"Three years ago, as many European borders closed to people fleeing violence in the Middle East, a community centre in the heart of Athens opened its doors, welcoming stranded refugees and migrants.
Run by women who came to Greece as migrants themselves, the Melissa Network is a community centre empowering uprooted women and girls to rebuild their lives. When it first opened in 2015, the centre sought to connect female migrant associations who were working separately but shared similar challenges.
However, the community quickly realized female refugees needed support.
“People who were already the most powerless in the community, were the most proactive in supporting the refugees,” says Nadina Christopoulou, director and co-founder of Melissa Network.
Once word got out, the Melissa Centre started receiving hundreds of refugee and migrant women and their children, offering language training, computer and business skills, health and legal services, a daycare, and psychosocial support.
After being separated from her family and feeling lost in Athens, Farahnaz, a refugee from Afghanistan, came to the Melissa Centre seeking support. In return, she found a family.
“Whenever I have any problems, I come to Melissa and share,” says Farahnaz. “Melissa is my home, the people there are my family. Melissa is like a mother to me – she took me by the hand and showed me to walk again.”
Elevated risk of gender-based violence
Uprooted women and girls may flee sexual and physical violence in their home countries. When borders close, they are exposed to even more risks, such as harassment or sexual violence, due to the stress of waiting for their asylum claim or potential dependence on smugglers to aide their journey.
Few organisations have the resources to address gender-based violence (GBV) that can affect refugees in Greece. The Melissa Network, with members from over 40 countries, developed a holistic programme in 2016 to not-only help refugees integrate into the community, but also to provide GBV prevention and protection services, such as counselling and case management.
“A significant number of women who have come through the centre’s doors have reported being affected by violence, including GBV,” says Galit Wolfensohn, chief of child protection, UNICEF Greece.
UNICEF is partnering with the Melissa Network to scale-up its GBV services, including through hiring additional social workers and interpreters, delivering training on GBV prevention and case management, and strengthening referral mechanisms for survivors.
While attending the programme, many of women learn for the first time that GBV is a violation of their human rights, and that their experience is not uncommon.
“At first, it’s often difficult for women to gather the courage to talk about their experience,” says Christopoulou. “But, over time they build trust and confidence and start sharing their stories. Then we work to follow them through the healing process.”
Through individual counselling, group therapy, art and yoga, among others, the centre works to arm women with the knowledge and tools they need to support themselves, as well as identify and support other women who may be experiencing violence.
“Melissa Network is trying to firefight every day,” says Wolfensohn. “They are leading with their hearts in everything they do. UNICEF is supporting their efforts with additional resources so that they can deliver to the scale they need.”
Expanding services based on participant needs
Since the beginning, the Melissa Network has been developing programmes based on the needs of the community and linking women to municipal services like housing and education. “While many refugee and migrant relief efforts are often focused on the short-term needs, the centre is here for the long-term, providing a foundation for women and girls in the community,” says Christopoulou.
“The centre is run as a place of their own and gives refugee and migrant women a space to step forward and lead, building on their strength and unleashing their power.”
To meet the needs of women, girls and children uprooted, UNICEF is mobilizing partners, national authorities and other stakeholders to increase accessibility of services for survivors of GBV by disseminating information about existing services, ensuring interpreters are available, training frontline workers on identification and referral, strengthening referral pathways, and establishing a minimum package of multi-disciplinary services, including female-friendly spaces.
Last year, UNICEF reached 3.6 million women and girls in humanitarian situations across 53 countries with these services.
Kimberly Chriscaden works in advocacy and communications for UNICEF’s Gender team