By Stephen Jones
Most think of Greece as a utopia in southeastern Europe. On the southern end of the Balkan Peninsula, it is the convergence point of Europe, Asia and Africa. Tens of millions of tourists visit Greece each year to bask in its beauty or trace the fingerprints of its rich history. Christina Salem, a senior at Oakland University studying journalism and public relations, was well aware of the splendor of Greece. However, when she visited the country for herself she met some of its citizens and heard some of its untold stories.
Salem was one of 13 students that went on a trip to Greece to cover its economic and refugee crisis. She spent a month learning about Greece’s difficulties and connecting with refugees of religious violence. She quickly realized that the camps in which those refugees were housed was very different from the wonderland that she’d heard about coming into the trip.
“The refugee living situation is horrible,” Salem said. “It’s dense and uncomfortable. They live in tin boxes the size of a parking space. It’s not like anything you would ever think of when you think of Greece. When you think of Greece, you think of paradise, but this was not paradise.”
When Salem spoke to refugees, she heard the story of a more peaceful time that was driven off the rails by divisive religious tactics from terror organizations such as the Islamic State group.
“The information that I gathered was that Muslims and Christians lived together like brothers and sisters before ISIS took over and created the division between them,” Salem explained. “They had a large force manipulating the population, and pinning one against the other, and that’s how the division was created.”
Going into the trip, Salem identified the phenomenon of Christians hiding their faith within refugee camps as a topic of interest. As a member of the Chaldean community, this topic hit Salem very close to home.
“I spent a month there gathering information on the Christian minority population within these refugee camps,” Salem said. “After venturing in and out of refugee camps for the first two weeks of July, it struck me that most of these people withheld their identity as an effort to protect themselves from an impending persecution from their fellow neighbors or other majorities within these camps.”
Salem describes the trip as a humbling and eye-opening experience. Although the trip was emotionally taxing because of the conditions she witnessed in the camp, Salem was encouraged by the leadership in the camps and the dialogue that took place.
“At specific camps the leaders in charge gave the refugees opportunities to express themselves in a way that doesn’t harm others and brings them closer their fellow neighbor,” Salem said. “It goes back to them just acknowledging that we’re all under one God, and that’s what they’re promoting, it’s the peace and the unity among different cultures.”
Salem says the trip encouraged her to do everything in her power to promote unity. Salem believes the Greece trip made her a more complete person.
“I was inspired” Salem said. “I felt like I was constantly shedding layers of myself onto the world until all I had was this raw form, and in that form I had to be the bravest version of myself in every way, and that was empowering. I grew a lot from it.”
Some of Salem’s goals for the future include pursuing other humanitarian efforts and having her own talk show to spotlight some of the world’s most challenging issues.
Salem took a lot away from her trip across the world. She was able to develop personally and professionally. The study abroad program gave her an opportunity to research an issue, visit the location where the issue is taking place and have conversations with the individuals most effected. All of these things add up to an extremely valuable experience for an aspiring journalist. Upon returning home, she wrote a feature story for Oakland University’s OU Refugee Report website titled Hidden Christians.
In her feature, Salem asks her audience to put themselves in the shoes of a refugee fleeing from persecution. Salem feels a deep sense of empathy for the people in the camps and wants to shed light on the issues they face. The trip caused Salem to view the world around her differently, and at the end of it one message was clearer than ever before.
“We should celebrate our differences rather than letting them divide us.”