In 2018, British writer and film-maker Chloe Ruthven traveled to the Moria Refugee Camp and then to Athens, where she taught English to refugees. While in Athens, she worked with a group of Afghan and Arabic teens who called themselves “the Plaza Girls.” Ruthven writes, “for six weeks I worked at City Plaza Refugee Accommodation, a squat housing 400 refugees in Athens. This is a diary I kept of a magazine project I facilitated with a group of teenage refugee girls.” We’re pleased to republish it as an addendum to Siddhartha Joag’s essay, “Refugee Zines” (PoL #14), and as a document of the lived, embodied experience of the Polity of Literature.
The classrooms are at the top of the Hotel on the seventh floor. Normally only residents can go above the first floor, but since I will be part of the teaching team I am allowed.
It is quite a climb, and the wide staircase forms the central pillar to the Hotel with corridors coming off it either side. It is pretty dingy, with yellowing walls and stained blue carpets. Walls have been graffitied with markers, and there are holes and plaster coming off. It was clearly a hotel done on the cheap, and I think about the heiress-owner licking her lips at a plan to make quick bucks pre-2008. She no doubt was part of the ancien regime that creamed off the poor along with that government – bringing Greece to its knees. A tiny bit of karmic justice then, Plaza Hotel.
We reach the top floor. Leigh, a volunteer, is very happy for me to join her class and we joke about my being an Ofsted inspector. With a lovely soft Irish accent, she’s from County Clare. She went over to the Calais Jungle for a few weeks, and felt that the most useful thing she could do was a TEFL course. She now has the skills to teach English.
There are two girls in the class, a fourteen-year-old and sixteen-year-old. They are confident, cheeky and both from Afghanistan. Aryan, the fourteen-year-old, has very good English and is obviously keen to learn. They are both bright eyed and hungry to engage with these two European women, and I too am bursting with questions but am mindful not to take over Leigh’s class. When Leigh leans over and whispers that she is completely exhausted, would I join in? – I start asking Aryan questions. She is ready, equipped with her notebook and pen.
From Turkey, they then had to walk for thirty hours to the Greek border. A group of them, including a heavily pregnant woman. Thirty hours, can you imagine? When they got there, they were handcuffed by Greek police and put into a cell for two nights. When they were released they were sent back to Turkey. The second time they tried to get over, it was only an 8-hour walk and this time they were successful. When they got to Athens, they slept in parks.
In a tent? How did you sleep? I ask.
No, just in the open. So many families were sleeping like this. A few months ago. I mentally calculate that that would have been November. Not freezing at least. She tells me that her family want to get to the UK, where they have a relative. The relative flew all the way down and gave them a key for his apartment. Can you imagine? They’ve tried twice to go to the airport with false papers, but each time are sent back.
And what if they need to move to another country? Christ, I’m thinking. There’s no way they will get out. There is lockdown. The borders are closed. They are totally stuck. But unlike others sleeping in tents in Slovakia or spilling over in camps in Lesbos, these guys have a room. How to say this?
After the class she invites me to her room to meet her parents. She talks to her mother at the door and explains something. They welcome me in and I am invited to sit on one of the twin beds. There is an air of gloom, and I feel like I am intruding, but the mother goes about making me tea and offering me dates. The father is young and looks western in his attire and haircut. I suspect they are not very religious.
With Aryan taking on the role of translator, it becomes clear that they have little knowledge of current policy or where the Greek government or European governments stand in relation to their being able to leave. I tell him that things are pretty tough, and all the European borders are closed.
At this point he hangs his head, and I realise I am only making things worse.
I look around the room. Three thin mattresses on the floor and two twin beds. They have their own bathroom. Compared to the images coming from Lesbos, this is the height of luxury. Compared to how I and my sons will live, in anything other than a brief holiday, it is extremely squashed. But clearly it is the uncertainty of the situation that is depressing him so much.
It’s my first class. Five girls ranging from 14 to 21, from Afghanistan. I arrive late to the room, as the meeting I am attending has overrun, and they sit quietly and attentively around the classroom table.
How can I describe the classroom? The seventh floor of the hotel – overlooking the whole of Athens – has two makeshift classrooms, and a “women’s space” with sofas and carpets. The classrooms are equipped with tables and chairs and white boards – though all heavily worn and torn. I feel honoured to be here, with such eager students waiting for their class. In a strange way in this small classroom, I feel we are all in it together.
This meeting place between Europe and Asia. Both defiant of the governing structures. Both disobedient when it comes to how we are supposed to behave as citizens according to the rules. Their refusal to live in war and under the Taliban (now allied with ISIS after the US withdrawal) and our refusal to abide by our Government’s policies to keep them out. Around this makeshift scrofula classroom in an abandoned hotel the two continents meet away from the controlling gaze of our respective leaders.
We go round the group and introduce ourselves. Shafigheh, from Aghanistan but deported from Iran where she ran away from the bombing in Kabul to work as an illegal tailor. She is the eldest, 21, in skinny black jeans and a glittery top. Her passion is reading and fashion, and she has designed several garments of her own, which she shows me on her phone. Sitting next to her is her sister Adele, 16, with long hair down to her waist. Her passion is Mathematics. Ely, another sister, is 15 and also has loose hair and an elegant piercing in the dimple in her chin. She loves hip-hop. Mahmonir, 16, wears a loose headscarf and her passion is dancing, and finally Aryan who is the self-designated translator.
Aryan says her ambition is to see all the sights of the world and “rights.” I ask her what she means by “rights.” Women’s Rights! she says. They all then pipe up and say they are passionate about Women’s Rights. They all hate the Taliban they say in unison and believe that women should be free. I ask them how their freedoms have been curtailed, and maybe to write this up as points to consider. The clothes we wear, our education and the traditions around marriage, Aryan explains.
I suggest that I help them do their own zine. In this zine they can be journalists and tell their stories, as well as interview other people. I tell them that Europeans need to learn from them, and this is a good way for us to hear what they have been through. I suggest that we start with discussions around topics they feel are important. I suggest that topics can be discussed in Farsi when necessary, but that they must all be brave and say as much in English as possible. They are excited to do the zine, and we agree to meet daily for an hour in this classroom.
The girls arrive eagerly, with notebooks for the second session. Three others join; a fourth sister to Ely, Shafigheh and Adele called Karime. Two other girls from Iraq come. I gather they are Kurdish Iraqi. Their mothers are also present. Leigh stays with me and I start to recap the previous day’s magazine brainstorm.
Adele kicks off. I ask her to tell me the subjects that we brainstormed the day before. She’s the baby of the family I learn.
Shopping, Dancing, Fashion…
God! Women’s Rights! Shouts out Aryan.
One of the Kurdish mothers jumps up. Women’s Rights! She shouts in broken English. She jumps up and rips off her headscarf and punches the air with her fist. The room collapses into laughter. We are off to a good start.
Leigh has basic Farsi and a few words in Arabic. The Afghans and Iraqis speak in hand gestures and what I imagine to be a pigeon amalgamation of the two.
I write the points up on the board:
1) What was life like in your country?
2) Why did you have to leave?
3) Describe your journey
4) What are your dreams and expectations now you are in Europe?
So now discuss in pairs, talk it through for ten minutes and then we can go round the room and hear your stories.
I’m determined to keep some semblance of order, and make sure they are on task. There is much animated conversation between the groups and some scribbling in notebooks. After a while I bring attention back to the front of the class.
The air-punching woman starts with the help of her daughter. I gather through the excitement that they crossed into Turkey in the height of bombing in Iraq, fled by boat to Greece and the dinghy nearly sank. The daughter had documented her journey with pictures of Turkish police and borders, the burns on her leg she was subjected to and the group of women and children they “walked” with. The mother keeps gesturing to her ring finger with anger, and I gather that ISIS were making women of nine get married.
The focus moves to the Afghan sisters. They too have documented their travels with phone pictures. They were stuck in Moria camp on Lesbos for two weeks, where the conditions were so appalling and unsafe for women that they moved to the central square in Mytiline where they slept rough for a few weeks in protest. They went on a hunger strike, and were arrested. Finally they got stamps to come to Athens, and slept rough before finally getting a room in Plaza.
I join the Qias sisters for dinner in the dining area and sit with Shafigheh the eldest. Equipped with her phone and Google Translate she continues to talk about what she has been through, and more movingly her confusion about Europe.
I am very confused by Europe, she types. I don’t know what is right and what is wrong here. I nod, and type back, I think Europe is also confused. Europe is split between wanting to help and wanting refugees to leave.
I came without a gun, she types. But they came to my country with arms. As I read the English translations coming up on her small screen I have to hold back tears.
The shame of it all. The injustices are so blatant, put like that. How can we even begin to justify our actions when we are being watched and seen like this? When will we shed this appearance of being civilised and representing decent values when we are subjecting our fellow human beings to such atrocities? The injustices are so blatant, put like that. How can we even begin to justify our actions when we are being watched and seen like this?
All of them are without papers. All of them are non-beings. This 21-year-old woman with such strength and honesty just wanting to continue doing the work she loves, is now totally stuck. Stripped of everything that the West requires to have citizen-human status.
This refugee crisis isn’t about them. It’s about us. The writing is on the wall. We are being confronted with the most difficult question that a civilisation can ask of itself; are we really what we believe ourselves to be? And sitting with this dignified and brave young woman I know that we have failed. Failed astronomically and once more every single one of us is culpable. To stay silent and see this unfold before us and not cry out is being part of a system that is very wrong. Evil? If stripping human beings of their humanity is a form of evil, then yes. But it’s more frightening than evil. Evil we can point fingers at and remove ourselves from.
Shafigheh is with her mother and younger sister Karime. They welcome me in, and soon I am sitting on the side of the bed with a jar of tea in my hand, the two sisters talking animatedly about the stories they have been thinking about, and their mother knitting on the bed beside me, occasionally barking something to one of her daughters. The room is warm and sunny, and they have a balcony. I feel incredibly comfortable sitting here with them.
Their English is much better when we are private like this, and everything they say to me I say back using the “correct” grammar. Like this, whatever else, they are getting the English classes they so want. Over the next couple of hours, I get a much clearer picture about what this family has been through.
When Shafigheh was a baby, the family fled to Iran as illegal immigrants, to get away from the Taliban who were making life unbearable in Helmand, where they lived. The family were originally from Tajikistan, but under the Soviet occupation they had fled to Helmand where many Tajiks settled.
In Iran, they lived among many Afghans in Tehran, always without papers but able to earn cheap wages. After the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Iran booted out all of the Afghan migrants saying their country was now “safe.”
They returned to Helmand only to be constantly bombed. The Taliban had not lost control as they were promised by Iran. Once more they fled, back to Iran where they settled for a few more years.
As illegals, they worked long hours and were treated as second-class citizens, but Shafigheh for one was able to work and save up for their future. It was around this time that she heard about Canada, and soon the whole family were set on this friendly place for refugees as their destination. As life became more unbearable in the Middle East they started to implement their plan.
Shafigheh was able to make some calls and soon had found a “smuggler” to take the family out of Iran into Turkey. The smuggler wanted $11,000 to take them all to safety, he said. Shafigheh, her mother and her bother came up with the sum which they had put aside.
Karime starts to get photographs ready on her phone to show me. A family of thirteen sitting on rocks, which is the wild terrain of arid mountains between Turkey and Iran. All the women are in black chadors down to their ankles, and their trainers poke out from underneath. We go over the sisters in the photo. Ely, Adele, Kirima, Shafigheh…they are unrecognisable looking like what my mum used to call “black crows.”
On the border between the two countries they slept rough for a few nights, waiting for some kind of signal. Finally they walk towards the border, where they are dropped into a kind of stone mountain goats’ hut. There they find hundreds of migrants, all huddled and squatting in the middle of nowhere, without toilets or running water, waiting for the next instruction from their smuggler-guides. I ask whether they were all from Iran, and Afghans.
No, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Iraqis – from everywhere. Can you believe it? Karime shows me photographs of the place.
Finally they are put onto a bus that is to drive all the way to Istanbul. Again, no stops and no food or toilet breaks they say. Karime shows me film footage of the journey. From Istanbul they go to Izmir that is on the coast not far from Lesbos.
Here, they need to find a Turkey/Greece smuggler. Another phone call from Shafigheh, who negotiates a deal for $21,000. What! I cry. Yes, this is the cost. All of our money.
The trip to Lesbos was forty-five minutes and there they were met by police and officials. They were given blankets and food and were all put into a huge tent for the night. The next day they were taken to Moria camp, where they lasted two weeks before leaving in protest and setting up in the main square, about which Shafigheh had told me two nights ago.
Karime in particular has documented everything. She shows me the photographs of them letting their hair loose when they arrive in Istanbul. It was a moment of liberation. Chadors to plaits and lipstick. I ask whether their father and brother’s minded. No, they believe in our freedom!
I ask Shafigheh about Canada. What happens if they can’t get there?
This is not an option, she says. I leave them as the sun is setting and their room has turned a pinky-orange.
Full class. From Afghanistan I have all the Qias sisters, Karime, Adele, little Ely and Shafigheh, Aryan and Mahmonir. From Iraq two Kurds, Saja and Narjes and from Syria, Arina. Nine in total.
They are all in very good spirits and eager to get writing and talking about their experiences. Saja has written several pages in Arabic about her journey here, and we’re looking for a translator. We start the class in the dining room before moving upstairs to the classroom.
Teacher – look at this question. Is this the right question?
In her perfect English, fourteen-year-old Aryan has written Why did you leave your country? Why will you not go back to your country?
Very good. Now think of how you can push this? If you are asking Adele, a girl and the same age as you, can you think of questions that might come out of the conversations that you have together?
She thinks for a couple of seconds. What did you think of Europe before you came? What do you think of Europe now you are here?
I take out my camera and show it to them. If we want we can use this to record your stories, I say. The girls from Afghanistan get very excited and start to make jokes about their hair and make-up. I joke back saying yes, they can look beautiful, but they have to focus also on being intelligent. We are feminists, and what comes out of your mouth is much more important than your image. They all agree.
I put the camera away, and tell them we are going to practice interviewing each other, but in a week’s time we can record the sessions if they would like to. I write Aryan’s questions on the board and put two chairs at the front of the class. Aryan in one, and Karime in the other. The rest of us are in a circle, looking on.
We agree that Aryan will ask the questions in English. Karime will answer in English as best as she can, but is allowed to talk in Farsi after that. Aryan will then retranslate into English, Mahmonir into Turkish, Narjes into Arabic and like that the whole class gets the story. We are replacing the UN I say.
Aryan transcends herself as the journalist. Equipped with notebook, she starts the interview. Karime clearly has a lot to say about her journey, and is coming back hard and strong. Adele sitting next to me, interjects from time to time. Translations into Kurdish and Arabic are happening on the sides and everyone is totally fired up by hearing Karime’s story and comparing it with their own.
I just feel so happy and privileged to be among these young women, and content that I have managed for this moment in this room to facilitate this dialogue.
Aryan moves on to the questions about Europe. She translates into English.
Karime says that she heard many things about Europe when she was in Iran. She heard that they treat people very well, and especially the women. She heard that in Europe women don’t have to marry young and they can get jobs and be independent. But she says that when they came here everything was different. The way she was treated by the police in Greece and Turkey was much worse than in her country. She says that in all the time in her country, they had never had fascists, or people who were racists towards them. This is very shocking for her. To find these fascist people here.
As she is translating into English, simultaneous translations are happening in Kurdish and Arabic and the room is getting very animated. I ask whether others agree with Karime. Arms are waving and everyone is talking over one another. I suspect that is a yes, and they all have much more to say.
So, to be clear Aryan, you are telling me that you feel as much in a prison here as you did in Afghanistan under the Taliban?
Yes, this is what I want to say.
But here you can wear the clothes you want, and we just spent the afternoon in a park whereby you could ride freely on our bicycles. Surely you couldn’t do that under the Taliban?
Chloe, these are not my clothes. These clothes were left here. All of us are wearing old things that we are given because we have nothing with us. This jumper, you see, it has holes and things.
Is this the same for all of you? None of you are wearing clothes that you chose? They all affirm that this is the case.
And what about other freedoms?
Chloe, we are in a prison here. We have been stripped of everything. We have no papers. No money. We cannot travel as we wish. We cannot be reunited with our parents and brothers and sisters. We are in a prison. And this is not what the UN promised. They are not allowed to lock us up like this.
I pull up the 1951 Convention of Human rights on my laptop for us all to look at.
A refugee, according to the Convention, is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
The Convention is both a status and rights-based instrument and is under-pinned by a number of fundamental principles, most notably non-discrimination, non-penalization and non-refoulement. Convention provisions, for example, are to be applied without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin. Developments in international human rights law also reinforce the principle that the Convention be applied without discrimination as to sex, age, disability, sexuality, or other prohibited grounds of discrimination. The Convention further stipulates that, subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay. This recognizes that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules. Prohibited penalties might include being charged with immigration or criminal offences relating to the seeking of asylum, or being arbitrarily detained purely on the basis of seeking asylum. Importantly, the Convention contains various safeguards against the expulsion of refugees. The principle of non-refoulement is so fundamental that no reservations or derogations may be made to it. It provides that no one shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee against his or her will, in any manner whatsoever, to a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom.
I meet with Aryan to translate the interviews they have conducted. We set up in the large hotel dining room with laptop, camera and headphones, and soon the other girls join us with notebooks and phones equipped with google translate. My job is to type up the copy into a document. Aryan sits next to me equipped with headphones, and transcribes the interviews from tape. She looks quite the part, taking notes in farsi and then reading back out to me in near perfect English. We make an impressive production team.
It is this process that is so valuable. By hearing back how they have answered one another’s questions, they start to go deeper into it. Rethinking over their answers, reflecting on whether a correct phrase was used, a point for clarification. If Aryan does’nt understand something she turns to ask:
You got the boat from where exactly? How long did you stay in the mountains? Mountains or forest? Were all family arrested?
As Aryan and I transcribe their words, the two Arabic speaking girls, Narjes and Arina are writing up their hopes for their futures. The Qias sisters join in and they seem to have found a trans-Farsi/Arabic vocabulary involving lots of laughter and extravagant facial expressions. I gather that they are talking about marriage and boys. None of them are considering marriage as an option for their futures; marriage is synonymous with imprisonment.
Shafigheh is the most vocal.
No man. No marriage. I want to have my own business. My fashion brand! She looks at a baby in a woman’s arms and scrunches up her face.
No babies, she says.
So none of you want to get married? I ask.
No. We are independent girls.
I turn to Ely, 17, who I suspect has the most radical views out of her sisters. 5’4”, short hair that she cut herself on arrival to Greece, silver stud under her bottom lip, black hood up, skinny black jeans and combat sneakers; she has already asked me not to call her a girl. She identifies with. I’m not girl, she says. I ask her about marriage.
I want many boys. Different every week, she says.
The others break out in screaming laughter. She then scrolls through her phone and shows me a photograph. It is of a graffitied wall. Fuck Boys is spray-painted onto a white wall.
Oh, so you like graffiti, I ask.
Street Culture. Hip Hop?
She lights up. Skateboarding. Parkour!
This is her protest, I think. She’s found the expressions coming from the streets of western cities; Los Angeles, New York, Paris, London. I’m intrigued too by her refusal to gender identify. I’d assumed that the gender identity politics coming out of the new wave of feminism in the West was coming out of social media and disengagement with wider global politics. But hearing this young woman risking her life to escape the reemergence of the Taliban’s oppression in Afghanistan, and state her refusal to be gender-identified under a regime that has reduced women to slavery, brings another dimension to the table.
I’ve worked for years in London with kids seeking asylum from Afghanistan and oppressive regimes in the Middle East, and I have never come across an Ely or the likes of her sisters. There is something very unusual about this family. The Qias family. Four Sisters, four brothers and their aging mother. Clearly the brothers too must be impressive to support their sisters embracing liberation so totally.
I ask the Plaza Girls group – as they have named themselves – to compose new questions to ask one another, this time focussing on their futures and not their pasts. Shefikeh leads the discussion.
They have come up with a series of questions which I write up on the board in English, mindful that this is officially their English class.
1) Do you want the same life as your mother?
2) Do you want a different life to your mother, and why?
3) What dreams are you forming for the future?
4) Do you want to get married or be single?
5) How will you feel if you achieve your dreams?
Aryan takes the interviewer’s chair and Shafigheh sits opposite.
Do you want the same life as your mother? Aryan asks, equipped with notebook and pencil in front of the class.
No. I want a different life to my mother. Like the others say, she got married young. And then whatever my father says, she obeys him. Nothing came from her hand. She was not allowed to make any decisions. When her husband said I want this many children, she said okay. Everything he demanded, she said yes, so she didn’t have a meaningful life with good experiences. My mother always managed the house and this she did well. Her job was to care and bring up the children.
I want a different life, because my mother always obeyed my father. Nothing she did was from her hands. And now because of all these things, because she has been excluded, she is not part of society.
When my mother talks with other people, with women even, she feels shy. She has no voice.
I am getting my education and I will be able to decide what I want for my future. My mother can help me to decide, she can guide me, but it will be my decision. I believe in freedom and right now I have to decide about my life. I have been given this permission.
The girls start cheering around the room. No husbands! No husbands. As Aryan translates for me, her eyes are bright and excited.
Parmila, a recent arrival who is stuck here without her parents who are in Belgium, wants to be interviewed.
Do you want the same life as your mother?
No. Not at all. My mother married at 16 and got pregnant straight away. I do not want this for my life. I want to continue my lessons, and my mother was not able to do this. I want a completely different life.
To get married and to continue studying is very difficult. Basically it makes big problems! It is a big problem as a woman has to start a family and continue studies.
When I have achieved my dreams, finish my studies, then I will get married. Until then I want to be single. First of all I will complete school and go to university. After that I want to be a lawyer.
More whooping. Now Mahmonir sits in the chair.
I have many dreams. I want to continue my lessons and go to university. I want to be a doctor. My mother didn’t complete her education. She only went to 6th class. She married at 15 and gave birth to me at 16. I am now 16! I don’t even have a boyfriend. I don’t even want one!
Aryan doesn’t do an interview, but she has expressed her views from the start. It was Aryan who on that first day we met, when other girls were listing shopping and dancing as their passions, who piped up with Rights! Women’s Rights!
Another conversation has them comparing Asian and European styles of parenting. Shafigheh describes the onus on Asian mothers.
European mothers don’t bring up their children as thoroughly. They don’t do things in such detail as Asian mothers. Asian mothers are very serious about bringing up their girls, because these girls in turn will be bringing up their daughters. Girls need to be trained up as future mothers and wives and the experience needs to be good.
However, there are negative points about Asian mothers. They take everything so seriously and they are very strict. You are not allowed to go outside. You are not allowed to wear these things. You are not allowed to talk with boys. These are the bad points about Asian child rearing. All in all, they can suffocate you and take away your life.
Asian women, if they are not careful they are training their daughter to be liars. The mothers are so strict that the daughters do things in secret. She will learn to be a perfect liar.
Aryan makes sure that I understand this last point. You understand what a liar is? This is the problem. European children do not have these problems because parents listen to them. They even take their instruction from their children!
Sure, but what are the bad sides of European parenting? I ask.
Ely looks up from her drawings of skateboards and shouts out, They teach their daughters to be whores! The room falls apart with laughter.
We’ve finished the copy for the zine. Several pages of interviews about their experiences of trying to reach Europe, personal stories and talk of their futures. Together it makes a strong body of work, and there is a consistency of voice. Young Muslim women who are refusing to have their lives curtailed by the oppressive patriarchal forces that their mothers endured. It is suggested that their zine is ready for International Women’s Day on March 8.
I set up three tables in the dining room after lunch to continue working on the zine. All the girls are working on their own design version, sticking, pasting and decorating the copy that we have generated and they are sticking onto folded A3 booklets. Adele has decorated hers with maths and physics signs. Aryan with delicate pencil drawn borders, Ely with replica graffiti that she photographed on our day out. Occasionally they shout out to me, teacher, can you do some letters for the cover? Teacher, can you cut this out for me?
I ask Aryan to sit with me as she needs to compose an introduction. She explains to the others. Karime starts to dictate in farsi to Aryan, who translates for me. I in turn make sure I have the meaning of what they are trying to communicate.
We want to share our voices with others. We want people to know what is going on for us. What the reality of a refugee’s life is in the corner of Europe that is Greece.
As women we are powerful. We want our freedom to be able to do all the things that men are allowed to do. We need to continue our education, so we too can have our dreams and put them into practice. The dreams that we have been harbouring for many years.
If the world is in the hands of women, there will be no wars, no violence and no abuse of children. We have soft hearts, we are able to forgive and we treat everyone with the same love as if they were our own children.
I print them out, and soon these are cut out and stuck on covers, with the titles they have carefully drawn out and coloured in: Plaza Girls.
Aryan and Mahmonir tidy their zines away and leave. The Qias sisters still want to keep going. Residents are beginning to congregate for the evening meal. Aryan’s father and mother come over to the table. They are leafing through one of the zines.
What do you think?
It is very good, says Aryan’s father.
They have done an amazing job, I say. Really impressive. Nasim is delighted.
I knock on Aryan’s door the day before the presentation of the zine for Women’s Day. She is no longer even coming down to lunch. She opens it, her headscarf off, and we stand in the doorway.
Aryan, where have you been? Are you okay?
Are you okay about the presentation tomorrow?
Not sure teacher.
Oh no. Tell me. Is everything alright? It would be great to know.
I don’t think I want to do it anymore. It’s finished now and I need to go to Greek classes.
My heart sinks. Nasim has put it out on social media. We have planned how she will translate the whole conference practically.
Aryan, is this your decision? I ask.
It’s my decision. I think these things for myself.
But Aryan, tomorrow is the last day. After that it is finished. Please, we need you to be there.
She looks at me in a way that I haven’t seen before. This strong and intelligent teenager. It’s as if she has seen through me. Her look is saying, you promised me one thing but you haven’t given me this, so now I am breaking my promise. What is the promise that I gave her, I wonder. To feel safe, empowered, inspired, educated – and not exposed maybe.
I promised that what she was doing would be good for her and her parents would be proud. Is this where I have gone wrong? Has it now just become a party with the Qias sisters where we make posters, gossip and dance, and where she is neglecting her other studies because the demands of this zine are so total?
Well, Aryan, if you drop out now I’ll have to pass this on to Nasim as Plaza have put lots of energy and money into this.
She freezes. No teacher. Don’t do that. I will come. I will do it. No teacher. Don’t do that. I will come. I will do it!
The day arrives for the presentation. Leigh and I transform the space into something beautiful. We wash the floor and sweep up. We set out a table as in a conference. Speakers and microphones laid out. Lilac strings of lighting looped around the table and on a backdrop behind. Colourful posters and a golden curtain. We put out chairs. And finally we lay out the zines, and put some of them in special frames. It is stunning.
Nasim is constantly present, fixing extension cables and covering up holes in the walls. Leigh, recently back from Ireland, who is very close to the girls, is prepping them upstairs. They are all spending much time on their appearance! Nasim informs me that a journalist is coming, from a good left online publication.
I collect the girls from their room where they are doing the final touches to their appearances. The Qias sisters are going for looks that resemble 80s female pop icons. They look fantastic. Aryan and Mahmonir wear hijabs. Aryan is egging them on to hurry up as we are late for the conference.
We walk down the stairs, and there is a sea of people sitting on chairs waiting. It’s a fabulous thing to behold. The girls take their seats. Aryan sits in the centre and holds the microphone. She has prepared questions for each girl from their own zine, before inviting the audience to participate. Shafigheh and Karime are to start as they are the most confident.
Over the course of an hour, they hold forth about what they have been through, their dreams and futures, living in Greece and what the opportunity of doing the zine has given them. They talk in Farsi and English – and there are regular whoops and clapping from the audience who speak Farsi. At the end, Aryan’s father takes the microphone.
I didn’t know what all this was about. I was unsure about my daughter going off all of the time. Now I can see what was happening. I am so proud and fully support this in every way.
There’s more clapping and cheering. Aryan’s father is photographing the whole thing. I can see his pride and delight. The Afghan men in the audience cheer for their sisters and daughters. A small victory for Afghan women on International Women’s Day!
The Plaza Girls today (September 2020): Karima, Adele, and Ely have finally moved to Brussels. Karima is writing a book of poetry, Adele is making a film, and Ely is teaching skateboarding. Their older sister, Shafigheh, stayed in Athens where she is running her own business as a fashion designer. Aryan has moved to Germany with her family to another refugee camp. She continues to speak out for the rights of refugees.