It Takes a Village, and a Tribe: Women Help Women Locally, Globally

The author visits with a Syrian refugee and her son

The idea that “it takes a village” to raise children and maintain a healthy community has resonated for women all over the world ever since the 1975–85 UN Decade for Women brought women together from every corner of the world. “Women hold up half the sky,” became another mantra heard often at the 1995 review of the Decade known as the Fourth World Conference on Women.

I thought about both expressions, reminders of women’s solidarity, strength, survival skills and commitment to social change and human rights, when I worked with pregnant refugee women in Greece recently.

The experience grew out of my communication with a woman in Montreal who runs a small program that supports pregnant and postpartum women in the city of Thessaloniki and at a refugee camp an hour north of there. Our conversation soon grew into an international dialogue in which a network of women who shared the goal of helping refugees in Greece spoke to each other. Soon What’s App text messages and emails were flying fast and furious between Canada, Greece, France, the UK and the US. It was women’s networking at its best and it resulted in my being able, along with a friend from France, to offer personal and practical support to women from Syria and various African countries whose stories of seeking refuge would break your heart.

Part of what made this experience interesting and illuminating is that outside of my French physician friend who joined me in Greece, I didn’t know any of these women, although I met one of them in Thessaloniki briefly at the airport. But all of us were connected to refugee women for the same reason: We shared the goal — and the drive — to help women whose lives were deeply challenging. And so we became a self-identified “village” connected by our cell phones and our commitment to help.

But we were more than a village. We were also a tribe, a group of like-minded people, women in this case, with a common goal and interest. And we were all feminists, who like other social activists, often feel the need to fill an identified vacuum. We didn’t wait for permission to act or stand by until we were chosen for the task. We just saw a need and were determined to be useful.

I understood this concept of tribal identity and action more clearly when, soon after my return from Greece, I heard Seth Godin, an author and entrepreneur, talk about the importance of “tribes” on NPR’s Ted Radio Hour. He illuminated what he called “disruptive leadership,” which he said begins with a deep understanding of a situation that may not resonate for others. It’s a situation that calls for action and “positive disruption.”

The situation for women refugees in Greece, particularly if they are actively childbearing while living in a refugee camp or isolated apartment, certainly called us to action. These are women exhausted by their long, strenuous and often dangerous journeys. The have been forced to abandon their countries, their extended families, their homes. They often live in subhuman conditions for months, even years. (Many have endured living in tents surrounded by stagnant water through cold winters.) They have no money except for small monthly allowances provided by a United Nations agency that does nothing to address their isolation, boredom and despair. Sometimes their husbands or partners are abusive or absent. It is a huge challenge to survive and to keep their children safe in a place where they have no friends and don’t speak the language. In other words, they live in a huge vacuum. And that is why my tribe goes to Greece.

We have these attributes, identified by Seth Godin in disruptive leaders, in common: We challenge the status quo. We connect people. We commit to our common cause, and our tribe. We share a generous curiosity about others. And together we build a culture where we are safe and understood so that we can do the work of filling the vacuum.

Godin’s thinking gave me a framework — an AHA Moment — in which to contemplate the work I and other women were doing in Greece. The women I met doing the work reminded me of the tribal nature of such connection, which I have personally experienced whether I am with other feminists, other social activists, or other Jewish people. We “get” each other. We have common histories and experiences that don’t need to be explained. We are safe together and we find joy in what binds us.

The women refugees in Greece reminded me how blessed I am to have various tribes. This particular tribe enabled me to enter a painful vacuum, to fill it to some degree with much needed practical help, emotional support, and in many cases, deep affection.

I wouldn’t have missed being positively disruptive for anything in the world.