The power in people, the power in women

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 - 11:11

Many questions are being asked in the last two weeks over women, society and power. Do women have the power to lead? Can they make it all the way to the Presidency of the US?  Was it about Hillary or was it about women? 

Meanwhile back at the ranch, there is some good news. Feminism is on the rise and women are increasingly aware of their power. And yet, so many across the planet are invisible and their story goes untold. I meet powerful women all the time and like hearing and telling on their stories. This story is about Mariam.

On the edge of Athens live thousands of refugees in basic containers in a converted navy port.  The landscape is industrial, cruel, a rough terrain with no green, few facilities and nothing much to do.  Food is delivered – requests for collective kitchens to allow the people to play some role in feeding themselves have been denied.  It looks like the end of a road leading to nowhere.  The people living in Skaramagas mostly come from Syria and Iraq. They are waiting to be told if their asylum in Greece has been granted or if they can be reunited with family members elsewhere in Europe. That’s where I met Mariam. She lives in one side of a container with her sister who has four children.

Mariam emanates positive energy.  Back home she was a teacher. Before she had to leave, she was training in computer programmes to make patterns for the fashion industry. At a market outside the  neighbouring camp Schisto, she managed to buy some recycled wool to make clothes for the winter, which she would like to sell.  The bright red and pink wool gloves and scarves look strange and beautiful against the bleak walls of the container. By the time the cultural mediator has translated what she says into Greek and my colleagues have brought the message back to English, she is still smiling. It’s contagious.

Mariam’s biggest problem is uncertainty about the future. She has no idea where will end up. There is a chance her sister will get relocated to Germany, but it’s unlikely she can go with them. And so a family will be torn apart, with all that potential for a better future, lost.  Theirs is one of the type of stories documented in ActionAid Greece’s report ‘Separated’ about Europe’s failure to make family reunification happen.

Beyond the injustice of denied family reunification, the EU-Turkey deal must be up there with the most bizarre, inhumane and illegal documents ever signed.  By virtue of whether you got as far as a certain place on March 19th or March 20th, your fate was likely sealed.  Over 50,000 refugees and migrants remain in Greece since the EU-Turkey deal came into force on March 20th. Most of them – those who arrived after this date - are on islands like Lesvos, literally stuck, waiting to be told if they have been given asylum or they are going to be returned to Turkey.  Others have made it to Athens, but are still suspended in time, a little like leadership in Europe today.

Besides family reunification, the other legal option to stop the suffering and share up responsibility is relocation to another European country. In practice however, the scheme gives privileged status to some nationalities, as only applicants for whom the average recognition rate of international protection at the EU level is above 75%, are eligible. Afghans, who currently have a 59% recognition rate, and Iraqis, who currently have a 73% rate, are therefore not eligible even though they make up about 25% and 15% of the population in Greece. This contributes to a real and perceived hierarchy among the displaced population, indirectly dividing them into “legitimate” and “not legitimate”

For now Mariam is trying to set herself up for the next brave step forward.  At night she’s learning German and teaching it on to her sister’s kids by day. She is a regular visitor to the ActionAid team, who are helping women with referrals , language lessons, psycho-social support as well as a break from the mundanity through fun stuff like theatre. She says it has given her the will to keep going.

In fact, she said a lot of things. Like how important it was for her to have escaped war and reached Europe.  Like how Europe needs to think about humans and beyond borders. How being somewhere else opens your eyes to how people really are.  It made me think, I would have loved to bring some European leaders to the camp to understand her more.

I met three of the small team who work for ActionAid in Skaramagas - Sofia and Sevi from Greece and Kristina  from Egypt. They say they have found their dream jobs, because they are seeing a deep change in the lives of the women in the camp. As difficult as the situation is, this gives them hope.  More change, more power, more hope.

I left Skaramagas inspired by the never-ending resilience, power and courage of women like Mariam.  It’s now time for Europe to decide if it has that same courage.

ActionAid’s work in Skaramagas was made possible through a whole lot of solidarity from the people of the UK and Greece.