I have got two younger sisters and a baby niece. We are close and I would literally do anything for them - but what if we had to flee everything we knew? As we continue to mark International Women's Day this week, I want to celebrate the strength and perseverance of these refugee sisters who are striving for a new life - a life free from conflict - despite all the odds.
When a colleague in our women’s centre in Lesvos, Greece, recently told me what sisters from Syria and Afghanistan had been through together to reach a safe place, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I know that if I were in a position where not only my life but my sisters’ and niece’s lives were at risk too, I would do the same. These sisters were forced to flee their homes and everything they knew because of violent conflicts and human rights violations in their countries.
"We will do anything to survive"
Sisters Alexandria, 23, and Sara, 21, left Syria just a year ago, swapping the security of everything they had known for survival. The conflict has claimed the lives of nearly half a million Syrians, and at least four million have left across the country’s borders and become refugees.
When it got to the point that there wasn’t any electricity and women couldn’t go outside on their own safely, Sara and Alexandria fled their life as university students in Syria and worked for eleven hours a day illegally in Istanbul, Turkey.
Alexandria says, “The day we left for Lesvos, the traffickers put 50 of us in a dinghy and told us to drive ourselves. After ten minutes the Turkish police boats chased us and tried to drag us back. There were babies crying and women were screaming, 'We don’t want to go back. Please don’t take us back.' "
Living in the refugee camp on Lesvos is not an easy transition and the young women feel afraid all the time. But, looking after their 10-year-old nephew and comforting him is vital. His mum, their other sister, was left behind in Turkey. Alexandria says, “I don’t know what the future holds for us. We had no choice but to leave, but my sister and I are strong. We will do any job in order to survive.”
I am in awe of the strength of powerful women everywhere, but it is stories like these, of women who are pulling together and are willing to do whatever it takes to live in safety, that make such a big impression on me. It could just as easily have been me and my sisters fleeing for our lives.
"I want a good life - and the chance to go to school"
Another story that really moved me was Arazu's. When I was 19, my sisters were 13 and ten and we were into books, music, clothes and films. Arazu, from Afghanistan is 19 and she and her sister had to make the perilous journey to Lesvos, nearly dying on the way, after their home town became occupied by the Taliban. Arazu had been going to school but had to stop because with the Taliban presence it became too dangerous.
Arazu remembers her crossing to Lesvos: “The boat journey was awful – we were all in the water up to our necks. We thought we were going to die. My sister and I were holding her children above our heads. My arms hurt from lifting my nephew out of the water, but I knew I had to keep him out of the water.”
The eastern Mediterranean has become one of the most dangerous routes travelled by refugees. Luckily Arazu's nephew survived, but hundreds have not been so fortunate. Since September last year, an average of two children have drowned every day while crossing from Turkey to Greece.
Arazu describes: “A small baby went under the water and his mother started screaming. People tried but they couldn’t grab him. When they pulled him out, his face was blue – I don’t know if he lived.”
Arazu and her family eventually reached Lesvos safely. Her ambition is not huge, in fact it’s what me and my sisters took for granted growing up. She says, “I want a good life: a life with clean clothes, a nice house, a TV and chance to go to school.”
We give sisters a safe space to share their experiences
ActionAid is running two women-friendly centres in Moria and Kara Tepe refugee camps on Lesvos. Here women are given hygiene kits including wipes, soap and nappies, so they can clean their babies – often for the first time after a long journey. They are safe spaces where mothers can breastfeed in private and can talk and grieve with women who share their experiences.
Please help us to help more families who have been forced to make the difficult decision to risk their lives and leave, rather than stay and die.
Photo credits: Anna Pantelia/ActionAid, Kelly Perrou/ActionAid