A long way to freedom

The University of Haifa’s Clinics for Law and Social Change embarked on a mission to assess the mental health of refugees in Greece. The volunteers who listened to their stories are forever changed.

Students at University of Haifa gather in Athens, Greece as part of a delegation to help refugees from Syria and North Africa. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Students at University of Haifa gather in Athens, Greece as part of a delegation to help refugees from Syria and North Africa.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

While the Western world grapples with a new harrowing reality, thanks to COVID-19, refugees from the Middle East and North Africa have for more than five years been experiencing horrors we can hardly imagine.

“After what I saw, I’m not afraid of the coronavirus. I’m afraid of them getting it. We have a home, they sleep in tents. They have nothing. They are isolated,” second-year law student Genwa Esleih said upon her return from Athens, Greece, earlier this month.

Esleih was part of a three-student delegation that ventured to Greece to speak with and listen to refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Their fact-finding mission was part of a bold project spearheaded by the University of Haifa’s Clinic for Law and Social Change, whereby students have one-on-one interaction with refugees to assess their needs and notify them of their legal rights.

Thousands of refugees have arrived on Greece’s shores in precarious makeshift boats since 2015. The result? The biggest humanitarian crisis to hit Europe this century. 

Esleih understands that even the most well-intentioned volunteer can’t work miracles and instill widespread change, but every little bit helps.

“One person can’t change the world,” she acknowledged. “Listening to their stories was the hardest thing I did in my life. Many of them slept in the streets for months and spoke about it like it’s nothing.”

Since the refugees’ journey to freedom is so overwhelming, the clinic decided to focus this year on one aspect where the students can make a difference - using international law to implement refugees’ rights to access mental health care.

“Refugees need mental health services, but they’re not even aware of it,” Esleih explained. “They say they need a home and a salary - they need those, too - but first they need to know how to cope with the trauma they experienced before they can enter normative society.”

The university’s work in Greece began when one of its researchers and humanitarian law experts, Dr. Itamar Mann, forged a connection with the German Refugee Law Clinics Abroad (RLCA) some three years ago. Mann shared the RLCA’s desire to use the law to enhance social justice for marginalized people. The latest group to visit Greece is the clinic’s fourth delegation of students, who were looking for sensible ways their legal aid can make a difference. 

The first three missions were in Chios, home to a large refugee camp. The most recent mission took place in Athens, where students focused on aiding refugees who have already entered Europe.

Students spent two weeks engaging in long, jam-packed days in which they asked refugees probing questions about their current situation. The students - all of whom have been Israeli Arabs thus far - have the distinct advantage of being able to communicate with most of the refugees in their native tongue. Considering that the Greek islands are flooded with volunteers from the West who don’t speak Arabic, sending students who do adds a much-needed degree of cultural sensitivity to a chaotic situation.

The students also met with other aid organizations to gain an understanding of the services available to refugees and the barriers preventing them from receiving mental health care. 

“OUR STUDENTS’ visits to Greece gave them valuable, hands-on experience,” Adv. Samar Qudha, head of the university’s human rights clinic, explained. “They learn to gather critical information from marginalized people and educate them about their rights. They also learn how to translate humanitarian distress into legal claims. But they understand, too, that they’re not miracle workers and must maintain a professional distance from their subjects.” 

The University of Haifa’s work in Greece is just one example of Israelis helping refugees who are attempting their own personal exodus from oppression. From IsraAid administering medical assistance, to Safed’s Ziv Medical Center treating Syrians from across the border, the country is doing its part to help those who yearn for a better and more secure life. 

While Israel largely embarks on these humanitarian missions with the Jewish notion of tikkun olam - “repairing the world” - being the motivating factor, the university’s Arab students come from a different place. Ultimately, though, the final destination is the same: helping those who are less fortunate.

For the students, speaking with the refugees was a reality check that left a lingering impression they won’t soon forget.

“I anticipated seeing hard cases, but not like this,” law student Rahaf Rahal said. “I saw people who lived months without a home. They lived this experience. Hearing it directly from them was incredibly moving,”. 

Rahal recalled meeting a 20-year-old woman with a six-month-old infant. Before her baby was born, the young woman had already suffered five miscarriages. 

“She got married in the camps. She must have been about 15. During her time she witnessed rape and rampant drug abuse,” Rahal, who is also 20, added.

“We’re the same age! When I compare our lives, it’s shocking what she has experienced. It gives you perspective.”

The students worked with dozens of refugees and helped them fill out an in-depth questionnaire about their experience as refugees, which revealed how they’ve been impacted on an emotional and psychological level. 

It is the clinic’s hope, the students explained, to present their findings to larger organizations in Greece and beyond that can help implement a plan to make mental health services available for refugees. 

Although not all of the students plan on pursuing humanitarian law upon graduation, they do hope to return - either with the university or on their own - and continue their work. 

If anything, they hope their presence will enable them to give a voice to a story that the media have largely ignored in recent years.

“There’s a darkness in the media,” Rahal lamented, adding that she hoped the students’ findings can give a voice to the voiceless. 

Perhaps the largest lesson these students have learned is that despite the dire circumstances these refugees have found themselves in, like the Jews who wandered the desert for 40 years, they are still hopeful that freedom is within reach.

“I was surprised by how the refugees opened their hearts and talked to us about their situation and about how they really feel about it,” student Lyne Haj Yahya marveled. “They were honest and had nothing to hide. Although their situation is hard, they were always trying to show us that they are in a good mood and that they are optimistic.”