Promising practices: Letters of migrant and refugee women from isolation

Promising practices: Letters of migrant and refugee women from isolation

In many years of work with girls and women with the experience of violence, organization Atina, which provides support to victims of human trafficking and all forms of gender-based violence, points out that  one of the biggest obstacles of the reintegration process that they caught sight of is a sense of exclusion from society, family; distance from oneself, as well as a sense of isolation and not belonging to the world they find themselves in. Women and girls refugees and migrants have, through participation in programs Atina runs, which are also designed and adapted to women accommodated in asylum and reception centers, spoke during the pandemic about what it is like to be stranded halfway to destination, in Serbia, their current refuge country. Some of the migrant women managed to get some form of protection here and begin their lives outside the reception centers.

During the past six years, since the refugee-migrant crisis gained momentum, conversations have been held with women and girls on various topics of interest to them. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the sense of isolation became overbearing, we mostly talked about ways to overcome those feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Once the pandemic brought global isolation, alienation and distancing, the news of the army entering asylum centers and other migrant and refugee accommodations in Serbia further sparked the feeling of uncertainty. By closing the centers, and then the whole country as well, movement restrictions and ban on gatherings made Atina adapt all of its regular activities and find new ways to achieve its purpose, which is to create a space for women to talk about their problems, needs, feelings, and to have that space for themselves - safe, secure and understanding.

Atina's mobile team, which had regularly visited asylum and reception centers until the outbreak of the pandemic, remained in contact with women and girls who reported daily from the centers, talking about their fears and worries, but also the issues that arose in such housing conditions. This is exactly how the Letters from Isolation came about, from the idea of opening a space for women and girls to talk about all the challenges, fears and experiences in societies they came from, which aggravate social and gender isolation, as well as with reencountered isolation in the pandemic. These four women wrote letters about their experiences of all these changes, how it reflected on their situation, and their vision of the future. Although, it could be said, their views of the world are different, depending on the culture they come from, what unites them during the pandemic is the female perspective of a challenge.

The beginning of pandemic - life in isolation

“Just before the pandemic started, I began living alone, in my own apartment,” Bisa, a 20-year-old girl from Nigeria begins her story, and continues, “I had my job and my apartment, I was previously granted asylum. After a long time, I started making plans for my future, and then the pandemic began. In the isolation that came along with coronavirus, it was not easy. In fact, it is really difficult. I am in a new situation, a new environment, everything is unknown to me. I am alone. I am not prepared for this, in fact no one is prepared, but a lot of things happened to me just then. I can't go outside, but I realize I don't even want to go out. I'm worried. I am very worried, for myself, for my health, but also for my job. They say stay at home, don't go out, but I don't have a solution how to pay for the apartment, bills and food. When people want to help me, they say - don't worry, you will pay next month, but that makes me even more insecure, because I still don't know how I will do it next month, or the one after next, if this lasts.”

“I wanted freedom, something I didn't have in my country as a woman. Here, first of all, I was looking for freedom I did not have there,” Huma (25) from Iran begins her letter. “In Serbia, my life has changed, but not so much, since I live in a camp. Before the pandemic started, I wanted to leave the camp and live in an apartment, find a job and feel free, and then the quarantine started, and everything stopped. After coming to Serbia, I began learning things that I neither dared nor could do in my country. I started painting, I really liked all the activities outside the camp, I got used to moving, I went to various organizations and participated in the activities they carry out. But now it’s all gone.  I am locked up in a camp with so many different people. I am trying to keep communication through social networks and to get all the information, and all that thanks to the organizations that have not forgotten us. However, it is very difficult, especially with children. For our children there is no online school, and they are full of energy because of that. The conditions for us are very limited, especially when it comes to trying to structure their day. Of course, that is expected of women in these conditions, to do everything to make life seem normal - make sure children do not bother anyone, take care of the house, and don’t complain. But nothing is normal any longer, and I don't know if it ever will be again.”

Isolation within isolation

“There has never been a situation like this before. I think this is much more serious now than ever before, because this problem has affected the whole world. Not only one, two countries, but entire Europe, Asia, and now Africa. A lot of people are dying, a lot of people are losing their jobs. It's really hard. I'm also thinking about what it will be like after this. Nothing will be the same again. How people on the bus will look at me when I sneeze; I'm not a person they would say ‘bless you’ even before this. I am imagining what it will be like now. I’m sure they wouldn’t be thrilled to have a migrant woman infect them,” Bisa continues, adding, “On the other hand, I am afraid of what will happen to me if I have to go to the doctor, because for me every visit to the doctor, so far has been an endeavor. I don't know Serbian language, the staff doesn't know English, they don't understand procedures for asylum seekers; they don’t know, or they are denying me the right to health care. Until now, someone always had to go with me, and now that is not allowed. All these thoughts make me even more afraid of the disease”.

“Here, the government and state are telling me now - do not go out, and there (in Iran) my husband used to tell me not to go out. So, it’s not the same after all,” Gulzar (30) from Iran begins her letter. “Now I have more responsibilities than before, I prepare food more often. I spend more time in the kitchen, and I take care of the house, while, on the other hand, I have to help my child with homework. Sometimes my husband helps me, but when the situation was normal (before the pandemic), we all had our own obligations, so we helped each other better. Now I do more work at home. I think that this situation has brought more obligations to women, that they have to cook more, do housechores above all, and in addition to help the children. I know that this situation will lead to more violence against women, that some will suffer violence from their husbands. I often think how glad I am that we managed to get out of the camp before the pandemic started. Life in the camp reminded me too much of life in Iran. I have two friends whom I talk to, and they told me that the conditions in the camp have become even worse, that the army guards the camps so that people don’t go out, and that organizations cannot have activities inside the camps. However, I think that should be resolved in a different way, because these people cannot be imprisoned and feel as if they have been arrested in the camp. It should be organized differently - or allow them occasionally to go outside for a while. I don't think this is good for them. I worry a lot about all the people in the camps.”

“I just started working and the virus came. I want to go to work, I want to go out, it's harder for me than it was before the pandemic,” writes Almani, a single mother from Iran. “I am overwhelmed with sadness when I sit in the house. I can't help him (my son) much with his homework, it's difficult for me. I don't know the language, and he can't go to school. I'm afraid for his education. I think about this life and life in Iran, and for me this situation with the coronavirus cannot, in a psychological sense, be compared to that in Iran. In the physical sense, it is quite similar situation because the freedom of movement is limited, but in the psychological sense I would not equate them. There are important differences. Physically, again I can't move, but no one can move now, it's not just my problem anymore. I remember how strange it was for me here when I was outside at 10pm, and no one paid attention to me, no one judged me. There, I was not allowed to be outside at 10pm, not because something would happen to me, but because people would look at me, judge me, maybe someone would say something offensive to me, and that is not happening here. It's easier for me when I know that these conditions apply to everyone now.”

Planning the future

“Particular problem that occurred during this pandemic, and the one I think about a lot, are the inequalities in society. These differences are now even more visible, and they affect all the women in the world. A society that does not support women operates on men’s principles. It is even harder for women, especially women who are alone, women who are alone with children, or pregnant women. For all the women who find life hard even without this situation, it is now even harder and worse than for men. I also think of women who now work as doctors, nurses, in stores, pharmacies. About women who suffer or fear domestic violence, now that perhaps entire families do not work, there is no money, and if there were problems in the family before, now it is only worse. I think about women who suffered violence and are now alone in the house again with that same violent man in such conditions. We are all scared of this virus and the whole situation, we can't go outside, and how terrible it is that you are at home every day exposed to risk of violence. And everyone first asks you if you have the virus,” Bisa wrote in her open letter.

“This situation with the pandemic, the virus, with the quarantine has changed me. I have thought a lot about some things that might not have crossed my mind before. I read and was shocked by the death of a student from Nairobi. He studied medicine in Belgrade, died of abdominal pain, lived in the dormitory, and none of the doctors wanted to see him - he went to three hospitals, no one helped him, and then he died. He did not have the coronavirus, and it is not known why he died, and maybe they would have saved his life if they had admitted him to the hospital and helped him. Those are terrible things. He is a foreigner here just like me and that scares me a lot. That's why I'm sad. I thought that this problem we are all in together would bring people closer, but the opposite happened. I don't make any plans for the future; I used to plan, but this happened, and nothing came of them, everything went wrong, everything stopped. I plan from one day to the next. A lot depends on how I feel that day. I'm still in fear, afraid of going outside. There is too great of an uncertainty for me to make any plans. But I definitely keep going on and hope for the best. I try to think positively. And I will make plans again!” Bisa concludes in her letter. “I will work again. I want to learn Serbian. Maybe people will want to live better after this situation, because it made them think of the things they don't have. This situation has taken lives of many people, and someone who may have been dear to you is no longer there. Maybe that will make people be a little kinder to each other. For too long, people have been forced to sit at home, eat, sleep, but that is not life. I have known for a long time what it's like when you can't hug a dear person. When all this is over, maybe everyone will be able to understand the value of it,” says Almani.

“I am constantly thinking about the future,” Huma continues, “I'm just waiting for this situation to end, because the borders are now completely closed, and we can’t go anywhere. I want a new life, I want to go further, I have a new kind of hope for everyone, and I want to build a new life, primarily because of my children. For me, a normal life is one in which I will not have to make decisions for myself or for my children out of necessity, fear and coercion, but freely. A life in which I will be able to work, and have my children go to school. A life in which I will have the freedom to live the way I want, and to achieve my goals I set up. I learned a lot in these camp and pandemic conditions, I realized what kind of a better life I wanted. I think that every person should learn from every situation what they want better for themselves. Because of the way of life in Iran, the culture and everything I have survived, I think I have made a lot of progress and I have learned a lot about myself and life, I have succeeded and I know that I will continue to succeed.”

“I want to return to a normal life, I want to work, to have activities that I love, to take more care of myself, to sleep and eat normally, to be able to have physical activities. Basically, I want to have a normal life,” Gulzar writes at the end. “I would like for people in Serbia to try to understand who we are, who the migrants are - a person becomes a migrant because they have a problem. That problem was so difficult that the person had no other option but to leave their country, and no one wants to leave their home, life, country. Women like me and women I know had to leave because they could not live by the rules that were imposed on them. Refuge means that when you can't find a helping hand in your own country, you must look for it elsewhere, that's refuge.”



This article was produced within the project “Support to civil society organisations’ initiatives to assist and protect victims of trafficking in human beings during the COVID-19 pandemic” NGO Atina is carrying out with the financial assistance of the Council of Europe. The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the Council of Europe.