World Refugee Day: Life in a pandemic

World Refugee Day: Life in a pandemic

Women refugees share their stories

The economic and social toll of COVID-19 has been felt across the globe, but the impact of the virus is not equal. People fleeing conflict and persecution are among the worst hit by the consequences of the pandemic. They also frequently lack sufficient access to healthcare and handwashing facilities to protect themselves against the virus.

According to the newly released figures by the UN Refugee Agency, an unprecedented 79.5 million people were displaced – the highest number the UNHCR has ever seen. Oxfam works alongside communities, partner NGOs, women and refugee-led organisations to prevent the spread of the disease in vulnerable communities and to ensure that their basic food and hygiene needs are met.

For World Refugee Day, we spoke to five women in Greece and Italy about how they’ve been coping with the pandemic outbreak and how they manage to find strength even in the face of incredible hardship.

Here’s Sara’s experience on how the Bashira Centre for displaced women helps her stay strong in Moria refugee camp in Greece.

Bashira Centre for displaced women, Moria refugee camp in Greece.

“Bashira is so important to me.”


“I had already been waiting in the camp for 4 months. The pandemic measures made me feel abandoned, locked up, dirty. I found myself spending my whole day lying in my narrow, damp tent.

“Before the pandemic, every morning I went to Bashira, a centre that supports women in Lesbos. There, I could take a hot bath, meet people, share a tea, have English and Greek lessons and do what I like most: sports.

“Now, to protect myself against COVID-19, I stay in the tent as much as possible, go out only when necessary and wash my hands each time I come back from a trip to the camp warehouse.

“Bashira is so important to me. I hope that a medicine or vaccine against COVID-19 is found, so that Bashira and the asylum service can reopen.”

Lydia, a woman refugee also trapped in Moria camp in Greece, tells us how she has stayed safe during the pandemic.

Lydia's soap represents the force of hygiene.

“COVID-19 changed everything in my life.”

Lydia: “I am afraid of living freely while people are dying.

“To keep myself and my community safe, I respect the hygiene rules: I use soap and water when I can, I wear my mask, I keep a distance of one metre from others.

“For me, soap represents the force of hygiene.”

Oxfam works with partners on the island of Lesbos in Greece. Our most recent ‘Lesbos Bulletin’ provides an update on the situation in Moria camp, one of the EU sponsored ‘hotspots’ on the Greek islands, and our demands to the EU and Greek authorities.

Helena's vegetable garden

“I went through many difficult things, I can get through this too.”

Helena, a refugee living in Italy, has found strength in some small joys.


“I wake up in the morning with the worry of getting sick and infecting my kids. Our lives have suddenly changed. To be healthy and protect my children we follow all the medical recommendations: wash our hands, wear the face mask, keep distance from others.

“Despite this, there are some beautiful moments: after work, I can enjoy all day playing with my two children. In my free time we go for a walk in the countryside where there is no one.

“I give myself strength. I say to myself: I went through many difficult things, I can get through this too! I have a vegetable garden with plants and flowers. It makes me happy – there I find my paradise.

“My hope is that this virus goes away forever. I would like to go back to a normal life: that my children go back to school and we can see friends again. I really would like to go to work without being afraid.”

Mariama's Koran - her source of strenght

“The Koran gives me strength.”

Mariama is a refugee from Guinea living in Italy. For World Refugee Day, she describes the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on her life.


“Staying home every day without anything to do is the most difficult thing. When the pandemic started, I had just finished my training course and I was going to look for a job and get my driver’s licence. The lockdown made this impossible.

“It is important to respect hygiene recommendations to contain the disease. I already knew a little about these rules because I had seen the Ebola epidemic in Guinea. I avoid contact with people, I wear a mask when I go out and I wash my hands when I get home.

“I hope to find a job and an apartment. In the meantime, I find strength in praying to God. The Koran gives me strength.”

Wafaa repairing doctors’ coats and nurses’ uniforms

“I hope that my friends and family stay safe.”

Wafaa, who fled from Syria and now lives in Italy, is repairing the uniforms of nurses and doctors during this pandemic. For World Refugee Day, she talks about the personal impact of the corona crisis.

An Oxfam hygiene kit


“Until March, I had a weekly routine: working in the tailor shop, Italian classes, visiting family, and walking along the Arno river.

“The first days of lockdown were hard. I stayed home and sewed face masks for me and my family. I avoid going out often. Oxfam provided hygiene supplies which helped us contain the risk of infection.

“Now, twice a week, I go to work. I repair doctors’ coats, nurses’ uniforms, and other textiles for the local hospitals. I am happy to make this small contribution to my new community in a difficult moment.

“My job helps me stay strong, as does my faith. I hope one day to resume my previous life and that my friends and family stay safe.”


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