Refugee women: The most vulnerable and yet the most resilient in this pandemic

Refugee women will be disproportionately affected by COVID-19, living in densely populated conditions without government support. Yet, as this story shows, their resilience and sense of personal agency is inspiring others around the globe.

Every morning at 9am, Saina (14), Latifa (23) and Fariba (24) get battle-ready. They put on their face masks, plastic raincoat-like jackets and gloves, and make their way from their tiny crude tents in the Moria refugee camp, located on the Greek island of Lesbos. There, in a makeshift warehouse, they volunteer alongside 80 other refugee women who stitch face masks by hand for other refugees in the camp.

Overcoming lack of sleep, sickness and hunger, Saina, who is Afghan, motivates herself to get out and volunteer every morning. “If I don’t help refugees like me, who will? We have been abandoned here and left to fend for ourselves to fight this virus that has shaken the entire world. But while governments take care of their own citizens, there is no one to take care of us. We feel like we belong to no one,” Saina says.

Yet the resilience and resourcefulness of women like Saina, Fariba and Latifa is rising. The women refugees of Moria are not just stitching masks. Together, they have joined hands and are using the power of storytelling and virtual connection to raise awareness through online platforms to provide basic hygiene kits and supplies like soaps, sanitary napkins, alcohol wipes and masks to other refugees in the Moria camp.

Filmed by refugee women in Moria

Along with three other camp mates, Saina, Fariba and Latifa who recently took part in a two-week long filmmaking and storytelling workshop are sharing the messages of #safetyduringcovid19 among refugee populations—organized by The Azadi Project, a non-profit that provides digital livelihood skills to refugee women.

Images of resilient refugees in Lesbos, Greece

So far, six people on the island of Lesbos (where the Moria camp is) have tested positive. The camp has been on lockdown since March 23, since the first member of the local Greek community tested positive, and scarce resources have become scarcer.

A recent report released by Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) draws attention to the dire situation that refugees face in Moria during this COVID-19 pandemic. The Moria camp was initially built for 3,000 people but currently has more than 20,000 refugees living in it. There is only one water tap available for every 1,300 refugees and families of five or six share confined sleeping spaces, “The recommended guidelines such as frequent hand washing and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus are just impossible,” explained Dr. Hilde Vochten, MSF’s Medical Coordinator in Greece.

Mahboubeh Tavakoli, a refugee woman in Athens, shares her COVID-19 awareness dance message

In the face of this unprecedented crisis—which compounds the existing challenges these women have and will continue to endure—the resilience shown by Saina, Fariba Latifa and others has taken on a whole new meaning.

“We do this despite all our difficulties, staying hungry because we want to help.”

Fariba, 24 year old refugee in the Moria camp in Greece

“I stitch 100 masks a day,” said Fariba, Saina’s friend. “We don’t get paid nor do we get lunch to come here and do this. We do this despite all our difficulties, staying hungry because we want to help, because we know how difficult it is to survive in Moria”.

These refugee women are the face of resilience – unsupported, uncared for and yet undeterred. They are stepping up not just to help themselves but also other most vulnerable refugees during this global pandemic.

Nour Omran, a former refugee in Moria, living now in Germany shares her #safehands message

About the Authors

Priyali Sur is the Founder of The Azadi Project. She is a journalist and social-development specialist who writes extensively on refugee rights and migration issues. A Johns Hopkins SAIS alumna, she was also an Atlantic Council Millennium fellow from 2017-19.

Vanessa Davaroukas is a Program Manager at The Azadi Project. She holds an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University, SAIS and her academic research focuses on EU identity politics and migration policy.

This is a new project from the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center and the Digital Forensic Research Lab. 

Share your #ResilienceStories and videos with us at and join us in sharing on social media: @atlanticcouncil@ArshtRock, @DFRLab.

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The Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center will reach one billion people with resilience solutions to climate change, migration, and security challenges by 2030. We will focus our efforts on individuals, communities, and a broad spectrum of governments and institutions to help them, and their constituencies and stakeholders, better prepare for, navigate, and recover from shocks and stresses. We will help build a more resilient world.

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) has operationalized the study of disinformation by exposing falsehoods and fake news, documenting human rights abuses, and building digital resilience worldwide.

Image: Saina and Latifa, refugees in Camp Moria, Greece