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First responders in Croatia committed to helping refugees, researcher says

Friday, December 11, 2015

LAWRENCE — News reports each day detail the ongoing refugee crisis happening throughout Europe and the resulting problems and human suffering that come with it. Two University of Kansas researchers recently returned from Croatia, a pivotal stop in many migrants’ journey, and found that even though opinions vary on why the crisis is happening, the dedication to assist is strong.

Terry Koenig and Richard Spano, associate professors of social welfare, and Sherry Warren, doctoral student, recently concluded a three-week trip to the nation in which they interviewed first responders who were working with the crisis and teaching at two Croatian universities. One of the first lessons they learned was, despite common perception, the crisis is not one solely of Syrians fleeing their war-torn nation. One social worker refused to speak until it was acknowledged that those refugees were also largely from Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea.

They also quickly learned that Croatians were dedicated to helping.

“The trains were dropping off two thousand people at a time, at least two times a day,” Koenig said. “One citizen we spoke to lived near where the trains stopped, and he said, “This is not a religious problem or national problem. These are human beings, and we need to help them.”

Koenig and Spano interviewed several individuals working for the Red Cross, social workers and other volunteers for a nongovernmental organization. Most were Croatian, some were Swiss, and others were citizen volunteers. In addition to providing food, water and health care, some helped children without adult supervision attempt to find their parents or adult sponsorship. Often, the volunteers ended up sponsoring the children themselves, Koenig said.

Thousands of Middle Eastern refugees are passing through Croatia, often on their way to Germany. Spano and Koenig were in eastern Croatia, near the borders with Hungary and Serbia. Hungary had sealed off the majority of its borders to stem the flow of refugees. While the researchers were there, the last of the border was closed off with razor wire, ensuring even more came through Croatia. Refugees often spent 10 to 15 hours in the nation before moving on.

The first responders reported that their own experiences with war and displacement compelled them to help. Croatia gained its independence in 1991 after a war with Serbia, following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The war cost thousands of lives and displaced many thousands more.

“They told us there was no way they were going to leave the refugees in that kind of spot,” Koenig said. “They themselves still felt abandoned in some ways.”

Koenig and Spano were in Croatia to teach at the invitation of Professor Jelena Ivelic at the University of North and who had previously attended KU on a Fulbright Scholarship. She arranged for the professors to address topics such as professional ethical-decision making, critical theory and critical thinking, and basic communication skills. Like the first responders, the students held strong opinions about the refugee crisis and its causes. They largely pointed to U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the withdrawal as leaving a vacuum in the area that has forced thousands to flee their homelands.

“They were largely saying, ‘This is not a Syrian problem. This is a Middle Eastern problem that we (the United States) have contributed to,’” Koenig said.

Interviews also revealed that first responders often don’t have much support in handling the trauma. “Compassion fatigue,” or internalizing the trauma one experiences in others, is a real concern.

“They lean on each other, but they don’t have formal supports set up to talk about what they’re seeing,” Koenig said.

Croatian interviewees — citizens of a poor nation — agreed that rich countries of Europe and the world should do more to help the situation and support refugees. There was disagreement, however, in the effectiveness of the response. Red Cross responders reported they felt the need was being met. Croatian volunteers and responders felt differently.

“When you talk to people in nongovernment organizations, they are talking about how the need is overwhelming and not enough is being done,” Koenig said.

Koenig and Spano hope to use the preliminary data from the interviews in a variety of ways. They will likely write peer-reviewed manuscripts on the experience but hope to do further interviews with responders in Germany and compare the attitudes to those in Croatia. They also hope to do further interviews with others working with the crisis in Croatia.

Despite stigma attached to many of the refugees for religious, ethnic, economic and other reasons, one finding in the interviews was clear.

“Overwhelmingly, I heard, ‘This is a human problem. We have to respond. These are human beings who don’t have shoes, who don’t have anything to eat or water to drink. We have to do something,’” Koenig said.

Photos: ​Terry Koenig and Richard Spano, KU associate professors of social welfare.

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