“When the pandemic ends, we must talk about the mental health of the workers during this period”

Loretta Macauley, activist and founder of the United African Women Organization in Athens, in an interview with Solomon on the effects of the pandemic on migrant women employed in Greece.
November 5, 2021
“When the pandemic ends, we must talk about the mental health of the workers during this period”
Loretta Macauley, activist and founder of the United African Women Organization in Athens, in an interview with Solomon on the effects of the pandemic on migrant women employed in Greece.
November 5, 2021
Photographs: Louiza Gouliamaki
Edit: Iliana Papangeli
Translation: Gigi Papoulias

Loretta Macaulay has a characteristic that distinguishes her: when she talks to you, even about difficult issues, she always has a smile on her face.

An activist and founder of the United African Women Organization, she was born in Sierra Leone and came to Greece when she was 18 years old. Her aim, as she told us when we met, was to go to America or to England, but she got “stuck” here due to the difficulties in the issuing of her residence permit. She’s been living in Greece for 37 years.

Loretta has experienced the anxiety, fear and uncertainty of a person who lives and works in a country, but who’s virtually invisible. It took her 17 years to obtain her residence permit.

“During my early years in Greece, I worked as a domestic, and I lived in the homes of my employers. Without a residence permit, you feel like you’re nothing. It is like you’re living nowhere because even if something happens to you, the state doesn’t even recognize your existence.”

With the outbreak of the pandemic, the Organization was called upon to support women who found themselves faced with new challenges and realities, which made an already difficult situation worse.

We met her in downtown Athens, in one of the self-managed spaces, where the United Women of Africa have temporarily found a home, as due to the pandemic, they could not keep the space they had originally rented.

We spoke with her about the pandemic’s effects on the reality for working migrant women, the time-consuming and uncertain process of obtaining a residence permit, dealing with being uninsured, labor exploitation, and gender-based violence – issues that, because of the pandemic, cast a long shadow on their lives.

The pandemic was an unprecedented situation across the globe, but it particularly affected the most vulnerable populations. What is your assessment of how working migrant women experienced the pandemic in Greece?

The working reality today is a lot harder for everyone. Those who lost their jobs during the lockdown are still finding it difficult to obtain new employment. And unfortunately, once again, women were most affected by this situation.

Working migrant women, mostly uninsured, were excluded from all state aid and furlough benefits. This, of course, was also the reality for many Greek employees.

Women who continued to work were at risk every time they went to work. This is because they didn’t have the necessary work certificate that would allow them to justify their movement during the lockdown. Each time they traveled to/from work, many of them risked being arrested or fined, while others were forced to stop working.

Imagine how stressful this was, but there was no other choice.

The lockdown was reminiscent of times when migrants had to hide at home for fear of being arrested. Those who don’t have a residence permit were and continue to be completely excluded. Nothing has changed.

What was the case before the pandemic? What are the challenges that refugees and migrants in the country, and especially women, have always faced?

Migrants and refugees in Greece share a common reality. In the beginning, the biggest obstacle is the language and finding a job. When I came, of course, it was much easier to find a job than it is now. Once you’ve settled in, the biggest problem is obtaining a residence permit. It’s a process that you really have to pursue.

For women coming from Africa, but also from any other country, the conditions are really difficult. You’re far from your homeland, your familiar environment and you also have to deal with racism.

Migrant women from Africa mostly work as domestics or cleaners in homes or restaurants. Those of us who have worked (and continue to work) as domestics, we’ve all experienced what it’s like when others don’t respect you, they consider you nothing. Of course, there are also families that make you feel like you’re a member of their family.

Unfortunately, there are many women with university degrees who have been granted asylum here for political reasons but their degrees are not recognized by the state, but that’s another matter. Most women don’t manage to find employment in other work environments, other than the ones I mentioned.

Thus, the pandemic made an already difficult situation even worse, and refugee and migrant communities faced new challenges. What changed in the daily life and work reality of migrant women?

During the lockdown, many migrants dealt with being fined, which caused increased fear and anxiety in their communities. Some women quit their jobs because of this.

We, therefore, had to manage such issues on a daily basis.

“The lockdown was reminiscent of times when migrants had to hide at home, in fear of being arrested,” Loretta Macaulay told Solomon, referring to the effects of the pandemic on working migrant women. Athens, October 2021.

Most women who worked cleaning homes, lost their jobs, as that kind of work became unnecessary. There was no state aid for them, as these workers were uninsured, without labor rights. Some were left unpaid because of the situation and were even afraid to ask for the money that was owed to them. Many people don’t pay you, don’t insure you and of course, you don’t have the opportunity to talk about it or even report it, because there’s always the fear of being deported.

At some point, when the pandemic ends, we must address the mental health of the workers during this period.

In addition, women who continued to work, especially in elder care, were often subjected to racist behavior. It goes without saying that they would be accused of carrying the virus.
They have experienced, and continue to experience, more incidents of racism both in the workplace and on public transport, as many confront migrants, accusing them of spreading the virus. They believe that because our skin is dark, we carry the virus or other diseases.

It’s funny, but there are racists who argue that it’s better to catch the virus from a white person than from a dark person.

The migrant women who own small businesses, such as hair salons and mini markets, were in a different situation, but of course, they also faced difficulties due to the pandemic.

And of course, another aspect of the pandemic concerns migrant mothers who have lost their jobs. Especially those who are in the country without a residence permit (there are many), they didn’t have any help, while their children don’t even go to school.

Despite the pandemic, in many cases, we’ve seen solidarity among people act as a remedy. How did you, as the United African Women Organization, try to manage the problems your community faced?

As an organization, we use Zoom or other digital media to inform women about what is happening with Covid-19, the developments in the country, and anything that’s useful and necessary to know. Above all, we wanted to empower the community and not let anyone feel isolated.

Also, together with other women’s organizations, we tried to help by offering food and medicine to women who were alone with their children, and we helped those who did not have an AMKA (social security number) go to the hospital. Women’s organizations in Greece have a very strong relationship with each other, they stand in solidarity.

I know of cases where women were evicted from their homes because they couldn’t pay their rent. Housing and unemployment are serious issues in the lives of migrant women. Many migrants spent lockdown in an apartment with many people. Living conditions in most cases were particularly difficult. Of course, I recognize that it’s the same for men, but for me, my work is focused on women.

Even ‘code 6’, (during the lockdown, the number you had to text, for permission to go outside for physical exercise), wasn’t a given for everyone. For some, it was a privilege. Many women remained locked in their apartments for days, going out only for the necessary reasons, always in fear, taking a risk. This contributed to further social isolation and affected the mental health of many women.

During the pandemic, we saw incidents of domestic and gender-based violence increase. Reports from women trapped in their homes also increased. What is your assessment?

It’s a fact that incidents of domestic and gender-based violence have increased significantly. And this was a reality for Greek society at large during the pandemic. From the beginning of the pandemic until today, the United African Women Organization has been receiving phone calls to help with such incidents. It is very difficult though.

Victims cannot report their abuser to the authorities as the fear of not having a residence permit prevails. The life of a woman − without a residence permit − with a violent man at home, is a nightmare.

I have personally hosted many women in my home, helping even temporarily. What the Organization does in such cases is to communicate with feminist organizations in Athens and to find a hostel, as well as to provide psychological support.

Tell us a little about the broader action of the United African Women Organization. It has existed for many years and was created by women for women. How did you come to establish the Organization?

The United African Women Organization was founded in 2005 and is a result of, and part of the women’s movement in Athens.

When I lost my residence permit — a process full of obstacles — I felt so hopeless. At one point I thought that, in this country, I am not a criminal, I am a worker. I thought, why should I always have this fear of the police, always being afraid and hiding? You know, in my country, anyone who fought for human rights was in serious danger, and feared for their safety. So, I decided to go out and stand up for my rights and not wait until I was deported to ask for help.

Loretta Macaulay at a demonstration in downtown Athens on February 20, 2010, calling for Greek citizenship and denouncing racism. Banner reads: “Yes to Citizenship Bill, But With Improvements” in reference to an immigration bill that would grant citizenship to only 25,000 children while 250,000 were concerned.

I met a female activist, a migrant from Albania, and she introduced me to women’s organizations in Athens. After participating in various events hosted by all these women’s organizations, I realized that, if I do not talk about my problems, how will others find out about them? And it wasn’t just about me, but about all the migrant women from Africa, who, in turn, found it difficult to talk about what was happening to them.

This fear is the mirror of the migrant experience for those who come from a country under dictatorship. And living with this fear, being socially excluded or not integrated into Greek or any other society, makes you unaware of your rights.

I, therefore, called on women from Africa to share their problems and concerns and unite, to fight for our rights. The need to create a safe space was the primary reason for the creation of the Organization.

The difficulties that working migrant women face, the issues you discussed with us, are also your own personal experiences. In closing, what do you come away with, after all those years of working as a domestic?

I have two personal stories that are indicative examples for one to understand the various aspects of society, and how someone experiences — and how I experienced myself — what it’s like to be a domestic worker in Greece.

I remember working in a house of a fairly wealthy family that did not treat me well. They had put a cot in the room where the wine barrels were kept. I ended up becoming an alcoholic, as every night I was so disheartened, that I would drink. As soon as I finished work, I had a party on my own. It sounds like a funny story, but I honestly wondered how I ended up like that. I wanted to leave Sierra Leone and the hardship there, the suffering one experiences in a country under dictatorship. But even here, I saw what it’s like to be treated like a criminal.

On the other hand, I will never forget that family that really made me feel like I was a member of their family. Imagine, we were sharing the work! They even asked me if I had any meal preferences. Also, at that time, there was no Western Union or Moneygram, for sending money back home. So this family helped out, by sending my money through a friend of theirs who lived in Germany. They helped me on all levels. We are still friends.

Now, I can say that I learned a lot from so many experiences, working at this job. I entered the houses of the Greeks, I learned their culture, I understood who they are. I lived with the racists, but also with those who wanted to help me. The ones who stood in solidarity.

This interview is published in the context of Solomon’s in-depth series of reports on “Migrant workers in Greece in the time of COVID-19 ″ and is supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Office in Greece.

The interview was produced as part of Solomon’s media lab 2020-2021 and was supported by Faces of Migration.

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