.
He stands up for small but highly impactful local humanitarian projects –those in which the volunteer has a very close and personal relationship with refugees, where a rapport as equals is established without paternalism.
With this purpose he has just founded, along with his partner Allison Randles Moss, the organization The Health Impact with which they intend to promote health education among refugee camps in order to improve families’ life quality.
– What is your training and why did you decide to work helping refugees?
I am currently finishing my degree in Political Science at the Complutense University Madrid. However, the training in humanitarian aid that I have been acquiring all these years has not come from the academic environment. It comes from the hours and hours spent with different organizations, with people who sought to create the same change as me, learning from the thousands of stories I was told and the experiences I have had.
The decision to start working with migrants did not come overnight but was developed over time. One of the main reasons was the appalling treatment of this crisis I witnessed in the media. Migrants have always been considered simply numbers by the media. Anyone that tries to flee from war and misery is dehumanized, stripped of a name and the unique story that every person has.
If this refugee crisis happened in a European country, we would watch it on the news twenty-four hours a day and it would generate great empathy for the displaced people. But now instead we decide to feed a hatred and a xenophobia that create a climate of fear and rejection.
I decided to go to Greece to work with organizations on the ground, as soon as I realized I was not doing enough to help the people in this extreme situation.
In my own neighbourhood – in Madrid – I worked regularly with the Escuela Popular and Prospe 16, but I decided that this had to change, that I should have a more active role in this situation.
I have realized that your perspective changes when you truly empathize and realize that what the refugees are suffering through, could be happening to you. That it could be you and your family who had to run away from home. It’s when you see beyond those numbers projected by the media.
«You realize that what the refugees are suffering could be happening to you»
– You have worked and developed projects in different international organizations, how was the experience?
In every case the experience has been different, the groups of people are different, as the way they work. I have learned that there are hundreds of projects that provide assistance and mean a lot to the people to whom they support.
Aid manifests itself in different ways: from giving food and water, providing medical attention to young people who have been beaten and robbed trying to reach Europe, to teaching English to children and adults, or doing activities with the little ones giving some free time to exhausted mothers.
Sharing time with these people changes you. You listen to their stories and their current situation and your heart drops. You empathize and cry with them, and then they are the ones that try to comfort you. I remember when in Sarajevo, Bosnia, we went to a community centre where about twenty families lived with their children. They had been there for months and months, with nothing to do but wait. A group of volunteers dedicated themselves to trying to make their lives more bearable as they were stuck in the camps, unable to get to the border. For many families it was an impossible crossing to attempt because the extreme violence that the Croatian police often inflicted at the border would endanger their young children.
I sat to work in the common dining room, where everyone came and went and where Faraz (name fictitious) regularly approached to chat. His English was not particularly good, but the helplessness he conveyed when he spoke did not need words. He came from Afghanistan and had to flee with his two little girls to avoid the same tragic end his friends and neighbours had suffered.
In his helplessness I saw my own father, his fragility and his humanity. I saw my neighbour with his two daughters or my uncle with my cousins. I saw myself.
Being able to be witness to what is happening gives you the most strength to continue. Knowing and seeing what happens to these people as they flee, you cannot ignore it, it pushes you to work and try to do all you can to help.
«Being a first-person witness of what happens is what gives you the most strength to continue»
«Knowing what happens there, you cannot ignore it and pretend you did not know of its existence»
– What have you discovered about yourself while working on these projects?
Being in extreme situations that you never imagined living in, forces you to pause and deal with a thousand different thoughts and feelings. It forces you to sit down and start thinking “how am I digesting all of this?«
It helps you to get to know yourself when you work under enormous pressure, overcome a thousand unforeseen circumstances and adapt time after time.
Also -and I think this is very important to know for all the people who work as collaborators- this makes you understand that all that misery is not your fault, that it does not depend on «I could have done more». Even if you are not going to reverse the situation, you do change the lives of many people. And they yours.
«The extreme situations that you would never have imagined living in force you to know yourself better»
«Although you are not going to reverse the situation of the refugees, you do change the lives of many people. And they yours.»
– What differences have you found in the situation of refugees in Lebanon, Bosnia, Serbia and Greece?
In both Greece and Lebanon, refugees have been stationary for years, since the very beginning of the war. People have settled in these two countries and now are trapped with little ability to improve their situation. They are forced to simply try to survive and earn some money for their families, while they continue to wait for relocation papers after requesting asylum in a safe place. Receiving help with basics like food or shelter is more common there than it is in countries like Serbia or Bosnia, where refugees are trying to reach the borders of Europe on foot.
Those in the Balkan countries trying to reach the EU are in constant motion, aiming to move as quickly as possible since living conditions are extremely difficult.
During the winter the possibilities of dying on the road increase exponentially, so the cold often delays the journey. Those who undertake the trip towards Europe are generally young men who are able to withstand punishing temperatures, go days without eating and drinking and exert a’ tremendous physical effort. This is something that families with young children are not capable of enduring.
The capability to attempt the “game”, which is what the attempt of border crossing is often called, depends fully on their current condition. Even if their own circumstances are right, the refugees never know what they might encounter during the ‘game’, yet they are forced to continue to play, with their own life at stake.
Normally it is the families that financially support their children, sending them the little money that they can from their home countries. Families often cannot afford to make the trip all together, so one or two will go at a time.
– Why are there refugees who remain in camps for years? What is failing in global politics in this matter?
They are forced to leave their country for fear of being killed, this desperation leads them to accept any safer destination as acceptable. Better to sleep on the street than under a roof that may be bombed. When forced to leave so quickly and without a plan established, they go anywhere they know or where they heard a friend or neighbour went. After fleeing, there are few places that will accept them, and this is when they are seen, caught in a field or a settlement for years, waiting for the situation to improve.
Lebanon, for example, does not allow the creation of official refugee camps or permanent structures in order to prevent refugees staying long term and to try to get them back to their home country. Similarly, Turkey, the country that is home to the largest number of refugees in the world, receives money from the European Union to keep the borders closed and prevent people from moving to Europe, keeping them drowning in poverty-stricken camps.
«Turkey, being the country with the most refugees in the world, receives money from the European Union to support refugees and prevent them from going to Europe»
EU policies shaped by institutional racism, do not allow refugees inside, despite the promises made at the start of the crisis to host and welcome a number of those in need.
At the same time, it is incomprehensible how Spain complains about its emptied towns and cities, while in turn wants all the immigrants out. The same thing happens with low birth rates, which seems to be an alarming problem to pay pensions in a few years. Seeming to ignore the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of families living in absolute poverty in refugee camps waiting for a decent future period.
There are hundreds of thousands of out-of-school children living in dire conditions, and EU countries could fix it if they wanted to. Yet they all fail. There is example after example, and daily evidence showing how the European Union fails with its racist and xenophobic policies.
«They all fail. There is daily evidence of how the European Union fails with its racist and xenophobic policies.»
– Having worked on the ground, what is the most effective way for help to reach refugees? What needs are the most urgent for these people?
Frankly, volunteers and money are needed the most. Material shipments can be very expensive, and volunteers struggle to bring many items with, so physical donations received from Spain often cost more to ship than to buy locally. The large NGOs operating can often handle the logistics of manoeuvring donations internationally, but often what helps smaller groups the most is a monetary donation.
The small local organizations, seemingly more humble and smaller, are often the ones that can be the most effective. The volunteers put everything they have into their commitment and dedication to the work. A close, personal relationship is established between the refugees and volunteers. It is not only is the physical help that is vital, but in these cases, personal contact and emotional support are essential: listening, understanding, caring.
«It is not only the physical help that is provided in these cases, personal contact and support are essential: listening, understanding, caring»
What these people need most is to get out of the camps and relocate to someone safer and more stable. But until that happens, health and education problems are the most urgent. Our current interest is the former of the two, helping people stay healthier now so they are not burdened with illness later. Lack of safe drinking water, clean streets, proper shelter and other factors can cause infections and illnesses to proliferate. A simple cut or wound can escalate and lead to a major problem.
We are often unaware of how lucky we are with a public health service like the Spanish one, where little things like a cold or a wound are taken care of quickly. While in Lebanon we went three times a week to a settlement, holding English classes for young children. One day it was brought to our attention that one of the students had cut the bottom of her foot with glass, and a piece of glass was stuck in her foot. As the days went by, she developed an infection and it could be seen beginning to spread through her foot. Luckily, my partner, a nurse from the United States, Allison Randles Moss, helped treat her so the infection didn’t go any further.
Now that they are giving so many guidelines to people in Europe on how to wash their hands, how to disinfect surfaces, what to do to avoid contagion and the spread of the virus, it is clear that people need guidelines on how to do all this. This is happening in countries with high standards of living, legal minimum wages that generally do not drop below 800 euros, and where conditions are infinitely better. Imagine how this situation is unfolding in the hundreds of Lebanese settlements and in the thousands of refugee camps around the world. It is chaos. Projects like this are essential, especially to such vulnerable people and with so few resources.
«Health and education problems are the most urgent, our concentration is on the former so that the lack of health information does not lead to serious issues”
– You work in collaboration with Allison Randles Moss, how did you meet your partner and you and why did you decide to start working together?
We met in Lebanon, while both working for the same organization. While going to the different settlements to carry out educational projects for children we saw the difficult conditions in which they live and how diseases, infections and other health problems were left untreated due to lack of information. They are forced to live amongst garbage and waste because overwhelmed local institutions that are unable to help.
We saw an enormous number of children who regularly developed colds, skin infections and other diseases. All of them could be helped with a cheap and simple treatment in Spain but this same access is not available to the refugees there. The majority of these cases are frequent and predictable, therefore, with education and prevention can hopefully be avoided.
We decided to start doing something and developed a health care promotion and education initiative.
– This project has materialized in Health Impact, an NGO to help refugees, what stage of development are you in?
At this point we are defining what the projects will look like and setting goals and priorities based on the money we have, the which at the moment is very limited. As it is the beginning of our financial campaigns, we need more support than ever in order to move forward.
It is a project with humble but well-defined goals, we focus on improving the daily lives of these vulnerable people by directly improving health at the source. We are establishing direct education initiatives between equals, seeking to solve problems that have otherwise been ignored.
We believe in our mission, we have a clear path, and we can reach our goals, but we need support to carry it out.
“We believe in our mission, we have a clear path, and we can reach our goals, but we need support to carry it out.”
– What is the mission of The Health Impact? What kind of employees and workers are you looking for?
We aim to improve health through education. That is the basic idea of the organization. We want to give people the tools and knowledge so that communities by themselves, with the limited access they have to health resources, can avoid the illness and dangers that lurk in the settlements. By teaching health promotion techniques, we help people avoid needing to seek expensive treatment, an option that often forces families to choose between paying for food or for medical treatment.
In this current situation we are unable to provide a proper house to live in or a return home, but we can try to make life a little bit easier and more bearable by keeping people as healthy as possible.
The sooner we have everything ready to go and adequate financing that supports our work, we can begin to improve the living conditions for communities.
«Improve health through education. That is the basic idea of the organization»
The people we would love to have on our team should want to contribute compassionately to others, we want people who can see each case individually and be sensitive to the people we are going to help.
We hope that they be patient, with a desire to learn and grow, as we want people to take this project as their own and participate in it as much as they can and feel driven to. Although anyone with a background in healthcare is ideal, we are not looking for just one thing in particular, and everyone is welcome to apply.
– How are you working on The Health Impact financing?
At the moment we are drawing up strategies to achieve our objectives. We are seeing what we can do to reach more people, not only to make our project more visible, but also to give a voice to the people we want to support in Lebanon.
In order to finance the project, we are creating a crowdfunding page. Through our fundraising efforts we are sharing stories of Syrian refugees who are suffering through the consequences of war.
We aim to show how crucial every piece of aid is to these families and show the more human side to the refugee crisis. The communities that are suffering because of the conflict are made up of normal people and families. This seems obvious to say but is often forgotten after news reports only show hundreds of dehumanizing numbers and statistics every day.
We are looking to reach people who want to support a humble project, but one with a great capacity for action.
Right now, we are researching how to meet our needs and planning how to work sustainably into the future.
Communication and funding are very interesting parts of the project, as we try to spread a call to action for people to step up for families in need. We need to show people how vital and indispensable this work is, a reality we hope people will be able to easily see through our campaigns.
Our goal is to have people be moved to help us by simply making the reality of the situation more visible, showing that it can no longer continued to be ignored.
We strive to share information about our projects directly and simply, showing what we do and how we work with full transparency, so every donor and volunteer can see exactly what their support is doing and the impact it has. We place tremendous value on every euro that is donated to us, because we know that many people make a great effort to be able to contribute.
This communication work is essential for us, by presenting an alternative, positive and realistic narrative to stand against the constant bombardment of contradictory and xenophobic messages by the media false news about migrants and refugees.
By showing our work to the world, many things can be changed.
«In order to finance the project, we are creating a crowdfunding page»
«By showing our work to the world, many things can be changed»
– Given your experience with different international NGOs, what aspects you would like to replicate in your organization, and which would you keep away?
It is important that we build an organization that people take on as their own one, that advances because of the work of each individual volunteer and donor, that makes each person feel essential to changing a terrible situation.
Both in our work and in the way we communicate, we want to personalize each situation, speak with proper names through each case and situation, and show that we are people who work with people.
Absolute transparency in our work is essential, to show that everything we ask for support in, is vitally important.
It would be a failure for us to reproduce some of the dehumanizing treatment that we have seen occur in large NGOs there. Although they are aiming to defend the rights of refugees, not every case is treated with care. It is something you cannot imagine happening when you are in Spain, and it is a shock when you get there and see what happens every day.
The occasional negative actions can taint the name of people who work tirelessly and anonymously to do a great job in smaller NGOs in the Balkans and Lebanon with whom I have worked.
«We want to personalize each situation»
– In your experience working with refugees, what stories or Situations have marked you more with them and what people do you not forget?
The first time I worked with refugees was in Greece. There, almost three years ago, I met boys my age who had to leave Palestine, Iraq, and Syria in order to have a future, a job, a life. I remember clearly the moment I was listening to their stories and they strongly reminded me of my friends and myself. The things they were laughing about, joking about, make you realize that we are the same, that you could be the one who had gone to their country and had been forced to live in the conditions in which they do now. It hurts to see them suffer through so much misery and violence. I cannot not forget them, their stories, their names or their faces. It is what drives me to keep working every day.
Nor can I forget a Syrian family I met in Lebanon. They did not have an overly different or more moving story than many others, but I did spend a lot of time in their house, where I was made to feel as one of the family. I loved being with them, drinking tea, listening to everything they had to say… their worries and concerns. I loved feeling like a part of the family and welcomed, just like I would with my own family in Madrid. It is difficult to see all of it, to be so aware that we are equal as people, and then to see the injustice of the situation. No one deserves to live like this.
– What advice would you give to a person who wants to start working as a volunteer helping refugees?
I would recommend that they do no rush into it and not to place blame on themselves. Something that is difficult to prevent is the feeling that working in this area generates for people. There is an emotional part that becomes involved and so often ends in the volunteer suffering with tremendous personal guilt «for not having done enough» as happened to me when I returned from Greece. I came back very affected by my experience.
None of us are going to be able change the situation of migrants by ourselves, that’s why we organize together, as a team the efforts multiply and the results are much better.
To consider the option of going to work to improve the problem is already a great step forward. Once you discover the daily reality of people who are fleeing their country, you cannot ignore it, and the more people involved to help, the better.
«To consider the option of going to work to improve the problem is already a great step forward»
– How would you like to see your organization and your work within 10 years?
In 10 years, I would like to see us with a job already completed, and families no longer living in settlements, at least in one region. Although it sounds very typical, the number of families who have told me they want to go home is incredible. If they were able to return, that would mean that the conflict is over and that they can go back to where they call home. Still, we have a long road ahead before that, and it would be naive to think that in ten years’ time these innocent civilians would not still be falling victim to armed conflict. For our work people’s support is essential to continue, I would like to see an organization that maintains a human connection with those we serve and maintain a positive impact on the area with the people who put all their effort and dedication into it.
– Do you have any free time?
I do have free time. I try to take time to see friends, spend time with my parents and with my sister, to do sports and study. While I do have full dedication to all of this, I believe it is just as important to remain healthy and take care of myself. I am conscious of how important staying healthy is to be able to continue and help others. The better I feel, the more strength I will have to carry out this project.
– A wish you would like to come true
That there would be governments that put the interests of the poor, of the average person, above their own interests and those of the rich. Containment of refugees at the European border does not solve any problem, only worsens it. We need to stop ignoring and stop doing nothing.
«That there would be governments that put the interests of the poor, of the average person, above their own interests and those of the rich»