Reflections on the realities of refuge

Editor’s note – Tilda volunteered with Action from Switzerland for 10 days and worked with Gabrielle to run the Centre. We thank her for her dedication, commitment and will miss her on Chios.

Keeping up with news is easy to do for me. The BBC news app can ping anytime a major story breaks, leading me to almost immediately read further and assimilate what I hear somehow into my day. It’s the content of evening conversations over cups of herbal tea at my little dining table at home. It’s the easily copied and pasted URL to a partner of a story we think is shocking or profound. The single click of a laughing, crying or angry icon on facebook. Opinion, commentary, photo journalism, we are bombarded with news. But it becomes most real when it’s from a person in front of you.

At the Athena Centre for Women, the female refugee population on Chios can come into a safe, cool space to rest or play. Or for some teenagers, to mostly make endless coffees, take pouty selfies and paint their nails.

In the “Raha” (relax in Arabic) room, we sit with glasses of sugary frappes and exchange stories. One woman and I got talking about the different kinds of dances we grew up with. She attempted to make me move my hips like a natural Syrian, I taught her the five positions of ballet. We giggled at each other.

The girls drew on Jess and Gabrielle. Jess loved it. Gabrielle was traumatised by the amount of glitter on her

I eventually say to her: ‘Tell me how you got here to Chios’.

She draws me a map of Syria and circles the city she came from, well into DAESH territory. She describes how she missed her job back at home. She worked in a hospital: ‘fallen down over my head’. Her house was near by: ‘fallen down over me’. She tells me how she refused to wear the full burka and refused to pray how Daesh wanted her to.

‘If you say no to DAESH, you run or you have head cut off’.

The way she speaks of this is with a sense of complete normality- this was life. Now, on this little Greek island, she says she flinches when she hears a plane nearby. She is used to it meaning a very real likelihood that the walls around her will splinter and crash down.

‘At my home,’ she continues ‘you hear the plane. Maybe from Russia, maybe France, maybe America…’

At this point I crack and tears fall down my face. It’s not her who expresses this sadness, but me. I suddenly feel the guilt of all those countries. The weight of it on my shoulders. I want to apologise on behalf of us all. She is the one who apologises profusely for making me cry and I tell her that it’s because I’m learning. It’s very important, I tell her, to hear stories like hers.

‘It’s not a story, it’s true’ she says. She speaks on, her words filled with strength and defiance.

My time as a volunteer in Chios is only brief and I am under no illusion that I can make any groundbreaking changes or establish long term projects during my two week visit. But being involved with the Athena Centre for Women is an absolute honour. It offers one stage of aid for those fleeing war, a vital one: Counselling, support, smiling company and classes which aim to empower. You can find us here doing yoga together, sewing, breaking out Zumba moves in the 32 degree heat, preparing families for their onward journeys, painting pictures and giving each other massages.

And teaching each other the important words we need to communicate: ‘Bukrah? Bukrah also yes?’ (In English: Tomorrow… you’ll come tomorrow?). The Centre offers the much needed break from the heat and intensity of the nearby camps as well as a line to legal, medical referrals and practical help.

It’s what is needed for us all – us volunteers are learning immense amounts while we hope the women who come to the centre feel like they have support on this journey of epic proportions.

We are, every one of us, small people in a big world of immense horrors. I know that I’ll go back home clutching my pinging phone as stories of unaccompanied minors, violent border patrols and people in sinking plastic boats pop up over and over again. These things are far from me.
But listening to her story, and being able to look into her eyes as she speaks is to share some humanity that is lacking from many dark corners of this world.

Empathy is an impossible aim at moments like this. But I hope that sharing a frappe, a truthful story and some shaking of the hips can reassure us both that we have something which binds us.

— Matilda

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