Kylie Palzer Assists Women Refugees in Greece
Contributed by: Aarti Bhat
Kylie at Malakasa, a refugee center north of Athens
Amidst the current worldwide refugee crisis, GEN had the privilege of interviewing Kylie Palzer, a woman who recently went to Greece to volunteer at a refugee camp there. Kylie has an MPA, Non Profit Management and International Development from University of Washington. While at the refugee camp, she focused on women’s health issues.
GEN: So, how did you get involved with the refugee camp in Greece?
Kylie: Well, a girl I went to graduate school with asked me if I wanted to donate towards refugee funds in Greece. And suddenly, it dawned on me that there are lots of organizations and Facebook groups which coordinate people to volunteer with NGOs there. I’ve always liked to go with the flow and see where life takes me, and so pretty soon I found myself flying into Athens without a solid plan of what I was going to do once I got there. I met a man at the hostel I was staying at who told me about Malakasa, a refugee center north of Athens, and so I ended up going there.
GEN: Wow! What was your reaction upon coming into the camp for the first time?
Kylie: So Malakasa is on an active military base, and the military are controlling who comes in and out. And, you know, the refugees sleep in tents outside and do not get a whole lot of fresh food. The EU has been getting a lot stricter about border control, so once many of the refugees got into Greece, they were stuck and unable to leave elsewhere, even if they were trying to reach family elsewhere in Europe. So I think all of those things were pretty striking initially.
GEN: How did you begin getting involved with volunteering there?
Kylie: When I first got to camp, I talked with some of the Greek volunteers to get a sense of the needs and conditions of the people living there, and they talked a lot about women’s issues at camp, including lack of access to health care when it came to pregnancies and general reproductive health. I thought I’d volunteer with an organization, but I ended up deciding to go independently and help women find access to health care. I was introduced to a young women at the camp named Karishma, and she was one of the few women who spoke English. Karishma was a certified midwife in Afghanistan, so she had a lot of knowledge about reproductive health, and she wanted to be helpful within the camp. We wanted to hold a safe space for women to meet and talk about health care issues, so we started putting up signs in Farsi to inform women about the meet-ups. Karishma would help translate these, and really helped facilitate a lot of important conversations. It was just such an important and empowering thing, for these women to have a friendly space in camp where they could get together, feed their children, just relax and talk. We were also able to get these women better access to health care and physician attention, which was fantastic. These women were so generous and it is important for their needs to be valued.
GEN: Karishma sounds like an amazing individual, and it sounds like the collective emphasis on women’s needs was really beneficial to all of the women at the camp! Coming back from Greece, how would you summarize your experiences and what you learned there?
Kylie: Well, I really meant it when I said all of the people I met at camp were so generous and kind towards me. They would invite me to share lunch with them in their tents, even when nutritious food was often hard to come by. Many of the people at camp became friends I will never forget—like Karishma, who I am still in touch with. I think there is a lot of fear surrounding the refugee situation. But, I think it is important to realize, these people are basically stuck here, and their life is in limbo every day. There is uncertainty towards whether they will be deported or be able to leave camp at all. A lot of them are trying to get to family in other parts of Europe, but because movement is so restricted for them, they are unable to join their family. Every day, they would ask me if the borders are opening. I think people also discount the mental health aspect of these refugees’ experiences. There is a huge epidemic in these camps, because these people, who have lives, families, hopes, and dreams, just don’t know when their lives will begin again. Many of them who are working to make some money for their families are being exploited, working physically intensive jobs for barely any pay. And trafficking is also a huge issue. It’s a really tough situation, and the refugee crisis is not going away. Too many people are languishing without quality of life.
GEN: How do we move forward from here?
Kylie: In my opinion, the best way to make this situation better is to encourage people to connect on a human level with these displaced persons. I think having community activities and interactions between the local Greek community and the people at camp would be beneficial. Even just something like getting together and playing soccer. People need to recognize these refugees as people, just like you and me, who just want their homes and lives back.
GEN: Thank you so much for your time, and for the work you are doing to raise awareness for refugees and women’s issues within these camps.
An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.
Women and girls make up around 50 per cent of any refugee, internally displaced or stateless population, and those who are unaccompanied, pregnant, heads of households, disabled or elderly are especially vulnerable.
United Nations Refugee Agency: http://www.unhcr.org/en-us