WMC Women Under Siege

‘Solidarity is stronger than fear’: In central Athens exists a buzzing Babel for women refugees

“We forget to integrate the positive sides, the strengths, the skills, the desires, the strategies they have for the future,” says Nadina Christopoulou. Here, a young Hazara woman from Afghanistan. (Lauren Wolfe)

Athens, Greece—Tucked away in the graffitied center of Athens is a soothing example of 1920s architecture. High ceilings and arched doorways lead to a stone-walled patio. The feeling inside is fresh on a sweaty day in Greece, with a breeze winding through tall, paneled windows. But it is the life inside, the laughter and chatter, that makes this a truly calming place.

In a city where refugees from different countries are known to ignore or even fight each other, women from Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, Morocco, and elsewhere cluster in groups and eat fried zucchini patties and salad prepared by a South African woman. They speak in various languages, filling up before an afternoon group therapy session and a workshop with a dance historian from New York. Called Melissa, this place is a refuge for many of the city’s temporary residents—migrants and refugees who are hoping to make their way onward in Europe (but can’t since the borders were closed on March 20). More than 260 members from at least 40 countries spend time at the center, which opened in July 2015. They take respite from feeling unsafe, from their tents in the city’s old Olympic park or elsewhere throughout Athens to learn Greek, draw, make photographs, and even do daily yoga with an instructor named Adeola Aderemi, whose classes were inspired by a UN yoga program for child soldiers in Rwanda.

I spoke with one of Melissa’s cofounders, anthropologist Nadina Christopoulou, about what makes this space different from other refugee centers (it is), why it’s called “Melissa” (“honeybee” in Greek), and how she handles dealing with so many terrible stories, day in and day out (her answer will give you hope).

Nadina Christopoulou at Melissa when it first opened. “I was dreaming of getting it full of people one day,” she said. (Silvia Hagge de Crespin)

Lauren Wolfe: How does Melissa work in terms of relating to individual refugees?

Nadina Christopoulou: Melissa’s primary aim has been to provide a common platform of communication, where women of diverse origins can meet and share their stories, and work together toward finding creative solutions to their common problems. Melissa means “honeybee” in Greek. It’s a metaphor of our vision of society as an open beehive of creativity, communication, and exchange. Grassroots organizations are so controlled by men that we tried to infiltrate the informal networks. Whenever need arises, networks arise. Women tend to organize overnight. 

When the refugee flows started increasing last summer and people were stranded in the nearby parks and squares, we became immediately involved. First by preparing “breakfast-in-a-cup” for the kids sleeping out. How much can you fit in a cup? A small fruit, a slice of homemade cake prepared by women from Nigeria, Georgia, or Turkey—something small to bring back a sense of home and the message that someone cares. Then we started making handmade toys and putting them in care-packs for the kids. Something to take along, humanizing this dehumanizing journey.

All our members have experienced the anxiety of such journeys. They prepared a list of what they would pack for their own kid. As our cofounder Deborah Valencia says, “You don’t give because you have more, you give because you know how it is not to have anything.”

We also packed in a diary and a pen, so that they could keep some record of all this. Click Ngwere, our other cofounder, from Zimbabwe, had kept a diary all through her own journey, which later became the script of a movie. The idea is that their voice will be part of history when the history of this journey will be written.

Refugee girls and women have space at Melissa to tell their own memories and experiences—their own stories. (Lauren Wolfe)


LW: So how is Melissa different from other organizations trying to help refugees?

NC: After almost a whole year of operation and active involvement with refugee women and children, we decided that what we really want to do and can and should do is stop thinking about aid and focus on integration. Look at the stories behind the numbers, open a window, try to build a bridge. So we started Alef, an integration initiative funded by Mercy Corps and supported by the municipality. People come to learn Greek and participate in different activities ranging from art therapy to media workshops, finding ways to navigate the city and plan life in a new place.

The innovative element is the involvement of migrant women’s groups, who become the cultural mediators facilitating the transition. For nine or 10 hours every day, the place is a real beehive, a buzzing Babel. And we try to create space for the shared feelings, but also for each individual story to be told. There are all these unique voices, incredible life histories, a vast new mythology to be explored and to bring energy and inspiration to our societies.

LW: How do you do this work, day in and day out? Witnessing such pain and striving at the same time must take its toll on you.

NC: Actually, the dominant emotion is joy. The joy of sharing, of moving forward, of standing by one another. There is a lot of pain in the refugee journeys that we come to witness, of course there is, but there is also strength, immense resilience, and joy. At the end of each day, all of us working together often look at each other and tell each other that we are so privileged to be doing the most beautiful job in the world.

The mental notes you have every day—so many contradictory stories and so many diverse emotions. We laugh and cry in the same hour.

I recall when the first departure [of girls heading onward to northern Europe] was announced to us—it was two Afghan girls whose families had arranged to leave with smugglers. We had been celebrating Eid al-Fitr that day, breaking fast with delicious home-cooked food, painting our nails, doing henna tattoos, dancing and laughing throughout the day, when one of them took me gently to a quiet corner under the attic and whispered the news. The music was still on, the kids were jumping around, and all of a sudden I was crying so hard and so was she. And so did everyone who came close and figured out what was about to happen. We were hugging and crying altogether. As if the shared joy of the feast had opened a lid and waves of unexpected emotions were flooding in.

In a way, it was a release, but it was also a huge extra burden on their shoulders. Because at the end of the day, we would go back home to our safe, familiar, and supportive environments, while they would depart in the middle of the night, exposed to all sorts of dangers. They would end up who knows where, having to face immense uncertainty yet again. And it makes you wonder about everything you try to do, and how much you really achieve, how much of a real difference it makes, when in the end, despite all your efforts and commitment, they have to go back to the camp and contain their lives and their dreams in a tiny tent.

I think you can’t really do this work if you don’t open up yourself. Every day here it’s just packed with so many different stories you can’t keep track. Not only the emotions—our emotions and the people’s emotions—it’s like you’re somehow in the middle of a hurricane and you’re just trying to stay afloat. And the only thing that guides you is not your education or your working experience but your own story, your own memory, and your own experience.

Someone told me recently, “You really look exhausted. It’s like there’s this sadness around that is swallowing you.” She kept saying that: “It’s swallowing you.” I went home and took vitamin B12, omegas, vitamin C, rosehip…whatever I had!

LW: Tell me about the history of this amazing building and center.

NC: This house was built in 1928 as a private residence, which later went through many uses, including, apparently, as a maternity clinic. In recent years, there was a migrants’ forum based here. It was even targeted by the Golden Dawn [a violent, far-right neo-Nazi party]. A Molotov bomb was thrown here on this patio, possibly by one of their supporters. This whole neighborhood became a stronghold of Golden Dawn. They built strongholds in central neighborhoods and at Piraeus [the port area in Athens]. They built their members by going door to door. For a while, people were scared. But we can’t just give over the center of the city.

We decided to come back and reclaim it. We came back to this space to reach out to the community to put forward positive participation of the migrant community. It worked.

In the beginning, we were received with some suspicion. People were visiting us and questioning our motives. They cautioned us to be careful about what we do. We’ve been here one year. I think we’ve managed to convince the neighborhood. Seeing women from many different communities helping out refugees—in the end, it was a much more positive image. Solidarity is stronger and more beautiful than fear. The livelihoods of these migrant women belong to this area and can really make the city much more interesting.

People come to learn Greek and do everything from art therapy to media workshops, “finding ways to navigate the city and plan life in a new place.” (Priyali Sur)

Different people come with different skills. We register those skills and map them and see how we can communicate them to the community. There’s a lot of interest. It’s great to have a space like this where people can come by. The women take great pride in sharing anything from cooking to storytelling.

LW: From talking to women here, I’ve found that they see it as a safe space, which is so rare for refugees to find.

NC: I was reading a story about [the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan] Zaatari and this man was saying, “If I want to get drunk I won’t be able to find the way back to my place.” This is so striking if you think about the basic human need, sometimes, to forget.

LW: In my travels I’ve seen that domestic violence is often much higher in refugee areas than in everyday life. The frustration levels often lead to violence against women. Do you ever hear stories of domestic violence?

NC: We actually do. I didn’t expect it to come up so fast. We postponed asking about that, thinking we should wait until we build trust first. But it emerged spontaneously, in sharing stories.

LW: They wanted to talk?

Absolutely. It came out first when we brought in a theater director to work with the women. He said, “Let me start with pantomime. Then we’ll see what happens.” Despite the fact that he was a man it was incredible how everybody responded, how they opened up and how easily they touched upon trauma—death, loss, and domestic violence. They were pantomiming the kicks and the punches. What I didn’t expect was that they were all fully aware of the cultural norms in the place to which they were moving—that it wasn’t okay to allow [domestic violence]. They had a great sense of humor on how their parents have changed: That this belongs to the past. They’ve transitioned from that situation. This is the biggest impact of creating such bridges. People start making the mental transition. They acquire a positive frame of reference. They gain the respect, the knowledge, being in a new society.

LW: I’ve been hearing a lot from Greeks about how the refugees “refuse to integrate.”

NC: When we talk about integration—women are the key agents. They want the best for their kids. Integration is their primary challenge. Whatever little you give them they multiply. They’re motivators. Instead of a word they come up with a whole story. It will multiply because it reflects their kids, the community. They interact with so many layers. In a sense, whatever investment you make in women it’s going to reflect a lot more.

Whenever you give women the opportunity they’re going to thrive. It’s about giving it to them. And perhaps the time has come for all of us to stop simply labeling them as “refugees”— judging people on the basis of vulnerability alone and trying to help solely through humanitarian aid. Everything has been planned upon people’s vulnerability: unaccompanied minors, single women. We forget to integrate the positive sides, the strengths, the skills, the desires, the strategies they have for the future. The energy and motivation that they bring along.

“We forget to integrate the positive sides, the strengths, the skills, the desires, the strategies they have for the future,” says Nadina Christopoulou. Here, a young Hazara woman from Afghanistan. (Lauren Wolfe)

You know what impressed me yesterday…the women were doing this photography workshop. They described why they chose the photographs in such a positive way. The embroidery, the crafts, the origami paper cranes, the plants: “Everybody loves plants here,” “The space is safe for us,” “The table is always full of delicious things,” etc. Almost everyone brought up the beauty element. Maybe because everything is so deprived of beauty in the camps, the whole life they’re going to.

But then this one girl said, “I chose to photograph the only thing I do not like here: the basket that holds the cranes.” The reason she didn’t like it was that it was covered on top and it looked like a cage.

“What I don’t like,” she said, “is that the birds are confined within a cage and they can’t fly out. Birds should be free to fly.”

I had been running around absent-minded and had left a tray on top of the basket without even thinking, and then forgot about it. So I removed it and said, “Is this better?” and she said, “Yes!” Now she smiles every time she sees me, a knowing smile, that of an accomplice. She is only 13, but so unbelievably smart. She said, “This place for us symbolizes freedom and safety and sharing life and getting to know one another, and this is the one thing that doesn’t stick to the narrative.” So we mended it. 



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Lauren Wolfe
Director, Women Under Siege
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