The Art of Living Like a Refugee



The Arabic word means “God willing,” and reflects surrender to what we cannot control and what divine fate ordains. We hear it often working with refugees seeking sanctuary in Greece. Over the past year, I have volunteered with Advocates Abroad, a legal aid organization that provides lawyers to refugees applying for political asylum.

Most fled from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa.  I listened as they told me their stories about the bodies of their mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers who were pulled out of the rubble when warplanes bombed their homes. They were mercilessly tortured by regimes and rebels. They survived harrowing flights of escape, shot at by border guards and nearly drowned when flimsy rafts they were promised were safe sunk. They now live in overcrowded refugee camps that do not meet minimal standards of space, safety, food or health. All of this is backed up by media and human rights organization reports that corroborate the horrors that have taken place, and this research is used to support our client’s testimony in their applications for asylum.

The refugees bless our work by rising above the wrong they suffered and meeting us as colleagues and friends, working with us as we fight for the rights and lives of their fellow refugees. One refugee, who interprets with us, is a brilliant painter and sculptor. He fled home when his art studio was burnt to the ground following death threats for his painting for regime opponents. I will call him Bakari rather than his true name to protect his identity. His artwork (shown in the article) illustrates this story of refugee life. Asylum authorities have not yet decided Bakari’s asylum claim, and he has lived in the camp for a year. He interprets for us to help other refugees, teaches art at a refugee shelter, and he paints and sculpts with whatever tools he finds.

The refugee journey is a desperate one. They leave because war and terror threaten death, harm, capture, and torture, and they hope for a safe and free life.

Journey without Return

Journey without Return

The journey is so dangerous that many die at the hands of border guards, police, criminals, or in shipwrecks.

Story of a Lost Life , 2018

Story of a Lost Life, 2018

Conditions in the camp are desolate, and the basic humanitarian needs of refugees are neglected. Refugees live in tattered tents, eat infested food, and receive little healthcare. Some are wrongly arrested by authorities, or beaten by police and hostile residents.

Refugees are forced into camps until their cases are decided. These camps are located on otherwise beautiful Greek islands, but for refugees, life is like a prison. They live in constant fear that they will lose their asylum cases and be forced to return to places where they could be killed, hurt or jailed.

Moments Alone and the Difficulties of Man

Moments Alone and the Difficulties of Man

Though most refugees and those responsible for them are good people, some are not. Women and children are vulnerable and often unprotected from sexual assault.

Is there a Place for Forgotten Flowers , 2018

Is there a Place for Forgotten Flowers, 2018

The asylum process separates families–children are taken from parents, siblings are split up, even expectant parents face the risk of being forced apart.

Despite all this, there is hope and community among refugees. Many help each other and serve as interpreters, teachers, fitness directors, or liaisons to refugee support organizations. And volunteers come from around the world to provide humanitarian aid and lawyers to protect refugee rights.

Love Without Borders,  2017

Love Without Borders, 2017

My refugee friends live meaningfully and vibrantly. They work, volunteer, and enjoy life as best they can. We walked beaches and seaside roads, they talked about girlfriends and played their favorite songs, and they shared the dreams of what they would do if only the world will let them.

Spring in Samos ( Greece)

Spring in Samos (Greece)

The refugees I know are not dangerous. As a young Syrian told me, “I left because both sides in the war captured me and they tortured me the same way.  I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to kill anyone, and I don’t want to die.” As the brilliant poet, Warsan Shire wrote in her haunting work “Home,”

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark . . . no one leaves home unless home is the barrel of a gun.”

Our work with each refugee can be the difference between life and death, and a door to a new life, if we win them asylum in a safe country. There is also great power to our presence, that we are with them in this lonely and frightening moment, to experience their humanity and let them know they matter. An Iraqi married couple with a child, who fled from death threats they received because they married across religious sects, told my colleague and me: “You are the first people who listened to us and asked us what we want to do. You are the first people who are on our side.”

We often received a moving Arabic greeting from our friends–placing a palm on the heart and extending the hand out towards the person being greeted, with a slight bow. This goes beyond hello and means “my brother, my friend, love and respect from my heart to yours.” This is who we should think of when we think of refugees. People like Bakari, so thoughtful and kind.

When I told Bakari how much I admired what he did, he smiled and said: “I want to learn and share because if I do not learn and share, I am like a beautiful house with no one inside.”

Photo: Bakari in Samos, Greece

Photo: Bakari in Samos, Greece

Perhaps our work together will be the key to opening doors for refugees to walk through, to leave the horror of the past behind, and towards a future of peace, happiness, and sanctuary.



Charlie Martel is a human rights lawyer with Advocates Abroad, a legal aid non-governmental organization that assists refugees from the Middle East and Africa seeking asylum in Europe. He volunteered to work with refugees on the Greek island of Samos in late 2017. Supported by the work of Advocates, Charlie led a team of remote international law student fellows. Charlie has also worked as an investigative counsel with the U.S. Senate and taught national security law. He has a Master’s degree in international human rights law from the London School of Economics.

To support or volunteer to work with refugees on legal cases, you may contact Advocates Abroad at To provide or volunteer for non-legal humanitarian support, contact Samos Volunteers at

(Views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Advocates Abroad.)