ATHENA CENTRE FOR WOMEN (CHIOS)
AfS volunteers arrived on Chios in January 2016 and spent the first 3 months meeting our fellow human beings arriving on the shores of the island. Chios is Greece’s fifth largest island and is located just 7 kilometres from Turkey, making it a frequent landing point for refugees traveling to Europe through the Balkan route. In 2016, more than 40,000 refugees arrives on Chios alone and we met them wet and traumatised, and witnessed unnecessary deaths due to the lack of a safe passage.
With the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal and closure of the borders on 20th March, the normally transient population of the refugees on Chios became stagnant. While the EU-Turkey deal did reduce the number of new arrivals to Chios, support on the island continues to be vital as refugees await their fate in the sluggish asylum process.
Refugees are forced to live in the undignified conditions of the camps on Chios and, while still active on the shores, we were slowly establishing stronger relationships with the women living in the camps due to our day-to-day interactions with them.
In light of the camp layouts and conditions, our founder wanted a safe space for the women to gather. Spaces solely for marginalised genders need to exist for an important reason: For the women to discuss their experiences, challenges and struggles without the men around. With only women listening to them, many are more comfortable talking about their oppression without worrying about repercussions or the men getting defensive.
With the enthusiastic feedback from the women, AfS took the plunge and opened the Athena Centre for Women on 20th July 2016, the first all-female refugee facility away from the camps in Greece.
The following blog posts outline the set-up and early days of our Centre:
The Athena Centre for Women (15.07.2016)
The Athena Centre for Women: Opening Day Reflections (20.07.2016)
The Centre is founded on the concept of creating a safe sanctuary for the women away from the camps, supported by three main pillars: education, information, and social psychological support.
Check out the following clip to learn more about the Centre’s work:
The Centre has an activity hall for lessons upon request of the women. We believe in a collaborative approach, so what goes on our schedule board are a reflection of the women’s feedback and wishes.
Since our opening, we have offered English, German, French and most recently, Greek. Classes such as zumba, yoga, art therapy and self defence also take place in the activity hall. The Centre has also hosted outside expertise for seminars on topics such as sexual health, contraception, feminine hygiene and safety.
At the back, there is simply a relaxation room, known fondly by the women in the camps as the “Raha,” which means “relaxation” in Arabic. It provides an area for women to socialize, chat, knit, play their music, and network over refreshments funded by your donations.
The Centre also has a fully functional kitchen and a bathroom, providing hot water – something we take for granted in daily life but so that women can shower in dignity and safety, which is sadly not always possible in the camps.
The Centre also has a small office where women who wish to speak privately are able to do so.
A sample class schedule:
The Centre is open Monday through Saturday from 11am – 2pm and again from 4pm – 7pm.
The hours between 2pm – 4pm are reserved for private psychological or legal consultations upon the request of the women. These sessions are conducted by our own professional volunteers or professionals on the island who kindly offer their time, assisted by translators.
Besides our volunteers, the Centre is opened to the female refugee population of Chios, aged 12 years old and above. To ensure a calm environment and to prevent overcrowding, entry into the Centre is by appointment basis only.
More than 4,000 women and girls from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Congo, and Sudan have visited the Centre since it opened in July 2016.
The Centre costs are currently 1,610 Euros per month. Action from Switzerland is a fiercely independent organisation and our Centre is funded entirely by private donations.
Here’s our monthly budget:
- Rent – 500 €
- Electricity – 200 €
- Water – 100 €
- Cleaning and personal hygiene supplies – 300 €
- Tea/coffee/snacks – 200 €
- Office and classroom supplies – 50 €
- Toiletries – 200 €
- Wi-Fi – 60 €
The Centre is entirely staffed by AfS volunteers – like-minded individuals passionate about women’s rights. We occasionally welcome non-AfS volunteers with special skills (see below).
Our current Field Coordinator of Greece, is on-site at the Centre. The Field Coordinator also represents AfS to liaise with the other humanitarian actors on the island, supported by two other AfS volunteers who are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Centre, and participate in the daily interactions to facilitate activities and ensure stability and structure for the girls. The team is entirely female for obvious reasons.
The women treat the Centre as their home and we respect their privacy. Hence, we do not entertain drop-ins during our opening hours of 11am – 2pm and 4pm – 7pm.
We are however very happy to show you around our humble little space from Monday through Saturdays between 2pm – 4pm if these time slots are not booked for appointments requested by the women. You are welcome to make a prior appointment closer to your date of arrival by dropping us a message on our Facebook page. We promise to respond within 12 hours.
Absolutely no filming nor access to the women for interviews are allowed during our opening hours. You are welcome however, to film the Centre between 2pm – 4pm from Monday through Saturdays only if the Centre is not booked for other use.
Some television stations have previously given feedback that footage does not come alive or “is a little bland” without the women in the Centre. This is where we’ll thank you for your interest in our work but we’d have to politely decline your request as we take every precaution and measures to ensure that the women do not feel exploited in any capacity.
The women will speak with you if they want to. You will need to obtain your own permission from the Municipality and authorities prior to your arrival to visit the camps. We will not be able to facilitate that.
However, AfS is passionate about advocacy. We welcome any press who are keen on highlighting the difficulties of our fellow human beings stranded in Greece, as well as the particular challenges faced by the female refugee population. For starters, please refer to our blog posts below for more background information and drop us a message on Facebook with more details of your publication and your story angles. We endeavour to be as helpful as we can in deepening public understanding of the crisis and providing opportunities that will benefit refugees.
Thank you for your generosity. We believe in sourcing everything locally in order to support the Greek economy. Of course there are items that cannot be sourced locally that we might need from time to time.
You are welcome to drop us a message on our Facebook page closer to your arrival date, where we will give you a list where you can help us go shopping, depending on our needs at that point in time!
Due to the nature of our work, our Centre volunteers must be female, aged 21 or older, and are able to commit to a stay of at least 30 days to ensure safety and stability for our visitors. Our working language is English and we are always on the lookout for volunteers who are also fluent in Arabic, Farsi, Kurmanji, and/or Sorani.
Volunteers who don’t speak any of those languages but with a background in social work, sexual gender based violence and psychotherapy will be much appreciated. Drop us a note anyway if you don’t possess any of those skills. We love diversity and are constantly looking for solidarity from pro-active, gentle but strong self starters and team players who are passionate about social justice – especially those who take a strong stance on women’s issues.
Our volunteers have come from various parts of Europe as well as North America.
The following posts on our blog feature stories from previous volunteers:
A volunteer’s experience (28.07.2016)
Education where it’s needed most (29.08.2016)
A volunteer’s story: Facing challenges in Chios (23.09.2016)
We always welcome dynamic, driven, proactive and committed individuals who will stand with us and our displaced friends in solidarity, and not charity.
AfS is staffed entirely by like-minded individuals and our local social integration programs run on a horizontal structure where volunteers utilise the network to drive their own projects, or support existing ones. We’ll love to meet you and hear your ideas on how you can intensify and expand our local projects.
Please see our Volunteer page for more information. After you fill out the appropriate form(s) on the page, our Volunteer Coordinator will reach out to you to set up an in-person meeting or a Skype call to discuss opportunities and next steps.