By Kayla Marshall, SJSU Social Work Graduate Student
One of the organizations working to assist the asylum seekers of Lesvos is the Mosaik Support Center. Mosaik is located within the town of Mytilini, which is a close 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from Kara Tepe refugee camp and 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from Moria and Pikpa refugee camps. This proximity allows them to serve hundreds of asylum seekers from all over the island, but is also out of reach for many women who feel they are in danger by simply leaving their tents. Nevertheless, Mosaik organizers make efforts to create a safe and welcoming environment for all of their students by providing transportation to and from the camps. This service has been extremely impactful for many of their students financially, because a taxi cab from Moria to Mytilini could cost €10 one-way. If someone wanted to take a taxi to and from Mosaik, they could end up spending 15% of their monthly stipend on one day. Making these services as accessible as possible is essential to Mosaik’s long-term functioning.
In addition to being a safe space for camp residents from all cultures to exist, Mosaik offers educational classes for all ages. The main classes are Greek and English, which are co-ed and offered to everyone. The center also offers computer classes to improve computer literacy and assist in creating curriculum vitae for the adolescent and adult asylum-seekers. In an effort to eliminate waste from Lesvos beaches and provide jobs for refugees, Mosaik has a program to upcycle thousands of discarded lifejackets on the shores of Lesvos and repurpose them into bags and wallets. Funds from the projects go directly to the program and the people making the items. These programs, among other activities, have enabled many people to develop new skills and participate in a collective community where their talents are valued and needed.
We spoke with Chole Haralambous, team coordinator from Mosaik, who addressed Mosaik’s vision for empowering the asylum seekers.
“Just giving is not solidarity because you don’t expect anything in return. I think Mosaik is very good in creating an environment in which people on the move felt as though they were giving back something as well and that there was a sense of a kind of mutual support which is the solidarity and reciprocity that implies a certain kind of egalitarianism and a certain kind of allyship.”
This approach supports people where they are while maintaining the dignity and autonomy that is often stripped away during the asylum-seeking process. Mosaik also makes great effort to avoid volunteers that are culturally incompetent by hiring carefully screened, paid staff to support the program. This measure is often unattainable or overlooked by other agencies who work solely from volunteers. However, working only with volunteers narrows the diversity of staff to wealthier people who may be coming to help from a different region or country. Some agencies are forced to rely on volunteers because of a lack of funding, but Mosaik has been able to hire Lesvos citizens to aid the community that they know best.
Down the street from Moria, the largest refugee camp in Greece with over 8,000 residents, is a non-profit known as Stand by Me. This organization’s mission is grounded in education, empowerment, and integration through various programs such as, Greek and English language classes, legal aid, sewing and tailoring classes, and integration skills. A unique factor of this program which we have not seen in other refugee-based programs is that most of their classes are for women only. Although women are the minority of asylum seekers (19% of all applicants), it is invaluable that there are women-only classes for cultural and situational reasons (Asylum Information Database, 2019).
Many women who have applied for asylum are coming from and an Islamic background, where it can be taboo to have shared space between men and women. There are also valid concerns from the women in general regarding the threat of violence from men in Moria. Some women have told us that the camps are not a safe place and they are often in danger by going anywhere unaccompanied. Stand by Me utilized the single gender classrooms to foster an environment of trust and safety, which may be out of reach if they had to travel by themselves to a co-ed classroom with another organization. Continuing education is important for the integration process and it supports their mental health by helping them to feel productive during the indefinite amount of time that they will be staying at the camps. By creating this safe environment for women to study in, they are also providing respite from the harsh realities of living within the camp walls.
Stand by Me is funded exclusively through private donations and is run by volunteers. It is common to see these volunteer-based organizations having a narrow demographic of people from wealthier backgrounds, usually from out of the area. However, this program has a unique strength in that its volunteer teachers are also refugees staying in Moria down the road. Having teachers from within the community, who have similar lived experiences, can drastically change the outcomes of a program for the better. This strength is difficult to implement in similar programs due to the lack of people able to be in that situation, access to the facilities, or incentives for potential teachers from the agencies. This program mutually benefits the agency, the teachers, and the students, although they will be working towards providing compensation for the teachers in the future.
Speaking with some women from Moria was eye-opening in understanding the severity of their situation. Major news channels have been reporting on the horrors that are daily life in Moria for years. This area has been known for its overcrowding, lack of resources, outbreaks of illness, public health concerns, violence, and human rights violations. When asked about the dangers of being a woman within Moria, many women discuss the dangers of being alone, especially at night. Some women say they do not go out at night, not even for the bathroom, because men are drinking and they are at risk of being sexually abused. One woman, age 19, said her entire family does not leave the camp without her father present and accompanying them.
We spoke with two young women, Nazarin, 15, who has traveled with her family to Greece and Hamida, 23, who travelled by herself the entire journey to escape abusive family members. Hamida made the largest impact on me. I was enamored by the strength and courage she had to leave everyone and everything she knew behind in hopes of having a better life in Europe. She had only been living in Moria for two weeks when I met her and she was in serious need of mental health services. After we conducted our interview and were saying our goodbyes, she had told me that she was thinking about killing herself. I was saddened and surprised to hear that, even though I know many people staying in the camps are at high-risk for attempting suicide. After talking with her, I felt honored that she would want to tell me something so personal. Hamida deserves a community of people she can trust, and hopefully she finds that within Moria, Stand by Me, or the Mosaik Center.
While we have met many phenomenal service providers working with amazing organizations, we also know that there is a desperate need for more services for asylum seekers and better accessibility to exiting programs. The words we were left with as we concluded our interviews at Stand by Me were, “Take us with you.” To this I had no other words besides, “I wish I could.” This experience has truly made me search for any ounce of hope, money, trust, empathy, resources, or joy I could give to someone who is in desperate need of assistance.