I’ve never been to Afghanistan, nor do I speak Dari or Pashto, the country’s two official languages. So when I actually find myself on a rainy January morning in Athens at a centre for women Afghan refugees and migrants, the question I ask myself, even if just for a moment, is: what am I doing here?
I had pitched the story a few weeks before. I had read an article about how the Greek capital had unexpectedly become a hub for Afghan women and their families forced to flee Afghanistan following the Taliban’s sudden return to power in August 2021.
Most of the women were reported to be judges, lawyers, journalists or civil right activists. Different aid programmes had helped with their evacuation and continue to cover their housing and basic needs in Athens.
Together with our fixer Eleni Korovila, I contacted the Melissa Network, one of several local centres that help Afghan women and their families. In addition to being a place for the women to meet, Melissa – meaning “Beehive” in Greek – also offers a range of support services, including legal advice, tuition, councelling and community networking.
Before she escaped to Greece Hasina used to be a judge in Afghanistan.Euronews
They could kill me, or my children, or kidnap them.
As soon as I arrive, I’m taken into a living room with some pastry and mandarines on a huge table. Different women are eager to share with me their stories of loss. Loss of family and friends. Loss of jobs, wages, independence and self-esteem. All were forced into hiding. All still remain in shock. I spend the day listening to them.
Hasina, a former judge, tells me about how the Taliban released the same criminals she had sentenced and put in jail.
She explains to me that they were now looking for revenge. “I could not go outdoors”, she tells me. “They could kill me, or my children, or kidnap them.”
Homa Ahmadi, a former member of parliament, was forced into hiding for five weeks. She says no country should recognise the Taliban until “they form an inclusive government and guarantee children’s rights, the freedom of women and their right to work.”
I had dreams for me and for my children and for the people… all that vanished in one night.
Nilofar, 26, fled Afghanistan with her two children – the youngest is just 8-months-old. She has a bachelor degree in law and political science and worked as a journalist in Afghanistan.
“At first we had to fight with our fathers and brothers for the right to decide on how we dress, for example veils and scarves. Over the last 20 years we succeeded.
“Then, with the return of the Taliban, we lost everything. I had dreams for my children and for the people. All that vanished in one night.”
Fariba – not her real name – was a judge, but she avoids discussing the past; for her it is far too painful. She prefers to show me one of the few belongings she brought with her from Afghanistan: a traditional dress.
“This dress is representative of all Afghan women. Every country has its own symbols. In Afghanistan, after the language and the flag, the only thing that represents Afghan women to the rest of the world is this [traditional] dress.” she says.
As well as being a place to meet, the Melissa Centre provides a range of services and support, including legal advice, tuition and councelling.Euronews
Plans for the future
For most of the women, Greece is just a transit country. Some have already received asylum offers from Canada and Spain. Others would like to go to Germany.
Nadina Christopoulou, the director and co-founder of the Melissa Network tells me: “The idea behind this was to be able to provide a safe space [in Greece] for them to pick up the thread of the work they have been doing for so long in Afghanistan, and to start thinking again about the potential of what they can do. To also avoid the fragmentation that the diaspora entails.”
I point out that many of these woman are former politicians, journalists and judges and that many people might consider them to be an elite compared to most women living in Afghanistan.
But Nadina says: “I would not see it as an elite. The way we selected these women is because of their roles and their active social and political engagements and activism that created eventually the high-risk situations in which they were caught. Even now, they try to find ways to be of help and support and to remain actively engaged,” she says.
I ask her for some examples.
Replying, she says: “Almost a week after they arrived, they were speaking at the Athens Democracy Forum, talking about how intense it was for them to speak about the collapse of democracy in Afghanistan that they themselves had helped and worked so hard to build – in the country that gave birth to the idea of democracy.”
Around 100 of the women have applied to stay in Greece. Their claims are currently under investigation and processed. I cannot avoid thinking, however, about the hundreds of other Afghan asylum seekers scattered in camps around Greece who wont get the same chances.
In recent months the country has stepped up security and surveillance along its maritime and land borders with Turkey, the main entry route into Greece for most Afghan refugee and migrants.
The Greek government has a dual approach, the country’s General Secretary for Migration Policy tells me. I meet him inside the courtyard of the headquarters of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum.
“In the past two, two and a half years, Greece has followed a strict but, in our view, fair migration policy. In the sense that we may have tightened the rules within the framework of the EU directives and regulations, but this does not mean that as a country, Greece, has forgotten its humanitarian approach.”
Khatera says she will return to Afghanistan one day.Euronews
I will go to Canada, I will strengthen my education…
All Afghan women I met in Athens tell me it is now time for them to move on.
I meet Khatera Saeedi and her two children in one of the public gardens in the centre of Athens. Khatera shows them the animals of a small zoo and then the three stop in a nearby pond where ducks and swans wait to be fed.
A civil-society activist and journalist, in Afghanistan Khatera worked for an international organisation. She fled with her two children and also with her mum, herself a human-rights activist who was persecuted by the Taliban.
Discussing her plans for the future, Khatera says: “I will go to Canada, I will strengthen my education, my experience, my knowledge, and I will go back to Afghanistan stronger than before. And I will work for the people.”