When I arrived on Chios Island in early February, spirits in the Souda refugee camp were much like the weather – bleak. Most refugees had been stuck in the camps for months, waiting to be able to start new lives. By winter’s end they were more exasperated with each passing day. Some verged on despondent. How long would they have to linger on a dreary, windswept island before someone, anyone, decided on their fate?
The jumble of humanitarian groups working to address refugee needs on the island included the UNHCR, international NGOs, small NGO start-ups, and self-funded and self-organized teams of independent volunteers. Some groups provided legal assistance to refugees lost in the labyrinth of the asylum process. Others focused on meeting the daily needs of refugees for things like shelter, water, clothing, food and basic medical care. By February they had gotten at least part of the equation right; most refugees were warm, clean, clothed, and fed. But there were still giant areas of need – areas that were not being addressed but that in some ways seemed the most pressing. The more time I spent in the camp, the more I became aware of these needs.
The first few times I spoke with refugees, at special events organized by volunteer groups, I was struck by how upbeat and easygoing they seemed. You’d never know they had fled war and persecution, endured torture, and a host of other things. It wasn’t until I began venturing into tents at the end of my workday, accepting refugees’ invitations for tea, that I began to see evidence of deep traumas. Inside the privacy of tents, my tea hosts relaxed in my presence. They began to share stories about what they’d been through – difficult, sometimes heartrending stories. They shared the full spectrum of their feelings with me: devastation, frustration and laughter, and even hopes and dreams. Suddenly, the camp transformed before my eyes. It became a place not where refugees lived, but a place where PEOPLE lived. People like me.
At that point I could see how much the refugees wanted to feel like people again, because the of the bureaucratic and dehumanizing maze in which they had found themselves. Wait in line for breakfast; wait in line for tea. Wait in a very long line if you want to see the doctor. And then return to your tent, which is white and sterile like all the others, to do nothing except stare at your smart phone – if you are lucky enough to have one – for the remainder of the day. Wake up the next day and do the very same things all over again.
That’s why the few places on Chios that offer refugees the chance to feel human again are so incredibly important. They are like precious incubators; they keep refugees’ hopes and spirits alive while they integrate the traumas of their past and contemplate the uncertainties of their future.
I had positive contact with all these places, but the one that made the most lasting impression on me was the Athena Centre for Women, established by Action from Switzerland in July 2016.
In this bright, welcoming space, tucked away on a quiet street only a short distance from Souda camp, women can truly be women in a homelike environment, away from the harshness of the camp. My month of involvement with the Centre as an independent volunteer gave me a glimpse into the many important ways it serves female refugees on Chios.
Primarily, the Athena Centre is a place where the women can be safe. The Souda camp is not a secure place for anyone, but especially not for women. Bathrooms are shared and located away from the tents. Making the trek from tent to bathroom alone, in the dark, is risky and frightening for women, some of whom are pregnant and need to use the bathroom several times at night. Showering is also stressful. I learned that sometimes men enter the women’s showers at Souda, because the men’s showers are full, or to show defiance or domination. At the Athena Centre, women can use the bathroom and shower in peace, in a private bathroom. Hallelujah!
The Centre also serves as a sanctuary for women who are experiencing marital tension or even domestic violence. One of the most striking things I observed in the camps is escalating tension between men and women arising from the significant change in gender norms that many experience after immigrating to Europe. Some women are relieved to find that, in Greece, they no longer need a male escort to leave their tents, or even to venture into town. They have fewer wardrobe restrictions. They might be emboldened to challenge their husbands in ways they never have before.
Meanwhile, husbands may fear that their role as family decision-maker and protector is threatened, or that the power scale is tipping in the wrong direction. On a few occasions, I witnessed husbands lashing out at wives who were experimenting with new freedoms. Sometimes these conflicts escalated into terrible fights in the tents, which are confined even when you like your spouse, but shrink to the size of an acorn in volatile situations.
Distressed women can seek refuge in the Centre, where they will find gentle nurturing, wise counsel, and a space to breathe and contemplate options. A few refugee women I know who did just that returned to tents later to find apologetic husbands, who were willing to admit wrongdoing or do chores, such as making beds, for the first time in their lives. One brought his pregnant wife delicious cakes to share with her female friends. What these couples seemed to need most during these turbulent episodes was space to process change, and space is exactly what is lacking in a refugee tent. The Athena Centre provided this much-needed space for the women, along with many other things.
On a lighter note, the Athena Centre is also a place where women can rediscover their joie de vivre. They can relax, laugh and play together, all of which are profoundly humanizing. These activities relieve stress, enhance well-being, break down cultural barriers and build friendships between women. Much of the time in my experience at the Center, though serious work was being done, I found the atmosphere to be quite jovial, with singing, dancing and animated conversations happening here and there. There are also structured activities at the Centre, such as Zumba and martial arts, language classes and seminars to expose the women to new ideas. Women can cook and share traditional foods from their regions with other women, facilitating cultural exchange and contributing to a warm feeling of camaraderie, which pervades the space from end to end and floor to ceiling.
My favorite thing about the Centre is that there, all women are equal. There is no distinction based on race, religion, nationality, socioeconomic class; all women are welcomed and accepted. Volunteers have assigned roles, which they perform very well, but I was impressed by the extent to which even they blended in with the group. When women were sitting together in one of the Centre’s cozy rooms, drinking tea, talking and laughing, it was difficult to distinguish between refugees and volunteers. This equalizing, humanizing, healing ambience of the Centre is a powerful gift for all the women who walk through its doors. Because first and foremost -in Souda, on Chios and beyond – we are all women. We are in this together, helping and supporting each other, in the name of a better world.
Thank you, Athena Centre, for the important work you are doing on Chios. Keep shining your candle of humanity in the vast darkness.
Jen Ottolino is an international development and humanitarian professional with expertise in management, organizational development, and monitoring and evaluation. She worked most recently in the Souda refugee camp on the island of Chios in Greece, and before that, spent several years with grassroots NGOs in Tanzania. She has a BA in psychology from Northwestern, a Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and a Graduate Certificate in Monitoring and Evaluation from American University. Jen is passionate about evaluation science and excited about opportunities to apply her skills in new ways and in new settings.