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Fifty and More - Julia Hofstetter Portrays Raquel Herzog

The blog series of the Zurich biologist and municipal councillor (Greens). Julia Hofstetter presents short portraits of women who have tackled something new professionally at the age of "fifty and more."

Illustration: Julia Hofstetter

Raquel Herzog was agitated: It was 3 September 2015. The picture of Aylan Kurdi went around the world. The three-year-old drowned in the Aegean Sea together with his five-year-old brother Galip and his mother Rehan while fleeing the war in Syria. Aylan's body was washed up on the beach of Bodrum. "After watching this horrific news story, I went to bed," recalls Raquel. "When I turned off the light, I realised that this picture wouldn't leave me alone. I couldn't be horrified in front of the computer or TV anymore and then just slip into my warm bed." Raquel got up again that September night, flipped open the computer, and booked a ticket to Lesvos: "A month later, just hours after I landed, I started my time as a volunteer sea rescuer on Lesvos." Soon after, she founded the NGO "SAO Association- for displaced women", which today has 18 employees in Greece. The focus on women grew out of an encounter with 93-year-old Amina and her four granddaughters (18-23), whom Raquel found in a small fishing village on International Women's Day 2016 after 4 hours of searching. Raquel and the 5 Kurdish women shared a flat on Lesvos for four months. "This opened my eyes to the specific problems women face when fleeing."

Raquel Herzog is particularly proud of her field workers: "Because we specialise in trauma-oriented, psychosocial support for women and mothers who are fleeing alone, our field workers are confronted with the terrible experiences of women on a daily basis. Women who have fled are exposed to war, persecution, human trafficking, gender-based violence, and sometimes even torture. You have to be able to deal with that. I am always very touched by the beautiful atmosphere in our two protection centres, and I know that we can achieve decisive things for women." At the Bashria Centre on Lesvos, women fleeing alone and living in the Moria2.0 camp are given a place of refuge and much-needed support. The conditions in the temporary tent camp are desolate; there is a lack of everything, even the most basic necessities, violence, and harassment are commonplace.

Raquel Herzog says: "The situation of refugees in Greece has increasingly deteriorated in the five years I have been working there - this makes me feel powerless and angry. But you have to keep focusing on the fact that you can do something important in small ways, for a single woman with cancer and her child, for example."

At the Amina Centre in Athens, SAO's team supports women who have been recognised as vulnerable or have been granted asylum. They are supported to get a proper foothold in Greece. The state support that refugees still receive is minimal, so 30% of the Amina Center's registered women are currently homeless, which is especially dramatic in the current Corona situation.

"Yes," says Raquel Herzog, "there are always moments when I want to give up and devote myself to "lighter fare" again - but there is always someone in the team who still has the energy and pulls the others along again. And to be honest, I cannot help but do something to counter this zeitgeist and keep appealing to humanity. There is still far too little talk about women on the run - that should change!" Raquel Herzog worked independently in the live entertainment business for 20 years, as a television producer, in the production management of open-air operas, as a variété director, as an assistant director for musicals. "So, I've always worked in an environment where improvisational talent and troubleshooting skills were in demand - and that helps now. In the beginning, my company was still active in parallel. At the end of 2016, I gave up this activity altogether because my inner attention kept drawing me back to Lesvos."

And SAO continues to develop. With the programme "Back on Track," three female refugee students are supported in continuing their studies in Europe. On the other hand, a concept is being developed to help refugee women in Greece secure their livelihoods through targeted skills development workshops. Raquel adds, "We are well-positioned organisationally, and "I am fit to continue a few more years; It's important to me that young women join us who can take over in a few years. There are so many great, initiative, young women."

The task remains: To contribute to those women who struggle the most.

Zurich, January 2020


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