“For so many years I felt weak inside. I couldn’t make my own decisions. I couldn’t express the inner me. I was feeling like a puppet in my family’s hands,” says Nina, a 36-year-old refugee from Cameroon. Nina left her country in 2017 without telling her sisters, her sick mother, and not even her husband. But the hardest part was that she was forced to leave her children.
“I didn’t even get the chance to kiss them goodbye. My life was threatened because of my choices, my beliefs, my thoughts. I couldn’t tell anyone that I was leaving.” Nina was trying to avoid the inevitable: to get married to a man she didn’t want to marry.
She continued: “We were a very poor family. When my father died, I was trying to find a job to support my sisters and my mom. I started working as a cashier in a small company and then got promoted. But still the money wasn’t enough. When my mother got sick, I was left with no other choice but to get married.”
Nina has always been determined to follow her own path. “I’m a gospel singer. I started singing when I was 14 years old. My family did not approve of my decision. They thought that performing was an inappropriate profession for a girl. I was forbidden to sing. When my parents discovered my music books, they set fire to them, but that didn’t stop me. I created my own band and I was singing secretly at weddings,” she remembers.
Nina confesses that she always knew how she wanted to live her life. She wanted to be free and write her own rules. She felt that it was for these reasons that her family had treated her as an outcast. “My sister told me that I always create issues in our family,” she recalls.
“Life became even harder as soon as I got married. I remember so many nights that I couldn’t sleep. My life was a torture. I felt that I was sleeping next to a stranger. I was a disgrace for my family. I wasn’t even allowed to see my kids. My hands, my heart, my body were empty. My soul was absent, bleeding somewhere.”
“I deserved to be loved for who I was. But at that time, I didn’t know who I was,” she said, recalling that this was the moment she realized that she had to leave. After many challenges, Nina reached Greece in 2019.
“The moment I reached Lesvos, I started feeling alive again. I felt relieved, and in a way, free. Even though things weren’t easy, I was feeling good inside. I knew that I was given a second chance. I could be myself, I could find a job, get my children and life back. I applied for Asylum, got to Larissa and then to Athens.”
Once Nina was recognized as a refugee, she decided to register for the EU-funded HELIOS integration project, implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which assists recognized refugees to achieve independent living.
HELIOS staff guided her through the process of identifying and renting an apartment in her own name, and now she lives in a house located in the center of Athens. At the same time, she is following Greek language courses in the HELIOS Integration Learning Center in Athens and studies in Alba Graduate Business School, through a scholarship program that she found online; Nina has been receiving employability support by the HELIOS job counsellor with whom she has regular and substantive communication aiming to get empowered to achieve her educational and professional goals. In this frame, HELIOS employability supported Nina to get her English language diploma, which has already proven invaluable to her professionally.
“I’m working remotely in a big customer service company. I’m really happy for that. I’m also studying Finance through a scholarship program of Alba Graduate Business School. I was looking at the Internet and I thought that this might work out good for me.”
“Even though I’m not a very outgoing person, I have made friends in Greece. A Greek-Cameroonian family are the closest people to me. We share time together, talking about life in Greece, our kids and aspirations,” she says with kindness. “I love Athens, I love the fact that no one has the right to tell me how I suppose to live to be, or what to become.”
Today, Nina feels that she is free to pursue the hopes and dreams she had as a little girl, but the hardest part has been missing her own children.
“My sister is raising my children and even today she does not allow me to communicate with them. A good friend of mine visits them and informs me about their situation,” she says. “I have applied for a Family Reunification program and I won’t stop waiting until I get to see them again.”
Nevertheless, she has no regrets over her decision. “I’ll always believe that no matter where you are born, or what your choices and beliefs are, you deserve to live the life you want. After all, you only live once.”
Through the HELIOS project, IOM aims to promote the integration of beneficiaries of international protection into the Greek society through integration courses, housing and employability support. IOM's HELIOS project is implemented with the support of the European Commission - DG HOME.
*Nina asked IOM not to disclose her surname.