For the past 10 months, Amurtel volunteers in Greece have been working with refugee families, providing support for pregnant and nursing moms and newborn babies. This wave of migration is unprecedented since WWII and is changing the face of Europe and the Middle East. It’s also changing the way relief organizations operate. Amurtel, as the only NGO focused solely on the needs of women and babies from pregnancy through infancy, works together with many of other groups, to create spaces and services for these most vulnerable of refugees.
Excerpts of reports from the field:
“It was a swelteringly hot day in Victoria Square, downtown Athens. Inside one of the many refugee tents sat a very pregnant woman with two small children at her side. Even from the pavement we could see sweat on her brow as she fanned herself continuously. Seeing how swollen her feet and legs were, we asked how pregnant she was. She falteringly answered, “Nine.” Nine months pregnant? This was still the time when refugees walked from the border of one country to the next, sometimes for days on end. I could easily imagine the horrifying thought of her going into labor in the middle of nowhere.
The desperation and urgency in the minds of those transiting through Greece on their way to northern Europe is staggering. Statistics tell us that amongst refugee populations, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among women. Our team of midwives, doulas, and breastfeeding specialists, are present in the camps in Athens and periodically on the island of Lesvos to meet these women and babies and offer support.
We’ve seen many mothers ready to give birth any day and newborns sometimes days old. A brief maternal or infant check can go far in reassuring the family.. For these mothers, fear for their children’s safety constantly grips their minds. While moving from camp to camp, from boat to bus to train to going on foot, it’s a constant worry. Being shown how to use baby carriers has offered great relief for mothers and fathers alike. Knowing the child is on them and with them at all times creates a sense of safety and helps shelter the child from some of the traumatic effects of the journey. As one mother said, after being given an infant wrap that let her wear her two month old close on her chest, “I feel more at ease. My hands are free for my older children while my heart takes care of my baby.”
With the closing of the borders at the end of February, camps are gradually being moved from the port into the countryside and people will be staying for longer times. In May, Amurtel outfitted a small camper as a mobile clinic, allowing our team to meet with women in multiple camps.
A more recent field report:
“It’s a hot day at the port. The sea breeze coming over the water helps cool down the mothers and babies waiting outside our small camper. We’re parked outside the port’s stone warehouse, a large windowless building converted into a temporary refugee shelter. Located midway between the few other ferry terminals that have also become shelters, we’ve been able to serve some of the thousands left stranded at the port when borders closed at the end of February. Since then, our midwives, breastfeeding specialists and other women volunteers have shown up daily to keep the small but amazingly functional space going.
The inner sanctum of the camper has turned into a safe space for examining pregnant and postpartum women and for breastfeeding counseling. The more open spot towards the entrance is the baby bathing area. Taking turns using the one tub, mothers move their littlest ones in and out, feeling relieved for this bit of cleanliness in the often grimy environment. These services, plus the nuts, seeds, and dried fruit we give daily to the pregnant and lactating mothers to supplement their meager meals, create a steady flow of regularly returning mothers and babies along with new ones arriving every day.”
In response to the changing conditions, Amurtel is moving into a new phase of care, addressing the longer term needs of these families, with our focus on working with mothers and babies in the perinatal period staying unchanged. ◆