“Whatever the country, I can make a life there”

Meet Sedighe Abbasi – a refugee woman and program facilitator for The Azadi Project’s support group sessions held in Lesvos.

Written by Jenny Barruol, interview by Annachiara Ruzzetta

June 12, 2021

LESVOS, GREECE: I met Sedighe Abbasi for the first time during an Azadi group session in
Mytilini. It was my first day working for The Azadi Project as a social media strategist.
Sedighe’s bright smiley face did not fail to make me feel welcome in the group. I was
intrigued by her, her cheerfulness, her strength and the poise with which she facilitated the
Azadi workshops. I wanted to get to know her better.

Sedighe Abbasi. Photo by Annachiara Ruzzetta

So I followed this up with a conversation with Sedighe over a cup of English tea, while
enjoying the Lesvos late afternoon sunshine. Looking over the Mytilini harbour, we spoke
about her life; her experience living in the Moria refugee camp, her work with The Azadi
Project and her dreams for her children’s future.


Sedighe, like all women who have lived through Moria, has a striking story. She speaks on
the restraints put on women back in Iran, the sheer discrimination she experienced as an
Afghan refugee before arriving on the island of Lesvos, and her desperate worry for her two
small children, aged five and ten, who year on year, go without education, or any sense of
normalcy. But through her work with Azadi as group facilitator, she finds empowerment and
gives hope to other women.

From Iran to Greece

“As an Afghan refugee, I didn’t have the right to continue with my education. And my kids
couldn’t go to school either. That’s also why we decided to leave Iran,’ Sedighe said as she
sipped her tea.

She was born in Iran to Afghani refugee parents in the year 1989, and lived there as a
refugee all her life until she decided to leave the country with her husband and two children
when she was thirty years old. She explains that in Iran, Afghan refugees are constantly
discriminated against, and especially when it comes to education and human rights. In fact,
as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, millions of Afghans migrated to
neighboring Iran. Nowadays, Iran hosts between 1.5 million and two million undocumented
Afghans, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.


Iran’s treatment of Afghan refugees has always been subject to criticism. Afghans are
believed to be generally treated without much humanitarian considerations with in Iranian
society. For example, several schools and colleges systematically deny access to Afghan
students. “I could not go to university, because I was a refugee”, explains Sedighe. In fact,
during her high school years, Sedighe says that she was always the best in her class,
achieving top scores in all subjects, but she was not accepted by her first choice university or
by any university for that matter, beaten to the pass by all her Iranian friends who had lower
grades than her. Highly skilled jobs are also difficult to access. “In Iran, it is very hard for
refugees to find work, and if they get a job, it will be tiring manual work”, explains Sedighe.

“My husband worked illegally in Iran. He worked long hours and earned very little. If the
police found out he was working, he could go to prison.”


She also explains that they were not allowed to rent a house or even buy sim cards. This
deprivation of basic rights, she says, was based solely on their nationality and status as
asylum seekers.

Gender inequality is also rife in Iran, according to Sedighe. She explains that men “own” their
wifes, and families alone decide on women’s life choices. All decisions are taken by men and
there is no place for women’s voices. “In Iran, the woman is very dependent on her family or
her husband. In the future, I would like my daughter Elnaz to be an independent woman. I
want her to get an education, go to university and make her own choices”, Sedighe says.

There are no refugee rights in Iran, let alone women’s rights, she adds “Here, we have
more rights than in Iran”
. The appalling conditions in camp with limited washing facilities,
hour on hour long waits in food lines, permission to leave the site just once a week and a
limited access to education or welfare system made Sedighe’s comments even more striking
to me.

Sedighe Abbasi. Photo by Annachiara Ruzzetta

The Importance of Education


Sedighe and her family arrived in Lesvos, Greece, in 2019, and were moved to Moria,
Europe’s largest refugee camp. After the fires of last September, which destroyed the camp,
they were moved to a new refugee camp – known as Moria 2.0. Overall, they have now lived
between refugee camps for two long years.


Sedighe confesses with a heavy heart – “they said we wouldn’t stay here a long time, but we
have been here for two years. It’s a lot of traumatic memories for my children. I wish they
could forget these two years”.


She explains that life inside a refugee camp hits children the hardest, as they are deprived
from education and physical activity. Some days they do not even get out of the tent, and just
drown in boredom. “When I see my kids playing with trash, I become very sad and
angry. They have no healthy hobbies, no education, there is nothing for them here in
camp”
. This is not the life any mother would want for her kids.

For Sedighe, education is a driving force in her life: “I personally really care about education.
They deserve a good future. They must get a proper education now, otherwise it will be too
late”. Sedighe has dreams for herself too, of becoming a civil engineer. “I want to become an
engineer to avoid house work”, she says jokingly, with her contagious laugh. Hopefully,
Sedighe will be able to study engineering once she gets the refugee status and moves to
another country.

Empowerment & Resilience

Sedighe started her journey with Azadi two months ago, and her presence in the group has
been invaluable for the other women attending the sessions. She admits that working with
Azadi has helped her, because she feels useful to others who are in a similar situation to her
own. “I have better thoughts about the future. I feel like I’ve become helpful for my
people”
.

Sedighe has the gift to light up the whole room with a simple, warm smile and a giggly laugh.
The women in the groups feel that they can open up to her, and this builds trust, a safe
space for all of them and provides Sedighe with a sense of purpose. “The women feel
happier after the sessions. But they are also sad when the sessions are finished. If covid
restrictions allow, maybe we will welcome more women in our group sessions”, she says with
a smile.

Thanks to her work with Azadi, Sedighe has gained confidence in terms of leadership, a
quality and skill which will undoubtedly benefit her future employment. She now feels
empowered by the difference she makes in other refugee women’s lives and this brings
meaning to her life, even though her situation is just as sad and complicated as the women in
the groups.

What is most striking about Sedighe is her inner strength and gentle kindness. She is an
inspiring woman and mother with a heart of gold who has supported many others through her
work. Despite all the struggles she has gone through and continues to go through, Sedighe
remains positive and incredibly generous. She is a wonderful asset to the Azadi team.
Sedighe’s greatest wish for the future is for her children to go to school. She wants them to
become strong and independent, and be able to do whatever they want in life. She wishes
for equal rights and a safe, peaceful life, away from discrimination and sadness: “I want to
continue my education and get a good job. Whatever the country, I can make a life
there”
.

My name is Jenny Barruol and I am a languages student from France, studying at the
University of Bristol. I am passionate about storytelling in all forms and shapes and
aim to tell engaging and inspiring stories through writing, videography and
photography.

Masomeh – mother, sister, daughter, and a life-long refugee.

Masomeh’s story; told by Masomeh Etemadi, written by Ella Lambert.

Masomeh’s baby spent his first year in a tent in the Moria refugee camp where, on the coldest nights, their generator cuts out as too many people plug into the limited supply of electricity. “When the winds get up, it doesn’t matter how many blankets you have, it’s impossible to keep warm and my baby doesn’t like being under all of the blankets anyway,” 31-year-old Masomeh relays candidly. “In camp, we have so many problems, but nobody wants to go back, not even if you paid us – Iran was like a prison.”

Masomeh’s son

In 1985, three years before Masomeh was born, her parents fled Afghanistan for Iran, where they built a life for themselves and their daughters. When her parents arrived, they received refugee cards from the UNHCR but, what they did not know is that those cards would render their children stateless for at least the next 30 years. Iran would not recognise them as citizens but, as they were born in Iran, neither would Afghanistan.

Masomeh with her family in Lesbos, Greece

To keep their cards, they would have to pay a monthly fee to the state and, as refugees, they would have to pay a further fee every 10 days to have permission to leave the city and move around freely, but at least they were able to work and the children were able to go to school. But, despite being born in Iran, growing up speaking Farsi with an Iranian accent and being educated in Iranian schools, when the time came for Masomeh to go to university, she was still considered a refugee and not entitled to further education. With dreams of studying law and becoming a judge, Masomeh fought for her place and was able to trade her refugee card for a passport which would allow her to study. Yet, when she received her passport, she saw that stamped in blue were the words ‘only for education’ – Masomeh had lost her right to work in Iran. She graduated from university with top marks in Islamic knowledge and law but as a refugee, she would never be able to practice as a lawyer and, as a woman, would never be able to pursue her dream of becoming a judge – what’s more, her refugee status would be inherited by her children and, without her refugee card, they would be denied schooling. 

Masomeh’s baby

Seeing how a life in Iran would limit her children, Masomeh and her husband made the decision to leave Iran to give their seven-year-old and new-born baby a better future; to give them an education and the right to work in whichever field they choose. So, they left, without knowing where they were headed, rushing towards the Turkish border at high speed, changing cars several times before walking through the Turkish mountains for hours with a child in toe and a newborn in their arms.  Then, they were hurried onto a boat full of people and were told that the police were coming. That there was no time to collect their life jackets, setting off into the sea in a heaving rubber dinghy. She realized later, the police weren’t coming, the smugglers had lied to them to fit more people in the boat. Masomeh was so frightened she felt sure they would all die, and all she could hear was the sound of her breath and her heartbeat drumming in her ears.

Masomeh

Thankfully, Masomeh, her husband and her two children touched down safely on dry land and have been living in a tent in Lesbos ever since and despite all the woes of living in a refugee camp, she does not regret the journey for one minute. Masomeh grew up and lived in Iran for over 30 years and in all that time, she couldn’t get a sim card, open a bank account or even leave the city without permission, all because of her Afghani heritage. She has friends in similar circumstances but with Pakistani heritage who received ID cards easily but “in Iran, Afghanis aren’t welcome,” Masomeh explains. “We share a language, religion, traditions and so much history but we face so much discrimination.” 

Masomeh and kids

After the fire in the Moria refugee camp in September 2020, Germany pledged to take in 1000 refugees from the camp, and Masomeh and her family were amongst them. Due to the pandemic, they still haven’t received their passports to be able to travel but, after 18 months of living in a tent with several other families, a baby and an 8-year-old, Masomeh can finally look to the future. 

Masomeh playing with her baby

After a year without work, Masomeh has now joined the Azadi team, representing the organization on the ground in Lesbos and using her English skills and training as a psychosocial group facilitator to support other refugee women. Since arriving on the island, she has been volunteering with the Red Cross to support other members of the camp. Masomeh has faced adversity at every turn and yet continues to look forward with resilience and optimism. You can see her overwhelming love for her children and determination to give them a brighter future. Masomeh still dreams of becoming a judge one day and her eldest son – well he wants to be an inventor!

A future inventor!

Renowned Journalist and Refugee Rights Advocate Arwa Damon on the Importance of Refugee Mental Health


By: Ayushka Anjiv

The Azadi Project’s Priyali Sur interviewed Arwa Damon, CNN’s Senior International Correspondent and humanitarian to discuss the importance of mental health support to displaced populations and in particular refugee women and children. Arwa is also the founder of International Network of Aid, Relief and Assistance (INARA) which focuses on providing medical assistance to children from Syria, including Palestinians, who are the group in greatest need.

She tells us a heartwarming story which took place in a province in Syria, about a little girl,  wearing plastic slippers in freezing weather, who had been walking all night. The striking thing was that she wasn’t crying. “In many ways that the fact that they (the children) weren’t crying was just so telling about the psychological impact of what it is…” describing at length about the kind of trauma that shapes a child. Arwa spoke about the journeys of young women with the backdrop of conflict in their lives who have an additional societal pressure about their bodies. 

Global estimates from the World Health Organisation suggest that one in five of the adult population in conflict areas suffer from mental illness. At least one out of three asylum seekers and refugees experiences high rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). International Rescue Committee has reported that between March 2018 and July 2020, 45% of their clients receiving mental health support in the island of Lesbos, were women with the most common vulnerability being gender-based violence. Women in Lesbos have shared stories of rape and sexual assualt, depression, retraumatisation at the camp. 

Arwa shares the story of Yusuf that she covered in Baghdad. Yusuf was just 5 years old when masked men poured gasoline on his head and set him on fire, in front of his house, where he was playing. His reaction was anger and he was lashing out, however with proper psychosocial care Yusuf forgot the trauma and the incident did not affect his psyche. 

Covid-19 has worsened the mental health crisis in Moria. The existing infrastructure to provide mental health care support, isn’t enough. IRC has only five psychologists and therapists on the ground at Moria Camp. Moreover, only 3% of refugees are referred to mental health services after initial screening. According to UNHigh Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, there are reports of increasing mental health issues and needs among those displaced. Fear of infection, confinement and isolation measures, stigma, discrimination, loss of livelihoods and uncertainty about the future are all contributing factors to the increased 

When Yusuf’s family decided to put their story out there, the response was tremendous. “… my email exploded and the phone was ringing off the hook.” says Arwa. This story inspired her to start her own charity, INARA. Azadi’s Mental Health Care Support also aims to provide psychotherapy and counselling to women at Moria. 

Arwa’s proposed solution was ‘collective impact’. She says, “we’re not going to change the world alone…never dismiss the sort of collective impact of what a large number of small acts of kindness can actually do, you know, no donations are too small no gestures too insignificant”.

MORIA’S UNACCOMPANIED MINORS WEILD THE POWER OF A PENCIL

By Alison Waldman

November 2020

I think I’ll need to change my name if I ever get to the US. It may frighten people,” was the first thing fourteen-year-old Jihad said to me. As an unaccompanied minor, his name was his only remaining connection to his parents and former life in Syria, both of which he had already lost. His name, he explained, does not signify war or violence. Rather, it refers to a “great accomplishment resulting from a struggle”. His mother was in labor for thirty hours. He was her “Jihad”. So much loss for a child. How unfair to even contemplate relinquishing the beautiful name chosen by his parents. I choked back tears, struggled to find comforting words and was grateful for the healing and relaxing experience that my drawing workshop would hopefully provide.

There is a familiar bustle and rhythm to life in a refugee camp that is at times not altogether different from life outside the barbed wire. Meals need to be cooked, clothes need to be washed, diapers need to be changed, wood for the make-shift mud ovens needs to be chopped. Routines, laughter, games to occupy the time — all offer an occasional sense of normalcy. But first impressions mask the harsh reality of life in refugee camps: the overcrowded conditions, inadequate shelter, lack of privacy, susceptibility of women and children to sexual assault, shortages of water, food, toilets and showers, and of course the interminable uncertainty. Yet the refugees I have had the pleasure of meeting are some of the most positive, resourceful and self-reliant people I have ever encountered. And none more so than the unaccompanied children I worked with in the spring of 2019 in Lesvos, Greece — the Gekko Kids. 

There are approximately five thousand unaccompanied minors living in Greece. Some are hoping to reunite with parents, older siblings or family members in northern Europe; some are sent by their parents to escape violence at home; some are separated or orphaned en route to Greece. Among refugees and asylum seekers, these children are among the most vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, rape and trafficking. Many run away from the camps, fall prey to traffickers or are living in dangerous conditions in order to avoid deportation. The Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos was home to the largest number of unaccompanied minors, over one thousand, before it burned to the ground in September earlier this year. Most were boys between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. Many girls were pregnant or had infants as a result of rape in the camps. Months turn into years for these children, as delays in the registration and family reunification process are compounded by the lack of legal support and the overburdened asylum service. And while Greece has urged the EU to share the burden of relocating and resettling these unaccompanied children, only a handful of countries has pledged to receive some of them. 

Determined to address the lack of access to safe living conditions and an education, the nonprofit Together for Better Days launched a magical and transformational program for the hundreds of unaccompanied children in Lesvos. Their Gekko Kids program offered the physical and emotional space for unaccompanied teens to connect with one another and learn, among other things, English, computer skills, photography and math from certified volunteer teachers. And perhaps serendipitously, only a few blocks away two women, who founded and operate the Poliana Arts Center, decided to offer art workshops for these refugee teens. Katie and Anique recognized the restorative power of creative expression to heal the emotional and physical trauma experienced by these children. 

On June 1, 2019, I walked into Poliana’s cozy stone art studio and met my students, thirteen boys ranging in age from twelve to seventeen. (Most unaccompanied minors are boys, as it is considerably less safe for girls to travel on their own.) Equipped with a translator and hundreds of markers, acrylics and watercolors, I slowly explained why I had traveled from Washington, DC to meet them. 

I had repeatedly rehearsed in my head what I would say to and request of the thirteen students seated at tables in the Poliana Art Center. I told them that this was an opportunity for them to speak to the world via their art. What did they want the world to know about their lives and their hopes and dreams? If they could say one thing to people everywhere, what would that be? I told them that their drawings would be part of a traveling exhibition to promote awareness of the continuing and worsening refugee crisis and to encourage tolerance towards the millions of forcibly displaced migrants. I was not surprised by their perplexed stares when I explained that many people in the US do not realize that the crisis remains unresolved. And I hoped that they would be pleased and proud that their artwork would travel to universities, nonprofits and businesses throughout the US — a journey to open hearts and change minds. The irony, sadly, that their artwork would travel to places they would likely never see was not lost on me. 

I had envisioned a noisy room full of typical teenage chatter but instead was surprised by the silence in which they seemed most comfortable. Perhaps a much-needed respite from the chaos and unpredictability that permeate their lives. I also expected that they would need time to think about what they wanted to draw. Yet they began to sketch immediately, as if their bottled up parts had suddenly been uncorked. Released from years of muteness, their stories and journeys spilled onto paper. And then it dawned on me. They had begun conceiving their messages to the world years ago. 

When the middle school he attended in Syria burned to the ground with most of his friends inside. 

When the Taliban came to his northern Afghanistan town and “removed” his teenage sisters. 

When at the age of eleven and oceans away from Lesvos he witnessed his mother’s murder. 

When he had almost made it to Lesvos and he was robbed of all of his belongings, including photos of his family, on the Turkish side of the sea.

When the overcrowded rubber dingy he was in capsized in the Aegean Sea and he watched helplessly as a toddler slipped under the water. 

And despite the availability of watercolors, acrylics and colored pens they gravitated towards the pencils. In truth, the messages in their drawings need no embellishment. Perhaps years of deprivation had taught these children a truth that often eludes so many— that sometimes less is indeed more. 

Note: Jihad has not changed his name, as it would complicate the paperwork essential to the asylum process. Only a few of the teen artists remain in Lesvos. Most of them were transported to mainland Greece or flown to countries in northern Europe following the fire at Moria. As of the Fall of 2019 Gekko Kids is no longer operational in Lesvos. Together for Better Days has relocated to mainland Greece. The exhibition, Hope in the Face of Despair: The Power of the Pencil will be debuted and displayed at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York in 2022.

Alison Waldman is a Washington, DC-based international aid worker and refugee resettlement and employment specialist. She has worked with the IRC, HIAS, Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities to resettle refugees throughout the DC-Baltimore region. Her first trip to Lesvos was in January 2016 and she is looking forward to returning post-covid.

SURVIVING GENOCIDE – Saputara story

Saputara, is a 19 year old woman currently living in the Kalindi Kunj camp in New Delhi, India. I spoke with her on the telephone via her husband Halal, a 23 year old Rohingya man whom she met at the camp. They have two children together. The only word we could directly exchange,sans translation,was Namaste, a common greeting in Hindi language.

The family ran towards near the nearest hill, when got to know that their neighbours were attacked. Young Saputara was scared that she will die too at the same time she did not want to leave her house. 

She was just 10 when she left her village, Bondu near Mangdau, Northern Rakhine, for good. She fondly remembers the spot near the pond where she would play, often with friends. She lived in a crowded household of eight members including herself. When a house close to hers had been attacked,the family knew they had to leave. . Several families including hers ran towards ‘Moora,’a big hill. They left barely with any possessions, merely the clothes on their back and a couple bottles of water to satisfy the entire family. They hid behind the hill for a while, watching their back and then eventually decided to take the boat to Bangladesh. 

Saputara’s family left their village with no belongings. Their sole possessions were two plastic water bottles.

I asked her if she had ever been on a boat.She chuckled sheepishly told me that was the first moment she felt like she might die. Although the sea was close to her village, she had never been on a boat so massive.  She and her family were dropped somewhere along the Bangladeshi coast before walking towards their first camp.

They reached Cox Bazar and settled in Kutupalong Refugee Camp. They met others from their community there. Saputara and other children played at the camp. She told me about her dreams of studying and making something of herself. Saputara saw other children going to school and thought that one day she would too. Things were deteriorating at the camp; they lived in make-shift tents and had to stand in long lines for drinking water or to go to the toilet. There weren’t many employment opportunities for her ageing father. 

Saputara would hear school bells at near her camp at Cox Bazaar and she would dream of studying one day. She wanted to go to school like other kids. 

The family therefore decided to migrate to India in hopes of getting a job and securing a better and stable life. They traveled in a truck, walked to the border and reached Kolkata in the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal. From Kolkata, they took a train to New Delhi where she is currently settled. 

Saputara’s loss is fresh; it isn’t a distant memory. In addition to her home, she lost two of her siblings on the  journey.

I asked Saputara if she understood why they had to leave their home.  

“They were killing us because we are Muslims,” she said, unable to elaborate on who ‘they’ are. “[India] is not my country. If I go back, they will kill me.” The only thing that matters, she says, is that she now feels safe.