"Together We Are Stronger" – On Self-Organization of Women* Refugees

The non-profit organization “Women in Exile & Friends” is mainly run by refugee women*. What are the aims of the organization and why is self-organization important? An interview.

Deutsche Version des Artikels

Eine syrische Frau und ihre Kinder im Hafen von Athen.A Syrian woman and her two children at the port of Athens, having disembarked a ship carrying refugees from Lesbos. (September 2018) (© picture-alliance, NurPhoto)
In 2002, refugee women* [1] in Brandenburg decided to establish an initiative to fight discriminative laws and bad conditions in large accommodation facilities for asylum seekers in Germany. Since 2011 " Women in Exile" has been a registered association. The same year, the group “Women in Exile & Friends” was founded. The organization is financed by private donations; some of their projects are funded by refugee relief organizations. "Women in Exile & Friends" aim at informing a broad public about the living conditions of women* refugees and their daily experiences with life in Germany. Moreover, they try to empower refugee women* e.g. in the framework of workshops that provide helpful information regarding refugees' rights, health issues or possibilities to find assistance when confronted with discrimination and sexual harassment.

Elizabeth Ngari is one of the founders of the initiative “Women in Exile” and still an active member of the non-profit-organization. In 1996, she came as an asylum seeker from Kenya to Germany where she lived in a large refugee shelter (which she calls "camp") for almost six years.

Miss Ngari, why did you found the initiative and who was involved in its foundation?
It was an idea of women* from different countries who lived in camps in Germany in 2002 and were already fighting alongside male* refugees against the bad conditions refugees were subjected to. However, we felt that women's* issues were not enough recognized. For women*, living in bad conditions means sexual harassment, a lack of privacy, isolation and conflicts between women* and men* and among women* themselves. We realized that refugee women* are victims in a double sense – as women* and as refugees in the asylum system. We realized that we have to wake up to fight for our rights as women* and as refugees. Therefore, we see ourselves as an intersection of the refugee and the women's* movement.

Could you explain in more detail what that means?
It means that we are fighting for refugee rights and are networking with other groups who also fight for the same cause, but we are also fighting as women* because we see us as women* who are disadvantaged in their living conditions. We would like to have jobs, permission to work and access to school like everybody else. Women* in this country have been fighting for women's* rights for more than a hundred years now. It is a pity that we still have to fight for rights that they have already been granted. We are women* of this society, too!

Why is it important for refugee women* to get together, develop forms of self-organization and – as you write on your homepage – get loud?
I think we are women* in this society, and we have to fight together for our rights to live here not just as refugees, but as women*. From experience we have learnt that women* can relate to each other, regardless of their differences regarding age, origin, religion, status, sexual orientation or other factors. Women* can make an impact together. Together we develop strategies to achieve political change and take our protest against the inhumane living conditions of refugee women* into the public.

Is that the reason why you decided to include also women* who are no refugees in your work?
In Germany, we are refugees and we do not know the system very well. Therefore, it is an advantage to have someone knowing the system. Furthermore, we believe that women* should demonstrate solidarity. There are women* in our group who do not have refugee background, but also have experienced discrimination, e.g. because of their sexuality. Now we fight together and together we are more, together we are stronger!

Which objectives does "Women in Exile & Friends" pursue?
We want to fight sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination against refugees and women*. These objectives are intersected: You cannot talk about racism without talking about discrimination, and you cannot talk about discrimination without talking about sexism. We have to fight together because these forms of discrimination affect different people in the same way.

Did the objectives change since the founding of the organization?
Our core objectives did not change because we still have to face discrimination and we still have to fight against it. What has changed is the scope of our fight: First we fought to get out of the camps and were trying to mobilize and empower women* to bring their stories into the open. Now we are located in Berlin and Brandenburg and are trying to organize women* all across the country.

We want deportations to stop. We want everybody who came to Germany as a refugee to be allowed to stay. They left their home because they had to face problems. When you leave your country, you do not know what is going to happen or if you ever come back. This means that you have a good reason why you leave or run away and search for a place where you are better off or where you may live safely.

How does the organization try to achieve its objectives?
We empower women* in workshops, and we demonstrate, issue press releases or give interviews like this one to make our work public. We have a newsletter and a web-blog which are reaching a lot of people. We want to raise awareness of our issues in society because there are so many people who do not even know what goes on. They do not know about the situation of people living in camps. As women* we are faced with sexism and racist borders which expose us to all types of prejudice. As refugee women* we confront multiple inner and outer borders during and after the flight. Society blames refugees for all of their problems. We want to raise awareness that this is not true. Besides, there are other problems affecting society which are more acute.

Between 15 and 45 women* participate in your monthly meetings in Berlin or Potsdam. Most of them are refugees. What importance does participation have for refugee women? To be part of our organization is a way for women* refugees to leave the camps for a while, exchange ideas and talk to others. They feel, they are not alone in their situation.

What does everyday life look like for many of your members who are refugees?
In general, they live in fear: They fear deportation, racist attacks and not knowing what their life will be like tomorrow. They are living in great uncertainty: They do not know if they might be deported tomorrow or the day after or whether they may stay. This insecurity and fear make most of them depressed. They have the feeling of not being worthy of being alive.

Is that why empowerment plays an important role in your work?
We have to empower the women* to be able to cope with everyday life. Empowerment helps them to talk about their problems and to become aware of the fact that they have rights. We also help them to find assistance.

Since the so-called “summer of migration” in 2015 there has been much political and public debate about the admission of refugees. What do you think about this debate?
There are people, in 2015 especially from Syria, who had to leave their home country because there is a war. They did not want to stay and get killed. Before complaining about refugees, countries should stop to deport arms into countries where there are wars or conflicts. If they did, there would not be so many people forced to leave their homes.

Moreover, when German media talked about New Year´s Eve in Cologne 2015 it was like every male* refugee got criminalized because some men* who are refugees attacked some women*. That is criminal, but it does not mean that the whole community is criminal. Those who commit crimes like those men* on New Year's Eve should be brought before the court. In a democratic and constitutional state, a criminal person is tried, and the judges impose a sentence without criminalizing the whole community. The public views refugees as the main problem of society, but they are not.

By criminalizing refugees, arrest and deportation are justified. People who cannot proof their identity are regarded as criminals, but I do not think they are criminal. They just do not have an ID.

What difficulties are you facing as a refugee since 2015 beside being criminalized?
It is not just since 2015 that refugees are exposed among many other things to mistreat or institutional racism. There is a residence obligation which does not allow them to move where they want. The laws governing refugees keep changing and are becoming stricter. “Anker lager” have been introduced: “Prisons” which accommodate hundreds of refugees and restrict the asylum seekers from any possibility of integration into society because the complete asylum procedure takes place inside these camps. Their movement is restricted, and it has become easier to carry out deportations. In every political discussion or voting, refugees and migrants have become a central issue. This does not only foster hostilities within society, but it is being used by right-wing groups to gain popularity. Some European politicians and leaders are blaming refugees for all existing problems. But refugees are not the problem; it is policies of exclusion, isolation and deportation.

What are your hopes for the future?
I hope that at least some of the restrictive laws, especially the ones on deportations, will change. I want people to have the freedom to choose where they want to live and for refugee women* to have the same choices other women* in this society have.

The interview was conducted by Laura Hartmann.


The interviewee uses a * behind gender attributions (women* or men*) to question a binary gender order. Thus, she opens the space to include diverse sexualities and gender identities that are not present and / or invisible due to the binary gender structure of languages. The aim is to make marginalized subject positions visible. (Herrmann 2003: Performing the Gap – Queere Gestalten und geschlechtliche Aneignungen. In: arranca! Nr.28, Aneignung I, Berlin, pp. 22-26.)
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