‘Starting from zero’: In Greece, refugee women forge new careers

A writer, nursing assistant trainee and hairdresser are among the young women building lives and careers in Greece.

Parwana is a writer and activist from Afghanistan, who now lives in Greece [Katy Fallon/Al Jazeera]

Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities. 

Athens, Greece – In recent years, Greece has become a focal point for refugees into the European Union, but many of the women who have arrived are portrayed by the media in a stereotypical manner.

They are seen in traditional roles – as mothers, wives, and often as victims.

“Many stories about women asylum-seekers frame them either as abject victims or as subjects in need of empowerment, both narratives can fail to capture the full texture of these women’s experiences,” Roxani Krystalli, a lecturer of International Relations at the University of St Andrews who focuses on the politics and hierarchies of victimhood, told Al Jazeera.

“Empowerment can often be patronising and limited in its understanding of how women already experience and exercise power: women are not summed up in their victimisation, nor is the status of being a victim or survivor of war entirely void of agency and power.”

The wide and varied experience of female asylum seekers and refugees cannot be reduced to one stereotype, one narrative or even one article.

Al Jazeera spoke to three young women about their lives in Greece:

‘Let’s open this discussion about who has a voice’

Parwana, 17, writer and activist from Afghanistan: 

When I was in Afghanistan, writing was one of my hobbies. I really liked to write about what I am observing from the environment. When we started our refugee journey and we arrived in Greece, I saw the inhumane conditions of Moria and I started writing about the realities.

For me, writing was the only way to reduce the pressures that I was suffering in those conditions and it was the only way to share the voices. I wrote a short story – The Old Woman and the Olive Tree – and I’ve been writing more poems, I have a collection which I hope will be completed soon.

I realised that writing is not enough and then I decided to do some activism too.

Education is one of our current struggles, we protested about our lack of education in the camp where I now live on the mainland but we are still not able to go to school.

I have organised a school in the camp, there are volunteer teachers, we are teaching people but this is the only education system that we have.

The most important thing for all of the children is access to education because we had to escape from our country, to flee and to start this dangerous journey for this.

Being an activist is not easy because I am exposed to society. I am exposed as a Muslim girl, I am exposed as a refugee and I am exposed in many ways. It is very hard to be an activist, an author, a teacher and to do all these things without having support.

Let’s not forget that everyone’s voice matters. This year let’s open this discussion about who has a voice. Should it always be white male politicians who represent us when we have our own story to share and our own voice?

‘I’ve been training to be a nursing assistant in Greece’

Fatma*, 20, nursing assistant trainee: 

I arrived in Greece when I was 16 years old, with my sister. I’d really like to be a doctor, but it’s difficult for me as this is a foreign country and I’m starting from zero.

I’ve been training to be a nursing assistant in Greece for the past two and a half years and I’m now living in a flat by myself.

When I first came here I went to school and I learned English and Greek and I finished my schooling here. They (Greeks) protected me and helped me, so I want to help them because now it’s my turn. For this reason, I like Greece and also the weather is very nice.

I have many Greek friends now because all of my colleagues are now Greek.

It was hard when I turned 18 though. I didn’t have a house or money so, instead of studying, I went to work on the islands and made money so I could survive.

I worked in Santorini and at one of the hotels in Athens as a housekeeper to earn money. I hope in the future, the government could support girls like me to go and study if they don’t have the money.

‘I studied hairdressing but I think I would like to go to university’

Sahar, 19, hairdresser from Iran:

Sahar lived in a shelter for unaccompanied children when she first arrived in Greece [Katy Fallon/Al Jazeera]

I’ve lived in Greece since I was 15 years old, I came here as an unaccompanied minor with my sister.

My parents are from Afghanistan but I was born in Iran. When I first came here, I lived in a shelter for unaccompanied minors, which was just for girls. It was very good.

I finished my high school here and got my diploma here. I now live in a flat with my sister. I studied hairdressing but I think I would like to go to university, maybe I would like to be a lawyer but I don’t know what sort of jobs Greece needs people to do.

The economy in Greece is difficult but the people have a very big heart, the Greek people are very close to my people, in the culture and their feelings. Greek people can understand me and feel me.

In Iran, I couldn’t go to school and I didn’t have an ID because I was from Afghanistan, and that was why I came to Greece. When I first arrived here I couldn’t speak English or Greek, but I learned English at school. I am now trying to learn more Greek as I would like to make some Greek friends who are my own age.

Since getting my ID card, I have travelled to Sweden and Germany to see what life is like there, to see if it would be better. But I prefer Greece.

Germany and Sweden might have more money but they don’t have sun. We don’t know how long we will live in this world and you have to be happy. I enjoy Greece: I am so happy here.

Source: Al Jazeera