I have made attempts to start this piece many times wanting to write it down while the experience was fresh in my mind.  …I am sat waiting for the NHS dentist…  …It is early morning in Mallaig…  …I am on the ferry surrounded by excited children, pupils of the Isle of Eigg Primary school who have been on a 2-day swimming, shinty and games bonanza in Mallaig.  The same joy and innocence radiate from their chatter and gestures as shone out among the women of camp Malakasa as they gathered their belongings together and trekked out of the valley sending their laughter and energy bouncing around our secluded canyon.

Kate held my ropes as I cleaned the routes Jo had equipped at the start of the day.  Jo meanwhile searched for errant gear hiding under the huge fallen leaves that carpet the base of the cliff.  Back on the ground, the three of us fist bump, laugh and hug, tears close to the surface.  We had hoped to bring a little joy into the day for these women unaware of how much joy that would bring us, tinged with sadness. A few hours, rubbing shoulders with women and girls quick to smile, curious, full of warmth and kindness, whose fate, as ours, turns on something so fickle as luck, or lack of it.

When I was born, I drew a fine long straw, could say a silver one.  I was lucky to be born into an active well-heeled family to a mother committed to kind, strong principles who tried her hardest to pass on something of her sense of justice before she herself passed on.  I was lucky to be born in a country who spread a safety net, however holey, far and wide to catch me when I fell.  I was lucky to be born into a country supporting equal rights where the glass ceilings I encounter are ones I can break without fear of harm to myself and those I love.  I was lucky to be issued a passport recognised throughout my adult life as a golden ticket to any country I have had a whim to go to. I am lucky to have lived my life during an unusually long epoch of my-part-of-the-world peace.

My struggles have not been the same as the women I encountered at the workshop.  Where I put challenge purposefully in my path, their challenge is to live, and safely, something I take entirely for granted. They struggle to live a life free of fear, free of violence, free of oppression, free of hatred, free of abuse, free of threat and to do that they have to be so brave and turn to face the unknown terrible odyssey and uncertain future because this is the only path wherein hope lies.  One woman hauled a shopping trolley with her all day, the type you associate with little old ladies heading up the high street to the shops.  As she negotiates narrow steep paths, Brittany queries why she drags it with her.  She reveals that her papers are inside, and she is not letting them out of her sight.  Her mother and she have their onward documents, and her brother is still waiting to receive his.  Only then they were heading on, together.  The camp at Malakasa is a temporary place originally set up for Afghans and Iranians.  Their current policy is to move refugees through in 3 months but the reality on the ground is not like that.  One woman Jo or Kate spoke to has been there for 5 years.  She arrived in Greece with no papers and as such she is in limbo.  Her home is in one of the tightly packed white containers surrounded by razor wire, patrolled by armed guards.  It took her an hour with the gunslung gatekeeper to wrangle her exit from the camp so she could join us.

Kate, Jo, and I parked our little red panda car outside the camp to wait for our group.  We had spent four glorious days climbing on the Peloponnese Peninsula, connecting, and honing our collective skills in preparation for this day.  I had heard about Malakasa camp, Brittany and Refugym from Eilidh, a young woman recently moved to the Isle of Eigg.  She recounted how Refugym had newly bolted anchors on a small cliff near to the camp to use for climbing workshops with the refugees. Several events had been run in the proceeding months but, so far, only men had benefited from the project.  Refugym is the brainchild of Brittany Pummell.  She set up the organisation in 2018, in response to the poor mental health she witnessed in camps where she was working. As I listened to Eilidh’s story, despite being much more of a sailor than climber these days, the chance to use my skills to run a workshop for women sang to me.  Jo, team GB paraclimber, readily agreed to come to Greece and Brittany was all heart to organise from her end in Athens.  We arranged a date, and the plan was in motion.  Brit sent us her poster she had made to reach out to the camp women, and I published it on Selkie’s social media.  Kate, an old friend from climbing days, picked it up and messaged me asking if she could come too.  And now here we were in the sunshine, tentatively smiling, miming climbing, pointing “you are climbing?” and placing hand on heart while saying our names.

We knew thirty women had signed up for the climbing trip, but Brit prepared us for a limited show.  Over the course of an hour, twenty-three women and two young children congregated.  Brittany arrived with two friends who could translate, Sara and Tara, both NGO workers, one versed in counselling and the other in immigration law.  Our group spoke three different languages: Farsi, Arabic and Kurdish.  Luckily, a few knew some English which meant that most safety and instructional communication percolated through to everyone present.  There was plenty of room for interpretation on what became a raucous, crazy, trusting, and delightful day.

We walked slowly up into the hills for an hour, resting at a viewpoint overlooking the camp and away to mountains in the east, until we reached limestone cliffs and a small canyon.  We wended our way through flower filled meadows, following a faint path till we congregated beneath a small easier angled outcrop which had been equipped with belay anchors for two top rope challenges.

It was a private place, patchy sunlight beneath shady trees, both of which was a relief.  It was our own little world in which the women visibly relaxed, sitting on boulders, at ease after the walk, making a picnic.  Someone brought out a huge flask of tea and though there was no common language, smiles said it all.

Jo got straight to setting up the top ropes, pulling out her harness and changing over her walking prosthetic limb to one sporting a small child’s climbing boot.  She received a few curious looks, but the sight of a missing limb was not so unusual in the experience of these women.  As far as I could gather, they came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Eritrea.  One of the languages spoken was Kurdish but I do not know these refugees country of origin. We grouped them together by language.

I slung slings over tree trunks and branches, away from the cliff and made use of the spare 60 metre rope to get each language group working together.  They were soon tying figure 8 loops that they knotted around their waists and then played around, leaning away from each other or hanging from carabiners, learning to trust the rope, trust each other.  Amazing the hilarity that ensued from the tangled web woven with that one pink rope.

I was shy to ask questions of the women: where they are from, where they are going?  It is something that I will do differently next time.  Jo and Kate, overseeing the top roping, soon realised that those women who could speak some English, wanted to share their narratives. My tears were never far from the surface and it was unacceptable for them to emerge in this bubble of laughter and joy that the climbing trip had created.

The climbing itself was scrappy, the rock a bit loose.  There was plenty of gardening going on and at the base of the easiest route was a mound of fallen earth that meant incredibly muddy footwear, upping the difficulty of the climb by several grades.  But this was an unparallelled experience: their first time wearing a harness and enjoying the movement over the rock. Some were naturals, moving with a grace and agility that brought smiles to our faces. For others, leaving the ground was a massive achievement.  The fact that they gave it a go, made it a success.  And for one woman who chose not to climb but rather be immersed in this safe space, in nature, surrounded only by women, breathing the fresh air, not alone, the workshop was a tonic like no other.

The importance of a safe male-free environment, away from the camp, away from the fear and boredom their present life, was an aspect that blew my brain.  I spend so much time on my own, in extremely remote places, I realise how much I take my freedom for granted.  Living on an island, almost as far from the community centre as possible, wandering the hills and beaches mostly alone, and sailing my big boat alone across the waves – I’ve known that this was a gift, but not fully appreciated the priceless value of it.  For the camp women, the few hours we spent together up in the hills in that small canyon, were their only chance to escape the rigidity and constant oppression of refugee life. There is no place to really relax. Not their present, not their past and only hope for their future.  Always, always, these women are an on guard.  Here they were able to find a haven if only for a few short hours.

As I wrote already, it has been a real battle to fill these few pages about the workshop and I have been at a complete loss to explain why. Why, when this experience has resonated so deeply within me, why can I not express myself?  When finally, after a week at home and still grinding to a halt with each effort, I woke anxious and running on empty, jolted to wakefulness at 5am, low on sleep.  Out of the blue my phone pings.  A dear Uruguayan/Swiss friend sends me a voice message, full of love and mindfulness. She is staying with nuns in Bosnia.  I find myself dumping my anguish to her.  Her response startles me. “You are the master of freedom and connection with the elements.  Maybe it is not despair Celia, maybe it’s just a realisaton to be more into the gratitude?  Do as the colibri. We do what we can in each moment”.

I love her lilting English, the fit and perspective her foreign words bring.  I look up Colibri and find she is talking of a hummingbird, which symbolises joy, energy, and resilience.  I cannot change this world with its injustices and wars, but I did help bring a little respite to twenty-three refugees and share this revelatory experience with Jo and Kate and the Refugym team.  Thank you so much to Brittany.  You are an inspiration.

As for me, the hummingbird is reminiscent of the storm petrel in the South Atlantic that led me away from the darkness, wave by wave, wonder by wonder and climb by climb. Onwards and upwards…






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