UTPB professor researches plight of refugees

A passion for informing people about humanitarian treatment for people worldwide and the importance of supporting and offering hope to refugees prompted University of Texas of the Permian Basin associate professor in sociology Joanna Hadjicostandi to embark on a study of refugees in Greece.
Hadjicostandi, who also is sociology program coordinator at UTPB, said she travels to her home country almost every year.
One of the dimensions of her research has centered on international labor markets and internal and international migration and the position of migrants in their destination, she said in an email.
“This study focuses on refugees, who are individuals forced to leave their homes and war-torn countries with their families or part of their families and often the clothes on their backs and any cash they may have (often used to pay smugglers to travel from one place to another) to survive very grave life-threatening circumstances,” Hadjicostandi said in an email.
“This is a very serious socioeconomic, political and clearly humanitarian issue to explore as people are stranded in undesirable destinations. I am particularly interested in the situation in Greece because the Greek population is facing severe austerity measures with a tremendous rise in unemployment, underemployment and poverty. There is a clear contradiction,” she added.
Hadjicostandi ran into the first wave of refugees a couple of years ago.
“I was shocked to see so many people walking in the streets dragging a suitcase, having several children and walking. Then I realized they were heading toward the bus station. When I went to the bus station, it was so crowded with people I stopped there and talked to them and realized they were mostly Syrian refugees,” Hadjicostandi said.
Most of the refugees were from Syria and some from Iraq. Because she speaks Arabic, she said it was easier for her to communicate with them rather than getting a translator.
Some refugees were moved from Kavala to Eski Kapou. The camp was at the bottom of a mountain. Tents were set up and it was one family per tent, but there were times that different families shared one tent.
Noting that the refugees did not choose to leave home, Hadjicostandi said people in the camps made do with what they had, despite being in an inhospitable environment. “They did a very good job of setting up their little areas with whatever means were given to them,” she said.
The situation also is difficult because the people are in transition from one day to the next. They don’t know when they will be able to move on to meet their families.
“They had to leave their homes, leave their property, leave their families behind in order to survive the war,” Hadjicostandi said.
Their trips take place in sections and for each section they are led by separate coyotes. “So it is not a cheap trip. People lose all their money doing this, just getting to the shore of Turkey. They might pay maybe two or three other people on the way until they get to the shore of Turkey where they pay maybe $2,000 or $3,000 Euro to pass,” she said.
It’s a class issue because the coyotes charge more for wealthy people, Hadjicostandi said.
Because of their experience, children in the camps are often afraid of any kind of noise at night because they fear it might be a bomb. She said she talked to a mother who had a son who had problems sleeping because of that.
She said the mother also told her the boy thought he was bad because his father left and went to Germany. Part of the story of the little boy was that he lost a year of schooling, as have most of the children in the campus, as well as older youngsters.
She said her study indicated that young adults 17-21 have had to stop high school or college and could not wait to resume.
An organization called Doctors of the World was helpful to her because they helped her go back and forth to the camp and discussed various issues people encountered and took care of the refugees. Hadjicostandi added that they had translators and social workers.
Hadjicostandi said her future plans include continuing her study and she is seeking grant funding to do so.
Meanwhile, Greece is facing tremendous economic difficulties, she said. The European Union has said they would contribute to help Greece with the refugees, but that has not happened.
In February 2016 when a number of countries closed their borders to migrants, they also closed their borders with Greece. “The situation is very interesting because … then the argument is, ‘Well, send them back.’ Greece cannot send anybody back because they come in boats that barely make it to the shore and we see the horrible pictures of children being pulled out of the sea and adults just dying …,” Hadjicostandi said.
When she conducted her study in Kavala, Hadjicostandi said she interviewed some government officials and found out that the reason people were sent to Eski Kapou was not by choice of Kavala, but because other options presented by local officials were rejected ultimately by the Greek government.
Those in the camps, she said, are currently experiencing winter weather, complete with snow.
Hadjicostandi said she found herself in conflict after her trip. She wanted to help everyone she met or saw, even if she didn’t know them.
“But of course I’m limited and all I can do is try to remind everybody … that they need to understand the political and economic conditions that are going on right now and try to help reinstall humanitarian existence in the world,” she said.
Local churches, whether directly or indirectly, make it part of their mission to help refugees.
The Rev. Dawn Weaks, co-lead pastor of First Christian Church, said the church is intentional about saying its mission is to care for refugees. Weaks said a special offering was conducted for Syrian refugees on Christmas Eve.
Chris Harrington, missions pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church, has been going on mission trips since he was in elementary school. From the context of the church and being a follower of Christ, he said it is biblically mandated that “we take care of those who are less fortunate” and those who are outcasts.
Physical needs, such as hunger and thirst, are met so that hopefully people will listen to the gospel, Harrington said. He added that this is the example Jesus set throughout his ministry.
Among its endeavors, Harrington said the church goes on missions to western Kenya several times a year and they have worked with people who have been displaced due to election violence.