Finding redemption: Alternative therapy for refugee women in Greece

By CARE’s Vangi Dora, Emergency Communications Officer, CARE Greece

Μέλισσα (Melissa) means ‘honeybee’ and the Melissa Network Center in Athens, Greece lives up to its name. Refugee and migrant women come together in this unique place to interact, create and support themselves and each other. It is not just another refugee shelter – it is a home. It is a place to dream, hope and heal for many of the women who visit every day in search of refuge and escape from their daily routine. At the Center, there is room for every feeling, every case, every nationality, every age and religion. All of this was obvious to me when I visited the Center to discover more about one of its most successful projects – currently funded by CARE – the Drama and Movement Therapy project. I also met with the women who run the project – Katerina Polemi and Thaleia Portokaloglou.

What is Drama and Movement Therapy?

“During the sessions, women are invited to become the star of a story and use spontaneous performance and role playing to gain insight into their lives and inner emotions. The scenes either represent real-life events or are imagined stories in which they are invited to find their way and reach what we call “redemption”. Drama and Movement Therapy breaks down language barriers by nature. What we do here is communicated by our bodies,”says Thaleia.

The participants are mostly young women from Syria, Afghanistan, and also African countries like Nigeria and Ghana. They all want to leave Greece and be reunited with their families who are in different countries. Many of them dream of studying and working.

“They crave to be educated and be creative, “says Katerina.

“The challenges are great,” remarks Thaleia. “Every time is different. Every time is a first time. First, the language barrier. There are always two interpreters with us and sometimes it can be difficult to communicate something. Second, the trauma. I feel like we work inside an open wound. It is remarkable that we are not engulfed by this wound, how they are not engulfed by this wound when we touch it. Because we do touch it and instead, this process creates a powerful feeling of strength and unity. Us and them both”.

This therapy method uses movement and acting techniques to try to connect someone with their inner emotions and with others who have also experienced trauma. Trust exercises, games, and activities using props or just the body help to build connection among the women. It can be something simple, like eye contact or hugging each other, or more complex activities like storytelling.

During the session, I see the impact the session has on the women. At first they hesitate to move. They feel awkward and it takes some time to actually start the activity.

“The check-in process, which is the first thing we do in every session, invites everyone to express how they feel today as a movement,” says Thaleia. “At first, this was very difficult for them. ‘You are asking me to express myself using my body?’ Their bodies are tense, and for many, using their body to express themselves is considered indecent or taboo.”

When I asked them to describe a special moment, Katerina described that moment of redemption in every session when these women feel suddenly freed.

“There is a moment during every session when a switch takes place. It is as if a barrier in a river suddenly falls apart in a harmonized way, not disruptively. The water starts flowing and this is great, no matter what the water contains – joy, pain, frustration, anger. When this happens, the energy changes and they leave themselves and become part of this river and actually go against it. It is a moment of freedom. There is room for every kind of emotion.”

My last question to Thaleia and Katerina was about their dreams for the future of this project.

“Culture is very important. Maybe nobody ever asked these women until now ‘how are you?’, ‘what do you want?’, ‘what is your dream?’ We hope we can keep facilitating these sessions and it would be great to work with some of the girls who are attending the regularly to do something outside Melissa Center.”

The Drama and Movement Therapy project is currently funded by CARE and implemented by local partners as part of a series of projects that support refugee women. Learn more about how CARE is supporting refugees.