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Migrant Women Help New Generation of Female Refugee Leaders in Athens

The Melissa Network in Athens brings together leaders of the established migrant community in Greece with new arrivals to collaborate on integration. Melissa co-founder Deborah Carlos-Valencia explains the network’s philosophy and success.

Written by Joy al-Nemri Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Iman Al Bohtori (R), a 22-year old Damascus University graduate, participates in a sculpting workshop taught by Brunilda Mustafa, an Albanian poet, living in Greece at the 'Melissa' center for migrant women in Athens on March 10, 2017. AFP/LOUISA GOULIAMAKI

Melissa, the migrant women’s network in Athens, Greece, gets its name from the Greek word for honey bee. The women who founded the organization in 2014 meant it as a metaphor for the benefits they believe migrant women bring to their communities.

The network’s day center, located in a villa on the outskirts of Victoria Square in downtown Athens, opened in July 2015 amid a spike in refugee boats to Greece. The staff – many of them migrants themselves – work in collaboration with academic experts, artists, volunteers and other organizations to support the new arrivals.

Around 150 women and 40 children come daily to take part in Greek and English literacy programs and psycho-social support, among other activities and information and advocacy services. The building also serves as a space for migrant women’s associations to develop, organize and collaborate after hours.

We spoke to Deborah Carlos-Valencia, a co-founder of the Melissa Network who came to Greece from the Philippines in the 1980s, about the organization’s work and goals.

Refugees Deeply: What inspired you and the other co-founders to create the Melissa Network?

Deborah Carlos-Valencia: As migrant women living in Greece, we were always active in organizing and showing solidarity to one another, mostly within our [own] ethnic community, but there was a communication gap between us. We did not know each other well enough to work together toward finding common solutions to our common problems.

We needed a place where we could nurture relationships in a way that feels comfortable, a venue where migrant women actively participate and a space that is both safe and empowers us.

We believe these “empowering spaces” were crucial in developing our confidence to create a vibrant network of migrant women. A place where we share our stories and draw strength from others who understand our experiences. Migrant women’s stories of survival and struggle for justice are inspirational and humbling. These diverse experiences make our work at Melissa Network not only possible but also meaningful.

Refugees Deeply: What makes Melissa different from other organizations that serve migrant women?

Deborah Carlos-Valencia (Melissa Network)

Carlos-Valencia: First and foremost, that it brings together women from so many different ethnic groups – over 45 in fact – and relies on the long-term experience of these communities, making our voice louder. Our practice is constantly informed and shaped by this grassroots experience. This allows us to think and act creatively when facing major challenges.

Our response to the refugee influx is one example. We were the first to start planning an integration response when the borders closed. Melissa Network created Alef, a community-based integration pathway with the support of Mercy Corps and the Municipality of Athens, through which we receive more than a hundred women on a daily basis who commute from camps and shelters to our center. To help women participate, we also have a childcare program guided by teachers from Munting Nayon, the Filipino community daycare school.

Refugees Deeply: What have you learned from founding and managing a migrant women’s network?

Carlos-Valencia: We have learned that building and sustaining a network takes a lot of hard work and commitment but also gives courage, hope, joy and limitless options to migrant women and refugees. It enables them to find creative ways to improve their lives and situations in Greece. It creates opportunities for them to make positive contributions to the migrant communities and overall social cohesion in Greece. Building trust and working together has improved the quality and the quantity of work. It spreads the responsibilities of community and alliance-building by allowing migrant women and their organizations to contribute ideas, expertise and resources.

Refugees Deeply: What are the strengths and limitations of the organization?

Carlos-Valencia: The diversity of the women in our network strengthens us by broadening our perspective and understanding of migration and asylum. Another of our strengths is the participation of women leaders from long-term migrant communities who were involved in Melissa’s early days. We embrace collaborations with newly arrived refugee women and girls who are in leadership roles in their communities. This enlarges Melissa’s base of support, networks and connections, giving us strength in numbers. We can achieve more together.

[Regarding limitations], because of the Melissa Network’s varied and numerous activities, it can be difficult to monitor and evaluate them. Sometimes we are so absorbed by doing the actual work that we may not showcase it appropriately. Forming and managing Melissa can be a very time-consuming process that can take away time from working on organizational tasks.

Refugees Deeply: Why have you chosen to keep your operations small? What are the benefits and tradeoffs of doing so?

Carlos-Valencia: We actually have one of the highest numbers of program participants in Greece. Having said that, we do believe in keeping a scale that allows us to build bonds and sustain deep communication. So, start small.

Although a large network could bring the perspectives of more members and beneficiaries, it is important to lay a solid foundation, build and sustain bonds, and cultivate a sense of community belonging. Communication and management is easier, better quality results are produced and we can see women taking on active roles in supporting others. It also helps Melissa identify achievable goals and objectives which will help us share our experience for possible replication in another location in Greece or abroad.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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