Seeking Refuge

Photo illustrating the news item

From May 23-27, the Center of Dialogue and Conflict Transformation took 4 students, 5 staff and faculty, and a guest, John Stiefel, (a community development, humanitarian peacebuilding consultant) to the most populated refugee camp in Lithuania, providing shelter to over 600 residents located in Rukla – a small NATO military town near Kaunas. The residents of Rukla are asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Belarus, Syria, and many more – they are fleeing poverty, political persecution, and war. Despite their valid need for sanctuary, they find themselves feeling ‘unwelcome’.

After living and working in Rukla one thing was clear to the LCC volunteers, the Lithuanian administration system for migrants and refugees is completely overwhelmed. This overflow of migrants is almost single-handedly the fault of the Belarussian autocrat, Lukashenko, who has taken advantage of the middle eastern migrant population in Belarus. In 2020, Lithuania detained 81 migrants at the Belarussian border, in 2021 some 1700 migrants were detained, and as of January 2022 “Lithuania’s Interior Ministry estimates that 2,750 migrants are living in detention.” Lithuania’s capacity to care for these migrants is falling short.

In rows of freight containers and surrounded by wire fences the LCC volunteers lived alongside the asylum seekers in an area roughly the same size as a football field (7200 square meters) – with at least 600 residents that is 12 square meters per person. On top of living in an incredibly dense and small space, all of the camp provisions are carefully distributed. The use of essential faculties is scheduled on behalf of the residents. Kitchens are shared and access to the showers rotates every three days. Some provisions can be found missing altogether – from hand soap to privacy. John Stiefel reported that hand soap was missing from the restrooms on multiple occasions, and all of the volunteers were bothered that none of the residents’ private living spaces were able to be locked.

Beyond the ‘necessities’, John Stiefel commented on an incredible sense of boredom throughout the camp. However, he admitted that on occasion a string is hung up on the side of the camp and some men will play volleyball – there really is nothing to do.

Political circumstances and the difficulties of granting asylum are one thing, but treating these refugees with the dignity they deserve should be another. This problem of ‘capacity’ seems better stated as a problem of fear and distrust from higher-up political movements. In July of 2021, the Lithuanian Parliament passed a law restricting the rights of ‘irregular’ immigrants. The law makes it easier for the state to detain, reject, and return migrants from the middle east – assertions have been made that this violates Lithuania’s constitution.

It was not the impression of the LCC volunteers that the LT camp administration held any animosity towards the refugees. It seemed clear to them that the Rukla admins were well aware and just as frustrated with these issues. They require stronger political support and welcoming migration policies if they are going to provide the care the residents of Rukla deserve.

The LCC volunteers facilitated a 4-day workshop centered on active listening, emotional intelligence, and trauma awareness – how trauma affects our brain and body. Many of the practices sought to demonstrate how trauma severs the mind-body connection; for example, when an individual experiences traumatic stress and is unable to self-regulate their emotions or find the necessary support their body can enter into a chronic fight or flight mode. Knowing how to avoid these two extremes is easier said than done, but nonetheless, it is critically important to be aware of.

In theory, this stress management is described as a window of tolerance – “When people are within this zone, they are typically able to readily receive, process, and integrate information and otherwise respond to the demands of everyday life.” In practice, this is taught through increasing emotional awareness, actively paying attention to others as to provide support, and even through self-regulation such as a breathing technique. The goal of these workshops is to help build community, support resiliency, and foster leadership skills.

The LCC volunteers did not go to Rukla simply to empower the residents, but to also allow the residents to empower them. In theory and in practice LCC’s Peace Center is guided by the philosophy of copowerment – a mutual exchange of values and strength. Many workshop participants from Rukla reflected that they found comfort in the sense of community that had been built between themselves and the LCC volunteers, one participant stated, “I noticed the area that was growth for me was communication and leadership and be more resilient and the most important thing for me was knowledge”. Whereas many of the LCC volunteers reflected how their own sense of awareness had been raised by interacting with and learning from the refugees. “I was moved by the dignity with which they live their lives. After visiting Rukla, I have a better understanding of the realities of development and peace work,” said Scott Neumann, International Relations and Development Chair.

1 Jun 2022