“I think it’s important to make sure every woman feels accepted”

Sinéad Walsh is the volunteer coordinator of GSBTB Open Art Shelter, which runs a weekly Frauenzimmer at Tempelhof, a safe space for women and children to enjoy art and craft projects, chat, and have access to professional therapy. She was interviewed by Shima Vezvaei who volunteered with the Art Shelter over the summer.

Can you tell me about your background, Sinead? What has brought you to Berlin?

Well, I am 29 years old, I am from Ireland but I have been moving around for the last 10 years of my life. I studied initially in Dublin; as part of my studies I went to Moscow for a year, also I spent another year in Russia volunteering. I moved to Northern Ireland to do a Masters in conflict resolution and then started a PhD which involved moving between Ireland, Armenia and Azerbaijan for 4 years. So, Berlin seemed like a good half-way destination when I finished my PhD. I submitted my thesis and two weeks after that I was already in Berlin. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I had confidence that I would meet new and interesting people and then see what would happen. I have to say I had never expected to work with Give Something Back to Berlin and for Open Art Shelter to be where I would end up putting all my energy, but now I think it was a good move to make.

How did you find Give Something Back to Berlin?

I started looking for volunteering opportunities in Berlin soon as I got here. I had some concerns about language barriers, because my level of German is intermediate at best. I continued searching for different organizations and different projects, until I came across the description of Open Art Shelter and I found it really interesting. It all escalated from there!

We initiated the project at the Tempelhof camp around February and I was happy to share some of the responsibilities for the group, especially in volunteer coordination.

Can you tell me more about Frauenzimmer in Tempelhof?

Frauenzimmer was a project founded by Hania. She had been in discussion with the management at Tempelhof for several months already when I met her. I remember myself being quite frustrated in January, really wanting to roll my sleeves up and do something, so hearing about the idea of creating a women-only project for refugees made me very enthusiastic, because I had been specializing in women’s peace and security.

I was there from the very first Monday and I have been involved in this project as a volunteer ever since.

What is it like to work in the overwhelming environment of Tempelhof camp? And what kind of challenges have you faced along the way?

The overall experience in Tempelhof has been such a mix of positives and negatives, highs and lows and challenges. I think that the most difficult thing for me was understanding and accepting the conditions that people are living in, and I don’t just mean on a daily level, but the prolonged insecurity that people are in. In February, I didn’t think that would be working with the same people 8 or 9 months later; I thought that the camp was kind of an emergency set-up for temporary accommodation and then people would be moving through the system at a much faster rate. So I am really proud of what we have done as a team and the strong bond that we have made with these people despite the terrible situation that there are living in. Finding a kind of emotional level to connect with people and not just coming there once a week to have a good time with people, that is not what we are about; it is much more than that. It’s about communicating with people throughout the week, it’s about creating a shared space but also one-to-one support and being there for people when they need you and showing them that even though you cannot experience what they are going through, you are aware of their suffering and you understand that something is really wrong with this situation.

How do you feel about having a separate space for women at the camps? Do you think it is opposed to the core values of feminism?

That’s a very good question. I think for western feminism it’s very much taken for granted that you have safe spaces for women to be able to speak out about their experience of violence in particular. It’s just commonly accepted that when you have a group of women in a designated women’s space it becomes easier to talk about things that you just simply wouldn’t be able to talk about in other conditions. I think that in the context of Tempelhof there is also the level of cultural awareness that should be taken into consideration. I think that in cultures where feminism is somehow seen as a dangerous radical tendency, nevertheless women get together and they talk about women stuff and that in itself is empowering. I believe it makes perfect sense to have a space where women from different cultures can meet and kind of find a balance to openly talk with each other and respect each other. I do get a sense that there is a different atmosphere in the women’s room, because at different points we have been using different spaces for the project and some have been more private and some less private, and happily this space that we are working in at the moment has been the most comfortable space for creating an atmosphere of trust.

I know what we are doing doesn’t always look like feminism to people, and some of our volunteers think that separating people by gender is dangerous, but I don’t think like this at all; I think it’s important to have both approaches and make sure that every woman feels accepted. And I have had the honour of several women in the camp telling me at the end of a conversation that they don’t have a sister or their sisters are not here and they feel that talking to us is like talking to their sisters. You know what: that’s feminism right there!

Tell me about working with volunteers in the Open Art Shelter?

We have to accept that we are looking at a devastating humanitarian crisis in the world right now and part of it has reached as far as Germany and as far as Berlin. We all have a moral obligation to realize that and not look away from it and not think ‘Ok, so long as I do my origami workshop with those kids, I have done my part.’ I think that we all need to slow down and look at the situation as it is and realize that these people that have arrived here over the past year lost their families and friends; some are not sure if they will ever see them again and worse, some are sure that they will never see them again.

Everybody needs community, everybody needs support and there is no point having this attitude that everything is going to be fine by itself. We are trying to build a community here and that’s a bit challenging because part of the culture of Berlin and what draws people here is having a very fluid intercultural environment. The fact that people are so used to coming and going makes it difficult to keep volunteers in one place for a long time.

Speaking of Berlin, how do you find the city?

It took me quite a while to feel at home in Berlin but I can say that I do now. I find Berlin very comfortable and I like how green it is. I’ve gotten used to all of the different influences in the city, from feeling the weight of the history on the one hand, and all of the potential of the future on the other hand. It is a lot to process if you are that kind of a person who thinks a lot about the historical environment that they are in and I am a person like that. Berlin is really a dream city in this sense.

What’s next for you?

I am going back to Ireland very soon. The future is bright. I am looking forward to having a bit of time to reflect and spend less time being actively engaged with people and more time writing. It is important to capture some of the experiences that we have had at the Open Art Shelter in the last year and to make that information available to people in public domain and also academically. I am looking forward to talking to people in Ireland about what I have been doing in Berlin and raising awareness about ongoing developments. I am sure over time I will find my feet somewhere in the world. I am not sure where my final destination is going to be just yet but wherever I am, my work will be connected somehow to peace and justice.

Shima Vezvaei is an Iranian communication researcher and journalist studying between Saint Petersburg and Berlin. This interview has been condensed.

Photos: a refugee home which Open Art Shelter volunteers and residents made a little more welcoming earlier this year.***

Please visit our Betterplace donation page, where you can make a Christmas donation  to the GSBTB Open Art Shelter for Women and Children and find out more about what your donation will go towards.

Thank you, as always, for your support.