Wonderful Women - Lizzie Merson
"I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own."—Audre Lorde
At the beginning of my time on Samos, a very wise volunteer (who was sadly just about to leave) advised me to try to get involved with the projects about which I felt most passionate, to first give everything a go, but then to choose areas of particular focus. I was lucky enough to go to a university where open, frank discussions about issues surrounding gender, race and sexuality were the norm. Studying English Lit, I often found myself drawn towards texts which dealt with these themes and their interrelation, with ideas surrounding language as a tool of self-expression, and so of self-definition and self-empowerment. I guess it makes sense that three weeks later I was beginning to feel like I lived in the women’s basement…
One of the things that most appealed to me about Samos Volunteers when I was researching ways of helping refugees on Greek islands was the organisation’s recognition of the need for services and spaces specifically for women. There is both a ‘Basic’ and a ‘Beginner’ English class for the women living in the camp, as well as the provision of activities just for women and their children in the basement each afternoon. Not to mention the wonderful Women’s Saturdays, where for the majority of the day women take over Alpha and totally transform it (I’m smiling just at the thought of it; it’s difficult to convey exactly why seeing women dancing in – and not just hurrying through - a space usually filled with men provokes such an overwhelming sense of joy and excitement, of freedom and togetherness, but it does; you walk in and you feel it).
It happened to be the case that two weeks following my arrival on the island, the current teacher for the Women’s and Advanced English classes was leaving. In a (rather spur-of-the-moment) ‘seize-the-moment’ moment I thought ‘hey, English is kinda meant to be my thing - I’ll volunteer to take on one of those classes!’ …and agreed to take on the best part of all three, even though I was slightly terrified at the thought.
It could be fair to say I learnt more about language and gender issues in the following 5 weeks than in three years of uni. Teaching those classes (the advanced class in conjunction with another volunteer – kudos to Robert for tackling the advanced grammar whilst I read poems and fairy tales), I was prepared to at times be feeling incompetent and nervous, to sometimes give rambling, desperate explanations which did more to complicate than to simplify. I was prepared to struggle with topics like ‘Family’, ‘My House’ and ‘Hobbies’ with people who had been forced to flee from all those things that give stability and enjoyment to life, hoping to find safety in Europe, only to be treated as if they aren’t human and subject to a whole new host of abuses. No, I’m not sure I was prepared for that one, but I thought a lot about it, at least…
What I was not prepared for was how much my students would teach me, especially in my women’s classes. I was not prepared for the humbling nature of their kindness and goodness, their overflowing shining-from-the-heart smiles, their quiet yet unquestionable strength, their cheekiness… but most of all their ability to laugh – about things in the camp, at each other’s silly mistakes, and (of course) at me(although I must admit I am skilled in neither illustration nor acting and did probably look ridiculous about 90% of the time when trying to explain or translate something). Nelly’s (my wonderful co-teacher) drawing of ‘Ali from Somalia’ wearing waist-high wide-leg trousers which, as one of my students (dissolving into giggles) pointed out, looked rather like my own, only added to the hilarity. Just like pain – the look of sorrow when one woman stood up and said ‘I do so miss my Afghanistan’, the collective ‘tut’ and shaking heads which followed – laughter was something none of us needed to translate. I was reminded of how when it comes to the extremes of emotion, words not only often fail us, but aren’t needed. It might have taken about two lessons to explain how the English use ‘quarter to’ and ‘half past’ when telling the time, but me turning around after handing out digestive biscuits, intending to direct each student to break their biscuits into ‘halves’ and ‘quarters’ only to find desks full of crumbs, needed no translation – the room was instantly bright with laughter and teasing, and those moments still light up my memories of Samos. It was in moments like those that I felt we were briefly in a whole different context; the horrors of the camp were far away up the hill, the staring faces and tensions in the town were nowhere to be found here – we were just a room of women, laughing together.