Emotional Desolation:
Opening a Conversation on Displaced One’s Emotional Challenges

Screenshot from “The Red Turtle” a 2016 animated fantasy drama film co-written and directed by Michaël Dudok.

This article was last updated on August 27, 2023.

I am currently working on a detailed report that focuses on the psychological struggles encountered by refugees. My extensive involvement in this area includes conducting numerous interviews with a wide range of individuals. This research has highlighted the crucial role of emotional bonds. When individuals of different ages, genders, nationalities, and backgrounds come together through shared experiences of hardship and intense psychological challenges, certain patterns emerge.

One of the prominent issues is the development of relationships, from basic friendships to romantic involvements. There are widespread gender stereotypes, particularly concerning individuals from the Middle East and Africa. These stereotypes, along with a persistent colonial mindset, lead to specific experiences. In these scenarios, people are often treated merely as means for sexual and emotional fulfillment, and once they are no longer useful, they are discarded like used batteries in search of new ones. The power dynamics controlled by citizens, combined with a hyper-focus on individualism, often leads to negligence of the refugees’ backgrounds and living conditions, greatly contributing to their psychological trauma.

During my interactions with refugees, a common theme is the lack of meaningful communication and the general apathy towards their emotional states. For instance, a 36-year-old Syrian man emotionally recounted how he is often perceived as emotionless and immune to suffering by the locals. He shared an experience where his relationship ended abruptly without any discussion, and his attempts to communicate were misconstrued as harassment, even leading to threats of police involvement.

“I will call the police if you contact me again!” This phrase is a common experience shared by numerous male and female refugees, reflecting a recurring pattern in how their emotional relationships often conclude.

In a personal experience, while discussing feelings of loneliness and isolation with my therapist, she surprisingly suggested that having a girlfriend could be a solution.

Additionally, a 25-year-old man from Mali described how some volunteers on Lesvos island treated individuals like him as mere objects of sexual desire, disappearing after a single interaction and ignoring further communication attempts. A similar pattern was observed in several squats in Athens, where also in some other places, volunteers tended to avoid personal interactions with the residents.

The refugees often face neglect, a pervasive feeling of being inferior, language barriers, and cultural differences, all of which compound their challenges. This distress further amplifies their sense of isolation. When it seems that people are unwilling to invest time and effort in understanding each other, the refugees’ detachment from society grows even deeper. This feeling has been exacerbated in the post-Covid era.

An Afghan single mother expressed her plight, saying, “Being labeled solely as a refugee overshadows our complex lives. How can you connect emotionally with someone who sees you just as a refugee? Men pursue us for pleasure, yet shy away from the responsibilities towards our children and struggles. We, as women, have needs, but feel powerless.”

A Ukrainian single mother echoed a similar sentiment. She noted how she’s often unfairly perceived as being open to casual encounters, leading to demeaning attitudes. The combination of being underestimated and receiving pitying, yet condescending, looks towards her and her child’s situation complicates her social interactions. Racist and stereotypical questions about Ukraine add to her distress.

Raya, from Bulgaria, shared her distressing experience with her landlord, who inappropriately pressured her for a sexual relationship during discussions about rent. This behavior seemed influenced by sexual stereotypes prevalent about Eastern European women. When Raya stood up to this misconduct, the landlord resorted to threats of legal action, falsely alleging violent behavior and unpaid bills.

Zahra, a 23-year-old Iranian woman, described her experience: “In this society, if you don’t meet someone for a week, it’s seen as the end of the relationship. Then they say, ‘I’ve fallen for someone else!’” Zahra sought to understand her boyfriend’s behavior post-breakup but was accused of being psychotic and endangering his life.

These instances highlight how some citizens use the power of the law, not necessarily out of abusiveness, but to avoid engaging in meaningful dialogue. The threat of legal action is often used as an excuse to not invest time in understanding each other. This behavior is often rooted in cultural stereotypes and the refugees’ limited knowledge of laws and rights, which deters them from taking action.

While many think that donating clothes, food, or money is enough to help refugees, this is only a small part of the solution. Real change requires understanding their situations and addressing their specific needs. This means acknowledging their trauma, overcoming cultural barriers, and catering to the unique requirements of their communities.

In today’s world, everyone faces challenges. But for refugees, these are compounded by societal stereotypes, deprivation, discrimination, racism, family dynamics, and the stress of administrative processes unique to their situation. This quest for emotional fulfillment amidst such adversities leads to identity crises and isolation. This form of largely invisible violence is often overlooked and not considered in broader discussions.

In conclusion, the experiences of refugees, as narrated by individuals shared here, reveal a complex tapestry of challenges that extend far beyond the physical needs of shelter, food, and clothing. These stories highlight a deeper, often invisible form of violence rooted in societal stereotypes, discrimination, and racism. The emotional and psychological struggles faced by refugees are compounded by cultural misunderstandings, power imbalances, and a lack of legal awareness, leading to situations where their dignity and basic human rights are compromised.

The recurring theme in these narratives is the need for a more empathetic, informed approach towards refugees. It is not enough to provide material aid; there is a critical necessity to understand and address the psychological and emotional dimensions of their plight. This involves acknowledging their individual stories, recognizing the trauma they have endured, and actively working to dismantle the stereotypes and prejudices that exacerbate their difficulties.

Furthermore, these accounts underscore the importance of creating inclusive, supportive communities that recognize refugees as complete, complex individuals with diverse needs and aspirations. As global citizens, it is imperative to foster environments where refugees can rebuild their lives with dignity, respect, and a sense of belonging. Only then can we hope to address the multifaceted challenges they face and contribute meaningfully to their integration and empowerment in society.


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My journey in creating this space was deeply inspired by James Baldwin’s powerful work, “The Fire Next Time”. Like Baldwin, who eloquently addressed themes of identity, race, and the human condition, this blog aims to be a beacon for open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable discussions on similar issues.

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