On the shores of the Baltic Sea, a few hours by car from Berlin, a group of Syrian women laugh or maybe burst into tears as they remember their journey to Germany, fleeing their war-torn homeland, Syria.
These women would not have made this trip to the coast, if they had not faced their fear of the sea, their risky gateway to Europe. Overcoming such a traumatic experience has only become possible through their commitment to attending a self-help group for the last three years.
“It was a very important moment because I was afraid of what might come of revealing their deeply traumatic feelings, but it was also a place where you have all the support from other women who have experienced what you have been through and all this love and good energy,”said Mariana Karkoutli, the founder of a women-only self-help group at LouLou meeting point and a former facilitator.
“For me, this was one of the most important moments of the project! This moment of trusting,” she said.
Karkoutli recognised the need for launching a support group for refugees in the course of volunteering in welcoming centresfor refugees. In 2015, when Germany opened its doors to thousands of refugees, Karkoutli, who was studying for a master’s in social work, volunteered in refugee camps. There, the Arabic-speaking young woman from Syria understood the psychological and mental issues of the camp residents and their urgent need for psychological help. However, “These issues were less recognised by German organisations that provide newcomers with ‘basic needs’,” she said.
Since language barriers prevented newcomers from expressing themselves or being fully understood in Germany, this self-help group has been a safe space for female Syrian newcomersto express themselves in their mother-tongue, employing various methods; therapy, storytelling, writingand art.
On a weekly basis, Syrian women from different social and religious backgrounds, but mostly Muslim and veiled, have been sharing their stories in local dialect since 2016. “We have women from all over Syria, from Damascus, Idlib, Aleppo and other cities,”Karkoutli said.
This variety caused some early tensions in the support groups according to Karkoutli, “At the beginning, it wasn’t that easy and homogeneous due to the age gaps and different backgrounds.
“But since all of them are married, they can relate to similar topics,” she said.
Another obstacle faced by the group facilitator at the outset, was that the whole concept of a support group was so new that women did not understand the purpose of regular attendance at the sessions. “In our Arab societies, there is no need for support groups since you already have a mother, sisters and friends. But with the more individualistic society in Germany, they need to be in such a group to cope with the feelings of loneliness and isolation,” Karkoutli said.
As time passed, now, she said,“There is a high level of solidarity among the group members… Once a member wanted to bring her children, but she couldn't afford to buy them a bus ticket... other group members collected money and gave it to her.”
Within the group, facilitators deal with various topics such as gender equality, cultural differences and identity. One of the most sensitive topics was post-war trauma. “Our approach didn’t aim to make them remember what happened, but how it was reflected. We didn't call them traumatic experiences, rather dreams,”Karkoutli said.
At some point, the facilitator of the support group realised that German society should listen to the stories of these women as most of them have experiences of racism in Germany. “If people are very loud about experiencing racism, why can’t we be loud about saying that we faced it too!” Karkoutli said.
In April 2019, the group released a book of Syrian women’s stories translated into German. Since then, group members are increasingly heard in German society. “They participated in a Green Party meeting on immigration, where some of them spoke against discrimination and they have been invited to future meetings. They also joined the International Women's Day demonstration in Berlin,” Karkoutli said with pride.