The Azadi Project was awarded as an unsung hero 2020 by the Atlantic Council at the Distinguished Leadership Awards. Azadi was one of the six unsung heroes recognized at the prestigious awards for its relentless work in helping refugees during the pandemic.
Maryam Zar is a board member of The Azadi Project and was part of the team that conducted the Lesbos workshop
The Azadi Project travelled to Lesbos Island in Greece for two weeks in February, with a workshop to empower women from the Moria refugee camp to use 21 st century digital skills in order to tell their own stories. For these women, looking inward was not easily done.
For most, no one had ever asked them to consider their own lives as independently meaningful. No one had ever asked them to ponder their inner-most thoughts or speak of their dreams – much less dare to achieve them. These were women from an unfailingly patriarchal culture that had taught them to serve, and to see themselves as part of the whole of family and society. Their own identity within that whole was lost, sacrificed for the greater good. The idea that they were self reliant or uniquely valuable, separate from their role as a cog in the culture that comprises the fierce Afghan pride, was lost on them.
It took the first several days to softly break in and gain trust. The break thoughts came slow, when the women would incrementally open up and allow us a glimpse of what was most troubling in their mind. Then slowly, we would to parse through the layers, incrementally surfacing to the top – to where they were that day, on this Island, in the middle of the Aegean, just a few miles from the Turkish land mass – where their dinghies had invariably landed at different times, under different circumstances, soaked and perhaps bewildered, but brimming with hope and anticipation of a better tomorrow.
Those of us who had travelled to make this workshop possible were no strangers to the instinct of traveling the globe in search of a better future. We were a team made up of an Indian woman with a present-day global footprint, a German-Greek mixed student of international humanitarian policy and an Iranian American who reached that dual identity by way emigration through a European gateway as an immigrant child. We were as sensitive as any three women could be under the circumstance, but still, we were strangers to the challenges these women had faced and the trauma they had endured to get to this room, in the attic in an NGO in Mytilene, for a two week project to empower them.
By the third, fourth and fifth days, we had broken through the daily silence. The reluctance in the face of probing questions had been shattered, and the women’s stories were flowing. We had begun to shape the narratives that would emerge through film, and were getting to know the women as though they were our own sisters, daughters and mothers. Some had more trauma to unpack than others. Some didn’t wish to reach quite far back enough to break down. Some were full of anticipation for the future; some were still coming to terms with the past. In time, the bonds between the women strengthened. A digital group was formed so conversations could continue. Late night exchanges of advice or lighthearted banter began piercing our phone screens.
Those of us who had arrived as organizers began to feel much like the participants – vested in their lives, worried how they might fare overnight when the cold set in, the electricity failed and the rain would fall. Each day, we came, eager to hear how the women were doing. Each day, they would disembark the bus from Moria refugee camp, some 45 minutes away, and walk briskly toward our workspace, ready to take on the day’s work. We started with yoga and ended with tea – working on story lines and narratives in between.
For a few days during the second week, we had a talented Greek photographer join us from Athens. He was unfailingly friendly and inherently empathetic to the plight of the women as well as the call of the project. He connected with the women almost instantly and set out to photograph them in a way that would capture their essence – their strengths and their vulnerabilities all at the same time. By now, the women had built the kind of trust among each other that made each day playful. We had discovered some ruins on an earlier expedition around the beautiful island coastline, so we headed in that direction for a photo shoot. The end result was a glamour filled, soulful day replete with laughter and twirls as much as tears and honest reflection. In the end, the women felt emancipated and fundamentally empowered to speak their truths, look quizzically at their lives and emerge proud of their unique identities – as women and as forces that help keep society, family and culture intact – no matter what the challenges.
The images above show the expressions of the women on the first day and the last. The films are a reflection of the journey we all undertook together, and the pictures tell the story of a fierce set of women, stuck in a refugee camp named Moria, who took a chance to come to a workshop that promised to empower them. The workshop went from a collection of frightened women anxious to speak about their experience, to a band of friends who emerged uniformly stronger, uttering words like undefeatable, hopeful, powerful, resilient, strong and unabashedly confident in their own ability to persevere. It was a transformation that impacted us all and will serve to remind us that women can change societies, and with that the world, incrementally toward a better place where gender discrimination cedes to the possibilities of equality and the full participation of all in society. We are proud to have travelled this journey with these 11 women.
The Azadi Project provides digital economy job skills to refugee women by teaching them technical expertise such as multimedia communications and storytelling at refugee shelters. After the workshop, Azadi connects its participants to local organizations for internships and employment. Since it’s inception in 2018, Azadi has run three workshops training refugee women in filmmaking, multimedia storytelling, radio production and photography in Athens (Greece), Niamey (Niger) and Lesbos (Greece). The fourth workshop which is focused on IT skills and web development is currently in progress in Athens.