By Yara Boff Tonella is Media Manager at Amnesty International Netherlands.
“If you want to know the true meaning of fear, hunger and cold, come here”
Recently, I spent several days talking to women in refugee camps on Lesvos and Samos, two of the Greek islands where thousands of refugees are stuck as a result of a decision EU governments made two years ago.
It was a stark reminder on how different our lives were, even though we all live within the European borders. For many, everyday activities I take for granted, like sleeping and taking a shower, were major challenges and often faced with fear.
Their stories were a chilling tale of the consequences of Europe’s cruel migration polices.
The quote above is from Amal, a Syrian-Palestinian woman who fled the war in Syria.
Amal was talking about the conditions in Moria, a refugee camp on the island of Lesvos. Her eyes were sad when she told me about her first days there:
“For five days, we stayed in a tent people referred to as the ‘prison tent’. I was shocked and hurt to be treated as a criminal.”
The suffering continues
Amal and the other women I met are among the people we rarely hear about anymore.
Their lives are placed on hold due to decisions by European politicians, who seem not to care about people’s lives in refugee camps on the Greek islands.
It has been two years since the EU and Turkey agreed that every person arriving irregularly on the Greek islands should be returned to Turkey. While returns did not happen to the extent European leaders have wished for, the deal resulted in thousands of people being kept on the islands in the expectation that they would be ultimately returned to Turkey. However, authorities did not offer adequate shelter and services and people have been living in awful and unsafe conditions.
Friendships to survive
One thing quickly became clear to me when meeting these strong and resilient women: friendships are crucial in making it through the days, and to cope with the uncertainty of not knowing what the future has in store.
Yvette* from Cameroon has become like a mother to many young women living in the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos. When the camp was severely overcrowded, she didn’t hesitate to give up her bed for pregnant women.
“I am a mother, so I understand their difficulties. I can imagine how hard it is to be pregnant in Moria” she told me.
Sometimes Amina, a young Yemenite woman, escapes the harsh circumstances in the camps by going to the beach with her new friends. They eat together and try to relax. Amina told me that she cried a lot during the first months in Moria camp, but luckily, a friend from Yemen would comfort her. “I can’t imagine standing it out without her.”
Everyday life is grim
Women and girls are particularly exposed to human rights violations under such circumstances.
Every day in the camps is a struggle, the women I met told me. Basic everyday activities like washing up or sleeping are almost impossible. Adèle, a young woman from Congo staying in Vathi camp on Samos, explained to me: “Showers don’t have locks. Men knock on the door urging me to hurry up. They can just walk right in.”
In Vathi Camp on Samos, where she lives, there is no separate space for women. That makes them particularly vulnerable at night. Simone, a young woman from a Sub-Saharan-African country** has to share a container with men she doesn’t know. She can barely sleep at night because of that.
Women protecting each other
In both Moria (Lesvos) and Vathi camp (Samos) there is no effective police protection. “Every day women are harassed or even worse in and outside Moria,” Nadia said. She is a young Afghan woman who used to work with NGOs empowering youth and women in Afghanistan. According to Nadia, the women are not taken seriously if they ask the police in Moria camp for help against verbal or physical harassment.
The women have no other option than to protect each other.
“I keep myself busy not to lose it”
Yvette works as a volunteer with an organisation that distributes clothes to other refugees. “I keep myself busy not to lose it,” she told me. By helping others, she also maintains her own sanity.
Amina teaches English to children from the camp, and her face lights up whenever the children come to her for a chat.
But trying to be busy is challenging when your past is heavy, the present is dire, and the future so uncertain.
When I asked Simone*, if she likes listening to music, she replied: “I can’t, my head is too full.” Adèle, from the same camp, tried to learn English in one of the courses offered by volunteers. But she was too stressed to concentrate.
Most of the women I met dreamt of being with their family again. Nadia traveled to Greece with her two younger sisters. One is now transferred to mainland Greece, but Nadia is still stuck on Lesvos waiting to be transferred with her youngest sister, who is 15. “I miss my sister”, she told me.
But restarting life can be hard after all the things they have been through.
Previously, Amal worked as a medical statistician in Damascus.
When she was in Turkey, despite her qualifications, she was only able to find a job in textile workshops. But the working conditions made her sick.
She found a job working as an interpreter in Lesvos, so she is planning to stay there for a while, also because she does not have any connection elsewhere in Greece. She has family in the rest of Europe. “But I’m too tired to continue my journey to them”, she sighed. Current EU policies oblige her to request asylum in Greece, despite having distant relatives in other EU countries. She does not want to put herself in the hands of smugglers again.
Don’t forget about them
I was moved by the openness and dignity of all the women I met, despite everything that had happened to them. They carry on and find the strength to help and protect each other. It upsets me to see that they have been abandoned by almost everyone. For too many politicians in Europe, their suffering seems to be something distant, and therefore easy to disregard. Amal has a very clear message to them: “If you want to know the true meaning of fear, hunger and cold, come and stay here in Moria camp for a month”.
Let’s not forget about these women and all the other people living in the camps in the Greek islands. They deserve a future. A future that deals such as the one between the EU and Turkey are denying for thousands of people stuck in awful conditions. We must hold our political leaders across the EU accountable for this suffering. It’s in their hands to change this. And it’s in the hands of the Greek government to transfer refugees to safety in the mainland.
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* Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the women.
** Name of the country of origin of the interviewee is not disclosed for security reasons.