China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2016/Feb

Crying voices of women on the run

After the Magi visited Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, they were to return to the king, Herod, so that he too could worship this new king.

Instead of worshiping, Herod gave orders to his soldiers to search for this new king and to kill all male babies under two years of age in the vicinity. He was not about to give up his throne.

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child and kill him.”

Today we have seen and heard of families, mostly women and children, who have had to leave their country of birth because of powerful and corrupt leaders, and wars breaking out around them.

Some of the risks they encounter come from exploitative people who promise the refugees that they can get them to Turkey, Greece, Germany and other European countries.

Most of the time these people are insincere. They ask for a lot of money, but when it comes time to board boats, the refugees find the vessels are old and not fit for a long journey.

Other craft of rubber have patches covering up leaks and are not seaworthy. These smugglers have even sold lifejackets to the refugees, some more expensive than others.

When storms toss these rickety boats, many fall into the water. Some are saved because their jackets have some floatable material, while others drown because the cheaper jackets are stuffed with paper.

Thousands of refugees have died or gone missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, but for many women and girls making the voyage, alone or with children, the dangers don’t end once they reach land.

According to a report released by Amnesty International, female refugees who made the trek from Turkey to Greece and then across the Balkans, reported facing physical abuse, sexual harassment and financial exploitation during every leg of their journey, including in refugee camps.

The human rights group interviewed 40 women who had recently arrived in northern Europe from Syria and Iraq, and found that they lived in constant fear for their safety.

About a dozen said they had been touched, groped or leered at while held in European transit camps where they reported being forced to sleep alongside hundreds of single men. For that reason, some women opted to sleep alone on beaches or on buses, because they felt it was safer.

Reem, a 20-year-old Syrian who was travelling with her teenage cousin, told Amnesty she never slept in settlements because she was too scared that she would be harassed.

“In the camps we are so prone to being touched and women can’t really complain, and they don’t want to cause issues to disrupt their trip,” she said, adding, “The tents were all mixed gender and I witnessed violence.”

The sleeping arrangements weren’t the only aspect of the camps that women said made them feel unsafe. At least two women reported being watched by men when they used the bathrooms. Others reported nearly starving themselves to avoid having to frequently use the bathroom they shared with men. Showers in the camps are not segregated by gender either.

It wasn’t just male refugees whom women said they felt threatened by. The camp security guards, local law enforcement and smugglers also posed a problem, according to the report.

A 22-year-old from Iraq said a uniformed security guard in Germany offered her clothing if she would agree to spending time alone with him.

Hala, a 23-year-old from Syria, said she was propositioned by a hotel worker in Turkey who suggested that she could stay for free if she slept with him.

She declined, but meanwhile, a pregnant 19-year-old Syrian named Rania, said she saw police in Hungary attacking some refugee women.

“After living through the horrors of the war in Iraq and Syria, these women have risked everything to find safety for themselves and their children,” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s crisis response director, said in a statement.

More than 4.6 million Syrians have fled their homes and registered as refugees since the outbreak of civil war nearly five years ago, according to figures from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

About half of all refugees from that country are female, and slightly more than half are under the age of 18.

“More steps need to be taken to ensure that refugee women, especially those most at risk, are identified and special processes and services are put in place to ensure their basic rights, safety and security are protected,” Hassan said.

She urged European governments to step up their game in offering safe and legal routes for refugees and providing, at the very least, safe toilet facilities and separate sleeping areas in transit camps.

One Syrian woman who joined the stream of migrants to Germany was forced to pay down her husband’s debt to smugglers by making herself available for sex along the way. Another was beaten unconscious by a Hungarian prison guard after refusing his advances.

A third, Esraa al-Horani, a former makeup artist, dressed as a boy and stopped washing to ward off the men in her group of refugees.

Now in an emergency shelter in Berlin, she still sleeps in her clothes and, like several women there, pushes a cupboard in front of her door at night. “There is no lock or key or anything,” she said.

Horani is one of the few women not afraid to give her name. She has been lucky, she said, “I have only been beaten and robbed.”

A 30-year-old Syrian mother of four fled the war with her family early last year. When her husband ran out of money to pay their smuggler in Bulgaria, he offered his wife as payment instead.

For three months, she was raped almost daily to earn her family’s onward journey. Soon her own husband was abusing her, too. What her husband made her do ended up tainting his honour. She became the guilty party.

The woman now has asylum and lives in Berlin with her children. Her husband, who lives elsewhere in Germany and has stalked her on the street in Berlin at least once, is under a restraining order.

But she remains too terrified to even provide his first name, for fear of being killed by him or another relative over the perception that she brought dishonour to the family.

Samar, a 35-year-old former employee of the Syrian Finance Ministry, opened up about the particular stress of being a woman on the move.

Bombed out of her home in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus that became known for anti-government protests early in the civil war, Samar spent 14 months on the road with her three daughters, aged two-, eight- and 13-years-old.

“I did not leave them out of my sight for one minute.” She and other single mothers slept in shifts along the way, watching over their daughters and one another.

From Syria to Germany, the lives of many men, women and children were lost.

Like Ramah in the time of Jesus, the women are weeping and refusing to be comforted, because their children are no more.

Back in Syria, many people who cannot flee, are running short of food, medicine and fuel. Many have died because of a lack of food.

Some have been shot or blown up by mines planted by pro-government forces. Mothers crush grains of rice – when available – and boil the mixture to make baby food. They say, “Life is miserable.”

The refugee crisis is also extremely serious in the central American countries. Women and children are fleeing violence in record numbers and are seeking asylum in the United States of America (US).

Between April and September 2015, researchers interviewed more than 160 women from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and parts of Mexico, who had reached the US alone or with children. They left their homes to avoid gang violence, murder and sexual violence.

One hundred and thirty-six of those who shared their stories told the agency that their neighbourhoods were entirely controlled by armed criminal groups. The refugee agency released the report to encourage countries in central and north America to cooperate and support the growing number of people who need protection.

“Everything affects you because a woman is worthless,” a Mexican woman named Lana told the researchers about life in her village. “The drug cartel members rape. There is no limit. There is no authority. There is no one to stop them.”

Police and judicial corruption leave many women with no legal recourse or path to justice in the face of criminal activity.

Though all of the women interviewed had been screened by the US government and recognised as refugees, many of them were immediately detained by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency upon reaching the country.

Several women said being held in detention worsened traumas experienced during their path to asylum and in their own countries, particularly those who were detained in prison cells with their children.

One Mexican woman said, “It is better to be free and to die by a bullet than to suffer and die slowly in a cage.”

Pope Francis is also concerned about the troubles the refugees meet.

The pope said, “Do not let anything steal your hope and the joy of life that derive from experiencing divine mercy, thanks also to those who welcome you and help you.”

In Matthew 25:45, Jesus says, “I tell you, whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.”

Let us open our hearts and homes to those in need.