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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Building bridges between knowledge and action: An overview of the event 'Rethinking Refugees – Knowledge and Action'

14.12.2018, by Tina Keil in opinion

by Sindhuja Sankaran

Rethinking Refugees - Knowledge and Action in total, 7 pictures
Rethinking Refugees - Knowledge and Action

The compelling humanitarian issue of the refugee crisis in Europe since 2015 has reiterated the importance of finding durable solutions for refugees and asylum seekers. The matters that are currently represented include issues related to the inhumane conditions in refugee camps/hot spots, the aftermath of the EU-Turkey deal, the reluctance of citizens and countries to accept refugees, mental health issues such as PTSD many refugees face, issues concerning integration and the way information is communicated through media. This issue is not a stranger to the eyes of social psychology academics. Several studies have been conducted addressing attitudes towards refugees in Europe and the potential moderators that impact these attitudes. I too am one such social psychologist, who recently started working on how refugees are perceived based on ‘first appearances’ and its influence on pro-social behaviour. We are an academic community with a plethora of knowledge on these topics, however, there is a gap between us social psychology researchers and the ‘real world’ practitioners. A potential bridging of this gap was seen on October 26th and 27th, at the Institute of Psychology, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, when an event was organised titled ‘Rethinking Refugees – Knowledge and Action.’

The journey towards this meeting began when I was volunteering at one of the Greek refugee camps Moria, Lesbos, together with two other social psychology researchers (Emanuele Politi from the University of Lausanne and Marion Chipeux from University of Geneva). Being at the camp, seeing people, walking through the unsanitary conditions of the camp where kids are running around with one sandal in December jolted me and I wanted to take that knowledge and experience and share it with people in Poland, where I currently reside and work. This experience led to the establishment of the initiative ‘Rethinking Europe’s Refugee Crisis.’ At first, I organised an event in July titled ‘Stories beyond the tent’ to speak about the Greek refugee camp Moria, together with other volunteers who were doctors, journalists, and filmmakers. We were also able to call two asylum seekers via Skype and have a chat with them. Barring the poor Skype connection, people remembered those calls, because they saw refugees as people. At that time, I had no idea that a small initiative as this would have such a ripple effect.

Later, with a motley crew of three people – Dr. Karolina Czerska- Shaw (Faculty member of the department of European Studies), Karol Wilczynski and Anna Wilczynski (Journalists and the founders of the largest Polish blog on the topic of Islam (, who reached out to me, we started the elaborate process of planning this event. The meeting aimed to raise awareness about the refugee situation, to engage in open dialogue about the same, to facilitate working effectively towards to cause, to debunk myths about the situation and to humanise refugees and asylum seekers. The Institute of Psychology, UJ, Krakow were the official hosts of the event, and the European studies institute were co-hosts. We also got the official ‘stamp of approval’ by UNHCR. The faculties of Philosophy and International and Political Studies also helped with some funding.

On both days the panel discussion focussed on (i) the journey, current situation, societal implications of refugees and asylum seekers and (ii) challenges of integration and change. We had three prominent psychology researchers who participated in this. Prof. Paul van Lange, Vrije University, Amsterdam spoke about the issue of trust and mistrust amongst refugees, Prof. Michal Bilewicz, University of Warsaw, Poland discussed internet hate speech epidemics and its consequences for migrants and Prof. Halina Grzymała Moszczyńska, Jagiellonian University, Poland addressed the challenges to refugee integration in Poland.

Another essential account of the event and a message I feel strongly about is personalising the stories of refugees and asylum seekers. I believe that the stories of them fleeing war would induce sympathy, but perspective taking is difficult because it is hard for us to relate to their situation. Instead, we should complement these stories with more ‘real’ ones. For instance, a story that I narrate that almost always gets a chuckle from the audience is that of Mohammed, a refugee from Mosul, Iraq and his love for Justin Bieber. He explained that listening to his music made him happy and cheerful and that he learnt some English listening to Bieber’s songs. Mohammed is now finally out of Lesbos and has started studying Psychology in Athens. At the event, we had a video montage of four other asylum seekers who shared similar stories. A message that Mohammed wanted to share with the world was ‘Stop the war, don’t stop the people.’ A movingly accurate message.

The beauty of these panel discussions, however, was the concoction of academics with humanitarian workers, social activists, refugees and artists who are all working towards the same cause. Amongst them was Janina Ochojska, who is the founder of the Polish Humanitarian Aid who spoke about why we need to help refugees. Marina Hulia, an activist, discussed in depth about the situation of refugees from Chechnya and was accompanied by Madina, a former refugee from Chechnya. We also had Maria Pamula, a UNHCR protection officer who discussed the challenges of the Greek refugee camp Moria. Finally, Adel Albaghdadi, a Syrian refugee now in Rotterdam, Netherlands, spoke about his journey from Syria to Europe and his work on facilitating an open dialogue between citizens and the ‘newcomers.

With this overview, it is with no doubt, and one can strongly claim the strength of such an interdisciplinary team of experts. Apart from the panel discussions, we had smaller events accompanying the main one which included a photo exhibition lent to us by UNHCR Polska titled the ‘The most important thing’ which focused on stories of refugees and the ‘the most important thing’ they took with them when they fled their homes. We also had a networking breakfast wherein we created a volunteer group in Krakow, and most importantly we had several parallel workshops ranging from art, theatre, film, policies, integration, volunteering in Greece and the importance of inclusion by practitioners in the field.

One thing that caught my eye was to see a massive solidarity movement come in action in Krakow. Small acts of collective action were seen from everyone. We got some venues for free; we had a little cooking community in Krakow who cooked for free for the networking breakfast, a couple of Baristas from a coffee company brought their coffee and their time for free! All photographers for the event donated their time. A lot of our speakers and workshop coordinators came to Krakow on their own. Our graphic designer worked pro-bono. The undergraduate students of the Institute of Psychology, came forward on their own, to volunteer for the event and they did an exceptional job. It was overwhelmingly satisfying to see the event and people come together. Furthermore, to make the event as inclusive as possible, we had simultaneous translators translating from English to Polish (and vice versa). I believe this is the beginning of a movement in Krakow.

This piece was not to merely summarise the entire event but to show how academics can also be socially involved. As social psychologists, perhaps, if we have the time, we can go an extra step to spread our knowledge beyond the academic bubble we live in. We have to actively find ways to integrate theory and practice and make our field more interdisciplinary. The issue of migration has always been salient to me, especially since I am a South Asian minority who has unfortunately also experienced the effects of ‘cognitive misery,’ but this journey is just the beginning for me. With the power of knowledge that we have, I propose an open call to take that knowledge and steer towards real action.

Sindhuja Sankaran