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Looking back at Chios

Author: Haley Broder

It has been one month since I left the Athena Centre for Women, where I coordinated daily operations, led English, yoga, and meditation classes, and got to spend time getting to know the most resilient women I will ever meet. I can think of little else but the tenacity, power, and strength of the women who frequent the Centre. I struggle to write this piece, to put words to a situation so absurdly nonsensical, and I hope that the words I do provide give even a fraction of justice to the truths I witnessed.

This is a reflection on an experience brimming with privilege. I came to Greece on my own and I chose to leave, to get on a plane, and return to Los Angeles. My time in Chios required no bravery — it was relatively easy for me to book a flight, schedule a place to stay, land in Athens, and continue over to Chios. It was uncomplicated for me to hug my family goodbye on the curb at the Los Angeles International Airport and know I would return to them a few months down the line. I showed up and knew I would depart, my experience had a clear beginning and end — destination arrived and departed clean.

It required remarkable bravery and heart for the women who had come through Chios to leave their homes, and often their families, journey across the Aegean, and survive the incredibly harsh conditions on the island. I cannot even begin to understand their lived experiences, but at the Centre, I could be there to listen and offer help.

As demonstrated through the women’s own words collected in our focus groups, (Focus Group February 2017) extreme conditions in Chios necessitate a women’s centre to provide support.

Layers of abuse, torture, physical and mental illness, and pains add complexities to a crisis already gruesome in nature for women; it is integral to provide a space for women to seek support and nurture their strength and independence. Cases of babies lost, lives compromised, and horrendous assaults committed against women are a major part of life on Chios and cannot be neglected or overlooked.

Within a situation so devoid of humanity, the Centre lends space to replenish and feed the humanity within such darkness.

A space where three young women from Aleppo could cook for the first time since their arrival: making their favorite dish from home in our kitchen, the smell wafting through every room, the rise and fall of their laughter pulling more women in to join them.

A space where a group of girls from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, post-English class threaded each other’s eyebrows and danced to “habibi, habibi,” then threaded mine and laughed out loud as I yelped at the surprise discomfort.

A space where girls who could not wear nail polish due to ISIS control are able to pick out colors from our jars and create rainbows of art for themselves — a simple act of rebellion.

It is truly humbling to meet them within this context. To be surrounded by women embodying the most courage and heart imaginable. These women are survivors.

I am humbled by the liminal space I occupied on Chios and incredibly grateful I was able to come and help. But I was only doing just that, helping. The souls I met along the way have left me certain of the importance of opening our hearts, listening, and advocating for open borders and dignity for those displaced.

May their stories, their memories, and their strength continue to be illuminated and never forgotten.

About Haley

Haley Broder graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2016, where she studied Environmental Politics, Gender Policy, and Peace Studies. At Berkeley, she represented 35,000 students as an elected senator and spearheaded the campus anti-sexual violence movement. She has researched the correlation between women and indigenous peace politics in Costa Rica, gender dynamics in Istanbul, and nationalism in Spain and Italy. She spent three months working with NGOs in Northern Greece to support refugee women, graduated from the prestigious Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs in Los Angeles, then returned to Greece to support the Athena Centre for Women in Chios. As a descendant of refugees and Greeks, she remains committed to advocating for vulnerable populations.

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