Advertisement
News

The Women of the European Refugee Crisis

"It's empowering to see how strong people are in the refugee camps – they aren't just some poor souls, they are fighters who have decided to take control of their lives."

by Petra Živić
01 October 2015, 2:15pm

A Syrian woman washes her clothes in a park fountain. All photos by Lazara Marinkovic

This article originally appeared on VICE Serbia.

Currently, one of out of every 122 people in the world is a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. If there was a country made up solely of those now forcibly on the move, it would be the 24th most populated state in the world. And women make up almost half of that number. To get a better understanding of the problems that women might face while on the run, I headed down to a park in the center of Belgrade where refugees have erected a tent town.

I first met up with local Sofija Manjak, who currently volunteers at a community group initiative called Asylum Info Center. A student at Belgrade's University School of Medicine, her job is to identify refugees in need of medical assistance and take them to the doctors who have set up an exam room in the park.

"A pregnant woman I spoke with told me she was due to give birth in three weeks. I wanted to take her to the doctors immediately, but she refused, fearing this would cause her to miss her trip to Hungary [the closest EU country to Serbia]," Sofija told me.

At the park fountain, a group of women were doing laundry using soap they'd been given by volunteers. For many, this was the first time they'd been able to do laundry since washing their clothes in the Mediterranean sea.

Nuhr and her children Hamsa, Ayia, and Maia

I was then introduced to Nuhr—who'd left Syria almost a month ago with her three children. Recently divorced, her goal is to make it to Germany, where her cousin resides. The cousin has promised to take care of her and her three daughters—Hamsa, Ayia, and Maya—until they get the necessary papers in order.

She tried to have a chat with me but the girls—seemingly unhappy that their mother was talking to a stranger—kept clutching onto her hands and her coat. I told her there was a makeshift daycare center that is also being run by volunteers in the camp. Initially, she was a little nervous about leaving her children with strangers. After carefully sussing out the volunteers, she finally dropped her bags and sat down on a bench with me.

Nuhr told me she was looking forward to receiving the €300 [about $335] that makes up the parental allowance for each of the girls once she reaches Germany. She doesn't speak German, but insisted she'd learn it as soon as she got there.

Women look through the clothes at the improvised help centre for the refugees.

"Nothing matters anymore, I just want them to be safe. Taking care of my children has been the most difficult aspect of this trip. We've had problems with the police everywhere we went and I wish they never had to experience that. Hopefully our shortcomings will only make them stronger," she told me.

Nuhr doesn't want to talk about their trip through Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia. She says that's all behind her now.

"My fellow Syrians help me," she told me when I asked if it was difficult to travel with kids. "It might sound strange, but I feel as if I found peace on this trip. My ex husband is not bothering my any more. I don't miss him at all."

Jagoda Trgo-Grujic has volunteered at an improvised assistance center in the park for almost three weeks. She's in charge of packing and distributing hygienic packages.

"Many women don't need sanitary pads, because they're pregnant. We always offer them, but they just brush them away while pointing at their belly," she said. A Doctors Without Borders team is also on site and checks around 80 people daily—only 20 percent of whom are women.

"A pregnant woman needs regular check-ups and none of these women are getting that. They know their due date and probably try to calculate whether or not they have time to keep on traveling," Dr. Vladimir Rankovic told me. "Women from the Middle East are tough. They have survived wars and destruction. They're able to navigate their way through the harshest conditions."

Ferdyna and her three-year-old daughter

Ferdyna, who just arrived in Belgrade with her husband and her daughter, Reehena, took me to see her tent in the middle of the park. "The Iranian border was the most difficult to cross. We spent 12 days there—with a child—while people were being killed around us," she told me in Arabic while her husband translated. Their tent was covered with freshly washed laundry—the first time she was able to wash Reehena's clothes. She had borrowed the detergent from a family in a neighboring tent.

"We help each other—someone always has some baby food or water to spare," she said. "I want a new life and I want my children to be educated. Before the war, we lived just like you do. I could have been a journalist in Syria if I had wanted to. I want that for my children."

A recent UNHCR report on refugees noted the importance of psychological assistance to women and children when they reach safety, calling on all EU countries to seriously consider their recommendations. Many women and children develop PTSD-related anxiety and panic attacks after the trip according to experts. Sixteen-year-old Elyna, however, doesn't allow herself to get depressed. Together with her mother and brother, she hopes to make it to Sweden. She told me that the most important thing she brought from home was her photos.

"We didn't have time to pack. Everything was destroyed except our photos. The whole house was wrecked," she explained. The most difficult thing for her was crossing the Mediterranean and then having to sleep in the street but Facebook was there to help whenever there was access to Wi-Fi. That's how she knows her friends back home are still safe.

"I'm still in touch with my friends, but we talk less and less—almost everyone has left for somewhere else. I hope they all reach whatever country they're trying to get to," she said.

Elyna (middle) and two friends

I met a volunteer named Helena. "In the two weeks I've been here, I haven't seen a woman crying," she said. "It's empowering to see how strong people are in the refugee camps—they aren't just some poor souls, they are fighters who have decided to take control of their lives."

Hiba is 20 years old and was only a year away from graduating nursing school, when she left Syria. She heard our translator speaking Arabic and asked us to help explain her mother's medical record from a recent Macedonian hospital visit. It said everything is fine, but because her mother doesn't speak a word of English, she was worried she had cancer. Hiba whispered to our translator, asking him to explain to her mother, in Arabic, that everything was fine. And it was. The mother thanked us, but refused another check up in the park.

Hiba (right) and a friend

"I didn't want to leave Syria, but my family forced me. It's terrible there," Hiba said. She misses singing the most. "I never really went out much, but I listened to a lot of music. People have told me that I'm talented and I can sing."

Hiba took me to a tree at the other end of the park so I could hear her sing. She asked us to wait for some men to pass by—apparently, it's not "nice" for a girl to sing in front of men because the female voice "is too beautiful." At first, she sang in Arabic but quickly switched over to English. I guess Celine Dion is universal.

"I broke up with my boyfriend before I left home. He went to Turkey and now I'm here," she told me quietly. I shared an internet hotspot so we could become friends on Facebook. I asked her if she'd like me to leave it on so she could chat with her friends, but she didn't seem to find any point in that.

"Switch it off. There's nobody online today. Everyone's on the road," she said.