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At A Refugee Camp In Greece, I Saw Migrants Torn Between Desperation, Boredom, & Hope

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Earlier this year, in a crowded refugee camp at the edge of Europe, I stood next to a Pakistani refugee as a storm brewed off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The darkness was gathering and the low-hung lightbulbs for the camp shelters were beginning to flicker.

Pata hain, aaj Vial main kya hua tha?” (Do you know what happened in Vial today?)” he asked me as he pulled out his cellphone. I shook my head no. “Sab log baat kar rahe hain. Bahut bura hua hain (Everyone is talking about it. It’s a terrible thing that has happened),” he said.

It was March and my husband and I were volunteering in a refugee camp in Greece. After months of consideration, we had found a Norwegian charity that organised volunteers and had taken time off work, booked tickets, and a few weeks later found ourselves in Chios, Greece.

Migrants on the Greek island of Kos, 2015. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

As a result of the war in Syria, the United Nations estimates over 5 million people have been displaced from their homes. It is the greatest migration in human history since World War 2. As Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said, “Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions.” The displacement has forced hundreds of people to flee to the Greek coast, hoping for an asylum application in Europe.

While I talked to the Pakistani refugee, my eyes scanned the mishmash of cultures and nationalities lining up for dinner in the makeshift tent by the beach. While the vast majority of residents in the camp are Syrian, there are others, including Afghan, Iraqi, Moroccan, Pakistani, Eritrean, Sudanese and even a single Bolivian. As the various nationalities shared the camp, tensions between the different ethnic groups were inevitable and fights between them were frequent.

During our time there, an incident with the caterer led to a mass outbreak of food poisoning from the meals served in the camp. Roughly a third of the camps’ residents were ill through the night, but with Greek authorities imposing limitations on the charities allowed to operate within the camps, many of the bathrooms had not been cleaned for days. It meant queues of men, women and children waiting to use unsanitary public bathrooms with severe cases of diarrhoea and vomiting. In the morning, suspicions had grown between groups, with each of them arguing that this was sabotage. A strike ensued, with residents refusing to eat the caterers’ food. For many of the families, refusing the food soon became an impossible option.

For many of the residents of the camp, the journey across the Mediterranean has been dangerous and lengthy. Families have endured exploitative fees and rough seas. They have put their children and all their belongings in a dinghy and wished it across the ocean in the hopes of a safe place to call home. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that over 3,770 migrants have lost their lives trying to make the journey. In April 2015, a boat carrying about 800 people capsized in the sea off Libya. It is believed that overcrowding of the boat was the main reason for the disaster.

The storm continued to howl around us as I chatted in a mish mash of Hindi and Urdu with my Pakistani informant. He was telling me gossip from around the camp, mainly the troubles with the different groups and the rats that had grown bolder now that it was harder to clean the smell of food off the beach. As I watched, he took out his cellphone and showed me a video widely circulated on WhatsApp that day. It was all any of the children were able to talk about.

For hundreds of refugees on the other side of the treacherous journey across the sea, the wait has been excruciating. Many men have ventured forth first, hoping to scope out the chances of relocation before asking wives and children to join them. It’s a double-edged sword, as the likelihood of being placed increased considerably when accompanied by family. I watch as familiar faces line up in the queue for their portioned meals, flashing identity cards that entitle them to strict portions of food three times a day. We are standing at the edge of Souda refugee camp, on a pebbled beach face from which the outline of Turkey can just be made out on the horizon and there is not much to do. The days are often long and filled with boredom as people wait for responses from immigration authorities.

Tensions between the refugee camps and members of the local Greek community are mostly strained and venturing into the main city is not really an option. For many, the applications have been unsuccessful and the wait has been long. Not knowing what to do, they are stranded between a vast and unforgiving water body and an immigration system that is overworked and underprepared. For so many refugees, crossing the border from Greece into Europe illegally is one of the only options at hand.

Children at the Idomeni refugee camp in Greece. Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

My conversation continued and we talked about the incident in Vial, the other refugee camp located further up the mountainous region of the island. I have never been to Vial, but have heard that the conditions are worse and the security more rigid. The video on the cellphone was of a man. Young, angry and vehemently expressing himself in Arabic, the man had doused himself in a liquid and was threatening to set himself on fire to the guards. He was frustrated, annoyed at how long his papers have taken to process, I was told. He didn’t want to wait anymore. Knowing that this was an impossible situation. That he would likely be stuck, as a number in the system for months – maybe even years. As he spoke, there was a shake in the video, a moment of confusion, and a terrifying visual of a man on fire came into focus on the screen in front of me.

I don’t know the man in Vial and I probably never will. But his story is symbolic of the pain, the frustration and the hopelessness of thousands of refugees in Greece and around the world. It is a story of refugees battling with mental health issues and a lack of access to proper care in the most extreme conditions for any human being. It is a story of helplessness and frustration in a world that passes around a WhatsApp video of a man being burnt alive in desperation.

The man in Vial lit himself on fire that day. Confused, angry and frustrated at a system that sees him as nothing more than a number on a sheet, he did what he thought best. The man in Vial was someone. He must have had a name, people who cared about him, likes and dislikes. The man in Vial was real and yet, and yet, he could be any of the hundreds of refugees placed in makeshift camps all along the border of Greece.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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