© Giorgos Moutafis/Amnesty International
AfS FEATURE IN AMNESTY: FEMALE REFUGEES IN GREECE AN OASIS ON THE ISLAND OF DESPAIR

EDITOR’S NOTE:

We recently hosted a journalist, Julie Jeannet from Amnesty Switzerland, on Chios.

Julie spent a few days in our Athena Centre for Women and observed the camp conditions. Below is her article translated into English.

From our humble beginnings in the summer of 2015, as a Facebook group of people concerned about the conditions the mass influx of refugees entering Europe, and supported by many Zürichers, our founder, Gabrielle organised a convoy to Hungary. Witnessing the lack of support and horrendous conditions onsite, that weekend changed her life and AfS born soon thereafter.

Two years later, our work has since been recognised by DEVEX and it is humbling to have recently received a nod of approval from Amnesty, an organisation we’ve always respected. We thank Julie for coming down and highlighting the challenges of our displaced sisters here on Chios. For giving them a voice.

We will continue to advocate for the safety and protection of the women and girls, and urge the European Governments to fulfil their obligations at every level – through our work, and our #MakeItSafe campaign.

As AfS is funded completely by private donors, our work and the ability to be flexible and providing a dynamic response, are only possible with your support.

We now offer expanded options for donations, including more than 100 currencies, payment by credit card, and the option to set up a recurring payment, providing us with a steadier revenue stream. We are a registered nonprofit and your generous contributions are tax-deductible in Switzerland. Please visit our updated donation page to set up a one time or recurring donation.

FEMALE REFUGEES IN GREECE
AN OASIS ON THE ISLAND OF DESPAIR

By Julie Jeannet.

Translated from German by Katrin Gygax, gygatext

Appeared in the June 2017 edition of “AMNESTY – Magazin der Menschenrechte”. Original article in French and in German.

Poor hygiene, danger, violence. Female refugees on the island of Chios live under extremely difficult conditions. In the small Athena Centre, the refugees find a space for themselves as women.

Gabrielle Tan paces up and down the halls of the hospital on Chios. The nursing staff are all busy. A blonde strand of hair peaks out from under grey bedclothes, the hospital bed is placed in the middle of a draught. A soldier storms down the corridor. A man with a blank expression on his face sits on a bench. If Greece’s austerity policy hadn’t already shaken the health sector, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants has certainly pushed it into the abyss. Today, Gabrielle is accompanying a mother of four named Nastaran* to her medical check-up.

Life in tents

There are hurdles that Gabrielle has to overcome to pass through the maze of Greek bureaucracy as she follows procedures with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and local health services in order to help “her girls”. Since the beginning of this year, she has been looking after women who are stuck in the midst of asylum proceedings on the island of Chios. The world seems to have forgotten these women.

Six kilometres from the Turkish coast, the island has become a gateway to Europe. Since January 2016, more than 42,000 people have arrived on the fifth-largest island in Greece, which previously had 53,000 inhabitants. In the wake of the 20th March 2016 migration agreement between the European Union and Turkey, Chios and the other islands in the Aegean Sea have become outdoor prisons.

EVERYONE IS AFRAID OF BEING SENT BACK TO TURKEY.

As a result of this agreement, anyone who arrives in Greece via Turkey will be sent back to Turkey. Unless their application for asylum is accepted by Greece. At the beginning of May, more than 2,000 refugees lived in tents on Chios, even when temperatures are extreme. Those who are lucky get a cargo container to live in. And all of them are afraid of being sent back to Turkey.

Nastaran fled Afghanistan with her violent husband. Now she wants to divorce him. Because he also attacked her in the camp, threatening to douse her with acid, she now lives in an apartment. Despite her circumstances, the trained cook always has a smile on her face when she comes through the door of the Athena Centre for Women, which was set up by Gabrielle in a small apartment near the Souda refugee camp. Nastaran is immediately surrounded by a group of Syrian women. The small two-room apartment with a kitchen and a tiny bathroom has been freshly painted in pastel colours, some of the furniture looks like it was knocked together by hand. Plants and a wall hung with drawings and messages in English and Arabic add some comfort to the room.

This morning, the atmosphere is cheerful in any case. A young Algerian woman wears a dress with “Make today awesome” printed on it. In this environment where hope could collapse at any moment, the slogan sounds like a promise. Jenni, a volunteer from Zurich, greets the women with a hug and a loud “Marhaba” (Arabic for “welcome”). The women exchange their shoes for plastic slippers. Some make themselves comfortable in the small living room, connect to the internet, drink coffee and recover – away from all male glances. Others are waiting to finally take a hot shower.

Uncertainty in the camp

Aside from the recuperation and language courses offered by this small centre, the women receive social and psychological help. Oleya * arrived on Chios on 25 March. Dressed in a black tunic and a black headscarf, she expresses grief for her husband and one of her sons, who both died in Syria. “This centre is the only place I go when I leave my tent. I’m so tired. Here I can rest a little.”

“IT IS HUMILIATING TO ALWAYS HAVE TO ASK MY FATHER OR BROTHER TO ACCOMPANY ME WHEN I WANT TO TAKE A SHOWER OR GO TO THE WC.”

Amsa* from Syria

In the overcrowded camps Souda and Vial, the women do not feel safe. The toilet stalls cannot be locked, there is no hot water, and the men are constantly using the sanitary facilities reserved for the women. “It is humiliating to always have to ask my father or brother to accompany me when I want to take a shower or go to the WC,” says Amsa angrily. The twenty-year-old from al-Qamichli in Syria had to break off her studies at the beginning of the war. She arrived on Chios last September and has just received the Greek authorities’ official denial of her asylum application. This long period of insecurity has left traces in her youthful face, and she is angry: “We have escaped violence, and now we are vegetating away in undignified conditions in Greece. We are not treated as people here, but as numbers. It is the worst for us women, because we always need to be protected by an escort.”

“THE WORST PROBLEM IN THE CAMPS IS THE LACK OF HYGIENE, THE RATS AND MEDICAL CARE. EVERYTHING IS TREATED WITH ASPIRIN.”

Saliha*, English teacher from Homs

Saliha*, an English teacher from Homs, arrived on the island last August with her mother and her brother. “When we arrived, we were told that we would only have to stay on the island for a maximum of 25 days, but now we have been waiting for over eight months,” she says. “The biggest problem in the camps is the lack of hygiene, rats and medical care. Everything is treated with aspirin,” she says cynically. “When I arrived here, it was the Athena Centre that helped me get back on my feet. It was an obvious decision for me to start teaching the women here. They have almost become a second family for me.”

It was in 2015 when Gabrielle, originally an attorney, decided to turn her life upside down and help the refugees on the Balkan route. She created a Facebook page under the name Action from Switzerland and immediately received thousands of donations. After distributing hundreds of tents, blankets, sleeping bags, and food packages in Hungary and Syria (sic), she went in the opposite direction toward the refugees on Chios. On the island she helped receive refugees arriving on overloaded boats, offering hot tea and warm clothes. According to the EU agreement with Turkey, the number of new arrivals fell drastically. So Gabrielle sought other ways to help.

“In the camps, I witnessed the horrible things the women went through: for example, a man entered a tent and grabbed a teenaged girl. The women were constantly harassed in the toilets,” she recalls. “So I suggested to eight women I knew well to rent a room where they would feel safe. A place they could see as a home outside the camp.” News of the little centre, named after the Greek goddess of wisdom Athena, quickly made the rounds among the women. Since its opening in July 2016, it has been used by around 4,000 women and girls aged 13 and older.

THE CAMPS ARE NOT THE RIGHT PLACE TO RECOVER FROM WAR AND PERSECUTION.

An everyday life of violence

The camps are not the right place to recover from war and persecution. In November 2016, right-wing extremists threw stones and Molotov cocktails onto the Souda camp. Several people were injured and a woman who was three months’ pregnant lost her child. In addition, fights break out time and again. On 30 March, a 29-year-old Syrian was the victim of a fire in the Vial camp. In this atmosphere of waiting and uncertainty, women are exposed to a variety of forms of violence: rape attempts, theft, domestic violence, human trafficking, aggression and intimidation.

“I try to filter out the most vulnerable persons, especially single mothers, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women and disabled people,” explains the founder of the women’s centre. “Sometimes we take care of men as well. For example, right now we have a single father who is deaf, mute and illiterate. At the moment, I am also looking after a pregnant minor who is finally able to live in an apartment. I make sure their rights are respected. There is so much to do.”

At 7 pm, as the doors of the Athena Centre close, Gabrielle accompanies Nastaran to the small apartment that has been rented by the UNHCR. Her eldest son, her twins and her youngest daughter are waiting for her. The mother bursts into tears. Gabrielle encourages her: “You can do it, you do not need anyone. You have already solved so many problems on your own.”

*names changed

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