Because of its geographical location, Greece has long been a place that welcomes refugees. But while it has historically been a place of refuge, a confluence of crises has undermined the country’s welcoming image. Civil unrest over the economic situation and an unstable government have led to a wave of xenophobia as the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II brings thousands of desperate people fleeing war in the Middle East and economic crisis in Africa. In recent years the country became a transit hub for Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees who poured into the country, all planning to follow the migrant trail to Germany. But in March 2016, Macedonia closed its southern border, cutting off the Balkan route and leaving some 62,000 refugees stranded in Greece. No one knows how long they will be forced to stay there, and conditions for many are abysmal.
In the face of the crisis, The Melissa Network opened a center in Athens in the summer of 2015, to provide a sanctuary for migrant and refugee women, and to create a community through programming and place-based engagement that aims directly at integration. The Melissa Network was founded and is managed by a group of women, many of whom were refugees themselves upon arrival in Greece. Greek anthropologist and Melissa Network co-founder Nadina Christopoulou says, “Migration entails a rupture: a break from your roots, your past, your family ties and social support networks you had back home. As a woman in a new country, you’re lacking those support systems that help you go through different stages of life. Women experience this in a more intense way than men do.”
The Network’s integration efforts operate through two primary strategies: First, the Network operates as a hub and a network for migrant women themselves, as well as other migrant women’s associations and networks, and makes its space available for those organizations to conduct their activities. Second, the women who lead the Network initiate and coordinate activities and projects in which the migrant women within the network will be active participants.
Using place-based design and organizing, the Network is creating community, through the participation of community members themselves, and inspiring active civic participation. The Athens center provides the women with a pleasant and welcoming space where they can gather to discuss how they can bring change and create opportunities for themselves. Daycare services are provided, and the women can also learn Greek and take courses, from dance and theater to poetry — with many of the classes taught by migrant women — and participate in art therapy.
In a bold statement, the center is located in a neighborhood that is a stronghold for the Golden Dawn, the anti-immigrant ultra-nationalist party. This is by design. The goal is to avoid self-ghettoizing, but rather to reach out and engage in dialogue with the anti-immigrant groups. “It’s important to give the message to Greek society that migrants aren’t part of the problem, but part of the solution,” Christopoulou says. And the women are seeing some results from their outreach, in small acts of kindness or acknowledgement from local merchants.
Some of the women who helped found the center are veteran migrants from countries like Nigeria. After years of feeling marginalized, some report success. They have learned Greek, learned a profession, and are becoming integrated. They hope to mentor the newcomers so that they follow a similar path.
Of the many issues arising in the current global refugee crisis, one of the most crucial to address with care and creativity is community integration and social inclusion. Strategies for integration into host communities was largely absent from global policy discussions until 2016. The Melissa Network’s work provides a model of how to move forward as the crisis begins to turn chronic. Future plans for the organization, as it increases its global advocacy footprint. include media training and founding a cooperative to spur micro enterprises.
Learn more: www.refuaid.org/melissa-network