I’ve worked with refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Uganda. These are the differences in how they’re treated

The Ukrainians I met at a recent refugee center were stuck outside, unsure what to do after being told not to access the old ‘bad’ system for refugees and instead to wait for a ‘good’ one. These are people who have suffered immensely — and, like so many others, are confused by a system that keeps changing around them

Amy Aves Challenger
Switzerland
Thursday 17 March 2022 21:03
<p>People who have crossed the border point from Ukraine into Medyka, Poland, wait to board a bus (Victoria Jones/PA)</p>

People who have crossed the border point from Ukraine into Medyka, Poland, wait to board a bus (Victoria Jones/PA)

I was thrilled to see that Benedict Cumberbatch used his influence to show support for Ukrainian refugees on the Baftas Red Carpet this week, as he told Sky News that he hopes to open his doors and be part of the UK government’s refugee-hosting program. In my years working with asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Uganda, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Turkey, Syria, Georgia, and now Ukraine, I’ve never seen displaced people become such a popular talking point. Nearly overnight, helping refugees has become a part of Europe’s everyday language — in chats, on social media, in businesses, schools, on trains and in phone stores, and now on the red carpet. Right now, everybody wants to help asylum seekers — at least from Ukraine.

Two weeks ago on a Saturday night, I met my first Ukrainian refugees. My husband and I were spending our time as volunteers eating popcorn and playing Uno with Afghan teens at a refugee camp in Zürich, Switzerland. Walking out, we found eight Ukrainian adults, some crying, with their children running around the armed building. They told me they’d been advised by registration guards not to enter the ‘‘bad’’ system for refugees, but that they should wait for the new “good’’ system coming soon just for Ukrainians.

These women had traveled days through Ukraine, then in Europe; some said they were leaving husbands who were medical workers, who had had to stay behind to look after patients. A Swiss man they’d met wanted to help. ‘‘I have kids,’’ he said to me. ‘‘I can’t imagine this.’’ He paid for housing for all 18 refugees for several nights while we created a community chat to support them in finding longer-term housing, supplies, and answers to registration questions. As they stood in lines daily and talked with government staff, they taught the people in our growing chat about local government, about the evolving Swiss Ukrainian permit news, so that we could share information with others. Then they joined us in helping other refugees as they arrived.

I consider some of the refugees I’ve known who would have benefited from such connections. I think of an Afghan teen refugee who arrived, unaccompanied, in a shipping container from Greece three years ago. It took her several midnight attempts on a crowded raft without a life vest — though she can’t swim — to reach Greece from Turkey. Before Turkey, she crossed the snowy mountains of Iran on foot.

I got to know this Afghan refugee over dough we kneaded for pizzas at the camp. She told me she’d lost her mom during the years-long journey they undertook toward Switzerland. She was scared to sleep in the small bunk room she was given, where she shared with adults in the locked-down ‘‘bad camp’’ where I later met the Ukrainians. There was no system designed for her to stay in a private home as we can now thankfully offer Ukrainians. There was no way for her to live without armed guards, with a foster family or host. Eventually, she was admitted to a psychiatric unit several times for PTSD, where I could only visit her by waving from the outside. She still hasn’t received guaranteed long-term residency.

Or I consider my friend from another eastern European country who came to Switzerland to save her son’s life. He needed several surgeries, and eventually a transplant that was unavailable in his home country. His college-educated parents want to work, but aren’t permitted to by authorities. So the mom volunteers for the Red Cross, visiting lonely seniors in their homes. This family waited for almost three years for an answer to their asylum application, recently receiving a rejection.

Or I consider a Ugandan woman who escaped her traffickers after two years of slavery. She traveled to Switzerland alone. When she arrived, she received no welcome; rather, she began to process her trauma all by herself. We became friends when I received a call that someone needed help getting to church. About a month later, she was shipped across the country, forced to stay in a small refugee center atop a mountain in a remote part of Switzerland. There, she slept in a bunk room with several other women, learning French for six months before she was allowed to leave and begin efforts to track down her children, who were still living in danger in Uganda.

Each one of these people has become a teacher to me. They’ve learned new languages, cared for babies and toddlers, survived the cold with suitcases or small bags, lived in tents, walked, boated, run often without money, some without identity documents, always without a home. At times they have not been able to see a future beyond their chilly feet. Now I hope that seeing them through me, a simple mom who has heard their stories, and especially through the eyes of celebrities like Cumberbatch will open more doors and minds.

As we follow Ukrainians and their iconic leader President Volodymyr Zelensky, I hope we become part of something bigger than our small worlds. After all, as Justin Trudeau recently said to Zelensky in front of Canada’s parliament, “You’re defending the values that form the pillars of all free, democratic countries: freedom, human rights, justice, truth, international order.”

May we all defend such values, for all displaced people, by challenging ourselves and our systems, and by keeping doors wide open.

Amy Aves Challenger has been organizing activities and building international relationships within the refugee community for over five years in Switzerland in conjunction with a government organization, several NGOs, and schools. She recently received a grant via the Schusterman Foundation to provide creative writing workshops to 24 refugees across Europe

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in