“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.

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.