EDITOR’S NOTE: Lydia spent two months on Chios volunteering at our Athena Centre for Women. Fluent in French and Arabic – two of the most frequently used languages at our Centre – meant that Lydia is able to communicate freely with the women. Lydia was also instrumental in giving the girls a voice, working with them tirelessly to navigate the complex Greek health and asylum systems. Her level headedness, gentle yet firm personality gained the trust of all the ladies, re-ignited their spark and the belief that they are able to re-establish their independence.
She reflects on her time and experience working on Chios with this honest and raw blog post.
AfS is entirely run by volunteers. We are constantly looking for like-minded individuals to work with us. Please send our Volunteer Coordinator, Rahel an email if you are interested.
‘What’s your news?’ or ‘What’s up?’ – Shoo akhbarik? is more or less the first and last thing that enters my head each day in Chios. This catchy phrase is one of the few pleasantries that spans across the myriad of Arab dialects and unites its peoples from across the region. As a blonde foreigner, the moment I pronounce these words I feel I become ‘one of the shabab’ and a door of communication opens up. For me this brings to life one of the many joys there are to acquiring a foreign language and in particular, Arabic; for even with just a few colloquial expressions under your belt (Arabs are BIG on greetings) you can embark on a conversation with someone not expecting to talk to you. It never ceases to invoke a really tangible feeling of satisfaction and delight.
Sadly, daily interactions in Chios can provide a stark contrast to these positive emotions. When conversing with the refugee communities of Iraqis, Syrians, Afghanis, Iranians, Kuwaitis, Cameroonians and Congolese, once you get beyond the initial niceties (via Shoo akhbarik or equivalent) talk will inevitably and all too often turn more sombre. Once upon a happier time in the souq in Damascus you might have hollered a cheerful ‘Yalla, Bye!’ to someone you had bumped into in the street and proceeded to purchase a kilo of tomatoes. But as a result of the ever-worsening circumstances faced by all on this island, rather than the trace of a smile reminiscent of those you’ve encountered and a nice, full shopping bag, it’s the remnants of an insufficient embrace and a permanently heavy heart that you’re left with as you walk away.
You can never be prepared for where conversations will take you. Sometimes, they do stay light and on the surface. Tentative enquiries about what life is like in England, or a cheeky tease, of which my personal favourite (10th time asking) has to be: ‘Lydia, why aren’t you married to your habibati after 5 years? It has been so long!’ To which I always reply: ‘Fil mustaqbal, inshallah!’ (‘One day in the future, God Willing!’) More often than not though they develop into a far more troubling exchange.
Working with refugee women means working with survivors. I emphasise this because it seems to be something that’s overlooked, becoming apparent when language like ‘poor’ is used to describe someone who has survived and fled a raging civil war, or escaped from a country that persecutes, punishes and murders the gender to which they belong. These women are not ‘poor’; they could not be further from it. They are dealing with any number of barely surmountable challenges at any one time.
Some of these ‘challenges’ are actual crimes committed against them, caused by murderous and abusive husbands or other abhorrent human beings. Acts of gender-based violence; rape, trafficking, forced prostitution, and sexual or all other forms of harassment. Others are ‘naturally occurring’, for want of a better phrase, such as pregnancy or mental and physical health conditions. But imagine yourself seven months pregnant crossing the sea in the pitch black at night-time in a rubber dinghy dangerously overflowing with people that sinks and capsizes, to find after you’ve been rescued and have spent an hour panicking in the water that your husband has been taken in a different boat, back to where you risked your life to come from, and you are now alone and pregnant in a strange and foreign country.
They may be naturally occurring challenges but they are made incomprehensibly harder in these circumstances, and yet worse by abysmal living conditions and a permanent fear of being sent back to where you’ve escaped from, or never making it to where you want to go. How much trauma, worry and fear is it possible to lie upon one individual? I have been astounded by the harshness and injustice I have seen in the hands fellow humans are dealt.
It is utterly mind blowing what someone is capable of surviving and I have been completely overcome by the surviving spirit and nature of the people I have met. It is (as you might be able to tell from the slightly incoherent nature of this post) a truly emotional rollercoaster working in Chios: endlessly swaying between anger, helplessness, sadness and frustration, versus pride, honour, overwhelmed-ness and an unquenchably underlying optimism about the resilience of our species and my gender. It all makes for an exhausting combination and I’m a spectator and a temporary one at that.
I have to articulate how much respect I have for all the refugees, the Centre’s women in particular, and all the volunteers on the island who have given so much of their time and energy to alleviating this crisis. Despite everything there is an incredible community that continues to fight to instil hope in us all.
I hope more light shines through the end of the tunnel soon.
Since graduating in Arabic and French from the University of Manchester over two years ago, Lydia has been working in different roles within the nonprofit sector. She began her career in pursuit of making a social impact as a trainee on the Charityworks graduate scheme, a leadership development programme placing graduates into careers in the third sector, through which she spent a year working in a portfolio role at the Royal College of Radiologists in London. Following completion of this scheme, and before arriving in Chios, Lydia was working as a Project Manager for a think tank specialising in convening multi-stakeholder, senior level dialogues. Her focus areas were reform within the UK banking sector and climate change. Alongside these roles Lydia volunteers for the Baytree Centre in Brixton as a refugee mentor and freelances for English PEN as an Arabic-English translator.