Through Despair, Refugee Women Show Their Strength
What an amazing and powerful start to our journey in Greece. Our first gathering was comprised of 14 refugee women speaking Somali, Arabic, and Kurdish. We sat together at the wooden library of Habibi.Works, just down the street from the Katiskas refugee camp in Ioannina, Greece. Together in the circle with Sara-Christine, me, and the incredible refugee women, were leaders and volunteers from Second Tree and the Ioannina Community Center who serve refugees and local Greeks. We are ready to listen and learn.
Although we just met, we sit in a circle as friends and toss the Hoberman sphere around, sharing our names and our favorite animal. Giggles and smiles set a tone of compassion and warmth as we settle in for a brief practice of mindfulness tools to help us regulate our bodies and become more aware of the space around us.
With four different languages being spoken, and one translator on the phone, the room feels quite full at times. The women begin by sharing what a typical day looks like:
“I stay at my container. I take care of the kids and my husband. In the evening, us women meet. I need this meeting.”
“I sleep through the morning. I take care of the kids. I make food and clean the house.”
“I make breakfast for myself and children. I have English class. Then, I make lunch. Clean the house. I meet with some women.”
“I do nothing. I am all day in my container. My children are in Somalia.”
“I clean rooms. I make food. I clean again. My children sleep. But I do not sleep. The doctor gave me medicine, but if I take it I cannot take care of my children.”
After sharing their typical day, one woman adds to the conversation, “Sometimes my children know that I’m not okay. The older one, he tells the others to be quiet and leave me alone.” The women speak honestly about the shadows that extreme stress projects over their days, and that their children live in “cycles of promises, waiting, and expectations.” They all share varying degrees of trauma symptoms, from children banging their head on walls to disassociation.
The women give just a brief glimpse of their lives in Katiskas, a camp of around 1,000 men, women, and children who have been transported here by the Greek government from the Islands or one of the northern entry points. They have fled from places such as Kuwait, Afghanistan, Syria, West Africa, and Iraqi Kurdistan.
The camp has two sections of prefabricated ISOBOX containers: A and B. Camp A was established in less than 20 days in late December 2017, with families arriving at 2 am, giving local groups like Second Tree little time to prepare. Camp B was added more recently and the Somali women at our meeting live here in even smaller containers than Camp A.
They all live in limbo, each family at a different point in the asylum-seeking process, yet all with dreams to have a more permanent home in another European country. Some have received the news that their next interview is as far off as 2021. As time passes, more NGOs either leave or are kicked out by authorities. Few programs remain. The women share that this is the singular women-only meeting they can remember.
The one thing they all agree upon is the need for more activities, more supervision, more for the children to do—a “space for kids to be kids,” one woman adds. They all deeply care about the future of their children.
Toward the end of the gathering we ask if they would like dignifying work; do they want a job? Without even a second passing, 11 strong women raise their hands with confidence, ready to move forward with their lives, and provide support for their families.
These programs are entirely community-led. They made every decision from which day to run the program to what hours and to who will be on the teaching team each day. The teams are diverse and yet they have committed to working together.
Trust in the process. Trust in the modeling before the explanation. Trust in the people. Trust in the children, and they will trust you.
If there is anything that can foster community between people and across cultures, it is sharing a meal and a cup of tea. While we do that, we will also be sure to sprinkle in some early childhood development, mindfulness, and games!