What it’s like being a woman refugee in Lesvos | ActionAid UK

I spoke with Sonya Ruparel, ActionAid's International Humanitarian Manager, who told us about the women and children refugees she met on Lesvos, the struggles they're facing in the camps and how ActionAid is helping.

Afghan woman wearing pink headscarf holds her seven-month-old baby girl, in Moria camp, Lesvos, Greece.
Shefqe, 24, from Afghanistan, holding her seven-month-old baby girl, in Moria camp, Lesvos, Greece

What challenges are women refugees facing specifically?

"Before ActionAid reached the refugee camp almost nothing had been set up to support women specifically. There are separate toilets, but beyond that nothing else to help keep women safe, which I found pretty shocking. I would like to see showers where women can clean themselves in privacy and more areas where women can feel safe.

"It’s also often the women who are holding on to the children and carrying the babies, not just in the camps but on their perilous boat crossings too. This means they haven't got hands free to carry important items like luggage or food, so it’s a very different journey for them.

Zohre, 19, from Herat, Afghanistan, holding her eight-month-old baby Mahdi in Moria camp, Lesvos, Greece.

"Women in the camps are totally traumatised. Not only have they come from an extraordinarily scary place, where there is bombing and they fear for their families’ lives, but then they go through a terrifying sea crossing with no idea what’s going to happen to them. One woman I met was crying in the camp and I sat with her for a while. She told me she wanted to get in the sea and swim back because the situation in the camps is so awful. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen and she doesn’t know if it’s going to be better or worse. She was very, very sad."

Can you tell us about some of the women you met?

"I met two sisters who had all come from Turkey having left Syria. They showed me photos of their brothers who had been killed. It was heartbreaking. They felt they all needed to leave with their families.

"Some of them were crying, but they were so warm towards us. They gave us hugs and kept saying thank you. They were very grateful to have someone to talk to about their experiences.

"Apart from the shocking story of how these women had got there and what they had run from, what struck me was that they felt unsafe in the refugee camp. They had been there for four days but the crowds were so large they were too scared to queue for their registration.

A mother with her child waits outside Moria camp, Lesvos.

"They had tried to get in the queue but one of their children had been pushed over. They were actually really angry and very distressed. They have fled from one violent situation to another."

How is ActionAid helping refugee women and children?

"The main two activities we are doing are giving women a space to breastfeed in privacy, and supporting people with trauma. ActionAid has built women’s centres which have an area for breastfeeding, an area for women to sit down and rest, and an area for talking and sharing what they're going through.

"Women need a space to breastfeed because currently there is nowhere to sit and do this comfortably and with dignity in the camps. As soon as we opened the centre in Kara Tepe, women came straight in, lay down and started feeding their babies - which shows how badly it is needed.

ActionAid staff and translators outside an ActionAid women's safe space, Kara Tepe camp.

"We’ve also been distributing sanitary kits containing soap, a sponge, shampoo, sanitary towels and clean underwear. And we are giving the women in our centres psychosocial support, which means talking to women, hearing their concerns and giving them a space to grieve where needed. It is somewhere where they can feel safe and secure."

How else is ActionAid helping?

"There is a severe lack of information and people who can speak to the refugees on Lesvos.

"ActionAid is providing cultural mediators – mobile staff who roam around the camp ensuring vulnerable people have essential information and help us to check we truly understand the needs of the most vulnerable groups. Our cultural mediators speak Arabic or Farsi, as well as either English or Greek. A lot of them have been refugees themselves, or have come from the countries some of the refugees are from, so they are understanding of what they are going through.

ActionAid's translator helps a family communicate with a doctor, Lesvos

"There is very little signage around and very little information. That’s information for the longer term like: 'Where am I going? What will I do when I get there? Where can I buy my ticket? How do I get out and What’s next?'.

"People also need immediate information like: 'Where are the toilets? Where can I find water? Where can I get food?'. Very basic instructions are not signed, so we are trying as much as possible to use women outreach staff, because they can relate so much better to women refugees.

"What’s really interesting is that people really listen to the older women mediators, because there is a cultural respect for older women there. They have been able to really help ActionAid get things moving because of this."

ActionAid is continuing to help women refugees in Lesvos with hygiene kits, baby supplies and a safe place to breastfeed, rest and wash their children. Please help us continue this vital work.

Donate now to help us support vulnerable women and children

Photos: George Makkas/Panos Pictures/ActionAid