Women in Ritsona refugee camp find support at the Female Friendly Space

Siba, a civil engineering student with dreams of helping to rebuild her home country Syria, takes a break from activities in the Female Friendly Space at Ritsona refugee camp in Greece. (Arif Nurhakim / Lighthouse Relief)

Siba, a civil engineering student with dreams of helping to rebuild her home country Syria, takes a break from activities in the Female Friendly Space at Ritsona refugee camp in Greece. (Arif Nurhakim / Lighthouse Relief)

Siba has always been rather headstrong. Even when the bombings started in her native Syria, the student knew what she wanted to be in life. “I’m good at math, so I am going to become a civil engineer,” she says. “I want to rebuild my country.”

With the same adamant attitude, she decided that it would take a lot before she would ever leave. But a lot came earlier than expected: A bombing at her university killed many of her classmates. Siba, who was in her second year of studies, had not been there only because she had gone to see a doctor that day.

With that, she cut her university education short and decided to leave, finally agreeing with her mother, who had been urging her to flee for months. So in spring, she and her family headed to Greece, arriving in Ritsona refugee camp. Many things were difficult -- the journey, the wait for registration -- but what made it worse was having to go through it without her friends.

Siba managed to have a little solace in the Female Friendly Space, where she found not only new friends but also resources for women.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women with babies below 24 months old can access additional nutritional support to add to their camp diet at the FFS. (Shafeeqah Ahmad / Lighthouse Relief)

Pregnant and breastfeeding women with babies below 24 months old can access additional nutritional support to add to their camp diet at the FFS. (Shafeeqah Ahmad / Lighthouse Relief)

What exactly is the FFS? Elsewhere, it can have other names, but the idea is the same: to create a place where women and girls feel safe, emotionally and physically, and get the support they need.

Refugee women feel they are more vulnerable as they are foreigners in another country, and they must often take on new roles which they may not normally in their home countries. This is the same for men and boys, which can cause roles to shift and sometimes reverse. During and after exposure to conflict and violence, they may experience an increased sense of fear of further violence, abuse and sexual assault. Safe spaces address these concerns through sensitive programming which can be adapted based on needs and by incorporating gender-based issues in all activities.

The Lighthouse Relief FFS offers a secure, relaxed and private atmosphere for leisure activities for women and girls aged 12 and above. A tall wooden fence surrounds the space, providing a quiet, private sanctuary just for them. The women can remove their hijabs and layers of clothing in the hot Greek summer, breastfeed their little ones in a cool, air-conditioned space where they can access further support for breastfeeding from trained providers, and relax and socialise with other women from the community.

Staff and volunteers from Lighthouse Relief are always on hand to ensure the smooth running of the space. (Shafeeqah Ahmad / Lighthouse Relief)

Staff and volunteers from Lighthouse Relief are always on hand to ensure the smooth running of the space. (Shafeeqah Ahmad / Lighthouse Relief)

“These women have lost everything, not only their houses, but also their friends and family members,” FFS supervisor Soraya says. “The FFS is a space where they can rebuild their social connections, seek support among their peers and volunteers, and feel safe and free from the distress of being displaced.

“Setting up an FFS in a displacement context is also strategy to promote protection and female empowerment, and assist in identifying vulnerable cases and mitigate the risk of gender-based violence.”

The FFS acts as a platform and space where women can access a range of services designed to support them as they go through the process of seeking asylum in Greece a foreign land.

The FFS offers an air-conditioned Mum and Baby Area where women can breastfeed their little ones in a cool and calm environment. (Shafeeqah Ahmad / Lighthouse Relief)

The FFS offers an air-conditioned Mum and Baby Area where women can breastfeed their little ones in a cool and calm environment. (Shafeeqah Ahmad / Lighthouse Relief)

Under the Infant and Young Child Feeding programme, pregnant and breastfeeding women with infants under 24 months old receive extra nutrients and protein-rich food every day. Women experiencing trouble breastfeeding can receive support through trained breastfeeding specialists. There is also a Mum-and-Baby Area which is air-conditioned, so that women can breastfeed there and those who are pregnant can relax.

In the FFS, there are also activities like language lessons, arts and crafts and movie nights. Women and girls’ health workshops run through the Information, Communication and Education project as part of the sexual and reproductive health programme.

Women can use a range of services at the FFS, including an area designated for breastfeeding. (Shafeeqah Ahmad / Lighthouse Relief)

Women can use a range of services at the FFS, including an area designated for breastfeeding. (Shafeeqah Ahmad / Lighthouse Relief)

While they may sound simple, the interaction between staff and residents during these activities has a very important function. It enables trained staff to engage with the female camp residents and identify those who may be at risk or in need of additional support. Then, they can refer them to organisations that can support them and address the matter.

The Sexual and Reproductive Health Clinic, another project, is positioned behind the FFS and removed from the main camp area. This enables women to access it easily without fear of stigma. Male residents will also be able to use its services.

“All the needs and small difficulties that we have in life can be overwhelming for these women in Ritsona Refugee Camp,” Soraya says, “but in the FFS, they can enhance their coping strategies.”

For Siba, at least, who still misses her friendship circle back home, it has helped her connect to a new support structure. “I like to come,” she says, “because I know I have friends here.”

Despite the difficulties of living in a refugee camp, Siba continues to plan and dream about how she can achieve her goal of becoming a civil engineer. (Arif Nurhakim / Lighthouse Relief)

Despite the difficulties of living in a refugee camp, Siba continues to plan and dream about how she can achieve her goal of becoming a civil engineer. (Arif Nurhakim / Lighthouse Relief)