While Trump is talking about closing borders and deporting Muslims and Brexit begins to take shape, a women’s migrant organization in Greece offers Europe and the world a startling alternative: solidarity. A center for refugees called Melissa (honeybee in Greek) is a place where Syrian and Afghani women can take free yoga, art and Greek language classes; sing in a choir; access legal and counseling services and—unlike the camps where many have spent weeks or months—experience a small slice of home.
“Migration always entails some sort of rupture, especially for women,” Nadina Christopoulou, a co-founder and Greek anthropologist, tells Ms. “When they experience this journey of migration a lot else is broken—not only their roots but their support networks. Their mothers may not be with them; their social circle that surrounds them and supports them through the different rites of passage in one’s life may not be there.”
But helping Syrian and Afghani women wasn’t the center’s initial purpose. When the center opened last summer, the vision was to create a network for migrant women who were already living in Greece. The co-founders—leaders from Greece’s Nigerian, Filipina and Eastern European communities—wanted to unite 24 or so established women’s groups into one network. More could be done, they reasoned, if they sought solutions in common.
Deborah Carlos Valencia, a longtime activist in the Greek Filipina community and someone who helped engineer significant changes for Greece’s Filipina community—including a successful micro-loan program for domestic workers and, perhaps even more impressive, a change in Greek law allowing domestic workers a path toward citizenship and legal documentation—knew there was a need.
“Migrant women are always under migrant men in terms of the leadership,” she says. “So we said let’s create a network. Even women we had never heard from before came. Bangladeshi women. Eritrean women. There are many. So we were surprised when over 30 countries came to our first meeting. Women are the integrators, the change makers. We see all the details that the men don’t.”
Shortly after that initial meeting the network found itself grappling with a whole new reality. “When we actually managed to open our center,” says Christopoulou, “the refugee flows had started, and there was no way to ignore it. It was just outside our doorstep.”
The network immediately began responding to the needs of its newest arrivals: women from Syria and Afghanistan. “We started volunteering at the park, cooking meals, making breakfasts for the kids, and preparing care packs for the journey,” Christopoulou says. “Solidarity from a woman to another woman, from a mother to another mother.”
But handing out care packs is not the goal anymore, especially since borders north of Greece have closed and many immigrants find themselves living in Greece indefinitely.Instead, Melissa sees itself today as helping migrant women integrate into Greek society.
“At some point we said enough is enough with humanitarian aid,” Christopolou adds. “You know you can only do so much. Today’s refugees are going to be tomorrow’s neighbors.”
Maria Ohilebo, another co-founder of Melissa and the vice president of Nigerians in Diaspora, describes the evolution of Melissa as a series of steps. “So now the borders are closed. You see it’s like one step to the other. Most of them they want to stay but they cannot stay if they are not integrated into the system. One way for them to get integrated is to learn the language.”
One of Melissa’s central offerings are its Greek language classes. Each morning approximately fifteen students take the morning session and then in the afternoon, the same number take the second class. Both are free and on-site day care is provided.
Vicky Kantzou, one of Melissa’s language instructors, says teaching at the center isn’t a draining experience. It’s not what people expect. “It’s not depressing or austere,” she tells Ms. “My student are happy to be in Greece and happy to be safe.”
While Melissa has always felt safe and welcoming, the neighborhood where it is located has not. Deliberately situated in an area considered a stronghold of Greece’s far right group, Golden Dawn, a group famous for its slogan “Greece for Greeks” and for giving Nazi salutes at rallies, its neighbors haven’t always been receptive. But that is changing, too. “We have pensioners coming to us now,”Christopoulou says, “and saying ‘I get my check next week and I want to buy something for you.'”
When I visit Melissa, the space is light and airy. There are two classrooms, a back balcony filled with plants, a welcoming reception area and comfortable nooks to sit and relax in. Members float through the rooms setting up a lunch buffet of home cooked adobo and greeting visitors. With the help of an Arabic translator, I meet a soft-spoken woman from Syria named Heba who, like so many others, arrived in Greece by boat.
Heba’s boat was overcrowded and with little air, and at some point people began to try and escape and the vessel started to sink. Two people drowned in the tumult but her and her young son survived. What motivates Heba now is the prospect of reuniting with her husband in Germany. Currently, she lives with a Greek family and says they are welcoming. When I ask what she most values about the center, she says the chance to learn Greek, then adds, smiling, “I also like the atmosphere here.”
While Greece has a long tradition of helping uprooted communities, there are still many barriers.
Adeola Naomi Aderemi is a Nigerian migrant and youth activist who teaches yoga at the center. In 2012, she qualified for Greece’s Olympic team but because she was not a Greek citizen—Greek born children of immigrants are not recognized as citizens—she was unable to participate. She says she understands what her students, many of whom are Filipina, are going through. She moved to Greece when she was only 15. She didn’t speak the language and so no one talked to her. But eventually she learned Greek and went on to graduate high school and attend a Greek university. “Even though I was also the only black person in the entire university” Aderemi says, “it was good because I could speak the language and they took me as just one of the guys, just a different color.”
The class Aderemi teaches is unique. “We built up together a series of yoga classes called Warrior Women,” she explains, “which for me it was inspired from a program the UN did for children soldiers from Rwanda to have rehabilitation through yoga. So it inspired me to just use the same sensitivity and knowledge that I have with migrant women in Greece to have a yoga class totally tailored towards their needs of self-esteem and self-worth…”
There are many issues that hold migrant women back. Still, support leads to strength.
“If you are here, whatever you are going through, you can talk to each other,”Aderemi says, “and I like that after class we sit down and drink yogi tea, like good yogis that we are, and we talk about life and what they are going through and they open up to each other.”
Melissa has over 250 members from 45 countries, and although it doesn’t aspire to become a huge organization, it does hope to expand. The center’s dream now is to open a communal kitchen downstairs, where communities can take turns making and selling food. “I grew up in a small community in Greece, in a women’s household,” Christopoulou explains. “It was an open household where the door was never locked. The meals were on going. It was also a place where the stories never stopped. You always knew there was this wisdom that you could draw on when needed. And there was support. And there was understanding and an open ear for whatever problem you had. So this is what we believe in here.”
They want the center to become an income generating place for women, a way they can start earning a living and rebuilding their lives. Kitchens have long been the center of women’s community, so it seems fitting for Melissa to help create income generating projects related to food and cooking.
“This is our vision now,”Christopoulou says, “to really open our arms and to welcome these people and not treat them as aid recipients, help them to be active and to take on the responsibility of their lives … and to restore hope and a sense of dreaming about the future, to start making plans again.”
In an election year long on anti-immigrant rhetoric but short on constructive ideas, Melissa’s women-centric message of support and assistance couldn’t be timelier. Or more refreshing.
Leslie Absher is a personal essayist whose work focuses on women’s lives, growing up with a CIA father and her childhood in Greece. She is currently traveling the world with her partner. You can find her at www.leslieabsher.com.