***This Post is written as an observer. There are many conversations by people from all over the Balkans regarding refugee support and how to navigate that and best support these efforts. This post is directed as a critique by a visitor towards visitors (including herself), as someone who has witnessed the harvest of broken trust that these projections sow.
Of course not all volunteers fall into this category; however, I would challenge you that if your first reaction is to say “but not all volunteers!!” you might have missed the point of this. The point is to challenge, to make uncomfortable, as that is where growth happens. I’ve had the fortune of meeting MANY wonderful fellow international volunteers, and I know that every contribution is appreciated.***
The words for this post have been teetering at the edge of my lips for a while.
I am very new to activism. I am very new to volunteering. I am new to living abroad. All of these factors serve to discredit my insight, yet it is something that must be said.
In light of yet another horrifying revelation of UN peacekeeping force members’ sexual abuse in the Central African Republic, we are all sadly aware of how power is exploited in the midst of tragedy. Privilege becomes exaggerated as free choice is diminished, accept the help you are given or suffer the consequences. The myth of free choice becomes shattered in cases like these.
In similar regard, in times of emergency not only are we more willing to ignore abuses of power, we are often less aware of them. Other urgent topics take precedence. This is why I am taking the time to write this post as a clarion call. To my fellow international volunteers along the Balkan Route: sometimes, we need to sit down and shut up.
The Balkans as unwieldy, corrupt, authoritarian, dysfunctional pervades Western discourse on the subject, and, to an extent, for reasons. However, in this ideological ectoplasm, a new beast emerges, a variant of the White Savior Complex as the conversation about the Balkans as unwieldy, corrupt, authoritarian, dysfunctional (and even homogenous enough to be called simply The Balkans) ought to be led, controlled, and had by people from here, not us.
I am hesitant to simply invoke this as a case of “voluntourism” as many of the international volunteers do wish to assist in a more meaningful capacity than traditional voluntourism otherwise offers. However many of the similar mechanisms apply as it is perpetually challenging to tease apart where compassion ends and where ego begins in humanitarian work. Because this line is so fuzzy, reflection and self-work are an integral component of justice-oriented, productive humanitarianism, especially when we consider the roles of privilege and power and their effect on not only the system of humanitarianism, but also the need for it.
I currently offer support for incoming volunteers and am seeing first-hand how theoretical paradigms I have read about are embodied in practice.
“Many of these people who aren’t local, they sweep in and assume that there’s no existing framework. That they built everything! They ignore the political risks people are taking on their behalf. They don’t bother to acknowledge the local leadership except when their lack of understanding results in a massive failure, and they call on the locals to fix it! The condescension is palpable!”
I ranted to a friend over a cup of coffee.
I was met with that sad smile, a shrug, and an eyeroll. “Yep, business as usual for how they treat us.”
Which brings me to the crux of this post: activism that fails to center the local community it is attempting to assist is mostly worthless at best and harmful at worst.
The response I normally receive from people who aren’t from here is, “Why are you talking about the politics of volunteering? We aren’t here to help the local community, we are here to help the refugees! This just distracts us from our common goal.” Which is just a fancy way of dodging the question for a number of reasons.
Many international volunteers neglect to recognize that the locals here are closer to the experience than they will ever be. I’ve witnessed people oblivious to the fact that many of the local people are motivated to help, drawing on their own experiences of being attacked and displaced. We don’t trust their stories because they are foreign and we only give weight to “thorough and unbiased” viewpoints granted by the “objective” Western critical lens.
We conveniently forget our other narrative of the balkans as “A Very Sad Place Where War Happened” long enough to indignantly chide people who disagree with our approach, “It’s a real shame you don’t have more sympathy for them. We need to focus on THEM, not on who controls this.”
This argument is more frequently deployed after the foreigner has made an attempt to usurp authority and was met with resistance. This is, therefore, an attempt to gaslight and silence dissent rather than an actual call to refocus. Furthermore, it has the net result of instrumentalizing moral superiority and humanitarianism to assert hegemony.
If individuals from countries benefitting from “Fortress Europe” really wish to recenter efforts on refugees, they would better do that through putting aside their own wish to control and reform local efforts in their own image.
Cultural barriers go both ways, and far too frequently do I see other foreigners asserting that it’s really the fault of the cultural traditions of the community they are temporarily occupying that things aren’t getting done. It’s not their job to come to you. I will repeat that– the local community has NO obligation to accommodate you, and no matter how much you cry about refugees, I don’t care. Because then you are just using refugees as a bargaining chip in your bid to assert Western cultural supremacy. This is exploitative.
Is this all conscious? Not one bit. However, it is crucial that in the urgency of the situation that those of us with more privilege be mindful of how these structures intersect in refugee work. Navigating the traditional West-Balkan discourse did not stop simply because refugees are transiting here. If we are standing against injustice, we should seek to push back against narratives of oppression wherever we see them.