Making it safe for refugee women

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“I want everyone to live in a house and not in camps” – N, twelve years old, from Syria

Since the USA elected Donald Trump as its next president, liberal talking heads and Twitter personalities have been spending a lot a of time warning each other about the dangers of normalization. Normalization is the process by which certain actions, events or ideologies come to be accepted as a “normal” or even “natural” part of everyday life within a society. “Don’t let this become normal,” we tell each other with grave urgency, where “this” refers to the hurricane of naked corruption and mendacity that defines the political discourse.

Yet while all eyes are on the theatre of the US election and Britain’s shambolic exit from the EU, an ongoing and utterly abnormal crisis is becoming increasingly normalized. Europe is currently experiencing a refugee emergency on scale that has not been seen since World War II. In 2015, over one million refugees crossed into Europe – roughly half of them from Syria – and conservative estimates for 2016 show that this number will be similar or higher. Pictures of overcrowded dinghies adrift in the Mediterranean Sea were once a source of shock; now they’ve become par for the course. “Refugee crisis” has become a minor note in 2016’s relentlessly tragic news cycle. And the longer it drags on, the more entrenched the apathy becomes.

Indifference to the refugee crisis and the rising tide of xenophobic and isolationist sentiment in Europe are not unrelated phenomena. While many affluent European countries turn their eyes aside and fuss over the bureaucracy of moving bodies across borders, Greece (and the Greek islands in particular) have been bearing the brunt of this crisis. Even coordinating with the UNHCR, local authorities are woefully under-equipped to deal with new boatloads of refugees landing on their shores every few days. As a result, loose networks of NGOs and volunteer groups have stepped in to fill the yawning gap between refugee needs and government/UN capacity. These groups are small and flexible, capable of adapting to changing circumstances and addressing problems that go beyond feeding and sheltering bodies.

I spoke to Maya V. Márquez of Action From Switzerland, one such grassroots organisation. Their work focuses on creating safe spaces for women refugees. There is a tendency to think of “refugees” of a homogenous mass, all suffering equally under equally abysmal circumstances. But reality is not so clear-cut. The #MakeItSafe campaign exists to highlight the fact that sexual and gender-based violence against women does not simply evaporate in times of crisis: if anything, it intensifies. Single women, pregnant women, and young mothers are particularly at risk. In response to this problem, Action From Switzerland founded The Athena Centre for Women on the island of Chios. It functions as an oasis of normality for refugee women; a place they can come to relax, socialize and reclaim some small sense of peace and community in a world turned upside down.

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When a power outage disrupted movie night, the girls had fun with shadow puppets instead

The stories Maya shared with me were not of victims or of broken women. She told me about Amira*, a young pharmacist with a piercing gaze, who loves cooking traditional Syrian food and singing along to Celine Dion. She told me about the giggly group of teenage girls who help set up the Thursday Movie Night at the centre and refuse to let small things like a power outage stop them from having fun. Several of the younger women have thrown themselves into learning English so they can act as translators for volunteers who distribute clothes and food among the camps. Rabia is eighteen and loves dancing Zumba: she regularly teaches routines to the other women at the centre. Thirteen year-old Zaynab cracks everyone up with her impressions and wants to be actress when she grows up. Hamila is a mother of four who insisted on donating toiletries to the centre, despite living in conditions of extreme deprivation. These were stories of women who were determined to keep moving forward against all odds, learning and contributing to their new surroundings in whatever way they can.

But it is important not to mistake resilience for invincibility. “We all have a breaking point,” Maya told me. She recalled a day of painting and listening to music with a group of girls at the centre, when suddenly the noise of jet engines and explosions filled the air. The girls panicked, some bursting into tears and others frantically seeking cover. It was Greek Independence Day, and the celebrations included fireworks and an aerial display. But for young women who have witnessed bodies and building being torn apart by bombs, it was a waking nightmare. Even after the source of the noise had been identified, the girls were still visibly shaken and upset, each one reliving her own private horrors as the jets rumbled overhead.

Many of the women who come to the centre do not like to be around men, though few will go into detail about what they endured on their journey out of Syria. Many have also witnessed family members and loved ones beaten and murdered in front of their eyes. Some cry while they tell their stories. Others speak with candid detachment, as though recounting events that happened to a different person. For women who managed to escape with their families intact, domestic abuse is often a severe problem, magnified by the stress and uncertainty of life in the camps. The presence of the Athena Centre has empowered some women to open up about their experiences for the first time, but many cases of sexual and gender-based violence still fly under the radar.

For many of us, 2016 has been an exercise in learning to live with uncertainty. For many of us, it seemed like the world was on a clear – if somewhat turbulent – trajectory towards an open and inclusive global society. We assumed we were gradually making headway against the stubborn residue of sexism and racism that still pervades our communities. We were wrong, and now we must learn that we cannot take progress for for granted. For those living in refugee camps scattered across the Greek Islands, uncertainty is the defining aspect of everyday life. Nothing – including life, liberty, shelter and personal security – can be taken for granted.

2016 has been a year of grappling with a new normal; but for many of us, this is still an abstract and ideological struggle, one fought predominantly on Facebook threads and at dinner parties. But for the women trapped in limbo on Chios, there is no normal anymore. There is no status quo to return to, no safe place where compassion and common decency will prevail. These are women who have suffered almost every physical loss imaginable: health, family, friends, homes, careers and bodily autonomy. Less tangible, but no less traumatic, is the loss of identity and purpose that comes with being displaced.

These women do not have the luxury of debating the extent to which they will accept or reject their new normal. They must simply endure and support each other as best they can. Projects such as the Athena Centre allows them to snatch moments of normality from an entirely abnormal situation: yoga practice, coffee with friends, a sewing circle, a painting session or a dance class. These activities might seem banal, even frivolous, in the context of the breadth and depth of the crisis. But for many women, they are a lifeline to sanity. Additionally, there are European language classes and educational sessions on sexual violence, designed to give the women a slightly firmer foothold on their new circumstances and the life that awaits them beyond the camps.

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German lessons at The Athena Centre for Women on the Greek island of Chios

All the refugees on Chios will eventually end up in Athens, where their application for asylum will be processed.  If they are granted asylum, they will receive “International Protection Cards”, which gives them the same rights as Greeks citizens, but none of the same resources or support networks. Ironically, upon being granted asylum, they are suddenly disqualified from any aid they receive as refugees, and so find themselves alone in a strange city where they don’t speak the language, unmoored in a country where health and social protection systems are already strained to breaking point. This situation would be harrowing for anyone, but it is particularly dangerous for women, and even more so for young single women and mothers. As Maya put it:  “They continue to bear all the vulnerabilities of being a refugee, plus all the vulnerabilities of being a woman.”

The most heart-wrenching story from the camps on Chios was about a woman whose tent was struck by stones as part of an attack allegedly coordinated by a racist and fascist political group. She was pregnant with twins at the time. The terror and stress of that night caused her to miscarry. She came to Europe seeking safety and instead found only more hostility and suffering. After these attacks, the Athena Centre acted as an emergency sleeping space for women and children who were once again in fear for their lives and terrified of going back to the camps. Xenophobia may have been responsible for the attack, but it is collective apathy that placed these people in such a vulnerable situation in the first place.

For those of us who still have our place in the world, we must resist this apathy. For those of us who can still do more than simply get by, we must commit our time to challenging our governments’ weak equivocations on the “refugee question” and commit our resources to supporting organisations on the ground. We must resist this new normal on behalf of those who can’t.

Action From Switzerland is currently raising funds to sustain their work on Chios and to open a new centre/shelter in Athens, in order to support refugees who have been transferred there. You can donate here. The organisation is also looking for female volunteers who can commit at least a month of their time to work on Chios. Learn more about volunteering here.

*All names in this piece have been altered to protect the privacy of the women involved

2 thoughts on “Making it safe for refugee women

  1. Thank you for this, it’s really important for us to know more about what’s going on, and how best to help. I truly wish I could welcome refugees into my home, but as someone stuck in a houseshare I can’t.

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