My task was to teach English, practical English. So if the women for instance went to the hospital and couldn’t speak Greek, a little English would be useful. The majority of the women at the Amina Centre, a specialized centre for psychosocial services for displaced women in Athens, were from Syria and Afghanistan with a few French-speaking African women. They were referred to Amina by other organisations and then complete the registration process in order to be able to visit regularly.
We started with the basics: greetings, the body and its ailments, languages and nationalities (Do you speak …. ?) colors, clothes, breakfast and lunch foods, going to the market or the supermarket, the date and the days, the weather, the seasons, asking for directions and hopefully understanding the response! Sometimes they asked for things like words for clothes. Depending on their level of education they absorbed the lessons at varying degrees. Some wanted to copy the words from the white board, others just couldn’t. One illiterate woman in particular repeated very easily by ear, so we just didn't bother with copying the words. She did the ABC session before the main class. A few were more advanced and they would help the others, sometimes translating for them. I had no way of checking whether what they said was right or not. Each class ended with a song. ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ or ‘Row, row, row your boat’.
But let me describe the atmosphere at SAO Association’s Amina Centre. When the women arrive they sign in, proceed to the kitchen at the back of the courtyard and take their snack, coffee or tea. At Amina Centre a number of services are available: washing machines, a fully equipped barrier free shower, sewing machines, knitting and crochet needles with yarn, Wi-Fi, and various classes like Greek, English and Yoga. Diapers, wipes, sanitary napkins and condoms are given out on request. Doctors from various NGOs provide consultations. The staff includes a social worker to help with different administrative issues and a psychologist who talks individually with the women. Of course the staff also includes translators/interpreters for Farsi, Arabic and French into English or Greek, but English is the lingua franca spoken by all the permanent staff. Without the linguists, communication and assistance would be impossible!
The main building has a big living room area with couches, armchairs and a playpen and toys for toddlers. There is a big table with four sewing machines where they can also do other crafts with the help of volunteers or staff. When there are many women it is like a beehive: conversations amongst small groups of women, some doing their hair or their nails, some are cutting out fabric to sew something, and of course occasionally babies crying for attention. Upstairs there are the office and the multi-purpose classroom/consultation room.
It would be hypocritical on my part not to mention that during the first few days I was somewhat perplexed at the fact that almost all of the women wore either the hijab or a scarf and many wore black robes. I learned to distinguish the Afghan women from the Syrian women by the way they wore their scarf or hijab. Some women are dressed western style and do not wear a headscarf but are the minority. It was not easy for me to learn their somewhat exotic names in the beginning, especially because I didn’t have the same pupils every day. They came when they could. I taught whoever was there.
A couple of the mothers came to class with toddlers. It took awhile to get them to play without disturbing the class and sometimes the mother would nurse the baby. In theory they were supposed to leave the babies downstairs but sometimes the 18-month olds or 2-year olds just would not leave their mothers and I did not want to deprive their mothers of the English class.
As we went along, I learned little bits of their stories, offered spontaneously. There was a mother with her 28-year old daughter and I learned that the mother had gotten married at 13. Several women came from the same town in Afghanistan and were happy when we could locate it on the map! They told me how long they had stayed at the Moria refugee-camp on Lesvos and how long they had lived in Athens.
Some told me that they live in shared apartments: a Syrian family together with an Afghan family for example so they learned a bit of each other’s languages. I made use of the white board to draw a family tree with grandparents, parents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons and daughters. They loved that and I could see that family was very important to them – the family that was with them or elsewhere in Europe and the family they had left behind. You learn very quickly that there is not much that you can do, except listen when they do feel the need to share these stories.
One afternoon I went to the Archeological museum. There was a beautiful statue of a child holding a dog, which is called the ‘little refugee’. It dates back to the 1st century BC but was brought to Athens with the refugees who fled Asia Minor in 1922. I couldn’t help but think of the parallel between the population exchange and refugees fleeing to America, just one century ago and the thousands of refugees flocking to Europe today (and from Central America to the USA as well). Those of us who live in privileged conditions, who have raised our children in comfort and take for granted a hot shower or a flush toilet, just cannot imagine what it is like to be on the road with small children or to sleep in a tent in the cold of winter.
Being in direct contact with refugee women has had a profound impact on my general attitude and outlook on these issues. I had many conversations with Greeks who find it difficult to bear the brunt of this impacts in the wake of their own national crisis. There is poverty and suffering amongst the Greeks after salaries and pensions were reduced due to austerity policies.
There are many associations working with refugees. I found SAO, which corresponded to what I felt I could do. It is important not to be too ambitious – I don’t think I would have been able to do physical work in the actual camps, although I had forgotten how tiring keeping up the rhythm and the interest of a class can be!
When I left on the last day after 6 weeks, I felt like I was abandoning my pupils, my newfound friends. There was no one coming to take over the English classes so they will go without for some time. I like to think they will remember fondly our peals of laughter as they watched me imitate a backache or draw something on the board! The warm fellowship of singing together! Our main language of communication was a smile. They gave me so many smiles. I merely volunteered some time! And I learned how to say, ‘I love you’ in Farsi: Doucet taram (my transcription) and in Arabic: ‘Ana ouhibouk’!
Julia Delille Gomory
After a long career including 10 years of teaching and 40 years as a conference interpreter, she decided it was time to retire. Because of her connections with Greece she had been following the refugee crisis for several years and wanted to do something useful. She happened upon a SAO FB post, read the website and it turned out that they needed an English teacher in Athens at the Amina Centre.
For 6 weeks she taught English lessons to a variety of women and in addition did a special session to teach the ABCs to women who didn’t know how to read or write – at least not in our alphabet. Julia had been trained back in the 70s, in teaching English to adults without recourse to the mother tongue. In Athens there was no possibility of doing so because she doesn’t speak Arabic or Farsi! Therefore she used lots of gestures, drawings, and illustrations she found in advertising catalogues as well as colorful tourism brochures.