A volunteer’s story: Facing challenges in Chios

My daughter and I arrived in Chios on 30th August to work in the Athena Centre for Women. We had some idea of what we would be doing, but the reality is beyond what we could have imagined. 

On the surface, the centre is a pleasant place for women to escape from the conditions in the camps for a few hours a day. They can take showers in private, learn some English and/or German, take a yoga class, or just relax with other women. Or my favourite times – when they put on music and dance. 

Beneath the surface, I discovered that a woman has even more challenges than those of being a refugee trapped in a “camp” in a foreign country. Maybe there is domestic violence, or  a woman with several children whose husband died on this journey. For these women, there is additional support given very quietly. It is impressive that this organisation does so much with so little. This is why it has been so difficult to turn women away the last few days because the centre is full. It’s a relatively small space, so only about 20-25 can be here at a time. We now have to start limiting how many times someone can come in a week to give more the opportunity. They are so disappointed when we say there’s no room….

Before we arrived, I didn’t fully grasp that these “refugees” are people who had fulfilling lives that they had to abandon because they had no choice. All of them would have preferred to stay in their homes and continue their lives if they could have. Their homes have been destroyed. Their lives were literally in imminent danger. Why else would you be willing to do what they have done? I haven’t met anyone who set out on this journey simply because they thought that it would be nicer to live in another country. 

On our first visit to Souda, one of the camps, We were invited into the “home” of a woman who was an English teacher in Syria and has been teaching English at the centre. She, her husband and three children were assigned a container to live in. I’m not good with dimensions, but it’s a very small space for five people (and usually one container houses six people). There is a mattress on the floor and bunk beds made from pipes and canvas. One end is draped off to separate the storage area. There is no running water – they use the communal toilets, showers and sinks. She was so hospitable, asking us to sit on the mattress and offering sliced peaches. Her children could not have been more typical; the youngest, a girl, crying when her older brother took away a toy.  

I have trouble judging the ages of these women. Some I think are young teens and then I discover they are in their 20s and married.  Others I think are “older” turn out to be significantly younger than I am (I’m 59). I think this experience has quickly aged them. 

One of the older women was travelling with her husband (with false papers) to join their son in Germany. They were on the plane – so close! – when someone became suspicious. She was removed from the plane and jailed. Her husband made it to Germany, but she is back in the camp trying to join them. 

Another woman travelling with her husband and three children was about 4 months’ pregnant with twins. When they made it to shore, she was bleeding. She was taken to the hospital where she lost one of the babies. They didn’t keep her in the hospital – said she didn’t need it. 

Then there are the teenage sisters whose father and brother became physically abusive after they arrived here. This was new behaviour, I’m sure coming out from the stress of their experiences. So, what is best for these girls? Removing them from their family? Bringing more stress and possibly legal action for the family? Probably not. It’s such a grey world…especially hard for me to accept after a career as a social worker. 

I wrote the above two weeks ago. As I read it over, it sounds a little distant and clinical. In the last two weeks, many of these women have gone from being acquaintances to being so much more. I’ve learned their stories, I’ve learned about who they are and I care about them in a very personal way. I hesitate to call them “friends” because that suggests something different than what I think we have. I am sad and so angry when I think about what they’ve gone through and what they still have to go through. I just want to know that at the end of this they will be OK and will have the opportunity for a “normal life,” whatever that means.

I know that it is highly unlikely that I will ever see any of these women again. A few of them will stay in touch through social media and I’ll be glad to know what happens to them. But for all the others, and for the thousands and thousands I’ll never meet, I want to know that their stories have a happy ending. For many of them, I’m afraid it won’t. I can’t imagine that anyone who met and spoke with a few of these people, learned their stories and saw the conditions they are living in, could not believe that this is a human tragedy and that something has to change. When I return to my comfortable, pleasant life this week I will continue to look for ways to have an impact. After what I’ve experienced, how could I not?

— Gail

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