EMPOWER HER: Aklemi - The night-blooming jasmine

30-year-old Aklemi from Iraq celebrates her journey and wishes every woman in the world discover their strength.

Narrated by Thaleia Portokalogolou
Melissa Network
08 March 2021

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, UNICEF Country Office in Greece in collaboration with Melissa Network, a grassroot organization aiming to empower young girls and women in the country, reached out to Aklemi , one of Melissa’s long-standing members and beneficiaries currently living in Germany. Akleema shares her story hoping to inspire and motivate young women across the world to find their strength.

“I wish every woman in the world discovers her strength. This is the most precious thing: her strength; the fact that she can be who she wants without depending on others.”

Aklemi speaks via Zoom from Germany, where she resides since 2019. It’s a sunny day on both ends of the line. Her smile seems to never abandon her face, even when she is describing her past trials and difficulties. As she narrates her story, her personal Odyssey, she looks proud and serene. As a woman born in Iraq 30 years ago, she knows very well that this is not an easy task and that in order to reach the light one has to go through darkness. She explains how young girls in Iraq grow up under the heavy shadow of “shame”. “When a girl speaks up, it is “shame”. When a woman reacts or expresses herself, it is “shame”. When a girl plays, it is “shame”. Everything is “shame.” 

After the assassination of her father and brother in Baghdad, her life and the lives of her mother, sister and grandmother were in danger. Four women left the country and managed to arrive in Greece after 8 months, under extremely difficult circumstances. She remembers her intense anxiety and depression when she first arrived in the country.

Portrait of Aklemi
MELISSA/Enri Canaj/Magnum Photos
Portrait of 30 year-old Aklemi, Iraqi refugee

“When we came to Athens, I was miserable. I wanted to return to Lesvos, where I had at least made a friend. For a long time I would refuse even to go out of the house. However, one day I had to take my grandmother to the doctor and that’s when I was introduced to someone from Melissa Network who suggested that I join. I remember the exact day of my registration! 04/04/2017!"

"I was feeling so lost back then. I felt I was a stranger, an outsider and I experienced the world around me as if is not my world in any way. I remember if someone would say even one word to me, I would burst into tears and feel panic."

"I wasn’t able to play as a little girl; play was something forbidden to girls. The punishment would always be physical violence. But I played in Melissa! I made up for the lost time! I still do… Here in Germany, I often go to the playground and enjoy the swings!"


Melissa Network
Melissa Network

Aklemi gradually learned how to confront her fear.

"I learned things that changed my life. From being an extremely shy and frightened person I ended up having friends from all over the world. I knitted, I played, I painted and wrote poems. Not only did I stop being silent, I even learned more languages to speak! And most importantly I learned myself, I remember in one of the drama therapy sessions, we were working in pairs: one was the gardener and the other was the flower that needed to be taken care of in order to grow. I imagined I was a night-blooming jasmine. In Iraq I used to go out when the sun was setting and smell its beautiful scent. This flower only blooms when the sunlight disappears and when opening, it is as if it reveals its’ face. I remember its’ scent filling our whole neighborhood…”

-  So it opens when it feels it is safe from the burning sun. And like this flower it seems that you felt safe enough to open up.

-      Exactly! I was lost and I found myself there. 

-      How are you feeling now, having completed all this journey?

-      It has been more of a battle than a journey! The best part of this journey was Greece. And I feel so happy that I  remain connected to Melissa’s community and the friends I made there. Now I finally feel strong and autonomous. I am still shy sometimes, but I can now speak up without being afraid. My goal here is to study and work, so I can be completely independent.

Melissa Network is one of UNICEF’s long-standing partners in Greece supporting young girls and women, including women with refugee and migrant backgrounds. The grassroot organization has been promoting female empowerment and gender equality as core values of their community-based approach, including supporting gender-based violence victims, by addressing the entire cycle of precarity faced by women on the move, and seeing each woman’s strength and resilience throughout their journey.

*UNICEF’s sub-regional program in Europe ‘Action Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Affecting Refugee and Migrant Women and Children in Greece, Italy, Serbia and Bulgaria’ is implemented with the support of the Government of the United States.