Michelle Reece from Canada has been a volunteer field worker for A Drop in the Ocean. Read about her experiences and meetings with resilient women in our Women and Babies Space on Lesvos.
Text: Michelle Reece, volunteer field worker Lesvos 2020
I arrived on Lesvos following the fire in Moria Camp when A Drop in the Ocean was in the beginning stages of restarting activities on the island. Since the start of October and the implementation of the new Women and Babies Space Project, I am constantly in awe with how the space has been changed and shaped with the help of the skilled volunteer team and the feedback from the women who come to the space.
What I love about the space is that it is constantly evolving. On World Children’s Day, I brought in coloured paper to run a craft with the women and babies. The space is always busy and there is so much to do which usually means I am not sitting down for a long period of time with the women and babies. However, in the midst of the wonderful chaos that day, I spotted one of the women, “Ana” (not her real name), picking up some coloured paper and making different kinds of folds. She was a little bit quieter and more reserved than the other women and always had a sleeping baby in her lap. I asked the woman if there was anything she needed for her art as she wasn’t able to easily move with her baby on her lap.
“Ana” told me she used to be an art teacher back in Syria for young children but had to leave when it became unsafe for her and her family. We chatted for a while longer as she continued to work on her art which turned out to be a beautiful origami rose. She also showed me her art sketches from her sketch books.
Women decorating the project space
The idea to have women more included in the space began to percolate. As the space was created by international volunteers, I was keen on finding ways to include the women and babies to make the space feel more like theirs and have agency over the space they are in. With the support of the Drop team during a brainstorming session, I initiated the idea that “Ana” could help decorate the space with art. She was eager and excited to contribute and lead. Together, we looked at paper crafts to make on my Pinterest account for inspiration.
The next evening, we prepared paper decorations led by “Ana” as she taught me and the other women in the space how to make different kinds of snowflakes. I was also able to chat more with her and the other women about their lives.
“Ana” appreciated a space to work on art and share her talents with others as she is usually occupied during the day preparing meals and taking care of her children. She was happy to know about the outdoor projects that run during this time for the older children outside of the tent.
Lengthy asylum process and war traumas
I also learned about the daunting asylum process here. “Ana” told me she had been waiting for an answer on her asylum status for over a year now on Lesvos. Other women shared similar experiences with the lengthiness of their asylum. She also explained the psychological trauma her older children had experienced from the war in Syria and the fire in Moria.
In that moment as she and the others expressed distress about their asylum and the trauma their children are experiencing, I felt like the work we were doing in the camp was inadequate if we couldn’t help them with their asylum.
A place to rest, learn and enjoy
At the end of that night as I was walking home, I reflected on the conversation with the woman. I reflected on how she was overjoyed to be back the next day to continue sharing her art ideas and contributing more to the space.
I realized that the work we are doing on Lesvos may not support in moving their asylum process forward, but the effort we put into the women and babies space has and will continue to contribute to the betterment of the situation for the women and their babies. There is a reason why the women and babies keep coming back to the space. It is a place for them to rest, bond with their babies, learn English if they are interested, and enjoy the company of other women, international and resident volunteers. The babies too have quickly become comfortable knowing exactly where to go when they arrive (usually the first stop is the cookie location).
Strength and determination despite ongoing challenges in the camp
As I am saddened to leave as this is my last week in camp, I know I am leaving a project that will continue to grow and work with the women to meet their needs. The sustainability of projects like this for vulnerable populations is so critical given the host of challenges in the new camp. This includes a lack of running hot water for showers, a scabies epidemic, the location being close to the sea making the upcoming winter harsh to live in, and the restrictions COVID has placed on the residents. The challenges listed are amongst other problem given the precarious circumstance of living in a refugee camp.
Despite the ongoing challenges for these women, it is incredible to see the resiliency, strength, and determination in each and every one of them. I will always remember the moments of laughter, kindness, and compassion shared within the growing community of resident volunteers, women, babies, children, and our international volunteers.
“Ana” gave us permission to write about her.
Facts about our Women and Babies Space Project:
- The Women and Babies space was started in the new camp of Kara Tepe on Lesvos.
- Activities are held in a big UNICEF tent placed in the centre of the first section in the camp.
- It is currently an informal, unstructured 2-hour program running from Monday to Friday.
- An average of 16 women and 23 babies participate every day.