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8th of March, International Women’s Day:
“A look from my window”

Three women share their life experiences in Greek refugee camps

In 2023, 16.806 girls and women applied for asylum in Greece. On the occasion of 8th of March as a symbolic day for women’s rights movement, Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) shares the voices of three women from different origins and backgrounds. We asked them about their lives as women living in refugee camps in mainland Greece, and about the meaning of women’s struggle for them. What they have in common is a past marked by male violence, gender discrimination and systemic state oppression. Their words show incredible strength and a desire to move forward against all odds.

Hani* (20) from Somalia and Yemen, is a single woman holding international protection status who arrived in Greece one year ago

After spending five months on a Greek island camp, she was transferred to mainland Greece where she stays until today. About a month ago she received her positive asylum decision. Her cash allowance and food were cut soon after. What keeps her strong while living in a refugee camp and seeking for a future in Greece is speaking with her mother, as well as her broad language skills and her friends from all over the world. She wishes to continue her studies, as a nurse and midwife, and work in this field. Her dream is, one day, to be able to show the women of her country how she managed everything on her own. She wants to show “that a woman can do it” in order to bring change and empower others.

“What I see from my window is a man looking at me while I am sleeping. I can smell his presence and I wake up! I open the window and punch him.”

“The problem is that inside the camp I feel like I am still in my country. Women rights exist there too, but people are not aware of them. Women cannot easily struggle for them. They are still scared. And men often haven’t learned that women are as human as them. We still seem inferior to them. In Somalia we don’t have an international women’s day! We have a ‘flag day’, a ‘police day’, an ‘independence day’. Here, the problem is that we are stuck in this camp. There is no public transportation and we are far from Athens. Around us is nothing other than fields and fabrics. What I feel as a resident of this camp is exclusion, inequality, fear, anger and since I got asylum, I also sometimes felt hunger and thirst. There are problems in the camp: there are too many people. There is a beauty in the combination of many colours, but when forced to co-exist under conditions of stress and exclusion, it also brings conflict. We need to be near cheap markets, pharmacies, the asylum service, schools, ATMs and hospitals (for example to give birth). Sometimes the Ministry puts no buses at all for weeks, sometimes there are buses going to Athens but not enough places. Most people here have little money or don’t get money at all. Some people don’t even have documents, so they feel more abandoned and stuck in the camp as they fear to go out. Most women often don’t even leave their ‘houses’, because they either live in parts of the camp that have no lighting at night, or they fear conflict between people, or they have nowhere to leave their children.”

"Also, there is no place to go and meet each other, drink tea together, no protected place to get information and advice as women, to learn new things and feel empowered."

“Even in our ‘houses’, the places where we feel most safe, the situation is often not good. In general, as a refugee and as a woman, I don’t feel free at all in the camp, even though I feel more powerful theoretically, as I know I am now in Greece. Imagine how much more difficult it is if you are a woman, you got a rejection in your asylum claim AND you also have a serious sickness, a disability, or you are pregnant! Then you feel practically imprisoned in your ‘house’ and inside the walls of the camp while living in fear.”

Ahin* (43), Kurdish from Iran, arrived in early 2023 through the land border to Greece with her husband and her two children (aged 14 and 20)

They registered their asylum claims after three months and got transferred to a camp in Central Greece. It took five months until they got their first monthly allowance, which can hardly cover their basic needs. The family is currently still waiting for their asylum decision. What keeps the mother strong while living in the refugee camp is making herself busy with helping others. She wishes for a bright future where no one is exposed to “refugeehood” and wants to become a lawyer.

“When I look out of my window I see children that are not happy as they should, they are not careless as they should, they don’t play as they should, they don’t learn as they should… but they have worries in their eyes.”

When I first came into this container (‘house’) where I live, you could not see anything but cockroaches. The containers here are very old, since many refugees lived in them before us. In my ‘house’ the floor is so broken that insects enter through the holes. The other day there was a huge millipede, which bit me. But I have fixed most of it. If you look at other ‘houses’, they are in a worse condition. There are broken windows and locks, heaters, lamps.”

"Our lives are a bit like these broken containers"

“I have so many sicknesses, I cannot count them anymore and I hardly follow them up. We spent most of the 150 Euros we get per month on transportation to hospitals and medication. As a mother, I care most about the health and happiness of my children. Even though I have my own problems, what breaks my heart is when I see my children depressed, when I see them losing their hair from stress. I am thankful to be now away from the danger of death and to feel I am in a country where I am not discriminated against for my ethnic or religious identity or my gender. I feel respected in Greece. But at the same time I feel that the law is not applied properly and there is no system to help us integrate and build our lives here. What we need are language classes, vocational training and jobs for mothers and fathers. There is no path we can follow and this is also harmful for the Greek state. The only words I have learned to say in Greek are ‘Kalimera’ and ‘Kalispera’ – from the security guards.”

"We escaped a country where the ones in power don’t see a reason to celebrate women. Women take to the streets to fight for their rights risking their lives and freedom. Here we are given shelter in a place that’s not meant for people to live in. The refugee camp is a ‘place of no choices’."

“It is in the middle of nowhere, but at the same time, it lacks professionals to offer sufficient care, such as doctors, psychologists, nurses, midwives or an ambulance. We are served food, but not the choice of what to eat or the opportunity to cook.”

"People are turned to passive recipients of aid instead of being activated"

“The sick are barely treated, and are getting more sick. Skin infections, depression, frequent colds, are all connected to our living conditions. We feel worthless and hopeless, so how can we provide for our children in this condition, when they are our whole future? Escaping my country helped me find myself, recognise my value as a girl, woman, mother and human. I finally breathe. Looking back, I think I was just serving others all my life. There was no space given to me by the state, the society, my family, to find my own worth. I had everything but I felt I had nothing. Now I take decisions, I know there is a reason why I exist. I feel I own the world while I have nothing.”

"‘War’ is not just bombs and bullets, but also repression, discrimination, lack of freedom, hunger."

“However, in the camp a woman has to be careful of how she moves. We don’t feel free. Even a bird doesn’t feel free here, although the gates are open. When I used to have a bird, I never put it in a cage.

Farzana* (29), from Afghanistan, arrived through the land border in Greece in the winter of 2022 together with her father and sister.

They waited for months in a refugee camp until their asylum claim got registered. Almost a year later, the family got transferred to another camp. As soon as the young woman got her positive asylum decision, her cash allowance and food catering were cut. In early 2024 she received her residence permit and was told to leave the camp. What kept her strong during the period she waited for her asylum decision and when she lived in refugee camps was attending online vocational classes. Her dream is happiness for all of her family and people in general. For herself she wishes one day to get a high position in a big company.

“Living inside a camp in Greece does not give you freedom as a human and as a woman. You remain inside your room most of the time and keep your window closed. No language classes, no information sessions about your rights, no empowerment and no integration support.”​

I never lived in my country. I have always been a refugee, someone who cannot go home; someone who has no passport. I never chose to be a refugee or to live in a camp. I escaped to Europe because the law, the culture, the state, the people where I lived were not protecting me but exposing me to dangers and violation of my rights. In Greece, I had to live among people who likewise suffered and suffer, who are marked by experiences of violence and loss and who live worrying about the future.”

"The camp is like a cage and the people within are the ones without hope. I felt I was suffocating from the mixing smells and the dust and getting crazy from the constant noise."

“I felt scared to use the shared showers or toilets and even sleep or leave my room empty and unwatched. I felt confined when I had to speak in front of male translators. I felt scared to walk alone outside the camp. I felt exposed in the nights and weekends when the only employees I could ask for help in the camp were the security staff. I felt sick from showering with cold water and the cockroaches and bedbugs. I worked from a young age and supported my family, and I never wanted to be dependent on help.”

"I felt powerful as a woman only when I first started saying ‘no’, when I took my own choices and found my own way without my family - before we reached Greece."

“As an independent young woman, you are exposed to the lack of knowledge of your relatives and neighbours in the camp, their narrow-mindedness and conservatism. I cannot walk without my Hijab because people will say bad things for me. If I leave the camp alone or play football I get provocative looks, I will be harassed if working in a café… No one is there to offer other perspectives, facilitate contacts and support communication with the locals.”

"You are channelled into the asylum procedure, you endure the period of waiting for an unknown destiny and once you get asylum you stand there with nothing in your hands. You are unprepared to live in Greece and remain also without help."

“That is why most people decide to leave Greece when they get their papers. They like the country, its people, the weather, the culture, but you cannot survive with only papers in your hands. If I was the president in Greece, I would house refugees in the cities in small camps, provide language classes and help people to integrate, become independent and gain hope.”

"The current system is not profitable, neither for the refugees, nor for the Greek state and its people. It’s a ‘no win’."

Even though I don’t speak Greek, I have no job and no place to stay, when I am outside the camp I can finally see the beauty in small things and I can breathe. But I will have to leave the country since I cannot survive here.”

* Names of persons cited in this text have been changed to protect safety and privacy.