Athens, Greece — July 2016
Scarring yourself is an exercise in both pride and pain, relocating psychological pain into a physical entity to give this pain a new life and orientation. The young men I spent my time with this summer often had self-inflicted wounds cut and burned into the surfaces of their skin. I spent months living and working alongside refugees in Athens, unavoidably intertwining myself with war, violence, and the displacement of my coworkers, roommates, and friends. I don’t want to endorse self-harm, but I do want to understand its motivations.
I contemplate this issue from my experience in a makeshift refugee camp in the middle of summer in Athens. It was one hundred degrees Fahrenheit for sixty days straight; people pitched tents on blacktop concrete, and we ate the packaged boiled potatoes, croissants, and orange juice from concentrate provided by the Greek army. It was Ramadan, so most people were fasting all day, hiding from the sun in the confines of their tent until they prayed at sunset and polished off their three allocated water bottles. Almost half of the camp were children and teenagers. They dove and flipped off the port’s landing into the water slicked with the oil trails of the ferry boats bringing tourists to Crete or Lesvos. On weekends, the lines of tents ran parallel to the lines of blonde families waiting to board their ferries. Together we cooked without end to supplement the disgusting army food and personally attending to what the major NGO structures could not. At night we tried to slow down—we danced, we drank cold beer, but we didn’t sleep.
Tattoos as we understand them often draw on memories—the deaths of family members and friends, homes, journeys, and passions. My tattoos, for instance, individually celebrate the people closest to me. Their weight is rendered in their style and beauty—a commemoration of the past. Because of their hellish experience, however, refugees adorn their bodies with memories that express pain, abandonment, isolation, fatigue, or all of the above. Ink tattoos are also a creative manifestation of these refugee experiences. My closest friend from the summer, a seventeen-year-old from Damascus is scattered with scars from stab wounds and gun shots. “SYRIA” is bolded in black ink on the outside of his left hand, aligning himself with the bloodshed and terror inflicted upon all aspects of his life - himself, his family, his friends, his community, and his country. He chose to scar his own skin this time. It was not established by indeterminate bullets from the guns of Assad’s government soldiers or knives of Syrian police officers. He is proud of it, and he wants people to know where he comes from.
By tattooing themselves with knives and lighters, refugees signify the time of their displacement from their own country and their resurrection in Europe on the surface of the body. It is common to see scars in refugee camps; they are concrete residue of the wars they flee. Routine and uniform marks deliberately placed are common too, and they are also remnants of conflict. The destructive practices, like cutting with pocket knives or rocks and burning with cigarettes or lighters, immortalize their trauma. In this case, blood and scarring are not the only things that come up on the skin—so do deep psychological injuries. Popular designs are words like “love”, the names and initials of lovers, or “Afghan” and “Syria”, homages to the countries from where they walked through terrorist and insurgent controlled territory to take rubber dinghies across the Aegean and into Europe. Art is still at the forefront of these designs, and different tools yield different results. I’ve seen an “Afghan” tattoo composed of connected cigarette burns across a tanned forearm and one from thin incisions from a knife.
The services in refugee camps, especially unofficial ones, are not focused on mental health and wellbeing despite the high numbers of people directly exposed to violence and torture. Instead of looking away in shock or discomfort, it is crucial that the mental pain and instability behind this decorative self-harm is addressed by friends, family, or a professional. Mental health facilities were not readily accessible in refugee camps where I worked, and if they were, they were hidden within bureaucratic structures that were neither accessible or personal. Social workers were checked out and unhelpful, they mostly sat in foldable chairs protected by the shade of their white NGO vans. The layering of emotional suffering and trauma—as well as having too much time and too little activity—in refugee camps allows for the proliferation of self-harm. Living in close quarters with a thousand other people also affected by the lethal cocktail of trauma and boredom means the dangerous practice circulates within camps. Once you’ve gone tent to tent to see your friends, floated on your camping mattress in the polluted port water, and ate pasta with no sauce for lunch, self-harm becomes a way to communicate extreme resilience and strength. Who has been through the most? Who can bear the most physical pain? Can they take it to the next step, can they go deeper?
I didn’t grow up in a war zone and I have always lived a peaceful existence—so initially, the extreme and dark forms of tattooing confused me. I wondered why someone wanted to immortalize their pain on their body; it seemed more painful to remember than to forget. I realize now that refugees will not easily forget their histories. Internalizing this suffering may be too painful for one person to reconcile, so instead of allowing it to marinate their brain, they map out tangible evidence of their experience. As a raised scar or burn, suffering is externalized. They are a deliberate statement and confirmation of pain, an opportunity for people who have lost control of their safety and future to gain agency. These scars are valuable and beautiful as much as they are uncomfortable and traumatic, pushing inconceivable levels of agony to the surface.