Back From Lebanon to Ukraine with Solidarity. Carmen Geha

From Lebanon to Ukraine with Solidarity. Carmen Geha

Carmen Geha, researcher at Interdisciplinary Research Group on Immigration.


Like so many people around the world, I read news about the Russian war on Ukraine with disbelief. First a few families fleeing, then hundreds, and today over 3 million Ukrainians are refugees escaping conflict and mass atrocities. This is Europe’s fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II.

A crisis that may be new to some EU states but not to me. My grandparents were Palestinian refugees who fled to Lebanon and then fled again out of Lebanon when the civil war started. My grandmother, widowed shortly after her second forced displacement, was left with seven children, no passport and no roof over her head. With hard work – and a little bit of heavenly luck – they survived and secured a future, better than most. I grew up in Lebanon, a country polarized over the Palestinian cause that left around 300,000 Palestinian refugees confined to camps to this day over seven decades later. When the Syrian refugee crisis started, I was among the early advocates asking for protection and inclusive policies. Of course, the Lebanese state, not signatory to the 1951 refugee convention, has done nothing to care for Syrian refugees leaving their fate in the hands of an inept UNHCR, a UN agency that accepted to stop registering Syrian newborns since 2015, to name just one way the 1 million or so refugees are being marginalized. I am not a refugee myself but following the last three years in Lebanon, experiencing one of the centuries largest non-nuclear explosions and the worst economic collapses in the world, I am forced to leave my country if I am to stay safe, afloat, and productive. I am privileged, a high-skilled migrant, joining a prestigious university in Barcelona to pursue research and teaching on migration. But today I am compelled to write as academic but also as a survivor of so much with an activist voice so deeply moved by the unprecedented wave of mass migration from Ukraine, over 3 million in under 3 weeks of war.

Arriving at a Host Country: Clothes and a House Key

Often the news cycle seems to end with refugees arriving to a host country, whether a welcoming or unwelcoming host country. We know that there are Syrian refugees stuck at the borderlands in Greece and France, but we know little about how they have been living the past several years. We know that Libyans migrants may have died at sea but almost nothing about their new lives. So, too, will the media frenzy like to decrease when news about EU states welcoming Ukrainian refugees. But the world has little knowledge of what it is like to flee with only your clothes on and with your house key ‘in a necklace over your neck,” as my Palestinian grandmother once showed me (she still had it with her at the age of 90). The lives of Ukrainian refugees may be spared from violent conflict but their life paths have been completely disrupted. Over the last three years, my friends and I have been trying to put together the pieces of our lives back, of careers, friendships, and romantic relationships. Networks of support break down when friends and loved ones are dispersed across borders. A survivor’s guilt haunts those of us who are lucky enough to venture into another safe place, “anywhere but here” as many would say. And so a word of caution to young researchers and journalists: the story of suffering does not end with arrival at a safe shore. Also, refugees are not a monolithic entity and must not be treated as one same block of human beings. In war and displacements inter-sectionalities are exacerbated, race, gender, social class, educational background, and wealth all play a part on how and where refugees are able, or not able, to adapt. Listen, be nuanced in your analysis, and understand that loss of home is a loss of dignity. Do not express pity but empathy, solidarity not charity, and support never disdain. These people did not choose to wake up and leave with only their clothes on.

Sovint el cicle de notícies sembla acabar amb l’arribada de refugiats a un país d’acollida, ja sigui un país acollidor o no. Sabem que hi ha refugiats sirians atrapats a les zones frontereres de Grècia i de França, però sabem poques coses sobre com han estat vivint els darrers anys. Sabem que hi ha migrants libis poden haver mort al mar, però gairebé no sabem res sobre les seves noves vides. Per tant, disminuirà també el frenesí mediàtic quan els estats de la UE hagin acollit refugiats ucraïnesos? Tanmateix, el món desconeix el que implica fugir amb només la roba posada i amb la clau de casa “en un collaret al coll”, com em va mostrar una vegada la meva àvia palestina (que encara conservava la clau als 90 anys). Els refugiats ucraïnesos poden estalviar-se el conflicte violent, però els seus camins vitals s’han vist completament alterats. Durant els darrers tres anys els meus amics i jo hem estat intentant recompondre les peces de les nostres vides, les nostres carreres, les nostres amistats i les nostres relacions romàntiques. Les xarxes de suport es trenquen quan els amics i els éssers estimats es dispersen a través de les fronteres. Un sentiment de culpa com a supervivents ens persegueix a aquells de nosaltres que tenim la sort d’aventurar-nos en un altre lloc segur, “en qualsevol lloc menys aquí”, com dirien molts. Per tant, una paraula d’advertència als joves investigadors i periodistes: la història del patiment no acaba amb l’arribada a una costa segura. A més, els refugiats no són una entitat monolítica i no han de ser tractats com un mateix bloc d’éssers humans. En les guerres i els desplaçaments les interseccionalitats s’agreugen, i la raça, el gènere, la classe social, els antecedents educatius i la riquesa influeixen en com i on els refugiats poden, o no, adaptar-se. Escolteu, matiseu les vostres anàlisis, i entengueu que la pèrdua de la llar és una pèrdua de dignitat. No expresseu pietat sinó empatia, solidaritat i no caritat, i suport, mai menyspreu. Aquesta gent no va triar despertar-se i marxar només amb la roba posada.

A Narrative of War and Forced Displacement

In a war the geo-political actors get the loudest say. People’s experiences barely make it to the surface, and academia especially political science end up being concerned with state actors. If you are an academic or a young researchers, you can use your position to help Ukrainians tell their story. People will want to speak up in situations of marginalization but only if they feel that by speaking they can tell their own narrative. Use documentation, keep records of everything and get testimonials but while respecting people’s confidentiality, positionality, and dignity. You can bring in other Ukrainian researchers into the work, co-design the questions with them, do the analysis together, and disseminate wider and beyond the confines of the academy. This first phase of the war will be the worst time in the lives of refugees but it will be the time they need to mentally record, help them do that, and they will see publishing as a means to tell their own narrative. I know that because when Beirut exploded with tons of ammonium nitrate at the port, we each turned to what we know to do best, protesting, doing relief work, fundraising, and ultimately documenting our stories and voices. Now even without any justice served because of Lebanon’s warlord state of corruption, we go back to our diary of those days using them to challenge mainstream narratives by the state and inter-governmental organizations who want to silence us. I’ve seen women do this from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and India to name a few places with dear friends. Ukrainians will do this too, and your position at a university even as a student can give them that platform. Use your position with caution, always empathy never pity, and in solidarity, people are not charity cases and must be given the right to self-determination, if not politically then through identities that get shattered but can be slowly rebuilt in ways that benefit them and their home countries… even those who never return (like my grandmother).


Profiles of the protagonists:

Carmen Geha


SDG - Sustainable Development Goals:

Els ODS a la UPF