It was a swelteringly hot 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 support.
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 often 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.