‘Hara Hotel’: On Centering the Western Narrator and Stories About Syrian Refugees

Theresa Thornhill‘s HARA HOTEL: A Tale of Syrian Refugees in Greece is one of a growing number of books in English about Syrian refugees:

By Jonas Elbousty

 In the last few years, we have witnessed a growing number of books documenting the Syrian refugee crisis. Some of these productions do very little to nuance the sometimes-negative media discourses and humanize a misunderstood refugee population. Some of these books, produced in the Global North, often characterize refugees as passive people who are in dire need of assistance; these authors have long passed judgment on these vulnerable populations, arguing that their background, be it cultural, religious, etc, make them different from the citizens of their host nations. In so doing, these unrealistic portrayals are being overstated.

In short, this ethnocentric perspective seems to be prevalent in some of these accounts, and Hara Hotel is one of those works that perpetuate this narrative. 

“I walk into my kitchen and stop in front of the TV in time to glimpse a big hairy man in shorts wading out of the sea…the scene is Lesvos and the man a refugee” (1). This is the opening paragraph of the Hara Hotel: A Tale of Syrian Refugees in Greece. It reminds us of the colonial narratives advancing how the colonized people are in desperate need of saving. The scene portrayed on TV compels our author to volunteer in order to assist the refugees in their plight. This concocted image makes one very skeptical, as it seems both inauthentic and unconvincing. How would one “automatically” or “instantaneously” know that “a big hairy man in shorts” getting out of the water is a refugee?  

While Thornhill is at center stage in this book, we are introduced to Juwan, a Syrian refugee, who recounts his story starting from his internal displacement in Syria to his final destination in Vienna. We learn of his family, his dangerous journey to Turkey, Greece, his perilous walk from Greece to Hungary before being smuggled into Austria. The conversation between Juwan, Thornhill and her volunteer friend Sintra comes out more as an interrogation than a conversation. To make it worse, Thornhill’s interlocutor Juwan is, at times, portrayed as emasculated when compared to fighting forces in Syria. Robbing him of his masculinity underscores the cultural assumptions of the author and the erasure of agency this book advances. Thornhill quotes Juwan saying, “to begin with, no, and I was so afraid I wasn’t thinking about beauty. But later, yes, in some places it was very beautiful” (423). In another incident, Juwan is described, saying, “I’d been afraid–all these people with guns and long beards–it was all so new to me” (387). 

This book, instead of documenting the harrowing account of Syrian refugees, centers around the story of the author and her personal journey. It reads more like a personal memoir of a two-week visit to Greece, and the reader gets a first-hand detailed account of Thornhill’s anger and frustrations. For instance, when she and her volunteer friend Ian get arrested, we learn of her disenchantment with the police. She kept saying, “I’m sorry, but Ian and I are not activists. We’re humanitarian volunteers. All we’re trying to do is help the refugees survive” (219). In the same conversation, she mentions that she is a lawyer. In this encounter with the Greek police, she unequivocally wants to distance herself from any type of advocacy on behalf of the refugees. 

While Thornhill genuinely attempts to document the suffering and mistreatment of the refugees in the camps, she has repeatedly made it clear that her role is solely a volunteer providing the Syrian refugees with food, clothes, and other necessary items, including hygienic products. In a few instances, she zeroes in on the desperate nature of refugees, and how on the day of the rice pudding distribution parents “called out, claiming they had two or three or even four children under eleven” (320). Thornhill explains that she had initially accepted their claims at face value only to challenge them later. In another account when she meets one of the female refugees whose sole of her shoes “were detached from the upper,” she simply tells her that she cannot help, and she should go into the store and “show them your broken shoe, say you’re desperate” (217-8). These two incidents question Thornhill’s purpose behind volunteering and how she “help[s] the refugees survive.”

Instead of dispelling the prevalent cultural assumptions and racist stereotypes that are often associated with the refugees, Thornhill reproduces some of the stereotypes. She often references the slew of children these families have, “two women and a handful of children were seated on the ground,” (38) and the meagre size of children in comparison to European children, “by all European standards…nearly all the Syrian children were small and slim” (115). In her discussion of women waiting to join their husbands, she often portrays them as lacking human agency. 

Having said all that, the reader still does get a clear image of the danger of border crossing, the violence instigated by police forces in Greece and other bordering nations, and the bureaucratization of the immigration system dividing families and delaying due process. Many families are caught at an impasse, family members in different European nations, and the ones in camps are waiting for their turns to join. In one instance, Thornhill genuinely helps one of the female refugees, seeking family reunification to join her husband in Germany, make a Skype phone call. Thornhill downloads the skype application on her iPhone to help Muna, a young Syrian mother, communicate with the Greek Asylum Service to enquire about her interview. Thornhill writes, “An expression of deep unease was spreading over Muna’s features. ‘So if I make this call, and they give me an interview,’ she said slowly, ‘how long before they send me to Germany?” (203). Moments like these are where the reader can sense the genuine acts of the author in her attempts both to assist and to advocate for this vulnerable population.

In these years of calamities that have beset the Syrian refugees, we are in more urgent need of narratives that speak to the suffering, the dehumanization of refugees, and, thus, the infringement on their human rights. This vulnerable population is either internally displaced within Syria or living in squalid conditions in camps outside of their homeland, desperately seeking conditions better than those from which they have fled. In the June 2020 UNHCR Briefing Note, we read “almost ten years into the Syria crisis, the 5.5 million registered Syrian refugees and the countries and communities who have generously hosted them have been struggling through an economic downturn which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of increasing poverty and shrinking protection space, the international community needs to provide extraordinary support to host countries, communities and refugees in these unprecedented times.”[1] Indeed, these are the unprecedented times that call for genuine advocacy and care. 

HARA HOTEL: A Tale of Syrian Refugees in Greece reads more as a personal memoir, in which the author narrates her experience as a volunteer in a refugee camp. Hence, a different title would have been more appropriate; this title is, however, misleading. On a positive note, the reader will find Thornhill’s style to be fluid, crisp and seamless, and the content to be engaging.  

 For readers interested in studies that recount the harrowing experiences of refugees and the struggles they face on a quotidian basis, I do recommend some impressive studies that offer us not only a detailed account of the lives of refugees, but also dispel the stereotypes that are often associated with this vulnerable population. Some of these ethnographies are Inhorn’s America’s Arab Refugees, Gabiam’s The politics of Suffering, Peteet’s Landscape of Hope and Despair, and Allan’s Refugees of the Revolution, among many others. 

Jonas Elbousty is in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale University. E-mail: Jonas.elbousty@yale.edu. Twitter: @JElbousty.

[1] UNHCR Briefing Note: Latest Developments in displacement dynamics in countries neighboring Syria, Brussels IV Conference, June 2020


  1. Enjoyed this review. Thanks for shedding light on the inaccurate portrayal of Syrian refugees, especially women.

  2. Thanks for this review and the helpful reminder of the role that literature has to play in creating or challenging narratives around refugees. I’ll check out the books you recommend and I also suggest ‘Strangers at our door’ by Zygmunt Bauman for a thoughtful sociological analysis.

  3. I appreciate the review, and your thoughts about the difficulties and enormous challenge of writing across culture and in another language from that spoken by the people one is considering. I write as an activist who has been working in collaboration with a team of pediatric oncologists in Baghdad for nearly 20 years, doctors who have chosen and are able —through their moral/ethical capacities and strength— to stay in Iraq, and carry on their work.

    When quoting numbers and data about the suffering of Iraqis from well-respected international voices and organizations such as UNICEF was getting us nowhere, I turned to writing about these doctors and their struggles as I saw and came to understand them over many years. Our actual contact was sporadic—some visits from them to the US, some visits by me to Baghdad, The stories and information, and our relationship evolved in English via email and SKYPE; I don’t speak Arabic. I’m not the only one trying to shed light on the ongoing tragedies in Iraq; many others with much more talent and some standing in the world have also tried. But, the country and people still languish, trapped in a dysfunctional country caught in the cross-hairs of international conflict and politics. Mainstream media seems to have forgotten about Iraq and Iraqis except when there is some “newsworthy” incident.

    The challenge as I see it is this. The best and most convincing, the most authentic voices—the voices the world needs to hear— are those of Iraqis (or Syrians, or Yemenis or whomever) speaking on their own behalf, whether it is through novels, poetry, songs or news stories. But, speaking out, or speaking up can be dangerous. And, it takes energy. Living in a war/post-war zone for decades is exhausting; hope, hope that one can do anything to improve their situation, is often hard to come by. Any activity beyond the ordinary daily demands of life takes extra energy, which many no longer have.

    In my case, one of the doctors —after years of engaging with the media—has fallen into silence, unwilling to speak publicly about their situation. “I find no comment”, she writes, sending me the Arabic aphorism: اذا قيلت الكلمات ضاعت معانيها , which she translates as: ’Sometimes when you say the words they lose their meaning’.“

    When I ask her colleague for a translation, he replies: This is an Arabic expression of a certain sentiment, about words losing meaning and the limits of language. Imagine the difficulty of translating these words that have escaped from silence to become visible on a page or spoken out loud. Imagine trying to translate them into English or any other language.

    I don’t know what to say or what to do, really. We’re caught— refugees. people living in never-ending war/post war zones and advocates/activists/writers/humanists— between a rock and a hard place where it seems the best we can do is work around the edges in ways that are not as effective or authentic.

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