Random Human Kindness the Only Redeeming Quality of European Refugee Camps

by Jerika L.H

Lydia Louis is a 28-year-old graduate of Damascus University. It was at school where she met her husband. Shortly after, they were forced to flee Syria as refugees. For Lydia, the four years of war in Syria were the worst years of her life. However, while many refugees imagine a safe place awaiting them on the other side of the Mediterranean, the reality is far more sobering. As Lydia’s story illustrates, European refugee camps are often just as traumatizing as the environment of war they fled from.

After the long agonizing walk across the half of Europe  ̶  Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and finally, the Netherlands  ̶  Lydia and her husband hoped to at least have a place to rest their head in peace and put all their worries of safety aside.  They arrived in Ter Appel in 2015, a reception camp in Northern Holland where all entering refugees go as they await their future; as many as 2000 at a time.

Upon arrival they were given an ID and taken to a large room with hundreds of others waiting in limbo. Once their name was called, refugees would be shipped off to another location. After what seemed like an eternity, Lydia was finally assigned a temporary home, Oranje, a small Dutch village of 120 inhabitants.  Their arrival, however, was not well received.

Initially, the Dutch government struck an agreement with the townspeople that Oranje would be the site of a temporary camp to accommodate 700 refugees. However, shortly after this was agreed upon, over 1,400 people were bused to the small village. The townspeople began to block the entrance into the village in protest.

For Lydia, the demonstrations against incoming refugees was the first sensation of not feeling welcome. “I felt so sad that it had to start like this. We spent 14 days there just waiting. There were no procedures. Many people fled the camp into Germany.”

After the two weeks they were once again shuffled around to another camp. However, this time it would be even more short-lived. After four days they were taken to the notorious “Heumensoord” camp. Lydia recalls it as “our nightmare.”

Located in the middle of the Dutch national forest, crisis workers constructed three giant tents to accommodate over 3000 displaced people.  Lydia described, “I was completely shocked when we arrived to find that we would be partially living outdoors. At first I was optimistic and I tried to make it easy for my husband by saying it is ok, it is a temporary camp for a maximum of a few weeks. We were eight people in one small bunk tent, men and women together with zero privacy.” The cold night air often crept into the tent, leaving babies ill and everyone with a lingering cough. An adequate quarantine area left much to be desired when a scabies outbreak spread through the camp.

“Every night I slept hoping the next day would bring good news but when I woke up I would just sit on my mattress and cry. I was so frustrated. Even just using the bathroom was dehumanizing. The make-shift toilets were dirty and disgusting, and the collective anxiety of the war-torn group made the environment feel so horrible. With a mass of 3000 people shoved together, you cannot control people’s behavior. Everyone was stressed thinking about their parents in Syria, processing the trauma or mourning the loss of their loved ones.”

Lydia even lessened her water intake so as to not have to use the group toilets as often. She feared being the next victim of disease or illness. As months past, nerves began to fray. They finally got word that it would be another six months until they would have the opportunity to leave. For Lydia, the news was like a punch in the gut.

Amidst the dirt of outdoor living and the complete lack of personal privacy or possessions, many aspects of the camp were simply unlivable. Sleep was a luxury. Apart from being in the middle of a freezing, unfamiliar wilderness, the noise of collective crying, anxiety attacks, and babies screaming made it impossible to find peace or tranquility. Although Dutch nights can be incredibly cold, Lydia says it was nowhere near the coldness of some of the COA (Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers) staff, a group which runs the camp.

In Rotterdam after the refugee camp ordeal

She recalls “Some were very nice, but others were annoyed we were there. They were so careless about the severity of our problems  ̶  us people who had just escaped a war with nothing more than our lives. They would sometimes say ‘ we didn’t  tell you to come here… We didn’t cause the war in your country .. this is Holland you have three rights BBB (bed, bread, and a bath).’ I see animals in this country that are treated better. They lied and told us that there were no other available camps in Holland or that we couldn’t move to be with our loved ones, but we called friends in other camps and they said that their camps were empty. It caused me a lot of pain.” The only comfort was offered from compassionate locals who donated items or checked in on the camp inhabitants to see what they could do to help. Just the smallest act of showing concern helped many refugees feel that there were people who cared about them  ̶  that they were not so unwanted as they were made to feel. Some COA staff tried to make up for the lack of compassion for other employees.

During her six months at Heumensoord, Lydia experienced a surge in stress-induced migraines. It got so severe that she was finishing a bottle of pain medicine every 10 days. “I used to cry so much. Sometimes at night I would go to the forest and scream because I couldn’t even speak loudly inside the tent. I feared that my private life would be exposed in public. Fights were common because everyone was suffocated and stressed.  When you put 3000 people from different backgrounds, politics, cultures and religions together, problems are guaranteed.  Fights often got so dangerous that police had to come in to control people. I never felt safe.”

Lydia’s marriage was also tested to the breaking point. With no privacy, they had no time to themselves to reconnect and share their intimate feelings. They learned quickly that being themselves in front of an audience would only bring more misery to their situation. “If you talk about any personal or private information, the whole camp will know and start gossiping about you. Also, just something as basic as showering without people watching took its toll.” Lydia recalls that some men would climb the partition wall to watch women shower, which would usually result in a fight between protective husbands and peeping toms.

On top of the struggles of daily life, the isolation was another difficult pill to swallow. COA prohibited media to enter and film inside the camp. Lydia suspects it’s because they feared consequences if the health violations were caught on tape. After several months, they finally succeeded to reach out to a human rights organization called “National Ombudsman,” which visited the camp and wrote a scathing report on the living conditions. With the help of Nijmegen’s mayor Hubert Bruls and a local lawyer, people began to catch wind of the less than ideal situation happening just outside of the quaint Dutch town. The pressure of the media helped to close the camp forever.

Lydia’s parents remain in Damascus. Thoughts of the days when rebel threats rocked the city with missiles fill her mind. The tense and agile darting through the sidewalk in shellshock with the ever present fear of the next airborne attack remains in her muscle memory.  “The sound of the falling missile is always the most frightening you hear its whistle and you wait .. will it come over me or someone else?” Never knowing which passing car might explode in a rigged bomb. In 2012 the long awaited bell finally tolled. A rocket ripped apart the family home, forever fracturing survivors.

While Damascus is under the control of the regime, the suburbs are the rebels’ playing ground. Most of the Syrian army does their fighting at night, as rebels attempt to penetrate the capital.  “I spent many nights unable to sleep fearing that in any moment they could come and occupy Damascus and maybe break into our houses and kill us or drive us out. I assure you no one can live normally in Syria .. there is no calm of mind; no security. You live in fear of any dreadful thing that could happen. And every moment it’s happening all around you. To be arrested by the regime or be kidnapped by people who sold their humanity; or killed by anyone who bears a weapon or by a missile or an explosion .. it is living literally in hell.”

After six months of waiting, Lydia and her husband we were finally moved to Budel, another camp, where their situation improved astronomically. There they enjoyed small moments of privacy and were shielded from the noises of others. It was the first time in over a year that they were able to rest their head and relax.  Months later, they were given permission to stay as  residents. They moved to another camp in Den Helder and were finally able to live as human beings again; allowed to leave the camp and go into the city or sit by the sea.  For Lydia, it symbolized the return of joy to her life, despite the situation in her native Syria. She is now building a life in Netherlands. “I live now in a house in Schagen and am so thankful to the nice people of Nijmegen who were so helpful and loving. Literally, without them no one could go on living. They did unforgettable things to make us feel better and improved our moment of hell. We are doing our best now to learn the Dutch language and we are trying to find an opportunity to work and to do something for our future.”

In reflection, Lydia agrees that refugee workers need more experience in trauma work as well as cultural sensitivity. Although many people come forward to help, they can unknowingly make the situation worse if they do not understand how culturally specific processing trauma can be. “Most of them were too young for this job,” she reflects. These kinds of bad consequences as a result of well-intended humanitarian aid is well documented.

In his book Crazy Like Us,  Ethan Watters documents how Western humanitarian aid can actually re-traumatize victims of war or natural disaster. For example, in the wake of the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami, humanitarians, biomedical doctors and psychiatrists flooded in to administer aid to the victims who, they assumed, were suffering from PTSD. They did so, however, without grasping the key component that therapeutic psychology is embedded with many western concepts and are not necessarily universals. This fundamental misunderstanding resulted in cases of iatrogenic trauma brought on by the stress of foreign therapies. Not only did the western team not understand the Sri Lankan culture of healing, they automatically assumed that Western psychiatry would be the most effective manner in aiding the tsunami victims. There are, however,  key differences in the concept of therapy in the Sri Lankan context which are fundamentally disparate from the American psychiatric approach. This was echoed by Watters’ description of how young Sri Lankan children were not allowed back to school because it was thought to be “too soon” by the volunteers, even though Sri Lankans have a history of social rejoining after trauma to reinforce their cultural bonds, which directly affects their mental health in a positive way. Sri Lankans were also coerced into revisiting the site of trauma which actually re-­traumatized them since this tactic was not part of their own healing methods. Interestingly enough, when volunteers were asked what prompted them to come give aid, many replied that they felt obligated since there was “no one in Sri Lanka trained to aid the victims.” This statement, when unpacked, showcases the exact colonial logic which underscores the form of humanitarian colonialism that works against the good intentions of trauma volunteers.

In the case of Syrian refugee camps, a lack of cultural understanding presents new difficulties on top of unprocessed trauma. Lydia notes, “It is extremely difficult for Syrians because privacy is a hallmark of our religion and culture .. some Muslim women with head scarves had to wear it all the time … men and women living in one room is also big deal that can violate people’s faith.” Apart from cultural sensitivity, there was at times a lack of general human compassion as many humanitarian workers expected praise from refugees and became indignant when they did not receive it. Refugees were often told they did not have a right to complain about their treatment in Europe because they should feel lucky to be there. This showcases how problematic notions of solidarity come to serve as a ‘white man’s burden’ of sorts, in which volunteers want refugees to metaphorically kiss their feet in return for their charity. As of now, about 11 million Syrians remain on the run and, inside Syria, over 6.3 million people are displaced. Given that approximately 500,000 Syrians have died thus far as a result of war, Lydia regards herself as a success story. And yet, her story is not without a valuable reflection on how mis-run refugee camps can add to the suffering upon the very wounds they seek to ease.

Lydia is adamant to mention that the silver lining of the entire ordeal was found in the kindness of the local people of Nijmegen and awake members of the Dutch government.

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts


  1. Keith O

    Jerika L.H., you had me until…..

    This showcases how problematic notions of solidarity come to serve as a ‘white man’s burden’ of sorts, in which volunteers want refugees to metaphorically kiss their feet in return for their charity.

    Why does it always have to come back to this?





  2. Jim Hoch

    They could have stayed and fought in the war. If 10% of the 1M refugees had fought dude would have been history a long time ago.

    Instead we get “put us up in a resort while you go fight”

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for