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Talking to the Refugee Women Washing Up on Greece's Shores

Women make up 16 percent of refugees to Greece, but they often face unique victimization. We talked to some of these women to understand what their new lives are like.
Karmilla left Afghanistan with her husband and three children. All photos by Helen Nianias

Women are leaving their homes in Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq in the tens of thousands to make extraordinary journeys across the Middle East, across oceans, and across Europe. They want to escape war or oppressive regimes; to find safety and a future. Many travel for hundreds of miles across their home countries to get to Turkey, take the risky boat journey to the Greek islands or Italy, and then begin their trek towards western Europe.


Despite the drop in temperature and the West's increasingly frosty reception, more than 43,500 refugees landed on the small Greek island of Lesvos alone in November and more still are coming in December. They make up the total of almost one million refugees who have arrived in Europe by sea this year. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that 3,580 have already drowned or gone missing on the perilous journey.

US governors and Donald Trump may want to shut the door on these refugees, but many more people have come to their aid. International relief agencies have flooded into Lesvos, and Broadly is here to see the reality of life in Moria, a former military base that has been converted into a refugee camp.

Women make up 16 percent of refugees to Greece, but they often require specialized care. Whether they're staying for a few hours or a few weeks, a priority for Moria Camp staff is helping women who arrive in distress. "Women are sometimes very scared when they arrive," says UNHCR field worker Huda Al-Shabsogh.

"Some of them are really really tired and they come here and they just want to sit because their children are such a burden on them. Sometimes all they can do is sit, and we just have to make sure they get rest—sometimes their husband is on the other side, or on another island and we have to contact our colleagues on the other island to find their brothers or relatives. We try our best to calm them down and to guide them about the procedure of the registration."


Women who are in impossibly stressful situations—such as survivors of shipwrecks—also require specialized support. "We had one family," Al-Shabsogh says, "she lost her husband and two of their kids. She felt bad that she was here alone, so we accommodated them here. We looked after her psychologically and searched for her kids. She managed to find her husband and one of her children, but she is still in direct contact with us. She is in Pikpa [a camp for vulnerable refugees] and she is waiting for their second child."

Al-Shabsogh also emphasizes that childcare will probably be the woman's responsibility, even if her husband is with her. And if she's on her own, she might end up missing out on the queue for food because she's so overburdened.

The Moria refugee camp on Lesvos, Greece.

However, the stress of the journey and childcare is not the only worry that refugee women face. Since the Paris terror attacks in November, there has been a dangerous shift in attitude towards Muslims. The Center for American-Islamic Relations says that since the horrific attacks, there have been more reported incidents of Islamophobic threats, intimidation and violence than at any time since 9/11. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police say that anti-Muslim attacks had already increased by 70 percent in London over the last year before the massacre, and women wearing the hijab are particularly vulnerable to attack.

UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov tells Broadly that Islamophobia is a worry for refugees currently in transit, but it doesn't match the worry of travelling across Europe safely. "I have spoken to people who are very concerned about how people will receive them after they arrive. Because of what's been going on, that worry is there.


"But I think that which concerns people more right now is actually to being able to get to where they're going. What we do is we consult people to stay where they are and apply for asylum."

But every family is different, and every journey is different. Here, Broadly speaks to Afghan women and girls in the camp to try to understand what it means to be female in the middle of the biggest refugee crisis in history.

Zahra and her father left Afghanistan to escape the Taliban.

Zahra, 13, and her father

"My family left our home in Herat province because there was a lot of fighting in our area. The Taliban sometimes would attack the cities nearby and fight with policemen, and I was very afraid. Before we left I was at school, and I miss my friends, but now all of them have also left our province. I'm travelling with my mother, father and three sisters and three brothers—I'm the second oldest.

The journey has been difficult and when we crossed the sea the weather was very cold and we were out on the water for two hours. I had a very bad feeling, because we all thought it was going to sink. Before that, the Iranian police shot at us when we were crossing the border from Afghanistan. My family has made the journey by foot, and we've spent 40 or 50 hours walking.

[Broadly asks which country they are going to. Zahra's father answers.] "Which country do you think will accept us? Which is the best country? I think Germany is better because it's busy. We don't have anything left. All our money is finished, so I don't know how we will get there. We had problems at home with Daesh too, and we sold our house and all our possessions to come here. I hope we can go home one day, I live always for Afghanistan."


Another view of Moria camp in Lesvos.

Karmilla (top), 34

"We left to escape the violence at home in Wardek province. We're Hazara [a persecuted ethnic group in Afghanistan] and my husband is a farmer. One day, the Taliban said they would take his five sheep, but my husband refused to give them. To punish him, they cut off his little finger. The man who did it told my husband: 'When I have enough power, I will kill you.' So we left. We want a country where we can be safe. We are travelling together with our three children, who are 12, nine and five years old. It has taken us one month to reach Lesvos. Some parts of the journey have been by foot, and some have been by car. It's been very very hard journey—now my body's not normal. I'm always in pain.

"To cross the Turkish border we walked by foot for five hours up in the mountains. It was very steep and my baby was too small to walk it so I carried her up. Before that, the Iranian police shot at us when we passed by on foot. Our boat to Athens is tonight and we want to go to Utrecht because other Afghans have been accepted there. We believe in Allah and we don't have much money but we believe he will help us to find money to get there. I don't know about people not liking Muslims in Europe, but it will be better than the Taliban.

"I have two brothers in Afghanistan—one was caught up in a Taliban bomb blast, and he lost two fingers. My other brother was shot in the foot. The Taliban did it because he's a Shia Hazara. My brothers are still in Afghanistan and they have a family of nine— I am very worried."

Roquia traveled from Kabul with her son and husband.

Roquia, 23

"I come from Kabul and have been travelling for one week with my son and my husband—we left to escape the war. My son is called Ananisar, and he's four years old. I have just one child, but it's still a lot of work! I don't have a profession, I'm a housewife, and I didn't go to school or university. How did I get here?… I don't remember. I am afraid of the journey ahead.

[Broadly asks if she's worried about racism in Europe. Roquia shrugs.] There is better than home. I would like to go to Germany, because our lives will be better than they were in Afghanistan. I know a girl who will take us to her house and our lives will be good."