Learning to Listen
Summer 2019 IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow Jordan Brown connects with refugees in Thessaloniki, Greece. It was my second day working at the Sindos Community Center in Thessaloniki when I met Idriss. I decided to sit in on the afternoon professional development class to observe and gain a better understanding of the center’s work. As everyone gathered in the classroom and took their seats, I noticed the ethnic make-up of the participants. All African men, mostly French speaking, and somewhere in their mid-20s to early 30s. There was an older gentleman who spoke Farsi, but he seemed to have the gist of what was going on. A French translator and two instructors who spoke Greek and English led the session. I was intrigued.
The class started with a presentation on making a Greek CV, but after the lead instructor, Georgia, noticed that most of the men were new to the class, she quickly shifted the lesson to a more participatory group discussion. She instructed everyone to circle their chairs and get comfortable. We were then told to go around the circle and introduce ourselves. Georgia asked the men to share about their previous work experience, education levels, and the kind of work they’re looking for in Greece.
The room fell silent when Georgia asked who wanted to start. The men looked around, laughing and gesturing as to who should go first. A brave soul from Guinea volunteered to break the ice. He shared about his extensive knowledge and training in electrical work, saying that he could wire an entire house if needed. Although a certified electrician in Guinea, he had lost his official documentation and certificates on his journey to Greece.
After he finished sharing, stories started pouring out like water from a faucet. The men seemed eager to let the group know of their accomplishments and former experiences. When my turn came, I shared about my first job at the age of 16 and the life lessons I’ve carried with me since. It felt great to share and see only attentive faces from the group of men. This blissful atmosphere faltered as we moved on to the next person.
Sitting to my right was a man named Idriss. I hadn’t paid him much attention, as he had been reserved for most of the discussion. We all waited for him to speak, trying not to stare in his direction; I could sense the pressure he felt, perhaps from the group or from the weight of the question.
He focused his attention on the instructor and said in confusion, “I don’t know what to share.” His English immediately caught my attention. He was the first African man to not direct statements at the translator, so I interjected and said to him, “Say anything. This is about what you want the group to know.” I peeked at Georgia hoping that she approved of my intervening comment. She nodded and I returned my focus back to Idriss. He warned the group that it might be a long story, taking a slow, deep breath, trying everything he could to evade the question — but I was determined to hear this man share.
He began by telling the group about growing up in Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war. “This was a hard time to be a kid in my country,” he explained, but quickly shifted the conversation towards his work experience. He told us how he began “formally” working in 2009 under the supervision of a German mechanic who trained Idriss in technical and automotive work. This trade served him well in the following years when began working for the Red Cross in 2014 as a transporter during the Ebola crisis. He became certified in defensive and off-road driving techniques under the Red Cross and was later promoted to lead transporter.
Idriss’ body language and emotional demeanor shifted to a more introspective, isolated state while sharing these details. It was as if, mentally, he had left the room and was back driving through the rugged dirt streets of Sierra Leone. He explained how he was respected by his bosses and that other employees looked to him for direction. I could hear the defensiveness and feelings of unwanted pride trembling in his voice as he recounted the sweet memory. I wondered if he thought we didn’t believe him. He ended his story by saying, “Now I have nothing but a picture of what I accomplished. What am I supposed to do next?”
A heavy cloud of confusion and hopelessness drifted into the room. Georgia thanked him for sharing, but we all could feel the painful memories this had triggered. She asked him about his present emotional state to which he quickly and without hesitation responded “depressed.” I paused. It’s heart-wrenching to hear that word, to understand the weight it carries. Idriss knew exactly the mental and emotional state he’d experienced since arriving in Greece and wanted to make sure that we knew.
I valued this act of bravery from Idriss and understood how difficult it is to publicly relinquish layers of pride and shame, all for the sake of participating in a group activity. Georgia asked if there was anything the center could do, but he shook his head in refusal. I decided to throw my advice in the ring and told him that it’s healthy to remember times when he was proud of himself. That it was okay to keep those memories of feeling responsible and valued in the forefront of his mind because those feelings are the kind that he’ll need to confront this uncertain and sometimes hopeless chapter of his story. I explained that no one likes talking about themselves — it’s weird and uncomfortable — but that I was happy to learn about this side of him and hoped that he could be proud of his story too.
We shared a look of deep empathy and understanding. I couldn’t begin to imagine the pain and heartache he’s endured that forced him to block out these joyful memories of achievement. What we shared was a brief, defining moment of acknowledgement. I wanted my eyes to say what words couldn’t. That I hear you. That the community center is here to support you. His soft smile let me know that he received the messaged. We finished going around the circle and eventually ended the session on an uplifting note.
Idriss approached me after the session and asked if I had a few minutes to talk. I happily said yes, and he started to show me pictures on his cell phone of the driving certificates from the Red Cross. I felt that Idriss, like many refugees that I’ve spoken with, only desires for people to understand that they are not broken. That each day they’re still trying to make the next day better than the last, despite the hardships life has presented them with.
The goal of the professional development class is to prepare members for entering the workforce. This means updating CVs, teaching Greek interview techniques, finding out what jobs they’re interested in, and helping members regain the confidence needed to land a job. Overall, the Sindos Community Center primarily serves refugees living in the pre-integration phase of their resettlement by offering educational lessons, cultural activities, and psychosocial support, while they eagerly wait for asylum.
I’m learning how this mission is carried out each day through the support of a dedicated staff and presence of resilient participants. Together, they exemplify what it means to be hopeful.
— Jordan Brown, Summer 2019 IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow in Greece
A huge influx of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East and parts of Africa has overwhelmed Greece since 2015, now recognized as one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. During a period of national instability, worsened by the ongoing economic crisis in Greece, the Sindos Community Center meets a
crucial need for refugees and the wider Sindos community by providing a foundation for future rehabilitation, integration, and prosperity. Refugees themselves facilitate and teach the daily schedule of classes, supported by IsraAID’s Greek and international staff. Every day more than 70 refugees come to the Community Center, where a holistic rehabilitation program offers job training, language classes, music and art therapy classes, and a child friendly space.
Jordan is currently attending Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. He is one of two IsraAID Humanitarian Fellows volunteering in Greece for summer 2019.