Last week we took part in the AGM of the European Network of Migrant Women, which we joined as a Supporting Member in January this year, connecting Xenia with organisations working to support and empower migrant women across Europe. With the current political climate in Britain overwhelmed by discussions of leaving Europe, it was heartening and reassuring to be part of a European community that was founded on knowledge-sharing and collaboration rather than borders and division.
As a thoroughly local grassroots voluntary-run organisation, we have rarely connected with work outside of the UK although our participants are from over 30 countries. We have little nuanced understanding of the impact of governance at a European level on the women that make up Xenia, let alone its impact on the work that we are doing in Hackney. So for us to be part of a network of organisations that campaign, advocate and support migrant women across the continent felt like a leap into a realm from which we would be learning far more than contributing. Little did we know that this astonishing network thrives on the energy and engagement of grassroots organisations like ours working in refugee camps and communities as much as the high level lobbying and advocacy being done on national and European platforms.
Several members arrived on Friday before the official start of the AGM on Saturday morning. We were flung straight into the heart of Athens and then spat back out again at the gates of Eleonas refugee camp, where approx. 2,000 refugees are living in containers waiting to resolve their asylum claims, be reunited with families or find some semblance of stability wherever they are able. Lefteris Papagiannakis, Vice Mayor of Immigration in Athens, was on call to answer any questions thanks to his close work with our hosts at the Melissa Network, a grassroots centre working to empower migrant women and girls.
Many of us were surprised to find decent conditions in the camp, though we were glad that Lefteris emphasised that camps should not be part of any immigration system and they hope to close them all as soon as possible once housing has been made available and those hoping to move on to other European countries have left. This of course depends on the number of people arriving slowing, which is does not look set to do. There was little recognition of the particular needs of women and girls in camps, particularly with regards to safety, as the majority of lone refugees (ie not travelling with families) are male. Needless to say that most lone females are not seen in camps as so many have been trafficked.
Discussions with other ENOMW members throughout the weekend resulted in useful reinforcement of the work we are doing in Xenia, and a desire to clarify our position as a feminist organisation that is committed to combatting not only sexism experienced by our participants but also overlapping layers of xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, afrophobia and homophobia. The ENOMW meetings in Athens thrived on mutual empowerment and respect in the face of inevitable conflicting views and experiences – this is an environment we echo in the way that we organise Xenia, with an open-hearted desire to connect and understand rather than judge or criticise.
We have committed to being part of ENOMW so that the support migrant women receive across Europe is welcoming, realistic and interconnected. It may be a big step for a small organisation, but we hope that by walking hand in hand with others we will create a web of open arms which no women in need can fall through.