Kathy and Graeme have been serving Food For All as site coordinators for 7 years. They organize the logistics of packing and transporting food, motivate the volunteers and maintain the efficient yet relaxed culture of the food program. Read more
It’s a hot day at the port, more like June than April. The sea breeze coming in over the water helps cools down the mothers and babies waiting outside our small camper cum Mother-Baby Area. 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 the northern European borders closed towards 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 as well as just talking when a mother’s emotions or pain are running high. The more open spot towards the entrance is the baby bathing area. Taking turns using the one tub that fits snugly into this tiny corner, mothers shuffle their littlest ones in and out, feeling relieved for this bit of sanitation in an otherwise less-than-hygienic 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.
During these nearly two and a half months, camps have been erected at different areas throughout Greece and the refugees are being gradually moved from the port. By Easter, May 1st this year, the remainder of them are scheduled to be gone. This signals for us a movement into another phase, from the more immediate emergency response into longer term care. The where and how of that care is still evolving but our focus of mothers and babies in the perinatal period remains unchanged.
AMURTEL Assists with Syrian Refugees Resettlement Program- Ottawa Canada
Canada is setting an excellent example of welcoming Syrian Refugees in a massive effort to resettle 25,000 by this spring. Syrian families began arriving in November of 2015 and as each plane would touch down, dozens of Canadians would be there to greet them with balloons and flowers.
From the very beginning, Amurtel team members began planning how they could help these families settle in to their new home. After an initial meeting between Amurtel Coordinators Jane and Fadwa and the newly arrived women, it became clear that learning English was one of their top priorities. So Amurtel set up free English classes in the temporary housing where the women were living. The classes were met with tremendous enthusiasm and very well attended. After a month or so, the families were moved to permanent housing, and as the Government began setting up English classes, Amurtel switched gears to work with individual families, all of whom had previously participated in our English classes. Jane and Fadwa created an ‘adopt a family’ program, where Amurtel volunteers would work closely with individual families, being a ‘go-to’ resource to help with the many challenges that come with living in a new city/country/culture. The families do not yet speak English and need assistance in interpreting electric bills, navigating school enrollment for their kids, etc. Amurtel volunteers also match specific needs, such as household items and children’s school supplies, with local Canadian families who can provide these items, then pick them up and deliver them to the Syrian family, helping create warm cozy homes.
The families we are working with are so obviously relieved to finally be settled in a safe, welcoming environment. It is wonderful to see the faces of the children excited to be starting school. Many children share with us stories now of making new friends, of learning English, and showing us papers from their favorite classes- math, science, English. A big change from the heartbreaking stories we have heard as families recounted personal stories of fleeing from their homes as they were bombed and bursting into flames, of the loss of family, of leaving behind not only all their possession, but their livelihood, their professions. The appalling stories of life in refugee camps in Jordan – of being constantly wet, muddy and cold, with little food or clean drinking water. To finally be settled in a place that is safe, that offers a future for their children- and most importantly perhaps, where they truly feel welcome, has made life something each family now looks forward to. And for our Amurtel volunteers- it is an honor to be part of this new chapter.
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It was a swelteringly ho
t August day in Victoria Square, downtown Athens. Inside one of the many spontaneously erected refugee tents sat a very pregnant woman with two small children at her side. Even from outside on the pavement, we could see sweat on her brow as she fanned herself continuously and looked miserably uncomfortable. Seeing how swollen her feet and legs were, we asked her how pregnant she was. She did not speak English but her husband falteringly answered, “Nine.” Nine months pregnant? “Why don’t you stay here and have the baby and then go on north?” we asked. 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. Shaking their heads vehemently, all they could say was, “NO!” pointing north with a determination that nothing could change.
The desperation and urgency in the minds of the hundreds of thousands of people transiting through Greece on their way to northern Europe is staggering. Of the thousands arriving on Greek shores daily, statistics tell us that 20% of the women among them of childbearing age are pregnant or have small babies. Statistics also tell us that amongst refugee populations, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of morbidity and mortality among women. Our teams of midwives, doulas, breastfeeding specialists, concerned mothers and proactive women are present in the camps in Athens and periodically on the island of Lesvos to meet these women and babies and offer su
We’ve seen many mothers ready to give birth any day and newborns sometimes days old. Many long for reassurance that their babies are allright. A brief maternal or infant check can go far in calming their fears. Many mothers are not able to fully breastfeed while en route, even though breastfeeding is the norm in their cultures and some have successfully breastfed one, two, three or four children previously. While they are well aware that stress is the cause, many of these mothers are unable to relax as they move constantly from one unknown country to the next. Talking to them about breastfeeding while traveling or helping with safe infant supplementation can provide not only information but also the simple woman-to-woman support they need.
For most mothers, fear for their children’s safety grips their minds the most. While moving from camp to camp, from boat to bus to train to going on foot, it’s a constant worry, especially for infants and toddlers. Being shown how to use baby carriers can so oft
en be a great relief for mothers and fathers alike. Knowing that the child is on them and with them at all times creates a sense of safety and subsequently, helps to shelter the child from some of the traumatic effects of the journey. As one mother said after being given an infant wrap, letting 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.”
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. At least here in Greece, the majority of refugees stay as few days as possible, sometimes only one or two. The numbers are so massive, the turnover so rapid, the languages spoken so diverse, the cultures so varied, the reasons for fleeing so complex, and the pressures on the host countries so great, that aid agencies are having to reinvent policies designed for relatively stable or homogenous populations in times of disaster. Scores of individual volunteers and spontaneous volunteer groups have sprung up, particularly on the Greek islands where the refugees cross from Turkey in inflatable dinghies. Amurtel, as the only NGO focused solely on the needs of women and babies from pregnancy through infancy, works together with many of these groups, with La Leche League (an international breastfeeding organization), and with the Athens municipality to create spaces and services for these most vulnerable of refugees.
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As thousands of refugees rea
ch Greece’s shores daily, Amurtel focuses on the crucial needs of pregnant women, birthing women and mothers with small infants. These women and babies are greatly affected by the lack of stable shelter and routine, nutritious and culturally familiar food and emotional support. They often look exhausted and desperate to stop and yet they go on. The AMURTEL team of midwives, doulas, lactation consultants, concerned mothers and women with skills in the area of childbirth and infancy go regularly to the refugee camps in Athens and the island of Lesvos to offer support for breastfeeding, infant care, postpartum care of new mothers and assistance during birth if necessary.
We also supply emergency birth kits to the camp medical tents if they don’t already have one. We attempt to provide a warm woman-to-woman touch and offer infant and mother care supplies that are as close as possible to what mothers are used to in their own countries. We also continually search for ways of being emotional supportive in an appropriate cultural context.
Donations are greatly appreciated! Be sure to mark the donation as being for ‘Refugees Greece!’
In the white afternoon sun and dust, about a dozen children run through the barbed wire gate of the camp to one dirt hill after another, urging their plastic bag and stick kites into the air. Their numerous brothers and sisters stay behind with parents or the families living in shelters close to their own, sitting in shade where they can find it, fanning themselves in the relentless heat. Behind where they sit are five hundred families more, all sharing six latrines and with no access to water. While the rain would be a welcome relief, it would also destroy the shelters, mostly constructed of cardboard boxes and old T-shirts whose colors and designs have long since faded in the sun.
More than 60,000 people have left the Dominican Republic to live in camps like this. After the Supreme Court of the Dominican Republic agreed two years ago to uphold a law stripping citizenship from thousands of people of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic and an increase of acts of racism and intimidation against Haitians in the country, many Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans have settled in camps just across the Haitian-Dominican border with little water, food, and support of any kind.
It is in this environment, where children have little to nothing do all day and find their educations disrupted that AMURTEL has begun offering summer camps for youth. In two of the three camps in the southern border area of Ansapit, AMURTEL offers summer camps for about 200 young people. The camps provide children with educational activities, a hot meal and water, and time to play and be kids.
In a recent study, Columbia University and World Vision found Child Friendly Spaces like these summer camps to be effective in providing psychosocial support to young children experiencing trauma. “CFSs provide young people with a safe place to play…and experience healing from any trauma they’ve experienced. They also allow children to return to healthy routines and experience a sense of normalcy again,” says Health MacLeod of World Vision.
Child Friendly Spaces are nothing new for AMURTEL Haiti. Since 2010, after the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince, AMURTEL has facilitated activities for displaced children and children living in poverty. Now, as the crisis of displaced people worsens along the Haitian-Dominican border, AMURTEL, which has worked in Ansapit for almost ten years and runs schools and empowerment programs in the area reaching more than 700 families, is well positioned to support these vulnerable individuals and, in particular, children, for whom the trauma of relocation, hunger, and insecurity is most acute.
In fact, in enrolling children in the camps, the biggest challenge that AMURTEL staff faces is limiting the size of the camps to a group facilitators can manage. With more funding, AMURTEL could expand the size of these summer camps and provide more robust meals to the participating children.
Mcleod describes, “We know the long-term impact of [children’s] exposure to traumatic events can be huge if not addressed.” It is precisely as these families decide where to go next and how to manage their family’s new and uncertain future outside of the Dominican Republic that their children are most vulnerable. And it now that proven programs like Child Friendly Spaces are most important for those children’s futures.
A refugee woman from Syria gave birth to her son on the shore of Lesvos as soon as the boat transfering her family arrived from Turkey. The mother and the baby are safe and healthy thanks to the volunteers and doctors who were there.
We are looking for volunteers who can commit time on a regular basis, i.e, once a week (or more), once every two weeks, once a month, etc. The most crucial need is for women with expertise in areas of pregnancy, birth and mother-infant care, such as Lactation Consultants, La Leche League leaders, Midwives and doulas, etc.
Other volunteers are welcome to help with the donation, collection, sorting,
and packaging of the relief items.
Contact us at
Here is an account from Dr. Fazila Lalani, an ER physican from NY, who volunteered with Amurt Amurtel in Nepal immediately after the earthquake there in May.
So, I arrived safe and sound, with amazing hosts who speak perfect English (which is great because a giggle erupts every time I try my Hindi). At every meal, someone keeps refilling my plate over and over, saying “Doctor, you have to work, we can’t have you go hungry!” Needless to say, I’m well taken care of.
Being here is obviously extremely sad, but it’s amazing to be living in a world, albeit briefly, where everyone only has helping others on the mind, 24/7. It’s wild to watch everyone rally for endless strangers, stay up till the late hours coordinating donations, trips, transportation, supplies…one volunteer turned around and drove back from a trip to the Indian border to buy more Tarps because there are none to be found in Kathmandu. Just image a world like this every day, everywhere. Image how successful a society we would be?
I’m working with an organization called AMURT/AMURTEL that I came across while in Haiti in 2010. Just a glimpse of what we’ve been doing: two days ago, a group of us- 3 doctors and 6 volunteers, drove 4 hours (110 kms) from Kathmandu on a gorgeous but scary mountainous road to one of the many villages in the Himalayan mountains that was devastated by the quake.
We set up 3 tables in front of the makeshift tent Police Station around 3 pm and saw patients until dark. We stayed in a little motel in the town which was completely empty, even the owners and staff slept on sheets on the ground floor, fearful that the earth would shake again. (There are multiple small quakes throughout the night, few that my sound sleeping self ever witnessed but definitely a conversation topic every morning over tea. Oh wait, one just hit right now! Probably just a 2-3 on the Richter scale, it lasted about 2-3 seconds and felt like the first rattle when your roller coaster is about to take off.
I awoke to the most beautiful dew over the Himalayan Mountains and meditated with my team at 5 AM. We started the Medical Camp again at 6:30 and saw another 100 patients in 3 hours. Tarps and bags of rice were distributed to the families whose homes were the most destroyed and I will remember their expressions of appreciation for a long time to come.
A pick-up truck drove us down an extremely bumpy 30 minutes into a village deep in the Himalayas. Our first village for medical relief aid was Farsidol Village, roughly a 2-hour drive from Kathmandu. The villagers lined up as soon as they heard our car. I’ve travelled remotely before but this was definitely the “remotest”, and also most beautiful and most appreciative place I have ever been. We saw another 130 patients and witnessed an endless number of brick and mortar homes crumbled into pieces and the locals working endlessly to put them back together again.
When we returned to our car back on the main road, another 50 people were waiting for us. We set up camp at the local farmer Potato Co-op, which provided great shelter as we saw farmer after farmer in the pouring rain.
We returned to Kathmandu after a long day, seeing over 300 people, and found the volunteers who stayed back, working hard on the phones trying to collect supplies so we can do it all again today.
Needless to say, I feel so fortunate to be a part of this team. If you ever have an opportunity to give back, jump on it. It feels so good. Actually, I take that back…seek out the opportunity…you’ll get more out out of it than you could ever give.
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Haiti: it will break your heart and rebuild it in the same breath. This was my experience throughout our five day visit this spring. It is a place of poverty and scant opportunity, but also a home to strong, capable, caring people who long for the chance to build a better life for themselves and their children. Didi Jiiva Prema, the director of Amurtel Haiti, has created successful and empowering programs dedicated to help them do just that. A children’s home, three schools, micro-credit and Self Help groups for women, teen girls after-school programs, and computer literacy classes are just some of the projects Amurtel runs that make meaningful differences in the life of the women and children in the camps and small villages.
Arriving at the children’s home in Bourdon Port au Prince we find a place of controlled chaos that seems to runs on love. Managing a household of seventeen children under the age of eight requires a deep calm that is the bedrock of Didi’s temperament. Doing this with intermittent electricity and no running water is nothing short of a miracle.
These sweet, smart, funny and curious youngsters start their day early, beginning with optional meditation and yoga. On this dawn, the small foyer lit faintly by a few candles, my voice joining the voices of these sixteen tiny warriors as they sing Baba Nam Kevalam, “Love is all there is”, which feels so true right now. The children then don their birthday suits, and run down to the river for a morning splash. I watch as little Bondita, barely two years old, shivers in the early morning light awaiting her warm sudsy bath. If only that were so. Instead she gets a cleansing ladle of water dumped over her little head and a quick scrub. For her, there is no fluffy warm towel waiting, she just stands there and sucks her thumb. She doesn’t cry or throw a fit; she stands with an experienced stoicism that belies her age. My heart breaks, and I run to my room, grab my beach towel, and scoop her up. She nestles her little head into my neck, and for a moment we heal.
It was surprising to learn that these children were not up for adoption. “What do you mean it’s not an orphanage?” I asked Joni. She explained that these children live as family, very much brothers and sisters, with all the joys and sorrows that brings. Can you imagine being the two older boys with fourteen little sisters and a newborn baby brother? Felito and Chupateen are now eight and have been with Didi from their fragile beginnings. While they both rule as big brothers, it is six year old Sarita who makes sure that everyone has their fair share, enforcing integrity as needed. Each of the children has his or her own distinct personality, and as the day flowed from one activity to the next, it was a joy getting to know them. And I will not soon forget. This home is truly an oasis from the camp life of scarcity and violence from which most of these children have been rescued. Secure in a feeling of safety, their daily routine includes nutritious warm meals, education, laughter and music, and time to just play or relax – a luxury for almost all Haitian children.
Didi’s day transitions from caretaker to program manager, as the children head off to the school downstairs or busy themselves with their new art supplies. She and Joni are meeting with Shealda and Hilda, the two women who work with Amurtel Haiti as community organizers, They are discussing programming plans, budgets and financial needs for the coming year. It is a difficult conversation, as funding for these projects has dried up considerably since the earthquake. Yet the organizers are determined to keep them running; the overwhelming success, and the ardor of the women they serve prove their worth. Both women offer to take significant pay cuts on their already meager salaries, and Joni promises to find funding, assuring them Amurtel will not turn their backs on these programs. While so many other organizations have come and gone, Amurtel endures with over twenty years of support based not on throwing money at problems, but providing self-help solutions and partnering with those they serve.
My work day starts too, as I travelled here with two other friends, Emily and Alex, to bring yoga classes to the schoolchildren and offer some mother/daughter classes for the teens and women who participate in the programs. I was in for a quick lesson on how not to get attached to your plan. We had a wonderful translator, Jagat, our constant companion for all of our adventures. But quite a lot gets lost when you are leading a giggling gaggle of 30 three year olds. Over the course of five days, it became easier and easier to go with the natural flow of the people and their country, and measure my success by laughter and exhaustion at day’s end. One night Joni was checking in with us and asked how I was doing. My response was, “I’ve been peed on, rolled around on a filthy floor, mimed yoga postures to thirty confused faces, I’m exhausted and I feel so happy! What a great day!”
The afternoon schedule was a class for teen girls enrolled in the Teen ESPAS PAM (translated as Girl’s Space) program. These girls meet once a week for presentations, activities, games, and interactive discussions about the issues they face, with the ultimate goal to keep them in school and delay pregnancy. Many of the village girls have their first child before they turn 15, and rape and sexual abuse are not uncommon. But of the 57 girls who have participated in this program, only two have dropped out with one confirmed pregnancy. She bravely came back and spoke to the group on the hardship of poverty and pregnancy – it is much easier and better to stay in school. A powerful message when it comes from a peer.
This class was again an exercise in letting go of plans and connecting with the girls’ rhythm. It was quite telling when we went around the room, asking them to introduce themselves and tell us how energetic they felt, with responses from, “I feel strong. I feel sad. I am hungry. My stomach hurts. I am happy. I want some food.” Many of the responses broke my heart. But by the end of ninety minutes of yoga, activities, and a closing discussion on confidence, I found myself uplifted by their laughter and courage.
On the fourth day we travel to the southeast coast of Haiti to visit Amurtel’s school in Anse a Pitre and offer a yoga program to some members of the Self-Help women’s group and their teen daughters in Banaan. Getting there proved to be quite the ordeal. Both of Amurtel’s vehicles- the decrepit pickup truck and the twenty-five year old SUV had driven their final miles, so off to Avis rent a truck, for an exasperating three hour experience I will not put you through. Suffice it to say that raising funds for a new vehicle is a top priority.
The noise and bustle of life in the children’s home was a stark contrast to the peace and serenity of life at the school in Anse a Pitre. We set up our mosquito tents on the rooftop in the cool evening air and are thankful for the amazing stars at the end of a long day’s drive.
The morning greets us with a spectacular sunrise and peaceful meditation. I miss the sound of children’s voices, but the village children soon begin to appear, as early as 7 am for some, on a Saturday morning no less. They have been told about the three travelling yoginis and patiently wait for us to begin our class. By now we have figured out what works with our translation difficulties and the variety of ages and we invite them to ‘go to the zoo’ – one they must create for themselves. We start off with a few standard yoga animal poses – and let the children take over. And take over they did! I’m sure it will remain one of the most fun and silliest yoga classes I experience in my life. I think my favorite was the frog dog.
Our visit to Haiti ended with a powerful visit to a women’s Self-Help group in Banaan. Funded for three years, Didi and Joni were recently told the funding had run out and they would have to close down the program. “That’s not going to happen” they tell me, “this program is too important and too successful for us to shut it down”. The women live in a village without running water, without electricity, without access to medical care, but with more spirit and determination than could be imagined. Each of the women had to save twelve cents a week to participate in the group, and had to show up each week. If one was short, the others stepped in and supported her, knowing they may need that same assistance. The group met to discuss their priorities, and over time set a goal to create a weekly market in their town, so they wouldn’t have to make the long trek across the border to the Dominica Republic to sell, or deal with the harsh racism they face there each week. The local market was a dream that took two years to realize, and was achieved through cooperation and collaboration. They have now set their sights on bringing running water to the village, and to staff the government medical clinic which sits empty next to their meeting hall. Now all Joni and Didi need to do is find funding for the community organizers have agreed to, along with funds for a vehicle, and the teen girls program, and the tutors for the older children, and the… … The list is long and daunting, but Amurtel seems to take the challenge of keeping these programs in stride.
I do want to end with a word of caution to anyone who is considering volunteering for one of Amurtel’s many worthwhile projects – be it for a five day visit like mine, or a year-long internship. You may leave and return home, but the experience will never leave you. Each morning now when I sing, I am joined by my memories of those sixteen precious voices. And already I am planning my reunion.
Patty lives in Warren, VT where she teaches yoga.
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