In the year since Action From Switzerland opened our Athena Centre for Women, girls from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Congo, Sudan, and Eritrea received access to legal information, psychological support, safe and clean shower facilities, educational and mindful classes – and to generally relax in a safe space.
In fact, a few months after our opening in the summer of 2016, it soon came to our knowledge that girls fondly refer to our Center not the ‘Athena Centre for Women,’ but rather ‘Beth al-Raha,’ (in Arabic: ‘house of relaxation,’). We are pleased to know that the nickname has stuck with different batches of girls.
In order to understand the unique challenges faced by our sisters on the run, the AfS team conducts quarterly focus groups. These groups give the girls a focused platform to offer their feedback and share experiences outside of our daily interactions. We explore and brainstorm possibilities collaboratively in order to respond with desired and necessary services, while remaining acutely (and painfully) aware of our role and limitations in an oppressive environment. While we cannot aspire to meet all needs and requests and must manage the girls expectations, their feedback and cooperation is essential in driving our advocacy efforts.
Our most recent focus group was attended by women from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran and as usual, centered around the three pillars of the Athena Centre for Women:
- Access to information and education
- Psychosocial support
It remains frustrating and disappointing, that despite it being a different group of women, feedback remains the same from our last focus group. It reminds us to to remain ever diligent in advocating for better solutions and responses to the feedback we receive.
The women report continually feeling unsafe in their tents and camp restroom facilities.
According to the latest report published by Refugee Rights Data project, a whopping 82.4% of the women surveyed said “they never felt safe” or “don’t feel very safe”. Almost half (42.9%) had experienced some form of violence inside camp, and generally didn’t feel safe when using showers and similar facilities.
The report is consistent with feedback gathered from our focus groups.
While the ladies find the Center a respite from life in the camp, the Athena Centre for Women functions only as a day Centre, and women are unable to use the facilities after hours. They feel embarrassed to constantly ask their husbands, brothers and older sons to accompany them to the toilets as they fear going alone due to peeping and the risk of violence, especially at night.
In the same report from Refugee Rights Data, “one man explained that he always accompanies his wife around the camp as he is worried about her safety. He also waits for her outside the showers because someone once took a picture of a woman while she was washing inside.”
Recently, the wall separating the male and female sections of the toilets was taken down by some young men, and women feel they are constantly being watched inappropriately, as men enter the women’s side. This invasion and lack of respect is consistent with other reports of harassment and sexual violence.
They also justly fear men invading their tents at night, and violence escalating and impacting their familial safety and health.
While there are security measures provided by the camp administration, the language barrier prevents prompt response to security incidents / threats towards the women. One of the girls at our Centre commented to our translator: “The camp security did nothing, even though the man said it in front of him that I was a whore and deserve to be raped that night, because the guard only understood Greek, and I couldn’t communicate what was happening.”
There is a crucial lack of female Arabic / Farsi speakers trained to respond and deal with such incidents. Reports of sexual and domestic violence remain prevalent in our Centre but escalation and reporting remains frustratingly low, due to fear of retaliation and a huge distrust of the system to deliver justice.
For these reasons, the Athena Centre will continue to operate as an integral space for women to feel secure and escape a near constant feeling of unsafety.
ACCESS TO EDUCATION & INFORMATION
The women are not sure where to go to find clear information.
They do find the Centre to be a place to find out what is going on and get clarification, but in the camp they do not know who to speak with or who will help. This is of particular concern at night; with regard to safety — it has been reported that they are unsure of who to call in an emergency. One woman described breaking her arm due to conditions in the camp and not receiving ample support to get treatment; she was finally helped by volunteers who took her to the hospital but had to wait many hours in pain to be seen by a doctor.
Farsi speakers sadly report feeling imparity in all aspects of life in Chios, from distribution of clothes to access to information. They feel that they receive a lesser quality of treatment as compared to Arabic speakers, as there are more Arabic translators than Farsi translators. Female Farsi speaking volunteers are like gold dust.
Unfortunately, not all women who would like to come to the centre are able to, as some husbands refuse to watch the children or restrict their wives from leaving the camp. However, we are pleased that other women have been able to utilise the new network of friends they’ve made from our Centre and can rotate the care of children, so that they all have ‘time off’ to visit ‘Beth al-Raha’.
Classes at the center continue to be well-attended. This week, we add a make-up class taught by a beautician, now a Souda camp resident. Daily English classes remain popular, and we now have an evening Greek language class taught by a local resident. We start afternoons with dance and exercise, Shakira’s voice bringing energy and cheer into the relaxation space.
Our English class, comprised of Kurdish, Syrian, Congolese, and Afghani women has become a time where the women can learn to express their feelings and experiences to each other in a language they are all beginning to share. It is beautiful to see friendship and solidarity built within the Centre beyond race, nationality, and language.
Women who come to the centre can request appointments with the only two female psychologists from humanitarian agencies who work on the island. One woman said, “I feel so listened to…(The psychologist) didn’t interrupt me, she let me speak and she listened while I shared.”
Many say it is hard to think about much beyond their current asylum status and the idea of leaving Chios. Mental health is of deep concern and with limited support on the island, having the ability to see a female psychologist in the center is critical to the well-being of the women.
We are right in the middle of a critical transition period. The EU has pulled funding for the major NGOs at the end of July and we have witnessed some organisations leaving the island – with the plan for the Greek authorities to take over the services. The EU has decided that this man-made crisis is over and Greece is expected to cope.
The AfS team feels that is incredibly unfair for such a burden to be put on a country already on its knees in debt. So far, no national response plan has been released and many groups, including us, continue to express our strong concerns that refugees may lose or have reduced access to vital services.
We have committed to remain on Chios, as we believe the presence of Centre remains very much needed.
Your support that has kept us going so far remains crucial, if not, more vital than before.
Your support that has allowed us to remain fiercely independent, where we have been able continue to focus our energies on not fighting or being part of the broken system, but building an alternative one.
To help us continue our work:
Read the report of our previous focus group here: