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Refugee women turn cover girls in Greece

News Stories, 5 February 2003

© Marie Claire/A. Mandralis
Burundi refugee Josephine Kentakoumana now runs a shop in Greece. She was featured in the December 2002 issue of Marie Claire Greece.

Marie Claire magazine recently published a story on four refugee women in Greece, which has been called "a country of refugees". The magazine also helped distribute a UNHCR leaflet on refugee women. The aim: to inform and educate Greek readers on refugee issues. UNHCR's Ketty Kehayioylou speaks to Marie Claire director Katia Dimopoulou to find out more about recent collaborations between the magazine and the UN refugee agency.

Ketty Kehayioylou (KK): Fashion, beauty, travel ... refugee issues? How do you combine these seemingly disparate subjects in a woman's magazine?

Katia Dimopoulou (KD): Marie Claire started in France in 1937 as a magazine that contained the whole spectrum of life. For Marie Claire, it's not just about how we can become more beautiful. It's about anything that has to do with the joy of life beauty, fashion, décor, travel but also the harsher things that we see and which concern us. We don't want to close our eyes to what's happening in the world.

Marie Claire is socially aware it's known for that. It's always on the side of organisations and people who need media exposure in order to resolve big issues.

KK: Why did you decide to work with UNHCR?

KD: It would've been hypocritical not to. I mean, if we say that Marie Claire is a magazine with an interest in social issues, we have to have a story about something social in every issue of the magazine be it about refugees, trafficking or sex tourism. We have stories like that all the time. Since we're interested, we have to show it.

KK: Why are refugee women, in particular, an issue for Marie Claire?

KD: Because as women, we're closer to other women. And we feel much closer to women who have been uprooted and who have huge problems, who can't go home. The happiness of going back home is prohibited. There is no return. It is terrible, unbearable.

KK: Did the refugee stories impact you personally?

KD: It's a combination: you are saddened by the stories, but at the same time you say, "Good for them! They're very courageous!" I don't know if I would have made it if I were in their shoes. Especially for me, who can't live far from Greece, exile is really harsh. To me, not being able to return to your homeland seems like one of the hardest things. I admire those women.

KK: Do you think your readers care about these refugee women's plight?

KD: I don't think all people are boors and cynics. There are many people who want to shut their eyes, and who open them only when you shock them in populist ways, like the newscasts do on some of the private TV stations. But there are also a good number of people who are socially and politically aware, and refugee issues concern them. Half of the Greek population has relatives who were political refugees; that's not rare here. Anyway, we're talking about the freedom of the individual, and that's where the whole refugee issue fits.

Marie Claire's readers are interested in such social issues; otherwise, we wouldn't run stories about them. The magazine has the largest readership in Greece. 240,000 people read it.

© UNHCR/A.Vassilaki
Marie Claire Greece director Katia Dimopoulou at her office in Athens.

KK: Culture minister Evangelos Venizelos has called Greece a "country of refugees", referring to refugees from Asia Minor and others during the dictatorship. In your opinion, does this legacy mean much to the modern Greek?

KD: In general, I don't think they're especially involved in such issues. People have become very cynical, they only think about their own little lives. Life is much tougher and they don't have time for other people anymore. The whole way of life leads them to think, "What am I going to do for myself?"

KK: Some of the refugee women interviewed in Marie Claire mentioned facing discrimination in Greece. Do you think the problem exists?

KD: Even though we don't want to accept it, I believe that there is racism in Greece. But it's not strong.

The lower the level of education, culture and cultivation a person has, the more he'll feel threatened by anything that is very different and foreign than what he's used to. That's true everywhere.

The discrimination's a bit selective. There is racism against Africans because they are very different. The Poles and Russians don't confront the same type of racism because they share a similar race and culture as the Greeks.

KK: Does that explain why people are reluctant to rent houses to refugees?

KD: They don't trust the refugees. They're afraid that they won't pay the rent, they ask, "Who are they and where do they come from?" That's racist, clearly. Greeks are possessive of their houses they see them as an extension of themselves. They have very intense feelings of ownership because they've lived through great poverty.

But we've forgotten that we were once refugees ourselves. We have a short memory.

KK: How can Marie Claire help to change this?

KD: By trying to make the Greeks who read us relax a little. By making them see that they can approach refugees like this: "There's Maria who came from Turkey and is a political refugee. How nicely she's doing. She's working and praiseworthy." That's the goal, to tell readers, "Relax. We're all the same. They live here now. Your children may go to live there in 50 years. For all we know, Afghanistan could be a paradise in 50 years.

KK: What do you expect from this collaboration with UNHCR?

KD: Our greatest ambition was also the easiest to achieve: to inform people about refugee issues. I think it's better for them to see it in the pages of a magazine they're browsing through, and for them to see the refugee brochure whoever does see it. It's no small ambition to have some people read about it. I think that, yes, it's social work. That sounds anachronistic, but we still believe in it.

I want to keep working with UNHCR, but in a way that will help us too. We have to find a way to present the issues, otherwise people get bored. Whenever an issue comes up, we can talk about it and figure out how to present it in an interesting, human way.

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UNHCR country pages

Beyond the Border

In 2010, the Turkish border with Greece became the main entry point for people attempting by irregular methods to reach member states of the European Union, with over 132,000 arrivals. While some entered as migrants with the simple wish of finding a better life, a significant number fled violence or persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia. The journey is perilous, with many reports of drowning when people board flimsy vessels and try to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the River Evros on the border between Greece and Turkey. The many deficiencies in the Greek asylum system are exacerbated by the pressure of tens of thousands of people awaiting asylum hearings. Reception facilities for new arrivals, including asylum-seekers, are woefully inadequate. Last year, UNHCR visited a number of overcrowded facilities where children, men and women were detained in cramped rooms with insufficient facilities. UNHCR is working with the Greek government to improve its asylum system and has called upon other European states to offer support.

Beyond the Border

George Dalaras

George Dalaras

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Thousands of irregular migrants, some of whom are asylum-seekers and refugees, have sought shelter in a squalid, makeshift camp close to the Greek port of Patras since it opened 13 years ago. The camp consisted of shelters constructed from cardboard and wood and housed hundreds of people when it was closed by the Greek government in July 2009. UNHCR had long maintained that it did not provide appropriate accommodation for asylum-seekers and refugees. The agency had been urging the government to find an alternative and put a stronger asylum system in place to provide appropriate asylum reception facilities for the stream of irregular migrants arriving in Greece each year.The government used bulldozers to clear the camp, which was destroyed by a fire shortly afterwards. All the camp residents had earlier been moved and there were no casualties. Photographer Zalmaï, a former refugee from Afghanistan, visited the camp earlier in the year.

The makeshift camp at Patras

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